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December 24, 2005

The Soul's Code

The Soul's Code is my first book by James Hillman, so if you've read him before you'll understand and excuse my enthusiasm. This book has come extraordinarily highly recommended, but I've put it off for some time, needing more relaxing and escapist reading. However, I plunged in this last week and though it has taken more effort than Hawthorne's travel journals, it certainly pays off.

The book is about how we find a calling, or rather, how a calling finds us. Hillman investigates this topic by exploring how life's connection with beauty, but he does this in an extraordinarily ambitious manner and trumpets about it in the first chapter.

By psychology's "mortal sin", I mean the sin of deadening, the dead feeling that comes over us when we read professional psychology, hear its language, the voice with which it drones, the bulk of its textbooks, the serious pretensions and headed proclamations of new "findings" that could hardly be more banal, its soothing anodynes for self-help, its decor, its fashion, its departmental meetings, and tis tranquilizing consulting rooms, those stagnant waters where the soul goes to be restored, a last refuge of white-bread culture, stale, crustless, but ever spongy with rebounding hope.

So, Hillman is setting out to write a book that speaks to us, using common language, while restoring familiar ideas and highly useful concepts that have been abandoned by modern psychology.

This is a psychology book without the word "problem". Little mention of "ego", of "consciousness" and none of "experience"! I have also tried to prevent the most pernicious term of all, "self", from creeping into my paragraphs. This word has a big mouth. It could have swallowed into its capacious limitlessness and without a trace all the more specific personifications such as "genius", "angel", "daimon", and "fate".

I have just penetrated the first several chapters, which aren't tough to understand, but I did find myself pleasantly distracted by Hillman's unusually expressive writing style. Sometimes, these descriptions are so good they lead to reflection in themselves, which will cause a break while trying to follow Hillman's own argument. No matter. These breaks are worth the lost time I've spent reacquainting myself with Hillman's train of thought and getting back into the chapter.

For instance, early on he discusses the various myths and religious stories which suggest we have a purpose that is somehow already planted in us at birth or before. Christianity and Judaism are central, but Buddhism and even Plato have been used to show that these ideas are familiar and natural to other cultures, both ancient and modern. Then he throws in this beautiful illustration:

According to another Jewish legend, the evidence for this forgetting of the soul's prenatal election is pressed right into your upper lip. That little crevice below your nose is where the angel pressed its forefinger to seal your lips. That little indentation is all that is left to remind you of your preexistent soul-life with the daimon, and so, as we conjure up an insight or a lost thought, our fingers go up to that significant dent.

Beautiful, isn't it?

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December 14, 2005

How To Catch Nature Unaware

I found this entry in the American Notebooks a while back. I remembered it today when looking up from my work at the world outside my window.


I have before now experienced, that the best way to get a vivid impression and feeling of a landscape, is to sit down before it and read, or become otherwise absorbed in thought; for then, when your eyes happen to be attracted to the landscape, you seem to catch Nature unaware, and see her before she has time to change her aspect. The effect lasts ut for a single instant, and passes away almost as soon as you are conscious of it; but it is real, for that moment. It is as if you could overhear and understand what the trees are whispering to one another; as if you caught a glimpse of a face unveiled, which veils itself from every willful glance. The mystery is revealed, and after a breath or two, becomes as much of a mystery as before. I caught one such glimpse, this forenoon, though not so perfectly as sometimes.

Nathaniel Hawthorne
Friday, August 15, 1851

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December 12, 2005

The Crookedness of Rue St. Denis

...again from Hawthorne's journal of his visit to Paris in 1858:


Thence we turned into the Rue St. Denis, which is one of the oldest streets in Paris, and is said to have been first marked out by the track of the saint's footsteps, where, after his martyrdom, he walked along it, with his head under his arm, in quest of a burial-place. This legend may account for the crookedness of the street; for it could not reasonably be asked of a headless man that he should walk straight.

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December 11, 2005

Harold Pinter's acceptance speech

Probably the most impressive piece of writing I've looked at this whole week has been Harold Pinter's acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in Literature this year. If you haven't seen it, read it here.

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December 07, 2005

Hawthorne on Paris, January 1858

I'm reading through Nathaniel Hawthorne's travel journal entitled "French and Italian Notebooks". He's just arrived in Paris and is summarizing a quick trip where he saw the major landmarks.

A great part of this architectural splendor is due to the present Emperor, who has wrought a great change in the aspect of the city within a very few years. A traveller, if he looks at things selfishly, out to wish him a long reign and arbitrary power, since he makes it his policy to illustrate his capital with palatial edifices, which are, however, better for a stranger to look at, than for his own people to pay for.

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