Roar Bjonnes reviews Robert Bly's book, The Sibling Society.

When the notoriously flamboyant, American basketball player Dennis Rodman recently hit a reporter in the face, President Bill Clinton dismissed it as an act to be expected by a wild and famous eccentric. Yes, why worry? Every American with a TV set knows that Rodman is both famous and a bit stranger than the average neighbour down the street. He lives in a world where standards of behaviour are different than the "boring and stiff-mined" society of the past. Rodman_often amusing his fans by dressing up in women's clothes and adorning bright yellow die in his otherwise black curls_was, however, severely criticized on a national news broadcast by a group of 12 year old school children. Not for the way he looks, but for hitting the reporter.

 

 To Robert Bly, author of The Sibling Society_a book about "a culture where adults remain children, and where children have no desire to become adults"_the mature reaction displayed by these children may seem like some strange irony. Because, unlike the President, who seemingly talked like Rodman's fellow punk, these children acted with the integrity of responsible and discriminating adults. Although there are people, who_after being brought up in today's western world of deflated values_still have a deep, uncompromising sense of right and wrong, a sense of what Bly calls "vertical values," they may soon be in a minority. According to Bly, an increasing number of us have become "squabbling siblings." We are like the greedy capitalists who tolerate nobody above and have no concern for anybody below. Or like the sullen teenage punks who live in their peer groups, glancing side to side, rather than upward_toward their elders_for a sense of direction.

As the blended society of the past is becoming obsolete, these squabbling siblings_ who can be either kids, adolescents, adults or elders_spend time and form values increasingly within their own peer group. However, in spite of these peer groups' isolationism, each group is more and more influenced by adolescent values. According to writer Michael Ventura_who received international acclaim after co-authoring the book We've Had 100 Years of Psychotherapy and the World's Getting Worse with Jungian psychologist James Hillman_adolescence today lasts from early teens to late middle age. If this trend continues, entire future generations may find themselves in a perpetual state of adolescence.

According to Bly, the peer culture has only one kind of vision: a "horizontal gaze," resulting in a flat, one- dimensional, hollow form of culture and consciousness. The family is replaced by the gang down in the dark alley, or the talk-show on TV. A sense of community is replaced by joining the material crowd whose unlimited desires are running up huge credit card bills at the shopping mall. Instead of well crafted art, rich in symbolism and spiritual depth, we have hedonistic surrealism on MTV. Instead of expressing a longing for the good society, we all dream of becoming rich. Instead of cultivating wisdom to map out a greater understanding of the forces of evil, American politicians want to put all the "bad people" in jail and throw away the key.

These superficial sibling values, now beginning to influence the most remote parts of the world, are brutal and terroristic in their attempt to "flatten" our consciousness. As advertising, celebrities, and popular music have become the main transmitters of values, a young person's conscience can no longer "rely on outward authority in its battle against impulse," says Bly. "Having to resist without help from parents or teachers, it has to do it all alone, and so it naturally moves toward a primitive, humourless savagery, well expressed in grunge rock, action movies, and piercing of body parts."

The values of sibling society, as described by Bly, and canonized by the talk-shows on TV, has resulted in a twisted sense of what is important or real: Many people have changed their consciences so they no longer demand us to be good, but rather to be famous. And this fact, that so many people now want to realize pop-artist Andy Warhol's "15 minutes of fame," even if it means to graphically describe your own promiscuity to 20 million TV- viewers, is indeed quite sobering.

According to writer Michael Ventura, the sibling rebellion probably started when Elvis let his pelvis move to the tunes of rock & roll in the 1950s. James Dean, Jack Kerouac and Marilyn Monroe were all icons of a movement against what Jules Henry called "the Indo-European, Islamic, Hebraic impulse-control system," and which culminated in the unbuttoned, unreined, free-loving culture of the Woodstock generation. But how did that rebellious but optimistic culture, with its unlimited appetite for self-gratification, gradually turn into the self - doubting, dark-hearted and cynical youngsters who now subject their brain cells to be bombarded with grunge music, gangsta rap and violent video games? Why did it not turn into a spontaneous celebration of higher spiritual values instead? "That is the question we need to answer," says Robert Bly.

Although the book, through its colourfully written prose, poems and stories, may not actually answer that question fully, it details important parts of the anarchic state our culture is in. Bly's eloquent non-fiction book is a warning signal. It reminds us that our house is not in order. And that we, the couch-potatoes of western civilization, don't even notice the deplorable state we are in. Because, we have been subverted by a society trying desperately to achieve its cheap thrills while driving itself straight into the abyss. In the midst of this chaos, 71 year old poet and storyteller Robert Bly comes along and tells us that we don't need any new gadgets or TV shows to enrich ourselves. No, instead we need to change our lives; we need nothing less than a cultural awakening. This awakening must arise from within by invoking a balance between a positive expression of our horizontal and vertical consciousness, between our vertical and horizontal gaze. But the vertical values of respect for our elders, for tradition and for morality, also have a repressive side. They may make a woman silently endure a violently abusive husband or a man cowardly submit to the exploitative measures of his superiors. They may also deny us access to an ecstatic longing for the divine, curb our need for wild drumming and dancing through the night, strangle the mystical poetry, songs and rhythms of the spirit. Likewise, our horizontal values have a positive side expressed as egalitarianism, sharing, and democracy. Both Michael Ventura and Robert Bly have pointed out in lectures, books and essays that sibling society has evolved by indefinitely prolonging our adolescence. Many of today's 30, 40 and 50 year olds need to grow up, but to become adults we don't need to emulate the blind repressions of the past. Instead Bly advises us to find a dynamic balance between deep inner yearnings and their external expressions, between the intrinsically constructive aspects of the vertical and horizontal gaze_between love for both morality and ecstasy, between respect for the elder mentor and support for the passions of the young, between discipline and creativity, between spirituality and social activism.

For Bly a balanced adult is a person "not governed by what we have called pre-oedipal wishes, the demands for immediate pleasure, comfort and excitement." It is also an adult perception to honour the Native American concept of the "seventh generation," in other words to assess how today's actions will effect the lives of plants, animals and people in the future. It is also "an adult perception to understand that the world belongs primarily to the dead.... 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." Furthermore, both Bly and Ventura thinks it is paramount that an adult preserves his or her intensities (or spiritual energies), "so that he or she has something with which to meet the intensities of the adolescent." And then, with his customary honesty, Bly admits that the adult quality that has been hardest for him to understand is renunciation. Why? Because he is a "greedy person." But the older he gets, the more beautiful that word renunciation sounds. And finally, an adult value or action is not dependent on age. Because in reacting to Dennis Rodman's assault, for example, the President of the richest country on the planet acted like an adolescent brat and the 12-year-old school children like mature grown-ups. This visionary book deserves to be read by many. Bly's gentle warrior wisdom has both penetrated the cultural quagmire we are in and pointed toward the values we need in order to pull ourselves out.