Iron John 16 Years Later (III)
Bill Long 10/16/06
One of the most striking sections of Bly's interpretation of the Iron John myth is where he speaks of the role of injury and humiliation in shaping the life of the young man. Indeed, his point is that our "genius" arises from the place of our injury. Rather, then, of fleeing or hiding that injury or humiliation, we should realize that it becomes the means by which we will return to the high status which we long to attain.
In the myth, the child (about 8 years old), injures his hand on Iron John's cage as he frees him. Then, after the child is taken by Iron John into the woods to watch the stream, he dips his finger and then his hair in the water (disobeying Iron John) and his hair becomes covered by the finest gold. This represents the "golden" nature of the boy. Finally, when Iron John sends him away, the boy lives incognito with another King, taking up simple and humble work with him. For Bly, this part of the myth emphasizes that injury and failure/humiliation are part of the journey to becoming a man. They are made especially painful to face because of our consciousness that we are really "gold," i.e., that we really are destined for something great. Thus, in biblical terms, instead of sitting on thrones with kings, we eat the bread of anxious toil. Even before I read this account in Iron John, I had the following dream.
I was with a group of people in New York City. I didn't know it was NYC because I saw the skyline or familiar haunts, but because someone told me that was where I was. I tried to 'take leadership' of the group, guiding them on a walking tour of a part of the city. We were on a busy street, with an apartment building on our right. The only way to get to where we were going seemed to be to go through the building. I confidently told people to follow me. They did, and we got lost in a cavernous basement.
The next scene of the trip saw me still as a guide. But the situation was different. We were looking across a plaza to some rickety buildings on the other side of a lake on the plaza. I didn't know what either building was but I said with confidence, "Well, that building on the right is the John Jay College of Criminal Justice." Then someone in the group, a soft-spoken man, said, "No, it isn't. I live here and John Jay College is far distant from here." So, for the second time in my dream I was shown not to know what I was saying or doing.
Then, the scene shifted once more in my dream. I was seated at a table with three other people, two men and a woman. They were not exactly "interviewing" me--it might be more accurate to say they were "reviewing" some of my work. The woman was speaking and being calm and very matter of fact. She was telling me why several dozen of my web site essays either were factually incorrect or were weak or otherwise were inadequate. I remember feeling a combination of defensiveness and humiliation at the same time as she unemotionally made her case.
On Failure in Bly and Long
Both Bly's work and my dream focuses on the notion of failure, of mistakes, as part of the work of the boy on the way to manhood. Mine was potentially more frightening since my "failures" were coming as a man and not in some kind of transitional or liminal period. Nevertheless, my dream helps me understand and affirm Bly's point. No matter how golden is our hair (i.e., no matter how "gifted" we are or how regal our origins), we face the reality of what he calls "katabasis" (i.e., humiliation/failure). The boy in the myth did so by working below his "station" in life both in the kitchen and the garden of the second King. Though he was royalty, he didn't tell anyone about it, and he learned some of the hard lessons of life in working in these positions. Bly tells about how some great authors have become "great" by being able to describe the lives and thoughts of "kitchen help" precisely because they too had "been there" at one point in their lives. In other words, this humiliation or failure actually becomes the key to our being able to celebrate our true "golden" nature. But, we aren't able to tap into that golden nature until we return to Iron John to ask him for help to face the battles that come our way. He accoutres us with fine things and sends us to help the second King to victory. Indeed, after this victory, our true nature is discovered and made clear to all and, delightfully, the boy gets the girl (the Princess in this case).
Failure/Humiliation in Life
America is a success-oriented place. Rewards are given for success not simply in work but also in school. To have a resume or vita that "sings" is the goal of young people, if they listen to the career development people. Yet, the myth of Iron John teaches us not only that failure is the way that our true nature is revealed, but that failure then becomes the locus of our genius. Thus, to use terminology for today, the best way to understand a genius, a successful person, is to understand and ask them closely about their failures. Not only might we learn something that we too need to avoid, but we will see how another person decided to keep up the fight after some of the fight had been taken from him. Why not focus on failure? On our humiliations? On the way that humiliation as well as failure forces us to the task of interpretation? Just as I have said in these pages that I like to read poor writers better than good writers, since they inspire me to "get the story straight," so I am more inclined to hang out with people who are failures than coruscating successes. I wonder why that is...
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long