Minority Psychology: Homage to James Hillman

À la mort de James Hillman, en 2011, j’ai écrit cet éloge funèbre.

An homage I wrote in 2011

An obituary posted at Pacifica.edu refers to «a recent newspaper profile [that] called James Hillman “the wisest man you’ve probably never heard of.”» Why is that? Why do many people who have studied his work hold this man and his ideas in such reverence, while so many others, knowledgeable in psychology, don’t even know who he was? According to many who value his contributions, the answer is that he was the greatest American psychologist since William James but somehow suffered the fate of the ignored or overlooked genius. Though history will have the final say about his place in the evolution of psychological thought, I don’t think that superlatives will help us understand this paradox. I believe the answer lies elsewhere.

          As a psychologist, someone who cared for soul, he recognized the usual forebears – Freud, Jung, Adler – but also some unusual ones such as Corbin, Keats, Bruno, Ficino, Plotinus, Aristotle, Plato and Heraclitus.  He proclaimed that the father of psychology was none other than the Greek god Eros. Odd company for the average psychologist trying to deal with the somewhat prosaic problems of patients.

          Perhaps both the reverence and the anonymity derive from the same source: Hillman’s psychology is a minority psychology. Not in any elitist sense, for sure; he was too much of a democrat for that. But perhaps he appeals only to a minority of people. Why? First of all, he was a writer who became a practitioner, and not the other way around, as is usually the case. One might even say a fiction writer. His subject matter was neither precisely definable concepts nor a how-to method, but ideas – ideas made real and immediate and sensuous, ideas with a face and a body, autonomous ideas with consistency, authority and a history of their own, ideas of soul and the multiplicity of its essences. He most often called them images.

        But to those of us – a minority? – who cared to follow in his wake, he taught that images are more fertile than symbols, that imagination is the reality of the unconscious, and that dreams initiate the ego into an underworld of mystery. He suggested that image sense is more important than the meaning of images, that certainty (certum) is truer to soul than truth (verum), that aesthetics are as important as ethics, perhaps even central to them, that the heart thinks, and that you can find interiority in appearance and display. He showed us how the world is ensouled, animated, and gave weight, evidence, and specificity to Jung’s statement that soul is not in us, but that we are in soul.

        He wrote and spoke about mythology and the gods, yet seldom the major gods. Rather the minor ones, the neglected or invisible gods, the chthonic demigods and other mythological figures who people the underworld. He toiled to redeem such outmoded notions as paganism and fate, and even the devalued one of mediocrity. He valued pathology, the deformed, the ugly, the monstrous for what they carry and bring forth. He showed how even the simplest, minor image in a dream can aspire to archetypal status when invested with value by way of active imagination.

         Most significantly, he almost singlehandedly pushed and pulled psychology southwards, up and over the Alps, back to the Mediterranean soil that had begotten it. But let us be wary of the vista that opens before us lest we think that all that is left to do is to relax and enjoy the view while coasting into the sun filled paysage. Southern Europe is not Southern California, and we must not forget that the ground of this psychology is dark and deep, devious and devilish, with valleys, crevices and depressions, whose depths we have only begun to fathom.

         What to call this man, this thinker, this groundbreaker? Some have said founder or Renaissance man; one might suggest modern-day alchemist or even magus. He himself offered renegade psychologist. I prefer poet. Georges Bataille wrote: « Poetry leads from the known to the unknown. » Bravely, lucidly, James Hillman did just that: he led us away from the known and, we, standing in awe before the unknown, are profoundly grateful to him.

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