DURING THE SEVENTIES AND EIGHTIES my longtime friend, a painter, lived in Greece, on the island of Crete. In 1981, when spring beckoned after a long, dark New York City winter, I scraped together the money to visit her there for the first time.
My friend lived with her Greek husband, a musician from Athens, in an old stone house painted robin’s egg blue in a village outside the port city of Chania, 25 miles from the western edge of the island. Though none of us had much money, we ate royally on produce from the garden augmented occasionally by fresh catch from local fishermen and always with excellent cheap local wine decanted into a liter bottle from a barrel at the grocer’s.
My friend’s house had no indoor plumbing, no hot water, no electricity. Mail was rare, phone service was conducted from a pay phone over open boxes of salted sardines at the corner store, and email had yet to be invented. Which for me was all for the good. I was relieved to be far away from home and the unrelenting demand to make “life decisions.” Spring on the island – scents of lavender and rosemary, the startling blue Sea of Crete – was ecstatic.
Another joy was that I’d brought just the right book with me. Before leaving New York, my forage through a book bin on upper Broadway yielded a paperback of James Hillman’s Re-Visioning Psychology, a book the author claimed was about “soul-making.” I’d never heard of Hillman, but there were Greek gods on the cover, which augured well.
Decades later, I would have the honor of meeting and hosting James Hillman several times at the literary series I curate for the Los Angeles Public Library. But in the wake of Hillman’s death this past fall, at the age of 85, it’s the memory of that first, intense encounter with his work on that trip to Crete that re-asserts itself with such insistence.
What better place than Crete to read about archetypal patterns or, in Hillman’s words, “Gods affecting our styles of consciousness.” Europa swam back to Crete after being mounted by Zeus in the form of a bull; royal dolphins leap blue waves on murals in the royal palace at Knossos, where King Minos threw Theseus into the labyrinth to face the Minotaur. We were all familiar with the bare-breasted Minoan goddess, a wriggling snake held aloft in each of her fists. What interested Hillman was Greek myth not as religion, but as a psychic, imaginal world.
On Crete, I read Hillman and wrestled with his ideas on the patio of the blue house while my friend painted still lifes in her studio. Hillman exhorted the reader to “recall the angel aspect of the word, recognizing words as independent carriers of soul between people.” In each word was the etymon, the hidden truth buried in its root. I was enthralled by Hillman’s bold belief that “words are persons” that have the ability “to burn and become flesh as we speak.” The ideas were rich, complicated, startling – I often had to pause and read one sentence several times.
Hillman’s ideas floated through my mind while Scotty and I scouted rugged canyons as sites for her landscape paintings, when we drank fiery raki at 11 a.m. in crumbling monasteries with wry, wrinkled monks. I pondered Hillman at night, listening to the plaintive chords of her husband’s electric bass reverb through the quiet village.
I remember being particularly struck by Hillman’s explanation of “the pathologized image.” He was referring to those dream images – the psyche’s metaphorical language – that strike us with exceptionally moving power. “Imagination works,” Hillman wrote, “by deforming and forming at one and the same moment.” A pathologized image “touches our sense of life. It both vitiates and vitalizes, a quickening through distortion.”
He expanded on those ideas a few years later, in his book The Dreamer and the Underworld, evoking again the polytheistic Greek world he so admired, where – he pointed out – Hades and Persephone share the same kingdom, Hades and Hermes share the same hat. He compared dream work to alchemy, where one had to deform nature in order to serve nature. The shock of deformation “restores to an image its capacity to perturb the soul,” he wrote. Perturbing the soul was necessary for insight. “The soul sees by means of affliction … the wound and the eye are one and the same.”
Reading Hillman for the first time during that month on Crete, I could not have anticipated how deeply my soul was about to be perturbed. That was before my husband and I divorced, before my Renault Le Car crashed head-on into a two-ton pickup, before my friend’s husband drowned one afternoon in that sparkling sea down the hill from the blue stone house.
James Hillman was a gadfly in the field of psychotherapy, an original thinker who made it his regular practice, as he termed it, “to assault entrenched thought.” He was born in the Breakers Hotel (one of several owned by his father) in Atlantic City, New Jersey. He was just 18 in 1944 when he was drafted into the U.S. Navy. After the war, he attended the Sorbonne in Paris and graduated with honors from Trinity College in Dublin. He moved on to study with Carl Jung in Zurich, and became director of Jung Studies at the Jung Institute there in 1959. Hillman was the author of 28 books, and a great innovator in what is called depth psychology.
The primary tool of this discipline is penetration – one digs below conventional constructs into that layer of the mind that is poetic myth. He arduously applied that methodology to his last book, A Terrible Love of War.
What Hillman most drew on for that subversive study of war’s folly was his experience in the Second World War, when he was assigned as a pharmacist mate second class to a ward of the war-deafened, did night duty with amputees, and worked more than a year as “special assistant to the war-blinded.” He wrote with elegant precision, “What I knew of battle, was only its remnants.” He used to visit a Marine his own age who had lost all four limbs, remarking in the introduction how, “I look at my hands now when I write this.”
He spoke to me about the genesis of that book when he came to Los Angeles in 2004 to speak at the library. We sat in a tranquil hotel garden and he told me how he almost didn’t survive the writing of the book, which warns the reader of its intent: “This book seeks to do what war itself achieves: destabilize, desubjectivize, destroy. The writer comes out of the book a casualty, and the reader too, or at least all shook up.” His aim was to “move our imaginations into the martial state of soul,” exposing how going to war “in the name of peace” was nothing but deceitful rhetoric.
In his talk that evening, he railed against what he saw as our “endemic national disease: the addiction to innocence.” It was three years after the attacks of September 11th and one year since the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom. By nature, Hillman wrote, he considered himself a “child of Mars.” He liked to “sharpen oppositions and set fire to the passions of thought.” That night he lit the fuse.
During the Q&A there were flustered faces and ruffled sensibilities, combustible passions. “The word ‘peace’ is a cover-up,” Hillman told one questioner. “It keeps Americans innocent! We have the most weapons and are the most dedicated to war – our notion of peace is still ‘darkness falling,'” he said, using a phrase from Marguerite Duras. “It’s a way of escaping from the inhumanity that is in the cosmos.”
“That’s sad!” said his questioner, her voice quavering.
“Can we sit with that without going to sleep?” Hillman entreated the audience.
You see, we’re not going to solve the problems until we can stay awake.
Vigilantly! That’s the difficulty. That’s what therapy is all about. Waking up!
That’s what Socrates says. That’s what Jesus says. Wake up! Wake up! But you
don’t wake up unless you can face something – such as the Buddha himself
faced. We want to find a solution … we want to go back to sleep.
That was Hillman in fighting form – combusting the atmosphere, making people squirm, offering paradoxes to consider as a way to further discussion. He wasn’t interested in quick questions or in quick answers. Once, Hillman held a master class with a small group of high school students from Hamilton Humanities Magnet after one of his talks at the library. Afterwards, one of the students pulled me aside to report of Hillman, in astonishment: “You could see him thinking.”
Just months after returning from Crete in 1982, I was a mess of bone fractures and emotional distress from my divorce and the car accident that nearly claimed my life.
Several weeks after the crash, when my broken bones as yet showed no signs of knitting, I awoke alarmed from a hideous dream. A spectator of sure disaster, I watched a woman descend into a deep swimming pool. She was oblivious to the poisonous snake swimming in the depths and I was at too far a distance to warn her.
I watched in horror as the snake wrapped around her body from head to toe. Soon there was nothing left of her but pieces. I could not shake the image. I drew the woman with the snake wrapped around her body.
That same day, staring at the drawing, it occurred to me that the shape made by the snake and the woman’s body was that of the staff of Asclepius, the physician’s wand, the symbol of healing. At the temples of Asclepius , a snake dream was the God himself coming to cure.
With this realization came a shift of perspective. My panic lifted, my body filled with a kind of light, and at that moment I knew that deep in my body tissue and unconscious mind, a process intent on my healing had commenced.
In the marked-up copy of Hillman’s masterwork that I read that spring on Crete, I found this sentence boldly underlined: “‘Know thyself,’ means also ‘know thy peculiar images.'”
James Hillman passed away last October; but he left behind a life’s worth of original ideas and “angelic words” – to wake us up, to shake us out of our innocence – towards deeper questions, deeper self-knowledge.