Copyright © New Therapist


Giving depression a fair hearing

An afternoon with James Hillman

By John Söderlund


"No, 90 percent of the time I don't allow people to take photographs of me," James Hillman replies briskly.

"Could this be part of the 10 percent," I venture, pushing a smile in the direction of the ordinary looking man seated on the edge of his chair behind the table, placed in the centre of the raised stage.

"No, definitely not," he replies, snorting and looking away before my smile can intervene to soften the blow.

I turn quickly, embarrassed and angry at what feels like a harsh brush off, and melt into the two thousand or so audience members eagerly awaiting Hillman's address. This is the piece de resistance on the Jungian menu at the 2000 Evolution of Psychotherapy Conference, a who's who gathering of psychotherapy gurus and a few thousand sycophantic attendees who are drinking up the words of the "masters".

"Who does he think he is," I mutter quietly to myself as I sit at the back and await his opening line.

"Jungian psychology is about attitude above all," he begins. "So the whole business is grasping this attitude towards the psyche, or the soul. The question is: 'What is the psyche doing by presenting the patient with a depression?'"

This is classic Hillman, juggling with the controversial and slippery soul theme with which he earned some of his recent attention in his book The Soul's Code. Listen loosely enough and it's compelling and exciting. Pay too close attention and it has more holes than a Swiss cheese, I think to myself, still wounded.

"Instead of seeing depression as a dysfunction, it is a functioning phenomenon. It stops you cold, sets you down, makes you damn miserable. So you know it functions," Hillman explains, speaking slowly and deliberately enough for a longhand, word-for-word transcript.

Are you drawing a causal link here between the depression epidemic of late twentieth century and the lifestyle we have adopted in first-world industrial nations, I think with a few hundred other enraptured therapists?

"If history is merely a repeat of a story, then it is not necessarily causal In Jung's sense, causality is something more formal," he counters intuitively, slipping from a clear understanding of where he's going.

Consciousness is "one-sided" in Jung's psychology. This one-sided picture we hold of the world is complicated by the arrival of "other parts", Hillman continues, "ones left out of the main room, which come in the back door".

And what has come in, slipped past consciousness, is not there with the criminal intent of a typical back-door entrant, but has come to upset the one-sided programme consciousness was intent on pursuing. This intruder is an agent of change in service of the search for meaning which goes beyond the meaning consciousness can offer us, I think, as Hillman pauses, allowing his listeners to place the disconnected pieces of the puzzle in their rightful place without any connecting pieces. But the missing pieces are easily enough placed by his attentive audience, sucking them further in.

"The above are the essentials of the Jungian attitude to what comes up in you and your patients' lives," he summarises.

The depression epidemic

Newspaper reports tell us there's much more depression around than we realise, that it is endemic to our culture, the largest presenting complaint in the medical practitioner's practice, Hillman recounts, summarising a few years of shotgun mental health statistics and projections.

"We must do something about depression!" he says, provocatively mimicking the mainstream psychiatric response to patients who present with symptoms of depression.

Sure, I think, recalling some recent projections which expect depression to cripple the workforce in the coming two decades.

One of the key diagnostic criteria of depression, notes Hillman, is feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day, for at least two weeks.

"This is putting a chronic malady in the category of an acute category. We have to notice the manic nature of that diagnosis, that anything which lasts more than two weeks in our culture is too long" he says.

"This is a totally manic situation. I have to keep talking to you so you don't get bored," he yells at the audience. "I stand over my fax machine, pound it and say: 'Why does it take so long for these fucking things to go through.'" We roar as another two pieces slot together in Hillman's puzzle.

"What most Americans complain of is not enough time and not enough sleep. Manics don't need to sleep or to eat. We can sit at a computer all day long, dishevelled, naked like a case in a locked ward. So, where does depression, slowness, fit in? How does Saturn enter, except by forcing its way in?"

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