Telling stories about James Hillman cannot quite convey James Hillman, but I’ve been asked to tell stories, and I will, in a little bit. Before that, however, I want to make a few things not clear but opaque, and I hope to do so, like James, with clarity, because clarity within the opaque was James Hillman to a T.
Acknowledging, as he’d want me to, that there were many James Hillmans, I’ll begin by saying that the James Hillman I knew was a kindly, severe, funny, no-nonsense guy.
But, James being James, we must stop right there and examine that statement: He would want me to remember, while writing about him, that the psyche is a multi-event constantly in motion — an event, not an object — and that a person as brilliant and disciplined as James was able to focus different aspects of his psyche with different people. He’d want me to add, further, that everyone does this unconsciously, but that consciousness-of-focus can be achieved, as he achieved it and as he expected me to achieve it. Conclusion: my James may not be your James.
That paragraph is Hillmanesque — just so you know what I’m talking about if I later say, “Hillmanesque,” or, “psyche,” or even, “James.”
Now we may proceed with the unpacking of “no-nonsense” and “guy”: James loved nonsense for its own sake, as he loved foolishness for its own sake, but he did not suffer fools gladly, nor tolerate their nonsense. Rather he immolated the poor devils with verbal barbs and sharp-eyed stares that I secretly thought were funny. (Let it be noted that James and I did not always agree about who was and was not a fool — and James would have been the first to admit that the word fool applied to the man he saw in the mirror more often than he’d have liked.)
As to “guy,” James was old-fashioned in his guy-ness. Courtly, in his abrupt way. Ramrod straight, always. He looked, moved, and spoke like a classic New England gentleman, as ready for erudite conversation as he was for grabbing a musket to fight the redcoats — but always quick to point out, if not exactly boast, that he was Jewish and grew up in Atlantic City.
And again, James-like, we must digress and explain that although James Hillman was a serious guy, for him “serious” wasn’t serious unless it included hearty laughter at the fateful and the absurd, no matter how fateful and absurd. During our last conversation he joked wryly that his illness had taught him so much about Manhattan’s emergency rooms, he should write a guidebook.
All of which is to say: James Hillman loved and embodied paradox — not only the play of opposites but also the effluvia that attach to the play of opposites. For James nothing was quite as it seems, except in those highly improbable moments when things are exactly as they seem. (He would have insisted on that exception.)
And there you have what must precede any sketch of James Hillman, be it in prose or charcoal: he was thinking all the time, and, all the time, his thinking was multi — several thoughts at once, with all their attendant associations.
This quality was apparent in his eyes. Behind their tranquil, kindly, severe gaze, a lot was going on, always, so that to be in his presence was to be in an enhanced reality, a denser yet more porous reality than one is used to.
With this established we may now, finally, proceed to the concrete. But — and here lies the rub with James — he would have said that the abstract is the concrete wearing a party mask. Or something like that. For with James every door opened another, which in turn opened another. In that way he was exhausting, entertaining, a little infuriating, and endlessly bountiful.
I promised stories, but our friendship didn’t lend itself readily to a beginning-middle-and-end sort of story. As friends we were kind of fractal.
For instance, one morning, when I hadn’t heard from James in a while, the phone rang, and his unmistakable voice barked, “Ventura! How’s your power?”
I laughed. “Morning, Doctor.”
“Good morning to you, Doctor.”
I sometimes called him “Doctor” because he’d taken to calling me “Doctor,” perhaps because I barely graduated from high school and never tried to graduate from anything else. He seemed to like that about me — which is odd for a man who spoke and read five languages and had star status as a scholar. But that was James.
I knew exactly what he meant by “power.” In James’s usage, power is the force of one’s psyche as articulated through one’s personality.
“My power’s just fine this morning, thank you.”
“Excellent!” Then off he went on whatever it was he was thinking about.
I don’t remember him ever saying hello to me, not even during our first significant conversation, which occurred in Santa Barbara, California, in the mideighties. We were both presenters at a not-very-scintillating conference about something or other. I’d ducked out for a smoke and an afternoon beer (circa 1986 it was still possible to smoke in a bar), and into that dim bar walked James.
I was surprised. We’d met before, at other conferences, and he didn’t seem the dim-bar type. This was my first hint of how he defied type at every turn, as when he’d surprise and delight conference-goers now and again by showing up with a cane and a hat to tap-dance. His audience would cheer, not so much at his merely adequate dancing as at how, by giving such a show, this often distant intellectual giant admitted that he was human and wanted to be liked.
A common desire, certainly, but James the lecturer gave the impression that he cared not at all whether he was liked. Then suddenly there he was, being a little ridiculous and hoping for applause. He wasn’t “one of us” — whoever “we” are — but he’d occasionally make a gesture to indicate that, at least in certain moods, he’d like to be part of the gang.
Back to that Santa Barbara bar: He sat down on the stool next to mine. I waited for him to speak, more out of surprise than reserve.
“You and I,” he said, “are very different, but we have the same enemy: monotheism.”
He’d read my book! And he had sensed that we shared a common intellectual expedition; me a journeyman, James a master, but able together — as we would soon be working — to sometimes hit upon what neither would have concocted alone. The nineteen-year age difference was never a problem. There was something eternally young about James, and, as a born seeker, he could recognize the seeker in others. There’s a proverb he liked: “Two thieves don’t need an introduction.”
Certainly while writing a book together (titled We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy — and the World’s Getting Worse) we thought of ourselves as outlaws.
That book came about this way: At the paper I worked for, LA Weekly, editor Kit Rachlis asked his featured writers to make a list of the ten most important thinkers in the U.S. James Hillman topped my list. No one at the paper had heard of him, as LA Weekly was mostly concerned with music, movies, and politics. Rachlis said that if I thought Hillman was so important, I should do a cover story on him.
And so James appeared on LA Weekly’s cover under a headline that later became the title of our book. It was one of the paper’s most popular and hotly discussed stories. A hit.
On the strength of it James and I got that book deal, which brings up another paradox: James loved to argue just for the sake of the contest, but he and I never argued or even had what they call in Hollywood “creative differences.” I can’t say for sure whether he sank to my level or I rose to his, but as we worked, one wild, probing idea simply followed another. That book reads like a couple of arrogant guys engaged in serious intellectual horseplay. During the making of that book, I’d occasionally say something like “Are you using me to ruin your reputation?” and James would laugh as though I’d made a joke.
It was a book of conversations, following the zigzag course of plain talk. When I look at it now, it feels to me like a jazz duet — two soloists riffing off each other’s ideas, one leading into the next without pattern but with momentum. Like a jazz performance, our book depended on our powers of simpatico — especially his.
I never experienced a simpatico quite like James’s. He could seem distantly authoritative and closely sympathetic at the same time. He’d sometimes do this on the page, as in my favorite of his works, The Dream and the Underworld. Reading it, I often feel as if he’s talking inside my head. (I know others who’ve experienced that book the same way.)
After our friendship began, but before we embarked upon our book, he wrote a generous blurb for my first novel, in which the protagonist makes a move that is the reverse of — but complementary to — the move James argues for in The Dream and the Underworld. His book is about not bringing the dream into the daylight to look for “meaning” but instead descending to where dreams live, in what James calls the “underworld,” and contemplating dreams from their own point of view. In my novel the protagonist tries to make sense of his waking experience by asking, “What would I think if I dreamed this?”
For instance, what would I think if I dreamed that I turned on my TV and there was James Hillman talking to Oprah Winfrey? And what if, the next day, I had the same dream, but James and Oprah were saying different things? Surely we are in the realm of dreams when an intellectual genius meets a pop icon (who is also a kind of genius), and they have so much to say to each other that she invites him back the following day, while millions of viewers watch.
It stands to reason that two masters of simpatico like James and Oprah would put on a good show — and James enjoyed having that kind of sudden fame at seventyish. It seemed to relax, just a little, some tension in him — a profound tension that amounted to another Hillmanesque paradox: tense calm, calm tension, a unity between tension and calm that made his charisma so potent.
Again, in the same vein as my novel’s protagonist, what would I think if I dreamed this: It is a bright winter morning in 1991. We’re at James’s home in Connecticut, working on our book. It has snowed the night before, just enough to glaze everything white. James wants to take a drive. We get in my ’69 Chevy, and I follow his directions. Our destination is a graveyard — the graveyard where he intends to be buried.
It was not a dream, but it was dreamlike walking with James in the place where he now lies. He enjoyed the tombstones.
“Doctor,” he said to me, “what do you think of this one?” Carved onto someone’s stone was an RV sporting a TV antenna. “You can engrave that Chevy you love so much on yours.”
It was eerie and somehow sweet, walking with James in his final resting place.
Not long before the onset of his illness, he was staying at a wealthy family’s estate near Santa Barbara. When I came to visit, he awaited me at the gate, as lean and erect as ever. Nearing eighty, he appeared to have aged little since we’d met, when he was in his late fifties. As ever, he didn’t say hello.
He said instead, “America is over.”
“America is over,” I agreed. “It’ll take a while to play out, but — yeah.”
During lunch we spoke of what would come next — how, during the crumbling of an old order, a different and unexpected order begins to form under the hubbub, and it is always a surprise when it finally takes shape enough to be noticed.
“But,” I said, “isn’t that what you’ve called the ‘myth of resurrection’?”
James often said that the myth of resurrection after death — the “eternally happy ending,” he called it — was at the heart of Western civilization’s constant sense of expectation. I was asking now if our expectation of a new and presumably better zeitgeist wasn’t just a classically Western reflex.
“Or,” I went on, “is what we’re talking about not resurrection, exactly, but possibility?”
“Ah.” He smiled. “Possibility.”
We raised our glasses and toasted: “To possibility!”