WAKING UP WITH THE HOUSE ON FIRE
"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.
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 as The 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.
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.
CP: That's true. But it also struck me, with respect to the recovered memory movement and some of the narratives that came out of it, that on one level it was a usefully archetypal repository--the notion of the abusive parent, the abusive father--for feelings of victimization, atomization, powerlessness that are in essence social and political in origin...
HILLMAN: And economic as well. Class. All the things we just talked about. Architectural.
CP: But in this country we have no vocabulary for talking about that sense of victimage in terms of politics, in terms of society, in terms of economics, in terms of architecture. And so it gets projected into this powerful and--thanks partly to the influence of psychotherapy--utterly personal archetype.
HILLMAN: Exactly. Exactly. That is the great... it seems to me still, following the book with Ventura, I still believe that the ideas of psychotherapy are some of the most pernicious now affecting the culture. I really do think so. And I think that one of the problems with this Clinton-Gore team, whom I nonetheless will vote for, is that they turn politics into psychotherapy. They do psychotherapy.
CP: How so?
HILLMAN: Well, the town meetings, and Clinton feeling for people's pain. Clinton's acting like the collective therapist for everyone, in a kind of... it's almost as if the monism of 40 years ago, Phillip Wylie's book saying America was a mother-bound culture in the '40s or '50s, it's as if Clinton's the good mother for the country. And so everything's taken in a kind of feeling, emotional way. It isn't a matter of issues, it's a matter of thought, also. And he's a man who can think. So it's really a corruption of part of his own nature, I think. He's not a dumb person at all.
CP: You were saying a minute ago that you thought psychotherapy was responsible for some of the most pernicious ideas in the culture. What are some of those ideas?
HILLMAN: That I am a result of the past. That is, history is causality. Therefore, to get to the best cause--the strongest cause will be the earliest cause, because it starts the chain. That's one. Second is that a personal feeling is equal to history, thought, knowledge. Opinion is equal to knowledge. It's enough. That justifies anything. And kids are taught that very early in school now, to have an opinion about all kinds of things. And if you don't have an opinion, well, how do you feel about it?
CP: And your opinions and feelings are valid no matter what.
HILLMAN: No matter what. That's confirmation of subjectivity, the overvaluation of subjectivity. Now, I understand that, because it's against the overvaluation of scientistic objectivity. But there must be something else besides those two extremes, just like there must be something else between heroic individualism and victimization.
CP: You write at one point, "We are less damaged by the traumas of childhood than by the way that we remember childhood as a time of unnecessary and externally caused calamities that wrongly shaped us." That was interesting to me, because I've always felt there was a natural sense of horror and upheaval and cataclysm that goes with being a child, that's down deep in a child's soul, and it needs some gentle catharsis, some bringing to light. I've thought about it recently because I've got a four-year-old stepdaughter who loves old black & white horror films from the '30s as much as I did when I was a kid. Yet when I tried to find books or articles about children's fascination with horror, I couldn't. It's a taboo subject in American psychology.
HILLMAN: Yeah. Why is that? I don't know why, but I can recommend a book called The Incredible Fascination With Violence, written by a Swiss psychologist, young guy, about the way little kids are fascinated by violence, and how the good will of the teacher often perverts that fascination by preventing them from exhibiting their violence. And therefore it becomes repressed and then they feel they're bad people because they have these ideas. It's a good little book.
But we don't.... We have to start off with the idea that there is an innate--I think--gift in human beings to pull bugs' legs off them, and to do things to the cat that the cat goes crazy with. Thomas Wolfe said, "Pity is a learned emotion. A child will have it least of all." Interesting thought. I remember that from years ago. It isn't that a kid is naturally a murderer, like Mary Bell, whom I mention in this book, or the little boys in England who took that little boy off and killed him in the mall. But the Grimms' fairy tales are filled with horrors: tortures, ovens, boiled alive, heads cut off, witches, giants.
The archetypal imagination is filled with that. If you read African fairy tales, they're full of unbelievable things happening to people. Swallowed up, eaten alive, burned in the fire, the whole village destroyed... this belongs to our coming to terms with the fantasy world. So I think the child that watches these things on TV and is fascinated by them is learning about that giant area of her own cave. My problem with the TV is not the content, but the speed and the noise. It is too loud and too fast, and that hyper aspect--if you read a Grimms fairy tale and there's that horror in it, or an African folk tale, or a Greek myth where Hercules chops off everybody's arms and legs, or whatever, it's got a pacing to it. So there's a digestion and maybe even a reflection. I don't know what goes on in the psyche, but there's another rhythm to it. Whereas when it's just thrown at you in cartoons on Saturday morning, or explosions in cars--the huge amount of explosive stuff on TV--the hyperactivity of it is what's disturbing to me. I think it's disturbing to the nervous system. I don't know enough to know, but that's what I think. Not the content.
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.
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 reading The 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.
CP: Your book The Thought of the Heart and the Soul of the World really plumbed that middle ground we were starting to talk about between radical subjectivity and radical objectivity. It tried to conceive an approach to psyche that was not isolated in the self, that took in the world.
CP: At the same time, it's hard to imagine the therapy that proceeds from that.
HILLMAN: Well, there are people beginning to think about that. Steve Eisenstadt at Pacifica Graduate Institute, a group in Cambridge. Sarah Kahn and her group are trying to return psychology to ecology. To read dreams in terms of what they're saying about the world as well as--we do have this doctrine that the dream is utterly subjective.
CP: Every figure in the dream is a piece of you...
HILLMAN: Right. All I'm saying is, let's question that, because there may be a way out somehow. Without setting up a new mode of interpreting the dream, let's at least reflect on the fact that we don't know where the psyche is. We cannot say it's only inside your skin. It may be in the rooms you work in as well, and the house you live in. But I've said all that before in Thought of the Heart, you know.
HILLMAN: I'm glad to hear that. Thank you.
CP: And I say that in part because your work does tend toward that nether region between psychology and religion.
HILLMAN: I think--a friend of mine said you can't really do Jungian psychology without a religious attitude. It doesn't mean you're religious, or belong in a religion. But you always think, there's another here. There's another factor involved here--I call it "the invisibles" in The Soul's Code--that ordinary people in most cultures pay attention to. It's why they light a candle, or why they cross themselves, why they pick up little pebbles on the beach and take them home and put them somewhere special. Or why they keep a picture of a loved one or a dead member of the family--there's this sense that there's something else involved in life all the time.
And that is the important aspect--what I tried to say in the book is that there's something else involved. In fact one of the chapters is called "Neither Nurture Nor Nature, But Something Else." It's the something else we need to get back to, to connect with again. Without naming it, without defining it, without scientizing it.
CP: And yet that's a frightening prospect in a way. Perhaps particularly for people in this country...
HILLMAN: But this is such a religious country. I can't see why it's so difficult--
CP: It's a religious country, but it's not religion as pursuit of self-knowledge or personal revelation...
HILLMAN: It used to be a sense of personal destiny, though. People came with a dream. Americans are not people of a place, they're people of a dream. What Martin Luther King said is true for the whole country: I have a dream. Everyone who came here came here for a dream. Either to escape torture, imprisonment, debt... something. Or to find gold in the streets. You know, a dream. Except the slaves. And I think... I don't think it should be so difficult to reawaken to the fact that... [pause] the fact of our being connected to something else. I don't know how else to put it.
You see--I think we've been absolutely imprisoned by economics in the last years. And that's captured everything.
CP: The logic and the rhetoric of the marketplace defines everything...
HILLMAN: Exactly. Defines everything. Values have been completely captured by it. Personal destiny has been completely captured by it. It's always to do with pension planning and how many years you've got in front of you and whether your income's gonna be equal to Social Security when it's gone--my god, what will I do!--and that you're not gonna live as well as your parents lived. Or it's too late to buy a house... I mean, this is drilled into us.
CP: And what is the prospective worth of your acorn, if you're young.
HILLMAN: Yeah. So get in there and start making money. Because there is what [Ivan] Illich called the fear of scarcity. We've set up a scarcity world. "We're losing our competitive edge. The rest of the world is growing faster than we are. We must keep out the immigrants." There's an endless dance of anxiety and security. And I think that's the worst part of our current condition: the security binge. Airbags in the side doors--we're in an airbag culture.
One man is dragged through the streets of Mogadishu and we have to change our foreign policy. If you're in the army, if you've signed up to join the service, you can expect to be killed. That's part of what it is to be in the military service. These are not draftees anymore. This is a professional army. Well, we're conned into joining the army because we get an education, or a grant. Whatever you get afterwards. No--you're in there to kill people and be killed. That's the ultimate end of it. That possibility is what it means to be in military service, even if you learn a trade. That's peripheral.
Security is so unbelievably important that anything that doesn't fit in with national security or with personal security is eliminated. I saw a thing in a newspaper somebody sent me the other day about the national arts budget and how we have to restrict the arts budget and appeal more to individuals and corporations because--this was the sentence--"we cannot maintain the arts as we did during the Cold War." What? [laughs]
CP: There's no longer that ideological offensive to wage.
HILLMAN: That's what it must mean. Which also means that the value of the arts in this system--it's just part of the defense policy.
CP: The best defense is a good traveling art show. Near the end of the first chapter, you note that you're not going to get into what you call "the indulgences of the gender war." I've angered a few people myself by arguing that years from now we'll see gender as the great diversion of our age, consuming altogether too much intellectual and political passion. But I'm curious what you mean by that.
HILLMAN: Absolutely. Yes. Before I go on, though, I think there have been moves that have been tremendously important in the last 20 to 30 years. There's no use even debating the importance of the change of consciousness owing to feminism. A huge change of consciousness. And the social, political, and legal aspects of it have been enormously important. And they're not finished. There's a huge battle ahead. There are certain injustices that are so abusive to women--the whole business of childcare in this country is so wrong. It's such a difficult job to be a mother in our ordinary economic situation and take care of--it's huge.
That needs to be said first. But when intellectuals spend their time on the gender conflict without realizing that we're all gonna die together, and that the environmental disasters affect men and women equally, and that gender discussions are irrelevant to the major questions of the time. They're not a matter of breaking through the glass ceiling. They're a matter of the planet, a matter of the distortion of economics that keeps the thing the way it is. We've been taught that big government is a horror in the last five years. It's not big government, it's big corporations. If you wipe out big government, there's nothing that can oppose the big corporations. Nothing.
The rape of the planet is not done by big governments, mainly. It's done by helpless governments in the face of big corporations. Brazil, for example. And the gender thing distracts us, because it's personalized, it's immediate, it's my own personal battle with my woman, or her personal battle with me. They become magnified by this. And then the resentments of years of oppression.
CP: It's not just at the level of political exigency, either. I recall your writing at one point that there's no respect for gender at the deepest levels of the psyche.
HILLMAN: Fate isn't a gender matter. Death isn't a gender matter.
CP: Let's go back to the notion of psychotherapy as being very other-centered in most cases--of therapists as priests. I remember my own first therapy experience, when I was 24 or 25, was a lot like that. I went into a group therapy situation, and what I was essentially trying to do, I later realized, was to get the therapists to assent to my progress. To tell me I was doing well, and tell me what to do to sort myself out. It seems a very common impulse: People want absolution from the therapist.
HILLMAN: And they expect the therapist really to know. And therapy has set itself up. Except for the attacks on therapy by a few people like [Jeffrey] Masson, who I don't like too much and who is filled with personal resentment, or the legal/ethical attack on therapy now for seduction, and the insurance company and pharmaceutical company attack on therapy--give 'em drugs instead of therapy--except for those things, the therapist has been inviolate. He or she has been...
It's the one good thing you can do in our culture, to become a therapist. To become a cop isn't good, really, to become a government worker isn't good anymore. Public service isn't noble. Lawyers are bad. Teaching--I don't know whether that's considered good anymore....
CP: It's forgotten.
HILLMAN: Forgotten. Really, what can you do nowadays? Medicine is suspect, all one hears about is how doctors mess things up and are rude and make a million and play golf. And the churches have been devalued by the scandals and their inability to answer any of the big questions. So what's left is the therapist. The therapist is the only noble--they're doing the good work. This is a tremendous inflation. That's why I've been so busy attacking my own colleagues, the thought of my own colleagues. Because their theory inflates them. It makes subjectivity the most important thing, and they're the experts on subjectivity. And so they are important in a very narrow area. Big fish in little ponds.
CP: And as a result, partly, subjectivity comes to seem the only real thing in one's life.
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.
CP: Well, you've got to have expectations and you've got to have disappointments. But I think--one thing I've learned is that I can and must make my outreach, make my world, bigger than I used to try making it. It's got to involve more people, more action. One has to reach out to life more voraciously than most people are accustomed to doing in order to have a balanced life.
HILLMAN: That was the old idea of being a public figure--that was the Roman ideal, and an American ideal. In the Old South, that was the highest ideal, to be a public servant. You realize how that's really gone? I'm not the only one who's said that, that's been said by [Richard] Sennett and a lot of people. That's an idea that's terribly important. This sabotaging of government that's been going on by the media has reduced the notion of being a public servant. It's almost disgraceful to run for office. Which is really extraordinary. We still admire the hometown man who works for the Lion's Club...
CP: But increasingly, we don't want to be him.
HILLMAN: We don't want to be him...
CP: I think of people like Eleanor Roosevelt, or a friend of mine who I feel very fortunate to know--a 90-year-old black woman who's been a life-long labor activist and civil rights activist and still has an incredible amount of vitality. In the time I spend with her, I realize that she's simply wired very differently from me or anybody else I know. There is a sense of--
HILLMAN: Different acorn.
CP: Yeah, a different acorn, but a different class of oak, too, really...
HILLMAN: [laughs] Aha.
CP: There's a way in which she takes in energy from public activity that I don't. And I wish I did.
HILLMAN: Well, I think Clinton does. I think he does. I think it's mixed up with this thing...
CP: But his is a sociopathic version of it.
HILLMAN: Maybe. Or it's being the pastor or something, too. But taking in energy from being a public actor...
CP: It seems the only people who do that anymore--maybe you think more of Clinton than I do, but it seems the people who do that now are grifters, you know? People on the make? Of course they've got to interact with, and con, a great many people. But the public person motivated by a vision of possibility, of humanity, barely seems to exist anymore. Or to exist in insignificant numbers.
HILLMAN: Maybe that's true. Maybe they do exist, but it's statistically insignificant. And they're not heralded. That's a big part of it. The press pays no attention. The press makes celebrities, so it takes an astronaut or somebody, a girl who's 12 years old and breaks her ankle in the Olympics. And not to degrade those people--it's only that the images put forth in the old schoolbooks, of Horatio Alger or whomever, it wasn't just that they were self-made people. They were people who stood for certain things. We can't hope to go back to that, or we'll just be William Bennett. It's not a matter of going back to the way it was, because it wasn't really that way anyway. It's a lot of bullshit.
But... it's more important to face the ship going down. That's what will bring out the important virtues today. Not looking back on the good old days when the ship was sailing away. Now the Titanic is sinking. That calls forth the virtues of Joseph Conrad and things like that: courage, dignity, mourning, remembrance, ritual. All kinds of other virtues which could come out of recognition of reality.
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