I first became acquainted with the work of James Hillman ten years ago through A Blue Fire (HarperPerennial), a selection of his writings edited by Thomas Moore. Since then, Hillman has become my personal King Solomon, an intellectual hero, the one writer whom, though sometimes baffling, I read again and again, then say aloud in astonishment, “I never thought of that.” Thanks in part to Moore’s distillation and clarification of Hillman’s work, I have come to see such themes as architecture, suicide, jealousy, love, and family in startling, fresh ways.
Most important to me is Hillman’s emphasis on embracing all aspects of one’s nature as being rooted in the divine. He uses the Greek gods as a model for this need to honor, not transcend, the war god, the jealous god, the depressed god. He condemns the New Age insistence on transformation, on sloughing off the “old” self and becoming some new, idealized person. Instead, he urges a deepening of personal traits that are set at birth.
Hillman’s writing is bold and imaginative. He readily employs the poet’s technique of leaping from idea to idea and trusting the unconscious to supply the connection. Though he initially benefited from Moore’s editing, it is really Hillman’s ideas that have brought him to center stage as a proponent of honoring the soul, with all its mysterious costumes and demands. In the past few years, he has even appeared on television to talk about his book The Soul’s Code (Warner Books), a selection of Oprah Winfrey’s book club.
In his newest book, The Force of Character and the Lasting Life, Hillman addresses the subject of aging and, in his usual fashion, turns many generally accepted concepts on their heads as he presses for a broader look at the “misery” of decline: memory loss, irritability, insomnia, heart failure, drying up. In our country, aging is regarded primarily as a disease on which huge sums of money must be spent in search of a “cure.” Hillman contends that it is not our hips that need replacing, but our beliefs about old age — ideas that give priority to biology and economics, rather than to soul and individual character.
Hillman has said he sees himself not so much as the founder of the school of thought called “archetypal psychology” (he was director of the Jung Institute in Zurich, Switzerland, for ten years) but as a “re-visionary thinker.” His re-visioning of aging takes as its central paradigm the notion of character, which he defines as the whole of one’s nature, “that particular person you have come to be and already were years ago.” It is character, he says, that forms how our faces look, what our habits are, our interests, friendships, eccentricities, ambitions, and work. It is what determines the way we give and receive; it affects our loves, our children. And, as we age, the force of our character naturally deepens. “As character directs aging,” Hillman contends, “aging reveals character.”
If character and soul are the primary ground of our being, then the physical body and its losses may be looked at in more open and imaginative ways; the agitations and miseries of aging can be seen in light of their psychological purposes and the insights they provide into character. For example, rather than being annoyed when one’s mother tells the same story for the hundredth time, one might see her as passing on the archetypal “Story” by which we understand our lives and convey ancestral lore and wisdom.
To grow old well, Hillman says, takes the courage to let go of useless negative ideas about aging, and to cultivate instead curiosity about this process, finding its value. We must, he insists, keep our eyes open to both the fading light and the blaze of beauty at sunset.
Now seventy-four years old, Hillman is known for his acute and deep perception, not his bedside manner. It was, therefore, with trepidation that I first approached him for this interview. Here I was about to meet my main teacher when it came to the affairs of the mind. I was terrified when I called to cancel our first appointment because I was sick. Part of my sickness was, I think, fear. Hillman had been difficult and cold on the phone, challenging me about how I was going to approach this interview. But I’d also recently received a postcard from a friend with a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt: “You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”
I found Hillman’s home just off the common in a small, elegant New England town. In person, he was both powerful and shy — shy not in his voice, which is authoritative and blunt, a hammer striking flat, but in his eyes. He hardly looked at me at all before the interview began. When he did, however, his regard was intense, and a buzz of sexuality resonated around our talk. A really good conversation is erotic.
During a break, Hillman made tea and served it in an old pot with pictures of the presidents on it. Two cats jumped around his high-ceilinged living room, which was filled with soft gray light. As I began to feel more at ease, I confessed how scared I’d been to meet him. But then, I told him, on the drive over, I’d heard my dead father say, “Relax, he’s just a guy!” Hillman laughed. In the course of the interview, he never lectured, and our talk took the kinds of unexpected turns so common in the best of his writing. He began by commenting on The Sun.
Hillman: The Sun is a completely personal and unusual piece of work, but it’s a lone voice. I would like it to be more political, especially in North Carolina, a state that has such extremes between very good people and very heavyweight people. It’s indirectly political, though, because it stands for values.
Zeiger: And it stands for personal expression at a deep level. There aren’t many places where you can honestly tell the hard truths of human experience.
Hillman: My thinking, though, is that when we compare our deep personal experiences with those of Eastern Europeans, or Russians, or South Americans, or Africans, ours seem so irrelevant, so tiny and shameful — just people talking about what sort of relationship they had with their father. Our novels, compared to those coming out of other parts of the world, are insular and parochial.
Zeiger: But what can we do about the fact that we have these insular lives, that we’re surrounded by so much comfort? We can’t manufacture hardship in order to write deeper, more meaningful novels.
Hillman: Good question, what do we do? After all, the people in Kosovo, or wherever we look, have personal experiences, too: their spouses walk out, or they get cancer. But their experiences are part of something else. They resonate with the world, with society, with tragedy and fate, with political and social repercussions. Are ours just part of our comfortable life, as you say? Or is it that we’ve cut ourselves off from the larger figures of the cosmos?
Zeiger: I often stay away from the news and then feel guilty for not participating in the larger theater of the world. But if I see those images, I’ll feel a responsibility to do something about them, and I can’t, except perhaps to send money. I’m left feeling powerless.
Hillman: Yes, powerless, but there are answers. Gary Snyder says, when something strikes you — whether it’s a hungry child, or the death of a fish, or the cutting of a forest, or the warming of the air — take that particular thing and enter into it. Learn about the salmon, about the Indian myths surrounding it, about the whole life cycle of the fish. Through your learning, you develop sympathy, and you become an expert. You pick one place where your heart can connect to the world’s problems. We can’t just say, “This is too much. I can’t bear it.”
Zeiger: I do volunteer work at a senior center leading writing workshops, but it doesn’t feel like enough. It’s too easy. I enjoy it. Perhaps there needs to be some element of sacrifice.
Hillman: That’s a good point. Your example also raises the question: Why does our society believe old people need help? They are the ones who would be, in some other society, passing on help to others: teaching skills, telling stories, leading rituals, caring for children. They have a contribution to make, and instead they are segregated as sick people who need to be nursed. This is ridiculous. And The Force of Character is partly about that status.
Zeiger: Your book seems to be an attempt to bring our culture, which is so afraid of aging, into better balance.
Hillman: Yes, we’re supposedly a young nation; we’ve always worshiped get-up-and-go, doing things on your own, winner take all. But we’re also a practical nation, and we don’t realize the practical value of older people. We attribute to old age wisdom and sagacity and all these good things, but we don’t have much use for that in our get-up-and-go culture. We have to realize that old people are very practical for society: they know a lot; they’ve acquired many skills; they have a knowledge of tools. Think of old carpenters, old gardeners. An old cloth merchant in New York City can touch a material and know what it’s all about, and that’s practical. We need to look at old people more practically in order to restore their value. Maybe they don’t know computers, but there is more to life than computers. What about eating and cooking? What about having an eye for people, knowing how to handle feelings?
Zeiger: I think fear of aging is related to a fear of dying, and also to a fear of being really alive.
Hillman: We’ve become a security-obsessed culture. We’re an air-bag culture. We buy cars because of their safety features. Everything has to be safety-proofed so that there can be no accident. Now they’re going to make a car in which the trunk can be opened from within because last year nine children died in trunks. To avoid death, or accident, or wounding of any kind has become our prime objective. It’s as if, psychically, we live in gated communities in order to keep out the unforeseen.
Zeiger: That fear of the unforeseen seems related to our Puritan beginnings: fear of vitality, sexuality.
Hillman: Yes, keeping things under control. And we’ve been very successful, if you measure success in terms of material things.
Zeiger: Everyone seems to want what we have. But getting back to The Force of Character: it seems to be a natural outgrowth of your last book, The Soul’s Code.
Hillman: So it seems, but I’d been interested in the theme of aging for years. Long before I did The Soul’s Code, I’d given a couple of lectures, which are now chapters at the center of the new book, looking at heart trouble, waking at night, memory loss, irritability; looking at what these things do for you, rather than just seeing them as signs of decay.
The Force of Character is not practical advice on how to cope with various symptoms, but rather an attempt to provide other ways to look at what’s going on in your life, so that when the insomnia comes, for example, you have a larger definition for it than just “insomnia,” which is a diagnostic, medical label. You can ask, “Should I drink less caffeine? Should I take a pill?” But you’ll get nowhere. Or you can ask, “Why is it that I’m plagued by terrible thoughts at 3 A.M. and then I go back to sleep at 7 A.M., when I’m ready to start my day? Do I need these four hours of haunting?”
When you don’t sleep, you’re more sensitive. It’s as if your skin is peeled back. Some of these demons that come in the night can’t get in during the daytime. Life intrudes; there’s the telephone, the fax, all these machines. The repairman comes; the yardman comes; the cleaning lady comes. Something’s always happening, so how can the demons find their way in? In another culture, people may regard those nighttime experiences as far more important than getting a good night’s sleep, because it’s a chance to meet the other world.
Zeiger: The body is a wonderful teacher, yes, but it seems that there is something inherently miserable in insomnia, or hearing an old person — your mother, for example — tell you the same story for the thousandth time.
Hillman: Insomnia demands a whole new approach to night and sleep, or else it is only a misery. As for the old person telling the same story for the thousandth time — our problem is that we haven’t learned how to listen to it anew.
Zeiger: Do you think that’s possible?
Hillman: Yes. I know in my own case, I could not listen to my mother’s stories again and again, but I could listen to my grandmother’s stories, which my mother could not bear. And my daughter could hear my mother’s — her grandmother’s — stories, could take them somewhere, enter into them, start a dialogue.
Zeiger: Perhaps we identify too much with the parent, so we can imagine ourselves becoming like them. We fear we’ll get sick, too, as I fear inheriting my mother’s Parkinson’s and dementia.
Hillman: We must not mix up aging with disease. We’ve done that in this country for too long. Aging is not disease. You can have cancer that is hideous at thirty-six, or leukemia in childhood. But for some reason, we equate old age with disease. Many people are diseased in old age, but many are not. I just heard of a man today who is 102, and he still takes care of himself.
We all think we’re going to get Alzheimer’s — all of us. People who are fifty think so. Say you’re off to the post office with a pile of letters and you can’t find your car keys, and then you find your car keys but when you get to the post office, you didn’t bring the letters with you. One little slip-up, and you think, Aha! Alzheimer’s. This is the way our mind, our culture works. We are fed propaganda from morning to night by drug commercials on TV and articles in every magazine. So we’re obsessed with sickness. That’s what I mean by an air-bag culture. We are so rich and our egos so strong in our gated communities, in our gated selves, that we’re afraid of everything: disease, old age, different-colored people, poor people, change of any sort. We’re terribly afraid.
Zeiger: Those reactions are so much in opposition to the American spirit of exploration.
Hillman: Where has the risk gone? Aging is a time of risk, and older people have incredible courage. Just the way they cross the street. Just facing life with a more vulnerable constitution. Just going downstairs or getting out of the bathtub. Risks. Courage. I try to bring that out in this book.
Zeiger: There’s a woman in my senior writing group who has gone blind — she’s seventy-six — and she composes poems by memory and recites them to the class.
Hillman: Really? Good for her.
Zeiger: There’s another woman who’s eighty-seven and has the most beautiful, soulful face. I loved the section “Interlude” in your book: a pastiche of meditations on the face. I don’t generally like self-help books, but I must say that chapter helped me to appreciate my own aging face. Could you say something about faces, their importance?
Hillman: To show one’s face is part of having the courage to show who one is. And coming to terms with your own face takes a lifetime. Just think how, when you were twelve or sixteen, you wished you looked different. And that’s true for everyone; even the most perfect, beautiful boy or girl is dissatisfied. So why is that? It can’t just be that I don’t look like the model on the magazine cover. It’s something else. You haven’t yet accepted your fate, who you are. As you get older, that relationship between your face and who you are matures. They blend together. Your true self shows more.
Zeiger: Like the spirit that shines out in a really old person and makes him or her beautiful. I have a friend like that. She’s eighty-six, and she seems young to me.
Hillman: Do you really mean “young,” or do you mean vital, alive, lovely, handsome, striking? See how we give it all away to youth? And even if the eyes have yellowed, if they’re cataracted, there’s a beauty that’s transcendent. The real person is there.
In another part of the book, I emphasize the ethical claim of the face on another person. The idea comes from the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. “The Other becomes my neighbor precisely through the way the face summons me,” he says. The other person’s face requires a response. Levinas says that’s where civilization begins, where ethical responsibility begins: face to face. He hits upon something very profound.
Zeiger: With fewer and fewer face-to-face encounters, as with e-mail, we inevitably grow more and more estranged from each other.
Hillman: Now you’re touching on a big question, because the Internet is faceless. Even if eventually we can see the person we’re talking to, it won’t be quite the same. But people who deliver the news on TV become like our intimates, because their faces are there every day. Isolated older people may tune in, not for the news or the weather, but for those faces they get to view. The face captures you, and the people who produce these shows know that.
Zeiger: Do you think we internalize some ideal image of our face at a certain age? I remember an older student saying that, every time he looked into the mirror, he thought, Who is that old guy?
Hillman: In the book, I tell how Freud caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror and didn’t know who “that old man” was. It’s a surprise to see yourself. And I think that when you do look at yourself on a regular basis (of course, a man has to shave, so he looks often), you see other people, relatives, in your own face, your mother or your brother. I’m amazed to see these people in my face — even my grandfather, who died fifty years ago. Family resemblance comes out late in life. You grow into the family tree. Isn’t that, in part, what we resist in aging? We resist growing back into, merging with this ancient tree. We think we’ve traveled so far away from it.
Zeiger: You write about becoming, in old age, our essential character, a character that is not “centered,” but more eccentric, a bit off course. My dad, for example, became more of a cynic. You recommend honoring that essential character. But what about things like civility, kindness? While some of us become more gracious with age, others can become pretty obnoxious. Isn’t there a danger in abdicating some standard of behavior?
Hillman: You are stating a collective fear. So what if you are obnoxious? People are used to dealing with curmudgeons. And there’s a social cohesion that works to modify such behavior.
Zeiger: Speaking of parents, when my mom was dying, I felt as if she was both here and somewhere else. She was a very practical woman who never talked about dreams or the spirit world, but near the end of her life, in the nursing home, she turned to my husband and said, “Bill, I just heard that your death has dreams.”
Hillman: “Your death has dreams”? What a poetic statement of great mystery.
Zeiger: I truly had a sense of her being in both this world and the next simultaneously. Do I dare ask you about that?
Hillman: We can speculate about what’s on the other side. Many people need to believe in something, whether it’s heaven, or reincarnation, or channeling. But I don’t take that subject up, because no one knows. No one has ever come back. There is the sense, however, that there is another side, and that’s interesting — that this life doesn’t feel complete in itself. We intuit something else, and we get that feeling most of all with older people. They seem to be carrying messages, or to have one foot over there. In tribal societies, they expect that from shamans and old curanderas — healers. They are supposed to have access to spirits.
Zeiger: And, unless you’re a child, there’s this yearning — I don’t know what to call it. . . . “Something to go to,” perhaps.
Hillman: “Something to go to,” yes. It’s more than wishing, because it comes from the heart and soul. The German Romantics said, “Tell me what you long for, and I’ll tell you who you are.” Not what you do. You go to a party, and people ask you what you do, and you say, “I sell cars,” or, “I’m a gardener.” But for the Romantics, it was “Tell me what you long for,” what your yearning is, which suggests something huge. It doesn’t mean longing in a simple way, like desire for success. America is very shallow in that way. We long to be successful. But what the hell is success, or fame, or celebrity? Our kids get perverted by the idea of success, by commercials. We neglect their strong sense of justice, their strong environmental sense. They need to see people who have nobility of character, but those voices are not heard on TV. Kids are betrayed by the shallowness we show. They need to see real older people.
Zeiger: What about sex and old age?
Hillman: Yeats talked a lot about the need to face the erotic, at every age, and I do the same in my book. People were embarrassed by it then, and they are still embarrassed by it.
Zeiger: The Puritans are still around.
Hillman: They really are. They don’t realize that the erotic imagination is so crucial for an inspired old age. It doesn’t mean that you have to be chasing girls. It’s just important to have that erotic feeling. One of the crippling restrictions about old age in this culture is the shame about eroticism. If old people are to recover their vitality, or their value, they have to open themselves up to erotic fantasy. Old people guard against the erotic as something belonging to youth. But eroticism is a life force lasting as long as life. Imagination, that’s all that’s necessary. There’s a French joke: A little old lady goes to the priest to confess, and she tells the priest this long, detailed story of sex with a boy at the farm. And the priest says, “My goodness, when did this happen?” And she says, “Seventy years ago.” And he says, “Seventy years ago, and you’re confessing it now?” And she says, “I like to think about it from time to time.” [Laughter.]
“I like to think about it from time to time.” That’s the point. She’s alive partly because her imagination is alive, and I think that needs to be said again and again. In the Puritan point of view, you’re supposed to put all that behind you.
The scientific point of view says age is a sickness that can be overcome with genetic research, with gene splicing, with new medicine, with discoveries about why we age. The message is that aging doesn’t have to happen; we can reverse it, or even stop it. This utopian fantasy is very strong within the scientific community. But the social and ethical consequences of such fantasies are not even thought about. Suppose we all lived to be 125, or 185; how would we live? It’s a frightening idea, because it’s a deep denial of something fundamental to the human experience. Now, these scientists would say, “That doesn’t matter. Slavery was fundamental to the human experience, and it was done away with. The oppression of women was fundamental to the human experience, and that had to be done away with. Aging, even dying, is just another one of these social/medical problems we can solve.”
Zeiger: Aging or dying?
Hillman: Both! Life extension isn’t even enough as a goal. They want to prevent dying, to say that dying isn’t really necessary to the human condition. But what does this fantasy of inexhaustibility and indestructibility do to us philosophically, religiously, ethically, socially? We’re becoming robots of some sort, or golems. What is it we’re not willing to entertain? That aging has actual pleasures? Whatever happened to the pleasure of aging? I guess that’s it: we don’t see it as pleasure. I don’t know what you experience, but I certainly experience pleasure in many ways, and different kinds of pleasure than earlier in life: Sitting back and letting things happen. Speaking out, and damn what others think. Watching birds, or people. My appreciation of music has become much more acute, even if my hearing is a little less.
Zeiger: The pleasure for me is of being myself with more ease and saying what’s on my mind. The pleasure of a certain kind of earned authority. The pleasure of being able to come here and talk to you without being too overwhelmed.
Hillman: That’s a big one! I’ve met some really interesting and important people in the last five years that I could not have met previously, because I was too much in awe of them.
Another thing that old people often report is enjoying the simple pleasures of the day, and the pleasure of the seasons, of seeing spring again, or snow. I’ve also noticed how enjoyable memories are. Reviewing our lives can be a pleasure; it isn’t just contrition and guilt and remorse and regret and so on. There’s a strange pleasure in going back over things. And it isn’t just that you go back over them, but they come back to you. You can’t believe it. Where did all this come from? They aren’t just memories, but scenes you can reenter and rediscover things that you once lived.
Many pleasures are lost in the medicalization of old age — most of all, the pleasures of the senses. You take pleasure in eating, or a good sleep. You can sit in a chair and enjoy it. [Laughter.] But medicine has turned old age into an exercise program, a diet program, a passion for dosages and prescriptions. This is not life, but a substitute, full of anxiety.
Zeiger: There’s a book by nature writer Farley Mowat called The Snow Walker. It’s about Eskimos, and there’s a story in it about how, when there’s a very bad winter and there isn’t enough food, the old just leave the igloos and go off to die so the children will live. There’s something satisfying and good in that idea of sacrifice, that one leaves to make room for the next generation.
Hillman: I think that’s very important, the feeling of stepping back. You don’t need certain things anymore. As I get older, I’m impressed by how much foolish energy younger people seem to have, how much forward motion. And one of the criticisms I have of some older people is that they won’t step back. They try to keep up, but they can’t.
Zeiger: For me, I was far more politically active when I was young. I don’t know if this falling off has to do with living in the country, or a shift in energy.
Hillman: I think we need more old people becoming activists. In the sixties, in the civil-rights movement in the South, there were many coalitions of old and young. The same is true with the environment. Old people have a lot of courage. They can enter the political arena in a different style — can be there without being quite as caught up in it.
Young people have a great sense of justice. One of the common complaints of children is “It’s not fair, it’s not fair!” And old people feel that again. I have no idea where that sense of justice comes from. It’s almost as if it’s born in you. It’s a remarkable thing. We should all pay more attention to it.