Pursuing Grief: Initiating oneself as a Man

About the Book

Robert Bly writes Iron John as a book dedicated to men. He uses the old story of Iron John as a means of mapping out the psychological initiation boys go through to become a mature masculine man. Throughout his book, Robert also uses literary(e.g. Hamlet) and historical(e.g. ancient African tribes) references to help modern men understand male intiation.

Chapter 3

Chapter 3 of this book is titled the Road of Ashes Descent and Grief. Robert talks about the next step after men discover that they have “golden-hair”. It is described in Chapter 2 as a genius/gift/talent that they discover by examining their own wounds. 

In order to be fully initiated as a man, Robert talks about grief and the necessity of experiencing it.


The Man Himself : Robert Bly

The Man Himself : Robert Bly

Katabasis: The Journey Downwards

This is the Greek word used to describe a man’s journey of descent. Robert Bly describes this as a path in which men learn to experience the full intensity of their psychological wounds. This is a stage where men have to experience a fall in status. Previously before, a man might have felt he was invincible with his career, family and friends. However, this man can experience Katabasis through of divorce, disease, or being fired from his job.

When experiencing one’s psychological wounds, every man senses a depression that lives within him. Katabasis allows a man to feel this depression intensely. By connecting with this depression, a man might find a “dandified young boy” in his psychology and replace this boy with a mature older man.

These psychological wounds might sometimes also be those of abandonment. For a man abandoned by his father as a kid, Robert talks about the man going through katabasis and experiencing the full extent of what it means to be truly abandoned. 

If going through a divorce, a man has to make a choice of how he can learn and grow from the experience. He can either feel the full extent of the loss and abandonment that he is feeling, or he can fill up his new void with alcohol, television or other addictions.

Why feel the pain at all? The point is not just feeling the grief but being able to mature from it. Robert talks about immersing ourselves in our wounds and exiting from the wound. Through the immersion into our wounds, we finally also learn to confront the darkness within ourselves as well. And the darkness in others.


Our sense of entitlement and grandiosity: golden-hair status

As men, we have this sense of special status that we can bring something good into this world. This sense of special status that Robert describes is the golden-hair(Iron John story reference)
 that men eventually discover in their journey. Maybe this special sense of status is the idealism and entitlement that millennials constantly get criticized for. However keep in mind that Robert wrote Iron John back in 1990, and so he was referring to a generation of men born before the millennials. These men were either baby boomers or generation x.

For those who embrace our golden hairs, Robert calls us the ascenders. We are the men that feel like we can fly as high as we want in life, and we behave as if certain rules don’t apply to us. This sense of status however doesn’t to last as long as we can imagine. Eventually a crisis enters our life and we experience grief, and we go through a journey such as katabasis.

As we already know about Katabasis, it is a journey downwards. As ascenders, this journey is opposite in direction to our journey towards the sky. The journey downwards is a scary one as we fear being grounded. As ascenders, we don’t want to feel held down, vulnerability or weakness.

It is important to understand that ascenders aren’t just ambitious men in life who fear being tied down. To be more clear, ascenders are scared of female conservatism. Robert Bly references Jungian psychologist Marie-Louise Von-Franc and talks about the choice of ascension as rebellion against female conservatism. Such conservatism can take the form of marriage, job, or other long-term commitments. According to Marie-Louise, ascenders “fly high to avoid the magnets that are hidden in the ground” to lure them to forms of commitment.


Passivity: being complacent with our grief

Robert Bly uses three concepts to describe the ascender’s(read above section about ascenders) nature. One of them is passivity. As a common  word we understand what passivity means. But in relation to ascenders, passivity refers to men not acknowledging their own grief.

Why do men not acknowledge their grief? Is it because they don’t feel any pain? No. It is more the case that they’ve learned to not acknowledge it. Through what corporations, universities and religion teach us, we have learned to be tame and domesticated creatures. Instead of leading we would rather follow. Instead of inciting conflict, we would rather compromise.

These are the behaviors and symptoms of passivity, and of those of what Robert Bly calls soft males..(read The Grief of Men to understand the term soft male.). Unfortunately, the nature of passivity carries over to the relationships ascenders have with their women as well.

Robert Bly talks about how men are emotionally caught off guard with how a woman interprets their behavior. After such an incident, the men usually don’t talk about their feelings and start to sulk. Passive men also end up not saying what they want and instead leave their girlfriends or wives to guess what they want.

This complacency over one’s feelings is classic behavior that is discussed in my previous article about nice guy syndrome.



Naivete: Unwilling to reach into the Dark

The second concept describing an ascender is Naivete. A naive ascender is one that assumes all men are born good, but turned bad by the institutions of our world. The naive man puts great value in how straightforward and open he is to other people. He believes that because of his openness, he will do better in life than those who aren’t as open.

 A naive man is also one that takes the emotional blows from a woman. He takes pride knowing he is a man that can take such emotional blows. Instead of drawing boundaries and making a stand, he takes such emotional blows. The naive man thinks this kind of behavior is “brave and advanced.”.

With women, a naive man may have a very one-sided relationship. He takes pride carrying other people’s pain, and especially a woman’s pain. This naive man will feel even more inflated if he’s the only one that a woman shares her pain with. He will feel like her “doctor”, and the one probably meant to fix her. It is also the case that he will carry a woman’s pain when he is not emotionally able to.Therefore, a naive man indirectly puts a woman on a pedestal because of this dynamic.

Another aspect of a Naive man is the way he approaches his relationships. He will have several special relationships with certain people, and put these people on a pedestal. Robert describes the Naive man surrounding the special person with a “cloying kind of goodwill.”. This kind of behavior leaves no room for the Naive man to examine the dark side of these special people. As a result, the Naive man opens up the possibility to be betrayed by the special people in his life.

Betrayal is almost inevitable in a Naive man’s life.(Robert Bly insists.) The very nature of being naive is that you’re blindsided by your beliefs. There will be people close to the Naive man that betray him. And surprisingly the naive man will betray others believing his motives are always good. 

In our modern day, I suspect the naive ascender is also probably known as a nice guy. One clear indicator is where the naive man puts a woman’s emotions on a pedestal. (read more about nice guy behaviors here.)




The third and last concept is Numbness. Numbness describes the ascender as not having any emotions. An ascender will often find himself empty. But as he starts to engage in the journey downwards to connect with his wounds, he’ll find many emotions lying there waiting for him.

Robert himself doesn’t know where this numbness originates from for men. However he speculates that it comes from the lack of the father’s protection. He describes how as men age, certain parts of their body become less numb and they begin to start feeling emotions again.

Kitchen Work: The next stage in the Iron John Story

This term brings us back to the story of Iron John. Kitchen work refers to the job that the boy(the protagonist representing each of us) finds in a nearby Kingdom. Why does he leave to find such a job? Because the Wild Man told him to do so.The Wild Man instructed the boy to “learn about poverty” after the boy discovers his golden hair.  (read up on my summary on the beginning of the Iron John Story here.). 

Kitchen work is what brings the boy down from a King’s son to being a cook.It is in the kitchen basement that the boy “learns about poverty”. It is through kitchen work that the boy begins his journey downwards and discovers himself. 

Robert Bly elaborates on kitchen work by describing three forms of it. 1.) The Road to Ashes. 2.)Learning to Shudder 3.) Moving from the mother’s world to the father’s world.


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Taking the road to ashes

Although Kitchen work can be described as a fall from status, the road to ashes is not exactly a fall from status. It is the road to confronting what is dead. Ashes, as described by Robert Bly, represents disintegration. 

When men reach a certain age of their life, they realize the broken-ness of their dreams. Robert describes men in their 30s finding that their dreams have turned to ashes, and learning to confront that reality. 

Unfortunately, this modern road to ashes doesn’t happen to every man. Robert blames the “disneyland” culture that distracts young men from the road to ashes. The modern equivalent of this “disneyland” culture would probably be the glamorous lifestyles on social media, overflowing media and entertainment online, and mass consumerism.

The “ashes” that Robert talks about has a certain diminishment quality about it. He talks about old viking rituals where young viking warriors would spend several years in isolation, and using part of the time actually eating ashes. The village elders would accept this as they saw this ash-eating as a phase for young men.

In regarding recent history, Robert would cite Roosevelt’s polio as his road to discovering his ashes. And even claim that the Depression Era was the road to ashes for authors John Steinbeck and William Faulkner.



Learning to Shudder

The second form of Kitchen work is called learning to shudder. The act of shuddering refers to our human ability to understand how frail human life is. Robert Bly seems to have take the term shudder from the greek god Dionysus.

According to Robert, Dionysus was known to be the shudderer as he could feel grief. The mythology is that humans have inherited Dionysus’s body but not his heart. Therefore, without his heart we haven’t learned to shudder like him. It is up to Dionysus then to guide humans to learn how to feel grief.

As ascenders learn how to shudder, they learn empathy and learn to be more emotional. They learn to overcome the numbness of their body. Robert makes a point here saying that this shuddering isn’t men connecting with their feminine. It is in fact men developing their “masculine emotional body.”. 

This is perhaps the first time in the book that Robert talks about emotions as part of the masculine and not the feminine. 


Moving from the mother’s world to the father’s world

This form of kitchen work refers to the lack of older men initiating younger men from the mother’s world to the father’s world. In older and ancient cultures, there usually is a clean break from the mother’s world for the son. But because of absent fathers and lack of action from older men, this rarely happens in our modern day.

In our modern day, men have to make the journey to the father’s world alone. In order for us modern men to do this, they have to learn from what Robert calls the Trickster. Robert uses the story of Hamlet to talk about who the Trickster is, and how the dark side of the trickster is the most important to learn from. In the story of hamlet, Hamlet manages to use trickery to defeat his enemies, and this gives him an upper hand until the very end of the story.

Trickery and the dark side of the trickster could refer to the machiavellian nature of the father’s world. I suspect this is what Robert Bly is hinting at.

Without learning from the dark side of the Trickster, we will be stuck in the mother’s world. We must learn to accept the father’s world and the ugliness of it. Robert’s choice of serpent symbolism alludes to this ugliness. The serpent is unattractive in its nature but also lives underground and has healing powers(according to how ancient cultures worshipped the serpent). As men who need to move into the unknown and take the journey downwards, we have to embrace this serpent. 

Some men may think that being fierce and harsh towards the mother is the path to the father’s world. This is something that a lot of men do now, and it is rarely an efficient move to the father’s world.