WAKING UP WITH THE HOUSE ON FIRE

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

          CP: You were mentioning the timeless, archetypal quality of these images of horror. But in terms of the pathologies of the world out there, I think children are much more naked to them. They're much more honest in a certain sense about what they're seeing out there. They take it in in a much more potent form than I do.

          HILLMAN: Yes...

          CP: In that sense kids are canaries in the coal mine at this point.

          HILLMAN: The disturbed children today, you mean? Yeah. But they're cool, too. You take a 10-year-old boy to see Independence Day, as a friend of mine did, and he was absolutely wiped out after this film. The 10-year-old boy thought it was cool, and he was ready to go off and do something else. The whole thing just evaporated. So they may be more sensitive, but they may also understand that this is all just mythical. This is all fantasy. Maybe. I can't answer that.

          I want to read you one thing from Auden, though, about early childhood: "The so-called traumatic experience is not an accident, but the opportunity for which the child has been patiently waiting." That's an incredible sentence. "Had it not occurred, it would have found another, equally trivial, in order to find a necessity and direction for its existence, in order that its life may become a serious matter." That's an amazing thing. That shifts the whole business of childhood trauma.

          CP: And it shifts the sense of what it is to be a parent. Being a relatively new stepparent, I admit I read the book with one eye toward any practical idea of how I could nurture the kid's acorn. And the answer is, you really can't very much. It's not mainly your job as a parent to do that.

          HILLMAN: But you can keep your mind open to the idea. I think that's the most important thing. It also relieves you a little bit of being this god/father who is responsible for everything that happens. That's pretty heavy.

          CP: Around the time I was reading the book, I was also readingThe Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels. She traces and tries to reimagine a lost thread of western religion--one that places personal experience and personal revelation at its center, as opposed to the religion our culture ended up with, which invests authority and knowledge in a group of the elect to whom we're supposed to go for the answers. And in that sense mainstream therapy pretty extensively mirrors mainstream religion. There's a sense of looking outward for the answers, looking to the priest/therapist for validation.

          HILLMAN: I guess that's true for therapy. I was thinking that Jungian therapy tends--or rather, its ideation tends, toward the gnostic. One's supposed to go inside and have active imagination and talk with one's imaginal figures, and the dream is the most important witness to where you are or who you are. Not the therapist. That's the idea of Jungian therapy; how it's practiced is too hard to say. But I think your point is well-taken, that therapy as a whole has become--there are certain agreed principles that run through all the therapies, about influence of the parents, influence of early childhood, a certain neglect of the social and economic realities, abstaining from politics. Of course in Europe there's left-wing and feminist therapy that insists therapy is a political act. But we have never taken that up, really, in America. Not even the Freudian Left really thought of therapy as an intensely political act, the dialogue itself.

          And remember, I tried to say, let's just change the name of the patient from "patient" to "citizen." What happens if you imagine the person in the other chair as primarily a citizen--before a patient, before a client, before an analysand, before anything else. Then the conversation is going to be different, too: In what way are you as a citizen, not you as a patient, living through your suffering? Aristotle said man is by nature a political animal. Tremendously important sentence that's been cited many, many times. But what he's saying there is that just as you're a sexual animal, or a family animal, you also are political--that's part of your instinctual life.

          Now, therapy investigates your sexual instinctual life. Or maybe your eating habits, if you have eating troubles. But does it investigate your political instinct? Could you be dysfunctional politically and suffering from that as much as you're suffering from--is your dysfunction partly neglect or repression of the political instinct, the political animal? I think it's a hugely important thought. And we're not trained to discuss that. But as much as we ask people about their sexual life, we could also ask about their political life. What did your father do? What did your mother do? Did they take part in anything? Who did they vote for? Who did they contribute to? Who do you contribute to? Did you vote in the last election? Do you think voting's important? Spend a whole hour talking about Ross Perot. That could be as important as talking about your high school dates. But we don't think that way.

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