Grumpy old archetypes

James Hillman, bestselling author and gadfly to the therapy movement, talks about the fine art of aging gracefully.

Published September 10, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

For more than a generation now, James Hillman has played the role of infidel in the temple of psychotherapy. Alternately a skeptic, a provocateur and a bad conscience, he has gleefully assaulted many of the proudest tenets of popular psychology -- not least among them the notion that the journey of life is about growth. "Becoming more and more oneself -- the actual experience of it is a shrinking, in that very often it's a dehydration, a loss of inflations, a loss of illusions," he says in the book "We've Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy and the World's Getting Worse," a collection of his dialogues and correspondences with writer Michael Ventura. "Shedding is a beautiful thing."

This vision of shedding, stripping away the false and inessential -- and prodding at whatever's beneath it -- is a unifying thread in Hillman's post-Jungian "archetypal psychology," and more specifically in his last two books, both of which exhort readers to work at uncovering and cultivating the most intractable, idiosyncratic elements of themselves. In his 1996 bestseller, "The Soul's Code," it was the "acorn" of one's life's calling (inborn, or so went the book's unfashionably Platonist thesis) that Hillman chased after. In the just-released "The Force of Character and the Lasting Life," it's the edifice of personal character that, he asserts, emerges more clearly as one gets old.

Salon Books spoke with Hillman by telephone from his home in Connecticut late last week.

At a number of points in the book, you refer to similarities between childhood and old age. There's a saying that's often made about the elderly, and usually in a pejorative way: "He or she is entering a second childhood," meaning basically that the person is losing hold. Could you talk about the parallels between childhood and old age in a more instructive way?

First thing that comes to mind is the Japanese idea that at 60, you're no longer responsible. And you're much more like a child in your delight and in your spontaneity and in your being excused from certain social formalities. Of course everyone looks up to the old in Japan, but there is that freedom from responsibility -- I think that's the crucial similarity. Another is the release of imagination: In old age and in early years, your imagination is usually freer and less chained to the practical. Partly because you're freed from responsibility and partly because you're being marginalized by the society itself. So you're allowed your fantasies; there's more room for them.

In both cases there's often a diminished regard for social conventions and conventional wisdom. Your insight can be less encumbered than it is in the prime of life.

Yes. The Bible says, the old men shall so-and-so and the children shall so-and-so; they're treated together again and again. There is the freedom of lack of conformity, of oddity, of idiosyncrasy, of imagination. A peculiar connection to nature. In some societies, tribal societies, the grandfather and the grandson are connected, and they both have a common enemy, you might say, in the generation between.

You quote this aphorism from Santayana: "Our distinction and glory, as well as our sorrow, will have lain in being something particular." How do you think aging serves to bring the more particular aspects of character to the surface?

I think some of that middle section about symptoms and disorders speaks to this. They tend to make one a little bit less fit for one's daily rounds, a little more odd. People find themselves dealing more with peculiarities in their physical lives and psychological lives. Then the character structure emerges more vividly. If you take the question of irritability -- that knack for sudden irritability that older people have -- I have it. And things seem so much clearer: This is out. It doesn't belong. I won't have any of it. My character announces itself through these very sharp distinctions and sharp refusals -- these immediate emotional responses to things I love or hate. Music that moves me, say. And there is in this a revelation of what's really essential to you. You don't have the space or time for what is not appropriate to you.

The book has that interesting interlude about faces in which you make the observation that it's our encounters with the faces of others -- the experiences they contain, the hardships and triumphs and needs they display to the world -- that form the basis of our ethical sensibilities. Then you write, "If the face is where the ethics of society begins, then what happens to a society when the aging face is surgically altered, cosmetically subdued, and its accumulated character falsified?" Well, what does happen then?

The elder who is eliminating what time has done to the face, what life has done to the face, is making a statement for others to see: This is the way to be a good old person -- it is to defeat this body that is doing things to you. Because you haven't changed. Your body's changing. It's doing these things to you, and it's unfair. You feel like you did when you were 30. Your innocence remains. And this is the message these changed faces are presenting. The supermarket's filled with many other faces, especially if you live in a poor district as I do, there are many faces that carry suffering and tragedy and defeat. But no one wants to look at them, and usually no one does.

Here's another quotation from the book: "The easy path of aging is to become a thick-skinned, unbudging curmudgeon, a battle-ax. To grow soft and sweet is the harder way." What does one need to do, or to remain mindful of, to cultivate that harder way?

To yield a lot. Yielding. Let the other guy win. Take a simple example: You hire somebody to do something around your house and you pay them their price without arguing about it. Or you give a little larger tip than you're accustomed to at dinner. Or you allow the waitress to make her mistake. Now these are usually infuriating things, and it's very easy to go right off. Restaurant rage! But there's something about yielding -- presenting your opinion about something, as the old buzzard that you are, but letting it go, too.

What is it you gain by yielding?

You're more flexible, you can go with life, you can receive life. You don't know what impressions you'll be open to once you've let down your own fixed positions -- which tend to be defenses, refusals to let anything else in. You lose some of the fears you have about defending what you believe, or what you experience. Fear is a huge thing for older people. The older people that one admires seem to be fearless. They go right out into the world. It's astounding. Maybe they can't see or they can't hear, but they walk out into the street and take life as it comes. They're models of courage, in a strange way.

One more passage from the book: "Late in the night, we realize that the acts of our lives have not been shadow-free, that we are shadowed by curses and sins -- not because we are cursed and sinful by nature, but because with the very origins of the world, one half of which belongs to night, come fearful figures who demand we know them." This suggests that as we age, it becomes easier to forgive ourselves for the missteps and transgressions that have gone before. Can you say more about why this becomes easier?

I'm not sure it becomes easier. I put a lot of emphasis on contrition. I think that you really face the hurts you have done to people close to you -- lovers, wives and husbands, associates. I think that contrition goes with aging. There's more time for reviewing those things, because the projects -- what I've got to do every day -- are diminished. A lot of the advice we give to old people in America is about starting a new career at 65! "I used to work for the railroad, but now I've taken up pottery and opened my own little shop." And that's fine. I don't object to it. It's only that there's something else the soul may need besides activity.

This reckoning with past demons that you're talking about -- is it fair to say it's partly a matter of coming to take one's actions and oneself less personally in a way?

Yes, yes. I think that's a good point. It doesn't sound that way; it sounds like a matter of personally owning your past. But I think you begin to see them in a larger perspective. "Wow, I was really wrapped up in envy. I really did envy that guy." Or "I was really paranoid for a while -- I was haunting my husband." Or my wife. We get a better perspective on the phantoms that have taken hold of us at different times in our lives. And you can be a much better mentor, a much better elder to others, if you've met all those night-time demons. Because a mentor needs to have faced the fears and the shame that assault younger people -- and as you get older, you do come to better terms with those bugaboos known as fear and shame.

This is obviously a book whose point of view and whose imperatives have been dictated to a large extent by your own experience of aging. If you don't mind my asking, what has been the hardest thing about growing older for you?

Well, it's not physical. The most difficult thing I have to cope with is that I'm still terribly crowded with things I haven't finished and want to do. I mean, my own work. It isn't that I want to go to the Gobi Desert. What I wrote about pulling in the outposts, that's absolutely true. When I say things I want to do, it isn't things I want to own or things I want to learn, or even duties that I feel I need to serve, like some political cause. It's really the fact that I owe my work something, and I don't feel I have the time, or maybe even the competence, to do it justice. That's the most difficult thing I have to deal with. I've given up a lot of keeping up with things. I can't read all the books I want to read, I can't watch all the phenomena that interest me in the world. The work calls me, and sometimes I wonder whether this is an obsession and I should drop it, or it's a necessity I'm obliged to fulfill. How do you tell a necessity from an obsession?

By Steve Perry

Steve Perry is a writer and critic who lives in Minneapolis.

MORE FROM Steve Perry

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Author Interviews Books