“By means of personifications my sense of person becomes more vivid for I carry with me at all times the protection of my daimones: the images of dead people who mattered to me, of ancestral figures of my stock, cultural and historical persons of renown and people of fable who provide exemplary images–a wealth of guardians. They guard my fate, guide it, probably are it. “Perhaps–who knows,” writes Jung, “these eternal images are what men mean by fate.” We need this help, for who can carry his fate alone?” – James Hillman
With gratitude I remember James Hillman and the many ways he influenced my life. It could take a lifetime for me to articulate with precision in what ways his ideas unstuck my thinking and understanding of life, language and human experience.
Twice, I was able to participate in his “work shops,” one up in Seattle in 1996, and again in San Francisco in 1997. These were intense, sometimes bordering on frightening engagements of conversation, poetry and music between Hillman, Robert Bly, and Michael Meade and all of us who attended as we came together to reflect on the shared experience of our place in time and the disintegration of our culture.
In the late 1980’s, shortly before moving out west, I came across one of Hillman’s books, while in the course of reading the works of C.G Jung. His writing immediately gripped me. He had a way of penetrating, seeing through, in his reflections on any and everything that he wrote about. Here was someone who was not afraid of traveling in the dark, going deeper and deeper to be with the more unwelcome aspects of our human experience and particularly our sufferings.
In the mire of my own psychic confusion, I was attracted to Hillman’s insistence that we need to be in the dark, and stay with what presents itself to us in our suffering and ask what it wants from us, rather than the more common insistence that we make the pain go away, that we fix it, whether with drugs, or by refusing our emotions and the seeming helplessness of our situation.
The insistence that we shouldn’t be broken in our very broken world should in and of itself be an idea for us to challenge.
Hillman was both masterful and poetic with language and understood that we live by the metaphors that have us in their grip and that it is our language, habits, lack of reflection and a false dichotomy between reality and imagination that keep us stuck and cursed by the literalizing and concretizing of our ideas and notions of both ourselves and the world we inhabit.
His 1997 book, The Soul’s Code, In Search of Character and Calling, would become his biggest seller, and even landed him an interview on Oprah’s show. By far his easiest read, written for a wider audience while still capturing the essence of his ideas and reflections on where we go wrong with how we understand ourselves and our culture.
My life’s journey has moved me some distance from a crazier time in my life when it seemed I had to unravel a bit before a gradual reassembling. I still greatly admire Hillman even when I find myself in disagreement with some of what he says. I’ll leave those disagreements for another post, another day.
Here is a link to a more recent and rare interview between Hillman and Scott London: