Interview with Robert Bly

EU: You say SIBLING SOCIETY took three years to write and
ten years out of your life. Why was it so difficult to write this

RB: This book is about the culture as a whole, about how
the sibling society affects the lives of women as well as men and
what’s happening to children, for example, in early schools, what
effect television has had on their brains, what the fatherless
family means. These are sociological matters. Sociological prose is
generally written without images in an exact form for an academic
audience. So the problem became, How to write about these matters
without using sociological jargon? How to write about facts like
the decline of knowledge, while continuing to use images and poems
and stories? I think that’s why the book was difficult for me.

I would say, too, I began the book in a rather lighthearted way
but by the time I had been writing for about a year and a half, I
got a real ulcer. A Native American woman said to me, ‘Well, the
material you are writing about is very grievous, and you brought it
down into your stomach, which was proper.’ Twenty years ago, I
would have brought it down into my head. I wouldn’t have gotten an
ulcer at all.

So then I had a second problem–what to do with all the grief I
felt having studied this material. I am still involved in that.

EU: Your earlier work IRON JOHN drew a great deal of fire
from a variety of critics. Do you expect this book to be as
controversial as IRON JOHN?

RB: There are a number of faults with Iron John
that people were right to point out. It wasn’t written as a bible
for the men’s movement. It was just an expansion of a fairy story,
and I didn’t take into account a whole lot of things that I would
have if I had thought it would be read that way.

The Sibling Society presents five hearth or fairy tales.
People tend to take stories literally these days, so there may be
some trouble there. The book may also offend people who want to
feel that we are doing pretty well. I use the phrase ‘sibling
society’ to suggest a culture fundamentally without fathers,
mothers, grandfathers, grandmothers, or ancestors. The thinking is
horizontal. People who love horizontal thinking will not like the
book. The sibling society is the flattening out of the previously
democratic society. All of those on the left, as I am, have always
vastly preferred the democratic society over the hierarchical
society and still do, but the democratic culture doesn’t exist
without highly informed citizens capable of thinking well, and if
you have schools in which 40 percent of the people coming out of
them cannot make change for a dollar, you don’t have a democracy.
You have a sibling society.

What I am trying to do is bring people into grief in relation to
the society we have. Ortega y Gasset said, ‘The only real ideas are
the ideas of the shipwrecked.’ You have an utterly sincere glance
when you look around after you are shipwrecked. You weep a long
time on an island when you realize what’s happened to you. I am
saying that we are shipwrecked. That’s what I want to achieve with
this book. Sociological prose can tell you everything, but it can’t
point out the grief.

EU: In the book you say, ‘One becomes an elder when one learns
to think vertically.’ What is vertical thinking?

RB: I did a special chapter of the book called ‘What Is
Vertical Thought?’ that says basically that hierarchy, as in the
Catholic Church, has to do with power, and vertical attention has
to do with longing. What you feel in Japanese poetry is always
entirely longing. There is no hierarchy in Japanese Buddhist
poetry. You know, all of Japan once a year will get up on their
rooftops, because that’s the night that the shepherd boy from one
side of the Milky Way gets to meet the weaver girl on the other
side of the Milky Way. They all get up on their roofs and watch
that night. So they long for 365 days and then on the 365th night,
they see the result of that longing.

Vertical thought likes to imagine the vast distances between the
stars. There’s a quality we could call vertical attention, which is
an attention upward toward ancestors, spiritual states, angels,
gods. One could say the higher the spirit goes, the more deeply the
soul sinks down into the waters of melancholy and tragedy. Drowning
in that water is as sweet as rising. Rumi says:

EU: Are there any virtues in the sibling society? What is
good about it?

RB: In a change so huge there is bound to be some good.
If we call the young ones, say 10 to 30 years old, ‘siblings,’ we
can see they tend to be naturally ecological. They regard whales
and owls as siblings too. That’s a great advance. Also siblings
tend not to care much about boundaries and borders. Having worn
each others’ T-shirts, it’s unlikely that they’d go to war over a
border. In the society that has replaced the paternalistic society,
women are able to develop their independent and social energies
much more. That is good. During the patriarchal time, the men were
always and invariably dominant, legally and socially in marriage,
so now it’s possible to remodel the entire house of marriage, put
in new footings and new joists and a new sort of interior. That is
exactly what some men and women are now doing. But at the same time
the models of adulthood are disappearing fast. How can two people
have a new marriage if neither of them is an adult? Finally, I
think more and more people are recognizing how much adults and
elders are actually needed. That’s a gift of the sibling

EU: Still, the overarching message of your book is grievous
alarm. Yet I find myself feeling hopeful. People are beginning to
address these issues in unexpected ways, from a growing revival of
interest in myth and poetry to the national debate over children’s
rights and welfare reform, and even a nascent truce in the gender
wars. Perhaps revisiting the Grimms’ fairy tales and other
literature of the past is not exactly it, but they have much
richness. You, I think, more than anyone in our time, have revealed
to us some of the gifts of myth and poetry. How do you think
mythopoetics can help move the sibling society toward

RB: Poetry keeps longing alive. Some people can’t go into
church any longer to feel this longing, but they still have the
longing, so what do they do? Well, one thing you can do is what
people do in prison; they turn to poetry. You know there are
wonderful stories of that longing when Russians were put in prison
under Stalin. Such men might be in prison for five or ten years;
they always looked forward to a new prisoner coming in order to
find out what new poems he might know. Maybe they could get a new
Pushkin, or a new Mandelstam, or a new Akhmatova.

I think that poetry is important when you are shipwrecked, when
the ordinary structures that hold you up are gone.

There are very few adults in our culture able to imagine any
genuine life coming from the vertical plane–tradition, religion,
or devotion. The neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky remarked that this
was true of his graduate students. He said, ‘Most have no use for
religion, precedents, or tradition. They want their rituals newly
minted and shared horizontally within their age group, not
vertically over time. The ones I train to become scientists go at
it like warriors, overturning reigning paradigms, each discovery a
murder of their scientific ancestors.’

Myth and poetry represent a reservoir of vertical thinking,
which we could also call longing and gratitude to ancestors. We
need that gratitude desperately. Vertical attention is not the same
as, and doesn’t evolve from nor imply, hierarchy. We could say that
hierarchy is associated with power, and vertical attention with
longing for the Divine Feminine, for the Divine Masculine, for what
the Sufis call ‘wine.’ The Roman Catholic Church early on simply
adapted the hierarchical structure of the Roman Empire and confused
the whole thing. Vertical attention and hierarchy were so
entangled, that when the French killed the king during the
Revolution, they lost much of their vertical attention too. The
French still offer Sartre and Derrida rather than Pascal.

If you want to know what it will be like when we are more deeply
into the horizontal, simply go to one of the Indian casinos. The
Native Americans, who stand for vertical thinking more than anyone
else in our culture, have been setting up totally flat casinos for

EU: Would you speak a bit about the differences between adults
and elders?

RB: We can learn a lot about these matters from the
Native Americans. They have a fourfold view–first there is the
child, then the adolescent (adolescents are in just as much trouble
in Native America as they are in the white community), then they
have the adult, and after the adult, the elder. The distance
between the adolescent and the true adult is about five thousand
miles, but the distance between the adult and the elder is almost
as large. In the sibling society, both the adult and the elder get
lost, and no one knows where they are. Sometimes at a men’s
gathering on the third or fourth day we may put the men over 55 in
the front row. Some of them weep because they have never been
honored ever in their life for being an elder. They are adults, but
are they elders? We say to them, you have certain rights and also
certain obligations. One obligation is if a young man asks you how
you’ve kept your heart alive up to this age, you have to have an
answer. We know that the man’s heart is alive or he wouldn’t be
sitting there.

We know that the adult in a certain sense has an attitude toward
life exactly opposite to the attitude of commercials. Commercials
say, ‘Your longing for 3.2 beer is very important. Your longing for
skin that doesn’t have any wrinkles in it, that’s very, very, very
important.’ The adult says, ‘No, I’ve got wrinkles, so what?’ I saw
Sophia Loren–the Italian woman with those wonderful cheekbones–in
a movie the other day. She must have had 24 face-lifts, and she
looks like an alien, as if she weren’t from this world at all. Her
Italian wrinkles would have been a thousand times more

The older I get, the more beauty I see in the word renunciation.
As a parent you have to do some renunciation. Before I was a parent
I was struck by Rilke, who, as you know, didn’t go to his
daughter’s wedding because he was writing a poem that day. That was
the ideal for artistic behavior in 1950. That’s the way I wanted to
live. I wanted to spend all my time writing poetry. But when I had
children I couldn’t do that anymore. Adulthood has something to do
with not choosing any of the pure points of view, but living about
half of what you really want to live. I got about half the time I
wanted to write poetry. I got about half the time I needed to be a
father. So there is something in adulthood that has to do with
accepting the half of things, allowing a renunciation of the other
half, accepting half a basket instead of a full basket.

What can we say about the difference between the adult and the
elder? What is an elder? Adolescents believe that the world belongs
to the living, or more particularly to living people their age, so
they feel within their rights if they destroy the canon or rewrite
the fairy stories or act like Red Guards. An elder is someone who
understands that the world belongs to the dead. The dead made this
world. We didn’t make it. They made the poetry and the songs and
the customs. The ancestors are very much invested in the children,
because the children are the ones who are going to continue the
world that the ancestors made. When an elder turns to face the
dead, that means he turns away from facing the future and his own
retirement in Phoenix, let’s say. He turns and finds himself facing
the children. To me, the hope lies in adults forgetting about their
retirement and turning toward the adolescents and helping pull the
adolescents over that mysterious line drawn on the ground into
adulthood. If we don’t do that, the adolescents are going to stay
exactly where they are for the next 30 or 40 years. Lately, to give
a very small example, we’ve started saying to grown-ups who want to
come to one of the seminars, whether for women and men, or those
for men, ‘You can’t come unless you bring a younger person with
you. Paying your money isn’t enough.’ We’re starting that this
year. It’s a small step, but it means something.

In some Mayan villages they even have a stage beyond the elder
that they call the Echo Person. They say that when an Echo Person,
whether a man or a woman, speaks, the words echo both in this world
and in the other world. That’s why they are called Echo People.
Mart?n Prechtel, who lived for 19 years in such a Mayan village,
said that these old ones are really the outrageous ones. The
adolescents can’t match them at all. One old woman brought a
hundred white pigeons into her little house. People thought about
that for months, and then they all started bringing pigeons into
their houses because–since she was in touch with the other world
and this world–whatever she did had to be watched with great

EU: There are many who watch what you do with great care. What
would you like your legacy to be?

RB: I don’t know. I don’t know that I want to answer
that. I don’t know about legacy, but I would like to give the gift
of grief and a number of new poems and stories that people might
not have read yet.

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