James Hillman on Soul

James Hillman had an understanding of, and attitude towards, the somewhat-marginalised (in Western cultures at least) notion of soul that I find appealing as well as productive. Here’s a taste of Hillman’s understanding of soul.

Extracts from an Interview

Here’s Hillman in extracts from an interview towards the end of his life. (The soul part is in the second segment.)

I like this so much here’s a transcript of the “soul” section:

Interviewer: When you talk about soul, what do you mean by that?

Hillman: I mean what people say when they’ve heard soul music or when they have eaten soul food, or when the address each other as a soul brother, soul sister – or their partner is their soul mate. They know what they’re talking about. The curious thing is, when you try to take what they’re talking about, what they say they’re talking about, and translate into psychology, you lose it – you don’t know what it is because you can’t define it in rational terms, not rational but conceptual, and make a nice clean idea of it. It’s not a clean idea. It’s experience. It’s something that has to do with the death of you. It has to do with something that matters. It has to do with something to do with love, with connection. It’s something to do with risk of death. So those are all involved in that. Also tragedy: think of soul music, and there’s this deep sense of the beauty and the tragedy together. That’s all to do with soul.

Interviewer: So psychology, as a discipline, seems to miss that.

Hillman: I think it’s afraid of it. I think it invents boxes, diagnoses, tests, statistics, graphs, rules, laws – to keep it away. So I’m a little tough on psychology, but not on soul. And yet “psychology”, the word “psyche” – “soul” is the English word for the Greek word “psyche”, and psychology should be the “logos”, the study of the “psyche”, the study of the soul. But I don’t think psychology is the study of the soul as universities present it.

Anima Mundi

An aspect of soul that was crucial for Hillman was the Platonic notion of anima mundi, “soul in the world”. He turned to alchemists and their operations as soul work. He also cited John Keats’ view of the world as the “vale of soul-making”.

Here are two quotations from Hillman’s article, Anima Mundi, from Spring of 1982 (and also reproduced in A Blue Fire):

“Let us imagine the anima mundi as that particular soul spark, that seminal image, which offers itself through each thing in its visible form. Then anima mundi indicates the animated possibilities presented by each event as it is, its sensuous presentation as a face bespeaking its interior image – in short, its availability to imagination, its presence as a psychic reality. Not only animals and plants ensouled as in the Romantic vision, but soul is given with each thing, God-given things of nature and man-made things of the street.” (p99)

Then we realise that what psychology has had to call projection is simply animation, as this thing or that spontaneously comes alive, arrests our attention, draws us to it. This sudden illumination of the thing does not, however, depend on its formal, aesthetic proportion which makes it “beautiful”; it depends rather upon movements of the anima mundi animating her images and affecting our imagination. The soul of the thing corresponds or coalesces with ours. (p99)

From this viewpoint of anima mundi, our task is, in some way appropriate to each of us, to enable the world to more closely reflect the soul’s need for beauty, to be more truly a “vale of soul-making”.

Quotations from “The Thought of the Heart & the Soul of the World”

Here are some quotations from Hillman’s 1998 book that speaks eloquently of anima mundi – the soul of the world.

“As expressive forms, things speak; they show the shape they are in. They announce themselves, bear witness to their presence: “Look, here we are.” They regard us beyond how we regard them, and how we dispose of them. This imaginative claim on attention bespeaks a world ensouled. More our imaginative recognition, the childlike act of imagining the world, animates the world and returns it to soul.”

“Each particular event, including individual humans with our invisible thoughts, feelings, and intentions, reveals a soul in its imaginative display.”

Hillman gives an example of this mode of experiencing:

“To call a building “catatonic” or “anorexic” means to examine the way it presents itself, its behavioral display in it skinny, tall, rigid, bare-boned structure, trimmed of fat, its glassy front and desexualized coldness and suppressed explosive rage, its hollow atrium interior sectioned by vertical shafts.”

“… what I do mean by aesthetic response is closer to an animal sense of the world – a nose for the displayed intelligibility of things, their sound, smell, shape, speaking to and through our heart’s reactions, responding to the looks and language, tones and gestures of the things we move among.”

Hillman elucidates some positive effects of a restoration of soul to the world, one of which (the fourth) is that:

“…we might be relieved of the desperation for intimacy, the transference clutch, the narrow personalization of love, the fear of loneliness. This because, as William James saw, intimacy occurs when we live in a world of particular, concrete events, noticeable for what he called their “eachness”.”

And to finalise:

“Can we now see what Blake always knew: the apocalypse that kills the soul of the world is not at the end of time, not coming, but apocalypse now; and Newton and Locke, Descartes and Kant are its Horsemen.”

Anima Mundi as Gestalt

The experiential is always a priority in Gestalt practice. So what is the moment-to-moment experience of myself, if I subscribe to the outlook of anima mundi?

My experience in doing so is that the boundary between myself and the world becomes more diffuse, and is set at a further “distance” from an imagined kernel of myself. It’s as though anima mundi reveals itself as a kind of aura around the body, a sense of my inhabiting a larger space than I thought I did.

In this way, there’s a deeper relaxation into the current time and place, the “isness”, I find myself in.