James Hillman says it’s not all in your head

The great Jungian analyst says America could use a healthy dose of rebellion. These problems aren’t just in your mind, and they need to be fixed.

Stephen Capen
1 November 1996

The great Jungian analyst says America could use a healthy dose of rebellion. Your problems aren’t all in your mind, Hillman says, the robber barons really are out to get you.

Dr. James Hillman is regarded as the elder statesman of depth psychology. He has labored throughout his life to revise the ideas of the great theorists, Jung, Adler, Freud, et al, and has come to be known as one of this age’s seminal minds and most astute social critics. When Hillman’s book Healing Fiction arrived in 1983, there seemed to be a shift in his work toward the communal feeling that Alfred Adler espoused-“the feeling of intimate belonging to the full spectrum of humanity.” This interview reflects that turn. High over the Pacific on the cliffs of Big Sur, our conversation ran to a desperate America, struggling unions, Marxism, racism, unrestrained capitalism, and how one lives in the face of the end of things. And the possibility, despite it all, for an awakening. – Stephen Capen

One of the root concepts of your critical work revolves around “isms.” You’ve always been somebody who’s tried to take and move things forward, instead of getting stuck in the blatant fixity of an “ism.” But you made the statement to me that you’re so upset about what’s happening in this country to a mass of, as Noam Chomsky calls them, “superfluous” people, that you’re becoming a Marxist.

If you want to be ahead of the crowd-if I’m going to make light of it-then the best thing you could be today is a Marxist. There isn’t a Marxist left in Eastern Europe, there isn’t a Marxist anywhere! I wanted to write a piece the other day and say, “Yes! I’m Red!”

All the values that Marxism held have been jettisoned, and there were real values in there: for example, class consciousness, awareness of class, which in America we don’t want to be aware of. And class is terribly important. Talking to the people who cheered when O.J. Simpson got free, Amiri Baraka said, “Listen, brothers, this is not about black and white. This is about poor and rich. O.J. didn’t show up in your neighborhood for 25 years and he’s not going to show up now.”

Meaning this is a question of rich and poor; this is a class question. Nothing could work better for the ruling class than to divide the lower class by turning them against each other, a classic political mode. That’s what we have: the whites turned against the blacks, the blacks turned against the whites. They have exactly the same interest-which is to control the corporate world in some way, to get back into the action-but instead they turn against each other.

Who does that suit? That suits the upper class, the ruling class, the rich. I mean, this sounds ridiculous for a Jungian psychologist to be talking this way, but it would be good to put back on a pair of Marxist glasses.

Another Marxist idea is that capitalism can only survive in its last phases through war material. Having wars and producing useless goods which are not good for the people. That’s what we’re doing. The biggest part of the budget is still the defense budget. We’ve got no enemies anywhere. The trickle-down from this is so remote, but it keeps all the constituencies voting because they’ve got a little piece of the defense industry everywhere in the country. Look at that through Marxist glasses. This was all said a hundred years ago; the way the country is functioning was predictable according to Marx’s view of capitalism.

So where is the Left at this point? Is there a Left?

There’s a tradition of American spirit in the unions. There’s great poetry and songs about the unions from the thirties, the twenties, the beginning of the century.

All of that got wiped out, but I hear the unions are waking up again. John Sweeney has come in to run the AFL-CIO, and they’re saying it may be necessary to have insurrection, that in order to get justice, we may have to use injustice. These are revolutionary phrases we haven’t heard here for how long? There was labor strife and Sweeney shut the bridges down in Washington D.C., preventing people from moving in and out of the city. He’s an activist.

So there’s some Leftism still there. Where else? The Left also turned away from Marxism, doesn’t even want to use the term because it’s outdated. It means you’re a Stalinist or a communist, this dysfunctional system over in Eastern Europe. That’s the way the right wing gets you. It says, “Christ, you’re a Marxist! Look how fucked up they were in Eastern Europe.”

Of course they were! That isn’t the point. The point is that Marxism is essentially Western. Marx was a German, a Jew, and lived in England. It’s a Western set of ideas that belongs in our world. We shouldn’t have exiled it into Communist China. It belongs in ours, not Ho Chi Minh’s world-it’s a critique of our world. It’s an insight into the destructiveness of Western capitalism; that’s what we need to wake up to. In that sense, I’m a Marxist.

People think that you’re lucky to have a job in this country. Maybe that’s why there’s not much of an uproar, mass or otherwise. People need this work, and they’ll work fifty hours a week just to get by.

How did men get conned into thinking that they’re lucky to have that job at six or seven dollars an hour? And that their wives have to go off and work, and that the children have to go God knows where? Where did the idea come from that you’re “lucky” to have a job-a job without benefits, without pension, without health care, a job without any permanence whatsoever. This is now what we have, a return to a very old, pre-union kind of work.

Everybody’s a temp. Jeremy Rifkin’s book, The End of Work, spells it out. It’s bad and getting worse.

The awakening hasn’t come yet. Sometimes I think therapy is partly responsible for the lack of awakening. Michael Ventura and I wrote about that in A Hundred Years of Psychotherapy and the World’s Getting Worse.

The therapized world has internalized all the problems: it’s somehow my problem and my wife’s problem that we’re not doing better. So we’ve got to work on our relationship and on the kids, and find the inner motivations, and what happened wrong with us in our childhoods, and work it out somehow.

Instead of thinking, “Shit, I’m being abused right now and here by a system that doesn’t care about me at all!” Think about that!

When I criticize therapy, I’m not really out to get therapists. I think they’re doing some of the most important work in the culture because they are sincerely trying to pick up the pieces that capitalism throws into the street. They’re trying to hold people together in one way or another, which is a nurturing, a nursing kind of task.   But the theory that they practice with is all wrong. It’s not revolutionary. This room should be a cell of revolution, which means it should be very aware of the political and social world that people are in. Not just a revolution of consciousness, but of the actual social situations.

But I think A.A. and these recovery movements are anti-revolutionary. They are calming, quieting things. If you read the A.A. manual, you’ll find that serenity is the most important idea. Three years ago, the most popular name registered in America for the name of a boat was “Serenity.” Now, this is in the middle of this horror that we’re living, you know, kids being shot, kids being…you know, it’s horror!

I said that the war between blacks and whites, as Amiri Baraka said, is really a class war, and this is a way of dividing the underclass. The war on drugs is another way. We focus on the war on drugs and say we’re losing the war on drugs, but we don’t realize that these kids turn to drugs because it’s the only way out of the ghetto. If you’re short, you can’t get out through basketball. You can’t get out, you know. The one road out is pushing, dealing. And until the economics of the ghetto is dealt with, you’re not going to deal with the drug problem. So, it’s again a fake issue.

Another one of the fake issues is gender. We pit men against women and all the bookstores are filled with talk of men against women. It’s irrelevant, this gender war. It’s bullshit! It should be men and women against the oppressors.

Well, if people are not going to vote because they’re disenchanted and therefore disenfranchise themselves, how do we change the system?

Well, I hope it is not going to be violent. I don’t use the word “hope.” Ever. But I guess I let it slip out.

I would not like to see a violent awakening. The awakening may simply be a repetition of the awakening from other times of our history. We must have had an awakening under Theodore Roosevelt, when he began to fight the corporate interests. He fought big business and he got support.

It’s not that capitalism is bad; unrestrained capitalism is bad. We have now this kind of unrestrained corporate world. “Get the government off my back” may make sense to a little man who’s burdened. He has a bake shop and he’s got all these regulations about cleanliness and worker damage and tons of papers to fill out. Yes, I understand that. But we need the government on the back of the big boys.

I remember what the states were like in the thirties and why the federal government stepped in and took over. There was nothing more corrupt in America than local politics! So in the thirties we wanted a federal government which was impartial and dutiful and responsible. We trusted the federal government. Now, we’ve returned the power to the states, and the states have less power than the multinational corporations that are incorporated in those states.

Again, how is it possible to change?

Only by what I called the awakening. That’s going to be harder and harder to do, because the pharmaceutical companies are also engaged in keeping us numbed, or anesthetized. We suffer from just plain physiological numbing from the vast amounts of drugs that are now available over-the-counter.

The government or the pharmaceutical companies will give you tests to prove that you’re depressed, and now we know how to deal with that one: Prozac. So the awakening becomes more and more difficult. We have a culture where the slaves vote for their masters. So have you got some ideas?

Well, I’m still waiting for the leader who’s going to offer something to this body of people who are thoroughly disenchanted. And I refuse to believe that people don’t know any better.

I think they do know better. Maybe they’re awake but inactive, or passive-aggressive, as we say. Their aggression is in frustration and rage, and not in action. But do you know, Farrakhan’s march showed something, didn’t it? It showed that there’s a really powerful desire to move.

The changes will have to come from below our visibility. The march came from below our visibility. And they tried to keep it invisible. The standard reaction to what black people do is to keep it invisible, unless it’s basketball. There is still this appalling phenomenon of turning black people into Al Jolson’s minstrels, only they play on the basketball courts now. An appalling, appalling attitude.

They tried to keep the Million Man March invisible. “Only 200,000 came. Well, let’s recount, maybe it was 400,000!” No one wants to admit the peacefulness, the inspirational quality, the coalition of people like Stevie Wonder and Jesse Jackson, the speeches that were made. Everyone wants to make it invisible or distort it, but that’s the kind of movement that can happen.

There’s no doubt that Farrakhan was racist, anti-Semitic, Islamic, anti-Christian, the whole bag. All the people who were in that march probably knew all that. That doesn’t mean they are that way, too. I think that’s not the main issue. I’m Jewish myself. If you’ve been oppressed for centuries you’re very keen and very smart about things that could turn against you. But in this case there’s an overreaction. Blacks really need a recognition of a profound sort. It is so overdue, it’s unbelievable. I think that’s where a lot of the hope for the country can come from.

And what about white men in this culture? Do they need a march of their own?

A march of white men in this country could become white-supremacist. The identification with yourself as a white man is not a happy thought. I don’t care for the identification with the word “white.” It’s got a lot of Puritan cleanliness about it that’s dangerous.

There was a clamor about the march being exclusive to men, black men.

It was a ritual; they called it an atonement. It had a religious overtone, a search for a ritual way of re-entering society. It was an attempt to get at a ritualistic way of doing things, which I think we need badly. We have so many things to atone for. We’ve got the Vietnam War still hanging over us, still paralyzing the country’s foreign policy. If we don’t digest history, it sticks in our gut, and we don’t move on.

In the context of revolution, of overthrowing oppressors, violence is traditionally seen as being the answer.

I think there are steps that are possible between passivity and violence. Those are the areas that need exploring. Strikes, and I mean vicious, bitter strikes, are part of our history too. There are showdowns, and there are possibilities for mass movements that are not necessarily violent, but not necessarily non-violent.

We need to explore that realm in between. We also need to develop rituals for handling these things. That’s what Michael Meade’s Mosaic Foundation has been doing, particularly in the men’s work of the last few years. He’s been working with white men and black men and Asians and Latinos and so on, tying the most violent people together. Gangs, kids, Chicago, South Central L.A.-bringing them into a situation where understanding comes not through just talk, but through common, deep emotional experiences and rituals. In honor of the dead, remembering those who’ve been killed, calling in the ancestors. Everybody’s got ancestors, spirits.

When you talk about it, it doesn’t work as well as when you do it. That’s the importance of ritual. I think that’s the area for subduing, sublimating, supplanting raw violence.

You quoted Carl Jung a few years ago in your Puer Papers on the karos, the “right moment” for humanity. That now we’ll find out whether we survive or are to be crushed under the weight of our own technology. How do you feel about that now?

I think we’re on the Titanic. The real question is, how does one live a life, or how do you perform or behave when the ship’s going down?

Now many people don’t agree with me that the ship’s going down. I’m just saying that’s how I do feel about it. They’re worried now about feeding the world, especially in the next five years! This doesn’t make me a pessimist or depressed or anything; it’s just like looking at the way things are, and not kidding yourself, not entertaining false hopes.

I think it raises very fundamental questions: how do you live in the face of the end of things? Then things should all be done right, with dignity and honor and decency and care. I think those values become important. You’re not living on a check written into the future.

If you look at the world’s leaders today, the only two men who really carry a great weight and dignity are Vaclav Havel and Nelson Mandela, both of whom were in prison, in hopeless situations. All these other guys are politicians. They don’t carry that quality. But these were men who were deeply, deeply oppressed, and they did not dream they would come into power.

Let’s remember that the American notion of democracy is property-bound. Land ownership. I can do any goddam thing I want -it’s my land! I can put up any building I want; don’t put any codes on me! And the police will protect property against people-that’s what the fighting in Chiapas was about, that’s what the revolutions in Central America were about. What’s more important: people or property?

We need to harness the system. When you talk about “changing the system,” we have to see what we want to change. There is a whole series of institutions I would not want to see changed: the Supreme Court, the tripartite form of government. I wouldn’t want to see a new constitutional convention with these assholes who are now in Congress, who can’t compare to the people who drew up our Constitution, with their extraordinary minds and libraries and knowledge and education.

When we say “change,” we have to think about what, precisely, needs changing, what needs harnessing, what needs doing away with. I’m still in the realm of harnessing, the Theodore Roosevelt mode. Restricting monopoly practices, trust-busting…that’s what the language was in those days.

Now, I’ll tell you where my worry is today. We’re talking about the political one, but I have a worry about this new combination of high-tech business, high-tech pharmaceutical, biogenetics, and academia. There’s a new triangle, which is not the triangle of the military-industrial complex anymore. It has something to do with computers, biogenetics and business.   I’m a member of the Global Business Network, which includes a lot of interesting people. But the tendency of the whole movement seems very futuristic and shadowless, almost valueless. I haven’t been able to dope it out yet completely, but I have a hunch or an anxiety about it.

One of the great complaints right now is that the FDA takes too long to release drugs that could save lives! Ridiculous. I’m very afraid of all that. The amount of pills that are taken is just enormous. In my little town in Connecticut there are now six huge pharmacies. Someone over the age of 65 might take sixteen or eighteen different prescription drugs a year.   It’s really the thinking of engineers and accountants, and that’s never very good. They may be very high class and bright people, but there’s something missing, whether you call it religion or art or humanism or something else. I don’t know what’s missing, I haven’t studied it enough, but I don’t want to see that grow into the major philosophical way of looking at life in the 21st century.

That’s also part of my Titanic metaphor. This is not the lifeboat: biogenetics, business, and computer science. I don’t think so. The information highway is just a vast new sales game that’s spiked the stock market and made us all inflated. We love anything that’s called “denial.” You know, we’re up on the wireless, on the top of the rigging while the ship’s got a giant hole down below.

What will it take, James?

Well, as long as the message comes over that the pie is of an absolute form, we can all only fight for who’s going to get which piece of it.

Stephen Capen

Stephen Capen has written for the Natural Resources Defense Council, and his Village Voice article “Poison Pills” was entered into the Congressional Record. He passed away in September, 2005.