James Hillman -- psychologist, scholar, culture critic, and author of more than 20 books, including the bestselling "The Soul's Code" -- is one of the modern era's most original thinkers on the human and collective psyche.
Now approaching his 85th birthday, I spoke with Hillman as he was recuperating from two years of illness. "It's a new life," he told me. "A lot of reflection instead of ambition." The American psyche has always stoked Hillman's reflections; the following is the second half of an edited version of our conversation on the current zeitgeist.
Pythia: In our initial conversation you said that America today has a certain "tragic aspect." Can you say more about that?
Hillman: Everything that everyone is afraid of has already happened: The fragility of capitalism, which we don't want to admit; the loss of the empire of the United States; and American exceptionalism. In fact, American exceptionalism is that we are exceptionally backward in about fifteen different categories, from education to infrastructure. But we're in a stage of denial: we want to re-establish things as they used to be, to put the country back where it was.
Pythia: For many, those are fighting words. People don't want to question American exceptionalism, because if America isn't exceptional, then what is it, and what am I?
Hillman: The capacity for people to kid themselves is huge. Living on illusions or delusions, and the re-establishing of these illusions or delusions requires a big effort to keep them from being seen through. But a very old idea is at work behind our current state of affairs: enantiodromia, or the Greek notion of things turning into their opposite.
It's said, for instance, that we're in a change of age. And as the ages change, those old things that seemed to be great virtues suddenly become vices. The 2000 years that preceded this was the great expansion of the West, and the age of the great monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Yet these three salvational prophecies with their tremendous aesthetic accomplishments and enormous civilizing effects have turned into monsters in their self-absorption with their righteousness and orthodoxies. They lack insight; all three claim to be "the one."
Pythia: What would be another example of something turning into it's opposite?
Hillman: I would point to the great beliefs of secularism and humanism that began in the 17th century or even earlier. So as we see today with writers like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, the "fourth religion" is throwing out religion. This leaves us with a kind of barren scientism, or what religious people describe as a godless humanism. These are the great currents that are going on right now. People still want to find something further, but things haven't yet fully disintegrated.
Pythia: What you're saying is that these powerful myths that have defined America -- the monotheistic religions, secularism, and our economic myths -- have peaked and are in their decay, but not quite.
Hillman: Yes, but it doesn't look that way. It looks like they're being powerfully reinforced, which is always a sign of a lack of vitality -- if they were vital they wouldn't need to be defended. And the fanaticism we're witnessing goes along with the deterioration of the vitality of these myths.
Pythia: So when a society is trying to defend something this strongly it's really a symptom of the decay that's going on beneath the surface?
Hillman: Right. Take for example the economic myth, the major myth that we live in this country. Now, economists all declare that the world problem today is the falling off of demand, and that we must stimulate demand -- whether by the government or through bank lending. But if you were to look at the problem of demand falling off from an ecological point of view, what could be better? Doesn't that show an extraordinary disruption between the kind of economic thinking that dominates our capitalist world, including China, and the earth's point of view? But the ecological way of thinking creates a huge panic problem for capitalistic economics.
Pythia: You mean because these societies sense that an old way of life is dying?
Hillman: Exactly. Now there are plenty of intelligent people who are working on how to live in an economic no-growth society. And Obama has been very important in trying to bring new structural thought to these questions. But as long as the economists and the bankers rule, the old way will die very slowly.
Pythia: Still, the death of the old always implies that something new is coming.
Hillman (in an exasperated tone): This looking for the "new" is an American vice! We always want to see what's coming next -- we're addicted to the future! Futurism is another American myth: whether Kennedy, Johnson, Reagan or Obama, American presidents all come into office with a new program, and the conviction that the country is going to be better than ever. But I think you have to hasten the decay. The classic view is always to look back, and to watch and help the dying.
Pythia: As I hear you speak I'm thinking of how my family and I helped my father die, which was a very profound experience. And I'm wondering what a similar experience might mean in a cultural sense.
Hillman: One would have to think about what needs to die in this culture; what attachments need to slip away, such as white supremacy, male supremacy, and the sense that we are the really "good people." America has a certain hubris about its virtue. Another thing would be our "unanalyzed" understanding of the word freedom. Probably one of the striking things in the dying of your father was his dependence on help, like nursing homes and nurses and crutches -- yet out of his lack of freedom arose another kind of freedom.
Pythia: My father was particularly stubbornly American in that regard. He wouldn't even go into a hospital because then he wouldn't be "free" to smoke or drink. But you seem to be saying that as we lose one kind of freedom, there arises the possibility of another kind of freedom.
Hillman: I'm saying that we haven't thought about the idea of freedom enough. It needs to be internalized as an inner freedom from "demand" itself: the kind of freedom that comes when you're free from those compulsions to have and to own and to be someone. For example, think of the kind of freedom that (South African president) Nelson Mandela must have experienced when he was imprisoned. He completely lost his freedom in the outer world, yet he found freedom within. That's an example that broadens our current limited idea of freedom: that I can do any goddamn thing I want on my property; that I am my own boss and don't want government interference; that I don't want anybody telling me what I can and can't do; that we've had too much regulation, and so on. This is the freedom of a teenage boy.
Another strange aspect to this shift of ages is people's fear of getting cancer; it's absolutely endemic throughout the population. The health care bill stirred this up, and people began to wonder what would happen to them if they got cancer.
Pythia: Why do you take note of that?
Hillman: Because it's more than simply the fear of dying and the fear of disease: It's part of this period of things breaking down, and that it's only going to be a matter of time.
Pythia: It makes sense that people would have this fear, because you're describing this huge cultural moment in which not just one myth, but also three or four of our most fundamental myths, are all crumbling at once. And because most people don't have these changes put into a broader context, the way you're doing now, they're picking up the changes and feeling the anxiety --
Hillman: They are feeling it personally only.
Pythia: So people are feeling this shift, sensing that things aren't going to be the same anymore -- and this fear is making this whole process worse?
Hillman: Definitely. We see this reflected in the fear of immigrants and of our borders being transgressed; we're afraid of running out of all the things we're dependent on; of losing power, and our military bases all over the world; of our educational levels falling and of America being the best and the strongest. But the point is -- it's already collapsed, it's over with. And that's what's interesting!
Pythia: And why is this so interesting?
Hillman: Because once we understand what's really happening, we can see what else can emerge once the structures that are worn out finally crumble. There is a huge amount of stuff going on underneath these old forms. We don't know exactly what it is yet; it's all very different, unorganized, it doesn't coalesce, and it's diverse and dispersed. But it's very important that people take part in some of these emerging projects.
Pythia: Can you give me some images or ideas of what you're talking about?
Hillman: At a recent Bioneers conference, the environmentalist and entrepreneur Paul Hawken put up a film on the screen. It was simply a list of names of organizations who are doing inventive things all around the world, whether on trees, fisheries, rivers, different modalities of communities and economic systems, materials that don't use up scarce resources, people harnessing sea waves to escape from oil dependency, and endless other things. Hawken said that he could let this roll for weeks and there would be thousands and thousands of names working on what's happening beneath the surface of society.
Pythia: But for many the psychic atmosphere is so charged with a kind of floating fear and uncertainty that it's like being at sea in the middle of a terrible storm, with no sense of direction. So the question becomes how do we live during this shift between ages?
Hillman: It's important to avoid wanting these innovative structures to conform to the models of the past: and that means unified, organized, and from the top down. What's beginning to emerge is very different from what's gone before: we can't entirely eliminate things like hierarchy, but what's coming may have no tops or bottoms, or even a name. Remember that in the early days of the feminist movement, they refused to have a leader; different women would just stand up and speak. The early feminists were very careful to not put what was spontaneously arising back in the old bottle.
So I think it's a matter of being free-wheeling, and trusting that the emerging cosmos will come out on its own, and shape itself as it comes. That means living in a certain open space -- and that's freedom.
Pythia: That has a ring of authenticity to me. Thank you for your time and for this fascinating conversation on America.
Hillman: You're welcome.