Tuesday, April 24, 2007

James Hillman's Acorn Theory

James Hillman's book, The Soul's code is worth revisiting. From an interview with Scott London at the time of its publication, Hillman speaks to the idea of a soul's destiny.
As you read it, try to justify the NCLB obsession with conformity, test-taking, and the ruthless disfigurement of individual children to meet standardized profiles.
London: In The Soul's Code, you talk about something called the "acorn theory." What is that?

Hillman: Well, it's more of a myth than a theory. It's Plato's myth that you come into the world with a destiny, although he uses the word paradigma, or paradigm, instead of destiny. The acorn theory says that there is an individual image that belongs to your soul.

The same myth can be found in the kabbalah. The Mormon's have it. The West Africans have it. The Hindus and the Buddhists have it in different ways — they tie it more to reincarnation and karma, but you still come into the world with a particular destiny. Native Americans have it very strongly. So all these cultures all over the world have this basic understanding of human existence. Only American psychology doesn't have it.

London: In our culture we tend to think of calling in terms of "vocation" or "career."

Hillman: Yes, but calling can refer not only to ways of doing — meaning work — but also to ways of being. Take being a friend. Goethe said that his friend Eckermann was born for friendship. Aristotle made friendship one of the great virtues. In his book on ethics, three or four chapters are on friendship. In the past, friendship was a huge thing. But it's hard for us to think of friendship as a calling, because it's not a vocation.

London: Motherhood is another example that comes to mind. Mothers are still expected to have a vocation above and beyond being a mother.

Hillman: Right, it's not enough just to be a mother. It's not only the social pressure on mothers by certain kinds of feminism and other sources. There is also economic pressure on them. It's a terrible cruelty of predatory capitalism: both parents now have to work. A family has to have two incomes in order to buy the things that are desirable in our culture. So the degradation of motherhood — the sense that motherhood isn't itself a calling — also arises from economic pressure.

London: What implications do your ideas have for parents?

Hillman: I think what I'm saying should relieve them hugely and make them want to pay more attention to their child, this peculiar stranger who has landed in their midst. Instead of saying, "This is my child," they must ask, "Who is this child who happens to be mine?" Then they will gain a lot more respect for the child and try to keep an eye open for instances where the kid's destiny might show itself — like in a resistance to school, for example, or a strange set of symptoms one year, or an obsession with one thing or another. Maybe something very important is going on there that the parents didn't see before.

London: Symptoms are so often seen as weaknesses.

Hillman: Right, so they set up some sort of medical or psychotherapeutic program to get rid of them, when the symptoms may be the most crucial part of the kid. There are many stories in my book that illustrate this.

London: How much resistance do you encounter to your idea that we chose our parents?

Hillman: Well, it annoys a lot of people who hate their parents, or whose parents were cruel and deserted them or abused them. But it's amazing how, when you ponder that idea for a little bit, it can free you of a lot of blame and resentment and fixation on your parents.

London: I got into a lengthy discussion about your book with a friend of mine who is the mother of a six-year-old. While she subscribes to your idea that her daughter has a unique potential, perhaps even a "code," she is wary of what that means in practice. She fears that it might saddle the child with a lot of expectations.

Hillman: That's a very intelligent mother. I think the worst atmosphere for a six-year-old is one in which there are no expectations whatsoever. That is, it's worse for the child to grow up in a vacuum where "whatever you do is alright, I'm sure you'll succeed." That is a statement of disinterest. It says, "I really have no fantasies for you at all."

A mother should have some fantasy about her child's future. It will increase her interest in the child, for one thing. To turn the fantasy into a program to make the child fly an airplane across the country, for example, isn't the point. That's the fulfillment of the parent's own dreams. That's different. Having a fantasy — which the child will either seek to fulfill or rebel against furiously — at least gives a child some expectation to meet or reject.

London: What about the idea of giving children tests to find out their aptitudes?

Hillman: Aptitude can show calling, but it isn't the only indicator. Ineptitude or dysfunction may reveal calling more than talent, curiously enough. Or there can be a very slow formation of character.

London: What is the first step toward understanding one's calling?

Hillman: 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.

Suppose that throughout your childhood you were good with numbers. Other kids used to copy your homework. You figured store discounts faster than your parents. People came to you for help with such things. So you took accounting and eventually became a tax auditor for the IRS. What an embarrassing job, right? You feel you should be writing poetry or doing aviation mechanics or whatever. But then you realize that tax collecting can be a calling too. When you look into the archetypal nature of taxation, you realize that all civilizations have had taxation of one sort or another. Some of the earliest Egyptian writing is about tax collecting — the scribe recording what was paid and what wasn't paid.

So when you consider the archetypal, historical, and cultural background of whatever you do, it gives you a sense that your occupation can be a calling and not just a job.

London: What do you think of traditional techniques for revealing the soul's code, such as the wise woman who reads palms, or the village elders whose job it is to look at a child and see that child's destiny? Would it be helpful to revive these traditions?

Hillman: First of all, I don't think you can revive traditions on purpose. Second of all, I think those traditions are going on underground. Many people will tell you about some astrologer who said this or that to them, or some teacher. So it's very widespread in the subculture.

What I try to point out is the role an ordinary person can have in seeing the child's destiny. You have to have a feeling for the child. It's almost an erotic thing, like the filmmaker Elia Kazan's stories of how his teacher "took to him." She said to him, "When you were only twelve, you stood near my desk one morning and the light from the window fell across your head and features and illuminated the expression on your face. The thought came to me of the great possibilities there in your development." She saw his beauty. Now that, you see, is something different from just going to the wise woman.

London: In The Soul's Code, you tell a similar story about Truman Capote.

Hillman: In Capote's case, his teacher responded to his crazy fantasies. He was a difficult boy who threw temper tantrums in which he would lie on the floor and kick, who refused to go to class, who combed his hair all the time — an impossible kid. She responded to his absurdities with equal absurdities. She took to him. Teachers today can't take to a child. It will be called manipulation, or seduction, or pedophilia.

London: Or preferential treatment.

Hillman: Right. James Baldwin is another example. He attended a little Harlem schoolhouse of fifty kids. Conditions were appalling. His teacher was a Midwestern white woman. And yet they clicked.

You see, we don't need to get back to the wise woman in the village. We need to get back to trusting our emotional rapport with children, to seeing a child's beauty and singling that child out. That's how the mentor system works — you're caught up in the fantasy of another person. Your imagination and their come together.

1 comment:

Michael (Mike) Bogar said...

Thank you...more Hillman please.

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