AN ADVENTUROUS MAN:
A LATE APPRECIATION OF EUGENE MONICK
By Thomas R. Smith
In March of 2007, I attended a talk by the Jungian therapist Eugene Monick in a Midwestern city not far from where I live. I remember that my anticipation of Dr. Monick’s appearance was heightened by nostalgia for the creative days of the 1990s. The Nineties were, of course, the decade par excellence in which Jungian thought had fertilized the so-called “mythopoetic” men’s movement mainly through the pioneering work of James Hillman and his enthusiastic friend, Robert Bly. And maybe in turn, it occurred to me only later with the perspective of time, the men’s work had given new life and brilliance to the Jungian effort.
The memory of that brilliance may account for my excitement at the prospect of the Scranton-based therapist’s visit to our area. Monick, in 1987, at the beginning of the heyday of the mythopoetic movement, had published a revelatory book called Phallos: Sacred Image of the Masculine, a crucial contribution to the re-definition of masculinity developed by the men’s groups gathered around Bly, Hillman, and Meade. Monick, while sensitive to feminism, gave us that period’s best, most unapologetic celebration of the penis and its archetypal power, which he distinguished as phallos (from the Greek), in its own right a life-giving force alongside that of the female generative organ.
When asked what I thought were the best “men’s” books (and as editor of Ally Press’s Dragonsmoke, I saw most if not all of them), I always listed Phallos among the top five, along with Bly’s Iron John and Meade’s Men and the Water of Life. In 1991 Monick followed Phallos with a somewhat less satisfying volume, Castration and Male Rage: The Phallic Wound, that made certain disheartening concessions to then-fashionable deconstruction theory; in my estimation, Phallos remained the Monick book to beat. Now almost two decades later, after much anticipation, the Toronto Jungian press, Inner City, had brought out Monick’s third book on masculinity, Potency: Masculine Aggression as a Path to the Soul.
The new book was the announced focus of his talk to the Jungians. Monick, an avuncular yet slightly stern man in his mid-seventies, facially resembling the British actor Michael Caine, was apparently not at his best that evening. He seemed a little ill-at-ease, which was odd given his presumed people skills as a therapist and also Episcopal priest. The unease visibly worsened over the course of his talk.
Looking around the room, I understood why. Some of the women wore stony expressions; maybe they didn’t like Monick’s idea that for men, phallos or the phallic dimension of life embodies spirit. I think they may also have disliked Monick’s determination that “American consumerism has trumped American feminism.” In their participation in consumerism, women also participated in patriarchy, relieving them, Monick said, of responsibility and the difficult work of democracy.
How much if any of the animosity directed toward Monick was due to a long-held aversion to the nearly twenty-year-old Phallos I can’t say. Above all I was shocked at how literal-minded and doctrinaire these Jungians were. At one point Monick cited a novel by the South American writer Gabriel García Márquez, Memories of My Melancholy Whores, to illustrate a mood of sexual longing that afflicts men in old age. On his 90th birthday, a man who has never known love decides to spend an evening with a teenage prostitute. Cicero is quoted: “An old man never forgets where his treasure is buried.” I hadn’t read the novel, and I doubt that many of the Jungians had either. That didn’t stop them however from generally refusing to consider Márquez’s scenario on any but the most concrete, face-value level. An eye-glazing amount of Jungian jargon flew around that room, with little apparent display of creative thought. Monick, a declared liberal, obviously wanted to open the discussion to the bigger social picture, but met in response mostly irritable feminist rumbling about the patriarchy. Politics, metaphor, symbolism, all went out the window in that discussion.
In the end, Monick appeared flustered and unsettled. The women had chewed him up. Could the worldly Monick really have been so unwary and unprepared for their attacks?
(For what it’s worth, my own feelings after finally reading Memories of My Melancholy Whores were deeply ambivalent. One can view the novel as either a complex, ironic metaphor for an elderly man’s relationship with life—or possibly what Hillman would call anima mundi— as represented by the teenage prostitute, or as bizarre erotic fantasy. It’s hard to know which, though any discussion is best served by knowledge of what the author has actually written rather than second-guessing. One thinks of all the attacks on Iron John written by feminists who obviously didn’t read beyond the first chapter.)
The next year Eugene Monick died. I had written him a letter after the talk expressing my dismay at negative attitudes in the audience, and months later gotten a cordial email back from him professing that the resistance to his material hadn’t really fazed him. Meanwhile I still hadn’t read Potency.
And in fact I’ve only just now gotten around to this final book of Monick’s trilogy in the new year, a time when I often turn back to Jung and his followers for perspective.
I’m sorry to report that Potency isn’t half the book Phallos is, nor even as good as Castration and Male Rage. Unlike those earlier works, Potency is scattered and repetitive, and could have used better editing. Possibly Monick was in decline when he wrote it. Much of Potency’s content is old news to Monick’s readers of the 80s and 90s. Still, despite its faults, Potency strikes today with the force of its advocacy for a masculine-toned spiritual life. Unlike the 80s and 90s, the present period is almost devoid of writing, good, bad, or indifferent, on masculinity. Why is that? Maybe it’s a consequence of the triumph of consumerism that Monick warned against. I remember him also saying that evening, “Loneliness crept over the landscape, and loneliness won.” I don’t want to grind old axes. In the past seven or eight years, I admit I’ve fallen out of touch with the Jungian community. God bless them, but I see little of the psycho-spiritual nourishment they injected into the American cultural bloodstream at the time when Phallos and Iron John were published. In that brief, charmed interval it appeared possible that American society might become a bit more soulful, a bit more psychologically savvy. What happened to turn that promise aside is too big a subject to take up here. Maybe, as Dr. Monick speculated, “Loneliness” — that is, loneliness assisted by the corporations, the corporate media, and a military/industrial economy dependent on endless war — “won” is as good an explanation as any.
My purpose in this snippet of prose is simply a belated tip of the hat to the shade of Dr. Eugene Monick, an eminently honorable man to whom anyone who has or has loved a penis owes a debt of gratitude. Dr. Monick had the guts to give unfashionable praise to the seat and symbol of male power, too often disparaged even in its legitimate manifestations (and make no mistake, we see many illegitimate, shadow examples of it in our world everyday).
Potency’s greatest value may reside in the nuances of its subtitle: Masculine Aggression as a Path to the Soul. Most of us are shy of the very word “aggression,” but Eugene Monick saw how necessary aggression could be in taking decisive action on behalf of life. In fact Monick was at pains to make clear the distinction between the destructive kind of aggression we rightly hate and positive aggression as a function of the masculine:
“. . . Aggression, according to the American Heritage Dictionary, means a force that is hostile, an assault. Aggressive, on the other hand, is defined as having two meanings, which certainly must be true of aggression as well. . . . The second, more positive take is as in assertive: bold, enterprising, active striving, mastery and adaptation. To add to this, Roget’s Thesaurus expands aggressive to include adventurousness, venturesomeness, gumption, certainly phallic characteristics. Looked at from that second perspective, aggression takes on the positive, non-hostile tone I associate with phallos and meant to convey in my lectures.” [Potency, pp. 30-31]
The other day, listening to a tape of Robert Bly in the 1980s, I realized with a pleasurable shock how integral a part of Bly’s approach and appeal was that very quality of aggression. Bly at the blazing height of his powers was a defiant truth-teller; he could be reckless, ferocious, aggressive (even cruelly so, as many know), and that was part of what thrilled us about his potent attacks on what he saw as false or toxic (including, helpfully to my generation, the Vietnam War). Bly provided many uncertain young men in his audiences with a model for masculine aggression put into service of the soul.
That Bly became one of the loyal defenders of spiritual life in our time should not surprise us. The strength of active phallos in him, coupled with a sweeping intellectual daring, made him an exemplary soul warrior.
Eugene Monick too was a soul warrior. Like Bly and Hillman, he knew that the male body cannot be excluded from men’s understanding of their core identity. That period of Phallos and Iron John in the 1980s and 90s now stands as near-miraculous in the extent to which cultural discussion of these matters occurred and seemed to matter. Now there is a strange silence in America on the subject of the soul. After the Bush presidencies, after too many imperial wars abroad and too much cruelty toward the poor and minorities at home, it could be that many have passively accepted soul-death as their fate and the fate of America. After too many destructive, nation-disgracing military adventures commanded by the masculine genius for war, it’s possible that the souls of some men and women have given up the dream of a creative, life-giving masculinity.
Eugene Monick’s gift was to restore balance to this discussion by keeping faith with the promise of phallos. This he accomplished faithfully in his three books, which, despite their flaws, deserve to be read today by both men and women. Here, in another passage from Potency, I give him the last word in this tiny, overdue tribute:
“. . . .A sense of strength and power builds authority. It is phallic. A man with personal authority does not need to dominate, though he may need to excel. He needs to be up to the challenges life imposes upon him, whether they be enormous or small. If he has no personal authority, a man will substitute an artificial authority by demanding, bullying, lording. Every man needs validity in his own eyes. Every man needs to believe in himself. That which tells a man that he is believable is his soul. He must find a way to connect with the inner part of himself that he can respect and love.” [p. 46]