I recently watched an old interview on the Bill Moyers show featuring the great American poet, Robert Bly. It was a thoroughly engaging & thought-provoking exchange which you can check out here. What stood out for me was his discussion on the greedy soul. In the interview, he reads a text of his about the pitfalls of the greedy soul, that vain, defensive kernel of human nature which exists within us all, requiring constant vigilance to keep it at bay:
“More and more I’ve learned to respect the power of the phrase, the greedy soul. We all understand what is hinted after that phrase. It’s the purpose of the United Nations is to check the greedy soul in nations. It’s the purpose of police to check the greedy soul in people. We know our soul has enormous abilities in worship, in intuition, coming to us from a very ancient past. But the greedy part of the soul, what the Muslims call the “nafs,” also receives its energy from a very ancient past. The “nafs” is the covetous, desirous, shameless energy that steals food from neighboring tribes, wants what it wants and is willing to destroy to [sic] anyone who receives more good things than itself. In the writer, it wants praise.”
–and the pitfalls of a society’s unchecked greedy soul (with Iraq as a focal point):
If the covetous soul feels that its national sphere of influence is being threatened by another country, it will kill recklessly and brutally, impoverish millions, order thousands of young men in its own country to be killed only to find out 30 years later that the whole thing was a mistake. In politics the fog of war could be called the fog of the greedy soul…You know, the reason that one says things like the greedy soul, psychologically there’s no point in this war at all. It’s not achieving a thing, never would achieve anything. Only something as mad as the greedy soul could want it to begin and continue.
Bly shares an anguished 2002 poem he wrote prior to the US invasion of Iraq, along with added commentary:
“Tell me why we don’t lift our voices these days and cry over what is happening. Have you noticed the plans are made for Iraq and the ice cap is melting? I say to myself, ‘Go on, cry. What’s the sense of being an adult and having no voice. Cry out. See who will answer. This is call and answer.” I was thinking of Grenada. Remember we invaded Grenada? Why did we do that?
“We will have to call especially loud to reach our angels who are hard of hearing. They are hiding in the jugs of silence filled during our wars.”
“We’ll have to call especially loud to reach our angels who are hard of hearing. They are hiding in the jugs of silence filled during our wars. Have we agreed to so many wars that we can’t escape from silence. If we don’t lift our voices, we allow others who are ourselves to rob the house.”
“How come we listen to the great criers? Neruda, Akhmatova, Thoreau, Frederick Douglas. And now we’re silent as sparrows in the little bushes.” It’s a very bad pun, but I left it in. “We are silent as sparrows in the little bushes. Some masters say our life only lasts seven days. Where are we in the week? Is it Thursday yet? Hurry. Cry now. Soon Sunday night will come.” And Sunday night came when we bombed Baghdad. “Where are we in the week? Is it Thursday yet? Hurry, cry now. Soon Sunday night will come.”
The closing moments of Bly’s interview reveal his optimism toward the human spirit and hope for the future:
And that wonderful energy that you can see in a human face even when walking down the street. In New York you see this incredible energy that’s inside there and is being blocked all the time by family and business and all of that. But it’s still there–circling around God, around the ancient tower. And I have been circling for a thousand years. And I still don’t know if I am a falcon, which means someone who goes in and grabs things and steals them, or a storm. Storms circle too. Or a great song. Well, we both hope that we’re great songs.