WAKING UP WITH THE HOUSE ON FIRE

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

          CP: You write at one point, "I believe that we have been robbed of our true biography--that destiny written into our acorn--and we go to therapy to recover it." This seems most pressingly an American problem, and one that's not entirely reducible to "the rationalist West." The crisis of faith in the possibility of meaning and mystery feels more pointed here, and it seems connected to the absence of any sense, or any immediate evidence, of history larger than ourselves.

          HILLMAN: And with history comes a lot of things. Like repentance. We just left the Jewish Day of Atonement, so maybe that idea... but there's a certain repentance--T.S. Eliot mentions it too--of what went wrong, what you did wrong, what our country did wrong. The wrongs that are buried in the soil. The land we have appropriated. The dead that we have ignored. You know, we're crazy about the MIAs. Maybe there are 14 bones left in North Korea somewhere. But what about the enormous dead or wounded from Vietnam? What about Iraq? There's a huge amount of history that is just swallowed up in our moving--let's move forward. Let's put that behind us.

          So I agree with you. Once we begin to look over our shoulder toward the invisibles, or toward the ancestors--you know, it's something you don't want to look at at first. There's a lot of repentance.

          CP: James Baldwin wrote about this a great deal. In America, where those things are never remembered, there is a sense in which they can never be forgotten. They're remembered dimly, as burden, as drag.

          HILLMAN: I think so. It's again a classical idea that the dead must be buried correctly. If the dead aren't buried--the Iliad is so concerned about burying the dead. And most tribal people, most military people, have that important sense of right burial of the dead. In the old Westerns, the movies, they carefully buried the dead. It was a big thing. Because what wasn't buried right--ritually, ritually given back--becomes a ghost. It goes on haunting. That would be Baldwin's idea, I think. That it's still walking around and haunting us. We're still pursued by it.

          CP: We're haunted by contemporary ghosts, too. In some of your writing, such asThe Thought of the Heart and the Soul of the World, you talk about pathologies out there in the world that make us sick and can't properly be treated strictly in the confines of a therapy room. Right now the great political project in this country seems to revolve around the forgetting of something like two-thirds of the populace--those who aren't with the program of the information age, who don't have a use in it.

          HILLMAN: At least two-thirds. I've talked about the cost of ugliness. We think that beauty--"beautification" is the way we talk about it, as if you go and do something and make it more beautiful; line the highways with something--that costs too much, so we have to be more functional and not waste money on that. But the cost of ugliness is much greater. Being in an ugly room, an ugly building, ugly traffic, ugly homes, ugly malls, and so forth. We don't need to talk about what is ugliness? Just that sense that I'm abused by the daily life that I lead in a suburb, in an office building with the machinery going on: air conditioners, lights, the absence of windows. In how many academic offices are there no windows? In how many publishing firms and how many insurance companies are you in a wall-less office in one of these giant places in a cubicle?

          You spend your life there, and you spend your life there in order to get your pension. That's slavery. If I stay long enough with this Roman master, or this Mississippi master, I will become a freed man. It's the same thinking. But we voluntarily do it now. That is worrisome. And therapy does not address this thing. When I say therapy, I mean the theory of therapy. Naturally, individual therapy sessions and individual therapists may do all kinds of things, and they are well-intentioned people. But the theory of therapy doesn't address these things.

          CP: You used the central metaphor of the acorn throughout this book to characterize the motive force behind one's calling. Yet in reading the book I was reminded several times of your talk with Ventura about the process of coming into one's own not as a matter of growth but of stripping away to get to the real self. In that sense it's as if it's a matter of getting from the oak back to the acorn.

          HILLMAN: Well, that's good. I'm glad you said that. I have to think about that. I'd rather not think of it as a process in either direction--either that an acorn swells into an oak by accumulation, or whatever. Or... by stripping away, I would say it's almost like dropping off or stepping aside from impositions and accumulations that are put on you. Expectations.

          Stripping away... [pause] When you strip away--I strip away every day in a kind of resistance to what's put on me to get new technical equipment or another credit card or to join some deal. There's a stripping away from the impositions that continually tend to turn me into only a consumer. I think that the education program is not at all concerned with education. It's to make us into consumers, productive consumers.

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