I mentioned in my recent Devouring Mother update post that every now and again, amongst the cavalcade of nonsensical jabbering that constitutes western public discourse these days, it’s as if the fog clears and we are being spoken to directly by The Devouring Mother herself. This week saw one such occasion. This time it was the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, embodying the archetype to perfection. Here’s what Johnson said:
“If Putin was a woman, which he obviously isn’t, if he were, I really don’t think he would have embarked on a crazy, macho war of invasion and violence in the way that he has. If you want a perfect example of toxic masculinity, it’s what he is doing in Ukraine.”
I have studiously avoided the question of masculinity so far in my Devouring Mother analysis, preferring to focus on the archetype itself. But, of course, the dominance of a feminine archetype implies the subordination of the masculine and Johnson’s ridiculous statement has brought the matter to the fore.
So, it’s time to finally fill in some of the blanks in relation to the issue of masculinity in western societies, how that relates to the Devouring Mother, how Vladimir Putin had already come to represent the masculine in Western culture prior to the Ukraine War and why I believe the Ukraine War symbolises the re-establishment of the “masculine” at the geopolitical level. The bipolar world we are entering now could very well be the devouring feminine against the toxic masculine, although probably only in the fever dreams of the West. But before we get to all that, though, let’s do a little history lesson.
The phrase “toxic masculinity” has become part of western culture in recent times where it has come to stand for everything that is wrong with men. It is no small irony, then, that the phrase itself comes from within a movement known as the Mythopoetic Men’s Movement, a self-help group that ran in the United States in the 1980s and 90s that was aimed at addressing the problems of modern masculinity. Readers who followed my Age of the Orphan series might recognise the names of Stephen Jenkinson and Jungian psychologist, James Hillman. They were both involved in the Mythopoetic Men’s Movement and, in fact, Jenkinson tells the story in one of his books how he saw Hillman at one of the gatherings but didn’t know it was him as he didn’t know what Hillman looked like at the time.
The Mythopoetic Men’s Movement was explicitly apolitical. Meetings took place away from the cities, usually in some wilderness area. Alongside speeches there would be Native American rituals like drumming and sweat lodges as well as singing and dancing. I dare say a few cups of ayahuasca might have been drunk.
As the name and the presence of people like James Hillman indicates, the movement had a strong Jungian bent. Typically masculine archetypes like the Warrior and the Ruler would have been discussed as would The Hero’s Journey as a guide to life. Real world problems like the break-up of families leading to the absence of a father role in the life of young men were highlighted. The capitalist economic paradigm which pits men against each other in the factory and the office was critiqued. Modern western masculinity had become split into either an excessive femininity (soy boys) or an over the top hyper-masculinity. What modern men needed was to reconnect with the deep masculine. This was not a conscious, rational process because an overemphasis on reason, logic and intellect is part of the problem. It was about reconnecting with the body (and, in one sense, the body is the subconscious).
Both in its theory and in its practice, the Mythopoetic Men’s Movement was making the same point that I made in my Age of the Orphan series: that we no longer have initiation rites in modern society. That’s true for both sexes but it probably hits men harder because traditional initiation rites for men were more involved than for women. The Mythopoetic Men’s Movement was partly an experiment to try and recreate those initiation rites. It had its Elders in Robert Bly, Michael Harner and James Hillman.
Now, you might think that groups of men off in the bush listening to poetry and music and trying to help each other grow and develop as human beings wouldn’t be skin off anybody’s nose and might even be encouraged by society. But, we live in the world of The Devouring Mother. The Mythopoetic Men’s Movement became a target in the gender wars and that is how the phrase toxic masculinity got into the general discourse.
Within the Mythopoetic Men’s Movement, the phrase toxic masculinity was opposed to deep masculinity. Translated into the language I used in the Age of the Orphan series, it’s the difference between an uninitiated male and an initiated one. The whole point of the Mythopoetic Men’s Movement was to try and combat toxic masculinity by initiating modern men, helping them to reconnect with deep masculinity and turning them into fully integrated adult males. When it became a target in the gender wars, the Mythopoetic Men’s Movement was then accused of promoting the very thing it was trying to address!
Of course, all this fits The Devouring Mother archetype to a tee. The Devouring Mother does not want men to initiate and to connect with their masculinity. Thus, the slandering of the Mythopoetic Men’s Movement and the misuse of the phrase toxic masculinity is actually a very important part of the story of The Devouring Mother in the modern West. The Devouring Mother wants toxic masculinity. She wants immature men who can be controlled, not ones who are fully grown and in contact with the deep masculine. And, of course, the gender wars serve to divide the public and keep them from uniting against the elites. When western politicians invoke the phrase toxic masculinity, that is what is really going on.
Now that we have very briefly filled in the historical background, we can start to unpack Boris Johnson’s accusation that Putin represents the toxic masculine.
We should note, however, that Johnson’s accusation was all part of the standard rhetoric that happens during wars. It’s a psychological necessity to character assassinate the other. The public must be made to hate the enemy. In the world wars, the enemy was often caricatured in animal form.
So, Johnson is just doing his job of character assassinating the enemy – Putin. But it’s the form of that character assassination that is revealing. Putin is not an animal, a barbarian, a Russki. He’s an exemplar of toxic masculinity. But we are told that toxic masculinity is endemic in the West too. So, this kind of propaganda is highly unusual. Wartime propaganda normally portrays the enemy as The Other while uniting the public in opposition. By using the phrase toxic masculinity, Johnson is putting Putin in the same group as many men in the West (from a propagandist and therefore, subconscious, point of view). You might say this was just a mistake on Johnson’s part and his rhetoric was accidental. But, actually, this reveals what is really going on at both the geopolitical level and the internal politics of the West.
Arnold Toynbee called this the internal and external proletariat. There are those on the outside who are excluded from the benefits of empire and also those on the inside. The internal proletariat found their identity with Trump and Brexit. They are the deplorables or, in archetypal terms, the rebellious children. With the Ukraine War, the external proletariat, aka the Global South, may be about to find its identity too. Johnson is, thus, correct to put them all in the same basket. But there’s the key: Putin is not one of the rebellious children. He is their leader. He is the missing father figure, the absent husband of The Devouring Mother. As we will see shortly, the West’s own propaganda had already revealed this.
Obviously, the Ukraine War is a geopolitical conflict. In realpolitk terms, it was surprising that Putin attacked not because he hadn’t been provoked but because it didn’t seem like a strong move. But as things are developing now, I think there’s something more important going on. Whether he intended it or not, Putin is leading the rise of the Eurasian bloc against the West. But, as I noted in a previous post, the West is The Devouring Mother in geopolitical terms. It exercises its power mostly through financial instruments which very much do devour their victims. The same financialisation that funnels wealth to the empire from the periphery has also created victims internally in the US. Just ask anybody who lost their shirt during the GFC. Thus, the rebellious children are both the internal and external proletariat; the ones who have been losing at the hands of the US empire. In this way, it makes symbolic sense to tar them both with the same brush of toxic masculinity as that has become a catchall phrase for everything that’s wrong with the world in western public discourse.
It also fits archetypally. Well before the Ukraine War, Putin had become something of a mythical manhood figure in western discourse.
Where things get more important, for both archetypal and geopolitical purposes, has been the fact that the Democrats in the US have been blaming Putin for everything that hasn’t gone their way ever since Trump got nominated as the Republican candidate way back in 2015. To take just the most prominent moments. Trump was accused by Hillary Clinton of being “Putin’s puppet” during one of the election debates. When Clinton lost, we were told it was because Putin had ordered the Russians to interfere in the election. We then had the whole Russiagate nonsense. Then we had “Putin’s inflation” and now we finally have Putin’s toxic masculinity. All of this is for the internal consumption of the acquiescent children. Boris Johnson’s comment this week was the latest but certainly won’t be the last.
In the subsconscious mind of the West, Putin has become the divorced husband of The Devouring Mother; the excuse for everything that has gone wrong in the last several years. He was directly responsible for the rise of the rebellious children (he got Trump elected). He was running the country through Trump when Trump was President. Now that Trump’s gone, Putin is responsible for inflation (which absolutely has nothing to do with the fact that The Fed now has a 9 trillion dollar balance sheet). Putin is responsible for everything that is wrong with the world. He is toxic masculinity. He is the patriarchy.
But here is the paradox. Within this mythical, subconscious framing, Putin is given godlike powers. He must be all powerful. How else could he rig the US elections? How else can he have Trump wrapped around his finger? How else could he cause inflation and empty supermarket shelves? But if Putin is all powerful, it follows that we, the West, must be powerless. That is, of course, how The Devouring Mother wants us to feel. She has been drilling powerlessness into the acquiescent children for decades. Having Putin as the absent, evil father figure works to keep the archetypal parade going internally in the West but at the expense of making him seem incredibly strong.
There is a key fact to bear in mind about the subconscious: it believes whatever you tell it. That’s the reason why even the most absurd propaganda works. The subconscious takes it at face value. This is why it’s dangerous to consume propaganda even if your conscious mind knows full well that it is propaganda. The subconscious mind does not deal in logic. It cannot process negations. If you tell the subconscious mind that you are powerless while the enemy is all powerful, it will believe you. You can use this property of the subconscious to empower yourself (affirmations are a good example) or you can use it to disempower yourself. For example, it’s a very common habit for people to tell themselves they can’t do something and accidentally prime their subconscious to ensure they really can’t do it.
The West has been using its propaganda machine to spread the message that Putin is powerful. People in the West believe it. But so will people in the rest of the world. They will start to see Putin as all powerful too. This is all happening at the exact same time that Putin and the Eurasian bloc are explicitly setting up an alternative to Western hegemony. That alternative will only succeed if enough countries are persuaded to use it and right now the West is doing its level best to encourage that outcome not just by our own stupidity and greed but through the subconscious communication of our propaganda. That propaganda will work to keep the acquiescent children in line. But it could very well persuade the Global South to become the rebellious children. In fact, I think that’s exactly what it will do.
Bearing in mind that all models are wrong but some are useful, here is what the archetypal model says will happen next. Putin wins the war in Ukraine cementing the perception of his powerfulness. In geopolitical terms, the Global South are the rebellious children. They will take up the new deal being offered by Eurasia due in large part to the confidence in that system that Putin can generate (part of the confidence will be that the Russian military will be the stick to go along with whatever carrots the system might offer). I hope I’m wrong, but it looks like the West will continue the spiral of depression, loss of confidence and mental illness that’s been gradually getting worse in recent years. Having told ourselves that Putin was all powerful while we are powerless, we will watch on helplessly as he goes from victory to victory. Our elites will promote this in order to hold onto the reins of power as long as they can.
The irony, of course, is that Putin has all the hallmarks of a “real man”. He is the embodiment of the Ruler archetype. Meanwhile, Trump was an actual manifestation of what the Mythopoetic Men’s Movement meant when it used the phrase toxic masculinity. He is the hyper-masculine. “Grab ‘em by the pu**y” is perhaps the ultimate catchphrase for uninitiated, immature masculinity. Because our culture has actively suppressed an understanding of deep masculinity, we can no longer tell the difference between the two.
There is an open question whether out of all of this the West can reclaim masculinity. I believe the Mythopoetic Men’s Movement was correct that this must be done from the ground up. But as much as we might like to will it into existence, it will probably follow from material conditions. If things go as badly for the West as I expect in the decades ahead, the conditions will be right and we will need masculinity once again, not as a moral imperative but as a practical one.
14 thoughts on “Who’s your daddy?”
Great post mate. I wasn’t aware of the history of toxic masculinity.
And while i had a fairly low opinion of bojo, i didn’t expect that amount of stupidity.
I wonder if we will see mandated sex change operations now. If you want to keep your job or so. All for the benefits of society….
As for reclaiming masculinity, I think this will be easy. If the west cant do it from it’s own stock, there will be plenty of societies who have no shortage of it to help us out here.
The outcome may not be to our liking though.
Roland – that’s a good point. I suspect that however masculinity returns, it probably will be toxic masculinity. If you keep telling men they are toxic, they’ll start behaving that way.
Interesting post. I agree with your comment to Roland too. Both God and Satan are called fathers in the bible (‘patri-archy’). Feminism in practice (not in intention) mediates the transition between the patriarchy of God and the patriarchy of Satan. It’s much more socially acceptable today to criticize the archetypal father of the nuclear family than to criticize pimps or porn producers. Sade, in my opinion, is the maximum point of satanic masculinity.
Adults who behave like children, are treated like adults (customers).
Those who behave like adults are treated like children (a danger to customers).
Do civilizations have to go through a toxic masculinity stage then? Putin on the other hand is not a Caesar, but a mediator, the hinge between a Soviet past that can be mourned and a future that will take another century or so to fully materialize.
The pick-up artist scene and the MGTOW movement look like expressions of toxic masculinity as a reaction to all the accusations white men are confronted with today.
Is has been quite a while that I have read „Iron John“ by Robert Bly. As far as I remember, the book did not appear very masculine to me. I appreciate though the fact that Bly mentioned the necessity of initiation rites.
Thanks for this post, Simon. i have been following you for quite awhile, probably since someone mentioned you on ecosophia. Somehow this post and the current one there jarred a lot of things from the abstract to their relevance in my own life. I guess it is always ego satisfying to read these posts and feel they pertain to someone else.
I did a couple of workshops with Robert Bly in the 1980s. They were excellent, and probably offered more than I was ready to absorb. I had been so horrified by my experience in Vietnam that I think I had come to feel masculinity and toxic masculinity were the same thing, though it took me almost 20 years to bother thinking about it. I was pretty wild in the late 60s and 70s. I was in a situation in the 80s, where through various things, which would be a book in themselves, I was around and quite affected by the new age movement, which was the devouring mother on steroids. I turned against my own masculinity because I had grown to feel it was toxic. Robert Bly certainly helped me from falling to the bottom of that abyss. I would recommend his book Iron John to anyone who is interested in the the hero’s journey. It is probably still available used.
I will post this now and think about the next few paragraphs for awhile I am always afraid of “the dog eating my homework” if I leave something on the computer unposted for too long.
Thanks for your posts, mate.
Over the years I have been involved with several ” intentional communities” or back to the land situations in Oz, NZ, US, Portugal, France. Hard to generalize about all the situations, but by and large the devouring mother is alive and well in all of them, especially since the dread whatsus. At the one in Qld, there was quite overt hostility from the local village. People from the community went to the nearby town, but never there. I used to ride my bike in for a burger and a coffee and to read the paper and chat with the shopkeeper. No one else even bothered to go to the annual rodeo.
My most recent experience is with the community in Cali. Since the covid it has cut itself off much more from the local village to “stay safe”. They even have or had 3 or 4 “covid queens”,I kid you not to determine quarantine, distancing, etc. I’m afraid I finally spit the dummy when they said they especially wanted to keep the elders safe. Not for me you don’t. It was hard for that year or so when it was so difficult to go anywhere.
maybe this is more pertinent to your comments on ecosophia, but I agree with your opinion on the main social divide being urban/rural. I think the place this is most blatant, perhaps, is around ” intentional communities” which are mostly city people in the middle of the country.
Back to Putin: I have always thought he is the most competent world leader by far in the world today. I think you are right that he could well be the missing father that the “non western” world rallies to.
Thanks again, Stephen
Austin – it’s interesting you mention that about feminism. From a Jungian point of view, how a woman has integrated her animus determines her perception of men because the animus is the male within the female psyche (the reverse goes for men whose anima is female). So, an unintegrated woman (to use Jungian language) is mediating Satan rather than God. If that holds at the personal psychological level, it must also hold at the societal (as above, so below).
Michael – good point. At this point in the cycle of modern capitalism, anybody using their brains at all must be a danger to the system.
Secretface – I’ve come across one or two pickup artists who actually take an approach not dissimilar to Bly i.e. that fulfilling relationships with women is obviously a good thing and you need to have that part of your life sorted but it shouldn’t be the obsessive focus of your life. Of course, you’re right that the overwhelming majority of the pickup artist scene are manifesting toxic masculinity (the hyper masculine).
Stephen – thanks a lot for that. Good to hear from somebody that was actually there. I have a theory that the reason traditional initiation rites for men were longer and more involved than for women is precisely because it’s far easier for young men to go off the rails. They need more structure than women. It may simply be that the relaxing of the “rules” in modern times really is liberating for women and so it works for them (at least they think it does), while for men it’s an existential danger.
Stephen – interesting but it makes sense. As you say, these are city folk and so it makes perfect sense that they bring the city culture with them. I think of intentional communities like pot plants. You can keep them going but they need constant attention and ultimately a pot is not a viable long term ecosystem.
I think too that traditionally women’s roles were so involved with marriage, home and children, which followed very shortly after puberty ,that they would have learned most of it at home by then. As women have gained more freedom and more roles have opened to them, they are encountering more opportunities to go astray and becoming more in need of a right of passage as well.
I worked in the outdoor program at a mixed private middle school, where the outdoor program was a big part of the curriculum. At the end of their ninth grade year, we had a rights of passage instead of a traditional graduation. They got a friend, teacher, parent, sibling, whoever they wanted to speak for them. It is quite a moving ceremony and marked a real transition for them. We also found it was far better that they were the oldest kids in a leadership role at that age, than being the youngest in high school, where they were fairly easily led astray.
Funny: the one thing I like about cities is the multi cultural and artistic aspect of them. A mono cultural city is the closest thing I can think of to hell on earth.
As to intentional communities: I think the greatest hope for them is to be in a city, or near enough that the residents can access them for work. That way they can practice the aspects of sustainable gardening, housing, etc that I think are really good things and still have jobs or whatever, without being dependent on assets, the dole, or on line work, and not being in the middle of a culture they don’t fit into. Most of the ones I know were chosen to be as far away from ” the evils of society”, without having a clue how they were going to be sustained. A friend of mine in NZ in the early 2000s was looking at property just across the bridge from Auckland, that had been a spiritual community in the 70s, and was just a mile from the bus line to the city. I lost track of whether anything ever came of it. On the community in Qld for instance, three people actually made a living from the land, a hand full commuted to the Sunshine Coast,some worked on line, one commuted to Brisbane, though not every day, about a two hour car, train combo, and the rest had assets or were on the dole.
Stephen – I think you’re probably right that intentional communities need to be close to cities because cities are, for better or worse, the economic centres of society. I think we underestimate how much “economics” determines our lives. It’s really hard holding a community together when there is no economic necessity to do so (interestingly, the word “economics” is from the Greek meaning household management, no households, no community). That’s true of small groups too. Volunteer organisations often have extremely vicious cultures because the organisational structure is not based on economic requirements. [I’d throw in the disclaimer here that is absolutely not a plug for neoliberal economic theory].
Thanks for the introduction to the Mythopoetic Movement, they sound alright to me. And um, I’m guessing the reintroduction of the role of elders in society is probably a good antidote to the Devouring Mother. I’m not a fan of that archetype, if only because it frowns upon compromise and practical responses.
What an insight too on Putin. Yeah, the seeds of cultural destruction are built into the very actions we see. A bit sad really.
Hmm, I volunteered in the CFA for a few years. I’d heard of circular firing squads before, but never expected to confront one in the flesh. I used to joke that it was like Survivor, and who would be next. Eventually my turn came, and I was out of there. Learned a lot though, and met some good people. But with such things, you’re never really safe, even when you’re not directly being targeted. Is that part of the Devouring Mother archetype?
Chris – that doesn’t sound like the Devouring Mother to me. I’ve experienced the same thing in bands and my parents used to tell me funny stories of the ridiculous, pointless politics down at the local club when they took up lawn bowls. That’s just business as usual on planet human 🙂