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Guardian obituary

James Hillman, who died aged 85 at his home in rural Connecticut from the complications of cancer, has been hailed as the most important American psychologist since William James. He was a dedicated subversive – witty and original – an heir to the Jungian tradition which he re-imagined with unceasing brilliance.

He had celebrated his 70th birthday at the Globe Theatre in Southwark, where a succession of friends performed on the stage, dramatically lit with a single coal brazier.  When his turn came, he stepped out and delivered a graceful tap-dance routine in which he exhibited characteristic sensuality and grace. The playful deftness of his feet echoed the agility of his mind: Hillman had a way of dancing his way through complex ideas that was both dazzling and deeply serious.

The author of more than twenty books translated into twenty-five languages, Hillman touched a very wide range of people from the musician and artist Brian Eno to the actor Mark Rylance, from painter and film maker Derek Jarman to the novelist Thomas Pynchon, from punk historian and rock critic Jon Savage to the artist Susan Hiller.

Fiercely critical of America’s dedication to the pursuit of happiness, James Hillman focused on the darkest and most difficult human experiences – illness, depression, failure and suicide, not merely as abnormal pathologies that should be avoided or cured, but as potential sources of depth and wisdom.

Hillman drew on the writers and philosophers of the Italian Renaissance and Ancient Greece, as well as a romantic tradition that included Keats, Goethe, Schelling and Dilthey. Aware that he didn’t want to create a school of his own, he proposed an “archetypal” or “imaginal” psychology, which would restore the psyche or soul to a discipline he believed to have been diminished by the scientific and medical models.  Influenced by the French Islamist and Sufi Henry Corbin, the poetics of Gaston Bachelard and the phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty, he argued that reality is a construct of the human imagination – the stuff of myths, dreams, fantasies and images. There was, however, very little about his thought that was divorced from the world of money, war and politics. His unrelenting cultural critique embraced everything from masturbation to plastic surgery, and the design of ceilings to Dubya’s foreign policy.

The image –as antidote to literalism – was central to his thought and practice, but not an image reduced by theoretical speculation or interpretation. Whether in dream, poetry or everyday life, he would advocate “sticking to the image”, whose often indistinct or paradoxical language spoke, he argued, with more authenticity than verbal discourse. Film was an ideal vehicle for his ideas: he was the main contributor to my films “The Heart Has Reasons”  (Channel 4, 1993) “Kind of Blue” (Channel 4,1994), and the five part-series “The Architecture of the Imagination (BBC2, 1994)

Hillman’s thought drew on pre-Christian modes of thought – a polytheistic perspective reflecting the myriad possibilities of the human psyche, imagined as gods and goddesses, myths and metaphors, whose polymorphous nature spoke for the instincts that shape our thoughts and actions more truthfully than the good-and-evil world of oppositions central to the monotheistic religions of the book.

James Hillman grew up in Atlantic City, New Jersey, with parents in the high-end hotel business – they partly owned the George V in Paris.  In a seaside resort that sold and lived by illusion, Hillman spoke of learning early on about things not always being what they seemed. During the Second World War, he served in the Navy Hospital Corps, looking after the blind – an experience that exposed him to the sightless patients’ rich inner life as well convincing him of the pitfalls of institutional medicine. After studying at the Sorbonne and Trinity College, Dublin, he travelled in Africa and spent a year writing in Kashmir, where he discovered the writings of C.G.Jung. He returned to Europe to work on a PhD at the university of Zurich and enrolled on the diploma course at the Jung Institute in 1950.

Soon after qualifying, he became Director of Studies at the Institute and during his time there, published his most ground-breaking works, including “Re-Visioning Psychology” (1975), based on the prestigious Terry Lectures he had given at Yale in 1972. This Pulitzer nominated book was followed by “The Dream and the Underworld (1979) and “The Myth of Analysis” (1983) In these central studies Hillman set out, with great erudition as well as a gift for subversion, to “see through” the idea and practice of psychology, the way in which we extract meaning from dreams and the guiding fictions behind the practice of psychoanalysis.

Hillman left Zurich in 1978 to become Graduate Dean at University of Dallas, where he also set up the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture which fostered the radical appraisal of cities and our lives within them. He also edited the journal Spring and was chief editor of Spring Publications.

Having practiced as an analyst for 40 years, Hillman eventually became highly critical of therapy. He argued that the sickness of humanity lay in the world rather than within each person. Therapy should, he believed, change politics, cities, buildings, schools and our relationship with the natural environment rather than focus solely on people’s inner lives.

Although Hillman was far from sympathetic to its sugar-coated promise of wholeness and fulfillment, he was co-opted by the New Age movement, always anxious to promote gurus with a fresh message. He came dangerously close to being identified with it when he was, for several years, involved in the Men’s Movement, alongside the poet Robert Bly and the social activist Michael Meade. He moved on to find a wider audience through a series of popular but still provocative books, including “The Soul’s Code” (1997), which reached the No1. Spot on the New York Times bestseller list, and “The Force of Character” (1999)  - works which explored, with examples running from Picasso to Hitler, the idea that we all have a calling, a individual and innate character which shapes our lives. In “A Terrible Love of War” (2004), eschewing the pacifism so dear to the liberal left, he reflected on humanity’s abiding martial ardour and need for the periodic spilling of blood, at great cost and with incalculable suffering.

As well as writing beautifully – texts of layered intellectual exposition that were dense yet always skillfully articulated – he was an electrifying lecturer and teacher:  a tall and charismatic mixture of rabbinical scholar and comedian, with a breathtaking ability to lead his audience through arguments that turned accepted ideas upside down in a vibrant exploration of truths that were multi-faceted and paradoxical. Unlike other critics of the mainstream approach to mental illness, he was not “anti”- anything, seeing in opposition a fantasy that drew us away from meaning and from life. He preferred to deconstruct, often playfully, whether he was speaking of plastic surgery, the politics of the Middle East or the paranoia of the psychiatric profession.

Not surprisingly he approached death, through a period of great physical suffering, with courage, humour and a continuing curiosity about the fictions that surround our ideas of life and death.

He is survived by his wife Margot McLean and his children by his first marriage Julia, Carola, Susanne and Laurence and five grandchildren.

James Hillman, writer, archetypal psychologist, born 12 April 1926, died 27 October 2011.

Mark Kidel


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