WAKING UP WITH THE HOUSE ON FIRE

A conversation with psychologist James Hillman-- about kids, shrinks, mythology, and death.

          "I never felt it was important to do this picture shit," James Hillman groused. "This is the first of my books to have one. I mean, nobody knows what all those old writers looked like. But now everything has moved into celebrity. Everything. So there's no distinction between Cindy Crawford, who will come here next, and--you know what I mean? We don't have intellectuals in our culture. We may have had them, but we don't have them now. So you become a writer, and a writer becomes a celebrity."

          Hillman was nearing the end of his first full-blown "author's tour" for a major publishing house when we met last week, but the cameras were still rattling him. His own growing celebrity at an age when most people are weighing retirement owes partly to his 1992 book of dialogues and letters with Michael Ventura, We've Had 100 Years of Psychotherapy and the World's Getting Worse, and partly to the success in recent years of Thomas Moore's books, from Care of the Soul on down, which are mostly distillations of Hillman's more adventurous and difficult writings on psychology--some 22 volumes in all, not counting collections he has edited.

          Hillman's new book, The Soul's Code, is a lengthy elaboration upon the Platonic myth that supposes one's calling in life is inborn, and that the point of life is to wrestle the calling (or acorn, or daimon) into the world. But in one sense the acorn metaphor is simply another vantage point from which to mount a portrait of human psyche and a critique of the ways it is abused and misconceived by professional psychology and by a culture that increasingly has only the language of psychotherapy with which to think about itself.

          There's no easy way to sum up what Hillman, grounding himself in Jung, calls "archetypal psychology," but one can start by noting that nearly all the current interest in "soul" as an aspect of everyday life is influenced by Hillman; and Hillman's notion of soul is steeped in mythology and aesthetics and mysticism. His psychology, as he puts it in The Thought of the Heart and the Soul of the World, requires "radical shifts of orientation, so that we can value soul before mind, image before feeling, each before all, aesthesis and imagining before logos and conceiving, noticing before knowing, rhetoric before truth, animal before human, anima before ego, what and who before why."

          Perhaps most critical of all, Hillman means to assault the distinction between the world out there and the world in here, whose reification he counts as one of the main sins of the therapy business. That dualism is a disservice, he reckons, both by virtue of what it does to reduce the richness and mystery of our interior lives and because it alienates us from a world desperately needful of our attentions--just as we need its sensuous pleasures. "Evil," he writes in The Thought of the Heart and the Soul of the World, "is not what one expects: cruelty, moral perversion, power abuse, terror. These are its instruments or its results. But the deepest evil in the totalitarian system is precisely that which makes it work: its programmed, single-minded, monotonous efficiency... the dulling daily service, standard, boring, letter-perfect, uniform. No thought and no responsiveness.... The 'general' and the 'uniform' happen in thought before they happen in the street. They happen in thought when we lose touch with our aesthetic reflexes, the heart no longer touched....

          "So the question of evil, like the question of ugliness, refers primarily to the anesthetized heart, the heart that has no reaction to what it faces."

          CITY PAGES: It seemed to me that in a sense, the book was speaking against a certain kind of isolation--the isolation of a psychotherapy that presumes we are bounded by our subjectivity, by our will and desire on one hand and the influence of our parents on the other. The notion that there is an inborn set of predilections to become connects us to mystery. To an entirely different set of questions.

          JAMES HILLMAN: Classical, ancient questions.

          CP: And just as important, to acting-in-the-world--a call to act in the world to realize that destiny.

          HILLMAN: Yes, I do think so. I'd even put it this way: Psychotherapy, or at least our psychological consciousness, has exaggerated self-searching to find out who you are, and neglected what the world wants from you as just as valid a way of finding out who you are. What do people find you useful for? What do they like to be around you because of? That's also a part of calling. It isn't just going into a room and sitting down on a vision quest to find out who I really need to be. That's one way. But therapy's emphasized that and neglected what the world wants from you. What you're here to serve. That's something I hoped the book would address.

          And then the other thing you're here to serve is your ancestors. And that doesn't mean necessarily your genetic ancestors. The ancestors as a tribal notion. I use the word tribe to--what other word is there? We can't call these people from other cultures archaic, we can't call them primitives. I mean, they're still around. They're not archaic, they're contemporaries. But other cultures less dominated by our kind of psychology.

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