Leaping Into Wilderness: The Landscapes of the Men's Movement

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My first contact with the men's movement was its appearance as the cover story of Newsweek, June 24, 1991.
Matthias Regan

Issue #29, November 1996

"Enter the wilderness. Go alone or with other men. Take the younger men with you. Hunt, fish, hike, raft, or simply be still, soaking in the nurturing strength of Father Nature and relishing the beauty of his lover, the Earth Mother. Something sleeping deep in the male psyche awakens when we allow ourselves to experience nature free from the numbing noise of urban life."
— from Wingspan, "the bible of the men's movement"

My first contact with the men's movement was its appearance as the cover story of Newsweek, June 24, 1991. This magazine, along with back issues of People, The Trout Fisherman and Guns and Ammo, comprised the waiting room library of the Jiffy Lube auto repair shop in Laconia, New Hampshire. It was a few days after Christmas of that year, and my friend David and I, who had grown up together in the neighboring town of Gilmanton, New Hampshire, were waiting to see if his eight-year old Chevrolet would pass state inspection for under $100. David's father had given him $150 for Christmas, and we had vowed to divide whatever was left over between gasoline and potatoes. I had a couple of friends who would let us stay a whole month for free in an apartment in downtown New London, Connecticut. All we needed was gas to get there and something to eat once we arrived. The couple hadn't moved in yet, so the place had neither furniture nor more heat than that which an electric radiator could provide, but we were willing to do almost anything to get out of NH. We wanted out of the woods, away from the sticks, and if the best we could do was the slightly larger town of New London, that was just fine.

Neither of us had ever experienced the woods as described in Wingspan. We had always wanted to leave our little town. From the time we could comprehend it, we focused on urban life. Urbanity was our dream. We imagined posh cafes full of young and sexy artists in leather jackets and various-colored hair, little tenements, studio lofts, buildings so big an elevator was the only way to your floor. We hated the woods. We hated being on the edge of society. We were starved for information, which, as we imagined it, pulsed out from the city hearts along the ever narrowing and more distant veins of television, magazines, movies, and books. All we had of urban artistic, social, and political life was the little that we could discover in stories from the Associated Press printed in the Laconia Evening Citizen, the absolute block-buster Hollywood hits that changed once a month in the only local movie house, and the few books that found their way into the bottom floor of the local Hallmark store.

We took turns reading the Newsweek article mostly because there was little else to do. It was too cold to go outside (30 degrees and wind-chill) and besides, where would we go? Nothing but the most basic necessities — as our culture defines them — are provided for in wilderness towns. Along the stretch of road outside were gas stations, car dealerships and repair shops, a hardware store, a McDonald's, a supermarket, a K-Mart and a Sears Stove and Freezer center in the strip mall. Across from an old age home was a store that sold wheelchairs and oxygen. There were no cafes, quiet restaurants or bars. Behind these buildings on one side of the road was Lake Winnepausakee, snowbound and scarred with the skidmarks of trucks, here and there colored by a small shanty town of icehouses. On the other side, behind the small hills of muddy snow pushed to the back of the Jiffy Lube parking lot, was a steep slope of scraggly white pines, the snow beneath them pockmarked by fallen clumps of ice.

Our homes were 40 minutes away; a slow, cold drive, first through sludge-filled downtown streets, then along twisted roads stained white with rock salt, past trailer parks and homes built of plywood and tar paper, houses covered with billowing sheets of milky plastic, finally down dirt roads on which the ice remained unthawed all winter because it never escaped the shadows of the twin thick walls of pine.

The Newsweek cover has a photograph of a bare-chested man wearing jeans and a tie. In one arm he holds a naked, laughing baby (gurgling man-child), in the other a large wooden and raw-hide drum. Beside him floats text which reads:

Drums, Sweat and Tears
What Do Men Really Want?
Now They Have a Movement of Their Own

Inside, the collective voice of Newsweek is not sure what to make of the men's movement. Their basic claim is that it might be the next Big Thing: "What teenagers were to the 1960's, what women were to the 1970's, middle-aged men may well be to the 1990's: American culture's sanctioned grievance carriers..." "If," Newsweek continues, "the epiphenomena of the men's movement seem a trifle outre — wanna-be savages banging drums in the moonlight on weekend campouts — this was no less true of the women who ignited the feminist movement with the flames from their own burning brassieres."

Reading such words, it was hard for us, who considered ourselves intelligent, liberal, pro-feminist young men, not to look around a nervously, as though what we were reading was vaguely pornographic, as though our reading it made us somehow complicitous in its nonsense. Did the woman working behind the cash register know what we were up to? But the only person around was a middle-aged man, a mechanic in from the unheated garage to warm his ungloved hands.

As we read on we discovered that our reaction was typical of what the men's movement calls "soft males." They are the target audience of the men's movement, the men it hopes to save. Newsweek describes soft males as men "who, lacking a strong masculine image from childhood, have been duped by feminism into surrendering their natural birthrights of righteous anger and self-assertion." In Iron John, Robert Bly's "book about men," the commercial success of which (36 months on a best-seller list) sparked the Newsweek story (and also a bio-piece on Bly in Time on August 19, 1991), the soft male and his "anguish" are described in this manner: "They're lovely, valuable people — I like them — they're not interested in harming the earth or starting wars...But any of these men are unhappy. You quickly note the lack of energy in them...The 'soft male' is able to say [to women] 'I can feel your pain, and I consider your life as important as mine, and I will take care of you and care for you.' But he could not say what he wanted, and stick by it. Resolve of that kind was a different matter." This didn't sound like anything very new to us. The term for 'soft males' in New Hampshire is 'pussy-whipped.' It was that sort of thing we were hell-bent on leaving behind.

Just how long does it take to inspect a car? His hands warmed, the mechanic returned to the garage and another came in to take his place. Outside, the sun was setting across the lake, causing shadows of the distant pine to stretch almost across the entire expanse, and light flakes of snow began to fall.

We returned to the magazine. The story was full of contradiction. In face of what we had just read, we found: "In fact, nowhere does Bly imply that men should dominate women; he thinks they sometimes need to fight, but he would have them do it as equals." We also knew that Bly was not only a poet — my chosen avocation — but one who had originally come into the public eye by organizing readings in protest against the Vietnam war. Could a man who wrote poetry described (by Donald Hall in Contemporary American Poetry) as containing "a kind of imagination new to American poetry" and who had been visibly active in anti-war politics be entirely bad? Maybe if we knew more precisely what these men's movement men were actually doing we would discover what, if anything, could be learned from this movement which, after all, Newsweek described as "the solution to the alienation of modern life" and "the first Postmodern social movement."

Here, however, the article is curiously lax. It describes a "Postmodern social movement" as "one that stems from a deep national malaise that hardly anyone knew existed until they saw it on a PBS special." David, who was using Foucault and Derrida to write his college thesis on gender portrayals in Shakespeare's history plays, was quick to point out that this definition of postmodernism is one not popularly held by the academy at large. All the article tells us is that some of these men drummed together, and some went on weekend retreats together. What these retreats entailed was largely unclear, except they seemed to involve a lot of rituals borrowed from Native American customs and "the glandular fellowship of sweat." ("Sweating," offers Newsweek, "is a wonderful communal ritual, the lowest-common-denominator human activity.") Even the photographs explain little. One shows a group of men sitting around what appears to be a peaceful wooded glen, not doing much of anything. Some drums are on the ground but no one's playing them. They don't appear to be talking. Possibly they are listening to someone or something, but whatever that thing is, it doesn't focus their attention in any particular direction. The only qualities these men and those in other photographs appear to have in common, apart from gender, is that they are all white. If they are of one economic class, Newsweek suggests otherwise when it describes them as: "construction workers, college professors, computer salesmen, media consultants, marketing consultants, media-marketing consultants, Jungian therapists, substance-abuse counselors, Unitarian ministers." The only other thing they have in common, as far as we could tell, was that they always performed their men's movement activities in the woods. But what do they stand for? What is it they rally for or against? What do they do?

The answer, according to Christopher Harding, the editor of Wingspan magazine and of a book also titled Wingspan, which the Boston Globe has dubbed "the bible of the men's movement," is that "men's groups vary dramatically and marvelously in size, structure, tone, purpose, orientation, sophistication, longevity, and sense of humor." They celebrate, he says, the "movement's diversity" and resist "calls for homogenization, umbrella organizations and national agendas." He is particularly clear on this last point: "the focus of men's work is not directly on societal change."

Harding goes on to describe four main branches of the men's movement which, because I expect few of my readers will know more about it than I did, I will briefly describe below:

The Mythopoetic: This is the largest and most popular branch, the one most commonly portrayed by the popular press. It emphasized a Jungian analysis of "male spirituality and male psychology" and has a "pronounced neoprimitive quality." It owes its existence largely to a variety of magazines (Wingspan, Men's Council Journal, Inroads) and to men's groups which meet regularly for conversation and drumming. Its leaders (the short list includes Robert Bly, Shepherd Bliss, Douglas Gillette, James Hillman, Robert Moore) conduct "rustic retreats" for which men pay an average of $250 to spend a weekend sitting in sweat lodges and joining in rituals in which they often wear masks, carve spears, walking sticks, and giant phalluses out of tree branches, and imitate various animals such as bears, coyotes, etc. Other popular activities include tying themselves to trees for the length of one "tree breath" (24 hours), and making love in meadows (an activity that is apparently done alone and presumably always with an "earth mother" rather than another "wilde man".) Most importantly, regardless of what else they do, they gather in nature. They follow the example of the "wilde man," who is described as a "personification of the raw forces of nature" and who is given voice by Robert Bly as a character in his retelling of the Grimm's fairy tale, Iron John.

The Profeminist/Gay Affirmative: this is the current men's movement's take on what was "known in the 1970's as 'men's liberation.'" According to Harding, membership in this branch is declining because "critical attitudes toward men alienated many potential supporters and newer branches offer more positive alternatives."

Men's Right/Father's Rights: this is one of the "newer branches," comprised mostly of divorcees, "who tend to be very militant, rail against male-only draft laws, abrogation of men's rights in laws designed to protect women from violence, and male bashing in the media."

Addiction/Recovery: this is the men's movement's attempt to draw into the fold those men who belong to "groups evolved out of twelve-step programs." Other branches disapprove of their "negative ideas that men are wounded, poisoned by their testosterone, and need to be 'fixed' by therapists." In the Time article mentioned above, Bly makes a claim to even greater diversity when, without offering lengthy description, he divides the men's movement into the following branches:

  1. Antifeminists
  2. Feminist men
  3. Men's rights advocates
  4. The Marxist men's movement
  5. The gay men's movement
  6. The black men's movement
  7. Bly's own "mythopoetic" branch

This largely non-specific all-inclusiveness is typical of the men's movement. The introduction of Wingspan is devoted to reiteration of the indeterminacy of the movement. This regards not only its membership, but also its ideologies as well. "Much of the movement is so revolutionary and wonderful," writes Harding, "that it is difficult to explain succinctly or to really understand without actually experiencing it." The structure of Wingspan itself exemplified this attitude. It is less a collection than a conglomeration, or, to use the word most favored by the men themselves, a "gathering." The 49 essays, poems, stories, interviews and letters range in content from descriptions of "rustic retreats" ("What Happens at a Mythopoetic Men's Weekend") to memoirs of a Vietnam veteran ("Warrior Images") to retold fairy tales ("The Dark Man's Sooty Brother") to personal essays on penis size ("Hung Like a Hamster"). The book even goes so far as to include its own undoing, in a section entitled "Friendly Fire" which is comprised of critiques (and responses to them) of the movement itself.

Not only does such an attempt at disorganization seem contrary to an attempt to define a movement, it appears particularly peculiar considering that the men's movement claims to be largely concerned with "unity," "wholeness," "integrity," "integration," and with healing the "wounds" that come from a "fractured life." Michael Meade writes: "One of the reasons that everybody is in therapy, everybody is confused, everybody is suffering is that demarcation lines, the lines of the world, are shattering..." Indeed, the basic Jungian tenet that informs Mythopoetics seeks to correct a psychic "imbalance" by reawakening the Animus in order to "reunite" it with the Anima, which, these men charge, has been a little too dominant as of late.

So wholeness is one goal, but it is qualified by expansiveness. It must not be a self-contained wholeness. Several years after David and I sat in Laconia, when I was living in Berkeley, California, as far away from New Hampshire as I could get, I happened across a reading in the upper level of a popular bookstore there. It was a member of the men's movement rabble-rousing on the topic of circumcision, which he declared to be the most pervasive and popularly ignored instance of ritual genital mutilation on the planet. (He had, by the way, successfully roused only a few of the rabble — there were no more than seven people listening: two freaked-out men, one of whom was pretending to sleep, and five woman who could barely sit still waiting for the "question and answer" section to begin.) While anger concerning circumcision as a physical act is the rallying cry of only a small portion of the men's movement, as a psychical one it is nearly ubiquitous. One of the most prominent aspects of the wilde man is his expansiveness and his utter disregard for self-containment. This is often described in terms of physical expansiveness of various kinds. Bly makes much of the instruction one of his archetypal wilde men gives to an initiate: "During [the time you spend with me], you cannot comb your hair, nor wash, nor cut your fingernails or your toenails nor your beard, nor wipe the tears from your eyes." Another version appears in Robert Moore's essay, "The Trickster Archetype": "The Trickster has boundless energy, he seems to be self-centered. He seems to be fascinated and involved in all sorts of clumsy experiments with his body and his body's capacities. He's always turned on by how fascinating his anus is. His anus does all sorts of things. He'll get his anus into all sorts of trouble. He just puts it over here, and it gets burned up, and then he's always trying to find it. Have you ever heard of that? Getting your ass into all sorts of trouble?"

This expansiveness is viewed as a reaction to oppressive constraints of authority, especially as they occur in "refined city life." The wilde man, writes Christopher Burant, "has no use for the conventions of society;" his wildness "cannot be appropriated for any social cause."

It is significant that the wilde man is not merely "natural" but wild. Wilderness is omnipresent in the men's movement. According to Aaron Kipnis, the wilde man is "close to animals and forest life;" he is "a masculine personification of nature — the Earth Father." Bly sees the feminization of the modern male a result of the Industrial Revolution which, among other things, "took men from the fields."

The woods are often described as the only place adequate for containing the uncontainable wilde man: "the woods held me in it, spacious container" writes Gabriel Heilig. The quality which makes wilderness so appealing its indefinableness. The wilderness is never a definite place; it is not New York, Chicago, San Francisco — just, "the woods." Bly often refers to it as a "dark place" and "shadow world." It is where the wilde man "floats in the vague netherworld of dreams." It is associated with "feelings," which are always left undefined, and with a lack of clear boundaries. As soon as the wilderness is defined, as when it is turned into a park or, in Bly's fairy tale, a castle courtyard, it is "still a cage."

So nature is a vague place, a place of undefinable darkness. Its vagueness has appeared many times in Bly's work before Iron John. The unknowable and undefinable — always left unknown and undefined — occurs often in Bly's early collection of prose poems, The Morning Glory. In a hollow tree trunk he finds "privacy and secrecy, dim light," and on the caterpillar his daughter gives him he describes "a black something...a black memory" that is never revealed. In Loving A Woman in Two Worlds the opening poem, "Fifty Males Sitting Together," describes "a massive/masculine shadow" as "something indistinct." A slightly more complicated aspect of this indistinctness is what Donald Hall described as "genuinely new" to American poetry. In Silence in the Snowy Fields, Bly writes: "this wood is like a man who has a simple life, living through the spring and winter on the ship of his own desire."

Whether or not what occurs here was actually new (even to American poetry), it has been influential. What many younger poets have taken from Bly is what happens in the final two phrases of this passage: "on the ship of his own desire." It is a confusing fragment, mostly because it seems to provide a sort of visual image, but not by any means a clear one. It is an obscure image, "the ship of his own desire." The solidity of ship suggests that we are meant to see...something, but what does a "ship of his own desire" look like? The poem doesn't say. Nor is the obscurity the result of complicated grammatical structure or the making of a difficult philosophical point. It is not a metaphysical comparison, because it relies on no logical system of coherence. Ship and "his own desire" are not yoked, other than by grammatical structure. (For example, if you changed "ship" to "raft" or "wagon" you might effect a slight variance in tone, but what the word says about desire would not fundamentally change. Likewise, "anger" or "fear" might be substituted for "desire," and the reason for the word "ship" would be no more clear. ) If the concrete term "ship" and the abstract term "desire" share any meaning, it is one which the poem keeps secret. How is a ship like desire, or desire like a ship? The poem claims that they are alike, but does not offer us any clues as to how. It leaps from ship to desire without detailing the process by which they are connected. Bly called this type of poetry "leaping poetry," and described it as an attempt to portray "a leap from the conscious to the unconscious and back again, a leap from the known part of the mind to the unknown part."

Returning now to the men's movement, we find this same leap occurring. It is the leap from the known, daily life of work and the city, to the unknown, the dim netherland of nature. In terms of geography and landscape, this means that a boundary has been crossed, but not recognized. The boundary is between the civilization, society, city life, and the uncivilized, uninhabited and uncultured wilds. In actual, physical terms, the boundary is the geographical space where civilization and wilderness intersect. It is the band of small towns and country roads that forms the outer edge of society. Laconia, New Hampshire is one of these border towns. In these regions the fingers of wilderness and humanity intersect. They interlace along long lines of narrow growth in either direction: the lines of wilderness that follow the banks the rivers, the lines of inhabited roads that penetrate the woods. Why is this region avoided by the men's movement? Why does Bly leap over it? The answer is simple: poverty.

Depictions of poverty are not popular in mainstream culture. And the greatest percentage of impoverished people in the United States live on the margins of society, in the border towns, on the edge of wilderness. Hence, this landscape is often avoided; it is not an "acceptable" domain. Examples of this "leaping over" of the poverty belt on outskirts of society are easy to find. My current favorite is in a recent TV commercial for a four wheel drive Land Rover. In this ad, the Land Rover bounces through dense wilderness, not a human habitation in sight, then descends into a sort of enormous mud puddle. It reemerges, though the magic of special effects, into a big city downtown. The distance between city and wilderness is eluded, and with it is poverty. (A similar elision occurs any time a sitcom has occasion to transport its characters from their invariably downtown apartments to the woods. Images of people driving through small rural towns are rare.) This leap is integral to the men's movement, because economic change is the one aspect of the "alienated" world that Bly and his followers avoid.

In doing so they are in fact side-stepping a source of "anguish" that appears again and again just below the surface of the men's movement. What is it that mean really want? One answer appears to be a restructuring of their society's work conditions. It is no coincidence that the Industrial Revolution figures so prominently in Bly's analysis of causes of male suffering. The "alienation of modern life" which the men's movement seeks to alleviate might easily be equated to the alienation from labor Marx describes. Work appears off and on throughout the discourse of the men's movement. Michael Meade describes the problem this way: "What's lost is the meaning of work. And purpose — what's the purpose of work? Men and women need purpose and meaning in what they do for work." The Newsweek article summarizes the problem in this way: "...most of the participants are white males, generally considered the most privileged segment of American society. In fact, they have been abused and oppressed all along but just didn't realize it." The article goes on to suggest that "...we need another revolution." It appears that many of the men who attend men's movement retreats wish to talk about work — but are not allowed. Newsweek reports that "At the men's retreats run by psychotherapist Wilbur Courter...he forbids participants even to mention their jobs, leaving most of them 'almost speechless.'" But economic restructuring is almost never suggested as a solution. When it is brought up, by Harry Brod, who writes that the real "job" of the men's movement is "to explain the connection between how men experience their powerlessness but don't experience their power under advanced capitalist patriarchy, and thereby enlist their help in overthrowing this system," Bly counters in a typically vague manner: "Your solution — that we should immediately join a political movement to overthrow the capitalistic patriarchal state — to me is highly naive." The answer advocated by men's movement leaders is not to seek political or social change, but to "look inside" in an effort to resolve the "spiritual crisis" of the modern American man.

Feminist critiques of the men's movement, as collected in Women Respond to the Men's Movement generally take the approach advocated by bell hooks when she writes that "The most frightening aspect of the contemporary men's movement, particularly as it is expressed in popular culture, is the depoliticization of the struggle to end sexism and sexist oppression, and the replacing of that struggle with a focus on personal self-actualization." While this approach accurately describes the way in which the move from problem to solution leaps over the social/political, it partially fails because it continues to repressent the men's movement along divisive lines of gender with which many in the movement are quite comfortable. Speaking of the men's movement in terms of the feminist movement tends to embolden the stance Bly and others ask these men to take, namely, "you're talking about women — that's the problem. We want to talk about men." The actual boundaries remain uncrossed.

Not as a solution, but as a sort of counter-aesthetic, I suggest the hinterlands as a physical and social landscape to which attention should be turned. In little towns like Laconia, where wilderness and society merge, the landscape is not one of vagueness but of extreme articulateness and awareness of the minutia of daily living. Nor is this landscape confined to small towns. It exists everywhere the city and the wilderness mingle. It is the narrow stretches of grass between the sidewalks and roads, the muddy forest along riverbanks, the borders of city parks. It is cluttered with trash and small details. It is where, in the words of the novelist Cormac McCarthy, "ruder forms survive." It is often trash-strewn, cluttered, always full of detail. It is where, to survive, men invent small rituals in their daily lives. All afternoon, in the Jiffy Lube in Laconia, the mechanics would rotate their shifts, two men covering for another while he stood inside to get warm. Once warm, he would return to the garage and cover for another man, while he came in to warm himself in turn.

In conclusion, I offer a quote from the opening pages of McCarthy's Suttree, in which the boundary between wilderness and civilization, nature and the city, gives rise to words full of precision and the intricacy inherent in mutual coexistence:

Past these corrugated warehouse walls down little sandy streets where blownout autos sulk on pedestals of cinderblock. Through warrens of sumac and pokeweed and withered honeysuckle giving onto the scored clay banks of the railway. Gray vines coiled leftward in this northern hemisphere, what winds them shapes the dogwhelk's shell. Weeds sprouted from cinder and brick. A steamshovel reared in solitary abandonment gainst the night sky. Cross here.

Matthias Regan is a practicing poet and can currently be reached at regan@chem.nwu.edu.

Copyright © 1996 by Matthias Regan. All rights reserved.

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