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A couple of years ago, I got a letter from Annie Gottlieb, a talented writer and devoted subscriber. “Have you ever read anything by James Hillman?” she asked. “He just rips up every one of the culture’s unexamined assumptions. Right now, in a therapy-besotted world, he’s on an anti-therapy jag. He says we’ve withdrawn soul into the consulting room, into the boundaries of the individual skin, out of the neighborhood and the environment. He has especially harsh things to say about the ‘child archetype’ and our reverence for the ‘inner child of the past’ and its supposedly formative traumas, all of which keep us helpless adult children rather than empowered, political citizens. We look back instead of looking around.”
And, she promised, “He’ll make you kinder to your dark side.” As someone given to noodling around in the dark, I was intrigued. “He has a way, for one thing, of uplifting and dignifying your most wretched obsessions. He’s not in favor of transcendence but of transparency, not getting out, but seeing through, so your neurosis becomes a beautiful stained-glass window depicting a universal myth.”
I followed Annie’s advice and started reading Hillman. A brilliant and provocative thinker, he isn’t always easy to understand. He can be a quirky writer, quick to throw out ideas and references. But what ideas! Reading 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.
I don’t always agree with him, but I respect the range and depth of his thinking, and value his willingness to challenge just about any theory, including his own. As Michael Ventura put it in the LA Weekly, “Hillman knows that the work of thought is one of the most ancient and useful activities of humankind. To generate thought is to create life, liveliness, community. Consensus isn’t important. What’s important is how the generative power of our thought makes life vivid and burns out the dead brush, dead habits, dead institutions.”
As a younger man, Hillman studied with Carl Jung and was director of studies at Zurich’s Jung Institute — though today he’s regarded as a post-Jungian or a renegade Jungian or not a Jungian at all. In addition to being a therapist, Hillman runs a small, innovative publishing house called Spring Publications, and has held professorships at Yale, the University of Chicago, Syracuse University, and the University of Dallas. Lately, he’s also been involved in the “mythopoetic” vanguard of the men’s movement, conducting workshops with poet Robert Bly and storyteller Michael Meade.
He’s the author of nearly a dozen books, including Re-Visioning Psychology, The Dream and the Underworld, Healing Fiction, and Inter Views. Recently, the anthology A Blue Fire: Selected Writings by James Hillman has been published by Harper & Row. It’s a superb collection, skillfully edited by Thomas Moore, who provides a succinct and elegant introduction to Hillman’s thinking. (We’re thankful for permission to reprint excerpts here.)
I interviewed Hillman last fall, when he was in North Carolina. Though nervous about meeting someone whom Robert Bly calls “the most lively and original psychologist we have had in America since William James,” I was put at ease immediately by his friendly, gracious manner. A tall man, well into his sixties, who manages to seem dignified and mischievous at the same time, Hillman said he was feeling tired. He stretched out on the bed, I pulled up a chair, and we began.
HILLMAN: You don’t mind my lying down?
THE SUN: This is perfect: the therapist lying down. The anti-therapy therapist. 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 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.
THE SUN: 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 people, 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.
THE SUN: 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 which 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.
THE SUN: I’m sure these criticisms don’t endear you to the therapeutic community.
HILLMAN: No. That’s part of what I mean about ideology. When you are situated within an ideology, it becomes very difficult to take criticism. These days there are two things — aside from religion — that are difficult to criticize deeply: our capitalist system and our therapeutic system. They share a common emphasis on the individual.
THE SUN: 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’s 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.
THE SUN: You’re suggesting that this emphasis in therapy makes the self into a “private property.”
HILLMAN: Right. You own your emotions, you own your feelings. In the last twenty years, philosophers and literary critics — particularly in France — have argued that there is no author, there is no central identity to the self, there is no self. They think we are a product of discourse, of language. I would say that we are also the product of a social network.
THE SUN: The Buddhists have been saying for thousands of years that there is no self.
HILLMAN: But that isn’t the way it seems to have worked with those Americans who go into Buddhism. They seem to work very hard at self-control, through meditation. There’s a good deal of criticism of such practices even from within that tradition. What is the criticism? What are people noticing? Not just that gurus sexually abuse their people, or buy Cadillacs. That isn’t the issue. The individualism to which we fall prey — that’s the issue.
THE SUN: 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: We have a biographical sense of psychology. We don’t have as strong a social sense, or spiritual sense — we’re less inclined to regard the soul as going somewhere, and less likely to define wherever it ends up as the most important part of our biography, the most important part of our existence.
I believe the soul is always attuned to the geographical, or ecological, world. 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?
THE SUN: Yet who you are, talking, is also made up of who you were.
HILLMAN: That’s what we think. But can one think one’s way past who one was? 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 which 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 what is happening 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 is more important than my mother. Because if we don’t begin to imagine in this way, the ecological problems are not going to change. We’re still going to do something solely because it’s good for me personally. James Lovelock said that the great problem of the moment concerns the destruction of the rain forest, while the depletion of the ozone layer is a relatively minor problem — though he’s one of the ones who is responsible for having discovered the hole in the ozone. We’re obsessed with ozone depletion because we’re so afraid of skin cancer, and the direct effect on us from the hole in the ozone. We’re still looking at ecological problems from an anthropocentric, individualistic, narrowly human point of view. We’re not concerned with ecology, and we can’t be until we change our notion of what an individual is. That’s psychology’s job.
Own is a very big word in therapy; you own your life, as if there’s 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.
Own is a very big word in therapy; you own your life, as if there’s 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.
THE SUN: 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 . . .
THE SUN: What’s the rainmaker fantasy?
HILLMAN: It’s the old, mystical idea that once the rainmaker puts himself 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.
THE SUN: 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 co-dependency — 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.
That’s a big statement for the soul to make: I must have it. I must be in touch with that other thing, whether it’s the person, the alcohol, or shopping, which is the second biggest leisure activity in the U.S. TV is the first. Since we now have TV shopping, they’re getting hard to tell apart.
To my mind, these are all ways of saying that somehow, these things out there are carrying life for me. They animate it. We have a problem with the world of things; we have a problem with being dependent on the not-me. And we don’t want to recognize that. We don’t, because our ideology depends completely on the doctrine of individualism, a doctrine which assures me that I am a free agent, engaged in free enterprise, that I am on my own. I’m John Wayne. I’m Gary Cooper. I’m Rambo. I am a self-contained person. Or I’m a self-centered, abused, victim/survivor. Yet, I’m addicted to everything. It’s breaking down my entire sense of who I am. I can’t live without you. That’s what an addict says, what every love-addicted person says: I can’t go on without you. That’s putting a huge value on that other person or thing. The way I see it, there’s something instructive going on in the addiction.
THE SUN: So is the way out through? Does one honor the addiction?
HILLMAN: No. I think the way out is contained in something 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 addiction.
THE SUN: To what extent do you feel the 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 something. Now we go out because we’re fat; we go 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.
THE SUN: I understand your point, but maybe you feel this way because you’re not struggling with being fat, because you’re not struggling 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 which is life — to the fact that I am obese, or an exhibitionist, or that I fall in love too much? You see what I mean?
THE SUN: 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: “Men are by nature political animals.” 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.
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.
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.
THE SUN: You’re rather an uncompromising critic of spiritual movements, and everything called “new age.” You once suggested that meditation was a fascistic activity, that people who meditate are as uncaring as psychopathic killers.
HILLMAN: I did once remark that meditation, in today’s world, was 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.
THE SUN: 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 anti-meditation 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.
THE SUN: 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.
THE SUN: 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. Moving one’s images, moving one’s soul; I think we’ve locked onto meditation as the main method for settling down.
You see, one of the ways you get trapped into not going into the world is, “Oh yeah, wise guy, what would you do about it? What would you do about the 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.
There is a part of James Hillman I really like — his iconoclastic probing yields startling and valuable insights. But there is another part of Hillman that I gag on — the annoying masculine rigidity he revealed in his reply to Jim Ralston.
I can understand why he attacks therapy from within, though he should cultivate more balance and compassion. What he says about therapized people — that they are turned away from society — could apply equally to marriage, raising children, getting a job, or going into the army. Why single out therapized people and accuse them of a private retreat from the political duties of citizenry? Take a look at stockbrokers, garbage collectors, homemakers, or artists; too few of any group of Americans are sensitive to our failing buildings and rivers. Selfishness and isolation from the community are not the special province of therapy clients.
After reading Ralston’s letter, I expected Hillman to open up a little. Instead Hillman did nothing but attack like a mad dog. He undermines his own argument by remaining rigid and narrow.
Mr. Hillman, please soften up a little, but don’t lose your razor-sharp intellect in the process! Abandon your either/or approach and consider that a both/and perspective is not necessarily a cop-out.
It is true that therapy does encourage people to do important self-awareness work on personal neurosis which may turn them inward for a while. And it is true that there are a lot of ingrown, faulty therapies out there that can be sickening, self-centered, and irresponsible. But Hillman attacks with such single-minded vehemence that I wonder if he couldn’t benefit from effective therapy himself, or even from a strong dose of Buddhist meditation — a practice he also attacks.
Last night about 11 o’clock I crawled into bed with Issue 185, expecting to read a few paragraphs of the James Hillman interview before I surrendered to sleep. Instead, I read the whole issue, skipping from back to front to middle — and back again.
The Hillman excerpts were exceptionally provocative; I will read them many times. But the placement of “Tanganyika” immediately after was an ingenious counterpoint. Swept up into Miriam Sagan’s world, I found myself without a frame of reference to separate fiction from fact. Naturally, I had to read the US section, just to get grounded — and so, on and on, into the night. Only an occasional thunderclap punctuated my rapt fascination with the lives unfolding on the page. And only once, as I unavoidably took on the existential sadness of Edwin Romond’s Sunday night priest, did I consider tossing The Sun over the side of the futon, turning out the light.
When my night journey was nearly complete, I thumbed back through the magazine to muse over Uelsmann’s photographs. This was a remarkable issue, Sy, richly diverse. Congratulations.
The photographs mentioned above are available as a PDF only. Click here to download.
I have been turning the exchange between James Hillman and Jim Ralston [Correspondence, Issue 188] over and over in my mind. As Ralston stated, there is a lot to be gained from introspection and growth, and therapy may help you to become a more useful person in your community. But as I pondered Hillman’s statements about how therapy discourages community involvement, I realized with horror that he is right. Therapy has done the same to me.
I used to feel torn up inside about community and world problems. My grief motivated me to get involved — work with anti-nuclear activists, campaign against Reagan, write to elected officials, volunteer in community agencies. But therapists showed me that I was not responsible for these problems. They encouraged a separateness from the world. They insisted that my concerns, my torment, and my grief were merely ways of avoiding my own problems. They made my grief appear selfish and grandiose. I learned not to bring such feelings and concerns up. Then I learned not to experience them very often. My grief was embarrassing to others. Two therapists wanted to put me on mood-altering drugs because they could not cope with my grief. I refused their drugs and quit therapy.
When I’d watch the news or read the paper I would sometimes feel a degree of pain as if the situation were happening to me. And well-intentioned therapists attempted to sever the connection in the name of mental health. But such feelings are what drive me to resist injustice and persistently work for change, wherever I’ve lived or worked. I persist because I care, but therapy has discouraged me from caring.
I agree with Hillman: if communities were cared for instead of commuted to, we might find the mental health and balance we now desperately search for in the therapist’s office.
Imagine my disappointment upon diving into your interview with James Hillman to find him characterize meditation as “a quest to flee the so-called trivia of the lower order. . . .”
I’m not an expert on meditation, nor do I know anyone who would consider her or himself to be an expert, but I don’t think anyone in the Buddhist tradition would agree with Hillman’s description. It is discouraging that a person with such obvious compassion for his fellow beings would discount a five-thousand-year-old tradition which emphasizes the very thing Hillman stresses: the need to go out into the world with an open heart and a willingness to connect with others in a meaningful way.
This sentence is pinned above my desk: “A serious man ought not to waste his time stating a majority opinion.” (G.H. Hardy, mathematician). I try to live this maxim. I try to start with the second shoe, assuming the first one has already fallen long ago. Everyone heard that one drop: it’s the prevailing opinion we encounter anywhere in the therapy world, the self-help world, the afternoon talk-show world. All make clear the importance of childhood, of coming out from disempowerment (“be in control”), recovering from past abuses, working through to self-acceptance (“I can be comfortable with that”), and the confessional witness of “my own journey.” These advertisements for myself sound like the old Charles Atlas ads: “I was a ninety-seven-pound weakling, but look at me now.” Sure, therapy can help you “achieve” full orgasm and all the other things that have become necessary to the whole person’s life as described by white culture’s therapeutic ideology. But that’s all old hat — or comfortable as an old shoe.
My critic is still hanging on to the first shoe, and for dear life. Whereas, I take for granted what we all know and have been through. I’m not interested in his personal testimony; it’s irrelevant. I’ve heard too many case histories and seen too many conversions to take any biographical story as it is told. Biography is an act of imagination; we tell the stories we need to tell to explain what we want to say now. Personal history is also fiction.
I may respect his subjective sincerity, but it does not establish the objective value of therapy. From Marxism to Jonestown people have stood up and borne witness to what good was happening to them only to recognize later the insidious self-delusion, brainwashing, and seductive programming that occurs to the willing psyche by an intricately messianic ideology.
The widespread acceptance of therapy today shows it to be more than a practice; it is also an entrenched ideology, and a messianic one. It offers not only healing and help, but appeals to the hope for personal improvement (salvation). But what about the health of the community, its improvement? Can an individual go uphill while his brothers and sisters (and plants and animals and buildings and rivers) are all going down? Can the individual be conceived truly distinct from community? I am not merely in the culture or a member of it. I am the culture. There is no “me” apart from it. The Greek word for “one’s own” is idios, which also means “apart.” Idios was often contrasted with demosios — of the people, demos, from which democracy. A person concerned simply and solely with personal and private matters rather than public and community affairs is idios. This suggests that therapy may be turning out political idiots in the pious name of consciousness-raising and personal individuation.
Your correspondent says, “For me to come to therapy as a citizen first [at a dysfunctional stage of his life] would have been ludicrous. I had to rediscover my expressiveness first. . . .” What he expresses is the usual therapeutic dogma: first get yourself together, then go into the world. First patient, then citizen.
This argument strikes me as faulty in several ways: a) All through history abused, impotent, nervous people with poor relationships and squeaky voices have entered the political fray in whatever manner they could, not waiting until they were healed or fully realized persons. There is plenty you can do out there even if your marriage is a mess and your father was a son-of-a-bitch. b) According to Aristotle, humans are first and foremost political animals, citizens, whether we admit it or not. Waiting until one is “together” not only denies one’s fundamental human nature, but is in itself a political act — the act of opting out and allowing, if not approving, the status quo. c) The less you do, the more you let the disempowered child hold archetypal sway so that you feel more and more the abused victim, focus on future growth and past oppression, as well as obsess about lonely separation from the community. d) It is inflating to believe that once well therapized — his term is “evolved individuals” — you can enter the political arena more aware and able than the misguided politicos who just act out their inner turmoil in public space.
Therapy does not necessarily improve political acumen. It may increase insights, sensitize relationships, elaborate feelings, and give tidy conceptual schemas for grasping the flux of life, but it simply is not focused on political issues nor does it teach political skills.
Janov, Lowen, Reich, Jung, and Freud do not need defending, explaining, or praising. They’ve done good service from which we have each benefited; but that is not the point. I invite my critic out on the limb to say something interestingly different rather than conventionally clichéd. I ask him and each reader to consider this thesis: what has been for much of this century a virtue is now vitiating our intelligent attention to the crises of the actual world and to the abuses we suffer daily at the hands of the media, the administration, the academy, the research labs and art galleries, the medical profession, corporate and banking executives, architects, developers, and so on. I invite you to imagine therapy as reactionary — perhaps not in every individual case or session, but in its theory. It no longer lifts repression or is concerned with what is truly unconscious, since what is repressed today is political consciousness, and where we are most unconscious is in dealing with the problems of the world. We can fix ourselves and our personal relationships, or at least we believe we can, but we feel utterly bewildered and powerless before what needs doing in the daily world.
I am convinced that therapy did very good things for very many people, that it has been a social necessity for picking up the pieces of institutional inadequacies and Republican meanness, and that it attracted some of the keener minds and kinder souls of our times. This was the case; is it still?
The culture is in extremis, maybe the planet itself. We need extreme responses, radical, risky thinking. The body politic has just suffered a massive cerebral insult and a full-blown attack on its heart: the Great Victory of the Gulf War, opening the era of the New World Order, the heralding vision of which is the Persian Gulf slick with oil, the flaming wells of Kuwait and its choking sky, the charred trucks and tanks, the hundreds of thousands of dead and wounded Iraqis (“We have no war with the Iraqi people,” declared our president), and the destruction of a nation’s shrines, civil institutions, and physical plant. As I write this, the parades are assembling. Funeral marches would prove more appropriate, to mourn not only the war’s victims, but also the death of the American Republic and the beginnings of the American Empire. Caesar has entered the city; the Senate is impotent; the generals shaved like Romans, decorations on their massive chests like Russians twenty years ago; Schwarzkopf and Mickey Mouse and God. Floats, confetti, and Stealth bombers all together in one show of toys for the party. Toys Are Us, even as our prisons fill, our soils go down the rivers, our children go uneducated, ill-fed, and unwanted, the aging stored away in dirty, careless quarters, and our dark-skinned male youth systematically exterminated. Meanwhile the people declare themselves overwhelmingly in favor of what is going on, including the censoring complicity that prevents them from knowing what’s going on. The new world order seems comprised of three unholy components: psychological denial, militaristic fascism, and the last book of the Christian myth, the Apocalypse. I think it is therapy’s job to inquire into how it might be a conspirator in the first component. Could we be aiding and abetting denial by turning our attention away from the world?
How much therapy does one need in order to sense that something terrible is happening? More: is therapy the mode of awakening, or might it be caught in delusional shibboleths that pretend to “consciousness” all the while actually distracting patients from citizenship in the real world of dysfunction and abuse by absorbing their minds in private reconstructions, protecting their sleep?
Dysfunction and abuse: no, wholesale vicious slaughter! During the apogee of the personal growth movement and the spread of therapeutic ideology in the United States, the same United States has engaged in violent destructions in Chile, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Grenada, and Panama — to name a few places only. Imagine that we were German patients of therapy in the 1930s and 1940s, the time of the extermination and labor camps. Would our blind inaction then be justified by saying, first we had to have a few months or years of therapy, find our real emotive selves, before we could remember that we are citizens fundamentally and absolutely involved in what the state does? There is an insidious complicity between the therapeutic turn backward and inward and the failure to feel the ugliness actually taking place and in which I have a part. I am ashamed of myself, and my country — for its action and my lack.
That your correspondent’s voice dropped two octaves and his posture straightened, that he can delay his ejaculations is all splendid. It does indeed make him a better man (cured patient) according to the criteria of therapy. Does it make him a better citizen — more courageous, more outspoken and outraged, more canny and effective, more acute to social injustice and political shortsightedness? He still seems more intent upon recounting his own journey than truly thinking about the decline of our culture and the planet all the while he was in therapy.
Kundera cites Flaubert’s discovery “that stupidity does not give way to . . . progress; on the contrary, it progresses right along with progress!” For Kundera, this insight is “more important for the future of the world than the most startling ideas of Marx or Freud.” And what does Kundera mean by stupidity? “Stereotyped formulations that people . . . enunciate in order to seem intelligent and up-to-date.” “Modern stupidity means not ignorance but the nonthought of received ideas.”
So your correspondent concludes his piece by referring to Christ — the major received idea of our culture. I suspect this reference is integral to his argument on a mythical level. It reflects the conviction that the past causes the present, that fundamental belief in literal history which undergirds the entire therapeutic endeavor at a level not even the founders were ever able to fully understand. That mythos too worships the heroic abandoned child, the victim who becomes empowered (inflated with divine salvational qualities because he is innocent). And that mythos regards personal suffering (rather than civic duty) to be the path of redemption. As well, it subverts action in the world with contempt for the world, which it relegates to Caesar. I see why, Mr. Editor, I meet a lot of “resistance.” The demons that keep me out on a limb grow red hair and spit blue fire when they espy received ideas that have become the dearest tenets of American therapeutic ideology.
Please ignore my letter of a week ago in which I advised you that I would not be renewing my subscription. I just read your interview with James Hillman.
My check is enclosed.
I have just read the unhappy exchange between Jim Ralston and James Hillman [Correspondence, Issue 188], and feel compelled to respond. Ralston may or may not be regurgitating received ideas; he may or may not be “stupid”; but Hillman is most assuredly condescending. His arrogance condemns him far more certainly than any possible intellectual shortcomings on Ralston’s part.
It is clear from Hillman’s tone that, for all his book learning, for all the esteem in which he is held around the world, he is still married to his anger. Now, if anything is “stupid,” it is anger, for anger is self-destructive — and what could be stupider than self-destruction?
It also makes him a member of an unfortunate (and distressingly large) club. The world is full of “citizens” who stupidly act out their anger in the polis. That’s one reason why the world is in the sorry state it is. A spirit of love is probably the most important attribute of good citizenship there is. It does not appear in Hillman’s diatribe.
Beneath the dispute about the merits of the therapeutic paradigm, Ralston and Hillman are having another debate. This one is about gentleness of spirit, about kindliness toward one’s fellow travelers. And this debate Ralston wins hands down.
I’m an incest survivor. Violence was perpetrated on me when I was a child. It seeped into my flesh and caused me a pain that now, in middle age, has become life threatening. This is why I am in therapy. Therapy is keeping me alive, and helping me to squeeze out the poisons that flooded my body and soul.
I have always been political. Nor have I stopped since entering therapy. The one has nothing to do with the other; Hillman sets up a false dichotomy.
Hillman ridiculed Ralston. He blithely cut through Ralston’s pain as if it were nothing. He made fun, as if Ralston went into therapy to achieve “orgasm.” This tells me all I need to know about how Hillman’s theory works in practice. If there is no compassion for the human being who stands before you, then there is no compassion. Everything Hillman talks about is in the abstract — and therefore, meaningless.
A salute to the snappy exchange between Ralston and Hillman. Neither man seems to be trapped in the black hole of “the nonthought of received ideas.” But as for which came first, the individual or the citizen — I mean, who gives a shit? Who has time to give a shit? The sky is falling, as Hillman so well points out, and people are too numbed to register the magnitude of the disaster, let alone do anything about it.
Received ideas are fine if they trigger a spark of recognition. There are no secrets, really, just an inability or unwillingness to see what’s there. So we abdicate our power — to governments, to therapy, to institutions, to experts. A tragic misnomer, that. We stand around blindfolded while our battery of experts in government, media, education, and business grope the vast hulking body of life itself. They send back reports to put our minds at ease: a tusk here, a hoof there, strange odors and tremblings; all very mysterious.
We are active members in a society that trivializes, vulgarizes, and mutilates the essential and therefore sacred (in the deepest meaning of the word) nature of things. If we don’t stop, all the individuals and all the politicized citizens in the world won’t be enough to put Humpty Dumpty together again. Our asses will be grass, synthetic at that.
P.S. Antler’s poem was fine! Great counterpoint to the Ralston/Hillman exchange. I am continually blown away by the living quality of your fiction and poetry, by the illusive, high spirit of The Sun. And I’m a cantankerous, been-around-the-block old sonofabitch who isn’t easily impressed at this point in the game. Keep it up!
My first argument with James Hillman [“The Myth Of Therapy,” Issue 185] concerns his assumption that therapies which emphasize the child archetype also encourage blaming. In bad therapy, perhaps, but when the child archetype is effectively explored, the opposite occurs. By adulthood, most abused children have gone into a state of inner denial about what happened to them. Out of this denial comes their need to inflict the same abuses they experienced onto their own children, or spouses, or some child substitute. It is their symbolic way of coming to an inner truth about who they are. Since their denial does not allow them to see themselves directly, they must see who they are by inflicting who they have been on someone else.
Good therapy does not encourage blaming, but rather encourages a true recognition of how one felt during painful childhood experiences. Paradoxically, when one feels deeply the pain that has been denied, the urge within is ultimately to forgive those who have trespassed against you, not to blame. Good therapy softly encourages its clients in this direction.
My second contention with Hillman has to do with his emphasis on eloquence. He speaks for self-creation in the present, as if one could set aside one’s past as no more than a useful fiction. He wonders if we cannot create ourselves by the words we presently speak. “Can one think one’s way past who one was?” he asks. “Can we conceive the possibility that I change what I once was by what I say now?”
Hillman uses the words “think” and “say” very deliberately here. He argues that “eloquence is the mirror of the soul.” But Hillman’s strong emphasis on eloquence seems too disconnected from the body. Eloquence is more than just the words spoken; it is also the timbre of the voice, the resonance. If we can create ourselves by the words we presently speak, then this formulation must also include the way they are spoken, the depth from which they emerge, which is no more than to say the depth of our personal histories.
If one’s voice is high and screechy, caught in the throat, then such a voice is historical in us, an unresolved chronic tension that will be a determining factor in what we say. Eloquence must also address voice, thus our bodies, thus our histories. Eloquence happens in the present, but as the fruit of personal history.
Hillman sharply downplays our lives, our bodies, as historical processes. Though we live in the present, surely the present contains the past.
In the mid-seventies, as I was three weeks into primal therapy, my voice dropped two octaves, and stayed dropped. It was a common occurrence among primal patients. Now if I say something eloquent, or deep, it corresponds to a depth in my physical voice. No amount of sitting knee to knee in therapy, opening up to the mythological implications of dream images, would have effected this change in my body. Now I believe I would be ripe for Hillman’s approach, but first things first.
Or take sexual dysfunction, for example. Hillman says, “If the fish turned belly up in the river, that is far more important to what is happening to my soul than what my mother did to me when I was four.” I feel that Hillman errs in polarizing these two events. I see a connection (even in imagery) between the fish turning belly up and the high degree of sexual dysfunction in modern society, especially if we include, as we should, premature orgasm in males and difficulty in attaining full orgasm in females. The process of sexual shaming may very well begin by the age of four, with mothers or fathers or both projecting their own shame onto their child’s body. If one becomes at odds with something so basic as one’s own sexual nature, surely it will follow that one will become at odds with nature at large.
In calling for a new kind of therapy, in which the client is seen foremost as a citizen, Hillman suggests that his vision is not in the historical line of Freud and Jung, although I believe it is. Here he could take a lesson from Jung, who did not condemn Freud for becoming too focused on the shadow side of human consciousness. Rather he understood that because Freud was the first to see the shadow so fully, he inevitably got fixated on it, overwhelmed by it, and lost sight of the substance that cast the shadow. Jung didn’t try to negate Freud; he tried to take Freud to the next stage, to integrate the shadow back into the substance.
Jung also pointed out that a major service of therapy is to open up feelings that we are habitually unable to express. He recognized that further work (understanding one’s life in mythic terms, for example) required this beginning. Wilhelm Reich, Alexander Lowen, and Arthur Janov spent decades refining this step of opening feelings, opening up impacted bodies. Such work is not to be scoffed at. Maybe in the end, these therapies became self-absorbed and lost sight of the fact that such work could never become the fulfillment of therapy. Here enters Hillman to blow out their dying embers, but he does his own vision a disservice to divorce therapy from feelings, the body, and personal history. His work is better served if he is as generous as Jung was to Freud, glad for the work that has been initiated, and in some cases successfully completed. Rather than polarize, why not say now we are ripe to go forward, thanks Reich, thanks Lowen, thanks Janov? In taking the baton, need Hillman hit them over the head with it, calling their work fruitless, worthless?
When I first entered primal therapy, for crying out loud, I hadn’t cried out loud in a decade. I didn’t even tear at sad movies anymore. Once a close friend died, and I expressed nothing but a stoical sadness, even though as a kid I had worn my heart on my sleeve, as my mother said. My job was a routine. My marriage was not happy. My pleasures were becoming increasingly mental and vicarious — books, armchair politics, movies, TV, spectator sports, hours of solitaire. I had sore throats that lasted weeks. Nature bored me.
For me to come to therapy as a citizen first, at this stage of my life, would have been ludicrous. I had to rediscover my expressiveness first, for my feelings were impacted through years of disuse, suppression, and habit. I myself was turning belly up in the river; to have talked about the fish as a political issue would have only distracted me from the hard work of opening up my feelings again. And since the closing down of feelings/body had been a historical process in my life, the reopening had to be addressed in terms of this history. If the river of my affective life had become a trickle, then I needed to trace it back upstream to where the major dams had been erected.
When I was twelve my mother was deathly ill for a year, and in the hospital she got addicted to morphine. She was out of her head a good bit of the time, and everyone was hush-hush about it, as if she were not only sick but insane. Meanwhile, every morning I had to go to school, learn that the capital of Kansas was Topeka, the formula for water was H2O, only to arrive home to an empty house with no one to talk to about my fears and the pain in my heart for my mother in a faraway hospital, maybe dying. The very year in my life when I had the most to cry about was also the year I stopped crying altogether.
What a relief, and a healing, two decades later to cry for my poor mother, and cry and cry. Therapy encouraged me to reopen the outlets nature had given me for the expression of deep emotions. I realize this is the very autobiographical paradigm that Hillman decries. But how can we be worthwhile community people if we are not also free-flowing individuals, at peace with (or at least in creative tension with) our pasts?
Opening up my feelings to important events in my past also had the function of connecting my feelings to the present. In primal therapy, my voice deepened, my posture straightened, my creativity opened, my eyes brightened, my sexual capacity and appeal increased, my sensitivity toward others and nature (including fish) enlarged. Now I am ripe for concentrated work in the present, including politics, to give my whole life to it. But why does Hillman want to negate the stage of therapy that prepared me for his “re-visioning”; why does he disavow the work I had to do to be ready?
My bottom-line difference with Hillman centers on his antagonism toward individualism. He finds it a wrong model for human fulfillment, and prefers that the self should be “redefined, given a social definition, a communal definition.” Again, does not Hillman needlessly polarize? When individualism is interpreted shallowly, narrowly, confused with narcissism, egotism, or greed, of course it is a corruption. No true champion of individualism ever suggested that one ceases to be communally responsible as one becomes self-responsible. The path toward individuality, like all noble paths, gets easily debased because it is so hard to follow. The vast majority come up short, and are only too happy to fall back into the collective safety net when their attempts to be born as individuals fail. Out of their failure, individualism gets labeled as selfishness, doing your own thing, to hell with the other guy.
Hillman mocks the idea of “an inner world that can be made to expand and grow.” He refers to this as an “ideology of individualism” and claims that because it is an ideology, it is difficult to criticize.
He tries to criticize it, however, though most unsuccessfully, for he is proof against his own pudding. Take Hillman’s mind, for example. Was he merely born with a mind so rich? Didn’t he have to read and work late and think hard about things to develop such a unique look at the world, so insightful that it puts him at the top of the heap among current world thinkers in his field? Isn’t mental and creative development an important manifestation of the paradigm of “expanding and growing from within”? First and foremost, Hillman is an independent thinker, an individual. His rich inner world did not merely happen to him, as if from above. It grew and expanded over years of hard work — hard work on himself. What other way?
Jung and later Joseph Campbell have argued convincingly that social evolution lies in the direction of individualism, individuation. The highest meaning of the social group is to foster the development of individual potential, for the community’s own well-being depends on it. When the goal of the group ceases to be the individual, that group goes into decline.
The very best citizens have also been the most evolved individuals. Groups, nations, classes, clans, and families tend toward narrowness, meanness toward other groups, nations, etc. It has always been the individual who calls the group to a larger vision, who insists on compassion and fair play. It is always the community that is ready to stone the witch. The community of Americans was recently quite willing to pulverize 100,000 dark-skinned Iraqis to death, and was sorely lacking in individuals to stand up and decry this action. In the House and Senate, all stood with the group in the final analysis, supported our boys.
Thoreau was an individualist, and he embarrassed his fellow Concordians by speaking so strongly for the rights of slaves and Mexicans. Martin Luther King, Jr., was an individualist. The dignity of the individual person was his constant theme. Being a professional, Gandhi could have cozied up to the Britons and had a comfortable life, but he couldn’t see the blacks and Indians in collective terms as the Britons could. He could only see them as individuals, with the same potential to grow and expand from within as he had, through his insight and courage.
I think Christ was an individualist. Hillman says, “Jesus is powerful not because he was in Palestine two thousand years ago, but because he’s a living figure in the psyche.” But can’t one reverse Hillman’s statement: Jesus is a living figure in the psyche because he lived in Palestine two thousand years ago? Maybe not literally two thousand years ago; maybe his name was not literally Jesus. Maybe there have been many of him throughout history. My point is that the archetype can’t exist before it is first lived, in an individual life. In the case of the Christ archetype, this is the life that takes personal development, respect for the truth, courage to speak it, all the way to the cross, where even in the face of death, one refuses to deny who one is, or rather, who one has become, who one has made of oneself.
A Christ wasn’t born a Christ. That is a debasement of the Christ archetype, because it disavows responsibility for our individual lives. A Hillman wasn’t born a Hillman. He got to be a Hillman by growing and expanding from within. We all make ourselves along the way in our own historical processes. When Christ said on the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” he made one of the most eloquent statements ever. Even that close to dying, Christ was still creating himself. And that eloquence contained everything in Christ’s life that had led up to that moment, every choice he had made, every test he had suffered.
Hillman has lost sight of these points in his re-visioning of psychology and therapy.
Hillman’s original interview brilliantly expressed his point of view. Ralston’s reply was thoughtful and obviously rooted in a profound personal experience. The problem is that you allowed Hillman to reply with “more of the same,” thereby diminishing Ralston’s contribution.
I am reminded of academic journals where someone expresses a point of view and then the intellectual gadflies leap upon the corpus. The writer claims that 1,728 angels would fit on the head of a pin; another claims it’s only 520; a third insists an infinite number would fit; still another argues that there is no pin. The writer neatly proves them all wrong in the rebuttal.
Hillman’s response to Ralston’s letter adds nothing; he simply regurgitates his original view, supplementing it with new quotes and more intellectual gymnastics.
I believe it is the editor’s job to honor a reader’s response by simply letting it appear.