Back in November 1990 I traveled from Florida to Washington D.C. to hear James Hillman deliver a daylong talk about viewing the environment through the eyes of the soul.
The attendees were an eclectic group–wild-eyed Hillman fans (like me), including a man behind me who made a joke about Pico della Mirandola that only Hillman’s readers would have understood–and others drawn by the topic who had no idea who this guy Hillman was.
While waiting for the seminar to begin, I started a conversation with the woman on my right. She was a member of the “Who’s Hillman?” group–an ardent environmentalist who, I discovered, had originally set out to be a Shaw scholar.
I gasped. I asked who her dissertation advisor had been, sure that it would be a name I recognized. We Shavians are a small community.
Norbert O’Donnell, she told me.
I gasped again. “He was my advisor’s advisor!”
“Dick Dietrich! Your advisor is Dick Dietrich!”
She was right.
Just as we were marveling over the coincidence, Hillman arrived. A hush fell over the room.
He was accompanied by a woman I’d never heard of–Suzi Gablik, author of Has Modernism Failed? Hillman, just getting over the flu, had discovered that she was a presenter at the conference and asked if they could co-present. She started her presentation by recalling what a thrill it had been to receive a fan letter from Hillman a year or so earllier.
(Sigh. A fan letter from Hillman–there could be no greater honor.)
Then Hillman began his talk, brilliantly arguing for a strong connection between soul, psychology, and the larger world.
When we took our first break that morning, I started hunting for a water fountain. Why was my mouth so dry? Suddenly I realized that I’d been sitting the whole time with my mouth open. Maybe that’s why Hillman kept looking at me.
Later that day I talked to him briefly and asked him to autograph my copy of Insearch, explaining that his book had been the first step back to sanity during a rough patch in my life. He was both gracious and not at all surprised by my fervent testimonial. I imagine that he’d heard similar stories many times.
It was an extraordinary day on many levels. Hillman, I discovered, was human. That should not have surprised me, of course, but it did. I had devoured so many of his books that it was astonishing to see, for example, that he had written some last-minute notes on the bedside pad from his hotel room.
Another surprise–totally unexpected–was Suzi Gablik, an artist and author who espoused a Marxist theory of art. I’d come to hear Hillman–she was there only to lighten the load for him. But as she spoke, I started to get the feeling that I’d heard it all before. Gradually the realization began to dawn that Shaw–whose youthful Marxist activities had largely been ignored by scholars–had a thoroughly Marxist brain. I went on to become the first Shavian to argue that Shaw’s postmodern thinking was strongly influenced by Marx’s writing.
It was almost as if some invisible hand had guided me to that meeting room that morning. And that idea–we are all shaped by an unfolding destiny–is hugely important to Hillman’s thought (see, for example, his bestselling book The Soul’s Code).
Hillman bantered with the seminar attendees, joked, listened, and cared. It was an extraordinary day that I have thought about over and over in the years since that November day in Washington, D.C., when I met James Hillman for the first and only time.