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Thursday, May 18, 2017

Review: A Little Book on the Human Shadow by Robert Bly

Had I known what kind of book this was, I might not have bought it. But then again, I might have. It is a strange hybrid on poetry, writing poetry, myth (fairy tales--not in the pejorative sense, but I'm sure some would like to apply that as well), self-help, and pop psychology. Clearly, Bly saw a deep connection between all of these things, and part of the appeal is how strongly integrated he views them. He takes the entire field of poetry (especially Wallace Stevens) to task for not using these ideas as he has. Most writers consider their field of study as pointless. See my review of David Orr's Beautiful & Pointless, so it is gulp of cool water in so vast a desert to come upon Bly's drinking trough.

Note: I do not tend to write glowing reviews. I try to steer away readers who would dislike such a book. Most books, like humans, are flawed and sometimes those flaws are part of the appeal. I hate to state this over and over for every review, though.

I also bought the audiobook that followed after this edition. It is always curious to read (or hear) how a writer revises his work after second and third thoughts. Bly is uncannily honest and states in the audio that his work has truth and lies, but he doesn't know which is which.

There is a great deal of useful information in here, and a little that rings less useful. The overview: Bly asks that people find balance in their writing and their lives. We have a tendency to blame our failures on others, but Bly states we should take ownership, pull out the aspects of our personality that we've hidden away, and develop our lives fully.

First, a definition, if possible: The shadow is the darker side of ourselves, which we need to embrace. The shadow is not evil, Bly said. Following Bly's definitions requires paradigm-shifting, not to mention accepting squishy definitions.

The book is divided into five sections:

  1. Problems in the Ark. This details the author's own experiences in finding his shadow and dealing with it in his poetry. Later, he points out that some of the things he hated in others (Alexander Pope, businessmen) he had in himself, and he had to accept this before he could appreciate such men. Paradoxically, he mentions politicians he also hated (or at least he suggested he did), so perhaps this is a never-ending process.
  2. The Long Bag We Drag behind Us. Society tells us to hide certain aspects of ourselves. These aspects (the feminine, the masculine, the witch, the giant, the shadow, among others) we hide in a bag and drag it around with us.
  3. Five Stages in Exiling, Hunting and Retrieving the Shadow. We start at birth and, say, hand our witch to our mothers (who expresses it for us) and later hand it to our wives. The witch is what allows us to get what we want. We need to retrieve this by asking for these missing parts back.
  4. Honoring the Shadow. This is an interview with William Booth, the editor, who gets Bly to expand on ideas he mentions only in passing earlier, such as eating one's shadow, etc.
  5. Wallace Stevens and Dr. Jekyll. Bly believes the personality is also a part of the poet and needs to be examined as part of a poet's oeuvre. Stevens, Bly says, brought out the shadow in his poetry, but never lived it out in his own life, so the gifts of the shadow were wasted on Stevens and this shows up in Stevens' late poems.
The positives of the book outweigh the negatives. The main positive is asking people to face themselves, instead of shifting responsibility on others. This could also be a negative since people often create or contribute to a problem, but at some point, we must realize the person who may have done damage doesn't care, and we must work through issues for ourselves. One can read an abundance of poetry where that is its primary failing. It keeps stumbling over the flaws of others as if that were one's only failing in life: other people.

This is where Bly's methodology steps in and tells you to ask for your missing parts, the aspects of yourself you gave away. I keep imagining how this might play out in real life: the puzzlement on the other person's face. 
"Hey, give me my witch back." 
"You want your what? 
"My witch!"
"Oh. Okay. If you lost your witch doll, I'm sorry, but I don't have it."
Still, it is a physical statement, a stance that makes the metaphor real, which is both good and bad. The good is that you are telling yourself that you are changing. The bad is that it is a metaphor:
"Projection without personal contact is dangerous. Thousands, even millions of American men projected their internal feminine onto Marilyn Monroe. If a million men do that, and leave it there, it's likely she will die. She died."
It may be within the realm of possibility that that is why she died, but it seems doubtful. Unless she were part of a hive mind, she probably had her own issues. One of the measures that some poetry readers use to decide the quality of a poet is their personal mythology. It seems likely that Bly's is unique, so maybe he'll remain within the canon for centuries to come.

Unfortunately, Bly does judge Stevens by a measure that maybe Stevens had not considered or might have rejected as part of his poetics. All humans are problematic, so to judge one because he does not follow your aesthetic is dubious at best. If we had a time-traveling recorder to mark our every misstatement, we would all be exposed as cruel. This is where David Orr's "pointless" perspective on poetry gains legitimacy.

No matter. A Little Book on the Human Shadow has plenty to recommend it. The audiobook is similar, covering overlapping territories, but it goes a little further into fairy tales and skips much of the later discussion found in sections four and five of the book. I do recommend both but with caveats, We should be examining our various aspects of personality we may be leaving out.

What book doesn't require caveats? Maybe that is the  measure of a book that takes risks. Flaws are, after all, where the personality shines through.

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