The Modern Male Psyche And Manhood

By Marc Kahn

The psychology of manhood has long been dominated by primitive heroic mythology. Men suffer the isolation and rage of this immature psychological trajectory, and the world is plagued by its consequent terror. Many psychological theorists have linked war, rape, abuse and other forms of violence with this largely unconscious psychosocial mythology.

In reaction, the late 1980s saw the budding of a new psychology for men. Robert Bly’s Iron John1, Sam Keen’s Fire In The Belly2 and A Circle of Men3 gave birth to a new paradigm of masculinity and the possibility of transformation for the modern male psyche. These authors and others illustrate how a paucity of healthy male mentoring, rites of passage and effective fathering in the modern world result in profound psychosocial loss for men, and a resultant crisis of masculinity.

Bly1 wrote: It is clear to men that the images of adult manhood given by the popular culture are worn out; a man can no longer depend on them. By the time a man is thirty-five he knows that the images of the right man, the tough man, the true man which he received in high school do not work in life. Such a man is open to new visions of what a man is or could be.” Keen2 added: Authentic manhood has always been defined by a vision of how we fit into the universe and by the willingness to undertake an appropriate task or vocation. Our modern rites of passage – war, work, and sex – impoverish and alienate men.”

These writings birthed the contemporary mens movement, which may be seen as an attempt to resurrect that which has been lost for modern men toward a rebuilding of a new, more mature and more sacred, masculinity. This psychology draws extensively on mythology, poetry, story telling, ritual and group process in its attempt to revive, recreate and cure. More particularly, the psychology seeks to bring men into integrity by modeling and teaching accountability, personal responsibility and emotional and cognitive congruence (e.g. I do what I say, and I say what I feel, because I know who I am. I do this without excuse and I face the consequences honestly and bravely).

Central to this theory is the idea of ‘initiation’ as a vehicle for change and healing. Barton4 explains, The goal of these groups and retreats is to initiate men into their archetypal masculinity.” Jungian psychoanalyst Robert Moore and mythologist Douglas Gillette5 provide a psychological map for the journey from boyhood to manhood. They suggest the masculine developmental trajectory floods young males with instinctual aggressive energy before life experience can provide wisdom for the modulation of these energies.” This wisdom, they say, was once provided by tribal initiations. But the loss of these traditions has left us in a situation in which the immature expression of male aggression terrorizes the global community.” The fully developed man, however, has gained the wisdom to modulate aggression, and so becomes energetic, decisive, courageous, enduring, persevering, and loyal to some greater good beyond our personal gain”6. However, mens psychology teacher and mens movement leader, Craig Bloomstrand, explains: It is important not to over-romanticize initiation. The true maturing of a young man comes only in relationship with mature men. Initiation happens to be the vehicle for them to come into that relationship. The aspects of initiation that mature a young man are that he is identified as a young man of worth and invited into relationship with those who have gained maturity, of which initiation serves only as a vehicle”7.

More specifically, Goodenough4, a psychotherapist, shows how the symbolic and psychosocial processes of an initiation experience may be understood from a psychoanalytic perspective. He explains: By concretizing [his] inner objects into roles on the psychodrama stage, the initiate is able to interact with them, clarify them, and ultimately own them.” Goodenough is here referring to a central activity in the ManKind Projects (the largest contemporary mens movement) New Warrior Training Adventure,” which takes the form of a facilitated psychodrama during which the participant engages with his inner world symbolically and dramatically until a point of transformation occurs. This activity forms the core of the mans ordeal at the center of his rite of passage and is followed by a celebration of a new state of being.

This recent movement in mens psychology prompts men to reconsider some of the fundamental assumptions that have governed their psychological development from childhood to manhood. It calls on men to reexamine the destructiveness of their power, as men and as human beings, and bravely leap into a new consciousness that may help catapult us into a safer, healthier and more sacred world.

1. Bly, R. Iron John. New York: Addison-Wesley, 1990: xi
2. Kauth, B. A Circle- of Men. New York: St. Martins Press, 1992: 7
3. Keen, S. Fire In The Belly: On Being A Man. New York: Bantam Books, 1991.
4. Barton, E. R. (Ed). Mythopoetic Perspective of Men’s Healing Work: An Anthology for Therapists and Others: Westport: Bergin and Garvey, 2000: 21 & 155
5. Moore, R. and Gillette, D. King, Warrior, Magician, Lover: Rediscovering the Archetypes of the Mature Masculine. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1994.
6. Fields, R. The Awakened Warrior. New York: Tarcher Putnam Books, 1994: 4
7. Personal communication, Craig Bloomstrand, 13 March 2001, Minneapolis.

Marc Kahn is a clinical psychologist, executive coach and corporate trainer based in Cape Town. He is a founding member of The ManKind Project (SA).

Journal reference: Kahn, M.S. (2002). The Modern Male Psyche and Manhood. CME, 20 (8): 531-532.