on 16 October 2010
If you're already established on the path growth to authentic masculinity and rediscovering what it is to be a man, then this book might dissapoint you like it did me. There's a meandering introduction, most of the middle section is OK, but there's a bit too much emphasis on feminism, on relationships with women, and also just a little bit too much of the author's own personal anecdotes. There's actually only a handful of pages dedicated to actual concrete steps a man can take, and at no time does the book live up to its title. It would be fine for someone starting out on this journey, reading it will at least inspire to find out more about this topic. A far better starting point (or indeed at any point) is the excellent "King, Warrior, Magician, Lover" by Robert Moore.
on 17 August 2015
Sam Keen was writing as he explored his identity at the age of 40. It seems we are always discovering who we are.
The author was brought up within the Southern fundamentalist-Christian tradition, which was a very monolithic culture with an unbroken mythology. So “I grew up as a "believer." But there was one fly in the ointment: I had a very questioning mind. The more questions I asked, the more I disturbed people around me. The questions that disturbed people the most became the ones I most wanted to answer.” He says of fire in the Belly – it was an effort to look at gender and the problems that confront men in this society. It was an attempt to chronicle the spiritual — or, at least, the psychological — path that men have to travel to get rid of some of the disastrous ideas and feelings that go with being a man today. My society and my parents gave me a certain myth of maleness that I imbibed unconsciously from the time I was born. Now I have to demythologize that; I have to dig up that unconscious conditioning and decide how much of it is congruent with who I think I am, and how much of it has to be thrown away. I think a good therapist can help with that. As a matter of fact, a good therapist did help me. But there are some things that are part of the human condition, whether we are male or female. When we deal with spirituality, for instance, we're dealing with something that doesn't involve gender.
And that it grew out of your long-term experience in a men's group. We've been getting together every Wednesday night for more than twenty years. It's more than just a men's group; it's a community, in the sense that we're relating to each other on a continuing basis. What's most important is that we just show up for each other. Sometimes it's an evening of complete hilarity, or it can be very serious. It's not even that we all like each other. There are people in the group I wouldn't particularly be with for an evening. But there is something valuable that happens when people just show up for each other. Our men's group started out because two or three of us were having trouble with the women we were relating to (or, rather, not relating to). A few of us got together and each invited someone else, and pretty soon we had a group of eight or ten men. Over the years, we began to experience an intimacy with each other. We realized that there were a lot of things we had demanded of women, in terms of understanding us, that they couldn't give, but that other men could give. And as we began to explore the kind of intimacy that friendship gave us, we found it relieved a lot of the pressure on our relationships with women. There are all kinds of intimacies that we need; sexual intimacy is only one. When we load too much onto it, we can destroy it.
Iron John represented a sort of backlash from feminism. This book is one of many in that time, though it feels somewhat dated now – that is not to say that there isn’t much that is good in it. (Sam Keen became known as a leader of the men’s movement. Men like Keen and poet Robert Bly offered far-ranging criticisms of the path to manhood in contemporary society, arguing that technology had driven men far from home to work, and that politics (and early iterations of political correctness) had made men, in Bly’s phrase, “unable to lift their swords.” Feminism, often offered as a solution, simply wasn’t effective in harnessing wild young male energy.
Yet even while preaching the virtues of manhood, Keen never repaired the breach with his own son. Gifford would watch his father mesmerize an audience at sold-out lectures, amazed that his father could connect with each person individually but could not give the same kind of attention to him. The struggle between the two men eventually came to a head during an argument outside a restaurant. Attempting reconciliation, Sam and Gif both wrote accounts of their personal histories and how those histories might have affected the other. To their credit, both men write with absolute honesty. Sam Keen does not excuse his bad behaviour. Gifford admits to his own mistakes, although he is clearly the victim of his father’s narcissism. The very act of writing these things has a healing affect: What son would not be moved by an account of how his father decided on what to name him, for example.)
The problem – he looks at a thesaurus: Men = army, battallion, brigade, force, gang, power, soldiers, troups - compiler could only think of men together in these terms. They sacrifice their individuality for sake of violence and domination. Why not brotherhood, guild, fraternity, friends, team members, comrades?
Learning to be a man – we are devoid of manly attention - before WW1, men spent 4 hours daily with their sons, before WW2 2 hours, after it, 20 mins
Tribal initiation involved listening to lots of stories about heroes. Now it’s repressed and perverted
Instead of initation into a tribe and rugged mountains, virgin forests, mountain lions, our youth is into drugs, gang membership. A New York newspaper described young men who went raping women joggers and beating other youths as 'Wilding'. Also getting driving license, fast car racing, getting girl
Now we repress our fighting instincts and disown them. We call contras in Central America fighters against communism instead of confessing our desire to dominate. We call nuclear weapon a peacemaker.
Repression leads to fight and flight instincts, clogging adrenalin in arteries, stress, we are cut off from neck down and die from heart attacks.
Many men said despite horrors in wartime that was the only time they felt really alive.
Only 3% live off soil to feed other 97% - cut off.
The symbol of power is a chair - indoors, up a high rise block. Success equals drab clothes - grey suits
The army protects us so we prove self in sexual conquest - locker room talks never boast of how much pleasure they gave women but of how quick she was seduced &c. 'Make love' is a productivity language
We need to change.
A Zen comment on Christianity: 'God against man, man against man, man against woman, man against nature. Very strange religion.
The two most important questions are : Where am I going? Who is going with me? We get them the wrong way round.
We need to wake up to who we are. This will mean living with questions - better than a triple heart bypass and no self-doubt.
Animals act without question, humans hesitate and think.
Boys are told not to cry so men must learn to weep and lose emotional numbness and remoteness from feelings. We need to regain the sense of touch- real men do not touch, hence fear of gays yet enjoyment of the rugby scrum. Vietnam men said they feared being called coward more than death.
We need to be prodigal son and go home. Go further, deeper inward and realise when we get nearer the core just how much of what we thought was our self is really other people's masks.
We need solitude to do this and it requires the same commitment as any other relationship.
Far from being threats to family life, gays are needed to enhance it. At present, men so scared of buddy-ness that they fall in love with woman who represents their suppressed anima and cling to her in a claustrophobic relationship. She is more his mother than partner.
The body needs to change - deep breathing, massage. Have a ehicle for your passion - one cause, e.g. CND, not lots of committees. Express feelings. Practice art of loving (even masturbation) Join a men's group and go camping &c.
Most radical – there is no such thing as masculinity
At the end Keen offers "Travel Tips for Pilgrims" for those who want to take an inventory of their personal story alone or in the company of friends. There are questions, exercises, and projects on recovering your personal history of manhood; warfare, conquest and competition; power and other values; work, money and vocation; sex, love and intimacy; feelings and emotions; changing the male body; cultivating solitude; ritual