James Hillman told me he doesn’t like to do interviews because they are a deadening form of communication, a set pattern of call and response. He did, however, agree to have a conversation with me “to explore some ideas.” Hillman loves to play with thought the way some people love to play with golfballs, and his delight in probing and investigating the “soul of the world” is infectious.
James Hillman is the founder of a school of neo-Jungian thought called “archetypal psychology,” which I believe has some resonance with Buddhist ideas and practice. As Hillman says in the book Inter Views, “for me the task of psychology is to see through [the ego] and get around it.” Hillman wants to move us out of our individual stories and away from biography, but not toward some great cosmic truth. Instead he points us toward the mythic realm, a place where we can find a larger context for our lives and rediscover the magical sacredness of the world.
Hillman has written many books, including the seminal works Revisioning Psychology and The Dream and the Underworld. My two favorites are Inter Views and Healing Fiction. He stirred up good controversy with the book entitled, We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy and the World’s Getting Worse, which consists of correspondence and conversations between Hillman and author Michael Ventura. Hillman’s writing can also be found in Spring: The Journal of Archetype and Culture, which he began editing in 1970.
Wes Nisker: Let’s do a psychological “state of the nation” address. I am convinced that we are having a national midlife crisis. After a couple of hundred years of believing that we could have it all and live happily ever after, we now have to face the facts of life.
James Hillman: I think you are complimenting the nation-state by saying we are having a midlife crisis. It feels more severe than that to me. I think we are still trying to protect ourselves from the facts of life. We have become a kind of “airbag culture.” By that I mean a place where safety and security dominate everything. The government commits crimes in the name of national security. We have childproof bottles, airbags for everybody—to the extent that nothing can happen. The insurance industry is enormous, and everybody wants to be insured against all eventualities. My feeling is that America is in deep denial, and the strength of that denial suggests that there is something powerful underneath.
WN: I think the November election results reinforce your point about the airbag culture. People elected the Republicans to pull the wagons into a circle, to fend off the immigrants and minorities, to stop the pagans from destroying this Christian nation, to stop the erosion of our wealth and power. We all know that America can’t return to the innocent 1950s, or to some idealized “good ol’ days.” But there is great fear and insecurity about where we might be headed.
JH: Fear undoubtedly is the looming Monster that dominates us now, not expansion, not adventure, not the Statue of Liberty with her torch. So people tighten up, and vote—if they vote at all—Republican. As the nation divides against itself (what Lincoln warned against and warred against—a house divided cannot stand), we are afraid. We are afraid of losing whatever we have stored behind our walls—and so we are dominated by a “no-risk behavior” in an all-risk world. But I am just blathering now, because we all know what is at work in the world. It’s called GATT and NAFTA: the giant corporations who are responsible to no one, and under whose shadow we are all afraid. We see the world today through the “eye of the newt” (Macbeth, IV. i)—that is, with the witch’s eye of fear and meanness.
WN: One of the major themes in the men’s movement is to look at what is underneath the surface, to turn toward the shadow. And to grieve. Maybe we all need to grieve over the end of the American dream.
JH: Our point in the men’s work—and Robert Bly emphasized this a lot—was that grief is a vitalizing emotion. Out of the grief comes a new energy. But as Bly says, we can get nowhere until we first go down into the ashes, into the grief.
That’s what the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., is all about. It has become the place that everyone must visit, more important than the Lincoln Memorial or the White House. The Vietnam Memorial is a simple black monolith which is below ground, so you must descend to it. The site has become a place of immense grief. And I don’t think people are only grieving over Vietnam; they are grieving over the sins of our vision gone too far—our vision of manifest destiny, of carrying the world’s burden on our shoulders, the “white man’s burden” as it used to be called.
WN: We were making the world safe for democracy.
JH: All of our visions had nobility in them. But now we are in a time which Jung referred to as the “enantiodromia,” a term from Heraclitus, when things change into their opposites and virtues become vices. That’s what happens at the end of a great period of history. People will cling to the old virtues, but they’ve now turned into vices and have to be abandoned. But if you abandon the old virtues, you are lost and don’t know what to believe in.
Michael Ventura makes an interesting point about such transitional times in our book, We’ve Had A Hundred Years of Psychotherapy and the World is Getting Worse. He says that during the great changes in religious history, the old religion becomes demonized by the new one. For instance, when Christianity replaced the Mediterranean religions, the nature god Pan gets turned into the Devil.
But rather than just blame it on the new religion, you could also say that the old religion turns demonic on its own as the new religion rises. Consider the satanic cults now being discovered in the small church towns of the Midwest and the South; they are primarily made up of religious people, the churchgoers themselves. Meanwhile, some of the fundamentalists have become persecutory, killing doctors outside of abortion clinics. Something demonic seems to have gripped Christianity.
In the Catholic Church we see the Pope obsessed with sexuality and gender issues. There are so many extraordinary mysteries in the church—the transubstantiation, God entering the flesh of man, the Holy Spirit. The Pope could be talking about, and instead he’s talking about abortion and contraception. He’s talking about women in the priesthood. He’s dwelling on these mundane, newspaper issues instead of revitalizing the church with its great myths.
WN: I think one of the most important myths being overturned right now is that of individualism. The American ideal has been that each person creates his or her own destiny, everyone for themselves, with great emphasis placed on becoming a unique and special individual.
JH: Individualism is certainly being threatened, and that’s partly why everyone is so concerned with security. I think the decade of the 1960s was the apogee of hundreds of years of individualism, an extraordinary last flowering of selfhood. “Just be who you are.” “Do what makes you feel good.” The only ethic was to be true to yourself. Even if you were just sitting on the floor smoking a joint, you were a free individual.
WN: And at the same time, during the sixties people also talked about being part of a tribe. There was a new call for community.
JH: But the feeling was still one of selfishness. Real community does not develop out of the neediness of individuals, but rather out of their desire and ability to contribute.
WN: Ask not what your country can do for you.
JH: Or the line from the Communist Manifesto, “From each according to his ability.” The second line says, “to each according to his need,” but let’s just stay with the first part. I think we have misunderstood community, which must begin with a shift in the individual’s sense of destiny. How do I discover my destiny? Not by going to therapy and finding out what I really want to do with my life, but rather, finding out what is wanted of me. What’s the gift I have that others need? And not just that others need but that the group needs, the world needs. If I’m learning a skill or studying, it’s not just in order to climb the economic ladder or further my career, but it’s connected to my community. And if I’m just hanging out, I don’t have anything to give anybody.
For a community to work, the ability of each individual has to be socially useful in some way. Then it’s a gift to the community, and the individual in turn is valued and loved by the community.
WN: So what we are talking about is individualism in service of the community, rather than in service of the individual. And perhaps what Americans are really seeking is not just community, but to somehow give ourselves over to something bigger than our own little life.
JH: Yes, but that urge can be dangerous, because we can also give ourselves to political ideologies or movements, which is not the same thing as community. Community is local. It’s tied to place. It’s tied to duty. Gary Snyder talks eloquently about the real meaning of community.
WN: Snyder talks about extending the sense of community to include the natural environment. In the last Inquiring Mind we ran a piece by Snyder in which he encouraged people to build a “culture of nature.” He said it is similar to building a culture of your neighborhood, where you go out and meet your neighbors and their kids and dogs and get on a first-name basis with them. The same thing with nature: you learn the names of the trees outside your house, learn about the birds that live in your neighborhood. Eventually you start to get on a first-name basis with the community of nature in which you live.
Snyder’s ideas remind me of your desire to return soul to the nonhuman world. But you go beyond the ecologists. You not only want to find soul in plants and animals and birds, but also in things—in lampposts, cars, silverware and ceilings. I’m fascinated by that notion. But isn’t there a danger that we would then love our material possessions even more than we do now? Do you think that would be a positive development?
JH: Definitely. It wouldn’t do consumerism any good. Loving “things” more would make us much more selective. You just can’t be intimate with that many things. Consumerism is promiscuous. We have so many lovers around that they all become disposable.
For example, at your office you might have an individual coffee cup, a mug with your name on it. Or maybe not your name but a carved heart or a rhino face or some little thing, and that would be your cup. Then you wouldn’t use styrofoam cups. There is great ecological significance to being intimate with a few things that are precious to you.
Even in our culture, when it comes to big-ticket items—washing machines and cars—we do feel connected to them. People will tell you, “I’ve had this laundry machine for twelve years, and sometimes it gets wonky and I have to fiddle with it to make it work.” They know that machine as intimately as Gary Snyder knows the trees outside his house. They know its idiosyncrasies. And if they leave their house with tenants for the summer they have long lists of instructions on how to run all the machines. They talk the way a gardener talks about the plants. This is intimate knowledge, and all you have to do is think of the machine as alive or ensouled in some way, and then you are truly “taking care.” Maintenance becomes care. Your relationship to the material world becomes full of feeling.
WN: Then you take care of your environment, and you don’t need to consume so much.
JH: You need less environment. You are spending more time with a thing. This has to do with low maintenance and high maintenance. High maintenance is the desirable now, not low maintenance where you just turn it on and ignore it. Most of the stuff in our lives is ignored. Somebody wrote, “When do things become stuff?” The divorce happens and the spouse takes all your “stuff.” Or, “Get your stuff out of here.” Consumerism degenerates its own products from purchases to things to stuff to junk.
WN: It’s the Cartesian separation of animate and inanimate taken to the extreme.
JH: That’s not the situation in archaic or tribal societies. Of course, even there humans have a special place because that’s our nexus. And animals have a special place, and plants have a special place. But the distinction between the organic and the inorganic is not at all clear in the tribal worlds—or the pre-western or nonindustrial worlds, or whatever we call them these days. We don’t know what to call them. I call them the soul people.
WN: They put soul into things and we call that superstition.
JH: Yes. We call that animism. We call that superstition, anthropomorphism. I’m calling it care. I’m calling it interest, attention. Some tribal people walk around carrying all their things. I’ve seen them in the Sudan and in the Amazon in Venezuela. They have very few things, but each one is very precious and important.
This is very different from consumerism. In fact, it’s an antidote to consumerism. Eric Hoffer said, “You can never get enough of what you don’t really want.” It’s a tremendous truth. You keep accumulating more and more stuff, but what you really want is something that you can love. You want something with soul.
WN: When I’ve heard you talk about putting soul back into the world, you make it very clear that you are not talking about spirit. You make a careful distinction between soul and spirit.
JH: Soul likes intimacy; spirit is uplifting. Soul gets hairy; spirit is bald. Spirit sees, even in the dark; soul feels its way, step by step, or needs a dog. Spirit shoots arrows; soul takes them in the chest. William James and D. H. Lawrence said it best. Spirit likes wholes; soul likes eaches. But they need each other like sadists need masochists and vice versa.
The drama of life and the extension of soul into the inanimate interests me more than spirit. Perhaps the reason people want to go to the Himalayas to study transcendence is because this world feels so constricted, and that’s because our cosmology leaves out so much. The Cartesian separation between mind and matter—the vision that’s informed Western history—is just too narrow. But instead of going to Asia, I would rather stay within our own tradition and break it apart. Open it. Enliven it. Bring back the old gods of paganism and the pleasures and insights that accompany them. Bring back the Native American intimacy with the natural world, and the Caribbean in-touchness, that sensuous life with nature and things, and the invisibles.
WN: From your writings I know that you are not drawn to the mystical vision, the realm of the spiritual. You don’t like to dwell on the unity of all things.
JH: In general, I feel that spirit takes itself too seriously. The spirit speaks in a rhetoric that is hortatory and commanding. “This is the way it is.” “This is the only way to go.” Spirit speaks in superlatives, and the language is often the same as that of dictatorship. It is, of course, also the language of marvelous world religions.
Furthermore, I’m always very hesitant about trying to put it all together. The paranoid aspect of systematic thinking frightens me. I wrote a book entitled On Paranoia, where I point out that it’s impossible to tell the difference between a religious system and a paranoid system. The crucial thing is a certain humor, an ability to see through whatever monolithic view it is you are holding. Of course, there is a great deal of humor in Zen, where the monks seem to have a way of deconstructing what they are setting up.
WN: Spirit wants to merge, to lead the separate self back to the source, the Oneness. From the viewpoint of Western psychology this could be seen as a narcissistic attempt to escape from the world.
JH: Merging with the One is a way to get out of the valley. In a piece called “Peaks and Vales,” I talk about a lama who tells the monks to go up to the higher peaks because that’s where the spirit lives. The main point is that the vale is full of tribulations and tragedy—it’s really our cities. Escape may be too harsh a word, because sometimes escape can mean enlightenment. But there is also the possibility of enlightenment right within the turmoil. And that’s where we are now, so maybe that’s where our work lies. I’m more in tune with Dostoyevsky, a very spiritual writer who stays embroiled in the drama of human life.
WN: I believe meditation practice can also bring people to a newfound intimacy with the world. It can be a world-ensouling process rather than some kind of transcendence.
JH: I think that’s true. I also think it can produce prolonged attention span in a society that has ever-shortened attention span. You meditators become the anti-surfers, a counterweight. You can focus. You can think. You can eliminate what you don’t want to be focusing on at that moment. That’s very important.
WN: I have a sense that meditation practice and your discipline of archetypal psychology have some correspondence. Meditation practice moves people away from identification with their individual personalities and into a wider context. Would you say that archetypal psychology does the same thing?
JH: Absolutely. The story is never about me. Archetypal psychology is always about what the gods or the figures are doing. It brings you into a sort of mythic community which breaks down the walls that have you trapped in your own story, your own aims, your own ambition, your own neurosis, your own worries, all of that.
Specifically, by “archetypal” I mean a way of taking what comes as important, universal, emotional, valuable. Archetypal means something that occurs that is inevitable, always was and will be, so that you may as well get in tune with it, learn about it, open up to it. At other times what we describe as archetypal might be called powers, Gods, myths, invisibles, or ancestors.
WN: Perhaps the enneagram and astrology bring us into a similar kind of community. I become a Capricorn, a type of personality.
JH: All these systems try to break down that individual wall. The only trouble is that the typology often gets you locked up again. Once you’ve got a type, then you can always explain yourself in the same way. If you’re a Gemini, that explains everything in your life. I’m number seven in the enneagram, and that’s the reason I don’t eat sausage.
WN: How do you avoid the pitfalls of typological systems?
JH: I don’t think archetypal psychology has that problem, because it puts you into a story. And stories are complicated, full of twists and turns, possibilities and mysteries. The mythical stories are endlessly complicated, and that is their beauty and power. In the Renaissance they used to say that the aim of interpreting a work of art is complicatio, to complicate matters. That’s what I like about myth and stories, and that’s what I like about life. Its diversity and mystery make it endlessly fascinating.