Four big writing projects are looming. Don’t feel sorry for me: I’m having fun with them. But to escape from the pressure this weekend, I did some recreational reading that had nothing to do with the tasks ahead.
On Saturday I took a break to reread (as I thought) the New York Times obituary of James Hillman, a psychologist and postmodern writer who…quite simply…transformed my life and my brain. Hillman died in October 2011, and I was shaken by his death, even though he was 85 and I’d known he was ill.
The obituary mentioned that a writer named Dick Russell was working on a two-volume biography of Hillman, with Part I due in two years. Let’s see: 2011 + 2 = 2013. How did it happen that a book certain to rock my universe was published three years ago without my knowing about it?
Surely I’d read that obituary back in 2011 when Hillman died. I’m such a maniac that I’ve read just about everything Hillman published. How did I forget that a biography was forthcoming? Ten minutes after I’d read the obituary, I had the Kindle edition of The Life and Ideas of James Hillman: Volume I: The Making of a Psychologist loaded on to my ASUS Transformer. Do you want to guess how I spent the rest of the weekend?
Please note that I’m not encouraging you to read the biography, which is a book that only a Hillman fanatic could love. I’m finding it tough going. Here’s a typical Hillman quote from the biography: “Analysis is the result of the decline in collective culture….It becomes healing and spiritual discipline when it is an individual phenomenon in the protestant model of I, ‘ego,’ who will work on transformation and development and healing.”
Do you know what that’s all about? I don’t.
So – why has Hillman been so important to me? Lots of reasons.
I first came across Hillman’s name back in 1987 when I was trying to finish my doctoral dissertation. After an exhilarating start, I was finding the going almost impossibly difficult. I had fallen into a severe depression, mixed with fears that I might be impossibly crazy and would never get better. (Spoiler alert: I wasn’t, and I did.)
While I was grappling with this mess, I came across an intriguing paragraph from a book called Insearch, by a writer I’d never heard of – James Hillman – quoted in another book. Something stirred in my gut, and I started checking libraries. I was lucky enough to find a copy of Insearch in a library in the next town. (Among other problems, my husband and I were so broke that I couldn’t afford to buy any books.) I read Insearch three times through without stopping. What I experienced on almost every page was a voice saying, “You’re not crazy.”
I wish I’d taken notes while I was reading. I have no idea what points Hillman was making that had such a powerful impact on me. What I do know is that I slowly started finding my way back.
I’ve since learned that most doctoral students go through a similar experience, and I’ve come to the conclusion that there is something archetypal – something far bigger than the typical stresses of graduate school – that causes those crises.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is one of the most important lessons I learned from James Hillman: Our problems aren’t always personal. They don’t always hark back to a dysfunctional childhood. They’re not always caused by character defects or relationship problems. Large, mysterious forces swirl within us and outside us, and sometimes we have to fight for our lives to come to terms with them.
Thank you for that, James Hillman.
Here’s another example. In 1992 I was all set to travel to a Shaw conference – my first – to be part of a panel of New Shaw Scholars. I had written a paper about Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion that I considered (and still do) the proudest achievement of my life. I had a suitcase packed, and an attractive outfit and makeup ready to go, and an appointment to get my hair done….
I was diagnosed with shingles in my left eye less than a week before my flight to Virginia for the conference. I was a mess – an angry rash on my forehead, an eye patch, and persistent headaches and exhaustion. My bewildered doctor gave me permission to go to the conference anyway. (To his everlasting credit, he never said, “Are you nuts?” and over months of treatment he saved my vision in that eye.)
I presented my paper, attended every session of the conference, flew back home – and spent the next month lying in bed in a darkened room.
Common sense would diagnose overwork (I was juggling an impossible schedule at the time) and overexcitement. But Hillman, I think, would say that the academic gods had thrown down a challenge: Proving that I was worthy to claim a serious place in the world of scholarship. (I was a community college English professor, and people of my ilk didn’t do serious academic work.)
I shook my fist at the gods and dragged myself to the airport.
I hope that everyone who goes through a dark time (and that’s roughly 100% of the human race) is able to find the help they need, just as I did. But I want to veer off in another direction here.
James Hillman knew how to make meaning. I have never – after hours and hours spent reading his books – come across a trivial or banal idea. It’s true that I sometimes hold my head in dismay and wonder what the hell he’s talking about. But that’s a small price to pay for the all exciting discoveries I’ve made while reading his books.
Do you aim for that kind of excitement when you write?