Poet, author, and translator Robert Bly was born in Minnesota in 1926 to parents of Norwegian ancestry. Over the course of his career, he has published more than forty books of poems. In 1966 Bly cofounded and led American Writers against the Vietnam War, and when his second book of poetry, The Light around the Body, won the 1968 National Book Award for Poetry, he contributed the prize money to the antiwar effort. He is best known for his 1990 book Iron John: A Book about Men, and is credited with starting the mythopoetic men’s movement, which encouraged men to express their repressed feelings through poetry, stories, and rites. The following is excerpted from A Little Book on the Human Shadow, by Robert Bly. Copyright © 1988 by Robert Bly. Reprinted by arrangement with HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
When we were one or two years old we had what we might visualize as a 360-degree personality. Energy radiated out from all parts of our body and all parts of our psyche. A child running is a living globe of energy. We had a ball of energy, all right; but one day we noticed that our parents didn’t like certain parts of that ball. They said things like “Can’t you be still?” Or “It isn’t nice to try and kill your brother.” Behind us we have an invisible bag, and the part of us our parents don’t like, we, to keep our parents’ love, put in the bag. By the time we go to school our bag is quite large. Then our teachers have their say: “Good children don’t get angry over such little things.” So we take our anger and put it in the bag. By the time my brother and I were twelve in Madison, Minnesota, we were known as “the nice Bly boys.” Our bags were already a mile long.
Then we do a lot of bag-stuffing in high school. This time it’s no longer the evil grown-ups that pressure us, but people our own age. So the student’s paranoia about grown-ups can be misplaced. I lied all through high school automatically to try to be more like the basketball players. Any part of myself that was a little slow went into the bag. My sons are going through the process now; I watched my daughters, who are older, experience it. I noticed with dismay how much they put into the bag, but there was nothing their mother or I could do about it. Often my daughters seemed to make their decisions on the basis of fashion and collective ideas of beauty, and they suffered as much damage from other girls as they did from men.
So I maintain that out of a round globe of energy the twenty-year-old ends up with a slice. We’ll imagine a man who has a thin slice left — the rest is in the bag — and we’ll imagine that he meets a woman; let’s say they are both twenty-four. She has a thin, elegant slice left. They join each other in a ceremony, and this union of two slices is called marriage. Even together the two do not make up one person! . . .
In Christian culture sexuality usually goes into the bag. With it goes much spontaneity. [Psychologist] Marie-Louise von Franz warns us, on the other hand, not to sentimentalize primitive cultures by assuming that they have no bag at all. She says, in effect, that they have a different but sometimes even larger bag. They may put individuality into the bag, or inventiveness. What anthropologists know as “participation mystique,” or a “mysterious communal mind,” sounds lovely, but it can mean that tribal members all know exactly the same thing and no one knows anything else. It’s possible that bags for all human beings are about the same size.
We spend our life until we’re twenty deciding what parts of ourself to put into the bag, and we spend the rest of our lives trying to get them out again. Sometimes retrieving them feels impossible, as if the bag were sealed. Suppose the bag remains sealed — what happens then? A great nineteenth-century story has an idea about that. One night Robert Louis Stevenson woke up and told his wife a bit of a dream he’d just had. She urged him to write it down; he did, and it became Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The nice side of the personality becomes, in our idealistic culture, nicer and nicer. The Western man may be a liberal doctor, for example, always thinking about the good of others. Morally and ethically he is wonderful. But the substance in the bag takes on a personality of its own; it can’t be ignored. The story says that the substance locked in the bag appears one day somewhere else in the city. The substance in the bag feels angry, and when you see it, it is shaped like an ape, and moves like an ape.
The story says then that when we put a part of ourselves in the bag it regresses. It de-evolves toward barbarism. Suppose a young man seals a bag at twenty and then waits fifteen or twenty years before he opens it again. What will he find? Sadly, the sexuality, the wildness, the impulsiveness, the anger, the freedom he put in have all regressed; they are not only primitive in mood, they are hostile to the person who opens the bag. The man who opens his bag at forty-five or the woman who opens her bag rightly feels fear. She glances up and sees the shadow of an ape passing along the alley wall; anyone seeing that would be frightened.