This is the first in a series of blogs exploring, comparing and contrasting the writings and ideas set forth by the iconoclastic pioneer of archetypal psychology, James Hillman, with those of Bill Plotkin, a visionary leader in the endeavor of depth ecopsychology. The intention of the series is to deepen understanding of how the human being might contact and embody the imaginal realms whose formless forms connect each to all, breathing life into the communal dreaming of the Earth. The reader is assumed to at least have some familiarity with the general body of ideas, if not these particular thinkers.

James Hillman is a brilliant, self-contradicting controversialist who champions the multiplicity of psyche with a nearly religious zeal. He has inspired multitudes of psychologists, therapists, artists, educators and others to revivify and explore the power of the imagination in surrender to both the pleasures and the terrors of the unknown and unexplored regions of soul. Bill Plotkin’s work to initiate the modern, Western ego into the mysteries of the underworld of soul is clearly influenced by Hillman’s ideas and intuitions, and yet there are distinctions between them which are often revealed in very different styles and aims of communication. Where Hillman might unleash linguistic whiplashing to break apart our everyday notions of a personal sense of self, Plotkin might seek to bring the unknown into sharper focus and into conversation with the personal sense of self. Both try to render the erotic in the terms of logos, but Hillman is more florid and abstract, speaking with the reader as if from archetype to archetype, while Plotkin frequently employs personalizing stories to ground his theoretical observations in the everyday and connect with the ego for a more subtle undermining of its perspectives. Both are strong advocates for the imagination, for a return of soul to the world, for the embrace of human psychospiritual suffering as a means of growth, healing and wholeness. [1]

James Hillman is notoriously unsystematic in his theorizing, as Glen Slater explains in his introduction to the collection of essays Senex & Puer, “James Hillman undoes. …Though his approach is not systematic—he doesn’t build models of the mind—his reflections are pointed and precise, sharply illuminating whatever terrain he traverses…”.[2] As grounded in this-world and its demanding realities as he seems to be, Hillman is perhaps more focused on the present moment and how we shall make meaning of it, how we shall locate ourselves in the reflective moment between actor and action, abandoning all hope of “progress” or “cure” or “correcting” anything at all. While this seems like a rather bizarre stance at first blush, perhaps part of Hillman’s point is that it is ego which wants “progress,” has the perception of an “illness,” and a prejudice concerning what needs to be “corrected.” The ego’s preconceived notions of one’s total psyche could completely interfere with the revelations of soul.

To bring forth soul via the mythic imagination generates meaning and the possibility of an internalizing or embodying experience of one’s visions, longings and sufferings such that for Hillman, the poet always precedes the analyst in the therapeutic context. Allowing the soul its own prerogatives is paramount, and hemming it in with too much structure or pathologizing blocks the way to any kind of relief from unnecessary suffering, which would be faithful to the multivalent depths of psyche. Hillman demands that we be with what is, and what is is always in flux. In fact, any student of Hillman will likely be able to find passages in his work which contradict or complicate the above characterization. So it is with the multiplicity of beings within us, and our subsequent actions; psyche is not a creature for systematization.

Bill Plotkin is not so satisfied with this approach. “I’m a mapmaker, a model designer,” he confessed in a recent interview with Terry Patten. For the last thirty years Plotkin has “been thinking about ways to talk about human development that I hadn’t found elsewhere in the Western traditions [to] help me get oriented about who we are as human beings and where we’re going and where we’ve been, for that matter….”[3] In 2008, Plotkin presented the fruits of his decades of exploration in Nature and the Human Soul, a nature-based model of psychospiritual development which proposes a role for the greater-than-human world in human growth and maturation processes. He then elaborated an ecopsychological model of the human mind in the 2013 book Wild Mind. Plotkin does so with the hope of contributing to “the global effort to create a viable human-Earth partnership”[4] by providing frameworks for reflection and action which facilitate the reclamation and embodiment of “our original wholeness, our indigenous human nature granted to us by nature itself.”[5]

As much as Hillman would implore us to surrender to soul’s mysterious invitations, he often leaves a bit too much to the imagination for the average reader in a population starved for meaning and lacking in elders or mentors to provide reliable avenues of exploration. Paradoxically, form and structure can provide access to the wild and the untamable within each human, even if those forms cannot wholly contain or ultimately describe what is revealed. Though Hillman might find it odious to apply values of “utility” or “practicability” to his theories (as that might place too much emphasis on ego and detract from soul), he might agree that accessibility is necessary for any kind of world-healing transformation of the human species to have a chance in the face of our foundering technological adolescence. While Hillman rails against the idea of “cure” as a goal of psychotherapy, he doesn’t propose that we leap into a pit of absolute relativism. His is a radical vision of the unique psychic circumstances of each person and each culture, and a radical trust in the health that each can access from within, rather helpfully pointing us towards the multivalence of experience, referring to the many layers of meaning within in any one experience or any one person. Even as he asks us to open up to the conflicting images and impulses within the individual and within humanity as a collective, Hillman also “advises that an image comes with a moral claim,” as images compel us to self-knowledge, offering an entryway into the guarded treasury of the unconscious.[6]

But how do we participate with the image, which Carl Jung proposed is the primary data of the unconscious, arising spontaneously of its own accord? “The psyche consists essentially of images…a ‘picturing’ of vital activities,”[7] though note that “it is not we who personify [the images]; they have a personal nature from the very beginning.”[8] Accordingly, Hillman places imagination before perception, fantasy prior to reality: “Man is primarily an imagemaker and our psychic substance consists of images; our being is imaginal being, an existence in imagination. We are indeed such stuff as dreams are made on.”[9]

To engage with image on the image’s own terms is a primary concern of Hillman, who sees the slippery slope from interacting with imagery to imposing control upon imagery, subverting it to the ends of our conscious sense of self. The power of the imaginal is thus sabotaged, waylaid or perverted, preventing genuine discourse between conscious and unconscious, suppressing the many others within. We are too easily able to cast shadows upon the shadows within ourselves.

However, models or maps of the psyche could simply provide a way for soul to bite into us, rather than necessarily constraining the coevolutionary potential of ego and soul in an egocentric conceptual straitjacket. In regard to his nature-based model of optimum psychospiritual development, Plotkin stresses that he has tried to design a model, rather than put forth a theory, explaining, “my primary design objective was to fashion a useful language, a way of talking about optimum human development, especially concerning the relationship between the ego and the soul. My goal has been to create a means of systematically articulating and discussing all the possibilities of soul-infused maturation, as opposed to championing a single theory or path. In appraising the merit of any model, the primary question to ask is not whether it’s true but whether it’s a valuable tool of description, discussion and action.”[10] Regardless of our maps of psyche, the territory remains fresh and in some sense unknowable except through experience, and recognition of this participatory facet of our human beingness requires the cultivation of a deep sensitivity, an empathic humility.

It could even be that part of the wild animal nature of the human being is its capacity to create form and structure as well as novelty, so free as we seem to be to discover and obscure, uncover and bury facets of psyche, forever defining, refining, and rebirthing self and other in the imaginal womb of Earth. Through his inspiring storytelling, Plotkin has shared much of his own soul-centered journey to the heart of the mystery of being, which has revealed to him over time that he is a weaver of cocoons, a dreamer of impossible dreams for his people. A mapmaker as cocoon weaver sounds fitting, as novelty seems predicated on structure. Entering into any given model or map or conceptual idea of what is human, what is psyche appears to prefigure a future dissolution, as maps must themselves be transformed by experience and interaction with environments both internal and external, reflecting the characteristic flux and change of the infinite wonder of our universe.

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[1] By “soul,” Hillman means “a perspective rather than a substance, a viewpoint towards things rather than a thing itself. …[soul] refers to that unknown component which makes meaning possible, turns events into experiences, is communicated in love, and has a religious concern. …[B]y soul I mean the imaginative possibility in our natures, the experiencing through reflective speculation, dream, image, and fantasy—that mode which recognizes all realities as primarily symbolic or metaphorical.” (A Blue Fire, pp. 20-1.) For Plotkin, “The Soul is a person’s unique purpose or identity, a mythopoetic identity, something much deeper than personality or socio-vocational role, an identity revealed and expressed through symbol and metaphor, image and dream, archetype and myth.” (Wild Mind, p. 13.) Plotkin elaborates, “By soul, I mean a thing’s ultimate place in the world. I use the word thing to embrace the fact that every thing has a particular place in the world and therefore has a soul—all creatures, objects, events, and relationships. …By place, I mean not a geographical location but the role, function, station, or status a thing has in relation to other things. …A thing’s ‘ultimate place’ is its place in the great scheme of things, its quintessential place in the world or the universe…[which] corresponds to the set of” innumerable “relationships that this thing has with all other things in the world.” With the term ultimate place, “we are calling attention to the very core or heart of a thing’s identity, its decisive meaning or significance, its raison d’etre. …The human soul is a person’s ultimate place in the more-than-human world.” (Nature and the Human Soul, pp. 30-1).

[2] James Hillman, ed. Glen Slater, Senex & Puer (Putnam, CT: Spring Publications, 2013), vii.

[3] Terry Patten interview with Bill Plotkin on Beyond Awakening 3/23/14, http://beyondawakeningseries.com/people/bill_plotkin.php

[4] Bill Plotkin, Nature and the Human Soul (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2008), 2.

[5] Bill Plotkin, Wild Mind (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2013), 2

[6] James Hillman, ed. Thomas Moore, A Blue Fire (New York: Harper & Row, 1989), 50.

[7] C.G. Jung, Collected Works Vol. 8, para. 618

[8] C.G. Jung, Collected Works Vol. 13, para. 299, 62

[9] James Hillman, Re-Visioning Psychology (New York: HarperCollins, 1975), 23.

[10] Bill Plotkin, Nature and the Human Soul (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2008), 56

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