A couple of years ago, I got a letter from Annie Gottlieb, a talented writer and devoted subscriber. “Have you ever read anything by James Hillman?” she asked. “He just rips up every one of the culture’s unexamined assumptions. Right now, in a therapy-besotted world, he’s on an anti-therapy jag. He says we’ve withdrawn soul into the consulting room, into the boundaries of the individual skin, out of the neighborhood and the environment. He has especially harsh things to say about the ‘child archetype’ and our reverence for the ‘inner child of the past’ and its supposedly formative traumas, all of which keep us helpless adult children rather than empowered, political citizens. We look back instead of looking around.”

And, she promised, “He’ll make you kinder to your dark side.” As someone given to noodling around in the dark, I was intrigued. “He has a way, for one thing, of uplifting and dignifying your most wretched obsessions. He’s not in favor of transcendence but of transparency, not getting out, but seeing through, so your neurosis becomes a beautiful stained-glass window depicting a universal myth.”

I followed Annie’s advice and started reading Hillman. A brilliant and provocative thinker, he isn’t always easy to understand. He can be a quirky writer, quick to throw out ideas and references. But what ideas! Reading Hillman is like stepping off a bus into the clamorous, exotic, slightly menacing streets of a foreign city. You’re asked to leave behind fantasies of growth and self-improvement; to search the narrow, twisting alleys for better questions, not answers; to be prepared for trouble.

I don’t always agree with him, but I respect the range and depth of his thinking, and value his willingness to challenge just about any theory, including his own. As Michael Ventura put it in the LA Weekly, “Hillman knows that the work of thought is one of the most ancient and useful activities of humankind. To generate thought is to create life, liveliness, community. Consensus isn’t important. What’s important is how the generative power of our thought makes life vivid and burns out the dead brush, dead habits, dead institutions.”

As a younger man, Hillman studied with Carl Jung and was director of studies at Zurich’s Jung Institute — though today he’s regarded as a post-Jungian or a renegade Jungian or not a Jungian at all. In addition to being a therapist, Hillman runs a small, innovative publishing house called Spring Publications, and has held professorships at Yale, the University of Chicago, Syracuse University, and the University of Dallas. Lately, he’s also been involved in the “mythopoetic” vanguard of the men’s movement, conducting workshops with poet Robert Bly and storyteller Michael Meade.

He’s the author of nearly a dozen books, including Re-Visioning Psychology, The Dream and the Underworld, Healing Fiction, and Inter Views. Recently, the anthology A Blue Fire: Selected Writings by James Hillman has been published by Harper & Row. It’s a superb collection, skillfully edited by Thomas Moore, who provides a succinct and elegant introduction to Hillman’s thinking. (We’re thankful for permission to reprint excerpts here.)

I interviewed Hillman last fall, when he was in North Carolina. Though nervous about meeting someone whom Robert Bly calls “the most lively and original psychologist we have had in America since William James,” I was put at ease immediately by his friendly, gracious manner. A tall man, well into his sixties, who manages to seem dignified and mischievous at the same time, Hillman said he was feeling tired. He stretched out on the bed, I pulled up a chair, and we began.


HILLMAN: You don’t mind my lying down?

THE SUN: This is perfect: the therapist lying down. The anti-therapy therapist. You’ve criticized modern psychology for giving feelings too much emphasis. You’ve said we’ve had a hundred years of analysis, and people are getting more and more sensitive, and the world is getting worse and worse.

HILLMAN: I don’t think feeling has been given too much attention. What one feels is very important, but how do we connect therapy’s concerns about feeling with the disorder of the world, especially the political world? As this preoccupation with feeling has grown, our sense of political engagement has dropped off. How does therapy make the connection between the exploration and refinement of feeling, which is its job, and the political world — which it doesn’t think is its job?

Therapy has become a kind of individualistic, self-improvement philosophy, a romantic ideology that suggests each person can become fuller, better, wiser, richer, more effective. I believe we have now two ideologies that run the country. One is economics, and the other is therapy. These are the basic, bottom-line beliefs that we return to in our private moments — these are what keep us going.

THE SUN: When you say “the country,” don’t you mean those people who share certain cultural and intellectual attitudes? The insights of therapy don’t seem mainstream.

HILLMAN: The insights of therapy are part of the mainstream. We have mental health clinics all over the nation, in every city and county. And they all produce pamphlets about how to deal with the problems of addiction, battered wives, childhood disorders. There are therapists throughout the country, and they’re very important people, because they pick up the refuse of the economic-political system. Someone has to pick these people up, and therapy does it. But therapy operates with an ideology, an individualistic, must-learn-to-cope ideology. The individual has to learn how to cope, and the therapist helps that person stay in control. This ideology is based on the idea of individual growth and potential. Most schools of therapy share the idea that there’s an inner world that can be made to expand and grow, and that people are living short of their possibilities, and that they need help to — what shall we call it? — fulfill their potential.

THE SUN: Still, it seems to me that those who run the country aren’t more “sensitive,” but instead deny their own woundedness. It’s hard to see how the increased popularity of therapy has led to a degraded politics.

HILLMAN: I won’t insist on a cause-and-effect relation. But I do believe there’s a correlation, for two reasons. The first concerns the child archetype in therapy, an archetype which tends to depoliticize the client. Once one is engaged in feeling abused, in feeling victimized, one also feels powerless, and seeks to locate blame outside of oneself. The client is concerned with the past, with what happened to him or her, with one’s own individual growth. Yet the child is apolitical per se, is not a political being. Second, the class that first bestowed power on those who rule is composed of the white American suburbanites, who also happen to be the people in therapy. I may be wrong about this; I don’t know the statistics. But there have been fewer and fewer people voting since the Nixon-Kennedy race. The withdrawal from the political arena of the “better” people, the more intelligent, the more sensitive people has allowed those now in power to gain power in the first place.

THE SUN: I’m sure these criticisms don’t endear you to the therapeutic community.

HILLMAN: No. That’s part of what I mean about ideology. When you are situated within an ideology, it becomes very difficult to take criticism. These days there are two things — aside from religion — that are difficult to criticize deeply: our capitalist system and our therapeutic system. They share a common emphasis on the individual.

THE SUN: Isn’t the emphasis on the individual at the heart of the American experience? There’s always been a mythology here of rugged individualism.

HILLMAN: There are many who have located the roots of the therapeutic movement in the individualism embraced by nineteenth-century modernism, in which everyone is the author of his or her intentions and is responsible for his or her own life. Own. Own is a very big word in therapy; you own your life, as if there’s a self, an individual, enclosed self within a skin. That’s individualism. That’s the philosophy of therapy. I question that. The self could be redefined, given a social definition, a communal definition.

THE SUN: You’re suggesting that this emphasis in therapy makes the self into a “private property.”

HILLMAN: Right. You own your emotions, you own your feelings. In the last twenty years, philosophers and literary critics — particularly in France — have argued that there is no author, there is no central identity to the self, there is no self. They think we are a product of discourse, of language. I would say that we are also the product of a social network.

THE SUN: The Buddhists have been saying for thousands of years that there is no self.

HILLMAN: But that isn’t the way it seems to have worked with those Americans who go into Buddhism. They seem to work very hard at self-control, through meditation. There’s a good deal of criticism of such practices even from within that tradition. What is the criticism? What are people noticing? Not just that gurus sexually abuse their people, or buy Cadillacs. That isn’t the issue. The individualism to which we fall prey — that’s the issue.

THE SUN: Can you say more about the child archetype, and the emphasis in psychology on going back to the past in order to learn who we are in the present?

HILLMAN: We have a biographical sense of psychology. We don’t have as strong a social sense, or spiritual sense — we’re less inclined to regard the soul as going somewhere, and less likely to define wherever it ends up as the most important part of our biography, the most important part of our existence.

I believe the soul is always attuned to the geographical, or ecological, world. Where you are is as important as where you came from. What you do every day is as important to the soul, to the revelation of the soul, as what your parents did to you, or what you were like when you were five, or ten. We don’t generally subscribe to such notions, not really; instead, we emphasize the notion of individual career, personal biography. This notion is faulty because it’s too singular to begin with. We could fault this model of the self even further. But it’s hard to sit here and imagine other models. Do you see what I mean? It’s hard to shift to an emphasis on the end of life, or to the social, geographical context of life, to the “you” who is what you do, to the “you” that you create with every move. Now, that would be a Zen thing, wouldn’t it? Every move you make, every bite you eat, every word you say, is inventing yourself. We think the soul is already made by what happened early on, and we’re always trying to fix it, to adjust it.

But suppose I’m making it now, as I talk?

THE SUN: Yet who you are, talking, is also made up of who you were.

HILLMAN: That’s what we think. But can one think one’s way past who one was? Can we conceive of the possibility that I change what I once was by what I say now? That I am no longer what I was? Perhaps what I was is only a fantasy, just as the time of time past is a fantasy.

Now, in a Judeo-Christian culture, that is tough thinking. Because our Judeo-Christian culture believes absolutely in the reality of history. We believe in it to such an extent that we send archaeologists to Palestine to find remnants of the historical Jesus. But Jesus is powerful not because he was in Palestine two thousand years ago, but because he’s a living figure in the psyche. We don’t have to dig up a remnant to show that he’s powerful. But our culture is very historically minded. There are other cultures which are not historically minded at all. They’re much more concerned with whether or not the trees are in good shape, and are speaking to you. Much more concerned. Or whether the river has changed course; that’s something to worry about. My goodness. If the fish turn belly up, that is far more important to what is happening to my soul than what my mother did to me when I was four.

Can we imagine that way? What I’m trying to do is simply imagine in this way, rather than make a literal statement that the fish is more important than my mother. Because if we don’t begin to imagine in this way, the ecological problems are not going to change. We’re still going to do something solely because it’s good for me personally. James Lovelock said that the great problem of the moment concerns the destruction of the rain forest, while the depletion of the ozone layer is a relatively minor problem — though he’s one of the ones who is responsible for having discovered the hole in the ozone. We’re obsessed with ozone depletion because we’re so afraid of skin cancer, and the direct effect on us from the hole in the ozone. We’re still looking at ecological problems from an anthropocentric, individualistic, narrowly human point of view. We’re not concerned with ecology, and we can’t be until we change our notion of what an individual is. That’s psychology’s job.

Own is a very big word in therapy; you own your life, as if there’s a self, an individual, enclosed self within a skin. That’s individualism. That’s the philosophy of therapy. I question that. The self could be redefined, given a social definition, a communal definition.

THE SUN: To some people, changing society and working on oneself aren’t mutually exclusive.

HILLMAN: Freud argued that the self is truly noncommunal, fundamentally individual. Jung said that we are each makeweights in the scales — that what you do in your psychological life tips the balance of the world one way or another. The pervasive therapeutic ideology today urges a similar point: if I really straighten myself out — the rainmaker fantasy — if I really put myself in order, then the world . . .

THE SUN: What’s the rainmaker fantasy?

HILLMAN: It’s the old, mystical idea that once the rainmaker puts himself in order, the rain falls. It’s the shamanistic idea that unless I’m in order, I can’t put anything else in order. It’s also an idea basic to modern therapeutic practice: How are you going to help the world if you’re not in order? You’re just going to be acting out; you’re going to be out in the street, making trouble. First get inside yourself, find out who you are, get yourself straightened out, and then go out into the world, then you can be useful. Understand, I’m arguing the therapeutic point of view now: put all the architects, the politicians, the scientists, the doctors into therapy, where they’ll find themselves, get in touch with their feelings, become better people. Then they can go out and help the world.

We’ve held to that view but I don’t think that’s it, I don’t think it works. I wish it did, but I don’t think it does.

THE SUN: You’ve written that pathology is not a medical problem to be cured, but the soul’s way of working on itself. I was curious how that perspective extends to the question of addiction.

HILLMAN: Addiction is one of the big words of our time. Do you think addiction is located intrapsychically? Is the problem located inside me? Consider bulimia, the eating disorder. Now I think an eating disorder is a food disorder. I think there’s disorder in the food, in our relation to substances, so that we become addicted to them. We could say the addiction is a symptom; a symptom is always a compromise between an appropriate relation to a substance and a sick relation to a substance. What’s important in an addiction is the value of the substance, the value of something external to me, on which I depend totally. It’s this that the addiction recognizes; there is something outside of me with which I must be in touch. Whether it involves co-dependency — I’m talking here of a love object, of someone to whom I’m addicted in a relationship — or addiction to a substance, the result is the same: my psyche can’t live without this other.

That’s a big statement for the soul to make: I must have it. I must be in touch with that other thing, whether it’s the person, the alcohol, or shopping, which is the second biggest leisure activity in the U.S. TV is the first. Since we now have TV shopping, they’re getting hard to tell apart.

To my mind, these are all ways of saying that somehow, these things out there are carrying life for me. They animate it. We have a problem with the world of things; we have a problem with being dependent on the not-me. And we don’t want to recognize that. We don’t, because our ideology depends completely on the doctrine of individualism, a doctrine which assures me that I am a free agent, engaged in free enterprise, that I am on my own. I’m John Wayne. I’m Gary Cooper. I’m Rambo. I am a self-contained person. Or I’m a self-centered, abused, victim/survivor. Yet, I’m addicted to everything. It’s breaking down my entire sense of who I am. I can’t live without you. That’s what an addict says, what every love-addicted person says: I can’t go on without you. That’s putting a huge value on that other person or thing. The way I see it, there’s something instructive going on in the addiction.

THE SUN: So is the way out through? Does one honor the addiction?

HILLMAN: No. I think the way out is contained in something Eric Hoffer said: “You can never get enough of what you don’t really want.” You don’t really want the alcohol. If you can find out what you really want, if you can find your true desire, then you’ve got the answer to addiction.

THE SUN: To what extent do you feel the twelve-step groups recognize this?

HILLMAN: They partly recognize it. They channel the desire toward something spiritual. But these “support groups” bother me, too. When you were a child, if you lived in a city, your father probably went out on Tuesday night to a ward meeting with the Democrats or the Republicans, to some meeting dealing with something. Now we go out because we’re fat; we go on a Tuesday night to meet other fat people. On Wednesday night we go out because our parents abused us; Thursday, because we drink too much. We meet single-issue people. We meet through our symptoms.

It’s a new way of organizing the political world, the communal world: in terms of pathology. For everyone to sit around a room because they’re fat — I don’t know if that’s a way civilization can continue. I want to meet with people who are fat, and black, and green, and white, and exhibitionists, and Republicans. That’s what a democracy is about.

THE SUN: I understand your point, but maybe you feel this way because you’re not struggling with being fat, because you’re not struggling with having been an abused child.

HILLMAN: But why? Why is it that I have so reduced my struggle — the struggle of life, the very engagement which is life — to the fact that I am obese, or an exhibitionist, or that I fall in love too much? You see what I mean?

THE SUN: I’m trying to see it from the point of view of someone in such a group.

HILLMAN: I think that group of overeaters could begin to realize what goes on in school lunches, and what goes on in advertisements for potato chips. There are acutely political dimensions here, dimensions that this group could work to identify. There has to be some imagination on their part, some effort, if they are going to see that their problem is not just something inside their own skin.

There’s also the matter of the cell physiology, the physiological problems of obesity. There are lots of things. But all of them, all such points of view, tend to narrow the problem, and in this way keep it from the communal. And I want it to go on into the communal. There’s a fundamental political task, as Aristotle noted: “Men are by nature political animals.” That’s very important. Suppose we begin seeing ourselves not as patients, but as citizens. Then what would therapy be like? Suppose the man or woman coming to you as the therapist is above all else a citizen. Then you’re going to have to think about these people a little differently; they’re no longer just cases. I’m not sure what this leads to, but it points to a fundamental shift in emphasis.

It’s better to go into the world half-cocked than not to go into the world at all. I know when something’s wrong. And I can say, this is outrageous. This is insulting. This is a violation. And it’s wrong. I don’t know what we should do about it; my protest is absolutely empty. But I believe in that empty protest.

THE SUN: You’re rather an uncompromising critic of spiritual movements, and everything called “new age.” You once suggested that meditation was a fascistic activity, that people who meditate are as uncaring as psychopathic killers.

HILLMAN: I did once remark that meditation, in today’s world, was obscene. To go into a room and sit on the floor and meditate on a straw mat with a little incense going is an obscene act. Now what do I mean, what was I saying, for God’s sake, aside from shooting off my mouth? I was saying that the world is in a terrible, sad state, but all we’re concerned with is trying to get ourselves in order.

I remember hearing a student say something once that threw me into a real tizzy. He said we should meditate, and let computers take care of world problems. They could do it much better than humans. I mean, he was really spiritually detached from the world.

THE SUN: It sounds like he was also emotionally detached, but something called spirituality gets the rap.

HILLMAN: Your question is very legitimate. I don’t want to be locked into an anti-meditation position. I think every consumer — for that is what we actually are — needs a lot of neutral time, a lot of turnover time. Idleness, fantasies, images, reflections, emptiness — not necessarily disciplined meditation. But when meditation becomes a spiritual goal, and then the method to achieve a spiritual goal — that’s what worries me.

THE SUN: And the goal you’re suspicious of is transcendence.

HILLMAN: Yes. The quest to flee the so-called trivia of the lower order seems misguided. Personal hang-ups, fighting with the man or woman you live with, worrying about your dreams — this is the soul’s order.

THE SUN: What if the goal is merely a few minutes of calm?

HILLMAN: If that’s the goal, what’s the difference between meditation and having a nice drink? Or going to the hairdresser and sitting for an hour and flipping through a magazine? Or writing a long letter, a love letter? Do you realize what we’re not doing in this culture? Having an evening’s conversation with people; that can be so relaxing. Moving one’s images, moving one’s soul; I think we’ve locked onto meditation as the main method for settling down.

It’s better to go into the world half-cocked than not to go into the world at all. I know when something’s wrong. And I can say, this is outrageous. This is insulting. This is a violation. And it’s wrong. I don’t know what we should do about it; my protest is absolutely empty. But I believe in that empty protest.

You see, one of the ways you get trapped into not going into the world is, “Oh yeah, wise guy, what would you do about it? What would you do about the Gulf crisis?” I don’t know what I’d do. I don’t know. But I know when I feel something is wrong and I trust that sense of outrage, that sense of insult. And so empty protest is a valid way of expressing feeling, politically. Remember, that’s where we began — how do you connect feeling with politics? Well, one of the ways is through that empty protest. You don’t know what’s right, but you know what’s wrong.