Reading Room

The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling – James Hillman

“At the outset we need to make clear that today’s main paradigm for understanding a human life, the interplay of genetics and environment, oReadingRoomHillmanmits something essential – the particularity you feel to be you. By accepting the idea that I am the effect of a subtle buffeting between hereditary and societal forces, I reduce myself to a result.”

“As democratic equality can find no other logical ground but the uniqueness of each individual’s calling, so freedom is founded upon the full independence of calling. When the writers of the Declaration of Independence stated that all are born equal, they saw that the proposition necessarily entailed a companion: All are born free. It is the fact of calling that makes us equal, and the act of calling that demands we be free.”

In a nutshell

Not only celebrities and nuns have “callings.” All of us have in our heart the image of the person we can be and the life we can live.

Is there a code to our souls, a DNA of destiny? The question compelled Hillman to trawl through the lives of actress Judy Garland, scientist Charles Darwin, industrialist Henry Ford, musicians Kurt Cobain and Tina Turner, and many others, searching for the “something” that drove them on and made them live as they did. His premise is that, just as the giant and majestic oak is embedded in the acorn, so does a person carry inside them an active kernel of truth, or an image, waiting to be lived. The idea is not a new one: The Greeks had the word daemon to describe the invisible guiding force in our lives, the Romans the genius.

We are a story, not a result

The idea of a soul image has a long history in most cultures, but contemporary psychology and psychiatry ignore it completely. Image, character, fate, genius, calling, daemon, soul, destiny – these are all big words, Hillman admits, and we have become afraid to use them, but this does not lessen their reality. Psychology can only seem to break down the puzzle of the individual into traits of personality, types, and complexes. The author mentions a psychological biography of Jackson Pollock, which stated that the rhythmic lines and arcs of his paintings were the result of being left out of his brothers’ competitions of “creative urination” on the dust of their Wyoming farm!

Such interpretations kill the spirit, denying that inner visions, rather than circumstances, are what drive people. The way we see our lives, says Hillman, dulls them. We love romance and fiction, but don’t apply enough romantic ideals or stories to ourselves. We cease to be a creation and become more a result, in which life is reduced to the interplay between genetics and environment. Another way in which we restrict our existence is in how we see time, or cause and effect. That is, “This happened, which caused me to … “or “I am the product of …” The book looks rather at what is timeless about us, whether we are just born, middle-aged, or old.

Who are our parents?

Hillman is brilliant at exposition of what he calls the “parental fallacy,” the belief that the way we are is because of how our parents were. Childhood, The Soul’s Code argues, is best understood in terms of the image with which we are born coming into contact with the environment in which we find ourselves. The child’s tantrums and strange obsessions should be seen in this context, rather than trying to “correct” them in therapy.

Yehudi Menuhin was given a toy violin for his fourth birthday, which he promptly dashed to the ground. Even at this age, it was an insult to the great violinist-in-waiting. We treat children as if they are a blank slate, without their own authenticity, and the child is therefore denied the possibility that they may have an agenda for their life, guided by their genius.

In terms of our daemon, a parental union results from our necessity: The daemon selected the egg and the sperm as well as their carriers, called “parents.” This certainly turns the tables, but Hillman suggests that it explains the impossible marriages, quick conceptions, and sudden desertions that form the stories of so many of our parents.

He goes further to point out the poverty of seeing our mothers and fathers as, literally, mum and dad, when nature could be our mother, books our father – whatever connects us to the world and teaches us. Quoting Alfred North Whitehead, who said that “religion is world loyalty,” Hillman says that we must believe in the world’s ability to provide for us and lovingly reveal to us its mysteries.

“I must have you”

The Soul’s Code shows how the daemon will assert itself in love, giving rise to obsessions and torments of romantic agony that defy the logic of evolutionary biology. Identical twins separated at birth are often later found to be wearing the same aftershave or smoking the same brand of cigarette, but in the most important choice of choosing a mate there can be great differences.

When Michelangelo sculpted portraits of gods or of his contemporaries, he tried to see what he called the immagine del cuor, the heart’s image; the sculpture aimed to reveal the inner soul of the subject. Hillman says that the same heart’s image lies within each person. When we fall in love, we feel super-important because we are able to reveal who we truly are, giving a glimpse of our soul’s genius. The meeting between lovers is a meeting of images, an exchange of imaginations. You are in love because your imagination is on fire. By freeing imagination, even identical twins are freed of their sameness.

The bad seed

The Soul’s Code is engrossing when it comes to love’s opposite, the “bad seed.” Hillman devotes most of a chapter to the phenomenon of Adolf Hitler. Hitler’s habits, reported by reliable informants, give evidence of possession by a “bad” daemon. The principal difference to other lives discussed in the book is the combination of acorn and personality: Not only was Hitler’s acorn a bad seed, but it was wrapped in a personality that offered no doubts or resistance to it. From a single seed, we can see how the fascinating power in this man charmed millions into a collective demonic state. We can apply the same idea to modern psychopaths like Jeffrey Dahmer to understand how they can enchant their victims.

This is not to suggest in any way that the terrible actions arising from a bad seed are justified. However, appreciating the criminal mind in terms of the daemon/acorn gives us a better understanding of it than our conventional idea of evil (that is, something to be eradicated or “loved away”). What makes the seed demonic is its single-track obsession, but its ultimate aim is glory. As a society, we should be willing to recognise this drive and find ways of channelling it to less destructive ends.

We live in a culture of innocence that despises darkness. American popular culture in particular, with its Disneylands and Sesame Street, cannot accept seeds that are not sugar coated. Nevertheless, innocence actually attracts evil, Hillman says, and” Natural Born Killers are the secret companions of Forrest Gumps.”

The soul mystery

Having spent the book looking at the lives of the famous, Hillman raises the question of mediocrity-can there be a mediocre daemon? His answer is that there are no mediocre souls, a truth reflected in our sayings. We speak of someone having a beautiful soul, a wounded soul, a deep soul, or a child-like soul. We do not say that people have a “middle-class,” “average,” or “regular” soul, he notes.

Souls come from the non-material realm, yet they yearn for the experience of this very physical world. Hillman recalls the film Wings of Desire, in which an angel falls in love with life, the normal life of regular people and their predicaments. To the angels and the gods, there is nothing “everyday” or ordinary about our lives.

Final comments

Picasso said, “I don’t develop; I am.” Life is not about becoming something, but about making real the image already there. We are obsessed with personal growth, reaching toward some imaginary heaven, but instead of trying to transcend human existence, it makes more sense to “grow down” into the world and our place in it. Hillman is not surprised that the people we call “stars” often find life so difficult and painful. The self-image that the public gives them is an illusion and inevitably leads to tragic falls to earth.

The twists and turns of your life may not be as extreme as those of the celebrities, but they may have a greater positive effect. For character, Hillman says, we now look as much to “the soldier’s letter back home on the eve of battle, as the plans laid out in the general’s tent.” One’s calling becomes a calling to honesty rather than to success, to caring and loving rather than to achieving. In this definition, life itself is the great work.

This copy was taken from 50 Self-help Classics, written and compiled by Tom Butler-Bowdon.

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About Tom Cottrell

Tom is a struggling author, pilgrim and citizen of Planet Earth.
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