James Hillman on “The Soulless Society”

I often wonder what James Hillman (1926-2011), the most widely known post-Jungian thinker and someone whose work continues to inspire me, would make of our current times.

Yesterday I found a clear indication in this excerpt from an interview, published on youTube four months before he died of bone cancer. To me, this brief conversation ( just over seven minutes) is far more important to consider than any other message I’ve seen on the eve of our nation’s birthday. In it, Hillman says:

“Where are we now? What’s psychology worth now? I mean look at the world, look at the USA. Look at all the people who have taken psychology courses and look at the lack of psychology in our government and in our attitudes. I mean we haven’t a clue!

We go around the world as if there was no such thing as a psyche, no such thing as a soul. I mean we bomb and exploit and take and kill as if this had no effect on the soul of our own people, let alone other people…I’m worried about the soul of our country from the effects of what we do.” Remember – this was said in 2011.

Hillman’s was never a “comfortable” psychology, for he always aimed to help us “see through” our comfortable illusions, ever deeper into the often uncomfortable dynamics that underly what is visible on the surface of personal and national life.

Some of the comfortable illusions I would like to believe but cannot include ideas like:

  • Our problems began in 2016.
  • One man (or) one party is responsible.
  • We are better than this.

This last one I find to be the most harmful illusion of all, for it suggests there may be (relatively) straightforward fixes, as if we simply got off on the wrong freeway exit.

If we were better than this, it wouldn’t be happening!

And if we aspire to be better than this, Hillman would likely suggest we take a clear eyed a look at where we are, and how we got here, and what we can do now in service to Anima Mundi, the Soul of the World.

Jung’s Tower: simplicity and the inner life

Jung's Tower House, Bollingen, Switzerland, by Andrew Taylor, 2009.  CC BY-SA-2.0

Jung’s Tower House, Bollingen, Switzerland by Andrew Taylor, 2009. CC BY-SA-2.0

Recent news of technological incursions into consciousness itself (virtual reality and altered memories); almost daily revelations about NSA spying; suggestions that social media “isolates people from reality;” it’s enough to make you want to unplug all the gadgets – at least for a while!

Renowned psychologist, Carl Jung (1875-1961) did just that, for months at a time, in a tower-house complex he started building in 1923 and continued to work on for the rest of his life.  He often spent months each year living as simply as possible, without electricity or running water.  It’s easy to think he lived in a simpler time and couldn’t have imagined modern complexity, but consider these words he wrote in his autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, published in 1961, the year he died:

“We rush impetuously into novelty, driven by a mounting sense of insufficiency, dissatisfaction, and restlessness.  We no longer live on what we have, but on promises, no longer in the light of the present day, but in the darkness of the future, which, we expect, will at last bring the proper sunrise.  We refuse to recognize that everything better is purchased at the price of something worse; that, for example, the hope of greater freedom is canceled out by increased enslavement to the state, not to speak of the terrible perils to which the most brilliant discoveries of science expose us.
…new methods or gadgets, are of course impressive at first, but in the long run they are dubious and in any case dearly paid for.  They by no means increase the contentment or happiness of people on the whole.  Mostly they are deceptive sweetenings of existence, like speedier communications which unpleasantly accelerate the tempo of life and leave us with less time than ever before.”

The tower, phase 1, 1923.  Creative Commons

The tower, phase 1, 1923. Creative Commons

Ten years before starting the tower, Jung had a painful break with Freud that precipitated a period of disorientation and a huge uprush of the kind of unconscious contents he had witnessed in schizophrenic patients.  Feeling that his experience was purposeful, he chose to submit to the unconscious with writing, art, and the effort to understand.  Out of this phase of turmoil and uncertainty, his unique psychological insights were born.  Paper and ink, he said, did not seem “real” enough to represent his discoveries, so in 1922 he purchased land on Lake Zurich for a “representation in stone” of his “innermost thoughts.”

Phase II, 1927.  Creative Commons

Phase II, 1927. Creative Commons

Jung wrote at length of the parallel developments of his inner life and the tower, over more than three decades, saying things like:

“At Bollingen I am in the midst of my true life, I am most deeply myself”

“At times I feel as if I am spread out over the landscape and inside things, and am myself living in every tree, in the plashing of the waves, in the clouds and the animals that come and go, in the procession of the seasons.”

“I pump the water from the well.  I chop the wood and cook the food.  These simple acts make man simple; and how difficult it is to be simple!”

Jung pumping water at Bollingen ca. 1960.  Library of Congress

Jung pumping water at Bollingen ca. 1960. Library of Congress

While drawing inspiration from Jung, an obvious question becomes, how do I connect with this kind of depth in the midst of my own too-hectic life?  The good news is, we don’t need a tower to live in for months at a time.  The bad news is we need to unplug every day and tune into activities that nourish the soul; this is often hard arrange.  It takes focus, intention, and experimentation to find those things that center us and we are drawn to.  Any number possibilities come to mind:

  • “Spend an hour a day in a quiet room by yourself reading old stories that you find nourishing.”  That’s what Joseph Campbell said when Bill Moyers asked this question during the “Power of Myth” interviews.
  • Meditation, of almost any kind.  This my own core practice.  Zen teacher, Cheri Huber said, “If you start by watching your breath for as little as five minutes a day, it can change your life.”
  • Sports that allow one to get in “the zone,” especially walking, running, or bicycling.
  • Keeping a dream notebook.
  • Writing, though I suspect most bloggers will have the same difficulty I have in putting words at the service of psyche – how do I turn off the writing sophistication I’ve worked so hard to gain?  Can I ever truly use words in a “purposeless” manner, allowing them to go where the wish, without thinking, “Gee, this would make a good blog post?” For any chance of success, I need a definite strategy, like writing fast with a rollerball pen in cheap notebooks.
  • Visual arts or crafts.  Training or skill is not required for this kind of work, and in fact, can get in the way.  Those with artistic training may find it useful to paint or draw with the non-dominant hand.  Jung had no formal art training, but his private journal, The Red Book, only recently published, gives an idea of what may emerge if one is determined to honor the psyche.
Red Book, p. 131.  Courtesy Ox Aham, Creative Commons

Red Book, p. 131. Courtesy Ox Aham, Creative Commons

When I truly examine my own habits, it’s clear that I fritter away enough time with gadgets each day to find the space for this kind of exploration.  It doesn’t need to be with the kinds of activities I outlined above.  I find it’s ok to schedule “time for inner work” the way I schedule time at the gym, but the most powerful new discoveries seem to emerge from those quiet voices at the edge of consciousness, the tiny impulse it is so easy to overlook in our busy lives.

Such an impulse woke me one night at 1:00am one morning.  Instead of going back to sleep, I got up and wrote down a sentence.  That led to a paragraph, and then a page, and then another.  That was the start of the first (and so far only) novel I’ve finished.

Something similar happened to Jung at his tower.  He gave the stonemason at a quarry precise measurements for blocks he needed to build a new wall, but one of the stones arrived in error; it was square, about 20″ on each side.  When Jung saw it, he said, “That is my stone, I must have it!”  Over time, he carved a testament to his life and work on stone which “stands outside the Tower, and is like an explanation of it.  It is a manifestation of the occupant.”

Bollingen stone, main face, CC-BY-SA-3.0

Bollingen stone, main face, CC-BY-SA-3.0

In a seminar in 1939, Jung said:

“We have no symbolic life, and we are all badly in need of the symbolic life. Only the symbolic life can express the need of the soul – the daily need of the soul, mind you! And because people have no such thing, they can never step out of this mill – this awful, banal, grinding life in which they are “nothing but.”

The Bollingen Tower became a vital way for Jung to live the symbolic life, but he would have been the first to insist that we don’t need to carve stone or build houses to find it for ourselves.  All we need is the hunger.  And the will to begin.

What’s coming to TheFirstGates in 2014?

Courtesy Emma Paperclip, Creative Commons

Courtesy Emma Paperclip, Creative Commons

Thanks to everyone who visited this year, old friends and new.  Here are a few year end musings on where this blog may be going in 2014.   These are not resolutions.  Remembering Yoda’s words to Luke, “Do or do not, there is no try,” I don’t make resolutions.  These are sort-of-predictions, aka guesses, based on a line from a Grateful Dead song, “I can tell your future / just look what’s in your hand.”

In the case of theFirstGates, it should probably read, “look at what books are piled up on the table beside you.”  Looking at the titles in the stack, I predict more of the same, only new and (hopefully) better.

I’m currently reading a book I got for Christmas, Grimm’s Complete Fairy Tales.  The key word is complete – I haven’t read all the tales before.  The other great feature is the Arthur Rackham illustrations.  No one has ever painted Faerie like Rackham, and it’s a place I never tire of visiting.

Another new title is Trickster Makes this World by Lewis Hyde.  Not only is Trickster an ongoing object of fascination, but he pervades blogging just like the rest of life.  I’m reminded of this every time I hit Publish while meaning to click on Save.

And perhaps most important for TheFirstGates, I’m rereading The Dream and the Underworld, one of James Hillman’s important early works.  Here he turns the tables on psychology’s habit of translating the night world of dreams into the language of daylight; serving the ego, in other words.

Dream and the Underworld

Instead of asking what a dream means, Hillman asks what it wants.  This shift is fundamental to all of Hillman’s thought – psychology, the science of the psyche, in service to soul and soul-in-the-world.

Of great interest to me as a blogger is Hillman’s effort to see through literal events to the fantasies, the mythical layers that underly the stories we tell ourselves and the ones we see on the evening news.  The reality in our fantasies and the fantasy in all our realities.

The coming year is unique in one respect: 2014 marks the centennial of the start of that worldwide disaster misnamed “The Great War.”  The first world war has haunted me for years with its end-of-an-age immensity and sadness.  There are millions of stories to tell, and I’ll try to post a few here, from the bumbling youths who sparked the conflict to a young lieutenant named Tolkien who was sent to Mordor in 1916, though the generals called it The Somme.

And finally, as always I will continue to be on the lookout for those stranger-than-fiction events that leave us shaking our heads, wanting to laugh or cry or both at the strangeness of it all.

I wish you all a joyous New Year, and I hope we will all continue to share the emerging wonders of this online experience!

Remembering James Hillman

James Hillman died two years ago today.  As a culture, we have yet to appreciate the depth and range of his thought, but without any doubt, that will come.  I’m going to post a brief interview with him that I just discovered.

Toward the end of his life, Hillman wrote extensively on character, in The Soul’s Code, 1996, and The Force of Character, 1999.  In this 1999 interview on the Legacy of Aging, he said true character emerges most clearly in maturity.

When our culture attempts to mask the process, through plastic surgery and other means, we deprive ourselves, and especially the young, of the authenticity of elders, people who simply are what they are.  “As Hemingway said, ‘Life breaks everyone,’ and if we can’t see those breaks, we’re living in a false world.”

Hillman says the physical deterioration of age is real and can be difficult, but he believes it is purposeful, “no accident,” and growing old is not a disease to be cured or quarantined.  Using the metaphor of waking up more frequently at night, he speaks of “waking up to the night.”  As physical eyesight grows dim, the eyes of the soul open.

People who study Hillman’s work will also want to read this memorial piece that Thomas Moore wrote for the Huffington Post.  Moore, a friend who corresponded with Hillman for decades, offers a wonderful summary of one of the key themes of his work:

“I was taken by [Hillman’s] loyalty to Jung expressed through his original and fresh re-working of key ideas. He calmly removed unnecessary gender issues from Jung’s ideas of the anima and soul. He advocated a view of the person as made up of multiple, dynamic faces that should be kept in tension rather than “integrated” into some sentimental notion of wholeness.”

Hillman spent his long life defending such values as soul, authenticity, and imagination.  I could find any number of worthwhile posts about his life and work, but these are enough for now.  They’re enough to allow us to pause and remember the life and work of an exceptional man.

James Hillman on world change and political polarization

James Hillman, 1926-2011

James Hillman, 1926-2011

For decades, James Hillman brought us unique observations on modern life from the perspective of a depth psychology that embraced soul as its highest value.  Recently, I’ve wished I could hear his take on our current climate of political divisiveness, but Hillman, who died two years ago at the age of 85, wasn’t here to watch our most recent shenanigans.  Happily, I recently stumbled upon a pair of interviews in which Hillman discussed this very subject and set it in a context of massive cultural change.

Author and journalist Pythia Peay published the first interview on The Huffington Post in February, 2011 (Jungian Analyst Explains the Psychology of Political Polarization).  The occasion for their talk was the mass shooting in Tucson, which had happened a month earlier.  The most prominent victim was Representative Gabrielle Giffords.

Tragically, memory of that event, just two and a half years ago, has been lost in the wake of more recent carnage, including the Nevada school shooting earlier this week.  Though Hillman’s comments focused on the role of political divisiveness in the attempt to kill a congresswoman, his additional statements now seem eerily relevant to the 12 year old in Sparks who was so alienated that he ended his life with murder and suicide.

Hillman began with a general discussion of polarized thinking.  “Polarity,” he reminds us, is an electrical engineering term.  Batteries have poles; the psyche is far more nuanced than that, dwelling in shades of gray rather than black or white.  Ideological extremes subvert our ability to judge individual issues on their merit.

When asked if violently polarized politics caused the shootings, Hillman changed the focus to another kind of cultural rigidity and its effect on the Tucson shooter:

“I think that this kid was made a loner by an American educational system in which there is no room for the weird or the odd…We need to have an educational system that’s able to embrace all sorts of minds, and where a student doesn’t have to fit into a certain mold of learning. Our educational system has become so narrowed to a certain formula, that if you go through a weird phase, you’re dropped out — often at the age of schizophrenia, 19-23 — and that’s the danger.”

Arguments in the wake of gun violence bog down in specifics, like background checks and how many bullets a magazine should hold – we don’t ask why and how we’re producing more and more people prone to mass violence.  In the end, says Hillman, for a culture that pays so much lip service to “the individual,” we are terrified of real individuality, and attempt to stamp it out.

In the second interview, America and the Shift in Ages, Hillman suggests that much of that rigidity has to do with futile attempts to shore up outmoded systems and institutions during a period of massive change.  Not just one but “three or four” myths that are central to our culture are collapsing.

Everything we fear has already happened said Hillman:  “The fragility of capitalism, which we don’t want to admit; the loss of the empire of the United States; and American exceptionalism. In fact, American exceptionalism is that we are exceptionally backward in about fifteen different categories, from education to infrastructure. But we’re in a stage of denial.”  Other beliefs and structures are crumbling as well, he said.  White supremacy, male supremacy, the influence of monotheistic religions, and the belief that we are “the good people.”

If such institutions do not appear to be in decay, it’s because they are so staunchly defended, and that, Hillman says, is a sign of their lack of vitality — “If they were vital they wouldn’t need to be defended. And the fanaticism we’re witnessing goes along with the deterioration of the vitality of these myths.”

Many of our fundamental beliefs are under scrutiny and need to be.  Hillman mentions the meaning of “freedom.”  For many, freedom means, “I can do any goddamn thing I want on my property; that I am my own boss and don’t want government interference; that I don’t want anybody telling me what I can and can’t do.”  This, he says, is the freedom of an adolescent boy.  What of the different kinds of freedom, such as “freedom from the compulsions to have and to own and to be someone?”  What of the freedom Nelson Mandela found in prison?

Hillman cites economic assumptions that need to be questioned as well.  Falling demand needs to be stimulated, according to current assumptions, but from an ecological point of view, that’s exactly what the world needs at this time.  Sustainability models, which may be our hope for the future, terrify those in positions of power.

Many of our current fears, says Hillman – from fear of immigrants crossing our borders, to fear of failing education, to fear of cancer, to economic insecurity, terrorists, and of course fear of “the other” political party, results from the lack of a wider framework in which to understand the massive shifts that are already underway.

There is no going back, but as obsolete structures crumble, we can glimpse, if we look, new forms emerging.  Hillman gave the example of a “Bioneers” conference he attended where Paul Hawken showed a film that was simply the names of individuals and organizations involved in trying to innovate ways of building communities, economic systems, and ways of dealing with the natural world.  Hawken said there were thousands of names, and the film could roll for weeks.

Hillman said it’s important not to try to fit emerging structures into the patterns of the past.  For our peace of mind, a new kind of faith is required:   “I think it’s a matter of being free-wheeling, and trusting that the emerging cosmos will come out on its own, and shape itself as it comes. That means living in a certain open space — and that’s freedom.”

Dawn over Oostende, Belgium, 2007.  Photo by Hans Hillewaert, CC-BY-SA-3.0

Dawn over Oostende, Belgium, 2007. Photo by Hans Hillewaert, CC-BY-SA-3.0

Such words are a fitting conclusion to the lifework of a man who lived in defense of Anima Mundi, the World Soul and who taught that animals, trees, and rivers are intelligent and alive, and that at some deep level of the psyche, we can hear their voices.  In Hillman’s life work, observation of the modern psyche led to conclusions that mesh with the myths of the ancestors.

A thousand years from now, people will read of our times and shudder, as we do in contemplating the rigors of life in the middle ages.  A few visionaries stood out from the rest, those like Saint Francis, Dante, and Leonardo, who pointed toward a more benevolent and expansive future.

We cannot write our own history, but we can wonder how it will look to those in the future.  I am convinced that James Hillman will be remembered when most of what passes for news on TV is blessedly forgotten.

Your Own Damn Life: an interview with Michael Meade in The Sun

Michael Meade is an author, storyteller, and a passionate advocate of soul values in a world that increasingly ignores them; I’ve written about Meade or mentioned him in half a dozen posts.

In The Water of Life (revised, 2006) he shares his discovery that stories can be a matter of life and death.  As a teen in New York, when confronted by gang members from a rival neighborhood, Meade didn’t just lie his way out of serious injury or worse – he storied his way out, with an elaborate made-up tale that won over the assailants long enough for him to make his escape.  Readers of my recent posts will recognize a thriving trickster in Meade when he was just a kid!

I recently found an interview between Michael Meade and John Malkin in the The Sun that is as timely today, or more so, than in November, 2011, when it was published.  In the interview, “Your Own Damn Life,” Meade quotes an African proverb, “When death finds you, may it find you alive.”  Alive, he goes on to say, “means living your own damn life, not the life that your parents wanted, or the life some cultural group or political party wanted, but the life that your own soul wants to live.”

In the past, meaningful stories could guide soul evolution, but now, with the culture and the natural world both in crisis, Meade points to our lack of coherent, guiding tales.  A culture falls apart, he says, when youthful imagination and energy are stunted and when the traditional wisdom of elders is forgotten.  At one extreme, “You’re not supposed to be worrying about the end of the world as a teenager; you’re supposed to be bringing your dream to it. The world seems old and troubled now, and the young are no longer allowed to be as young as they should be.”  At the other extreme, we have a lot of “olders” but not many wise “elders.”

When traditional stories collapse, Meade says, the guiding and healing stories must come from within.  “That means going to the core of your own life and finding the story seeded within.”  Meade has tried to facilitate such explorations through his writings and talks, which first became known in the 80’s when he, James Hillman, and Robert Bly hosted a series of men’s conferences.

Meade continues to teach, write, and offer a variety of community services through the non-profit Mosaic Foundation he founded in Seattle where he lives.  If you’ve read this far, you will find Meade’s interview in The Sun and the Mosaic page hightly rewarding and likely sources for new ideas.


Notes on Imagination and James Hillman

Here’s my dilemma:  it’s impossible for me to write about imagination without mentioning James Hillman.  Yet every time I’ve started a post on Hillman, I’ve given it up because the scope of his thought and writing, over almost 50 years, is just too vast.  Hillman died last October at 85 and a two volume work on his life and thought is underway.  Two volumes might not be enough.  So what can a blog post accomplish?  We are about to find out.

James Hillman

Three days after Hillman’s funeral, his friend, Thomas Moore, wrote, “James’s many books and essays, in my view, represent the best and most original thought of our times. I expect that it will take many decades before he is truly discovered and appreciated.  He changed my life by being more than a mentor and a steady, caring friend. If I had to sum up his life, I would say that he lived in the lofty realm of thought and yet also like one of the animals he loved so much. He was always close to his passions and appetites and lived with a fullness of vitality I have never seen elsewhere. To me, he taught more in his lifestyle and in his conversation than in his writing, and yet his books and articles are the most precious objects I have around me.”

Hillman, who served as Director of Studies at the C.G. Jung Institute in Zurich, will be remembered with Freud and Jung as one of the most original psychological thinkers of the 20th century, yet his appeal may be greater outside that discipline than it is with traditionalists in it.  He never pulled his punches.  In 1992 he co-authored, We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy and the World is Getting Worse.  In an interview published a year earlier, he said:

“By removing the soul from the world and not recognizing that the soul is also in the world, psychotherapy can’t do its job anymore. The buildings are sick, the institutions are sick, the banking system’s sick, the schools, the streets – the sickness is out there. … The world has become toxic. … There is a decline in political sense. No sensitivity to the real issues. Why are the intelligent people – at least among the white middle class – so passive now? Why? Because the sensitive, intelligent people are in therapy! …Every time we try to deal with our outrage … by going to therapy with our rage and fear, we’re depriving the political world of something. And therapy, in its crazy way, by emphasizing the inner soul and ignoring the outer soul, supports the decline of the actual world.”

Let me say it again:  those statements were made in 1991.

During the late 80’s, Hillman joined Robert Bly and Michael Meade in presenting a series of conferences exploring the myths and archetypes of the male psyche.  Bly’s, Iron John came out of that work, as did Hillman’s and  Meade’s concern with the genius within, (see my previous post).  This was the subject of Hillman’s, The Soul’s Code, 1997, the first and only one of his books to become a bestseller.  In it, he suggested we come into the world with a calling or destiny, the way an acorn carries the pattern of a mature oak.  Our mission in life is to realize this deeper purpose.


An editor once rejected an articles of Hillman’s, saying it would set psychology back three-hundred years.  Hillman said that was exactly what he was trying to do.  Soul and soul-making were his constant concerns, but not as the words are used in modern terms.  He often quoted Keats who said, “Call the world if you please, ‘The vale of Soul-making.’  Then you will find out the use of the world…”  He also repeated a fragment of Heraclitus, “You could not discover the limits of the soul, even if you traveled every road to do so; such is the depth of it’s meaning.”

Hillman did more than offer poetic metaphor; his goal was nothing less than a return to an earlier, three part formulation  of the human person, embraced by the ancients but lost to modernity.  People in earlier times conceived of soul as an intermediate faculty that inhabits an imaginal realm between the physical world of body and the disembodied heights of pure spirit.  Imaginal not imaginary, a disparaging term which suggests that soul, vision, dream, and myth are not real.  In his key work, Revisioning Psychology, 1975, he said:

“First, ‘soul’ refers to the deepening of events into experiences; second, the significance soul makes possible, whether in love or in religious concern, derives from its special relation with death.  And third, by ‘soul’ I mean the imaginative possibility in our natures, the experiencing through reflective speculation, dream, image and fantasy – that mode which recognizes all realities as primarily symbolic or metaphorical.”    

Another key point Hillman makes is the primacy of image in the life of the psyche:  Speaking of Jung he says:

“He considered the fantasy images that run through our daydreams and night dreams, which are present unconsciously in all our consciousness, to be the primary data of the psyche.  Everything we know and feel and every statement we make are all fantasy-based, that is, they derive from psychic images….Every notion in our minds, each perception of the world and sensation in ourselves must go through a psychic organization in order to ‘happen’ at all.  Every single feeling or observation occurs as a psychic event by first forming a fantasy-image.” 


At the start of this post, I wondered what I could say in a brief article about a prolific and protean thinker like James Hillman.  Inspire someone to learn more, I hope.  A good place to begin is A Blue Fire, a collection of key writings, edited by his friend, Thomas Moore.

Here are some noteworthy links:

The New York Times obituary:  http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/28/health/james-hillman-therapist-in-mens-movement-dies-at-85.html?_r=1

“On Soul, Character, and Calling” by Scott Landon, published in The Sun, July, 2012: http://www.scottlondon.com/interviews/hillman.html

A tribute by his friend, Michael Ventura, a journalist, who asks, “What do you say about an intellectual genius who learned to tap dance in his 60s?”   http://www.austinchronicle.com/columns/2012-01-13/letters-at-3am-james-hillman-1926-2011/

A remembrance by Thomas Moore: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/thomas-moore/james-hillman-death_b_1067046.html

I have more to say, but this is enough for now.  I’ll end with a message Hillman sent to his friends during the last few weeks of his life, when he finally became too ill to work:   

“I am dying, yet in fact, I could not be more engaged in living. One thing I’m learning is how impossible it is to lay out a border between so-called ‘living’ and ‘dying’.” 

I think Moore is right – it will take decades to fully appreciate the scope of Hillman’s life and work, but there’s no reason not to begin right now.