Brothers and Sisters Are We

I just finished a thought-provoking book called The Sibling Society,* written by Robert Bly, a poet and translator. The main premise of the book is that American society and culture are on a downward trend, and the author illustrates his point using examples from poetry and classical mythology from all over the world.** Bly argues that modern humans, because of their cultural and social environment, are no longer becoming true “adults,” but that they are stuck in a permanent adolescent stage, hence leading to a society of squabbling siblings instead of a world where mature communication and honest intellectual debate abound. (Personally, in this age of unstructured online debate, I think that world has largely passed us by.)

Bly draws heavily on mythology, poetry, and symbolism to make his points, which I found a little strange. Usually a book like this would be populated with statistics or some other form of concrete evidence, not an odd broad-brush observation that all boys are the guardians of their mother’s bedroom or that all girls have a some degree of an Electra complex. I understand that the author’s point is that these ancient stories hold eternal truths about human nature, and we would do well to learn from these lessons rather than dismiss them as unsophisticated because they happen to be “old.”

The author also makes the commonly heard claim that the devaluation of the two-parent family has resulted in a crumbling society. With both parents having to work full time to make ends meet, the children are sent to daycare, where they are essentially raised by their peers and adults who are not their parents. In this environment, the children may not absorb the lessons that their parents would like for them to learn. The author also mentions the other oft-repeated claim that because of divorce and “deadbeat” dads, children are growing up without true father figures, which is another cause of social decay and degeneration into this “sibling society.” Of course, to make these claims today would be to ignore an entire generation of children*** who have grown up in these situations and have turned out to be fine, productive members of society. But perhaps in the author’s view, society is so broken that even a person who appears to be a fine, productive cog in the machine is missing something subtle that is essential to true maturity, and with succeeding generations of people who are all missing this crucial piece, society has continued to fall apart.

I have come to believe, mostly through second-hand accounts and my limited life experience, that adulthood is not something that you magically step into when you reach certain milestones, like turning 18 or graduating from college or having a child. I always thought of an “adult” as someone who plays by the rules, keeps his priorities in order, contributes to society, and is able to reason with others and not dissolve into a blind rage if something doesn’t go his way. In a sense, I’ve believed that nobody is really an “adult” or knows what an “adult” is; we’re all just pretending.

Bly concludes that an adult is a person who is, among other things, “able to organize the random emotions and events of his or her life into a memory, a rough meaning, a story.” He also notes, “It is the adult perception to understand that the world belongs primarily to the dead, and we only rent it from them for a little while.” The author is a proponent of what he calls “vertical thinking,” which is looking upward to the spiritual realm and possessing “spiritual intellect,” from which the world’s great poetry and stories have been created, rather than “horizontal thinking,” which is looking from side to side at earthly things like the daily grind of a soul-sucking job; the ephemeral pleasure that can be found in sex, drugs, video games, and television; and nihilism without any belief in the existence, let alone permanence, of the human soul. The author argues that because, in our sibling society, we have no true parents and reject or fail to recognize authority, we cannot think vertically enough to realize that there might in fact be something greater or more enduring than us. We do not see poetry and art and great music as ways of reaching spiritual heights because there is no spirit.

This book gave me so much food for thought that I could probably write another blog post. I didn’t agree with all of the author’s claims, and in a way, I felt that the book was a little too short (240 pages) to fully develop all of his points, but the presentation of the issue and the “evidence” put forth to support the thesis were unique and fascinating.

*The book was published in 1996, so it is technically outdated, although similar books are being published today that make essentially the same claim. “The sky is falling” is a common cry in all generations.

**Examples include “Jack and the Beanstalk,” the origin of the Hindu deity Ganesha, and a Swedish story about a bride-eating snake.

***I assume that the “children” the author refers to are members of the Millennial cohort, who are now roughly 18 to 30 years old.

Symbols Everywhere

One of the reasons that English is not a favorite subject of many is because it’s so subjective and because there are so many symbols whose meaning can be interpreted in various ways. What’s frustrating is that there is no definite ruling on whether anyone’s personal interpretation of these symbols or themes is right or wrong.

As for the author of a particular work, he doesn’t deliberately make his writing hard to understand. He wasn’t sitting at his desk, cackling in glee as he thought to himself, Let’s see… how many symbols can I put into this poem, just to torment college kids who will study it in the future? I’m currently reading How to Read Literature Like a Professor (Thomas C. Foster), and it’s not telling me a lot I don’t already know, but it does provide a good explanation of why authors put symbols into their work and what common themes in literature really mean (well, what they mean most of the time, anyway).

Many times, authors insert symbols without consciously thinking about it. Chances are, an intelligent writer has read widely and has internalized popular, “literary” texts of the ages, like the Bible, Greek mythology, and other classic works in the Western canon, like those by Joyce, Faulkner, Proust, and so forth. All of these literary works contain symbols and bits and pieces that are borrowed from other works, and those authors did not consciously decide to steal another author’s idea. So that’s called intertextuality: all writing is connected through many different relationships.

I took a fiction writing class in college, and one of the things I learned in that class was that you shouldn’t actively attempt to put symbols into your writing (at least, not in the first draft). Plot and character development should always come first, because if you don’t have a good story, all the symbols in the world won’t make it “powerful” and “literary.” Later in the writing/revision/rewriting process, if you see an object or a theme that you could expand on and add layers to your story, then by all means, do so. The book I’m reading echoes that idea.

The book, although intended for readers, also has a few good lessons for writers, namely: The more you read, the more you will encounter common symbols and have a better idea of what they mean so that you can incorporate them into your work to give it depth and layers of meaning. And that it’s fun to deconstruct what you’re reading to see if you can find any “hidden messages.”