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.