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Becoming Ancestors

      Today's materialist monoculture is making us sick, according to the world's leading Jungian psychologist. So Dr. James Hillman has stopped treating people. Instead, he treats ideas. Why? Because the ideas underpinning America's refusal to grow up and our addiction to the New are diseases endemic to the United States, he believes.

      Dr. Hillman is equally unsparing of today's reigning myth that we can engineer our way into a golden future. We are in a delusional state, he believes, mistakenly content to believe we are separate from and superior to nature. Our current foundational ideas put us at great risk, according to Dr. Hillman, who warns us against what the Greeks called hubris -- a terrible kind of pride which comes before a catastrophic fall.

      But Hillman is more than a critic, he is a doctor. First he diagnoses the sick ideas. Then he offers us ways to reduce the pains inflicted by our monoculture, premised as it is on materialist economics, religious fundamentalism and mechanistic science. Challenge the system. Start with your own character. (Dr. Hillman likens character to a boarding house whose rooms contain many individuals who interact over time: one is greedy, one zestful, another courageous, one is a little masculine, another some part feminine. That cast is what makes us unique.) Face life's challenges -- its fears and its beauty -- squarely. Learn from what life puts in your path. Grow up. And grow old. It takes time for character to come into its fullness, Dr. Hillman insists.

      Oldness is something we accumulate. Along with sagging skin and cataracts comes also the quality that goes with soul and beauty, the quality that fascinates us in Old Master paintings, old movies, old gardens, classic cars and old walls. Start looking for that quality in people, starting with yourself. Aspire to be an Ancestor instead of fantasizing about eternal youth, Dr. Hillman urges. But don't confuse Ancestors with genetic connections or biological offspring, Dr. Hillman warns. Ancestors sit at the edge of the tribe and protect us from evil spirits: injustice, sham, hypocrisy, exploitation, destruction of the planet. Ancestors come in many forms, including individuals and ideas that help the tribe continue for seven generations.

      Nail the evil spirits of our age, Dr. Hillman charges us. It is in humility (not hubris) and the force of character (not delusions about engineering the future) that we find lasting life.

Excerpts4:31 secs

James Hillman

      . . . is a psychologist, scholar, and author. The world's leading Jungian analyst and originator of post-Jungian archetypal psychology, Dr. Hillman has held teaching positions at Yale, the Universities of Chicago, Syracuse and Dallas, where he co-founded the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Author of more than 20 books, his latest is The Force of Character and the Lasting Life, focused on life's most misunderstood chapter, old age.

Conversation 1

James Hillman updates the fable of "The Emperor's New Clothes" for Paula Gordon and Bill Russell. Dr. Hillman critiques today's materialist economics, religious fundamentalism, mechanistic science and his own field of psychology. He credits Freud for powerful cultural criticism and revolutionary thought, charging today's science with a "progressivist fantasy" which ignores our culture's sickness.

Conversation 2

Dr. Hillman accuses materialistic/reductionist "Big Science" of killing our psychological life and inflicting huge damage on the planet, with examples. Agreeing with JARED DIAMOND that we have no excuses for our planetary destruction, Dr. Hillman elaborates on the effects of "scientistic" fantasies. He criticizes locating the golden age in the future (instead of the past where earlier thinkers looked for ideas,) strenuously objecting to today's dominant non-cyclical -- scientific -- myth. He declares our reliance on technology "delusional," reinforcing his view with ideas from a variety of traditions, including the Greeks' hubris. He connects being off-base to being linear or monotheistic and describes the power contained in cyclical ideas.

Conversation 3

Humans have forgotten that we are animals, contends Dr. Hillman, who explains how that has both gotten us in big trouble and advanced culture. He contrasts Hercules and Gilgamesh to the native American myths which have expanded his thinking. Dr. Hillman offers a way out of the hubris implicit in a notion of human superiority. He offers his metaphor for the uniqueness of every character, likening an individual to an eclectic boardinghouse full of a cast of characters who, together, make every individual human unique. He points out the negative effects of Americans' commitment to "control." We can affect habits, he contends, but not change our essential character, distinguishing character from morals, moral from ethics.

Conversation 4

Americans resist the idea of aging, Dr. Hillman observes, dismayed by the suggestion that death is optional. He describes the archetypal condition of growing "oldness" in oneself, accumulating the quality associated with soul and beauty -- in old walls, old gardens, old masters' paintings, old movies, classic cars -- urging us to see that same quality in old people. He diagnoses America's desire to be adolescent as a major cultural syndrome, a disease endemic to the United States where we have been addicted to the "New" since Columbus arrived. Dr. Hillman explores the withering of the idea that our individual identity separate from the world around us, with reference to Hubert Dreyfus and work done in the science of complexity. Dr. Hillman nods toward ideas about the post-modern individual (which are more fully explored by WALTER TRUETT ANDERSON while reiterating the individuality of character -- a peculiar "you" -- which Dr. Hillman insists does not fit with the uniformity demanded by the scientific method.

Conversation 5

Dr. Hillman gives examples of how ideas we don't know we have, "have us." He describes his own focus on the therapy of ideas which, in turn, becomes a therapy of people who are the victims of those ideas. Dr. Hillman relates his work to that of Carl Jung: considering the collective psyche, addressing major issues of the time differently and sharing a mutual trust in the bedrock image-making function of the psyche, the "poetic" basis of mind. Dr. Hillman contrasts his ideas to a biological brain reduced to electrical processes, arguing that imaginative activities are native to the psyche, not the result of inputs. He describes how one "gets" character: facing and meeting one's fears, living one's aging, using the time in late years needed for reflection. He gives examples of how hard times (as well as beautiful ones) are when we develop our character.  He describes the job of Elders and names today's evil spirits.

Conversation 6

Become an Ancestor, Dr. Hillman urges, reminding us that does NOT require biological offsprings or genetic connections. He gives examples of a wide variety of Ancestors, from books to dream figures. He speaks to the dilemma of our society which doesn't know how to handle the misfits in our monoculture which is dedicated to competitive capitalism. He calls us to "bust The System everyday," and tells us how to do it.


It was an enormous pleasure to welcome Dr. Hillman, a singular person of character with whom we share a love both for maps and for The Invisibles.

Related Links:
Dr. Hillman's latest book, The Force of Character and the Lasting Life, is published by Random House.
Jared Diamond
Walter Truett Anderson

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