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Authenticity, Character and Destiny

An Interview with James Hillman

Copyright © 1998 by Bert H. Hoff


James Hillman, author of the best-selling The Soulís Code: In Search of Character and Calling (order on-line) (order paperback on-line) (Audio Tape) and mentor to Thomas Moore, author of Care of the Soul, (order on-line) (Audio Tape) was in Seattle to do an event with Michael Meade. (MenWeb has a MP3 WebCast from this event and a tape of this event, Character and Destiny, is available from the MenWeb on-line bookstore.) Menís Voices editor and publisher Bert H. Hoff took the opportunity to interview him in his hotel suite the day before the event.

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The Soul's Code
The Soulís Code

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The Force of Character: and the Lasting Life
by James Hillman
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Kinds of Power
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Bert: Youíre known a lot for your Menís Work with Robert Bly and Michael Meade. What first enticed you to get involved with working with Robert and Michael?

Hillman: Robert enticed me to working with Robert! Robert invited me to one of his early workshops. I canít remember whether the first time was in Minnesota or Mendocino, but it was in 1984 or 1985. So I went on doing it for many years. Of course, weíd known each other before.

Bert: How did you find your prior work tying to Menís Work, and what did you see going on with men as they started to be doing this Work?

Hillman: Iíd lived in Europe for many, many years. I was not in touch with anything to do with the American "menís movement." I know my own deficiencies, one of which is that I had lived away from America for such a long time, which is a deficiency for an American. Itís called expatriate. Thirty-two years. But what caught me was going to the very first event, sitting around on the first morning, and hearing Robert reading William Blake and giving a lecture on Blake. I saw the avid interest, the hunger for real teaching, which you donít see in the universities, and which Iím very interested in. Iím interested I the culture that goes with Menís Work.

Thatís what caught me. I said, "My God! Here are real people interested in the good stuff!" I can bring way-out ideas, which you canít do in a university classroom with 18-year-olds or 21-year-olds who have to pass an examination. These were people who wanted to learn. And it was connected with their lives, and what you might call the therapeutic needs of their lives.

Bert: What do you think the men were hungering for?

Hillman: They were hungering for knowledge. Knowledge, value, tradition, passionóall of which, I think, we were presenting.

Bert: You donít mean knowledge in the book-learning sense, I take it.

Hillman: I have nothing against book learning. But knowledge, not information. I mean knowledge that is rooted in our culture. Shakespeare is book-learning, but it doesnít hurt. What do you call that? What do you call knowledge about the soul, about life, about death, about initiation, about values?

Bert: Some have used the word "wisdom."

Hillman: Iím a little cautious about that word, so I donít use it. Iím cautious about a lot of words that blow us up. That inflates us. Itís very hard to know what "wisdom" is.

You know, the Greek word sophia, what weíve translated as the word "wisdom," comes from craftsócarpenters and hand work. The earliest uses of the word "sophia" is the tilleróthe man at the tiller of a boat. Heís always making little moves to keep you on course. Thatís all it is. Itís not big sentences. Itís just little moves.

Thatís the way I think about wisdom, so I donít use the word. Itís usually used in our culture in terms of big platitudes.

The Soul's Code
The Soulís Code

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Bert: In the first part of your book The Soulís Code you talk about "growing down." You talk about the problems of inflation in actors and actresses, for example, that keep them from "growing down."

But thereís another theme in what youíre presenting. In a nutshell, youíre presenting an "acorn theory," that each of us has a germ of something, and that the daimons, the spirits or the ancestors will help us bring this out from within ourselves.

Men and the Life of Desire, with Robert Bly, James Hillman and Michael Meade.

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So the image that came to my mind as you were talking about men gathering to listen to you, Robert and Michael, is whether these men have a bit of wanting the acorn to blossom more.

Hillman: I think so. I think they want to be seen, and they want to be spoken to. They want to be seen appreciated and put on course.

Bert: Another connection that I wanted to make, was with your earlier book Kinds of Power. I kept on thinking about "menís movement stuff"Ö

Hillman: Good! Thatís a good subject.

Bert: Two kinds of things come up for us. Thereís the outward power, like the power of being a victim. "Iím a victim of the court system." "Iím a victim of domestic violence." Then the are issues like come up with my [former] organization Seattle M.E.N., the Menís Evolvement Network, where weíre trying to find new, non-hierarchical, non-patriarchal ways of working together as colleagues, rather than in a competitive way. The shadow of power comes up when people are doing this good work, as well as in the gender wars.

So I was wondering whether your being around men doing Menís Work influenced you in your book Kinds of Power, where you have 23 different definitions of "power." The power of operation and maintenance, the power of service, the power of silence, and all these definitions of power.

Hillman: I think I got to the question of power because the word "power" has such a generally negative implication in our society. "Heís on a power trip." Heís power hungry." "All he wants is power." "Men are power-obsessed and they use it against women."

Or, "empowerment." "I have no power. Iím weak. I need to be empowered."

If you look at this word, what are people talking about? Are they talking about muscles, or control? So by going into the word a little more carefully I began to see that thereís a lot more to power than merely control. I began to see that that kind of power is really what we mean by "power-hungry." But we have to re-value things like ambition. We have to re-value concentration. We have to give value to authority. We have to give value to office, being in office, holding office. As well as to those other aspects like maintenance, being in service, and so on.

So it was an opportunity to work through many of the issues that men, particularly, face. Whether we like it or not, men have more of the offices, more of the higher jobs, more of the seats in Congress. Men need to re-examine what their power, so to speak, is, and not think that itís a bad thing, but that it needs to be differentiated and we need to understand how to use it. Thatís why the subtitle is "An Intelligent Guide to its Uses." We need to more than just "blame" power or put it down.

Bert: You mention the power of office and the power of authority. Implied in that is the message that we need to have respect for authority.

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Robert Bly

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Another theme I was seeing in The Soulís Code was the section where you say we must hate our children, when you see what we do to them. And in all of the "menís rights" and gender stuff, itís who "wins in court." But I keep thinking of Robert Blyís book The Sibling Society. Arenít you saying many of the same things as Robert?

Hillman: You should go on just another inch. Where are we similar?

Bert: You found two themes that were compelling. One was our throwing out of respect for authority and for elders. "What can we learn from dead white males?" "Iíve got be me." This was a major theme in Robertís book. Robert tied that together with the ways we treat our children. Those themes seem to me to be ones that you hit upon in The Soulís Code.

Hillman: I think I talk about authority in a different way. Iím talking about what gives a human being authority, rather than authority as an external thing attached to the seniors or the "dead white males." Iím talking about something that has to do with inner authenticityóintegrityóso that someone gains authority even if he has no office. Heís an elder sitting in the back of the room at a Native American council group. But that person has authority. Itís that quality that Iím interested in. Not because he holds a higher rank, but because he has certain values.

A man like Spiro Agnew, who just died, had no authority. He had huge office. He was Vice-President of the United States. Dan Quayle was also Vice-President of the United States, had zilch authority. He had office. He had control. He had all Kinds of Power. He had prestige, another kind of power. He probably had ambition. But I wouldnít say that he was a man of authority.

Bert: Youíre also talking about respect for tradition. You were talking about the things that men were looking for in Menís WorkÖ

Hillman: Yes, tradition, knowledgeÖ

Bert: Those seem to be some of the things we are rejecting in contemporary society as unimportant or irrelevant.

Hillman: Thatís a really hard question, because "tradition" is used by the Right Wing in a very negative way. When they talk about "family values" itís in a repressive way, as if our American tradition were only the Puritan tradition or the 19th century oppressive tradition. The Christian tradition.

So how do we use the word tradition in a way that is regenerative? I think that depends a lot on whoís doing the teaching. Thatís why Robert and Michael were such good companions in the work we were doing at menís gatherings and retreats. They would go back into tradition, whether it was rituals, or fairy tales, or stories or myths, or poets like Wordsworth or lake, but it was used in a generative or regenerative way, not in a moralistic way. Thatís what I guess I value about tradition. Itís a source rather than a judgmental scheme.

Bert: I hadnít even thought about "family values" or judgmental schemes when I was using the word.

Hillman: (chuckling.) But you know how itís being used now.

Bert: So they are recapturing the old traditions of myths, of imagery and imaginationÖ

Hillman: and poetryÖ

Bert: Öthat speak to our souls, through countless generations. Thatís the tradition that Robert is saying in The Sibling Society that contemporary society is rejecting. We donít need to hear the old stories.

Hillman: Yes, and that weíre always looking for new myths. "What is the myth today," as if myths were like advertising schemes or baseball teams, that come up, and then go down again. Who wins the Series this year?

Thatís not it. These stories are perpetual.

Bert: You just plugged me into something else. You say that we have a lot of myths. For example, the myth of the parent. You have a chapter in The Soulís Code where you talk about the myth that itís the parent that guides the child. Van Cliburn was a great pianist because his mother made him practice every day. Youíre suggesting that parents happen to be there, but that thereís an acorn of genius that Van Cliburn had, and all that Van Cliburnís mother did was to recognize and bring forth what was already within. But we are captivated by a modern myth that parents make and shape the child.

Hillman: Yes. I said in the chapter called "The Parental Fallacy" that thereís no myth that holds our culture more firmly in its grip than that you are the result of your parentís conditioning, just as you are the result of their bodies. That so permeates our thinking that we forget that our "calling" may have a completely different source. The soul may be responsible to a calling that is not only biologicalóyour parentsóor environmental. Thatís that we have lost, that third thing. We have biology, or nature. We have environment, or nurture, parents and all the socio-economic things. But we forget that the soul, somehow, has a third aspect. It has its own ancestors, which may not be your own actual , physical ancestors. They are the ancestors that other people in other cultures have honored, but that we donít even recognize in our own society.

We sometimes talk of "fate" or "destiny." In my book I use the word Greek word diamon. Other cultures have many words for those "spirits" that seem to guide us, terms like "the invisibles."

The term diamon comes from the Myth of Er, in the last book of Platoís Republic. According to the myth he lays out there, the soul of each of us is given a unique daimon before we are born, and it has selected an image or pattern that we live on earth. This soul-companion, the daimon, guides us here. In the process of arrival, however, we forget all that took place and believe that we came empty into the world. The daimon remembers what is in your image and belongs to your pattern, and therefore your diamon is the carrier of your destiny. As Plotinus tells us, we elected the body, the parents, the place, and the circumstances that suited the soul and that, as the myth says, belongs to its necessity. This suggests that the circumstances, including my body and my parents whom I may curse are my soulís own choiceóand I do not understand this because I have forgotten.

So the things that "happen" to us, beyond nature and nurture, beyond our genetics and our social conditioning, may be the "call" of the daimon, the soul-companion, calling us to our own character and our own destiny.

Bert: You also mentioned another aspect of this "calling," the element of risk. Aside from biology and social conditioning, that our finding our "calling" may entail embracing the risks we encounter as we live in the world. In our society we seem to want to protect ourselves from risks.

Images of Initiation, with James Hillman, Michael Meade and Malidoma Somé.

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Of Water and the Spirit
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Hillman: I learned something from Malidoma Somť (initiated Dagara African tribesman, holder of doctorates from the Sorbonne and Brandeis, and author of Of Water and the Spirit, who has done a number of events with James Hillman and Michael Meade.) He brought up one time how amazed he was with the idea of insurance in our world, that when some peculiar thing happens, we donít think of "the invisibles" or fate or destiny, or meaning, or what could be going on. We think, instead, of calling the insurance adjuster. We think of making a claim. We donít think that weíve been visited by "the invisibles," but that this may even be a chance to make a little money.

Insurance insures us against the "invisible" world. Thatís a remarkable thing. I think Malidoma saw something crucial. Insurance is really a giant umbrella against the incursions of the unexpected.

Bert: Another word that you used, that can be take a lot of ways, is "character." What you bring to mind is the bit actor characters or the old, grizzled characters. Or, "he has character."

Hillman: The word "character" comes originally from "chiseling" or making a mark. So you have lines in your face that reveal your character. The kairologists would say that the lines in your hand show your character. I think of that in the sense of having strong character. So a character actor has this very fixed, determined place, and he canít get out of playing an old crook in every film. Or he has to play a grizzled Western sidekick, or he has to play Grandpa.

What are we saying? Weíre saying thereís a definite formation to the person. In other words, the lines are deeply engraved.

Bert: Thereís another aspect of that, because the word "character" is used in terms of integrity. You draw the image of the acorn growing into the oak, and the acorn wanting to be a poplar. So integrity, in this sense, is being true to character, true to the oak.

Hillman: I want to use Clinton as an example. We think that character can only be like a moral Puritan, in a black hat and a black frock coat, who never wavers and never falters. But the man of character can be the man of wisdom I spoke of earlier, the man at the tiller, who just makes little adjustments to keep on course. Constantly adjusting, going with the wind. Constantly adjusting. Heís never on "true course," because you never are when you are actually sailing. Youíre always slightly off-course. The job of a good sailor is to keep close to course, making little adjustments. They blame Clinton for being wisy-washy, for vacillating and not being true to whatever. But if you were Chinese youíd say the man is flexible. Youíd say he is like bamboo, he is like water, or the wind, which is always shifting a little bit. Because thatís the way to be on this earth. Because anything that remains mountain-hard will be run over, or the water will pass it by.

It just shows the difference of cultures here. Our sense of character is to be only one way. Itís a monotheistic view of character. Iím suggesting that there are many ways of showing character, one of which is "wishy-washy." Thatís also a way of showing character. Itís flexibility, bending like bamboo.

Bert: As you talk of character and risk, the image that comes to my mind is that of Joseph Campbell, "Follow your bliss."

Hillman: Aha! Of course, Michael Meade has made it clear that doesnít just mean going through life smiling like Forrest Gump and eating chocolates. Meade points this out by pointing to a passage from Campbell that has to do with passion and adventure. You donít know what youíre going to get into when you follow your bliss.

Thatís what weíve lost in our culture now. Weíre an "air bag" society that wants guarantees on everything that we buy. We want to be able to take everything back and get another one. We want a 401-k plan, and Social Security. The whole arrangement of our life is built against the incursions of the unknown into our life.

Bert: And itís the incursions of the unknown in our life that create the magic, fuel our passions.

Hillman: They challenge us, too, and in that sense keep us alive.

Bert: Rainer Maria Rilkeís poem: "Our role in life is to be decisively defeated by greater and greater Beings."

Hillman: Thatís extraordinary, isnít it? And youth wonít bear this kind of dull thing, the way we carve out risk-free lives where nothing happens, and of course they become absurdly violent and ritualistic. Because something else must be given to youth.

It isnít enough for a man to put all his love and his attention on his son or his children and try to be everything, father, mentor, instructor, preacher, teacher and all the rest. You canít help the child unless youíve rectified the culture. He has a job to make the culture, the world, a place where the childís daimon to grow. Even if he put everything he has into the child, the child is still left facing a world which will not receive the soul. Thatís the big job.

So fathers have a very important job in addition to keeping a roof over the heads of their sons. They also have to correct the culture. And thatís a very hard one. But thatís the calling, I think, that every man has.

Bert: A lot of our readers, and other men 40-50 years old, have been doing a lot of this Menís Work for a while. And that raises an interesting question. Do you think that itís even possible for men this late in life to find the daimon, the acorn? Where do you think this work is taking us?

Hillman: I tried to say I the book that itís very important for men to look downward, to the next generation. To look at children, at adolescents, and try to see and feel the beauty of them and try to give something to them. We also need to work on the world, so that the world will not be so oppressive. All we can do when we think of kids today is think of more hours of school, earlier age at the computer, and curfews. Who would want to grow up in that world?

And to offer them more consumer goods ad more competitive pressures. Think what it is to be a child today, how hard it is. We adults have a huge job to do towards the culture.

Bert: Doing "outer work" to change the culture weíre in.

Hillman: No question about that.

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