“There is no ‘there’ there”: part two of a very long post on Robert Bly, male transformation, and the fear of one’s own hollowness

This is the second post in a three-part series. Part one appeared last Friday. It dealt with several issues, focusing in particular on the difficulty so many men have today identifying and acting on what it is that really want. Men who long to be “good guys” often have a particularly difficult time with what Robert Bly calls “resolve.”

Anti-feminist male voices play on this lack of resolve, mocking the aspiring feminist man for his apparent passivity. Anti-feminist men claim that they do know what they want: they want to get laid, make money, play Halo or World of Warcraft until four in the morning. They want to watch football instead of talking. They don’t want emotional intimacy, or so they claim; they want to work hard, play hard, and fall asleep after sex. These anti-feminist voices (one thinks of their popular high priest, the talk-show host Tom Leykis, who without any irony tells his male listeners to call him “Dad”) urge young men to give up the quixotic crusade of living a life of justice and self-control.

While the likes of the libertine Leykis urge calculated self-indulgence, traditionalist Christian voices implore young men to “seize back” their leadership roles as head of the family. Thus the feminist man is attacked from two sides: by the buddies that urge him to stop worrying about women’s feelings and give in to his id, and by social conservatives who call him to stop worrying about women’s feelings and take up his God-ordained role as warrior leader.

So many aspiring feminist men give up at this point. The siren songs of irresponsibility and fundamentalism both make the same promise: live this way, and you will have the certainty you lack. Both camps tell the same lie: that biological identity determines destiny.

The secular hedonists (Leykis and a great many MRAs) urge a surrender to impulse: “You’re a man! You’re a simple creature who wants great sex and great food and a few laughs. Stop feeling guilty for your desires, and give into them!”

Traditionalist Christian voices often make a remarkably similar argument: “You’re a man! You’ve been given a special role by God to lead, and you must accept your calling!”

And when the nice young feminist man looks for a counter-argument to these pervasive messages, he finds very little that’s useful. Telling him “masculinity is just a social construct” is a woefully insufficient response, to put it mildly.

Where Robert Bly gets it right is that those of us committed to sexual justice need to come up with a more effective way of raising up strong, resolute, kind, egalitarian men. A key component of that lies in helping young men develop the capacity for deep self-reflection. We don’t do that in our culture, and as a consequence we are left with two kinds of men: those who can say what they want (and what they want is usually selfish, superficial, and destructive) and those who can’t, because deep down, they don’t really know their own hearts.

For many years, I had a great fear. It was only in men’s groups that I discovered, to my amazement, that many other men had the same one: I was terribly afraid that underneath an outer facade of kindness and warmth, I was hollow. I knew I wasn’t malicious or evil, not at my core. What I feared most was that I was nothing — an empty shell, a “whitewashed tomb”. Years of therapy had made me superficially insightful, and like most men, I could “talk a good game.” But I was haunted by the thought that, as Gertrude Stein said of Oakland, deep inside “there was no there there.” At six I had become acutely aware of my mother’s feelings; twenty years later, I was a chronic seducer because I imagined I was “so good” at “reading” women well. But when, usually at the end of another unhappy marriage or relationship, I was confronted by a tearful woman who asked me “Hugo, what do you want? What do you REALLY want?” I could only say “I don’t know.” I wasn’t lying.

Bly notes that this complete lack of self-awareness leads to a depressingly repetitive style of male-female arguing. A couple begins to quarrel. The man progresses quickly from denial to defensiveness to, finally, brutal self-deprecation. He’ll blame his inability to communicate (or even to feel) on a poor relationship with his father, or even on his own gender. He’ll say something like “all men are shits”, or, he may personalize it to “I’m just a piece of shit, I don’t know why you stay with me.” He may be alternately childlike or numb. (Some men only get to the “I’m worthless, I don’t know why you stay with me”) bit after they’ve been drinking. Often, the couple fall into a mother-son dynamic, with the woman reassuring with words like “I know you’ve got real goodness in you, I can see it!” And the man is comforted by the idea that perhaps she can see in him what he cannot see in himself – because, of course, he hasn’t done the hard work of plumbing his own depths and finding that resolution he suspects might not be there at all.

A lot of these numb young men get into relationships with women who say things to them like “Roy, I swear I know you better than you know yourself!” If Roy hasn’t done his work, the line might be true. If he’s terrified that he has “no ‘there’ there”, he may hope desperately that his girlfriend or wife is right; her faith in him sustains him in the midst of his own crisis. But what she thinks she sees in him is usually a projection of her own hopes, determined as she is to find a polished diamond in the midst of coal. There may be a precious jewel in his soul, but the pressure that will turn carbon into diamonds is going to come from the man’s own effort, not from a woman’s fervent wishing. I’m convinced that part of growing up as a man is realizing that it’s never a woman’s job (not your mother, not your giirlfriend, not your sister, not your wife) to see the good in you that you can’t find in yourself. Authentically adult men don’t outsource their own self-awareness to female loved ones.

Neither the “Leykis libertines” nor their Christian conservative counterparts are much interested in having men do “deep inner work.” The former urge men to indulge their impulses in the name of freedom; the latter want men to suppress them in the name of obedience to God’s sovereignty. The former think “inner work” is a load of feminist crap; the latter worry that too much focus on personal transformation might lead a man to reject the traditional gender roles to which his God has called him. But having lived as a bit of a libertine, and having spent a lot of time with conservative Christian men, I am well-aware that neither self-indulgence nor self-denial are effective prophylaxes against the haunting fear of one’s own emptiness.

If resolution and certainty are at least in part based on deep self-knowledge, then how do we get there? Folks who are still reading are surely saying “enough with the glittering generalities, Hugo, how about some specific, concrete steps?”

Specific steps coming in part three. Later this week.

0 thoughts on ““There is no ‘there’ there”: part two of a very long post on Robert Bly, male transformation, and the fear of one’s own hollowness

  1. Anti-feminist male voices play on this lack of resolve, mocking the aspiring feminist man for his apparent passivity. Anti-feminist men claim that they do know what they want: they want to get laid, make money, play Halo or World of Warcraft until four in the morning. They want to watch football instead of talking. They don’t want emotional intimacy, or so they claim; they want to work hard, play hard, and fall asleep after sex. These anti-feminist voices (one thinks of their popular high priest, the talk-show host Tom Leykis, who without any irony tells his male listeners to call him “Dad”) urge young men to give up the quixotic crusade of living a life of justice and self-control.

    Stereotype much?

    The secular hedonists (Leykis and a great many MRAs) urge a surrender to impulse: “You’re a man! You’re a simple creature who wants great sex and great food and a few laughs. Stop feeling guilty for your desires, and give into them!”

    Have your own goals, and don’t live a life centered around pleasing and catering to women?!?!?!

    Damn those selfish So-and-So’s!

    Telling him “masculinity is just a social construct” is a woefully insufficient response, to put it mildly.

    And that’s putting it mildly.

    It’s the same, tired, circular reasoning I keep hearing from feminists and feminist men – “Since you don’t come to the same conclusion that I did, you obviously didn’t give it much thought.” Baloney. Your “truth” is not that self evident.

    Know yourself. Your wants, needs, hopes, desires, dreams. Don’t be ashamed of them. Don’t sacrifice them for a woman. Don’t sell your soul out, and be filled with a life of “What if?” for there are other women travelling that path, or at that destination. You weren’t put on this earth to make anyone else’s life work for them. The day is yours, seize it, decide what you want to make of yourself, and make it so – the only thing between you and it are air and opportunity.

    And those absolutely require someone to know themselves, they are only platitudes to someone who hasn’t done that thought, or who are waiting for someone else to tell them what they ought to be.

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  3. I’m convinced that part of growing up as a man is realizing that it’s never a woman’s job (not your mother, not your giirlfriend, not your sister, not your wife) to see the good in you that you can’t find in yourself. Authentically adult men don’t outsource their own self-awareness to female loved ones.

    It’s interesting, you know. Hugo can write something as perfectly sensible as this — something all us “Leykis libertines” are apt to agree with in full — and then excoriate men who actually are this self-aware and comfortable with their identities and desires as men as hiding from “the haunting fear of one’s own emptiness.”

    Whatever. I’m off to play Halo.

  4. I find it telling that neither of you really challenge the most important claim Hugo makes here. Maybe it’s because it’s implicit, and not in bold. The relevant bit comes right after the passage you quote, Martin:

    Neither the “Leykis libertines” nor their Christian conservative counterparts are much interested in having men do “deep inner work.” The former urge men to indulge their impulses in the name of freedom …. [and] think “inner work” is a load of feminist crap

    Wallowing in what Mill called the `lower pleasures’ and claiming this is `freedom’ and `self-awareness’ is, I think, exactly the equivocation Hugo’s trying to point out in this passage.

    Moral education is a difficult issue. Aristotle defined the vicious person as one who not only did not know about the good, but had absolutely no interest in it. Aristotle thought that such vicious persons were completely hopeless, completely beyond the reach of moral education.

    I’d like to be more optimistic than Aristotle, but I haven’t yet figured out how. One last pretentious philosophy reference for the evening: maybe Glaucon is right, and there just is no way to argue with Thrasymachus.

  5. “Leykis libertine” and “secular hedonist.” Ohhh, I like those. The fact that Hugo uses them derisively doesn’t make me like them any less. I’m going to use ‘em.

  6. Sounds like, to set aside the language of male feminism for a moment for something even more self-consciously obscure, Leykis and the men who follow his prescriptions are committing to the lapse into the quotidian out of fear and loathing of the confrontation with their own being and the anxiety often surrounding such confrontation.

    Aside: Leykis tells his listeners to call him “Dad”? Smacks pretty sharply of the authoritarian fantasy. (I’m reminded of an episode of Teen Titans on the Cartoon Network in which a preening, arrogant villain made the same request. The answer: “I already have a father.”)

  7. Ah, the arrogance of elitism. If you make the choice I like, you’re following the enlightened path. If you make the choice you like, you haven’t been enlightened enough yet.

    Love the Teen Titans quote though. Think it was Deathstroke and Robin.

  8. Most of the comments so far ignore the audience you’re trying to reach here, Hugo, and deride you for not appealing to them, instead. I’m going to ignore them here, because responding to them would not be in the spirit of your post. Which is to say, you’re talking to men who identify as feminist or pro-feminist, about some of the pitfalls one faces, and ways around ‘em.

    I appreciate most of what you have to say here, especially the layers which we peel away to find what we ‘really’ want. There are all different kinds of people, of course, and I would venture that there are people of all genders who are pretty happy not entering into deep relationships with (most) other people. A good number of these people have one or two people they are close with, and that’s enough. A few of them probably have nobody they’re close to in the ways you’re talking about, but they are happy–and I would add that I even think some of them can be good, productive members of society.

    But it’s harder to be a productive member of society that way, and one is more likely to become a jerk. I’d say that it’s easier to be a good person when you have at least some deep connections to some other people–whether those are romantic connections, or family connections, or whatever–you’re more likely to do good work in the world if you’re more connected to the other people in it (or at least more connected than not-connected-at-all).

    Anyway, those are just some thoughts on what I think is a thought-provoking post.

  9. Thanks, Jeff; your penultimate paragraph is right on — the deep reflection I’m talking about here is something that happens in relationship, and in the third post, I’m going to address that more. I appreciate your kind words.

  10. I have long since ceased to trust “therapy culture”, and settled on the blunt statement: politics stops at my skin. If your political project offers — or calls for — personal transformation, good luck to you.

    But I do have (yet again) an observation to make about how I see your arguments slipping into the universal. When challenged on it, you have agreed that you come with a full set of upper middle class Anglo-American baggage but it seems to me you settle into making universal statements such as:

    I’m convinced that part of growing up as a man is realizing that it’s never a woman’s job (not your mother, not your giirlfriend, not your sister, not your wife) to see the good in you that you can’t find in yourself. Authentically adult men don’t outsource their own self-awareness to female loved ones.

    If you amend that statement to insert a caveat that it applies to men growing up in your particular culture, you will, I think, have acknowledged that many paths to manhood exist, hat your culture does not define the only or even (in my opinion) the best, and you will, in doing so, have made quite a different statement.

  11. John, my conviction that men shouldn’t outsource their self-awareness is, I believe a universal — or ought to be. Some principles may be culturally bound, but others transcend class and social rules. As far as I’m concerned, at least a partial degree of emotional self-awareness for all, male and female, ought to be one of them.

  12. In a society where most young men talk about fucking and scoring and how hot bitches are, reading your words makes me feel affirmed that it is OKAY to want to get away from that pop trash and into a deeper relationship with one person, regardless of the pain that might go along with it. Because I know pain without lasting rewards is the harvest of short term superficial relationships, as far as I concern myself. And to figure out what I want to have in a companion, instead of taking whatever happens to come my way is proactive and part of the mature masculinity I desire. Then I can be without regret in the place my God helps me make for myself and my partner… and if it ends it will hurt so bad, but at least there is no bitter harvest because I will have lived more righteously than ever before. I want to be the best man I can be.

  13. Hugo, I can’t wait for part 3 in this series.

    I’m currently listening to an MP3 of the Tom Leykis show from yesterday (10/23), and here’s what Tom said to a 21-year old caller:

    “You’re 21, pal, time to grow up.”

    “You sit in that room, by yourself, and start thinking about what you want to be when you grow up. Make notes of things you find interesting, things you are passionate about.”

    “You haven’t spent any time being introspective. You haven’t spent any time thinking about yourself, have you?”

    “Where’s your dad? He should be telling you that.”

  14. And what drives me nuts about Leykis is that when he isn’t advocating the “hit it and quit it” ethos with women, when he isn’t advocating using and abusing the young and the vulnerable, he does a very good job of tapping into young men’s longing for an adult mentor. He does call young men to grow up — but the maturity he advocates is so selfish it makes Ayn Rand look like Mother Teresa.

  15. I find it telling that neither of you really challenge the most important claim Hugo makes here. Maybe it’s because it’s implicit, and not in bold. The relevant bit comes right after the passage you quote, Martin:

    Neither the “Leykis libertines” nor their Christian conservative counterparts are much interested in having men do “deep inner work.” The former urge men to indulge their impulses in the name of freedom …. [and] think “inner work” is a load of feminist crap

    Because it is bad logic. It is begging the question, the conclusion is placed before the argument. It’s a baseless claim, and no more than “Their priorities are different than mine so they (insert epithet/accusation here).”

    Or to break it down further, it is an argument of the form of “They’re a bunch of poopyheads.”

    What’s to answer?

  16. Well, considering Mother Teresa was an appalling individual who told the poor and downtrodden people she was supposedly helping that their destitution and misery were things that they should embrace because it brought them closer to a state of grace, then frankly I’ll take Leykis any day.

    Noumena, your point is rooted in the presupposition that what you call “the good” is defined as “don’t do what pleases you and brings you happiness in life, do what satisfies those who have set themselves up to judge you.” As I don’t accept your premise, why should I accept your definition of “the good”?

  17. I see the issue quite differently, Hugo. I don’t fall in the ‘Leykis libertine’ or the ‘conservative Christian’ camps, so defining the situation using these compass points doesn’t click with me.

    What does ring true with me are pieces of the situation that you and jeffliveshere allude to: namely the emotional isolation that so many males experience as they move from childhood to adulthood. This isolation is a toxic and in some ways inevitable byproduct of our patriarchal indoctrination of males, and one which too many feminists dismiss in their determination to view all gender issues through a ‘men are universally privileged’ lens. The damage is compounded by what is at times a psychotically individualistic culture.

    I think women can sometimes experience this as well, but not as often and not as brutally as men generally do, due to homophobia, the need to ‘prove’ oneself as a man and internalize violence, etc. Women are in general allowed to retain a much greater sense of the validity of their emotional needs and as a result develop relationships that are more playful, vulnerable, nurturing and more emotionally authentic than those that many men develop.

    From this angle, I think your suggestion that males need solely to ‘look within’ to combat the emotional consequences of this enforced isolation is rather like telling someone, “That poison is making you sick! Here, have some more.”

  18. harvey quoting :Tom Lekys talking to 21 year boy/man:

    “You haven’t spent any time being introspective. You haven’t spent any time thinking about yourself, have you?”

    “Where’s your dad? He should be telling you that.”

    The boy may well have answered – ”I don’t know where my dad is, he left me and my mum to become a secular hedonist, play Halo all day and hit on my class mates”

  19. In my opinion, a “hollow man” needs brothers, and hopefully, a father, or at least an elder brother / mentor. (If he grew up without brothers and a father, he needs them even more.) Gilgamesh needed to find Enkidu. That’s how a man learns to be a man, from his peer group and mentors.

    As Hugo pointed out, there’s no single, culture-wide definition of masculinity. There’s no agreement on what it means to be a man. Instead, there are numerous different groups, each with different beliefs. I’m not going to argue that one of those groups is the one, true group, which has the universal answer for any man.

    Any group affiliation can fill this emptiness, even if that’s not the “official” reason for the group. You can fill the emptiness by joining a bowling league, if that’s your thing. Deep philosophical truths can be gained from physical labor. (“Wax on, wax off.” “Shut up and shovel the gravel.”)

    It’s all about finding a group you can accept that also accepts you.

  20. Actually, Hugo, I know of at least one very impressive culture which does not value what you or I would understand, from our cultural context, as self knowledge or self reflection. They understand themselves and the world very well indeed, but not in a way we can easily understand. Which brings me to the central problem I have with your claims: it seems to me that you do not understand the depth of diversity, either neurological or cultural, in the world. Not everyone thinks alike, not everyone sees the world or themselves or even their emotions alike. And I personally celebrate this, because I see no possible way I or anyone else can see the world clearly with only one eye. I see no hope for freedom if we insist that everyone has the same “tasks” and must complete them the same way. And I see no hope for equality if some people get the exclusive right to define what adulthood, “manhood” and completeness means.

    Finally, Hugo, I wonder why the insistence on the universality of your perceptions. Why not just tell people that for a certain set of confused young men coming out of your specific culture, you see certain choices as possible. You don’t need to make universal claims; not everyone reads your blog anyway. So why do you?

  21. I found your ideas very interesting.

    As a side note, has it ever occurred to you that that NUMBness you talk about might affect all of us and it might be a consequence of the way the world around us is at the moment?

  22. Numbness, Mary Tracy, is indeed hardly unique to men. But we live in a culture in which men are required to shut down their feelings to a far greater degree — even now — than women. Or, to put it more accurately, we train men and women to become numb to different feelings: men are allowed lust and anger, but not pain and anxiety. Women are permitted to grieve more publicly and to vocalize fear more openly — but lust and rage are shamed.