James Hillman

Utne Reader visionary [Originally published as James Hillman in the January-February 1995 issue of Utne Reader]

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“I have a dark eye, a twisted perception,” laughs James Hillman, and the casually spoken words carry weight. After all, the eye that the 69-year-old Hillman casts on psychology, therapy, and the human condition in books like The Myth of Analysis (1972) andThe Dream and the Underworld(1979) is “dark,” in more ways than one. 

Theres his dark view of the medical model under whose banner psychotherapy aims to “improve,” to “cure” the “sick” psyche. For Hillman, all the psyches phases and facesand especially its “dark” onesare poetic, trustworthy, revelatory; to follow and learn from them (even if the learning is painful) is to do psychology without impoverishing vision. 

He translates psyche as “soul”its Greek meaningand plumbs that great ancient word to its darkest and most radiant depths. “Other words long associated with the word soul,” he writes in Suicide and the Soul (1964), “amplify it further: mind, spirit, heart, life, warmth, humanness, personality...purpose, emotion, quality, virtue, morality, sin, wisdom, death, God.” 

This expansive, passionate view of the soul, nourished by Hillman's love of the Renaissance and its vivid Neoplatonic theories of mind, leads him to twist received psychological wisdom into “new” forms that often echo antiquity. Against the therapeutic prejudice that the healthy mind is a barracks brought to order under the rule of the ego, Hillman offers “polytheistic psychology,” which accepts and even celebrates self-division and “obliges consciousness to circulate among a field of powers. Each god has its due as each complex deserves its respect in its own right…Polytheistic psychology can give sacred differentiation to our psychic turmoil.” 

Hillman is equally interested in psychic and personal rootedness. These days hes thinking, positively, about what he calls “the end of time”not the apocalypse, but a hoped-for falling away of temporal questions like cause and effect; “a dedication to what is, instead of to how it got this way, and where its going. We need to pay attention to the spatial dimension: to care about whats here, and maintain it. To get out of our personal pasts, our case histories, and into where we are now.” 

Hillman is worried about what he calls “concealed fascism” in the United States, “not in the obvious parallels with Europe in the '30s, but in things like the lowering of take-home pay and the concentration of media in a few hands. Even multiculturalism becomes fascism in a way, by making people mere representatives of the groups to which they belong.” 

Hillman pauses and then coins a typically complex phrase, born of the gravity of these concerns and a principled refusal to leave the here and now: 

“I dont use the word hope at all.”