Week before last, my uncle (by marriage) James Hillman – Jungian analyst, scholar and teacher, champion of the psyche, and "renegade" psychologist passed away into the world that comes after this, venturing into a dimension that I'm certain he's currently delighted to discover, given that he'd always dedicated himself to the most profound explorations of life [and death] with all the impetuousness and willingness to be amazed that was his nature. (I didn't know him all that well, but I knew that much for sure.)
I met him first six or seven years ago at a Hillman family reunion at his home in Connecticut with my then-fianceé-now-wife, his niece; again at his eightieth birthday; and then when he attended (...and boogied on down) at our wedding, with his wonderful wife, Margot McLean.
On our first meeting, I was in a formative part of a personal re-configuration, of sorts, doing lots of meditation and reading, but not knowing yet that I'd be called to set down my own personal explorations and discoveries, much less how to go about it. I'd cursorily examined some of his writing (The Soul's Code was in my then wife-to-be's bookshelf), and while he spoke so authoritatively of the same wilderness that I wanted to describe, I found myself more than a bit confounded.
Here was the voice of a true explorer into labyrinthine reaches I'd only just recently been opened to, but speaking in a language that I found nearly indecipherable. It was the language of an academician of the highest order, and as such seemed dense and elaborately logical to me, at the time. But I also saw that it was the welcome language of a Jungian mystic, a popular Gnostic, and a playful articulator. As it was very deep stuff, I began to recognize him as a sort of Jungian Jacques Cousteau of the psyche, diving into the imagery of mythic imaginings, bringing colorful, long lost archetypes to the surface and joyfully rubbing them clean for closer examination. That was his contagious joy of discovery.
He found me on the fringe of the family's reunion activities, perusing the books on his shelf and work table and asked,"Well, what do you think?" I answered that I thought it was a remarkable thing to undertake, "describing the indescribable." His eyes widened and looked straight into mine, "Describing the indescribable," he repeated, "...I suppose so." He smiled (he was always smiling), jumped up and ran off to his duties, to the happy ritual of organizing his family's past and present.
I never got the chance to have the conversation with him that I would have liked to have had—about ourselves, and our relation to all of it; about what I took to be his redefinitions of karma and reincarnation; his marvelous rejection of the intricacies of prescribed psychology, and his instead gleeful embrace of so many of the heroic and romantic idylls of mythology and lost civilization that I'd always wished I could define myself by, when I was a child...when I was that "acorn" growing toward what my life might ask me to become.
Here was a man (suddenly my uncle), who'd given to the entire world that rich and provocative opportunity for self-definition, who'd opened the trap door to that amazing underworld of fantastic self-configuration, embellished and defined by the shared timeless imagery of our psyches. He was a kind of wiry, jocular 80 year-old Heracles, pushing the glasses up on his nose, wrapping up his labors and splashing around like a kid in this gnostic reflecting pool we call Life on Earth. Wrestling with the demiurge was always that much fun for him.
All that had seemed so complex to me at first now winnows itself down to a very direct, playful formula for living... with me dressed in a toga, with a scuba mask, and maybe eagle feathers—and a sword, and a chariot (with Krishna driving, that would complete the picture). Anything to help describe me to my self—or vice-versa.
"It's important to ask yourself, "How am I useful to others? What do people want from me?" That may very well reveal what you are here for."
Enormous respect arose out of the realization that so many of the "amazing" discoveries I thought I was discovering for the very first time were merely simple, commonplace blips and bits of the contents of what his life's work contained. Just a couple out-of-the-way corners of his inexhaustible imagination. Ego jumped in, as usual, and told me "you'll never be that," but then that would be missing Uncle Jimmy's point, wouldn't it? You can be. You are now. We all are!
"Sooner or later something seems to call us on to a particular path...this is what I must do, this is what I've got to have. This is who I am."
It was, after all, his life's work, and whenever I saw him, he most definitely was not working, but instead was taking part in a kind of ongoing celebration of all of Life's moments with the same logical attention to detail – the significance of that very moment, the nuances of storytelling...and always the setting-up of a good joke. There was that Zen fun, the updated Laughing Buddha (with a Jewish twist), invoking the joy of the eternal moment.
"Just stop for a minute and you'll realize you're happy just being. I think it's the pursuit that screws up happiness. If we drop the pursuit, it's right here."
Being a strong believer in the seamlessly continuous nature of life and death, and death and life, I'm looking forward in getting to know Uncle Jimmy better, and asking his help with my own awkward spelunking, in hopes I'll surface with some self-defining evidence from those "other worlds" that we've all inhabited, that focus themselves right here and now. Maybe I can joyfully rub the muck off of those bits and blips, and give them a good once over.
I've pulled together a few locations for you to explore James' life and ideas, and sincerely hope you do. The Wikipedia entry is pretty straight-up and does contain a bibliography. Of particular note are the two really wonderful interviews with Pythia Peay on HuffPo, and Scott London on his excellent site. The YouTube piece is great, but nothing I found really communicates just how funny he is...Enjoy! ...and thank you, Uncle Jimmy.
and can be ordered online here. The first book: How to Survive Life (and Death), A Guide To Happiness In This World and Beyond is available everywhere – but ask for them both at your local bookstore!