The psychologist James Hillman died late last year of bone cancer at the age of eighty-five. Over a ten-year period The Sun published three interviews with Hillman, covering such topics as the failures of therapy, the benefits of aging, and the limits of parents’ influence on their children. To honor him and his contribution to the world of ideas, we’re reprinting portions of all three interviews, accompanied by a personal tribute from Hillman’s friend and writing colleague Michael Ventura.
Born in 1926 in New Jersey, Hillman served in the U.S. Navy Hospital Corps during World War II. He went to college in France and Ireland before earning his PhD at the University of Zurich in Switzerland, where he studied with Carl Jung. Hillman went on to become the director of studies at the C.G. Jung Institute and wrote more than twenty books over the course of his career, including the seminal Re-Visioning Psychology, which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and, with Michael Ventura, We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy — and the World’s Getting Worse. The collection A Blue Fire, edited by Thomas Moore, is perhaps the best introduction to his work.
Hillman was a frequent critic of mainstream psychology, perceiving its focus on improving the self to be limiting. He believed each individual has a purpose or calling in life that reveals itself in childhood and reappears, often as a set of so-called symptoms, until it is heeded. Harnessing this potential is what he considered the great mortal, and moral, challenge. He once said our duty is not to rise above life but to “grow down into it.”
Hillman was the epitome of an independent thinker, unsettling people wherever he went, a fact that seemed to delight more than concern him. Many Jungians considered Hillman a renegade because he attempted to refine several of Jung’s theories, treating none of them as sacrosanct. An editor who rejected one of Hillman’s early manuscripts said it would “set psychology back three hundred years.” It is doubtful Hillman would have minded doing just that; he felt, above all, that we need a “fundamental shift of perspective out of that soulless predicament we call modern consciousness.”
The interviews reprinted here are from three separate conversations: Sy Safransky, editor and publisher of The Sun, conducted the first interview in North Carolina in 1990; writer Scott London did the second in California in 1997; and the late writer Genie Zeiger spoke with Hillman at his home in New England in 2000.
As Safransky put it in the introduction to his interview, listening to 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.”
— Tim McKee, Managing Editor
Safransky: 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 that 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.
Safransky: 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, 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.
Safransky: 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 that 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.
If the fish turn belly up, that is far more important to my soul than what my mother did to me when I was four.
Safransky: 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 were 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.
Safransky: 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: 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?
Safransky: Yet who you are, talking, is also made up of who you were.
Hillman: That’s what we think. But 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 that 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 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 are more important than my mother.
Safransky: 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 —
Safransky: What’s the rainmaker fantasy?
Hillman: It’s the old, mystical idea that once the rainmaker puts himself or herself 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.
Safransky: 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 codependency — 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. But [the author] 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 your addiction.
Safransky: To what extent do you feel 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 politics. Now we go out because we’re fat; we go out 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.
Safransky: I understand your point, but maybe you feel this way because you’re not struggling with being fat or 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 that is life — to the fact that I am obese or that I fall in love too much? You see what I mean?
Safransky: 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, “Man is by nature a political animal.” 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.
Safransky: You’re rather an uncompromising critic of spiritual movements and everything called “new age.” You once suggested that meditation is a fascistic activity, that people who meditate are as uncaring as psychopathic killers.
Hillman: I did once remark that meditation, in today’s world, is 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.
Safransky: 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 antimeditation 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.
Safransky: 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.
Safransky: 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. I think we’ve misguidedly locked on to 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 when people — usually in positions of power — say, “Oh, yeah, wise guy? What would you do about it? What would you do about the Persian 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.
London: In The Soul’s Code you talk about something called the “acorn theory.” What is the acorn theory?
Hillman: Well, it’s more of a myth than a theory. It’s Plato’s myth: that you come into the world with a destiny, although he uses the word paradigm instead of destiny. The acorn theory says that there is an individual image that belongs to your soul.
The same myth can be found in the kabala. The Mormons have it. The West Africans have it. The Hindus and the Buddhists have it in different ways. They tie it more to reincarnation and karma, but you still come into the world with a particular destiny. Native Americans have it very strongly. So all these cultures all over the world have this basic understanding of human existence. Only American psychology doesn’t have it.
London: In our culture we tend to think of calling in terms of “vocation” or “career.”
Hillman: Yes, but calling can refer not only to ways of doing — meaning work — but also to ways of being. Take being a friend. Goethe said that his friend Eckermann was born for friendship. Aristotle made friendship one of the great virtues; in his book on ethics, three or four chapters are on friendship. In the past, friendship was a huge thing. But it’s hard for us to think of friendship as a calling, because it’s not a vocation.
London: Motherhood is another example that comes to mind. Mothers are now expected to have a vocation above and beyond being a mother.
Hillman: Right, it’s not enough just to be a mother. It’s not only the social pressure placed on mothers by certain kinds of feminism and other sources. There is also economic pressure on them. It’s a terrible cruelty of predatory capitalism: both parents now have to work. A family has to have two incomes in order to buy the things that are desirable in our culture. So the degradation of motherhood — the sense that motherhood isn’t itself a calling — also arises from economic pressure.
London: What implications do your ideas have for parents?
Hillman: I think what I’m saying should relieve them hugely and make them want to pay more attention to their child, this peculiar stranger who has landed in their midst. Instead of saying, “This is my child,” they must ask, “Who is this child who happens to be mine?” Then they will gain a lot more respect for the child and try to keep an eye open for instances where the kid’s destiny might show itself — like in a resistance to school, for example, or a strange set of symptoms one year, or an obsession with one thing or another. Maybe something very important is going on there that the parents didn’t see before.
London: Symptoms are so often seen as weaknesses.
Hillman: Right, so they set up some sort of medical or psychotherapeutic program to get rid of them, when the symptoms may be the most crucial part of the kid. There are many stories in my book that illustrate this.
London: How much resistance do you encounter to your idea that we choose our parents before we are born?
Hillman: Well, it annoys a lot of people who hate their parents, or whose parents were cruel and deserted them or abused them. But it’s amazing how, when you ponder that idea for a little bit, it can free you of a lot of blame and resentment and fixation on your parents.
London: I got into a lengthy discussion about your book with a friend of mine. She’s the mother of a six-year-old and, though she subscribes to your idea that her daughter has a unique potential, perhaps even a “code,” she is wary of what that means in practice. She fears that it might saddle the child with a lot of expectations.
Hillman: She’s a very intelligent mother. I think, however, that the worst atmosphere for a six-year-old is one in which there are no expectations whatsoever. That is, it’s worse for the child to grow up in a vacuum where “whatever you do is all right. I’m sure you’ll succeed.” That is a statement of disinterest; it says, “I really have no fantasies for you at all.”
A mother should have some fantasy about her child’s future. It will increase her interest in the child, for one thing. To turn the fantasy into a program to make the child fly an airplane across the country, for example, isn’t the point. That’s the fulfillment of the parent’s own dreams. That’s different. Having a fantasy — which the child will either seek to fulfill or rebel against furiously — at least gives the child some expectation to meet or reject.
London: What is the first step toward understanding one’s calling?
Hillman: It’s important to ask yourself, “How am I useful to others? What do people want from me?” That may very well reveal what you are here for.
Suppose that throughout your childhood you were good with numbers. Other kids used to copy your homework. You figured store discounts faster than your parents. People came to you for help with such things. So you took accounting and eventually became a tax auditor for the IRS. What an embarrassing job, right? You feel you should be writing poetry or doing aviation mechanics or whatever. But then you realize that tax collecting can be a calling, too. When you look into the archetypal nature of taxation, you realize that all civilizations have had taxation of one sort or another. Some of the earliest Egyptian writing is about tax collecting — the scribe recording what was paid and what wasn’t paid.
So when you consider the archetypal, historical, and cultural background of whatever you do, it gives you a sense that your occupation can be a calling and not just a job.
London: What do you think of traditional techniques for revealing the soul’s code, such as the wise woman who reads palms, or the village elders whose job it is to look at a child and see that child’s destiny? Would it be helpful to revive these traditions?
Hillman: First of all, I don’t know if you can revive traditions on purpose. Second of all, I think those traditions are still going on underground. Many people will tell you about some astrologer who said this or that to them, or some teacher. So it’s very widespread in the subculture.
What I try to point out is the role an ordinary person can have in seeing the child’s destiny. You have to have a feeling for the child. It’s almost an erotic thing, like the filmmaker Elia Kazan’s stories of how his teacher “took to him.” She once wrote to him in a letter, “When you were only twelve, you stood near my desk one morning, and the light from the window fell across your head and features and illuminated the expression on your face. The thought came to me of the great possibilities there were in your development.” She saw his beauty. Now, that, you see, is something different from just going to the wise woman.
Why is there such a vast self-help industry in this country? Why do all these selves need help? They have been deprived of something by our psychological culture. They have been deprived of the sense that there is something else in life, some purpose that has come with them into the world.
London: In your book you tell a similar story about the author Truman Capote.
Hillman: In Capote’s case his teacher responded to his crazy fantasies. He was a difficult boy who threw temper tantrums in which he would lie on the floor and kick, who refused to go to class, who combed his hair all the time — an impossible kid. She responded to his absurdities with equal absurdities. She took to him. Teachers today can’t take to a child. It will be called manipulation, or seduction, or pedophilia.
London: Or preferential treatment.
Hillman: Right. James Baldwin is another example. He attended a little Harlem schoolhouse of fifty kids. Conditions were appalling. His teacher was a Midwestern white woman. And yet they clicked.
You see, we don’t need to get back to the wise woman in the village. We need to get back to trusting our emotional rapport with children, to seeing a child’s beauty and singling that child out. That’s how the mentor system works — you’re caught up in the fantasy of another person. Your imagination and theirs come together.
London: Of all the historical figures you studied while researching your book, who fascinated you the most?
Hillman: They all did. All these stories fascinated me. Take Martin Scorsese, another filmmaker, for example. He was a very short kid and had terrible asthma. He couldn’t go out into the streets of Little Italy in Manhattan and play with the other kids. So he would sit up in his room and look out the window at what was going on and make little drawings — cartoons, with numerous frames — of the scene. In effect he was making movies at nine years old.
London: You write that “the great task of a life-sustaining culture is to keep the invisibles attached.” What do you mean by that?
Hillman: It is a difficult idea to present without leaving psychology and getting into religion. I don’t talk about who the invisibles are or where they live or what they want. There is no real theology in it. But it’s the only way we can get out of being so human-centered: to remain attached to something other than humans.
Hillman: Yes, but it doesn’t have to be that lofty.
London: Our calling?
Hillman: I think the first step is to realize that each of us has such a thing. And then we must look back over our lives at some of the accidents and curiosities and oddities and troubles and sicknesses and begin to see more in those things than we saw before. It raises questions, so that when peculiar accidents happen, you ask whether there is something else at work in your life. It doesn’t necessarily have to involve an out-of-body experience during surgery, or the sort of high-level magic that the new age hopes to press on us. It’s more a sensitivity, such as a person living in a tribal culture would have: The concept that there are other forces at work. A more reverential way of living.
London: When you talk in those terms, it seems to me that the boundary between psychology and theology gets blurred. Psychology deals with the will, and religion deals with fate. Yet this is not clearly one or the other but a bit of both.
Hillman: You’re right. It isn’t such an easy thing as the old argument of free will versus predestination. The Greek idea of fate is moira, which means “portion.” Fate rules a portion of your life. But there is more to life than just fate. There is also genetics, environment, economics, and so on. So it’s not all written in the book before you get here, such that you don’t have to do anything. That’s fatalism.
London: What is the danger for a child who grows up never understanding his or her destiny?
Hillman: I think our entire civilization exemplifies that danger. People are itchy and lost and bored and quick to jump at any fix. Why is there such a vast self-help industry in this country? Why do all these selves need help? They have been deprived of something by our psychological culture. They have been deprived of the sense that there is something else in life, some purpose that has come with them into the world.
London: Is it possible never to discover that “something else” — to turn your back on it or to resist it and therefore “waste” your life?
Hillman: I tend to think that you fulfill your own destiny, whether you realize it or not. You may not become a celebrity. You may even experience lots of illness, or divorce, or unhappiness. But I think there is still a thread of individual character that determines how you live through those things.
Wherever I go, people say, “Can I ask you a quick question?” It’s always “a quick question.” Well, my answers are slow.
London: Can’t illness and divorce prompt you to explore some themes in life more thoroughly than others?
Hillman: Certainly. I just read about John le Carré, the great spy novelist. He had an absolutely miserable childhood. His mother deserted him when he was young. His father was a playboy and a drunk. He was shifted around to many different homes. He knew he was a writer when he was about nine, but he was dyslexic. So here was a person with a messed-up childhood and a symptom that prevented him from doing what he wanted to do most. Yet that very symptom was part of his calling. It forced him to go deeper. Any symptom can force you to go deeper into some area.
London: You write that one of the most stultifying things about modern psychology is that it’s lost its sense of beauty.
Hillman: Yes, if it ever had one. Beauty has never been an important topic in the writings of the major psychologists. In fact, for Jung, aesthetics is a weak, early stage of development. He follows a Germanic view that ethics is more important than aesthetics, and he draws a stark contrast between the two. Freud may have written about literature a bit, but an aesthetic sensitivity is not part of his psychology.
London: And this has trickled down to therapists today?
Hillman: Yes. Art, for example, becomes “art therapy.” When patients make music, it becomes “music therapy.” When the arts are used for therapy in this way, they are degraded to a secondary position.
Beauty is something everyone longs for, needs, and tries to obtain in some way — whether through nature, or a man or a woman, or music, or whatever. The soul yearns for it. Psychology seems to have forgotten that.
London: But doesn’t psychotherapy have more in common with medicine than with the arts?
Hillman: Well, one strand of psychotherapy is certainly to help relieve suffering, which is a genuine medical concern. If someone is bleeding, you want to stop the bleeding. Another medical aspect is the treatment of chronic complaints that are disabling in some way. And many of our troubles are chronic. Life is chronic. So there is a reasonable, sensible, medical side to psychotherapy.
But when the medical becomes scientistic; when it becomes analytical, diagnostic, statistical, and remedial; when it comes under the influence of pharmacology and HMOs — limiting patients to six conversations and that kind of thing — then we’ve lost the art altogether, and we’re just doing business: industrial, corporate business.
London: Doesn’t this have to do with the fact that, at a certain point in its development, psychology adopted the reductive method in order to gain the respectability of science?
Hillman: I think you’re absolutely correct. But as the popular trust in science fades — and many sociologists say that’s happening today — people will develop a distrust of purely “scientific” psychology. Researchers in the universities haven’t picked up on this; they’re more interested than ever in genetics and computer models of thinking. But, in general, there is a huge distrust of the scientific establishment now.
London: As people rebel against the scientific approach, they often wind up at the other extreme. We’re seeing many new forms of self-help and personal-growth therapies based on nonrational beliefs.
Hillman: The new-age self-help phenomenon is pretty mushy, but it’s also very American. Our history is filled with traveling preachers and quack medicine and searches for the soul. I don’t see this as a new thing. I think the new age is part of a phenomenon that’s been there all along.
London: I remember a public talk you gave a while back; people wanted to ask all sorts of questions about your view of the soul, and you were a bit testy with them.
Hillman: I’ve been wrestling with these questions for thirty-five years. I sometimes get short-tempered in public situations because I think, Oh, God, I can’t go back over that again. I can’t put that into a two-word answer. I can’t. Wherever I go, people say, “Can I ask you a quick question?” It’s always “a quick question.” Well, my answers are slow. [Laughs]
London: You mentioned Goethe earlier. He once remarked that our greatest happiness lies in practicing a talent that we were meant to use. Are we so miserable as a culture because we’re dissociated from our inborn talents, our soul’s code?
Hillman: I think we’re miserable partly because we have only one god, and that’s economics. Economics is a slave driver. No one has free time; no one has any leisure. The whole culture is under terrible pressure and fraught with worry. It’s hard to get out of that box. That’s the dominant situation all over the world.
Also, I see happiness as a byproduct, not as something you pursue directly. I don’t think you can pursue happiness. I think that phrase is one of the very few mistakes the Founding Fathers made. Maybe they meant something a little different from what we mean today — happiness as one’s well-being on earth.
London: It’s hard to pursue happiness. It seems to creep up on you.
Hillman: Ikkyū, the crazy Japanese monk, has a poem:
You do this, you do that You argue left, you argue right You come down, you go up This person says no, you say yes Back and forth You are happy You are really happy
What he is saying is: Stop all that nonsense. You’re really happy. Just stop for a minute and you’ll realize that you’re happy just being. I think it’s the pursuit that screws up happiness. If we drop the pursuit, it’s right here.
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 yet we don’t realize the practical value of older people. We attribute to old age wisdom and sagacity, but we don’t have much use for this in our 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 a 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.
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 of 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 AM, and then I go back to sleep at 7 AM, 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 they’re 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, for example, 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 down stairs or getting out of the bathtub. Risks. Courage. I try to bring that out in this book.
Zeiger: There’s a woman in my writing group 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 you 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.
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: When my mom was dying, I felt as if she was both here and somewhere else. 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 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? What ever 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 in them rediscover things that you once lived.