WAKING UP WITH THE HOUSE ON FIRE

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

          Now you could say that's basic to every society--to try to indoctrinate people into the collective mores of the society. But we have to realize that whether we really join those mores... does the acorn want to join those mores? See, I think we're here for other things as well. That's really it. So there should be an enormous conflict within an individual person between the sense of calling and the need to do things, as we say, to survive. What most people do for their work is not what they want to be doing. That's very standard. It's a terrible conflict, and sometimes a terrible moral conflict, because they're working for corporations making god knows what, and at the same time... there's some terrible conflict.

          Now I'm lucky, because I do what I want to do and get paid for what I want to do. That isn't everybody's fortune.

          CP: And it isn't just economic demands, either. There can be familial demands, class demands...

          HILLMAN: Class demands are big, yes. Very big in our culture. A lot of the racial questions and economic questions are disguised class questions, I think.

          CP: It's reflected in spiritual traditions, too, in the sayings of Jesus and the Zen master Ma-Tzu that one cannot be accepted as a prophet in one's own town. You cannot be taken for what you are in the place where they knew you as a child.

          HILLMAN: Yeah, that's right. That's right. [a little perplexed] That's interesting. I wonder why. What are we saying there? Why can't you be seen in your own hometown? You know, in the case of Baldwin in my book, he was seen by Orilla Miller, who was a midwestern, white--from Ohio, I think--schoolteacher. He wasn't seen by the Harlem teachers. That's an interesting fact.

          CP: As someone who came from a small town, I think there's a set of mores to ensure that the children do not leave. That they do not violate their culture.

          HILLMAN: That's the conservative streak in maintaining the culture. It has to do with endogamy, marrying within the tribe, as opposed to exogamy, capturing a man or woman from the other tribe. Very important motif in societies, that you stay within your tribe. But in America, we talk about multiculturalism, and anyone can marry anyone and move anywhere. We have a very strong tradition that goes against the conservative tradition. Very strong. You may have felt a struggle to leave in your own hometown, but if you grew up in a Swiss small town or a French small town, you wouldn't have left, more likely. But in America there's the great heroic tradition of setting forth on your own. Making it.

          CP: You talk about the cult of victimization that's typified so much of recent therapy as the shadow side of the individualist ethic, the myth of self-made men and women. And it reminded me of something a writer told me once after she'd worked on a phone sex line for a story she was writing. She said that a surprising number of her clients were high-powered Washington attorneys who simply wanted to give up all control, to be dominated and humiliated. That seems apropos somehow.

          HILLMAN: Apropos--tremendously so, isn't it?

          CP: What conjoins the self-made man and the victim? There's a quality of isolation on both counts, obviously.

          HILLMAN: I haven't thought of it that way, except for that sentence in the book. I have been very perplexed by our cult, now, of victimization. Clinton is proposing that we write it into the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, that we have an amendment on victims' rights. That's extraordinary for a heroic culture. And also it establishes the victim as a... what? A noble person in the society? One of the Mount Rushmore figures of the society.

          CP: It makes the victim an iconic figure.

          HILLMAN: Yeah. An iconic figure. I can't digest that one yet. What the hell's going on here? Is this the way--

          CP: It's a way to justify rising police state measures.

          HILLMAN: I was thinking also that it justifies our striking out, striking back, because we're pretty--the way the rest of the world sees us is that we're a pretty loose cannon. This recent Iraq thing is part of it. But I mean, we've sent troops wherever we wanted. George Bush sent them all over, Reagan sent them all over, Clinton's sending them. Who's right, who's wrong, when is it justified and when is it not? The rest of the world can see us as a loose cannon. And now we've just added to our defense bill $11 billion more than even Clinton wanted.

          Well, if I'm a poor victim, if I've been abused, revenge will be important in me. My rights. Getting mine back. Pushing away the aggressors. I see it as a kind of crazy way of justifying the heroic side. The radical, violent side--"you see, I'm not really a brute, I'm a victim. And what I'm doing to other people is because I'm a victim." It's perverse. It's much better to say, "I bombed all these people in Iraq. I did this and I did that," and then go through the remorse for that victory, than it is to imagine ourselves as victims. Because that justifies all kinds of revenge.

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