Hillman Speaks:
The topic is depression and the man is confounding

by Cliff Bostock
(Originally published in the "Paradigms" column of Creative Loafing)

What function does depression - a supposedly epidemic disorder - play in a society whose emphasis on productivity makes its most "successful" citizens virtually manic?

That was the question James Hillman, author of the recent bestselling The Soul's Code and The Force of Character, addressed in two days of lectures in Santa Barbara March 17 and 18. The primary founder of the school called "archetypal psychology," Hillman is a self-described "bricoleur," a cobbler of the imagination who takes an image, a concept, turns it inside out, hammers and shapes it from every angle, and then releases it. He may as easily reverse himself in his next session of writing or speaking. Those of us who are most comfortable with consistency and order can be driven quite mad by his method. But it is also a corrective for our severe rationalisms.

Regular readers of this column know that Hillman has been my intellectual inspiration for years. His books Revisioning Psychology, The Myth of Analysis and Healing Fiction are, to my reading, brilliant inquiries into psychology as a phenomenology of imagination. They at once liberate psychology from its medical model but also liberate the medical model itself from its claim to objective status, making it a myth too. Hillman reverses everything. He returns psychology to Freud and then snatches it from him.

So, his replies to the seminar's thematic question, his reversals, were not surprising. He sees depression as the soul's way of demanding a necessary slowdown in a consumerist society. In his cosmology - and he repeatedly made the point that every therapist must have a well articulated cosmology - symptoms express exactly what is needed. (Thus, contrary to the usual therapeutic bromide, depression does not necessarily mask anger; it is just what it is: necessary slowdown.)

He built an elaborate case, historically grounded, for the necessity and inevitability of melancholy, citing the Greeks for their understanding of the "underworld" as a place of beauty and learning, whereas the Christian cosmology demonized the underworld as "hell" and rejected the idea of suffering as inevitable and important in itself. In the Christian view, suffering is optional - for Christ suffered for us - and, in any case, suffering is followed by a resurrection, a return to wholeness.

In Hillman's pagan view, similar to Nietzsche's, Christianity is fallacious. He read from William Styron's Darkness Visible: "When I was closest to suicide, I realized the beauty of life." Beauty reveals itself in the suffering, even if the resurrection doesn't follow.

As a longtime "Hillmaniac," I was most interested in the performance of the man himself. Although he has visited my classes before, this was my first time to hear him lecture at length - and as someone who has finally become popularly famous. It was also my first time to feel, in his presence, the frustration created by the often stark self-contradictions of his method.

These contradictions are often explained now as the effects of "deconstruction," as myth scholar Ginette Paris did at this seminar. But I have no sense of Hillman as a disciple of Derrida's method. I have never known him to cite Lacan, for example, or to use any of the vocabulary of the so-called post-structuralists. If by "deconstruction," Paris and others mean that he attempts to undermine concepts that have seized the imagination and imposed an often unexamined order, I suppose the term fits. As someone standing inside that formal tradition - and history is important to him - Hillman shows no evidence of that.

And I don't mean that just structurally - but content-wise, as well. It would be absurd to call anyone who refuses to discuss gender a deconstructionist. In one segment of his lectures, he showed slides of paintings of depressed people. Nearly all of them were women. He invited people to comment on the way depression tends to be genderized as female - perhaps as a historical fact, perhaps not - and then utterly refused to discuss gender more generally, calling it "irrelevant." This prompted several women sitting beside me to mutter under their breath.

This curious habit of exempting certain areas of inquiry from his own method of reversal permeated the weekend. While valorizing shattering, the suffering of depression, he seemed unwilling to look at what mania itself might be asking of value. To my own mind, mania, as a social descriptor, may be telling us we really do need to speed up our attention, that if we live on a dying planet, we need to begin merging our bodies with new forms of technology. It is in media - the internet, the cell phone, the television - that we see the most visible expressions of consciousness speeded to "manic" rates. There was just no opening in Hillman's (anti-technological, anti-speed) cosmology to discuss this in a serious way.

Indeed, the entire room seemed unwilling to go that way. One man spoke negatively of the way the "window to the world" has been replaced by "Windows '95." It is a great mystery to me how people in archetypal psychology offhandedly dismiss the idea that technology itself might be ensouled, that in a world on the apparent verge of environmental disaster, our survival might well depend on our capacity to take on new forms of embodiment. There has been a lot of (optimistic) writing in recent years about the internet as a group mind that may be the planet's salvation.

Similarly, even though he has written a book highly critical of psychotherapy, Hillman could not seriously entertain the idea of abandoning it as a noble but failed experiment. Although he privileges the patient's own experience, he could not support the notion that people might be able to undertake healing through art. He called such a prospect "dangerous."

Some of these self-contradictions have been brutally attacked in recent years by Wolfgang Giegerich in works like his book The Soul's Logical Life. Giegerich, a Hegelian, is almost a case of the unsavory opposite, demanding a consistency and rationality that seems, to my reading, to sacrifice Hillman's poetics to a fault.

For all of this, Hillman riffed brilliantly here and there, especially when he drew on his tremendous knowledge of the classics to demonstrate how our definition of pathology is almost inevitably formed by the social milieu in which we live - and by our particular interaction with a world he finds ensouled at core. In this view, depression can be an effect of the landscape and architecture, of consumerism and interior suffering.

Copyright 2000 by Creative Loafing

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