James Hillman: Jungian, iconoclast, philosopher and wizard
Its imperiousness, its shameless elitism—the very things we love to love about the New York Times can just as often make me spitting mad. And this time it’s the NYT’s obituary of James Hillman, which calls him “a charismatic therapist and best-selling author whose theories about the psyche helped revive interest in the ideas of Carl Jung, animating the so-called men’s movement in the 1990s and stirring the pop-cultural air.”
So-called men’s movement? Stirring the pop-cultural air?
Am I over-reacting, or does that sound snarky?
And who am I—a pipsqueak journalist, from western Canada, no less—to argue with the Gray Lady?
In my view, James Hillman was among the most important American thinkers of the second half of the Twentieth Century. So there! He was a Jungian analyst, theorist, philosopher, author, mentor, mystic, lecturer, visionary, and enthusiastic gadfly. By turns brilliant and obscure, his presence in the lecture hall is hard to describe.
You just had to be there. And I was, on two occasions.
The first was a retreat in Cambridge, Massachusetts with his co-conspirators poet Robert Bly and storyteller Michael Meade. 700 men gathered for two and a half days to unfold “The Water of Life,” one of the Grimm’s Fairy Tales. I had just returned from my first trip to Russia, so I think this must have been in the late spring of 1990, which felt important to me because I had been deeply in the archetype of Mother Russia (an archetype whose fierceness survived the Soviet years) and now I was surrounded by men embodying a German story. And in both cases, I wasn’t really sure what the hell I was doing there.
I was very uncomfortable. That much was clear to me.
And I knew something important was going on—in and around me—though I’m still hard-pressed to say exactly what. A felt sense of something in me opening or arising. A gathering of men around me (something I quite simply could not have imagined possible, much less desirable). A deep dreaming and a simultaneous awakening.
I experienced the luminosity of my imaginal world and its connection to history, legend, and the present moment.
Heavy stuff, eh? But you have to understand how hard we all laughed at ourselves and the world, even as we were in awe of the story itself. Even as we were in deep grief. Even in outrage, there was a line of pure zaniness in the men. On stage and all around the auditorium.
See what I mean? You had to be there.
The thing I remember most vividly about James Hillman is how he’d get carried away by his own thinking. A true flight of fancy. Until Bly or Meade would shout something like, “Come back to earth, you pedantic old fool,” and rein him back in.
Which gave rise to a spontaneous insult-hurling competition, each insult longer and more bodacious than the one before, until everyone was laughing so hard, it was almost impossible to tell who won.
A few years later, I drove up to Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, to hear Hillman lecture for two hours on the colour blue.
Don’t ask me what he said. I have no idea. And yet it was one of the more memorable talks I’ve ever heard. It was the atmosphere he created, the quality of feeling, the wide range of thought and association. Charged, pyrotechnic, astonishing every bit as much for the thoughts and feelings his talk engendered in us, as the line of thought he was following in himself at the moment.
Indeed James Hillman seems the very incarnation of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s idea of “Man Thinking” described in his 1837 address “The American Scholar.”
“Him … the past instructs; him the future invites,” writes Emerson.
“The office of the scholar is to cheer, to raise, and to guide men by showing them facts amidst appearances. He plies the slow, unhonored, and unpaid task of observation.”
And elsewhere in the essay:
“Free should the scholar be, - free and brave. Free even to the definition of freedom, ‘without any hindrance that does not arise out of his own constitution.’ Brave; for fear is a thing, which a scholar by his very function puts behind him.”
Fearless, James Hillman certainly was, and irreverent when it came to his own profession, as evidenced by the book he co-authored with Michael Ventura: We've Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy—and the World's Getting Worse.
When it came to myth, imagination, and the resilience of the human psyche, however, Hillman was in deep and respectful wonder.
A wonder he was able to instill in us all.