The society of children

In 'Iron John', Robert Bly told men to go back to the forest. In his new book he's telling them to grow up. This is an extract

We are always under commercial pressure to slide backward, toward adolescence, toward childhood. With no effective rituals of initiation, and no real way to know when our slow progress toward adulthood has reached its goal, young men in our culture go around in circles. Those who should be adults find it difficult or impossible to offer help to those behind.

That pressure seems even more intense than it was in the 1960s, when the cry "Turn on, tune in, drop out" was so popular. Observers describe many contemporaries as "children with children of their own."

"People look younger all the time." Photographs of men and women a hundred years ago show a certain set of the mouth and jaws that says, "We're adults. There's nothing we can do about it." By contrast, the face of Marilyn Monroe, of Kevin Costner, or of the ordinary person we see on the street says, "I'm a child. There's nothing I can do about it."

Adolescents are separating off as a group. We know that the duration of childhood and adolescence has been lengthening over the past several decades. During the Middle Ages, the stage of youth was virtually ignored; a peasant child of seven joined the workforce. At Plymouth colony, a child was considered a small adult at the age of eight. Children were asked to be aware of the group. There was no real time for adolescence then. From the community's point of view, an adult is someone who knows how to preserve the larger group of which he or she is a part. Today's adolescent, by contrast, wants his or her needs gratified now, and seems not to notice that he or she is living in a complicated web of griefs, postponed pleasures, unwelcome labour, responsibilities, and unpaid debts to gods and human beings.

Adolescents have generally refused to accept the larger goals of their elders. That attitude is proper to adolescence, which is a sort of larval stage. A problem develops, though, when people remain in adolescence long past its normal span.

Animal adolescents, if we can use such a phrase, are always in training, and they soon become tuned to their group. Among apes and chimps, for example, young ones often feel responsible for the others, as we have learned from the famous story of the travelling baboons. That troop, guided by older baboons, and with a few younger ones going ahead as scouts, was moving through the jungle on a random trip to new ground. One young baboon came upon a leopard waiting, quietly, for the main troop to arrive. The young baboon threw himself on the leopard - he had no chance of winning that battle - and the ethologist who witnessed it realised that the baboon had sacrificed himself to save the troop members following behind.

We all recognise that our emphasis on individualism in the West has dimmed whatever instincts Western youth might have had to preserve the troop. For some time now our own spark of life has often been more compelling, more important to us, than the flame of the larger group.

American movies in the late 1950s vividly brought forward an old theme of adolescence: the impulse not to defend common projects, common stories, common values. James Dean and Marlon Brando played the roles of young men who demonstrated this rebellion, and the theme began to have an edge on it. "What are you rebelling against?" a Brando character is asked. "What do you have?" is the witty reply. But with that reply the baboon troop is gone.

People of all ages are making decisions to avoid the difficulties of maturity. Freud maintained in Civilization and Its Discontents that human beings feel a deep hate and a deep love for civilization. Civilized behaviour demands repression and restraint, in the face of which, of course, the instinctual energies know they will not be satisfied.

One way to outwit the demands that civilization makes is to set up a sibling society. To make all the necessary changes is hard, but once they are made, most of us can then avoid the painful tasks of the civilized adult. When enough people have slid backward into a sibling state of mind, society can no longer demand difficult and subtle work from its people - because the standards are no longer visible. Without the labour of artists, for example, to incorporate past achievements - in brushwork, in treatment of light, in depth of emotion, in mythological intensity - people with some talent can pretend to be genuine artists. Their choices seem to be to cannibalise ancient art, or to create absurdly ugly art that "makes a statement". They don't ask themselves or each other for depth or intensity, and most contemporary critics pretend not to miss them.

The person who decides to omit the difficult labours of becoming civilized receives, in return, permission for narcissism, freedom from old discontents, and a ticket to the omnitheatre where fantasies are being run. One could say that the greedy and lazy part of the soul obtains permission to do as it wishes. Thousands of other siblings in other countries will cover for that person, just as troops support each other in a retreat.

That men are in essence boys has long been a theme with women, but the boyishness used to be endearing. Now it feels dangerous to those nearby. As the supply of adult men lessens, fewer daughters grow up experiencing the adult male presence, so they choose a mate without reference to any standard of maturity. Some women speak with surprise of a lover: "He looked so good at first - he let his feelings show, he didn't have all these hard edges that the corporate clam-men have, he talked about his childhood, he made me feel needed, wasn't afraid to say he is scared." Then what? "All of a sudden he doesn't do his share, he leaves his clothes everywhere. He quits his job because there's 'too much hassle,' and he doesn't try for another; if I tell him I'm feeling sad or lonely, his eyes look somewhere else in the room. Then I feel like a mother! An unsuccessful mother, at that. And as soon as that happens, he doesn't make love much any more: we end up as brother and sister. That's it. It's over." Women are shocked to learn how many men are helpless, vulnerable, isolated, and depotentiated by longing.

As ordinary adults, we have to ask ourselves, in a way that people 200 years ago did not, what an adult is. I would say that an adult is a person not governed by the demands for immediate pleasure, comfort, and excitement. Moreover, an adult is able to organise the random emotions and events of his or her life into a memory, a rough meaning, a story.

It is an adult perception to understand that the world belongs primarily to the dead, and we only rent it from them for a little while. They created it, they wrote its literature and its songs, and they are deeply invested in how children are treated because the children are the ones who will keep it going. The idea that each of us has the right to change everything is a deep insult to them.

The true adult is the one who has been able to preserve his or her intensities, including those intensities proper to his or her generation and creativity, so that he or she has something with which to meet the intensities of the adolescent.

We could say that an adult becomes an elder when he or she not only preserves those intensities but adds more.

The adult quality that has been hardest for me, as a greedy person, to understand is renunciation. The older I get, the more beautiful the word renunciation seems to me. We need to re-create the adult and to honour the elder. The hope lies in our longing to be adults, and the longing for the young ones, if they know what an honourable adulthood is, to become adults as welln

'The Sibling Society', by Robert Bly, is published by Hamish Hamilton, pounds 18

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