December 17, 2015


Iron John: A Book about Men—25th Anniversary Edition. By Robert Bly. Da Capo. $15.99.

UnSlut: A Diary and a Memoir. By Emily Lindin. Zest Books. $14.99.

     From the oldest days of oral history within small groups to the most recent ones of instant communication with the world, the difficulty of knowing just what it means to be a man or woman has persisted. This has provided fertile ground for authors of all sorts to meditate upon manliness and womanliness, how the sexes interact or can better interact, and just what it means in our time (or any time) to be a member of one gender or the other. Poet and translator Robert Bly tackled a number of these issues 25 years ago in an extended meditation called Iron John, which is now available in a new edition that includes a brief and rather puzzling afterword but is otherwise the same as the 1990 book. Bly’s focus is one of the Grimm Märchen, a German word usually translated, not entirely accurately, as “fairy tales.” What the Grimm brothers actually did was to collect age-old stories about how the world works, both naturally and supernaturally, many of them drawing on what Jung would later call "archetypes” and some, but by no means all, containing fairies and other supernatural beings. The tales fall so neatly into categories that they have in fact been academically categorized; but even without knowing precisely where the story of Iron John fits, it is easy to see which of its elements have longstanding resonance and which have an implied meaning beyond the literal. This is the story of a Wild Man, captured by a king and brought to the palace from a deep, dark forest, then freed from his cage by the king’s son. The son soon bonds with the Wild Man (who calls himself Iron John), then is sent away from the forest, and then makes his own way in the world after overcoming several trials – eventually marrying the daughter of the king of a neighboring land. The plot is filled with traditional oral-history elements, such as the number three: Iron John sets the boy a task three times (the boy fails all three, which is why he must set out on his own); when grown and in the other kingdom, the boy wins a competition three days in a row; and in fact there are three kings in the story – the boy’s father, the father of his eventual bride, and Iron John himself, who at the end reveals himself as “a baronial King” who had been enchanted. Implied sexuality permeates the story, too, in the boy’s repeatedly dipping parts of himself into a forbidden stream, with the result that his hair becomes bright gold and he does not wish anyone to see it – but the princess insists on removing his cap (a metaphor for foreskin) and at the end says that of course she will marry him, since she knew from his hair (revealed when she took the cap off) that he was no peasant. There is much more that can be interpreted in the story on its own terms, or nearly its own (the psychoanalytic approach does go beyond the words themselves). But Bly uses the tale for a different purpose: to show what he believes it means to be a man in our modern age.

     Bly sees the story as tracing men through eight stages of growth, and he regards its characters as archetypes of a kind of male-only vigor that is forceful, outgoing, even warlike, but at the same time protective and emotionally centered. Bly is verbose and philosophical; his Iron John meanders through the personal (the book partly reflects his view of his own manhood) as well as the philosophical (he relies heavily, rather too heavily, on those Jungian archetypes). Bly basically argues that men have become alienated from their essential maleness (which is not the same as “manliness”), largely because of the absence of father figures akin to Iron John. Men need rites of passage, Bly argues, and the Iron John story metaphorically offers and explains them, while modern society has abandoned them and thus has separated men from their essential maleness – which only other men, not women, can teach them (Bly is not anti-woman, but he considers women’s ways inherently incapable of relating meaningfully to men’s deepest needs). Although he stops short of affirming the “noble savage” ideal or proclaiming everything ancient good and everything modern bad, Bly does suggest that long-ago human societies were deeply in touch with aspects of manhood that modern First World societies no longer recognize – with the result that many men, including Bly himself, are cut off from their own deserved heritage and feel constantly uncertain, adrift and vaguely (sometimes not so vaguely) discontented. Bly’s purpose in his Iron John seems to be to lead men to be the best men they can be. But what a winding path he takes readers on! The new edition’s short afterword (barely two pages long) shows in a single difficult-to-parse sentence what Bly thought, and still thinks, being male – indeed, being human – is all about: “As the search for the Sacred King continues, the themes this book talks about – the descent into ashes, the love of the ‘God-Woman,’ and the developmental stages of red, white, and black – resonate deeply for both men and women.” It would have been fairer and more honest for Bly to have said “for some men and women,” because his elaborate writing and frequently abstruse references can make his Iron John an uncomfortable slog for many readers. That is as true now as when the book was first published. In seeking a kind of holistic masculinity, Bly again and again becomes long-winded and descends into a mixture of generalization (in his descriptions of traditional cultures) and psychobabble (in his use of Jungian and Freudian terms and insights). The anecdotes, the personal elements, are strong in Bly’s Iron John, but the analyses are less trenchant, the explanations are often rather far-fetched, and some of Bly’s writing is flat-out difficult to follow. Iron John inspired (if that is the right word) some very silly behavior after its initial publication – men’s drum circles in the woods and all that – and now itself seems a trifle sillier, or at least more self-indulgent, than it originally did. It remains a thoughtful and frequently interesting book, but one whose author’s sense of how profound his revelations are frequently interferes with their actual profundity.

     Much less portentous and much less pretentious, Emily Lindin’s UnSlut is intended as a female manifesto, just as Bly’s book is intended as one for males. UnSlut is an expansion of material Lindin originally posted online, and has the same worthy purpose: to help girls get beyond sexual bullying, which Lindin herself suffered through in middle school. On the face of it, the book’s format is intriguing: it purports to be the actual diary that Lindin kept from ages 11 (when she was first labeled a “slut”) through 13, with marginal commentary on her experiences. Whether the material is quite as authentic as Lindin asserts is difficult to determine, however. For an 11-to-13-year-old diarist, she seems to be a mighty fine writer, using full sentences (often complex ones), avoiding grammatical errors, and being a spelling whiz (she even gets “millennium” right). So perhaps the diary entries have been a bit cleaned up – but that does not make the underlying material any less important. Lindin picked up her own “slut” label after allowing a boyfriend to “get to third base” (feeling within her underwear below the waist) under what she sees, from her current age of 29, as duress. She, not he, was labeled the sexual aggressor, and given the fact that she was also early in sexual development (there are many references, by Lindin herself and others, to the size of her “boobs”), the “slut” label just seemed to stick. Lindin’s own reaction to it ranged at the time from being mortified to finding it, if not cool, at least a useful identification for a preteen trying desperately to figure out who and what she was and would become – scarcely an earthshaking element of her story, since it is essentially the purpose of the teenage years, but nevertheless one that every preteen and teen feels acutely. Lindin flirted not only with boys but also with real danger at times: her descriptions of cutting herself seem, in retrospect, to be clearer calls for help than she thought they were when they occurred or thinks they are as she looks back at them. But by and large, her account of the “slut” label and its consequences does not go much beyond the creation of groups of BFFs who shortly become frenemies and then re-blend into new groups of BFFs, sometimes several times a week, if not daily. There is, in short, nothing very surprising about the social circumstances in which Lindin endured the “slut” label.

     But back in 1997, when Lindin was 11, the entire world was very different, and not just for preteens and teenagers. To make her diary entries understandable, Lindin has to spend considerable time explaining AOL Instant Messenger, disposable cameras and the “seconds” of prints that could be made from them, Total Request Live and similar former bastions of superficial pop culture, and much else. All this makes UnSlut seem more of a historical document than, ideally, it should be, since “slut shaming” definitely still exists and has become, if anything, more complicated now that sexting (which did not exist at the time of Lindin’s diaries: cellphones were far from ubiquitous) has become commonplace, and even adults have become aware of it (hyper-aware, with the usual ridiculous overreactions to adolescent sex crowding out the sensible responses). The problem is that Lindin has progressed, if that is the word, from crowdsourced humiliation to painful political correctness – which undercuts her thoughtful ideas and even her outrage. For example, one boy says to Zach, Lindin’s then-boyfriend, that he should “slap Emily’s ass when she stands up,” and Lindin says in her diary entry that Zach says “not in school,” after which Lindin wonders “if he would have slapped my ass when I stood up if we weren’t in school.” The marginal gloss on this passage says, “A better answer would have been, ‘No, Emily’s body is not an object that exists for my entertainment as her boyfriend, let alone for your entertainment as a bystander.’” That is as ridiculous a response as the one that Zach actually made. Realistically, and age-appropriately, a better remark would have been, “Don’t be silly.”

     There are real questions about just how much Lindin has learned since her middle-school days, and every once in a while, a marginal note seems to indicate: not very much. For example, she offers a diary entry about liking guys “who seem out of my reach…but once they come within my reach and start liking me back…I lose interest in them because they seem boring.” The marginal note here says, “Unfortunately, the same thing would continue to happen for the next decade or so. It’s resulted in a lot of off-and-on relationships with rather aloof men.” So there seems to be some truth to Wordsworth’s assertion, “The child is father of the man” – or mother of the woman, in this case. Lindin takes some of what happened to her in middle school very seriously – that is what UnSlut is primarily about, after all – but some of the events entirely too casually, notably the self-harm, about which her marginal note blandly comments that “I’m a bit disappointed that I didn’t sort through all the emotions behind it here in my diary.” Readers will likely be more than “a bit” concerned, but Lindin’s focus on “slut shaming” means she tends to wear blinders about other elements of middle-school life. Actually, she sometimes wears them about the “slut” issue, too, as when she notes in her diary that she wore tight pants at a dance and “the type of dancing my friends and I were doing wasn’t exactly prude,” then says in her marginal note that her clothing should have been irrelevant, because “there’s nothing I could have done that would be an excuse” for boys to approach her sexually. That is a statement that is either hopelessly naïve or hopelessly politically correct: even in middle school, Lindin realized that some things she did could be interpreted as come-ons, but as an almost-30-year-old, she seems to think that the way girls and women dress and behave has zero effect on boys and men (or perhaps ought to have zero effect in some ideal world). UnSlut contains interesting elements and certainly pursues a worthy cause, but it is something of a mishmash in doing so. Lindin’s afterword is a lot more coherent, focused and usefully explanatory than her marginal notes throughout the book: her determination comes through more clearly after a reader goes through 250 pages of diary-and-commentary that are, in many ways (albeit different ones), just as much of a slog as are the almost-300 pages of Iron John.

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