James Hillman: Jungian, iconoclast, philosopher and wizard

See video

James Hillman on Curing the Puer, from "Senex & Puer" www.DepthVideo.com

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.

More in Just Between Us

Vancouver Confidential unveils gritty, fascinating side of city's history

These bloggers, actors and tour guides “are creating a much larger conversation about Vancouver” than could be created by conventional historians.

Writer urges us to reclaim our sleep

Katt Duff loves sleep so much, she had to write a book about it

What Canada Day means for me: an immigrant's view

Singing “O Canada” filled me with the kind of gratitude shipwreck survivors must feel when they kiss solid ground.
Due to an unmanageable stream of spam, we have disabled commenting until further notice. Go to @VanObserver to comment on Twitter or VancouverObserver on Facebook to join the conversation about this article.

James Hillman

Hello,

This is what I wrote to a friend whom had sent me the NYT obituary: Hey Ann,
I rest my case about JH's being yet to be discovered by the culture . . . What a thinly disguised, snarky dismissal.  He comes across as a lightweight gadfly.  And Robert Bly . . . a real wordsmith -- "parties for the spirits".  Alan Watts was a pretentious egotist.

-a surprising number of words in common eh!

So sorry to be remembered

So there indeed!  If you were the only participant at that retreat - not one of seven hundred - your recollection of it is enough to make the NYT obit seem a a little out of the loop.  Like getting the smart alecky kid at the back of the class to do the eulogy.  Hard to imagine a speaker having such an ability to connect personally with so many...  That is a lovely thing you have written Alfred.

 

I SO AGREE!!

I SO AGREE!!

James Hillman

Thanks to this author for honoring the power and wonder of James Hillman's understanding of the human soul. One Ph.D. in clinical psychology says that "Hiillman tranformed depth psychology during his lifetime." It's sad that the Old Grey Lady didn't have a more knowledgeable journalist to write about his great man and mind.