The Essential James Hillman: A Blue Fire

by Bob Schwartz

I cannot fully explain James Hillman in this space, not briefly, not at all. If there is a badge, it might say psychologist, or Jungian psychologist, but that would be misleading, limiting and wrong. Thomas Moore, in his Prologue to The Essential James Hillman: A Blue Fire, begins with this:

James Hillman is an artist of psychology. If it sounds odd to call a psychologist an artist, then you, the reader, know your task as you take up this anthology. You will be challenged all along the way to rethink, to re-vision, and to reimagine. The difficulty in reading Hillman is not to learn a new bag of techniques or a new conceptual system. Hillman demands nothing short of a new way of thinking. He takes psychoanalysis out of the context of medicine and health, not only in the obvious ways, rejecting the medical model, but in subtle ways: asking us to give up fantasies of cure, repair, growth, self-improvement, understanding, and well-being as primary motives for psychological work. He is more a painter than a physician, more a musician than a social scientist, and more an alchemist than a traditional philosopher.

Hillman has written many books and articles, but A Blue Fire, made up of short passages from many works, is what to read to get the essence. Choosing a representative excerpt is impossible, since it is bound to miss most other points Hillman makes. But the excerpt below, covering the nature of illiteracy, silence and imagination, is close to my heart, and to some of our life in 2018: “An education that in any way neglects imagination is an education into psychopathy. It is an education that results in a sociopathic society of manipulations. We learn how to deal with others and become a society of dealers.”

Why have we as a nation become more and more illiterate? We blame television and the computer, but they are not causes. They are results of a prior condition that invited them in. They arrived to fill a gap. When imaginative ability declines, other ways to communicate appear. These ways work even though they too are dyslexic in structure: simultaneity of bits, odd juxtapositions, messages that do not move linearly from left to right. Yet television and personal computers communicate.

Evidently, reading does not depend solely on the ordering of words or the ordering of letters in the words. Indeed, poets use dyslexic structures deliberately. Reading depends on the psyche’s capacity to enter imagination. Reading is more like dreaming, which, too, goes on in silence. Our illiteracy reflects our educative process away from the silent grounds of reading: silent study halls and quiet periods, solitary homework, learning by heart, listening through a whole class without interruptions, writing an essay exam in longhand, drawing from nature instead of lab experiments. This long neglect of imaginational conditions that foster reading—Sputnik and the new math; social problems and social relatedness; mecentered motivation; the confusion of information with knowledge, of opinion with judgment, and trivia with sources; communications as messages by telephone calls and answering machines rather than as letter writing in silence; learning to speak up without first having something learned to say; multiple choice and scoring as a test of comprehension—has produced illiteracy.

The human person as a data bank does not need to read more than functionally. A data bank deciding yes or no on the basis of feedback (i.e., reinforcement) need not imagine beyond getting, storing, and spending. Just get the instructions right; never mind the content. Learn the how rather than the what with its qualities, values, and subtleties. Then the human agent becomes an incarnated credit card performing the religious rituals of consumerism. You need only be able to sign your name in the space marked Xy like an immigrant, like a slave, or a …

Or a psychopath. Descriptions of psychopathy, or sociopathic personalities, speak of their inability to imagine the other. Psychopaths are well able to size up situations and charm people. They perceive, assess, and relate, making use of any opportunity. Hence their successful manipulations of others. But the psychopath is far less able to imagine the other beyond a fantasy of usefulness, the other as a true interiority with his or her own needs, intentions, and feelings. An education that in any way neglects imagination is an education into psychopathy. It is an education that results in a sociopathic society of manipulations. We learn how to deal with others and become a society of dealers.

James Hillman
“Right to Remain Silent”
Journal of Humanistic Education and Development (1988)