Personal Transformation (or not?): A look at character and soul as the primary ground of our being.
If you don’t know about Sun Magazine, you should. Self described as Personal, Political, Provocative, Ad-free. Here is the opening and link to the full interview from 10 years ago. Enjoy. Walt
I first became acquainted with the work of James Hillman ten years ago through A Blue Fire(HarperPerennial), a selection of his writings edited by Thomas Moore. Since then, Hillman has become my personal King Solomon, an intellectual hero, the one writer whom, though sometimes baffling, I read again and again, then say aloud in astonishment, “I never thought of that.” Thanks in part to Moore’s distillation and clarification of Hillman’s work, I have come to see such themes as architecture, suicide, jealousy, love, and family in startling, fresh ways.
Most important to me is Hillman’s emphasis on embracing all aspects of one’s nature as being rooted in the divine. He uses the Greek gods as a model for this need to honor, not transcend, the war god, the jealous god, the depressed god. He condemns the New Age insistence on transformation, on sloughing off the “old” self and becoming some new, idealized person. Instead, he urges a deepening of personal traits that are set at birth.
Hillman’s writing is bold and imaginative. He readily employs the poet’s technique of leaping from idea to idea and trusting the unconscious to supply the connection. Though he initially benefited from Moore’s editing, it is really Hillman’s ideas that have brought him to center stage as a proponent of honoring the soul, with all its mysterious costumes and demands. In the past few years, he has even appeared on television to talk about his book The Soul’s Code (Warner Books), a selection of Oprah Winfrey’s book club.
In his newest book, The Force of Character and the Lasting Life, Hillman addresses the subject of aging and, in his usual fashion, turns many generally accepted concepts on their heads as he presses for a broader look at the “misery” of decline: memory loss, irritability, insomnia, heart failure, drying up. In our country, aging is regarded primarily as a disease on which huge sums of money must be spent in search of a “cure.” Hillman contends that it is not our hips that need replacing, but our beliefs about old age — ideas that give priority to biology and economics, rather than to soul and individual character.
Hillman has said he sees himself not so much as the founder of the school of thought called “archetypal psychology” (he was director of the Jung Institute in Zurich, Switzerland, for ten years) but as a “re-visionary thinker.” His re-visioning of aging takes as its central paradigm the notion of character, which he defines as the whole of one’s nature, “that particular person you have come to be and already were years ago.” It is character, he says, that forms how our faces look, what our habits are, our interests, friendships, eccentricities, ambitions, and work. It is what determines the way we give and receive; it affects our loves, our children. And, as we age, the force of our character naturally deepens. “As character directs aging,” Hillman contends, “aging reveals character.”
If character and soul are the primary ground of our being, then the physical body and its losses may be looked at in more open and imaginative ways; the agitations and miseries of aging can be seen in light of their psychological purposes and the insights they provide into character. For example, rather than being annoyed when one’s mother tells the same story for the hundredth time, one might see her as passing on the archetypal “Story” by which we understand our lives and convey ancestral lore and wisdom.
To grow old well, Hillman says, takes the courage to let go of useless negative ideas about aging, and to cultivate instead curiosity about this process, finding its value. We must, he insists, keep our eyes open to both the fading light and the blaze of beauty at sunset.
Now seventy-four years old, Hillman is known for his acute and deep perception, not his bedside manner. It was, therefore, with trepidation that I first approached him for this interview. Here I was about to meet my main teacher when it came to the affairs of the mind. I was terrified when I called to cancel our first appointment because I was sick. Part of my sickness was, I think, fear. Hillman had been difficult and cold on the phone, challenging me about how I was going to approach this interview. But I’d also recently received a postcard from a friend with a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt: “You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”
I found Hillman’s home just off the common in a small, elegant New England town. In person, he was both powerful and shy — shy not in his voice, which is authoritative and blunt, a hammer striking flat, but in his eyes. He hardly looked at me at all before the interview began. When he did, however, his regard was intense, and a buzz of sexuality resonated around our talk. A really good conversation is erotic.
During a break, Hillman made tea and served it in an old pot with pictures of the presidents on it. Two cats jumped around his high-ceilinged living room, which was filled with soft gray light. As I began to feel more at ease, I confessed how scared I’d been to meet him. But then, I told him, on the drive over, I’d heard my dead father say, “Relax, he’s just a guy!” Hillman laughed. In the course of the interview, he never lectured, and our talk took the kinds of unexpected turns so common in the best of his writing. He began by commenting on The Sun.