TENDING THE SOUL: THE LEGACY OF JAMES HILLMAN
Copyright © Elizabeth Clark-Stern, November, 2011
I was deeply moved by the recent passing of James Hillman, author, Jungian analyst, and an icon in the Depth Psychology movement. Oddly strange to think of a world in which he no longer walks, taking with him the power of his epic imagination,
and his ability to hold the larger reality of our psyches and our world.
But, of course, he did not take it with him. It is still here. He would undoubtedly
point out that his gift was in observing and expressing what is here right
under our noses, if we can only learn to see deeply into ourselves and the
Of all the quotes that have circulated in the wake of his death, I keep returning to this one: “Ecology movements, futurism, feminism, urbanism, protest and disarmament, personal individuation cannot alone save the world from the catastrophe inherent in our
very idea of the world. They require a cosmological vision that saves the phenomenon
‘world’ itself, a move in soul that goes beyond measures of expediency to the
archetypal source of our world’s continuing peril: the fateful neglect, the
repression, of the anima mundi.”
I read this as a call, from him, to those of us left in this fragile, bold, temporal world,
to wrestle with the challenge. What is the “anima mundi”, the world soul, and how do we redeem her from the depths of repression and neglect? How do we achieve a mending of the split implied in Hillman’s conception of “the catastrophe inherent in our very idea of the world.”? As long as we cling to the concept of power, as a separate reality
from the world of human compassion, war and genocide will reoccur, tragically,
James Hillman is not here to be interviewed on the subject, but if he were, my suspicion is that he would say the anima mundi includes all the archetypal forces, all the conflicts,
projections, and human characteristics, but is larger still, incorporating the fabric of the mystical cosmos that is both Creator and Created.
The latter concept resonates in the Jewish mystical tradition, the Kabbalah. Every
thought, action, word and deed performed by man or woman kind creates the
divine, a fluid dynamic reality that is always in the process of being born,
dying, and being recreated. It witnesses us, and vice-versa.
Even for those who would view this metaphysical view as “supernatural”, what it really
comes down to is Tolstoy’s lament when he walked among the slums of Moscow:
“What then must we do?” –for it is the human soul that is at risk, in each
individual, and by multiplication, the 7 billion of us on this once and future
Hillman challenges us that the redemption of anima mundi will require more than demonstrations, writing our congress people, or even, the psychological process of what Jung called “individuation”. This is no less that the integration of all parts of
ourselves, conscious and unconscious, into conscious beings with integrity of
the soul. The root of the word integrity is “integer”, one, an indivisible,
united self. This does not imply perfection, far from it. Individuation
requires a spiritual marriage between one’s personal power (often extremely
hard-won), and loving compassion for all the imperfections in ourselves, and
others. Thus, an individuated soul has no need to judge or condemn others for
failings that exist so blatantly in herself.
Does this mean evil does not exist, or that we don’t have to fight it? No, it is a real
force, and must be reckoned with. But more often than not, the most grievous
demons are found in the lesser angels of our own hearts.
So, if individuation is such a daunting process, requiring at least a lifetime of most
of us to even begin to achieve, what is this “cosmological vision that saves
the phenomenon of ‘world’ itself?” How do we even begin to conceptualize this, when we are so engaged in wrestling with the force of the archetypal in our own lives, arguably as profound as the gravitational pull that keeps our bodies planted on the earth?
An example of an archetype of this gravity is found in the myths of every world culture.
The ancient Greeks portrayed the warring triangles of Oedipus, Electra,
Antigone, Odysseus.: mortals and gods caught in a struggle for power and love,
and acting out the split between the two, driven by powerful unconscious
forces. This takes many forms in our life on the ground. When a child does not
feel sufficiently loved, she can search for this love throughout life, often
choosing people who will reject her, even as she was rejected by her parents,
but in her conscious mind, she thinks each new love will be the man who finally
loves her best of all.
Yet, it would seem Hillman is asking us to go beyond the pull of the personal story?
How do we do that? What does it really mean?
I decided to go to my own Oracle of Delphi, a personification in my imagination of the
Wise Old Woman. At many crossroads in my life I have turned to her, and she
always surprises me with insight and judgment that eluded my conscious mind.
I come upon her, sitting on a porch, in an old white wooden swing, her eyes surveying the begonias as she moves gently back and forth. She is glad to see me.
“It has been awhile,” she says.
I blush. “Sorry. I’ve been busy.”
“I have a question.”
“Should I be offended that you only come to me when you want something,” she says,
looking at me over her Ben Franklin glasses.
“You should be mad with me,” I say, looking away at the begonias.
“Come. Sit next to me, “ she says, patting the worn wooden swing.
I sit. We swing together for awhile. I ask her what she thinks James Hillman meant by
this cosmological vision that goes to the archetypal source of the world’s
She keeps swinging, tapping one finger on her knee. I have learned that this means she is lost in thought.
At last she stops, planting her feet on the concrete porch. She takes off her sandals, and stands, barefoot, on the smooth surface. I take off my shoes and stand beside her, feeling the blunt impenetrable texture of the concrete.
“It feels so solid,” I say.
She smiles wryly. “That is the good news. Solid, substantial, yet, in order for us to get
down in there, to access this archetypal source, something must come along and
bust it up.”
“Well, if that’s good news, then it is surely happening, in our world. Everything seems
to be falling apart.”
“No,” she whispered, “I don’t mean on the surface of things, that is the ‘catastrophe
inherent in our very idea of world’. I mean something must break through our
rigid ideas about how things are, who we are, the very fabric and nature of our
world as we have dreamed her. That’s what Hillman saw, God rest his soul.”
I get dizzy. I tell her I can’t imagine how to achieve this psychological bulldozing.
She says, “Are you asking me, what then must you do?”
I nod, queasy, giddy, lost.
“For starters, come back more often!”
I look on her with gratitude, feeling every bit the hypocrite. Daily I counsel people to
access the higher self, to meditate, to work with and respect the wise person
within. A friend recently told me that she sees no separation between the world
soul and the personal soul. They are one. If I am to make any sense of James
Hillman’s call to the universe, I must stay here. My soul and I will wonder
about its meaning, and what to do about it, together.
I make a camp below the porch, in the black soil of the begonias. The earth feels moist,
I invite all of you, however you conceive of the wise inner person, the Higher
Power, the Kingdom of God within, to make camp, and feel the power of your
soul’s presence, and her love.