Story and poetry have a primacy of place in “men’s work.” They celebrate extraordinary possibilities, encouraging us, as Robert Bly has said, to “Think in ways you’ve never thought before.” Ancient story has been filtered through the collective unconscious. Artists plumb the depths of ancient stories to bring them freshly into our time. This is the value of art and artists. As Tim Young has said “[Images] may or may not have been true in the outer world, but are true inside…” – mg
Awaiting “That Absent Tiger”
There are many localized expressions of the universal story of male maturation. Each story bears a familial resemblance to all the others. Joseph Campbell has called the underlying common element “the mono-myth.” In all its variety, from Gilgamesh to Star Wars, it is the perennially recurring story of the coming of age of The Hero with A Thousand Faces.
Campbell tells us that to read the symbols, we must come to understand their very commonsensical grammar. The symbols are not images. We could say that the symbols are forms (a platonic sphere) and the images are expressions (a remembered iron ball buried by a tree). Images evoke a picture. Many nouns in common usage are not images. They are abstractions rather than things in themselves that can be visualized. The song lyric “In a white room with black curtains near the station…” is an image. Though obscure, we can picture something. Symbols are embedded in the line. Because we understand the grammar of those symbols, we sense that some stark terminus is implied. The National Institutes of Health’s instruction, “First, determine whether your drowsiness is due to depression, anxiety, boredom or stress” is not an image. There is no picture that corresponds to those abstractions.
Some of the most evocative of the memorable images from which we derive morals or lessons for male maturation, are recorded by Wolfram Von Eschenbach in the epic of Parzival. It is the masterwork which lays out what Nikos Kazantzakis calls “the full catastrophe” of a man’s life.
The Men’s Conference has often reminded us of the brevity of Parzival’s first visit to the throne room of the Grail King. Miseducated, Parzival is not able to summon the honesty, humility, grief, and compassion required by the moment, is cursed for his failing, and so wakes to find himself wandering in the wasteland again. That is an ancient story.
In a poem worked on during readings at several years worth of men’s conferences, Robert Bly offers a contemporary look at our own naiveté and questionable taste. It is a snapshot that shares common ancestry with the epic.
GOING HOME WITH THE WORLD
Well, the world catches us.
One birdcall and we’re in
It again. We say to
The world: “Let’s go
To your place.” The world
Says, “Okay.” A necklace
Of ocean shells hangs
On the bedroom wall,
A sea urchin with a light inside
On a shelf, and the paws of a tiger.
Well, let’s get comfortable!
But soon that absent tiger
Will come – the one who’s
Been missing her paws….
– Robert Bly
Outside the field of what might be called teaching stories, we are flooded with disparate sound-bites of violence, trivia, ignorance, hostility, and hopelessness. To free ourselves to do the growth work of men, we must recognize the poisonous symbols of nihilism and oppression. Unwittingly we have allowed ourselves to become entranced. Even beheaded.
By seeing into the symbols of folk stories, legends, myths, and the great works of other cultures, we can see the spiritual aspirations of our culture. A short example of one way to survive the painful present is found in a Great Story called The Water of Life. Like Parzival, it too is a store house of wisdom passed to us from ancient time. The story summons the image of a remedy, a mysterious, yet instantly recognizable, liquid; the glinting elixir that will cure a king who otherwise will die. What is it about our psyche that makes the image of the water of life both visible and compelling? That is worth contemplating.
Among the riches of that story is another potent symbol—a gate—the classic locus that reminds us that our life is always in transition. The image of a gate calls us to remember that there is a choice in every moment, and to recognize ourselves as poised, ready or not, at this particular place and time, in Robert’s phrasing, “at the lip of the falls.” We enter and leave this world through gates. Tibetan Buddhists call them “the between” or the bardos. Unless, impossibly, we turn to stone at the gate—in which case the world ends— we must turn away or step through.
So what does the story teach us about gates? To reach a gate we must first cover some ground. Let’s join the story, at an arbitrary point we choose to call the beginning, even though it is not.
* * *
Once Upon a time— After the king’s two oldest sons have failed in the quest to return with the Water of Life (because they are profane schemers) and before they have betrayed their youngest brother, the youngest of the king’s sons fledges and sets his intention to seek, on behalf of his father, the Water about which he knows nothing, and where to find, he knows not.
Upon setting out the youngest prince receives council from an unanticipated source, which the older brothers in their arrogance have spurned. Importantly, only after the courtesies due to one whom one meets on the road, does the dwarf decide to tell the young hero to please accept his gifts and to ride further on until at last he arrives at a castle, where he will encounter a substantial gate. So, already the story has told us something about how to be in the world.
When he reaches the gate, he is told, he must bid that it be raised, and then the hero must take the two loaves of bread given to him by the dwarf, and launch them into the mouths of the mighty predators who are the vigilant Guardians of the Gate.
The hero does not falter. He makes the bread delivery at the critical point and he steps out of the gate into the center courtyard of a castle in which await somewhere, the Water of Life and the most beautiful woman in the world. The question is can he keep his focus, can he stay awake, given his efforts and the siren call of those attractors? No. He is captivated and diverted by his appetites. He is lulled into stupor even before he realizes his goals. Although he is through the gate, and into an enclosed psychic field, he is not home, safe, and dry to any degree. His trial continues.
For our purposes here, that plot development is enough. We need only consider where we are in relationship to this web of images and what the images symbolize. Have we turned away? Have we been devoured? Are we once again standing at the gate?
We see the water, the young man, the gate, the guardians, and the bread loaves. They are recognizable as images calling out to us to be more fully imagined and extrapolated upon, made more lustrous by polishing. Let’s call the act of polishing the images, “feeding the story.”
The focus of “feeding the story” is to stay with the images of the story, not the reflexive, associative, light-bulb-quiz-show, meaning of the images. We were taught wrong in grade school, if we were taught to be the first one erupting with the answer. It is too soon for meanings and images do not unlock in that way. We must ask, what are all the known qualities of the image in itself? What obscure elements do we know about the image? Bread is made from grain. Why aren’t we throwing meat to the carnivores? Though you may have felt shamed, if any teacher has ever told you that you were “over-thinking” the problem, correct your interpretation and see yourself as having been recognized for your persistence and insight, rather than for winning at Trivial Pursuits.
While feeding the story, together we share the images that stand out for us, that draw our attention, that make us shudder, that have significance. And all the time we talk about the story, not about our personal stories. It is so common to find ourselves trying to top someone else’s personal story. You fell off your bike? Well I fell off an elephant! Resist that temptation.
We are in the mythical domain not our lived experience. We are attempting to describe the form which informs, not any particular expression. That may come much later, as we attempt to make sense of our own life.
But, someone might ask, “Now, wait a minute, aren’t we supposed to pivot, plunge, into our own truth, elicited by the story? Isn’t plunging into our truth the act of feeding?”
Trying to understand the images, metaphors, and teaching elements of the story, within the fabric of the story, is feeding it, Thinking about what is missing from the story, is feeding it. If you went to a production of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, would you be saying afterward, “It’s so hokey, I would have just run off with her.” You might think that, but to feed the story, you could think instead about the image of rose buds cut before cankerworms could blight them. But, to do that you would have to “think in ways you’ve never thought before.”
This is a skill of the creative imagination. We teach it to each other at the men’s conference. Some intuitive power, or defensive line coach in our grey matter, remembers that this has happened before, and is trying to prepare us, sensing that there will be more to entering the gate than summoning the nerve to step over a line. The imagination is warning us that we must not repeat the naive behavior of recent historical figures, thinking once the gate is raised “we will be greeted as liberators.” Homer reminds us in verse that even the ancient Greeks massed at the gates of Troy had a trick up their sleeve.
So, as a practical matter, what might such an encounter with devouring guardians look like in the context of attending the Minnesota Men’s Conference? However you find yourself attending the Minnesota Men’s Conference, the act involves intention, preparation, and effort. There is a clear distinction between being within the remote conference site at the appointed time and being anywhere else, even if while elsewhere your mind is drawn to memories of the men in the woods.
In psychological parlance, it is so easy to get triggered once you are there. Maybe the conference is not at all what you thought it would be. Maybe you forgot something you wish you had brought with you. Perhaps the seat you would like is saved for someone else. Perhaps someone says something that you take the wrong way. Perhaps you can’t stay awake or can’t sleep. Perhaps you make a big deal of someone’s snoring or the relative grandeur or remoteness of your accommodations. Perhaps you obsess about something that happened a long time ago. Or your phone rings and you have to take the call. In earlier days, perhaps you took offense when Robert Bly said, “New England? Wasn’t Olde England bad enough?” Maybe he made fun of your politics or your religion. Maybe you just had to get out of there—or you wanted the time in the woods to go on without end. Think of these irritations as teeth and claws that may bite and scratch you.
This is a significant consideration when attending the men’s conference You may be devoured by lions and tigers instead of benefiting from the companionship of one hundred men who are in Yeats’ words “…blessèd and could bless.”
When we are projecting our stuff onto others, psychic guardians will appear uniquely and surely to us in ways most likely to validate our lurking doubts. The grass will be rustling, which must mean we are about to become prey for something we can not see. These bogeys are custom-made to bring us up short. Then what?
The Guardians at the Gate are not the men or women who provoke us. They are our demons. Do we know the creatures of the psyche who threaten whatever calls most profoundly to us now? What advantage can we gain from being warned in advance about encountering, and surviving a passage between them? What loaves of bread have we been given? What knack must we have to save the life of our fathers?
These are questions posed as images legible to the imagination. I’m just suggesting to you, dwarf-like, “Don’t forget the bread.” If you do, your old wounds will be made fresh. You will invent a reason to invalidate, to diminish, to discount, to fight, or to flee.
In another story—another expression of the mono-myth—another hero must drink to the dregs three cups (why three?) before he will be able to lift the sword that will pierce the dragon’s flesh. To attempt to lift the sword without first having drained each cup is analogous to falling prey to the Guardians at the Gate for want of feeding them the bread. You will be set upon by the dragon instantly while feeling that your weaponry is welded to the iron beneath your feet.
Consider the images. Did you thunder past the small figure at the side of the road on your charger? Or did you recognize in yourself a “not knowing” and choose to befriend it? Did you humble yourself and confide in someone small? If so, what bread has the dwarf given you?
Michael Meade: Men and the Water of Life
Alden Nowlan: What Happened When He Went to the Store for Bread,
read by Thomas R. Smith
Bread Loaf Writers’ Conferences
Lewis Hyde: Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art