What comes after civilisation? – the wild women versus the wild men

In the article that follows I am clearly making what some readers will consider to be sweeping generalisations about a particular set of attitudinal and behavioural differences between men and women. And so I’d like to say a couple of things about that right up front. First: I am very much aware that not every man and not every woman will fall into the categories of people I’m describing – that there will be many exceptions. I’m a psychologist and a trained scientist; I know that a variety of attitudes and behaviours exists in both men and women. But the evidence that there are also many genuine differences is significant and easily available. And anecdotally, I see it every day in the writings and attitudes of people I come across in the course of my work. It pervades contemporary culture – literature, film, TV … so if my generalisations offend you, please do take the time to do the research. I think you’ll find that there’s a real sex difference here that is worthy of exploration, and it is also related to a very real anti-feminist/anti-woman backlash that we’re seeing more and more of in contemporary ‘culture’. Writers such as Rebecca Solnit are exploring these issues with grace and passion. And just as is the case in the media at large (see this link if you doubt: http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2012/nov/27/women-fighting-sexism-media-page-3) women’s voices in many groups and movements which discuss issues of the kind I’m writing about here are being ignored, marginalised, or actively shouted down. This article argues for the necessary contribution of a uniquely female perspective – not to replace male perspectives, but to be valued equally. More importantly, it argues for listening, for sharing, and ultimately, for balance.

I’ve spent many of the last few years of my reading life retreating from contemporary literary fiction. With a few memorable and very wonderful exceptions, as a genre I’m increasingly finding it more and more dull, the older I get. So little of it either deals with issues that I care about or has narrators and protagonists that I can relate to, and so much of it is focused on issues and on ways of living which seem trivial in the light of the environmental and sociopolitical challenges that dominate the lives of so many of us. And so I find myself more and more, when I read for pure pleasure, reading only science fiction, with a particular penchant for post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction, or novels about the challenges faced by humans moving to new worlds. No, it’s not about anything as simple as apocalyptic yearnings or wish-fulfilment; it’s simply that I want to read about things that are really worth fighting for, instead of some middle-class North London intellectual’s clever but minor and deeply irrelevant meanderings through what seem to me to be the most meaningless and uninteresting ways of living (with no apologies at all to Ian McEwan). What’s interesting, though, is that no matter how many of those books I’ve become engrossed in over the years, and no matter how beautifully spun the worlds which they present to the reader, there are very few of them that I have wished I could actually live in.

The exception to this rule? It came in a beautiful and unusual book written by a woman – one of the very few women writers who are taken seriously in the male-dominated world of science fiction and fantasy. That ‘other world’ that I still often yearn to live in is the post-post-apocalyptic world of the novel Always Coming Home, by the feminist writer Ursula Le Guin (http://www.ursulakleguin.com/ACH/Index.html) Always Coming Home isn’t really a novel – it’s part-fiction, part-fictionalised anthropology, part … I don’t know what. It defies categorisation, that’s for sure. Published in 1985, it’s about a group of humans – the Kesh – who ‘might be going to have lived a long, long time from now in Northern California’. The book weaves around the story of a Kesh woman called Stone Telling, whose story fills less than a third of the book, with the rest a mixture of Kesh cultural lore (including poetry, prose of various kinds, myths, rituals, and even recipes), essays on Kesh culture, and the musings of the occasional ‘narrator’, Pandora. Pandora describes the book as a protest against contemporary civilization, which the Kesh call ‘the Sickness of Man’. In contrast, LeGuin’s Kesh live in a beautiful simplicity, in small towns, surviving on a mixture of hunter-gathering and farming. They have an elaborate set of rituals to honour the earth and mark the passing of the year and the seasons of a life. They live with respect for each other, and an abhorrence of territoriality and war.

I suppose it’s not surprising that it would take a woman’s vision of the future for me to feel at home. Because what made me want to live among the Kesh was that it offered a world that was built on strong, caring community. A community in which everyone does their bit, everyone’s special gifts are cherished, and no-one is easily marginalised or tossed aside. Problems are dealt with by the community; responsibility is collective. Interestingly, if there’s a problem in this world of LeGuin’s, it’s with some of the men. Only some of them: the ones who still want to go off and play at being warriors. And it is precisely in this contrast that we come right to the heart of an interesting difference that is polarising some men and women today: their differing ideas about how we should handle the possibility of a collapse of global Western civilisation – specifically, how we should live while we’re dealing with that possibility; what might be important in a post-civilised world, and their differing visions for what might constitute a better future.

This is an issue that comes up surprisingly frequently in discussions around and about groups of all kinds – primitivists, disaffected environmentalists, survivalists, collapsoholics – who believe that the collapse of ‘civilised’ society is imminent. In this respect, a number of concerns have been raised by women who’ve participated in such groups (which almost always are male-dominated) about a vision of the world which often predominates in those groups, and which advocates (if you’ll forgive me for the caricaturisation) some brand or other of walking away: heading off into the hills alone or with your immediate family – wife and children, if any – preferably armed, and ideally after having acquired a few survival skills, in order to ensure your own survival in the coming chaos.

There’s a growing number of writings about this issue, but one which particularly spoke to me recently comes from Naomi Smyth (http://howtosurvivethefuture.org/2012/09/07/uncivilisation-and-dark-mountain-anthology-3/) in the context of the Dark Mountain Project’s ‘Uncivilisation’ festival:

“… This field of interest is, like many others, very male-dominated. And that can result in the Dark Mountaineers and friends seeing themselves as lonely pioneers, out on the clifftop leading the way, dragging us recalcitrant girls along behind, like as not whining that there’s no power for our hairdryers. Though there is much that is compassionate and good in this movement, this posturing should be taken with a large pinch of salt. There is also a fetishisation of physical labour and the toughness of withstanding the elements. I’d agree that as more of us need to grow food, and ecological conditions become more erratic, we will all need to become reacquainted with the elements and stretch the capacities of our own bodies. We do need to get in touch with the ecology that we rely on in every possible way. Our alienation from it has caused such irreversible devastation. In that case though, where does the Dark Mountain movement begin to address how we take care of the growing elderly population, and others who are unable to take on this kind of physical challenge? While the Dark Mountaineers are encountering stags in the wilderness, who will look after their elderly mums or disabled children? Or maybe that won’t be such a problem. A few attendees at the festival spoke with casual bluster of ‘die-offs’, and how the key to survival will lie in managing to sit those out until it’s safe to emerge and reconnect with the resourceful few who made it. One man in his 70s joked nervously about ‘killing off all the oldies’ for fuel. Ha ha.

My friend Zoe Young led a session called ‘Bright Valleys’ at last year’s Uncivilisation … Part of Zoe’s point in this session was that come what may in the outside world, the essentials of home and hearth remain the same. The food must be prepared, the fire lit, the children cared for, friendships and loves nurtured. Globally and historically the bulk of this work has fallen to women, and changes less between eras than the range of economically viable careers. From her work on witchhunts among tribal peoples, Zoe said that often when hard times come, the men find it harder to cope because their identity is bound up in going out into the world to provide. This could apply equally to career women whose identities are not also rooted in something more durable. When the particular role they play loses its relevance, they can enter a tailspin of panic and violence.

Women are also often scapegoated in hard times, bearing the brunt of poverty in the developing world, and the harsh end of the cuts in the UK.  Witchhunts are not just for so called ‘primitive’ societies. So the alienated way women are portrayed in several of the stories in [Dark Mountain book 3], and in many of the other ‘survivalist’ and ‘collapse’ narratives out there, is a source of disquiet to me.”

I absolutely don’t want to get sidetracked into discussing the relative merits, accuracies and inaccuracies in the portrayal of any particular movement (and I have many friends who actively participate in the Dark Mountain Project, so my aim isn’t to criticise): this excerpt is simply to illustrate the point that, very broadly speaking, there is often a difference in the ways men and women approach the possibility of collapse. As women, we know how hard any kind of collapse – whether it is a discrete event or just a slow unpleasant decline into a Soylent Green-type future – will be. Because we’re the ones generally who do the active caring. Many women have no problem with the idea of overthrowing industrial society; the question is always what you plan to replace it with. Unfortunately, we know deep in our hearts that something better won’t inevitably arise, and that whatever does arise, it’s probably not going to be pretty for the women. (Sarah Hall’s excellent dystopian novel The Carhullan Army, about a band of women who live a communal existence in the remote hills of Cumbria, imagines for us all we need to know about that. And others, too numerous to mention here.) Women know, too, that you don’t create change or a better vision for the future by running off into the woods, hills or desert and fighting with words, and only coming out when it’s all over. You create change by getting out into the community – the hardest battleground of all – while the bombs are falling and the shit’s still flying, and working with the grassroots. Our strategies for creating and dealing with change include the need to care for those who don’t represent the ‘fittest’ – the sick, the elderly, the disabled. It’s all about transformation, about taking responsibility, about growing community. There’s no room in most women’s lives and minds for running off alone into the hills and mountains with a bunch of survival gear and an intention to sit out the apocalypse (if any), smugly repeating ‘See! I told you so!’ It’s a luxury we can’t afford.

The influence of the men’s mythopoetic movement

To me, with a background in psychology and many years of study and practice in narrative, myth and archetype, this difference in the way women and men approach the prospect of collapse goes deeper still: it goes right to the heart of what it means to be wild – to the heart of the wild man and wild woman archetypes, and the differences between them. This debate about the disconnect between male and female perspectives on how we might live in a way that allows us to more deeply embrace our wild natures isn’t new; the issue was discussed at considerable length in the context of the emergence of the men’s mythopoetic movement in the late 1980s and 1990s. For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, the mythopoetic movement is most notably connected with the poet Robert Bly and specifically with his 1990 book Iron John: A Book About Men. A significant amount of media attention was focused on the movement at the time – mostly in the form of irreverent stories about men running off together into the woods so that (partially clothed and usually bearded, so the stories go) they could get in touch with their “inner,” “mature,” or “deep” masculinity.

Iron John recreates and re-evaluates a Grimm Brothers tale about a young boy who meets a wild hairy man – the Iron John of the title – who becomes the boy’s mentor and initiates him into various stages of development. Bly’s thesis was that contemporary men have become ‘soft’ and disconnected from their inner wildness. The mythopoetic men’s movement which emerged from his work also grew largely as a reaction against the second-wave feminist movement. The movement’s leaders believed that modernisation had led to the feminisation of men, and Bly claimed that contemporary men could counter this problem by rediscovering the Wild Man (Iron John) within themselves. Masculinity in the male mythopoetic movement is defined by a particular set of archetypes: the Wild Man, King and Warrior (echoing, interestingly, themes of masculinity which are associated in other contexts with aggression, assertiveness, leadership and the exercise of power in the public domain).

Robert Bly said as often as he could that mythopoetic men were not trying to injure women, nor were they trying to perpetuate a patriarchal system that disenfranchised women. The mythopoetic approach to masculinity travelled in search of an instinctual wildness, or un-niceness, as Bly put it, that was associated with a kind of fierceness, a ‘forceful action undertaken not with cruelty, but with resolve’. Nevertheless, women watched carefully as the groups of mythopoetic men retreated into the woods to find their inner Wild Man, and in a world still fraught with inequality, rape and violence against women, they saw the painting of faces and the pounding of drums in rather a different light. Gloria Steinem, for example, took Bly to task for his ‘warlike language of kings and battles’ and for what she considered to be a misogynistic attitude that insisted on ‘closeness only to males’ and ‘measured adulthood by men’s [rejection of and] distance from mothers, thus reconstructing patriarchy in a supposedly gentler form.’

Enter the wild woman: Clarissa Pinkola Estes runs with the wolves

A few years after Bly’s book was published, Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ influential Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of The Wild Woman Archetype was published, and remained on the New York Times Best Seller list for 145 weeks. Estes’ perspective on the need for a return to the ‘Wild Woman’ in many ways reflected Bly’s: ‘Wildlife and the Wild Woman are both endangered species. Over time, we have seen the feminine instinctive nature looted, driven back, and overbuilt … The spiritual lands of Wild Woman have, throughout history, been plundered or burnt, dens bulldozed, and natural cycles forced into unnatural rhythms to please others.’ Estes likens the Wild Woman archetype to the wolf: ‘Healthy wolves and healthy women share certain psychic characteristics: keen sensing, playful spirit, and a heightened capacity for devotion. Wolves and women are relational by nature, inquiring, possessed of great endurance and strength. They are deeply intuitive, intensely concerned with their young, their mate and their pack.’

This conception of the Wild Woman archetype as ‘relational by nature … intensely concerned with their young, their mate and their pack’ is clearly very different from Bly’s conception of the Wild Man and the related mythopoetic archetypes which are all tied up with warriors, kings, and the exercise of power. It tells us all that we need to know about women’s values – those very values that we find inadequately reflected and often actively discouraged in male-dominated movements focused on possible post-civilised worlds. The Wild Woman can still be found in the woods, for sure; she can even bang on a drum from time to time. Her journey takes her to the deepest and darkest places inside herself, and she very often needs to run off to be alone. But she always comes home to her community; she always, like the wolf, takes care of her pack. In the context of collapse, those who fully embrace the Wild Woman archetype continue to seek social change and transformation, whereas the Wild Man is all too often focused primarily on himself.

The Hero’s Journey versus the Heroine’s Journey

In the same way that the Wild Man and Wild Woman archetypes differ in their relation to the world and to community, so too do the archetypal mythical journeys associated with them differ. Many people who study mythology today receive their introduction to mythological themes through Joseph Campbell’s work, and in particular, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Campbell’s welding together of many different stories and myths from a variety of cultures and a variety of historical timepoints very much emphasises the heroic male, the young hero who leaves his village, his home and his family to heed ‘the call to adventure’, struggling alone with the aim of conquering an adversary. He fights various multiple-headed beasts or slays the odd dragon, wins a treasure, and brings it back to the village, at which point some form of personal glory descends upon him. Campbell’s examples of the perfect ‘hero’ at the end of his journey, returning to a world which he now plans to save, are focused on characters such as Buddha and Jesus – hardly just one of the guys. Campbell’s heroes are super-heroes; all too often they are rulers or saviours, rising above the community rather than finding ways to integrate themselves into it.

Do women have a different journey? Do they undergo different stages of initiation? Well, curiously, Campbell didn’t discuss that. Maureen Murdock, a student of Campbell’s work, developed a model of the feminine journey based on her work with women in therapy, and showed it to him in 1983. In the book that followed, The Heroine’s Journey, Murdock explains that Campbell’s response was: ‘Women don’t need to make the journey. In the whole mythological journey, the woman is there. All she has to do is realize that she’s the place that people are trying to get to.’ It would be funny if it wasn’t so appalling.

In criticising Campbell’s refusal of women, I’m not detracting from the rigour of his mythological scholarship, which probably is unsurpassed, and the importance of his vision for contemporary mythological studies. But it’s necessary to understand that Campbell’s framework for the Hero’s Journey is inevitably associated with the values, conventions, and perspectives of the sources from which it draws. Most of the myths he considered arose in societies and in eras of human history in which women were very clearly second-class citizens. It’s not surprising, then, that in Campbell’s seventeen-stage framework for the Hero’s Journey, only two stages (‘Meeting with the Goddess’ and ‘Woman as Temptress’) relate to women; in each of those stages women are peripheral (defined only in relation to the Hero) and Campbell’s consideration of them verges at times on the condescending and patronising.

The Hero’s Journey, then, is clearly designed for male heroes, emphasizing traditional male choices and values, particularly of the American variety; Campbell was a man of his place and time. In spite of Campbell’s dismissal of her work, Maureen Murdock went on to develop a model of the heroine’s journey which, while arguably flawed in many ways, at least offers a more relevant template for those who want to understand the feminine on both a personal and cultural level. In it she describes the cyclical nature of the female experience. While certain aspects of the journey are similar to those of Campbell’s Hero, it emphasises the inner journey as a critical part of women’s initiation, focusing strongly on myths associated with the archetypical Descent to the Underworld – such as the myths of Innana and Persephone. The heroine travels deeply, learns new skills, and develops more authentic and creative ways of living. As in my own view of the Heroine’s Journey, the heroine doesn’t want to kill the dragon, for heaven’s sake: she wants to save it, to transform it, to put the essence of its dragonness to good use in the necessary transformation of the world.

And at the end of her journey? The heroine, Murdock tells us, ‘will then begin to use these skills to work toward the larger quest of bringing people together, rather than for her own individual gain … She brings that wisdom back to share with the world. And the women, men and children of the world are transformed by her journey.’

Healing the masculine – feminine divide

The fact that there are sex differences in the way men and women view the world and their place in it is neither earth-shattering nor problematic. We’ve known that such differences exist for a very long time. What really matters is what we do about them. Those of you familiar with Jung’s work will know about his discussions on the anima and the animus, and about the strength of his focus – for both women and men – on healing the wounded masculine and feminine within. Interesting, Robert Bly and Jungian feminist Marion Woodman wrote a book together – The Maiden King: the Reunion of Masculine and Feminine – that was intended to address these subjects, and to deal with some of the criticisms that the men’s mythopoetic movement had been subjected to. There’s little need, then, to repeat all that here: the individual work of balancing our own masculine and feminine energies is there for anyone to do. But when we broaden out beyond the individual to the societal, the perspectives of both men and women are valuable and necessary in this and other relevant debates; what we should be focusing on is not fighting, but inclusivity. Not polarisation, but balance. Listening. Sharing. Collaboration. Cooperation. Maybe, even, community.