The Force of His Character
A conversation with James Hillman
By Alan Bisbort

James Hillman has been called by LA Weekly "the most inspiring and disruptive thinker at work now in our country." He is a world-renowned lecturer, author, Jungian analyst andæ according to his friend Thomas Moore, who edited Blue Fire, a popular anthology of Hillman's writings over the past 35 yearsæ "an artist of psychology." To Moore, who used many of Hillman's original ideas on "archetypal psychology" in his own bestselling Care of the Soul, "Hillman demands nothing short of a new way of thinking."

Hillman, despite having cooked up (with Ovid scholar Charles Boer) a soufflé of satiric humor called Freud's Own Cookbook, is not serving quick-fix chicken soup for the soul. He has served full-course meals in books like The Soul's Code and The Force of Character and the Lasting Life (both published by Random House), offering deeply informed musings on creativity and aging.

By the world's calendar, Hillman is, at 75, "aging" or even "old," but such a state of affairs has only whetted his prodigious appetite for new ideas. He leaps at the opportunity to once again undermine hundreds of years of "brainwashing," to cut the "old" free "from the downward drag of aging and the fearsome bogey of death." He is fond of Spinoza's dictum: "A free man thinks of death least of all things."

Hillman's somewhat sudden notoriety, after 40 or so years of writing about and practicing psychology, has been due in part to appearances on Oprah Winfrey and The Today Show and as a featured subject on Peter Jennings' series, "Interesting People for the 21st Century." While esoteric early works like The Myth of Analysis, Re-Visioning Psychology, and Suicide and the Soul are now considered classics in his field, his recent bestsellerdom is gratifying, albeit "mind-boggling."

"My language is not easy reading. I take up a lot of arcane areas and I take it for granted that people know myths and the Bible and Plato. I don't explain things," he said.

Hillman lives in Thompson, an old Connecticut town that fits him perfectly. The rambling white wood house where he lives with his wife, Margot McLean, an artist and author, is literally steps away from a classic New England green. In recent years, he and his wife have fought to stop a massive "Big Dig"-like sewer project that threatened to devastate the historic center of Thompson. In battling to preserve the quality of life in his community, Hillman put into practice an idea he has talked about for decades: the therapeutic value of preserving one's community and the natural environment. For lack of a better word, this has been called "ecopsychology," and Hillman has written a preface to the best anthology on the subject, Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind (Sierra Club Books), edited by Theodore Roszak, Mary E. Gomes, and Allen D. Kanner.

Gadfly caught up with Hillman at his home in Thompson, Connecticut.

Gadfly: I don't want to belabor your teachings because you express them so well in print, but in We've Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy and the World's Getting Worse (HarperCollins), which you co-wrote with Michael Ventura, you hit on something profound that does not get spoken of enough.

Hillman: That is a very alive book, isn't it? He's an extremely good writer, Michael Ventura. He inspired me in my writing.

Why hasn't psychotherapy made the world less sick? My feeling is that psychology may be a Pandora's Box, in a way. Freud opened it up and there's no way to get everything back inside once it's opened [Hillman laughs]. But it's also a kind of a box in the way it's perceived by society, in that it deals with things that one doesn't want to deal with openly. So you go off to the box, and you consult your therapist, who tells you what you need to work on, and then you leave the office, go back to your life, and don't dare say these things to others.

The practice is caught in that box. Even people who are younger than myself who are working on the problem of psychology in the world haven't found other modes of practice. It's the practice that's a box.

About the practice. You have practiced as a therapist for…

My first patient was in 1955, in Zurich, my first case which was supervised. Then I had a private outpatient practice. And I have continued since.

Here in Thompson?

Oh yes. Here in the house. People drive from Boston, Hartford, and around. But theoretically there is a problem, and this book tries to talk about that problem, it cuts people in some strange way. The model of thinking is a box that leaves the world out.

Precisely. You can't leave the world out. Patients leave your office and go out into the world.


Unless they want to live in your office, which would cost them quite a bit of money, I imagine.

In Blue Fire, you spoke about the spiritual quest vs. the quest for the soul. The idea behind a spiritual quest is that you detach yourself from the world and that is somehow a good thing. But that has never struck me as something good. I mean, I love Henry David Thoreau, but he was a pretty miserable guy.

And he didn't altogether detach himself. He was in the pencil business and he sold ice from his pond.

He was within walking distance of the Emersons' house, where he could always get a free meal, a warm hearth, a kind ear.

Exactly. It's what they've done to Thoreau that's the problem. I don't think he was really detached. He talked too much about isolation to be really isolated.

But I think your ideas on this issue will resonate more as the so called Boomers get older. We are generally more cognizant of the natural environment, maybe because we see it disappearing. Speaking for myself, the environment and ecology are so much a part of me, that when something bad happens in my town it hurts. So I go to town meetings and open forums and talk up.

Oh, you talk up? It's hard to do. It's so hard.

Yes, I make a nuisance of myself, writing letters to the editor and so forth. It personally wounds me. Then I begin to think maybe I'm taking it too far.

Oh, it hurts! It hurts. When I see an old tree go down, it hurts. It hurts more than if somebody dies in the neighborhood.

How does one translate that feeling to a Planning and Zoning commission hearing, which is this very cut-and-dried forum? It's always "Give me the numbers and give me the cost effect" and so on…

I know, I know.

And yet everyone in a community feels that sense of loss. I know it's not just me. I know it's not an elitist thing. How do you quantify it?

What you are asking is: How do you present it in the cosmology that rules the world, whether you call it bottom-line thinking, whether you call it administrative language, whatever system you want to call it, that rules the world, all the world? And it is almost as if we need a huge revolution of thinking. I don't think it's a spiritual revolution either.

I don't either.

That's the problem. We've got all these gurus and Christian revivalists and Orthodox Jews, the enormous amount of spirit going on. But that's not it. They go from one thing to the other, like the Nazis went from their exterminating to playing Mozart. It's something else. It's that feeling of being hurt when those cows are gone and you walk past that place and you see those houses.

I feel it the way you feel a tooth that has been pulled or a limb that has been amputated. I feel a phantom limb. I will always drive by that lot and remember the trees that were there, even though houses are there now. Even ten years later.

That's right. And that raises a very profound and important philosophical question. Is memory only in your head or is memory also in the world? Did you see the film My Dinner With Andre?

It's one of my favorites. I've seen it many times.

Isn't it great? Well, at the end of that film, Wally is going home, he's on the subway and he drives by a building in a taxi….

Right, right. He starts to say, "I remember going into that place with my father, and that place for something else…"

Exactly. It's a very important part of that film.

The last five minutes of that film are the most important.

Right, right.

The guy is shaking out the tablecloths and putting the chairs up on the table. Putting the shutters down.

It's the memory.

And Erik Satie is playing.

Hey, that's right. I didn't remember that until you said it. But if you tear those buildings down and put up a new Trump Tower, where is the memory? You see, there is something that remains in these places. The old buildings or the cow farm, whatever it is that's there, and you grow up in these places like Littleton, Colorado [where the Columbine school shooting took place], and there's no memory in that place, in that soil. It's just a place, a desolate area.

So I think it's crucial to talk at those planning and zoning meetings. We're fighting them here. For me, getting back to this thing about life as a tapestry, which I'm just seeing now in the thread of our conversation, my concern with the world, whether it was the things I studied in Mexico or France, or the travel I did through East Africa and India and Kashmir, is still fundamentally connected with the psychology. Or, let's say, it makes sense, all that worldliness that I had, because that's what I've come back to. I may have spent many years up on my "magic mountain" in Zurich writing my stuff and doing my Jungian analysis and seeing my patients in my little room, this middle period that was quite closed in and European, but psychology was part two. Do you see? Part one was the worldliness. Part two was the psychology. And now, in part three, the two are connected. Do you see?

Yes, yes. Were you really on a mountain when you were at the Jung Institute in Zurich, or are you talking metaphorically?

Yes, the metaphor. It was an enclosed atmosphere, Jungian psychology.

That’s interesting, because it seems like your life has gone through these changes. Somewhere a very profound change occurred. And maybe it's not all you. It seems that the world has become more open to your so-called maverick ideas. Until that point, though, you must have felt like you had to stay up on your mountain, that you were shouting into the wilderness or into a canyon or abyss.

That's part of it. But I don't think I even paid that much attention to what was outside the magic mountain. Certainly during the 1960s, during the Vietnam War, the psychology and the war, the therapists and the war were not really connected. There was a lot to be worried about. There was the black liberation in America. I don't feel therapy ever really connected with that. Huge movements! That's where consciousness changed. It didn't change in the therapy rooms to the extent that it changed outside in the world. In Alabama or Vietnam.

There were a few odd voices screaming in the wilderness but they were marginalized.

Always. Always. Oh yeah, and good people too.

R. D. Laing.

Oh yeah, of course. But the profession never changed. They were still concentrating on early childhood traumas. Complicated concepts. That's the box of therapy.

The profession was going on as if nothing was changing.

Exactly. That's the box.

Did some of your colleagues in this rarefied world of psychology or academia feel threatened by you?

They didn't understand what I was trying to do, not so much threatened. The threatening came not from colleagues in other disciplines, but from the classical Jungians, the classical therapists, yes. I have a critical mind, an aggressively critical mind, is better to say.

How do you explain this almost full-circle acceptance of your work? I went on Amazon the other day and called up James Hillman, and I clicked on some of the readers’ responses. There are impassioned responses to your books. For some of your titles, the readers really get worked up.

Really? Fascinating.

They rate it with stars. You get some animated discussions going, using your books as a jumping-off point. A real discourse, especially with more recent works like The Soul's Code.

These books take time. Suicide and the Soul was published in 1964, and it is still selling. Most of my books are not out of print. Re-Visioning Psychology was taken from the Terry Lectures at Yale. And that's the real virtue. These books are still in print, nearly everything is still in print. It's marvelous.

They are in print for a reason, and it's because people are using them.

What I'm trying to get over to you is that I don't have any ambition about this. I really don't. I'm terribly interested in writing and producing and after that I don't care. And that's not good. That's like saying you don't care for your children.

Okay. Let me show you something. Lewis Mumford, whom I like a lot.

A good man. A good man.

Well, I just happened to open this book the other day and I came across a passage that resonates with some of the ideas you address in your new book on aging. I looked it up. Out of print.

What is it?

The Conduct of Life.

That's a great book. Out of print?! We should reprint it. He's a terribly good man. This is very much a today book. He's interested in character and all that.

Exactly. A guide to life. But it's a lot more turgid than your books on character. I don't think today's audience would connect with it. I'm not saying one has to completely dumb down discussions on these important topics, but…

It has to have some sort of pep or slang. Unfortunately.

Do you get involved in issues in the community here in Thompson?

Oh indeed. I found that the hardest place to talk in the world. I have talked to 2,000 people, to 500 people, all kinds of people, but to stand up in my little town hall meeting and say what I have to say about the sewer proposition, which is a scam, I find that I don't have the carrying capacity of the guy down the road who hauls gravel. I've learned enormously. I've watched a friend of mine who is an international architect, has renovated buildings on Pennsylvania Avenue and is really a talker and an authority, when he stands up to talk at a town meeting his hands are shaking. It's hard. But we've done it, and we've won the last two fights. Margot made posters and we got the voter registration list and she sat on her phone and I sat on my phone and we called the people up and asked them how they were going to vote or were they going to vote and told them we have to block this sewer because it's going to be a mess, tear down all the roads, and it's just a scam. And we stopped it. The local politicians were astonished that this little group up on the hill, maybe 15 people, we did it. We stopped it.