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Talk of the Town - Archetypal advice April 22 2000

Bricolage challenges us to make new possibilities

I was a little surprised by your somewhat negative reporting of James Hillman's lectures in Santa Barbara. You seemed to be saying that there's an awful lot he won't look at even though you described him as a bricoleur - a "cobbler of the imagination" who pulls a lot together from different places. Can you expand on that idea?

I received more than a few e-mails about the column on Hillman. I think the practice of "bricolage" is both the source of Hillman's genius and his shortcomings. It also connects to the question of whether to situate him among the so-called postmodern thinkers.

The granddaddy of (postmodern) deconstruction, Jacques Derrida, speaks of bricolage as fundamental to his sense of "play." You take an idea from here, you take another from there, you put them together and you don't worry about the whole systems from which they were taken. What is gained - at least in my opinion - are some fascinating insights that do not arise in a more linear argument. What is sacrificed is the world of formal logic and predictability, the meta-narrative that explains everything - if life can be said ever to operate that way. Hillman, like many self-proclaimed postmoderns (including Roland Barthes and even Jacques Lacan), points to a kind of poetic knowing and sensing. Their own fascinating insights are the best proof of their claim.

Now, of course, the bricoleur by definition can ignore what disinterests him, as Hillman does with the question of gender. That's the main thing about postmodern thinking: It abandons any faith in meta-narratives. Most of us want a philosophy that coheres in every respect, covers everything. Hillman, like the postmoderns, says that's not possible - but then he gives us a platonic meta-narrative of the daimon, a personification of destiny, to explain nearly everything. As such he's an anti-bricoleur, in the sense that R.D. Laing was an anti-therapist. It's bricolage but not bricolage. Maddening!

A sticky problem with bricolage in Hillman's work, frankly, is the question of attribution. If you read the work of Henry Corbin and Gaston Bachelard, you find the genesis of nearly everything he writes and frankly I often feel he doesn't give enough credit in that respect. Similarly, when he riffs about the virtue of bricolage, it seems odd to me that he doesn't reference Derrida. In fact, he holds himself outside this tradition. That is why I wrote recently that calling him a postmodern in a formal sense is problematic.

But, in the end, no matter how you classify Hillman or object to the way he refuses to take up gender, what counts is the radiance of his insights. As a method, Hillman's bricolage - like Derrida's - challenges us to play with all our simple assumptions about ourselves and the world. By just playing with the idea a thing may not be as we assume it to be, we make new worlds of possibilities for ourselves.

Your column about the way your mother cruelly called you Charlie Brown struck a chord with me. But don't all children have difficult relationships with their parents?

Yes, I think so and I hope nobody read that column as an attack on my mother, whom I came to love eventually. I think my situation may have been a little unique in that the lines of battle between us were drawn so clearly so early. There is that wonderful scene in the film Magnolia, when the gifted boy wakes his father and tells him that he needs to begin treating him with more respect. The father naturally dismisses him. What's important is not whether the father's going to change - parents seldom do until late in life - but that the kid realizes he's not the problem, that the father has the problem. I had something of that same experience with my mother and I think the knowledge saved me from an even more neurotic fate.

Now, more generally, I think your comment addresses the question of how we regard children in our culture. I wish every psychologist would read George Boas' little book The Cult of Childhood (Spring Publications, 1966). Boas argues the notion that childhood is a state of innocence and superiority is a myth that arose as part of the valorization of "cultural primitivism."

In other words, as the myth of the noble savage died, all those qualities invested in him moved to children, who actually often were regarded as "little devils" prior to the change. Among these alleged perfections, that still persist in our imaginations, are: intuitive wisdom, a natural appreciation of beauty and an innate sensitivity to moral values. Jean Jacques Rousseau certainly brought this idea into its fullest flower in the 18th century and it was fully adopted by everyone from Wordsworth to Victor Hugo, Emerson and Blake. Interestingly, it arose as the natural sciences came into flower. And it migrated to the new study of psychology (which is rooted in romanticism). Boas contends that, having re-visioned the child from demon to angel, we had to invent a new set of demons: the forces of the unconscious.

Although I think Boas may omit a lot from his analysis, it has great merit. The wave of violence we are seeing among children now is a direct refutation of the myth of the innocent child at the mercy of civilization. No matter how much some psychologists would like to explain the violence as the result of poor parenting, everyone intuits deeply that it's a poor explanation for murder.

Perhaps the violence is instead a result of the failure to accord children respect for their actual natures - complex, haunted, angelic, cruel, sweet, demonic. Of course, the terrible irony is that when you expect a human being to behave as an angel, his transgressions become all the more reprehensible and intolerable, in this case giving rise to rampant child abuse - punishment for the child's failure to live up to his fictional nature. In that way, parenting does become significant.

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