Men ask us, from time to time, for books that can offer context to where they feel they are in their lives, and help them generally with their psychological development. It’s often hard to recommend a book that will work for every man – we all have unique journeys.
However, here are some that books that men have reported to be useful.
“Iron John” by Robert Bly
The Wild Man is the topic taken up in detail by Robery Bly in his book “Iron John”. Bly takes the first part of the traditional Iron John myth as the story of how men must encounter and come to terms with the rough, wild, hairy side of masculinity. Bly makes a clear distinction between this Wild Man and a savage man:
The Wild Man, who has examined his wound, resembles a Zen priest, a shaman,or a woodsman more than a savage. (Page x.)
The myth explores the adventures of the son of a king and queen in a forest realm. Phallos, according to the Queen of the story, is incompatible with “civilised” living, and she effectively keeps her son in her feminised realm until, by various adventures, he is able to escape her realm and enter the dark forest on the shoulders of a wild man. A key point Bly makes is that to free the Wild Man from his cage the son must steal the key to that cage from under his mother’s pillow.
At an extra level of complexity, the king in the tale is not in contact with his Wild Man, so is unable to help the son – and in fact abets the mother in holding the son close to her.
Bly lies blame on our collective society, in that we have forgotten the importance of initiation in the healthy development of young men (and women as well) into adult life.
As Bly says:
Having abandoned initiation, our society has difficulty leading boys to manhood. Mythologically, we can say that the Great Father in his primitive form blocks the young men on their path, and the Great Mother in her primitive form blocks the young men also. These blockages we have to add to our explanation of why we have so many boys and so few men. The main reason I think is our own ignorance of initiation, and out dismissal of its value. (Page 182)
It’s a rich and rewarding tale, and the Bly’s book is a classic in exploring the issues around this difficult task in a man’s development.
“He” by Robert Johnson
In 80 pages, Robert Johnson uses one version of the Grail myth to explore the (sometimes confusing) travails of Parsifal, a young man in his quest for the Holy Grail. The book has been criticised as disjointed by some, but perhaps this is how mens’ lives sometimes seem to be!
Johnson explores some of ways in which men are limited or freed by their relationship to their inner masculine and feminine figures. An important component to this is the relationship to a man’s inner feminine.
Inner woman as Mother figure (negative mother complex); as fair maiden or inner muse; as Sophia (goddess of wisdom) … how a man distinguishes these and how he relates to them is central to his ongoing development as a man. And how he relates to these inner figures (perhaps unconsciously) affects how he relates to real women in the real, outer world.
The foreword to “He”, by Ruth Tiffany Barnhouse in the 1974 original, didn’t make it into the revised 2020 edition, which is a shame. So quoting from that foreward:
Women often labor under the delusion that life is really pretty easy for men, at least when compared to their own lot, and have no idea what a complicated struggle is really involved in the transition from male childhood to real manhood. They have no idea of the long and arduous road that must be traveled by the male child who must separate himself from the original, indispensable, nurturing mother and venture forth into a way of experiencing himself that is not her way and that he cannot learn from her either by example or by instruction. Considered in these terms, it is easy to see that a girl must learn to be like her mother, while a boy must learn to be different from her without this difference deteriorating into either antagonism or fear. (Original edition, page v.)
The introduction by John A. Sanford is also missing from the revised edition. Sanford sets the scene in this introduction by summarising Jung’s view of the two central tasks in a person’s life: these being (1) reconciliation with the shadow, and (2) inclusion of the contra-sexual unconscious element. These are the tasks that Robert Johnson returns to again and again in his exploration of the Grail myth.
“Under Saturn’s Shadow” by James Hollis
Hollis wrote, in his 1994 book:
The purpose of Under Saturn’s Shadow … is to offer a synoptic view of men’s wounding and healing, and to examine where things stand in this last decade of the century. (Page 7)
The title of this book alludes to the fact that men, as well as women, labor always under the heavy shadow of ideologies, some conscious, some inherited from family and ethnic group, some part of the fabric of a nation’s history and its mythic soil. This shadow is an oppressive weight on the soul. Men labor under it, oppressed and blighted in spirit. The experience of this weighty shadow is saturnine. (Page 9)
Hollis considers the following eight secrets that he feels operate strongly to diminish men’s lives:
- Men’s lives are as much governed by restrictive role expectations as are the lives of women.
- Men’s lives are essentially governed by fear.
- The power of the feminine is immense in the psychic economy of men.
- Men collude in a conspiracy of silence whose aim is to suppress their emotional truth.
- Because men must leave Mother, and transcend the mother complex, wounding is necessary.
- Men’s lives are violent because their souls have been violated.
- Every man carries a deep longing for his father and for his tribal Fathers.
- If men are to heal, they must activate within what they did not receive from without.
“Phallos” by Eugene Monick
Phallos as God Image: this is, in a nutshell, Monick’s thesis. His view is that, although masculinity is often seen as identical to patriarchy, this is untrue – and this view does not serve men.
For many men, the dominance of the masculine is taken for granted, so familiar is their experience of superior status. But for an increasing number, masculinity is as much an enigma as femininity. (Page 9)
In fact, the archetypal view is that phallos is the fundamental mark of maleness.
To write of archetypal masculinity means to concentrate on phallos, the erect penis, the emblem and standard of maleness…. Erection points to a powerful inner reality at work in man, not altogether in his control. (Page 9)
Full expression of phallos requires work in the male; this work is described in myths of various cultures and covers such ordeals as the night sea journey, as moving away from the mother-protected realm, as the battles with dragons both male and female, and as the renewal of a wounded king.
Masculinity is an accomplishment, not a birthright – so strong is the pull of the nature-mother. (page 48)
Traditional cultures, such as those of ancient Greece or the Zuni Indians of Mexico, understood the importance of phallos. Take, for example, the Greek God Hermes. Amongst his roles was as boundary marker, as phallic indicator of the extents of tracts of land and of ownership (and, ironically, of the bonds between men). These boundary markers of Hermes were the so-called Hermes, statues with the head of Hermes and an erect phallus.
Monick’s book is a celebration of phallos – both its solar side, which makes its way in the material world and builds cities, businesses and families; and its chthonic side, the earthy “wild man” side that needs to be recognised as such, and redeemed (brought into consciousness) so that it does not act out in outrageous and aggressive ways.
An implication of what Monick is saying is that more and more in our culture it is becoming necessary for men to “self-father”; to find a way in which they can make contact with both solar and chthonic phallos. This involves doing the work that the parents potentially did not. What should have happened was that both father and mother, knowing the importance of the boy’s need to make his way out of the realm of the mother, would both have facilitated this process. This would have been true initiation.
“The Sacred Prostitute” by Nancy Qualls-Corbett
This short book is a beautiful encapsulation of the paradox of the sacred yet embodied and sensual goddess, as this plays out in the unconscious. It is about how we can redeem the split that has occurred in our times between the materialistic, economic and often misogynist view of women; and women as divine players in a temple of love. This split is an internal, psychic one, and the subsequent source of much dysfunction in the outer world.
The chapter “The Sacred Prostitute in Masculine Psychology” describes the development of the inner feminine in men (the so-called anima in Jungian terms), and how a positive, natural development is so rewarding not only for a man but for his partner. Speaking of a man who has made this development:
Such a man enters into the sexual act not from a desire for power or the need to control, but with a feeling of honour for, and devotion to, the mystery of the feminine. (Page 107)
The effects are felt further, as well, for a man who has managed to make a good relationship with his anima: she brings an enthusiasm to life and a sense of joy and humour to his activities and relationships.