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on 26 November 2013
While attending a presentation of Dick Russell's first Volume of his biography of a lyrical writer and interpreter of the soul, the late James Hillman (1926-2011), in New York's Jung Foundation, I strolled through their well-stocked bookstore. I picked up Hillman's final book, a conversation with Sonu Shamdasani. I was already taken slightly aback by the mixed feelings I had concerning the book's title as well as the identity of Hillman's conversation prompter. Leafing through the book and glancing at their exchanges about which C.G. Jung worked out in his Red Book, I realised immediately, this was not a heart-to-heart conversation but rather an exchange between two individuals trying to best each other at intellectual word games. No need for this I thought and put the book down, thus saving me from spending nearly $ 28.-
Glad to heed my inner voice, I went to Russell's entertaining talk. Yet, when we broke for tea and delicious cakes, I thought I should give the book a second chance. I met Hillman once and served as his translator in 1995 for a daylong seminar in Bern, Switzerland, on his then just published book, Kinds of Power. I had been an avid reader of his work since Francis Huxley introduced me to it in 1976, so I bought this book simply to complete my Hillman collection. I gave myself a simple "why not," but was I thinking of something else when I made this decision? Yes, because this book is a very good example of the psycho pompous at work with its shadowy grand pretence, factitiousness and hypocritical shoddiness.
C. G. Jung ends, in 1930, his Liber Secundus, in the Red Book, with the following words: Der Prüfstein ist das Alleinsein mit sich selber. Dies ist der Weg. The touchstone is the being alone with one self. This is the way." With these encouraging words, to be on one's way, to listen to the answers out of the silence from within, while enjoying one's own company, to stick our neck out to the weathering, elation and music of our soul while kissing the mood of life's compassionate tolerance. Briefly The Red Book is divided into two parts. The first part begins with the way of that which is to come and makes its first stop in the rediscovery and the service of the soul, while conveying the mystery teachings of monotheistic Gods. The second part opens with the pictures of those mislead by daily consciousness. Then a detailed rendering of his active imaginations follows, iconographical as well as in imagined dialogues. As in Fairy Tales, there is entering the darkness of the forest or decent to hell, holding the horses there, and return to the light. The usual pattern of journeys to the underworld told in myths all over our world. He wrote in his afterword of 1959, "I have worked on this book for 16 years." It all began on 12 December 1913, in Küsnacht, Switzerland. His psychological-scientific experiment of his confronting the unconscious took Jung into its spell. An experiment, he felt, "was done with me."
We all know, once in a while, that we live and are being lived. As a psychotherapist my main motto is: Never against the unconscious. The result of Jung letting his self fall into the realm of active imaginations, we are now able to read in his intimate and private bible. We participate in Carl Gustav Jung's investigations of the processes of the collective unconscious. As a 55 year old, he encountered Alchemy in 1930 and the translation, from Chinese, of The Secret if the Golden Flower, realising a mirroring of his own imaginations therein, with the result that he could no longer work on The Red Book.
Lament of the Dead is one of many books that have sprouted about since the publication of The Red Book in 2009. The labyrinth of associations and knowing-it-all, the monotheistic track of explorations, explanations and hermeneutic interpretations are by now many voiced. The academic publishing industry is having a growing crop yielding on the psychological elucidations round what is really the matter with Jung's personal and collective unconscious.
In their exchanges, Hillman and Shamdasani come across as anxious to please each other while fancying themselves in the role of Jungian intellectuals. Hillman quotes his favourite poet Auden's mantra a few times: "We are lived by powers we pretend to understand." How true, especially when the dialogue is being conducted under the pretention of `know-it- all-authority. Two years after Hillman's death, we are served fifteen conversations, which have passed the individual approval of his widow, Margot McLean, for she holds co-copyright. Hillman and Shamdasani held their first conversation on stage in Los Angeles, the others took place in Connecticut and New York. Their aim was to determine the current status of psychology after Jung's Red Book (2009). Usually, western academic psychology is occupied with studying and understanding human nature and its defined normal behaviour, in a given society. Furthermore psychologists report how ordinary citizens manage to articulate their experience of living. This is not Hillman's view. He, as the grand master of re-visioning psychology as soul-making experience, as telling the events of what takes place with us humans on a grand scale, fancies the myths and activities of bringing words to the soul, more arts than science. His work has mostly focused on one's own imagination, dreams and restoration of the Gods, of whatever dominion they may be.
Personally I was never in favour of the publication of the Red Book even though the private sphere of the late C.G. Jung fascinates enormously. Nevertheless I can see the value for airing the cloud of the unknown, being encouraged by the likes of C.G. Jung, to tread our idiosyncratic way to inner soul treasures, as the experience of our own bitter herbs of healing.
Of course it is fun to exchange one's thinking and experience, of what life is all about. James Hillman has offered us two fascinating interview books before this third one. There are some gems, as I hoped, from James Hillman, dropped here and there within his ambiguous strings of conversations. At times he is endearing with his self-critical graciousness that shows how he was still longing to get to whatever lies below the surface of what meets the eye. Facts of life are usually covered by the veil of storytelling, even though this particular conversation about the stories in the Red Book, attempts to be a social scientific one. For Hillman, his and Jung's psychology is a practice, a way to be authentic with one's experience. It is a way of living, a way of seeing, a way of hearing, a way of responding, a way of sensing the Gods in the world. Similar to how the Greeks did it, when they went to the theatre and watched plays all day long, by their favourite dramatist. Life as we know it not a dress rehearsal. It is always the opening night. Here goes Xenophanes: No man knows, or ever will know, the truth about the gods and about everything I speak of: for even if one chanced to say the complete truth, nevertheless one would not know it. " The way forward for a Hillman psychology is the way back, to understand human nature through literature and biographies. Where have I heard this before? It was thirty years ago exactly listening to the philosopher Hans-Peter Rickman, going on about hermeneutics and descriptions of lived lives, as well as in social anthropological seminars by Francis Huxley, who in his The Way of the Sacred (1974) covered the ancestor cults and its various follies and self-deceptions. We know that Hillman is a failed novelist and now writes artfully about the soul's (psyche: breath of life) appearance into words (logos).
My favourite statement in this book is on page 200, where Hillman states his axiomatic sentences of faith: "I always thought that psychology goes on in the writing. So one of the question I used to ask myself was how do you write psychology? Well, you must write it so that it touches the soul, or it's not psychology. It has to have that moving quality of experience, and that means it has to have many sorts of metaphors and absurdities and things that go with life. Otherwise you're writing an academic or a scientific description of something but it's no longer psychology." Both Hillman and his jouster play joyfully with the metaphor of Lament of the Death, going so far as to mention what is needed is therapy for the dead, and writing for the dead, as a sacred experience.
About his labour on the Red Book, says Shamdasani, "I wasn't editing this for the living. I was editing for the dead." (p. 27). This brought to mind Jesus's telling the man who excused himself that he first had to go and attend the funeral of his father: `Let the Dead Bury Their Own Dead' (Matthew 8:22). The beatitude of consciousness shining in the richness of our psyche is verily ignored, in this backward excursion. Some parts of their conversations are indeed deadly boring since both speakers presume they know what Jung was going on about, and they become pretty dogmatic. Jung found dogma a confession, which is only set up where one wants to suppress doubts once and for all, as personal drive for power. Hillman and Shamdasani play each other up in their verbose pretence of the cloud of unknowing. The unconscious, being personal and/or collective, is per operational definition, not knowable. We can theorize it, yet all we presume, assume, speculate and observe in indirect communication is yet another language game. I was taken aback by how wise old Hillman could fall so late in his rich life in 2009 for this troubling farce to chat with a, (for me) pretentious upstart in our field of psychology and psychotherapy, who aims to place his name next to Jung's own texts, as he has tried with Freud's work as well? Is this a kind of self-indulgent power-play on Shamdasani's part, to move or force himself into a "primary" position as the one and only historian of Jung's work? Who among the Jung Family Foundation supports this vested interest which so often seems to be against better judgements? While reading Shamdasani's statements, I often asked myself: How do you know? I found him so full of solipsism round Jung, going on about psychotherapy and psychology without experience or practice. Hillman asks his companion to explain his statement, that a historian, as he is, can be a therapist. Replies he: "The history of psychology is the therapy of the word. They must recognize that this bit of history is the Red Book, is their therapy of our time."(p.98) Unfortunately, his book is basically a self-promotion of the editor and foot note producer of The Red Book. Both talkers are very much opinionated and presume to know inner secrets of Jung's basic private myth. "Myth is the metaphor that translates libido into configurations. That's what he found. He found myth as basic." (p. 64). True, we are historical and social beings immersed in the comedia humane. Psychology has a room in the house of psychotherapy, as philosophy, art, science and myth has too. As professional psychotherapist we do more than simply be concerned about ourselves and our own wellbeing. Hillman promotes himself as therapist of ideas, well versed in the narrative of the comedy of errors. "I think we're sick from ideas" (p.159) He has been arguing his case of a psychology without concepts, for forty years. Soul is all phantasy, he proclaims, and I see his paradoxical symbiology arrive at the port of myth. From the conversations we can't really know if Hillman has actually read the Red Book while going on about it. He feels anyhow that he did "similar parallel work in his own restricted and limited way to what Jung was dealing with in the Red Book." (p. 80). The dream of psychology, to become once again a romantic undertaking, is a bowing back to the 18th Century romantic poets like Blake, Coleridge, Shelley and Heine. Hillman favours this redemptive phantasy of a world as alive as can be. So back from the dead to a living of how we see what we see and feel, and be as whole as one can be. Is this self-indulgence? We can now return to our daily tasks and listening to our own answers in the silence of dreams.
Theodor Itten Author of Rage - Managing an Explosive Emotion (2011) Psychologist & Psychotherapist Sankt Gallen, Switzerland