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The American way 

Planning without imagination creates deliberate cruelty

It was undoubtedly the New Age guru Deepak Chopra who pulled a crowd of more than 1,000 to Glenn Memorial Chapel at Emory last Tuesday night. But it was the lesser known James Hillman who drew the most applause.

I regard Hillman, who founded archetypal psychology, as my mentor. My doctoral dissertation is about his psychology and I have attended many classes and seminars with him. He has a habit of exploding angrily now and then and, I confess, I thought that might happen in his dialogue with Chopra, who represents, in many ways, the antithesis of Hillman's thinking.

The topic of their public conversation, moderated by Jean Houston, was "War, Peace and the American Imagination." It was sponsored by the local Mythic Imagination Institute and Chopra's Alliance for a New Humanity.

The difference between the two men was well demonstrated during a high-minded riff by Chopra about the definition of peace in Hindu terms. Hillman interrupted, gesturing downward, saying, "I'd like to come back down to the subject of the diabolical imagination." It prompted a return to a subject they had been discussing, but it was also indicative of how Hillman deals more with the here and now while Chopra concerns himself with the transcendental. Or, in their terms, Hillman stands for the soul and Chopra represents the spirit.

The "diabolical imagination" was Hillman's term for the misdirection of the American imagination. During his opening remarks, he described the "tragic horror" of the nation's involvement in Iraq and the scene in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. "When we plan but we don't imagine, deliberate cruelty results," he said. It is only by imagining that we can grasp the lasting consequences of any plan we make, he said, citing both the abandonment of the poor in New Orleans and the notorious torture of Iraqis by Americans at Abu Ghraib.

"Americans are very good at planning, command, control and fact gathering," Hillman argued. "But facts don't take us to the essence of experience ... to our hearts. Only the imagination does that."

The particular failure in Iraq, Hillman said, is the American refusal to imagine "what is in the heart of the insurgents." He argued that the American presence -- embodied by the heavily armed, uniformed soldiers -- is a literal aesthetic affront to the Iraqis. Rather than try to imagine how our presence affects others, Americans are "addicted to not wanting to know." He cited as an example President Bush, who proudly doesn't read newspapers and displayed his ignorance during the Hurricane Katrina crisis.

Hillman also argued that the impulse to go to war is inherent in human nature and that the most we can do is "put leashes on the dogs of war." He quoted Foucault's statement that war involves "a maximum of intensity and a maximum of impossibility." He described the intensity as literal love, especially among soldiers, who often write that they have felt most alive in the impossible, deadly circumstances of battle. (The poet Walt Whitman also observed this.)

In his opening talk, Chopra said he was surprised to see how much he agreed with Hillman ... and then disputed him. He argued that America does engage its imagination fully, but in destructive ways, such as the development of the neutron bomb, which can kill humans without disturbing other organisms or physical structures. He argued, convincingly, that human beings have been on the planet a short time and that their disappearance would "not matter to nature," so that our survival depends on a radical transformation of consciousness. He described humanity's circumstances as a "phase transition," a period of chaos that may or may not precede an evolutionary leap. "We can't assume anything," he said.

At that point, Hillman qualified his statement about America's lacking imagination to say that Chopra was describing the "diabolical imagination," which results when the creative imagination is not engaged. He said the positive imagination has been largely killed by the failure of schools to educate children in the arts, so that the imagination, like anything of value the psyche represses, gets expressed in destructive ways. Besides the literal Abu Ghraib example, he noted the popularity of conspiracy theories. They demonstrate the way facts get woven into paranoid fantasies rather than the truth. Chopra agreed.

In Hillman's psychology, "archetypes" are aspects of the psyche common to the human experience. Conducting war is archetypal. In one of the evening's most intriguing moments, an audience member asked Hillman if the archetypes are "evolving." Hillman has long rejected the notion that civilization is always evolving, since history is full of cases of entire cultures regressing. He told the man he had no idea if the archetypes were evolving and then, true to his psychoanalytical background, asked the man why the question was important to him.

The man replied that if they are evolving, he has hope.

Hillman told the man that he could choose to believe whatever has the most fruitful effect on his life, but, he said, "It's no good to be wishful. ... We shouldn't leave this room hoping and wishing. We should leave struggling. We are in deep shit."

Cliff Bostock holds a Ph.D. in depth psychology.

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