Three Books for the Writer Self – 1) The Soul’s Code

Meaning is invisible, but the invisible is not contradictory of the visible:
the visible itself has an invisible inner framework, and the invisible is
the secret counterpart of the visible.

—M. Merleau-Ponty, Working Notes

The full name of the book The Soul’s Code by famed depth psychologist James Hillman is The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling. It might simply have been called The Acorn. The reason will become more obvious as we go on.

But first I want to refer to an image this book arouses, which it nowhere mentions: the medicine bag.

I like the Wikipedia definition, which is all that online resource says about it: “A medicine bag is usually a small pouch, worn by some Indigenous peoples of the Americas, that contains sacred items. A personal medicine bag may contain objects that symbolize personal well-being and tribal identity. Traditionally, medicine bags are worn under the clothing. Their contents are private, and often of a personal and religious nature.”

My medicine bag, so to speak, is not worn under my clothes, but lined up on the edge of the desktop computer case near where I write. I won’t go into the intricate details and significance of all the little items arrayed there, but I will mention a couple so as to illustrate what this image means to me.

The first is a brass-cased compass which belonged to my father. It looks like a small pocket watch, with the stem acting as a clasp release for the cover. On the outside of that cover is inscribed “C.S. Bristol” for my father Charles Stephen. It must have been given to him as a gift some time in his younger life.

The compass rose

Opened, the compass rose and the shivering needle are quite pleasant to look at. A compass can be, to me especially as a former surveyor, quite a symbolic object. And it connects me to my father, whom I never really knew, as a reminder of that mystery and all the metaphorical directions our lives have taken.

The second is a simple acorn, nicely formed, which I picked out of the dirt in a neglected street area under small oak trees. (This was long before I read Hillman’s book.)

I like to hold it, weigh it in my hand, and think about its invisible power – its potential to grow into a mighty oak.

And that brings us back to Hillman and his book. The Merleau-Ponty quote above comes from what Hillman calls “Epigraphs in Lieu of a Preface.”

The very first chapter is entitled “In a Nutshell: The Acorn Theory and the Redemption of Psychology.” As someone who took on a degree in psychology in my university years, I may be more sensitive than some about the extent to which Hillman proposes overturning accepted knowledge, and cultural assumptions, about the nature of our beings.

My interest in this book took on two aspects. The first was the possibility of better insight into creating characters for the novels I’m writing. I’ve been disappointed in many of the formulations in writing craft books about that. The second snuck up on me, and became equal and maybe more than the first: what patterns can I discern, make sense of, in my own life at 70 years of age.

An innate image

To put it most succinctly, what Hillman claims is this: We have within us an “innate image.”

“That innate image can’t be found, however, until we have a psychological theory that grants primary psychological reality to the call of fate.”

He says that otherwise we are robbed of our true biography, the destiny written into our acorn.

Of course this raises many questions and objections, and we can take a look below at how Hillman meets some of them.

James Hillman

But one feature of this perspective that rings true off the top is:

“Today’s main paradigm for understanding a human life, the interplay of genetics and environment, omits something essential—the particularity you feel to be you. … The more my life is accounted for by what already occurred in my chromosomes, by what my parents did or didn’t do, and by my early years now long past, the more my biography is the story of a victim.”

To summarize in Hillman’s words:

“This book is about calling, about fate, about character, about innate image. Together they make up the ‘acorn theory,’ which holds that each person bears a uniqueness that asks to be lived and that is already present before it can be lived.”

Hillman traces this idea back to Plato and Plotinus. The Romans spoke of one’s genius, the Greeks, of the daimon.

Where did that genius go, anyway?

Until the late 1800s anyway, this kind of understanding was active in what would eventually become our own culture. Ralph Waldo Emerson often wrote of a person’s genius, as in:

“Ah, that our Genius were a little more of a genius! A man must thank his defects and stand in some terror of his talents.”

But this whole notion, even of a soul, has fallen into disfavour in psychology and philosophy. When, outside of religious institutions where old words are mouthed, does the concept “soul” come up seriously any more?

As Hillman notes:

“The concept of this individualized soul-image has a long, complicated history; its appearance in cultures is diverse and widespread and the names for it are legion. Only our contemporary psychology and psychiatry omit it from their textbooks.”

It is sobering to consider how much of our lives are invisible. Our relationships constantly cope with the unseen realities of the other. Everything that matters, really, is embedded in the invisible: the interaction between people creating music, the force that brings out the new green in the spring, the internal fountain out of which come our dreams, the space between the feeling and the word written.

But in our culture, the invisibles tend to be marginalized and overlooked.

Hillman’s claim is that this idea of our fate as acorn, as inborn pattern, is a kind of myth, which like all myths, rests in these invisibles.

Embedded in a mythical reality

“The acorn is not embedded in me, like a pacemaker in my heart, but rather I am embedded in a mythical reality of which the acorn is but my particular and very small portion.”

Hillman argues for an essence beyond either nature or nurture, these categories which are the comfortable habit of our minds, of how we’ve been taught. Anything else in our mechanistic world view is just about inconceivable.

“The remarkable singularity of individuals, the differences among the billions of persons, even between newborn babies, siblings, identical twins, as well as those raised in the same circumstances and subject to the same influences—these facts ask for answers to the question of uniqueness.”

He discusses in considerable detail the limitations of nature and nurture, and what else there might be. But this is the gist of it.

He gives many examples of extraordinary people whose unique acorn developed into greatness. For one, he gives the example of the philosopher John Stuart Mill. He never attended school. Educated at home by his father, he began learning Greek at three and Latin at eight, and by fourteen had read most of the major ancient texts in the original.

As another, he describes the case of journalist Dorothy Thompson from the early part of the 1900s.

The juvenile Thompson, after slapping her sister, was locked by her minister father in a closet and forced eventually to memorize great chunks of literature, including the sonnets of Shakespeare, entire chapters of the Bible, much of Wordsworth’s Leaves of Grass, and the entire U.S. Constitution.

How Hillman describes this gives a good sense of his outlook. His view is that the acorn develops in its idiosyncratic way as a result of the conflicts and imposed limitations of the family and a person’s environment, and is not caused by them.

“The kind of punishment, though decreed by her father and decidedly cruel and unusual by today’s educational standards, seems to have been chosen by her own protective daimon, who had, of course, anyway selected that particularly literary father. The memorizing of texts fit the pattern of her life of writing….”

The parental fallacy

He particularly dissects what he calls the “parental fallacy” as the source of blame for our psychological conflicts, reactions and churnings.

“The parental fallacy, with all its accompanying jargon about bad double-binding mothers or seductive smothering mothers, and also about absent or possessive and punitive fathers, so rules the explanations of eminence that its jargon determines the way we tell the stories of our own lives.”

He asks, “What is the connection, if any, between the parental imagination—by “parent” I always mean the immediate, intimate caretaker of a child—and the child’s acorn? How do the parents imagine the child?”

He claims that the child’s acorn needs the parents’ fantasy about who they are and will become, if only to form itself by reacting against it.

“The family fantasy that has a child typed and pinned and wriggling on the wall forces fateful choices on the heart, choices to find another kind of fantasy, anywhere.”

Ok, so how bound by this “acorn” are we? We naturally resent anything that seeks to bind us, and this idea of a fated pattern for our life seems to do so.

Hillman quotes Plotinus:

“But if the soul chooses its daimon and chooses its life, how have we still any power of decision?”

How fatalistic should we be?

But Hillman’s idea of fate does not require the ideology of fatalism.

“So it is better to imagine fate as a momentary ‘intervening variable.’ The Germans use the term Augenblicksgott for a minor divinity that passes in the blink of an eye and has a momentary effect. The religious might speak of an intercessionary angel. Rather than a constant companion who walks with you and talks with you and holds your hand through all the crises of the day, fate intervenes at odd and unexpected junctions, gives a sly wink or big shove.”

Later, he says:

“The acorn acts less as a personal guide with a sure long-term direction than as a moving style, an inner dynamic that gives the feeling of purpose to occasions. You get the feeling of importance: This supposedly trivial moment is significant, while this supposedly major event doesn’t matter that much.”

The Bad Seed

Hillman devotes an entire chapter to “The Bad Seed,” when the daimonic turns demonic. This is shorthand for the pathologies of some people, ranging from serial killers to those figures who incite whole populations to evil. He spends a lot of time examining Hitler, and reflecting on the nature of that man’s disastrous genius.

Character is fate. Hillman notes the facets of Hitler’s character that helped lead to his rise: a cold heart, a fascination with the destructive nature of fire (think of night marches with fiery torches), identification with wolf symbology, anality (for one, constantly giving himself enemas), attraction to self-destructive women (six of whom either attempted or successfully committed suicide), attraction to freaks (the misshapen, the disfigured and the abnormal), and a complete lack of a sense of humour.

And then, absolute certainty and utter conviction.

Hillman asks the important question: If Hitler monstrously exemplifies the Bad Seed, could future Hitlers be prevented?

“Without a profound sense of psychopathy and a strong conviction that the demonic is always among us—and not only in its extreme criminal forms—we hide in denial and wide-eyed innocence, that openness which also opens wide the gate to the worst.”

His remedy:

“So thwarting the Bad Seed begins with a theory that gives it full recognition. That’s what this chapter, this book, is all about. So long as our theories deny the daimon as instigator of human personality, and instead insist upon brain construction, societal conditions, behavioral mechanisms, genetic endowment, the daimon will not go gently into obscurity. It drives toward the light; it will be seen; it asks for its place in the sun.”

A call to mediocrity

Hillman also examines mediocrity, a subject which brings a lot of his book closer to my ken, and my reality.

“Let’s first acknowledge that snobbish prejudices are packed into the term ‘mediocre.'” But to Hillman, no soul is mediocre, rightly understood.

“Many are called, few are chosen; many have talent, few have the character that can realize the talent. Character is the mystery, and it is individual.” He cites the interviews of Studs Terkel, who found uniqueness in those likely deemed among the mediocre and common by society.

Is there a call to mediocrity? Hillman gives four possible answers: 1) No, only stars have angels, 2) Yes, most of us have missed our true magnificent calling due to outside influences blocking us, 3) Yes, the acorn developed into a corn on our feet, a sore point: one has stumbled around, never quite finding the true path. But:

4) “For many the call is to keep the light under a bushel, to be in service to the middle way, to join the rank-and-file. It is the call to human harmony. It refuses to identify individuality with eccentricity. The calling stays through life and guides it in subtle ways and into less dramatic forms than we witness in exemplary figures such as those presented in this book. All are called; never mind the chosen few.”

Hillman is most interested in this fourth way of looking at this question. “Character forms a life regardless of how obscurely that life is lived and how little light falls on it from the stars.”

He goes on: “Calling becomes a calling to life, rather than imagined in conflict with life. Calling to honesty rather than to success, to caring and mating, to service and struggle for the sake of living. This view …offers another idea of calling altogether, in which life is the work.”

Lightly touched

I’ve lightly touched on some of the thought-provoking ideas provided in this book. It certainly challenges our normal view of the nature of people and ourselves. Some of what Hillman says I struggle with, but it all bears reflection. I think that sometimes even he is not quite sure how to best articulate his vision of the acorn.

On the two matters that brought me to this book in the first place, I found it fruitful.

For thinking about deep characterization in novel writing, his viewpoint allows for thinking about the characters I devise in ways well beyond the superficial. I need to show about them what they love, what they’ve lost, what they fear, and what their calling may be, even unknown to themselves.

For myself, examining the pattern of my own life, I come to no firm conclusion, but to reflect upon it may be this book’s main gift to me. I feel called to write, in the forms I can manage. That’s all I can say.

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Note: This is the first of three posts following Three Books for the Writer Self – Introduction.

Explore posts in the same categories: Awareness, Book Review, Culture, fiction, Heroes, mystery, Novel, psychology, Transcendentalists, Writing

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2 Comments on “Three Books for the Writer Self – 1) The Soul’s Code”

  1. MDW Says:

    Happy New Year. Glad to see you are still writing and posting. I’ve had a lot going on and haven’t posted much.

    Having a hard science background and not psychology, a lot of this stuff is over my head. I have a feeling though that it relates well to the question of whether artificial intelligence will ever be able to create art.

    Personally I think that art is a uniquely human activity governed perhaps by each person’s inner ‘acorn’. Machines may be able to create things that look like art based on being trained on previous works created by humans. They may get good enough to fool us sometimes, but blindly mashing up previous examples is not really art. The great artists all have a unique vision and voice inside them that they express to viewers through their works. Art is an expression of their humanity.

  2. fencer Says:

    Hi Mark,

    Good to hear from you!

    Without a body and its sensorium, it will be most difficult to create art deserving of the term. AI doesn’t really have a “mind” either, although as you indicate, it may be programmed to give that illusion.

    Humans are easily influenced to believe whatever, even in defiance of their own perception.

    Hope we have a better year this year!

    Regards


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