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James Hillman The Soul's Code

Note: This interview was taken from "At Random", an interview page from Random House
Publishing.

At Random: Why at this point in your own long career are you thinking about this subject--about
careers, about the choices we make in life?

James Hillman: It's partly an eruption, a breaking in on a position I've had all my life, which is
that my biography is really not interesting, really not important. How I conduct my life, what I
eat for breakfast, what my parents did, is really not relevant to the work, and one's biography is
the work. People love to study Mozart, for example, his whole life, his relation to his father, but
you cannot get his music out of that.

AR: But we can pull out of your biography elements that are interesting, at least, or that seem
more illuminating than others--that you were born in a hotel room in Atlantic City, that you
worked with badly traumatized veterans of the Second World War, that you went to Switzerland
to be in Jung's presence and to become a psychoanalyst.

JH: I try to make the point that you can weave into your autobiography all these peculiar strands,
and I think when you get older, the weaving becomes more apparent. I wouldn't say easier, but
certainly more apparent. Switzerland--well, that's such a rooted, earthy, ROCK place, traditional,
and I was born on a sandbar, where there are no roots. You can't have any roots; all the soil relied
on for gardens is imported from the mainland in trucks. There are no roots in Atlantic City; there
is no soil; there is no tradition. The highest point on the sandbar is ten feet above sea level. You
can be wiped out by one wave. So that's partly in the book, that one's roots are not necessarily
downward into history, the past, tradition, and all that stuff, but there's na upward root, a root into
the spirit--the Tree of the Kabbalah, for example, which is reversed, and its roots reach into
heaven.

AR: What if the root hits pollution? We know that environmental poisoning is wreaking havoc
with our bodies,
possibly fiddling with our fertility. Can cultural poisoning, whether in the form of bad movies or
bad psychology, stunt the acorn's growth? And shut down our access to what you call the
invisibles, the helpful spirits who will lead us to our calling?

JH: I would think there is a cultural poisoning. Except for a brief flowering in the Renaissance,
Western culture has been systematically shutting out the invisible: "You should not listen to these
voices. They lead you away from the One True God." One of the victories of Jesus was over
those voices, and they became tempters, evil, just as the underworld became a negative place,
Hell, rather than part of the necessary journey, as it was for Ulysses. If anything, contemporary
culture has opened more doors. New Age thinking, thinking about aliens and flying saucers--
these are all way-out ideas, but at least they've admitted the beginning of some larger
conceptualization of the invisible.

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AR: Acknowledging what you've just said, let me read to you what you've written: "The
alienation of the invisible makes it more eerie and distant, and more represented by werewolves,
time warps, and abductions in the Stephen King-dom of our culture. Our modern passages are so
narrow and with such low ceilings, the invisibles must twist themselves into freakish shapes in
order to come through." It seems to me that there is a missed chance here in the way that
commercial culture renders the invisible. I remember being struck by something [the German
playwright and director] Heiner Müller once said in an interview. He'd gone to see Fantasia by
accident, and he was horrified by it, because its main audience is children, and these great
musical works were now bonded with the Disney images in children's minds for a lifetime. And
he's right! I find it difficult to listen to Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker without picturing those damn
dancing mushrooms.

JH: And the hippos in tutus.

AR: Them, too. But now I realize that it's a lot worse. Disney hasn't just contaminated that
music. "Disney magic" has also contaminated the invisibles. Disney's dancing mushrooms are
the invisibles.

JH: It's a significant problem, and I think it's partly responsible for the enormous amount of
psychopathology that requires therapy. There is a cultural exclusion, which forces out the
invisibles and forces them to return in these distorted forms, because that's the way they can
make the deepest impression. Pathology always makes the deepest impression. So we have no
culture of the imaginal and very little culture of the invisibles. This was not the case in the
Renaissance, though. The invisible was very much a part of that time. We don't understand when
we worship Leonardo and Michelangelo and the great high moments of the Renaissance--
Galileo, too--that underneath and all through the Renaissance was this kind of awareness of the
invisible: angels, archons, all kinds of figures. The personification of the other, of this daimon or
genius--there's a long tradition of that. You can look at wonderful medieval paintings of when
people die and this little figure emerges from the mouth or the ear: the daimon, the soul, an other.
You have a real sense that you're living with another person. We talk to ourselves and we listen
to those voices. These are the invisibles.

AR: Today we have celebrities and "sightings" of them, so I'm intrigued by your use of celebrity
biography in the book.

JH: The eminent people in the book are used as vivifiers of imagination, not as exemplars of how
to live life. They're to make a person feel the power of calling. So they are exemplars of
imagination. There is something else in your life that calls, that wants. And that applies to
everyone, including the so-called mediocre--most of us--those who never make it to be Joan
Crawford.

AR: How is calling defined in the average life? What do we finally arrive at when we think in
these terms?
Obviously we all can't be stars, but I'm reminded of a Lily Tomlin joke: "What if we all grew up
to be what we wanted to be as children? I wonder what it would be like to live in a world full of
ballerinas and firemen and truck drivers."

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JH: [Laughs] That's very funny. What we finally arrive at is a feeling of being necessary and
being certain, somehow, of "This is who I am. This is what I must do. This is what I must have."
It's that sense which many people don't have; they feel themselves adrift and what David
Riesman called 40 years ago "other-directed."

AR: But you point out that celebrities become "other-directed" in their own way. You write,
"Why do stars 'sink so low'--becoming commercial face-lifted drunks, sex freaks, religious
paranoids? Are these not desperate attempts to touch the common ground?" This is not "growing
down," I would think. Judy Garland, whom you cite for her exemplary obedience to calling,
ended in a pathetic stupor of drugs and alcohol.

JH: It's rather rare for the person who is identified with a calling to touch the common ground,
but that wrestling seems to be witnessed by some extraordinary people in older age. How do they
make it into the older age? That's the ultimate growing down. I talk about Josephine Baker in the
book, how she did it. She became old, she let herself get ugly, she announced she was older than
she actually was.

AR: I thought that was a kind of disguise, actually, saying you're older than you are. "Oh, well,
then I guess you don't look that bad." But the most amazing disguise is Stokowski's, which you
also write about. I didn't know that about him--that he was British and faked an Eastern
European accent. He created himself as this great, flamboyant ŽmigrŽ conductor.

JH: It isn't that he created himself. I raise the question, Does the daimon want to create in order
to separate itself from the biographical person, and not confuse the two? Stokowski seemed to lie
all through his life about who he was, and he burned everything. They all did. Freud did. Endless
numbers of people try to destroy evidence of their normal biography, which biographers--
especially today, and Random House prints plenty of 'em--track down with meticulous attention.
Every last laundry slip. As if they're going to catch the daimon or the genius in the laundry slip. I
don't think so. Your laundry slips and Stokowski's laundry slips look exactly the same.

AR: Stokowski, or the Stokowski daimon, invented himself out of his own head, with no help
from his folks, but you write that we must have fantasies about our children. I wonder about that.
What if the fantasies go too far? What about Jessica Dubroff, whose parents had a fantasy that
she would be a pilot at a very young age? How do we modulate the way we raise our children,
from avoiding fantasizing to such an extreme that we're bringing the fantasy into reality
prematurely, while also avoiding that deadly general comment "You can be anything you want to
be, honey."

JH: It's just that. I think the problem is dosage. It's not a matter of having a fantasy or not having
a fantasy, it's having the fantasy but in some way comprehending the difference between it and a
plan. Have a fantasy about the child which gives her an imagination of possibilities. What's
needed is parenting the fantasy, caring for the fantasy, and examining it for its consequences if it
should become a plan.

AR: Is our culture one that can act too easily on fantasy? That is, we have the resources, we have
the leisure time. It's a simple thing to buy a plane and have the kid fly it.

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JH: We have too short a fuse between the fantasy and the plan. "I got a great idea, let's do it!"
And you don't entertain the idea and imagine it a little bit. You immediately imagine how to
implement it.

AR: Isn't that the American genius?

JH: Yes, but it's also the shadow of the American genius.

AR: You have a chapter called "The Bad Seed." Some people are just cursed with an evil
daimon, you argue, and I don't doubt it, but then you end the chapter with this blowout remark:
"We might finally recognize that in America, Natural Born Killers are the secret companions of,
are even prompted by, Forrest Gumps."

JH: Well, that's one of my main themes. I'd like to write a whole book on that one. I think Forrest
Gump is more dangerous to our society than Jeffrey Dahmer. Dahmer is a real strange, unusual,
weird figure. They do pop up, and in all societies--Russia, France, England. But Forrest Gump
pops up only in the U.S.A. He's a real shadow of every American. The message: Remain forever
an innocent child and all good things will fall in your lap. You eventually make money, you're
heroic, and you know nothing. By staying stupid, you come out all right. The myth of innocence:
extremely dangerous. I said this once at a lecture and a man stood up and shouted, "What are you
saying? That man was a holy fool, he was a saint. I saw that movie six times." That's America.

AR: And the Natural Born Killer is Forrest Gump's companion. Why?

JH: They're both unconscious and doing what comes naturally. What does the Woody Harrelson
character, Mickey Knox, say? He actually says, "I'm a natural born killer." Oliver Stone, who
made that movie, missed that fact. He invents a scene of Mickey as a boy being abused, and also
witnessing his father's suicide, giving a background to why he's so vicious, because of course
this level of pathology has to have some kind of background in the parents.

AR: The background is really in the holy fool.

JH: What links them is that they're both unreflecting. Forrest Gump just does it. Mickey Knox
just does it.
Doin' what comes naturally.

AR: One thing you want to do in this book is encourage us to think about how we may
reconceive our lives, but you haven't packaged this as a how-to book. There are no exercises in
here about how I can contact my daimon.

JH: That would be for me too American. If I were to package it as a how-to book, we would no
longer need to think or imagine. The task is not the right way to imagine, but simply to imagine
to begin with, and then you sort out the rights and wrongs of it. But we don't. In America we start
with, What's the right way to do something? Because we start from a moral premise rather than
an aesthetic or an imaginative one. The very first thing you think when you wake up in the
morning is, Was it a good dream or was it a bad dream? The first judgment we make is moral. It's

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not, Is this beautiful, or ugly? Is it true or false? It's, Is this right or wrong, good or bad? And
that's very crippling to imagination.

Interview by Sean Abbott.

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