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An Interview With James Hollis

James Hollis

James Hollis, Ph. D. is Executive Director of the Jung Center of Houston, TX, a practicing Jungian Analyst, and author of eleven books, including the most recent Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life: How to Finally, Really Grow Up.

Why is Jungian psychology so dominant today? Why is Freud in eclipse? Is there any relationship between Jung and the higher (spiritual) reaches of human nature?
We err to dismiss Freud, for as Auden reminds us, he became “a climate of opinion.” He helped shape a psychological Weltanschauung which is now so thoroughly absorbed as to be a central stream of modernism. The presumption of the unconscious, the idea of repression, resistance, projection, and sublimation, and many other ideas retain their usefulness. But in the end, Freud’s view was too narrowly tied to biology, and to a reductive view of the psyche and its purposes. Jung, apart from contributing such ideas as complex, personality typology, anima, animus, archetype and individuation, speaks to a broader range of human experience, including the social and the spiritual. His view of psyche as teleological opens the way to a developmental agenda in which our spirituality transcends even the biological. We are homo religiosus—so what does that mean, and how is life to be lived in the presence of mystery? Another way I put it is: in the first half of life the prevailing question is, “what does the world want of me”? To answer this question ego and social development are obligatory. However, in the second half of life, the question is, “what does the soul (Grk. psyche) want of me”? Whoever does not address this question, submit the ego to transcendent claim, will be brought unwilling to it sooner or later. So, in short, Jung speaks to more of us, in deeper ways, and raises questions which challenge us, and open us to greater depths.
After one becomes integrated, then what?
This is not really a question which should trouble us, for we are never integrated. That fantasy is like wading into the Pacific and believing we could encompass the ocean. There are ever more unconscious or dissociated parts of the individual psyche than consciousness could ever integrate. This fantasy that we can is an old ploy of the ego to reassert its nervous sovereignty, sort of like believing that I could order up a certain kind of dream tonight. The psyche will pay no attention to my ego whatsoever but will go about its own agenda. Similarly, I need not worry about achieving individuation, for there will always be internal and external powers which obstruct the fullest expression of my being. We may look to historic models such as the Buddha or the Christ as illustrations of wholeness achieved, but how many Buddhas or Christs do we have in our midst?
Where are we going as a species? What of Iraq?
I have no idea. As a child I believed, hoped I would learn enough to figure it all out, but I am no longer a child and am daily impressed with my ignorance. For every advance in civilization, and I speak on the moral front, such as the rights of children and minorities, we also see new atrocities, new descents into barbarism. Read Dostoevski’s Notes from Underground for the best answers to this question. He mocked the pretensions of the Crystal Palace and the meliorist theorists of his day, and pointed to our innate perversity, our tendency to make a mess of things when we can; moreover, he celebrated this perversity as our most precious quality, that which kept us from being turned into calibrated, programmed piano keys. To read our future, read Notes from Underground. As for national policies, all I can do is vote, and read history. The hinge of our history has already turned, although, amid the cacophony of contentious campaigns, not many heard its sound. The American empire is already in decline for it has lost the spiritual high ground which it once held. Many will still want to take advantage of our material, health, scientific, and educational advantages, but fewer and fewer admire us, want to be like us. We may still have a hand in their wallets, but we have lost the vote of their hearts.
Can societies be analyzed like individuals? Can they be helped through analysis?
Any group is the sum of its participants, the sum of their complexes and projections, and is burdened by all that is unconscious within them all. This is why group behavior can be herded, cajoled, threatened, channeled. Much that we know about the individual does apply to the group as well but we are also at the mercy of whether or not leadership has the will, strength, and desire to be conscious. Too often leadership is comprised of those most driven, least secure, most owned by the unconscious to have the wherewithal to examine themselves. We still wait for philosopher kings, as Plato wished. At the same time, I have spent my entire life in some form of public education, as student, professor, administrator, writer. Believing that education and communication really matters is one of those “useful fictions” which has given, and continues to give, my life a great deal of direction and meaning.
As science continues to map the brain and increasingly explain human behavior in chemical terms, how does analysis adjust? Does it threaten the assumptions of analysis?
This question places analysis in the position that theology has so often occupied, namely defending its increasingly narrow isthmus against the onslaught of scientific discovery. But this is a false dilemma. The modern analyst fully understands the biological nature of such phenomena as schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder, and endogenous depression, and works in conjunction with the pharmacologist when appropriate. If a person suffers from diabetes, we should not assume that he or she does not also have psychological issues with which to struggle, and the problem of meaning to unravel in uniquely personal terms. One of the key areas in which this issue shows up is in the need for increased sophistication in the differential diagnosis of depression. There is endogenous, or biologically based depression, reactive depression to outer loss, and intra-psychic depression deriving from the blunting of the developmental energies of the person. One may in any given moment suffer from all three. Differentiating their treatment, perhaps utilizing medication when appropriate, with supportive therapy, allied with a thoroughgoing analysis of the psychological journey, is not a contradiction but a summons to see the whole person.
Can one “self-analyze” by reading and learning, or is the role of analyst critical?
As a chronic, compulsive reader, I have learned much about the world, and, sometimes, something about myself. But there is much more which any ego resists which can only be brought to light through a deepened conversation with the Other, both the Other which lies within, and the Other which stands without. As the classical imagination rightly observed, we all have a tendency to privilege the contents of the ego in service to our security (this they called hybris) and a tendency to view the world through the colored lens granted us by fate (this they called the hamartia) and end by deceiving ourselves. In other words, we do not know enough to know that we do not know enough until we hit a wall with enough force to oblige us, reluctantly, to become more conscious. This is always experienced as humbling. Sustained dialogue amid the constant care and critical eye of the other is critical to that dialectic which enlarges us even when the continuing tendency of the ego would keep things contained. The engagement with the other, whether without or within, causes us to grow, whether we like it or not.
You state that the goal of life is not happiness, but meaning. How would you define meaning?
There is nothing wrong with happiness, but as we all know, it is ephemeral, conditional, and contextual. Flushed and bloated as our culture is on material possessions, which could only be dreamt by our ancestors, we are still listless, bored, depressed, and addictively in search of escalated diversion. If all that we have made us happy, as a steady state, we would see it. What is it we wish to be distracted from? What is missing is a deep sense of purpose. We can obtain all that we seek and still feel deracinated, aimless, and dispirited unless we feel that we stand in relationship to something which is transcendent to the vagaries of the moment.
For some this will be found in nature, for others in relational moments, for others in their work, their creativity, their suffering—or all of the above. Meaning is experienced when we are pulled deeply into something, perhaps more deeply than is comfortable. Meaning is experienced as a resonance, something within which resonates in the encounter—this is not something which can be willed up by ego. Meaning is experienced when we are stretched and enlarged. This is why meaning often comes out of our visits to the savannahs of suffering even more than the palace of pleasure. Meaning always involves engagement with mystery—the mystery which arises out of depth, out of the radical other, out of vasty bounds of being.
What authors do you like to read?
This has to be the short list, for reading has always been a great joy. I might even go so far as to subscribe to that aphorism of Logan Piersall Smith: “Some say life is the thing, but I prefer reading.” Among the poets, Rilke and Yeats are never ending sources of pleasure, along with Dylan Thomas, Wallace Stevens, and Eliot. Among contemporaries, Stephen Dunn, Edward Hirsch, Tony Hoagland. Among other favorites, I would have to include Kierkegaard, Camus, Kafka, Nietzsche. The major moderns still bring delight and insight, for we still live with those issues. I read psychology out of a sense of duty, but read poetry and history for the sake of the soul.
Are you writing a new book?
I have just published Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life, which is the first time I have tried to mainstream some of the ideas of the previous books. And I have begun another book tentatively titled Dark Selves: Shadow Engagements in Personal and Public Life. As I work half-time as an administrator, half-time as an analyst, and travel on many weekends, it is difficult to find time to write. But nothing brings greater sense of satisfaction that to see what alchemy arises from the screen when one is willing to submit one’s tired body and diverted soul to it.
Know any Jungian psychology jokes?
Everyday is a joke, if I remember to laugh. I do think of two cartoons I have at my desk. One shows an analyst explaining archetypes and individuation in the first panel. In the second panel he is asked what that means and he says, “I have no idea.” The other cartoon shows an analyst being asked if he has ever cured anybody. “Not that I know of,” he replies.

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