He studied with the great Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung in the 1950s and went on to become the first director of studies at the Jung Institute in Zurich. After returning to the United States in 1980, he taught at Yale, Syracuse and the universities of Chicago and Dallas. He also became editor of Spring Publications, a small Texas publisher devoted to the work of contemporary psychologists. And wrote twenty books of his own.
In spite of these achievements, Hillman is not exactly an establishment figure in the world of psychology. If anything, he is looked upon by many in the profession as a profoundly subversive thinker, a thorn in the side of respectable psychologists.
As the founder of archetypal psychology, a school of thought aimed at "revisioning" or "reimagining" psychology, Hillman believes that the therapy business needs to evolve beyond reductionist "nature" and "nurture" theories of human development. Since the early 1960s, he has written, taught, and lectured on the need to get therapy out of the consulting room and into the real world. Conventional psychology has lost touch with what he calls "the soul's code." Overrun with "psychological seminars on how to clean closets or withhold orgasms," psychology has become reduced to "a trivialized, banal, egocentric pursuit, rather than an exploration of the mysteries of human nature," he says.
One of the greatest of these mysteries, in Hillman's view, is the question of character and destiny. In his bestsellerThe Soul's Code, he proposes that our calling in life is inborn and that it's our mission in life to realize its imperatives. He calls it the "acorn theory," the idea that our lives are formed by a particular image, just as the oak's destiny is contained in the tiny acorn.
Hillman doesn't like to give interviews and is a notoriously prickly conversationalist. He tells me he harbors a deep mistrust of journalists and interviewers. "People have a terrible desire to talk about themselves," he says. They call it 'sharing,' but it's really chewing out someone else's ear. Well, I don't have that desire."
So why consent to an interview with me? "Because I'm a nice guy," he says with a mischievous grin. Ideas are like children, he adds, "and you should try to get your children into the world if possible, to defend them and help them along. I don't think it's enough just to write and throw it out into the world. I think it's useful to have to put yourself out there a little bit for what you believe."
Scott London:You've been writing and lecturing about the need to overhaul psychotherapy for more than three decades. Now all of a sudden the public seems receptive to your ideas: you're on the bestseller lists and TV talk shows. Why do you think your work has suddenly struck a chord?
James Hillman:I think there is a paradigm shift going on in the culture. The old psychology just doesn't work anymore. Too many people have been analyzing their pasts, their childhoods, their memories, their parents, and realizing that it doesn't do anything — or that it doesn't do enough.
London:You're not a very popular figure with the therapy establishment.
Hillman:I'm not critical of the people who do psychotherapy. The therapists in the trenches have to face an awful lot of the social, political, and economic failures of capitalism. They have to take care of all the rejects and failures. They are sincere and work hard with very little credit, and the HMOs and the pharmaceutical companies and insurance companies are trying to wipe them out. So certainly I am not attacking them. I am attacking the theories of psychotherapy. You don't attack the grunts of Vietnam; you blame the theory behind the war. Nobody who fought in that war was at fault. It was the war itself that was at fault. It's the same thing with psychotherapy. It makes every problem a subjective, inner problem. And that's not where the problems come from. They come from the environment, the cities, the economy, the racism. They come from architecture, school systems, capitalism, exploitation. They come from many places that psychotherapy does not address. Psychotherapy theory turns it all on you:youare the one who is wrong. What I'm trying to say is that, if a kid is having trouble or is discouraged, the problem is not just inside the kid; it's also in the system, the society.
London:You can't fix the person without fixing the society.
Hillman:I don't think so. But I don't think anything changes until ideas change. The usual American viewpoint is to believe that something is wrong with the person. We approach people the same way we approach our cars. We take the poor kid to a doctor and ask, "What's wrong with him, how much will it cost, and when can I pick him up?" We can't change anything until we get some fresh ideas, until we begin to see things differently. My goal is to create a therapy of ideas, to try to bring in new ideas so that we can see the same old problems differently.
London:You've said that you usually write out of "hatred, dislike, and destruction."
Hillman:I've found that contemporary psychology enrages me with its simplistic ideas of human life, and also its emptiness. In the cosmology that's behind psychology, there is no reason for anyone to be here or do anything. We are driven by the results of the Big Bang, billions of years ago, which eventually produced life, which eventually produced human beings, and so on. Butme? I'm an accident — a result — and therefore a victim.
Hillman:Well, if I'm only a result of past causes, then I'm a victim of those past causes. There is no deeper meaning behind things that gives me a reason to be here. Or, if you look at it from the sociological perspective, I'm the result of upbringing, class, race, gender, social prejudices, and economics. So I'm a victim again. A result.
London:What about the idea that we are self-made, that since life is an accident we have the freedom to make ourselves into anything we want?
Hillman:Yes, we worship the idea of the "self-made man" — otherwise we'd go on strike against Bill Gates having all that money! We worship that idea. We vote for Perot. We think he's a great, marvelous, honest man. We send money to his campaign, even though he is one of the richest capitalists in our culture. Imagine, sending money to Perot! It's unbelievable, yet it's part of that worship of individuality.
But the culture is going into a psychological depression. We are concerned about our place in the world, about being competitive: Will my children have as much as I have? Will I ever own my own home? How can I pay for a new car? Are immigrants taking away my white world? All of this anxiety and depression casts doubt on whether I can make it as a heroic John Wayne-style individual.
London:InThe Soul's Code, you talk about something called the "acorn theory." What is that?
Hillman:Well, it's more of a myth than a theory. It's Plato's myth that you come into the world with a destiny, although he uses the wordparadigma, or paradigm, instead ofdestiny. The acorn theory says that there is an individual image that belongs to your soul.
The same myth can be found in the kabbalah. The Mormon's have it. The West Africans have it. The Hindus and the Buddhists have it in different ways — they tie it more to reincarnation and karma, but you still come into the world with a particular destiny. Native Americans have it very strongly. So all these cultures all over the world have this basic understanding of human existence. Only American psychologydoesn'thave it.
London:In our culture we tend to think of calling in terms of "vocation" or "career."
Hillman:Yes, but calling can refer not only to ways ofdoing— meaning work — but also to ways ofbeing. Take being a friend. Goethe said that his friend Eckermann was born for friendship. Aristotle made friendship one of the great virtues. In his book on ethics, three or four chapters are on friendship. In the past, friendship was a huge thing. But it's hard for us to think of friendship as a calling, because it's not a vocation.
London:Motherhood is another example that comes to mind. Mothers are still expected to have a vocation above and beyond being a mother.
Hillman:Right, it's not enough just to be a mother. It's not only the social pressure on mothers by certain kinds of feminism and other sources. There is also economic pressure on them. It's a terrible cruelty of predatory capitalism: both parents now have to work. A family has to have two incomes in order to buy the things that are desirable in our culture. So the degradation of motherhood — the sense that motherhood isn't itself a calling — also arises from economic pressure.
London:What implications do your ideas have for parents?
Hillman:I think what I'm saying should relieve them hugely and make them want to pay more attention to their child, this peculiar stranger who has landed in their midst. Instead of saying, "This is my child," they must ask, "Who is this child who happens to be mine?" Then they will gain a lot more respect for the child and try to keep an eye open for instances where the kid's destiny might show itself — like in a resistance to school, for example, or a strange set of symptoms one year, or an obsession with one thing or another. Maybe something very important is going on there that the parents didn't see before.
London:Symptoms are so often seen as weaknesses.
Hillman:Right, so they set up some sort of medical or psychotherapeutic program to get rid of them, when the symptoms may be the most crucial part of the kid. There are many stories in my book that illustrate this.
London:How much resistance do you encounter to your idea that we chose our parents?