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Remembering James Hillman

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We buried James Hillman three days ago in a small country cemetery in northeast Connecticut, just as an unseasonal early nor'easter began dropping heavy, wet snowflakes on the area. James was 86 and had had bone cancer, and had continued working on projects until two weeks before he died. Obituaries emphasized his role in the men's movement of two or three decades ago, but those of us who were close to him knew him as a genius in the field of depth psychology.

People don't generally know his work too well because it is so subtle and steeped in traditions of philosophy, religion, the arts and especially in the intricacies of Freud and Jung. James attended the Sorbonne in Paris and Trinity College in Dublin before studying Jung in earnest and becoming head of Jungian Studies in Zürich. He was not only ahead of his time, he went against its tendencies to quantify psychology and reduce it to key-word theories and techniques.

I got to know him first in the early '70s through a correspondence between Zürich, where he was publishing astonishing articles, and Syracuse, where I was doing my doctoral studies. The correspondence lasted until a few weeks ago. I was taken by his loyalty to Jung expressed through his original and fresh re-working of key ideas. He calmly removed unnecessary gender issues from Jung's ideas of the anima and soul. He advocated a view of the person as made up of multiple, dynamic faces that should be kept in tension rather than "integrated" into some sentimental notion of wholeness. In hundreds of pages he worked through the struggle between age and youth, senex and puer, that causes individuals and culture itself to stumble.

In the early '80s we were both living in Dallas, where we cemented our friendship while presenting lectures and workshops at the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture and over spicey Mexican dinners at small family-owned restaurants that James preferred. In Dallas he made two significant moves in his thinking: one toward the ancient idea of anima mundi, the soul of the world. He didn't understand this idea in the usual abstract philosophical way but instead lectured and wrote about life in the city and architecture and transportation. The other key focus then was on working with images. He had written a remarkable book on dreams, "The Dream and the Underworld," where he suggested that we go down into a dream and be affected by it rather than bring it up into the world of ideas we already know. He went on to differentiate images from symbols, saying that an image doesn't stand for something we already know and that we shouldn't translate images into concepts. Shortly before he died, he and I were invited to return to Dallas to help celebrate the institute's 30th anniversary. James told me he had more ideas about images that he wanted to present, an even purer approach that preserved their integrity.

James's many books and essays, in my view, represent the best and most original thought of our times. I expect that it will take many decades before he is truly discovered and appreciated. He changed my life by being more than a mentor and a steady, caring friend. If I had to sum up his life, I would say that he lived in the lofty realm of thought and yet also like one of the animals he loved so much. He was always close to his passions and appetites and lived with a fullness of vitality I have never seen elsewhere. To me, he taught more in his lifestyle and in his conversation than in his writing, and yet his books and articles are the most precious objects I have around me.

Decades ago I wrote a reader of his early works, "A Blue Fire" -- his title. It was an arduous project, but I wanted to give something back to him. Now I feel inspired to try again to make his work more accessible and better known. I don't know what life will be like now without James Hillman in it, but I know that he left us a rich treasury of writing that needs to be read, understood and appreciated.

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