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Spring Books

Sibling Society is poet Bly's critique and rescue effort for America

By Robert Bly
Addison-Wesley, 319 pages, cloth, $22


Here's the short version of American poet and essayist Robert Bly's new book The Sibling Society: North Americans belong to a race of teenagers, and for anyone who wants to live among grown-ups, it's impossible to avoid the teenagers or what Bly metaphorically calls "siblings," those average citizens ranging in age from their 20s to their 50s, who wield enormous power and influence today. The popular media refers to the greater part of this population as the baby boomers. Yet this label misses the deeper psychological, cultural and political implications, which Bly explores in this timely and important book.

Drawing upon folk tales, classical Western and Eastern mythologies, Freudian psychoanalysis, poetry, philosophy and observation, Bly attempts to comprehend and elucidate contemporary U.S. society in terms of a frightening and repulsive "slide into primitivism and into those regressions that fascism is so fond of."

This is the basis of the book's timeliness and importance. But let's be clear about one thing from the outset: The primitivism referred to here is not that primal force that certain poets and artists have tried to recover from original societies, from first cultures. What Bly is talking about is a kind of seedy barbarism in our culture, the source of which lies in technology and affluence.

According to Bly, this slide into primitivism is the result of a transformation in the very psyche of North Americans. He argues that the superego, which formerly demanded obedience to a set of real, if too stringently conceived, values, now brutalizes us with demands that we attain instant and inflated popularity or fame. Consumer capitalism, in other words, has created a savage society where greed and desire extend almost limitlessly on the horizontal plane, while the vertical plane (for example, tradition, religion, devotion) is nearly totally absent.

Now here's the problem with this book: However interesting Bly's readings of lore from the vast storehouse of human imagination are, they are incredibly narrow for those who seek other meanings.

The Hindu story of Ganesha, for example, is rich with many levels of meaning; it is not simply a tale that "fits our current society." Beyond a doubt the Ganesha story embodies universal human feelings on the relationship of parents and sons. But like Joseph Campbell, whom Bly admires and often cites, Bly is perhaps too quick to make connections where it is equally if not more important to dig deeper into the particulars of language, feeling and image.

Not every Hindu myth is bound to fill us with mystical revelations of the East. But on the other hand, how many Eastern myths really do "fit" our Western culture? Is Bly's purpose to uncover an authentic relationship between the past and present, or is it to make a fit whether or not one really exists?

The Sibling Society presents a case where the author's project is unquestionably laudable. Because he is a poet and a learned man, Bly exalts the poetic method, weaving his musings together with many facts of human experience in an endeavor to both move and edify us. He continually tries to offer the reader a thing of beauty and truth that, in contrast to the sibling society, refuses to deny the fact of adult human being. Above all, the defining gesture of this work is that of pointing upward, of attempting to break our slide into the muck of contemporary existence by lifting our hearts and spirits to other, more fertile dimensions which, it so happens, are found within ourselves.

For all its timeliness and accuracy of perception, I find myself in conflict with The Sibling Society. On the one hand I agree with everything Bly says about the hostility in our culture, about the lack of sympathy and empathy among young people whose self-serving activities undermine the very future of our collective existence. But on the other hand, I am dismayed by the guru-like status Bly has achieved through the publication of Iron John and The Sibling Society as well as his workshops and lectures, which are now legion.

Poets who pursue fame in the same political-social context they criticize, and who make use of the very technology and affluence they denounce, produce work that participates in the same consumer capitalism it identifies as the cause of so much ill. Capitalism is insidious not only because it deforms the psyche but also because it so easily absorbs the rebels against itself.

I'm grateful that this is not another academic book, another descent into the Land of Abstraction, written in gnarled and unintelligible professional language. If this book does you good, good. We can all hope that such goodness will be absorbed and carried on by as many as possible -- while observing and analyzing that goodness.

Andres Rodriguez is NCR's opinion editor.

National Catholic Reporter, February 7, 1997