Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Riding a New Animal: Remembering James Hillman


 I can no longer distinguish clearly between neurosis of self and neurosis of world.
--James Hillman

I first encountered James Hillman when I was in the middle of a lecture addressed to a conference on archetypal activism, at Pacifica Graduate Institute in Santa Barbara. The room was hot and I was wearing a pair of glasses that fit loosely, so that they slid down my perspiring nose. Again and again, I pushed the glasses up with the tip of my finger, as I tried to focus on my speech and to deliver it with some kind of flare, despite my sartorial difficulties.

My talk that day was on my experience teaching in a men’s prison, from a depth psychological perspective. I voiced a criticism of Hillman’s concept of blueness as a necessary attribute of the depth experience, saying that prison inmates already lived blue lives. What they needed, I postulated, was exactly what Dr. Hillman did not advocate -- the bright light of an imagining of redemption, of light after darkness, of resurrection after crucifixion.

 “If you come from a bright, white, crime-free, suburban, book-lined life, you may well crave, as Dr. Hillman has suggested, the blueness of depression to deepen your soul, the Sadeian titillation of the depths to darken your brilliance,” I said. “But my students have lived blue lives. They wear blue denim uniforms. Their skins are literally dyed blue from primitive tattooing. They need no further descent, which, in their situation, would court physical death, the blue of cyanosis. What they need is a light at the top of the shaft they fell down before they ever dreamed of consciousness of their peril. They need a ladder up. They need a vision of beauty and brilliance to prime their souls, and an imagining of an authentic place in society in which to invest them.”

Suddenly, I was interrupted by someone shouting from the audience! I glanced up from my lecture notes in both annoyance and trepidation, expecting a heckler. But there, amidst the audience, stood James Hillman, giving me a one-man standing ovation, shouting “Bravo!” I was so stunned and so grateful for his heartfelt generosity that I couldn’t speak for a beat or two. Then I smiled and nodded at him, and continued on.

If those glasses were slipping, before, you can imagine the sweat that little encounter raised!

During the break after my talk, James rushed up, took me by the elbow and shepherded me to the side of the room, where he proceeded to go over my talk, point by point. I was astonished by an intellectual acuity that could hold this new material so completely in mind, all the while massaging it, turning it this way and that to examine its virtues and flaws, and comparing it to theories and trajectories of his own. I was aware, as well, that his attention was absolute. I was held in a laser-like beam of concentration that seemed to magnify and extend the passing moments, holding us in a chamber of solitude and intense, resonant focus, even in the midst of milling attendees.

Most of all, I was aware of the remarkable generosity of his intellect, which would honor the remarks of a mere student, which I was at the time, and remarks directed against his own brilliant writing, at that. He was, in fact, clearly delighted that someone had dared to question his ideas. This struck me as the stance of a highly evolved human being who, far from being threatened by confrontation, was excited, challenged and stimulated by it.

I left that first encounter with James almost dizzy from the intensity of it, but deeply moved. I felt I had just been met, fully, graciously and respectfully, on ground that was sacred to me. My talk that day had taken me out to the edges of my being, challenging me to express ideas important to me but which ran counter to accepted ones, and to be big enough to make them known to a very knowledgeable and discriminating audience. James’s reaction was balm to those nervous growth edges and an acknowledgment of my own intellectual powers. He could so easily have slammed me down, hard and fast. I will be forever grateful for his generosity of spirit, that day.

I had been reading Hillman’s books since adolescence, my favorite being The Dream and the Underworld, wherein he proposed the soul-making attributes of dreams. “The psyche needs to be fed,” he declared, and doing dream work is one sure way of doing so. “In order to come to terms with the base of the psyche," he wrote, “we must not turn a moral eye upon its baseness.” Bringing this kind of compassionate, non-judgmental response to the sometimes shocking images that arise from deep in the psyche is one of Hillman’s great contributions to human healing.

Another important book is Suicide and the Soul, which posits that “suicide is the attempt to move from one realm to another by force through death.” Something in the psyche does want to die, he wrote, but one must never literalize, by killing the body. Instead, one must take on the longer, harder labor of discovering what outmoded aspect of the personality needs to be quietly laid to rest.

Many times I have called upon James’s wisdom, in giving advice to others. I remember a young man, an inmate in the state prison, who was having terrible nightmares of his own death. He came to me, asking, “Do you think I’m going to die?” When I explained Hillman’s theory that something in him needed to die, he was immediately comforted and also knew just what that thing was that must die. He subsequently dropped his gang associations, joined a prison religious group, and began taking GED completion courses.

 This one example demonstrates the far-reaching impact of James’s ideas. No one will ever be able to calculate how many lives he has touched and how many psyches have been nurtured and healed by their communion with his deep understanding of the needs of the soul.

His was a Renaissance mind trapped in the tawdriness, banality and aesthetic void of the present culture. No aspect of modern life was too insignificant for Hillman’s brilliant gaze. In A Blue Fire, he comments on the dreariness and depressive quality of the modern ceiling, saying, “I am suggesting some of our most oppressive psychological ills come out of the ceiling.” Even moldings were not beneath his notice and, while he treated the subject playfully, his point was serious:

Modern Bauhaus design exposes this conjunction of father sky and mother earth. The joint is laid bare. Moldings resolve the shock, the violence of their direct rectangular conjunction. Moldings provide a skirt, a curtain covering the exposed pornography, the crotch shot of ceiling joining wall in bare fluorescent light. Moldings are not merely a Victorian cover-up, a delicate discretion – they are an erotic moment in a room, a detail that softens the vertical, letting it come down gently through a series of ripples, heaven into earth, earth into heaven.

I had occasion, one summer in Aix-en-Provence, to remember this passage. I had gone to the library in search of English-language books and was placed in a tiny antechamber to await the judgment of the librarian upon my worthiness to receive. The building was from the early-18th century, when Rococo style was at its height. The room where I waited, upon the sole furnishing, a delicate wooden chair, was stiflingly small, perhaps only 5 by 8 feet, relieved by 2 sets of 9-foot tall double doors on opposing walls, and a long narrow window, in the third wall. Still, the room, no bigger than a prison cell, would have been claustrophobically encompassing, were it not for the ceiling high above me, by at least 18 feet!

 The strange and marvelous proportions of the room enchanted me, but what really grabbed my attention and imagination was the crown molding. It was massive, extending at least three feet onto the ceiling and three or four feet down the wall, and wonderfully wrought with flourishes, fronds, warps and wavers, like a god’s brooding fog bank of gold gilt. Here was an erotic conjoining of heaven and earth, indeed!

It’s been like this with James Hillman and me, for decades. No matter where I turn; what subject I address; what thought occupies my fancy; sooner or later I will find, among his more than 20 books, that James has already been there, thinking and writing about it. The breadth and depth of his inquiry is astonishing and humbling.

In 2001, James and his wife, Margot McLean, came to visit, with the specific purpose of going into the prison to visit my creative writing classes. I had prepped the men for weeks, telling them they were about to be visited by one of the most brilliant minds on the planet; by someone who knew and cared about of their plight. When the day finally arrived, the men were joyous, as they tumbled into the tiny classroom. Upon encountering James, however, they were suddenly quiet and a bit awed.

I should mention here that James Hillman was a very imposing figure. Tall, slender, handsome and tastefully attired, he was not someone who would go unnoticed in a crowd. My friend Mary, who met him in San Francisco in the 1960s, could say earnestly, 40 years later, “He is the handsomest man I ever saw!” A good part of this impression came from the energy of his charisma, that surrounded him like an aura. Clearly, the prison inmates, who are by necessity instinctively aware of the energy exuded by friend and enemy alike, were captivated by James Hillman’s energetic field.

I had expected that James would lecture a bit about his theories of archetypal psychology, but instead he turned to the class and began to ask them questions. He probed their prison experience and the early lives that had brought them there. His interest was rapt, just as it was on our first encounter. I was witness that day to the power of sincere and undivided listening to honor the speaker and what is spoken. Gradually, the men relaxed and began to speak from their hearts. The exchange in that mean and cramped room, that day, verged on the sublime and, when our time was through, the men departed for their cells suffused in a glow of self-worth.

I had just witnessed a therapeutic genius at work. In a world where every action and word is fraught with danger, the men had accepted James with touching openness. And he returned that acceptance to them. After his visit, the men were magnified, dignified and grounded in a new way, simply by having been in his presence for a few hours. Afterward, they all wrote him thank you letters of heartbreaking simplicity and trust. A decade later, the handful of students whom I still mentor still remember that visit and draw sustenance from it.

James Hillman had an antic Muse, as well. As poet Robert Bly said of him, “James threw enormous parties for the spirits.” Rumors abound of the fun he could be at a party, and I myself witnessed him, along with Robert Bly, tap dancing on the stage at the close of the 2000 International Archetypal Psychology conference. And years ago, a friend who met him at a party was nonplussed by Hillman’s mischievous opening salvo, “And what animal are you riding on, today?”

Perhaps that question prefigured the marvelous bestiary he would later coauthor with his wife, Margot, titled Dream Animals, in which mysterious and sensuous creatures appear against magical, dreamlike backgrounds, to the accompaniment of James’s erudite archetypal understanding of them. Whether through humor or deeply serious inquiry, James Hillman probed the inner and outer manifestations of humans, institutions, theories and cultures. The earth was his field of endeavor and his discerning eye fell everywhere.

 One of the photos from his visit seems to say it all. Along with my husband and me, James, with his Hermetic staff, is emerging from the hollow interior of a giant fallen redwood, looking as if he were a psychopomp, guiding us through a portal from the underworld. In my dreams, James does sometimes appear in the guise of the Wise Old Man or Sage, usually at times of profound indecision, when I am hesitating at the crossroads of life. He does not come, then, to show the way, but by listening to elicit from me my own knowing.


I am quite sure that, in whatever dimension James Hillman now resides, on whatever new animal, fiery with verve and passion, he now rides, he is already exerting his influence, probing the shadowy energies of his new world, and preparing to make graceful, witty and deeply insightful commentary upon his findings. That new realm is blessed and magnified by his presence, as we are diminished by his passing from our own.

Frater, ave atque vale.





1 comment:

Unknown said...

Dear Suzanne,

I also knew Jim for nealy forty years. For twenty of them we were close and I started (without his permission) The Institute of Archetypal Psychology in Burlington, Vt. My aim was to help translate his difficult (to some) words for the students. He and his second wife visited often.

I find your story of his clapping for you and going to your prison beyond wonderful. You captured a Jim I did not quite know and reading this I feel so much better as my grief at his death has been long and hard. Thank you so much, Wendy Orange