A Memory

Robert Bly has died. Another old tree is gone from the canopy. The light that’s let in is harsh, more revelatory than illuminating.

I knew him for a time, corresponded for maybe a year or two. I found him remarkably kind and generous in person. He torpedoed Money and the Soul’s Desires in its early iteration, drawing my attention to the fact – clear enough to him – that, as he put it, I was in over my head.

He was titanic, in every decent sense of the term, and hardest perhaps on people who drew close to the calling he held dear. He defended the writerly citadel against pretenders, or malpractitioners, I guess. I’m glad someone did. The first thing I heard him say: he walked onto a soundstage where maybe thirty of us awaited he and Marian Woodman, looked around the place, and pronounced with thunderous satisfaction: “Ah. Humans!” It was an anointment of a kind, a call to arms of a kind, a summons to alertness.

He also seemed to stand still for long periods of time while a generation or two of people – men and women – fashioned a looming, perfected father surrogate from his imperfect, tiradel and epic skald’s example. I don’t know that he meant to. I don’t know that he’d agree to the description. I don’t know that it’s a condition of doing one’s culture work, of having a public life. It happens, though.

One etymological dictionary suggests that ‘tirade’ comes from the Old French ‘to endure martyrdom’. I’ve often wondered about this part of his public life, what it did to him to be on the receiving end of that much expectation, that much projection. As the decades passed and drew me in other directions, I found myself worried after his psychic health. I wondered whether he crafted some defense for himself. I hope he did. Neurodegenerative disease was his disheveling companion for the last ten or fifteen years of his life. I have no way of knowing whether these things are related, in his life or elsewhere. I’m inclined to think so.

Father surrogates – mother surrogates, for that matter – aren’t elders. The general populace doesn’t tolerate elderhood weeping out from under the tired parentifying pall. So it isn’t clear that this surrogacy worked out too well for those who engaged in it.

What follows is a newsletter I wrote for the Orphan Wisdom site eight years ago, just as my thoughts about elderhood were coalescing. I see that Robert Bly figured in those early wranglings, as he often did in the years since we went our ways. His death prompts me to air it out again. He and his kind are our fortune. Their example should shadow our days.

Stephen Jenkinson