WAKING UP WITH THE HOUSE ON FIRE

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

          HILLMAN: Yes. Well, that's the shrinking of our culture. You started off by talking about the absence of history. It's absence of the invisibles, it's the absence of everything except me. We all want community and we all want relationships. But if the therapy, if subjectivity is the philosophical basis, then you are inherently not related, and logically not in a community. So we try to have community, but philosophically or logically, you can't. Because you've got people that are externally related, but not internally related.

          CP: And there goes the polis, there goes the whole notion of public life, because the kind of erotic energy--and it is an erotic energy that informs public life at its best; there's a sense of touching and being touched and of changing in the process--that's lost. It's as mythic as the unicorn.

          HILLMAN: So people want to get out of their individuality and they don't know how to. And therapy will never teach you how to relate, because it first has to break down the notion of the isolate individual--that they're working on a citizen. And a citizen is a member of the polis, and what are you doing about it?

          CP: And so perhaps the most useful thing a therapist could do for a certain person at a certain time is to tell them, "Get off your ass and go volunteer at the foodshelf. Or the crisis nursery."

          HILLMAN: Therapy will say, "But if the person's all screwed up and neurotic, they'll just mess up that food center. They'll screw up in the old age home where they've gone to help." No, I think it isn't a matter of get off your ass and go work in--that's too concrete, too literal. It's more a matter of realizing how the political world and the economic world affects all the things I'm doing all the time, and I've got to work that stuff through as much as I've got to work through my childhood or my relationships. I have to work through the mall, the architecture, the building I'm in--my desire for a lawn, or whatever the hell it is. I've got to work through so much of the collective pressures. I think that's the job. And whether you can work that through in therapy, I don't know.

          CP: As we talk part of me is trying to derive a picture of the therapist who could accommodate all these tasks in practice. He or she would have to be aware socially, would have to have a pretty developed aesthetic sense--

          HILLMAN: And also know a lot about people who are not of the same class and the same race.

          CP: It's asking way more than psychotherapy as an industry presently delivers--

          HILLMAN: Or trains.

          CP: Is the therapy you envision something that far fewer people could practice?

          HILLMAN: Maybe some of what one's looking for--what you were looking for in that group therapy room was a mentor. And if that idea of mentoring were reawakened in the culture, we wouldn't go to therapy looking for a mother, a father, a mentor, a brother, a teacher, a lover--all that in one person. So that's one part. Another part would be that we wouldn't need therapy as much if individuals had more of their own practice, whatever that practice is. It can be practice with nature, practice with art, practice with music, practice with spiritual discipline. But a practice that invites dedication, I think that's an important thing.

          And particularly, I think, in regard to today, practice as service. Yeah, practice as service more than practice as meditation. In fact I feel very strongly about that. I was at a talk in New York one day, and this guy was speaking, a well-known Jungian analyst, about meditation, and I shouted out--I got invited on the stage to talk a little bit or something, and I said, "Meditation today is obscene." It just came out of me. I've thought about it ever since, and there's something absolutely wrong about meditation when the planet is--you know, when the shit is going down. There's something wrong about it. I can't say what, it just strikes me as so off-track. If the ship is veering into the iceberg with a gaping hole in the hull, and you cross your legs and meditate--is that where you're supposed to be? Isn't that an insult to everyone else on the ship? Isn't that a denial of what's happening? That's how I feel about it.

          CP: You said something a moment ago about all the things one expects a therapist to be--all the roles one person is expected to fill. I took a left turn with that and started thinking that in contributing so much to our isolation in our subjectivity, psychotherapy has also contributed to an unrealistic expectation that one partner or one mentor or one person will satisfy every need we have of the world. It's a terrible thing to do to yourself and to that other person.

          HILLMAN: Well, how do you deal with--how do you maintain inspiration and cut down expectation? I sound like Jesse Jackson. It's expectations that screw us up, but we shouldn't cut down our desire, our inspiration. Our vision shouldn't be cut down. But expectations are... create this disappointment, this bitterness and resentment. I didn't get mine.

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