BOOK REVIEW: James Hillman: Suicide and the Soul

1964, Revised 1976, Spring Books, Texas. ISBN 0 88214 208 9.

The main strength of this thoughtful book lies in its acknowledgement that forms of belief underlie human systems, and naturally, its weakness lies in its allegiance to just one of these. Hillman compares “analysis” (by which he means Jungian Analysis) with medicine and psychiatry, theology and philosophy as systems for approaching the question of suicide and the soul. He comes to the unsurprising conclusion that only Jungian analysis is adequate to the task. However, the journey he makes toward this point is interesting and challenges many of the assumptions therapists would be likely to make about suicide. As he points out early in the book, no question is better calculated to drive one back to beliefs, rather than out into experience. He suggests this reluctance stems from our common attitudes towards death. I think he underestimates the particular horror self-inflicted death or attempted death hold over us. Nonetheless his assertion that “psychology has not paid enough attention to death” is easy to confirm and makes a stimulating starting point for his argument about the function of therapy. My unease stems simply from the fact that he does not seem to distinguish very clearly between self-inflicted and other forms of death.

The major argument of the book is that “whenever treatment directly neglects the experience as such and hastens to reduce or overcome it, something is being done against the soul”. He specifically means that he believes the prevention of suicide to be “against the soul”. However, he is scornful about the different “types” or categories of suicide that have been established, for example by Durkheim in his study of suicide. Hillman’s perspective is contrary to the sociologists’ view that suicide can be seen as a sociological phenomenon. He accuses them of “resisting the disintegrating influence of personality”. But of course , his argument is flawed because if the influence of individual personality can be disintegrating to society, it must also work the other way around and hence to confirm the sociologists’ claim that even suicide can be viewed as a supra-personal and social act. What is lacking in the sociological perspective, and what I think makes it necessary for Hillman to attack it so vehemently, is “mystery”. The whole aim of his argument is to place “analysis” in the context of religious mystery and secrecy. At the end of the book he says: “… the analytical relationship is a secret league and the analytical process is a mystery… (but) the analyst serves Apollo, and he works day and night to clarify and illuminate. He is forced to think hard and speak concisely. However, analysis teaches its practitioners how much of human life is concealed in the unconscious. If the soul is a mystery, explanations will always fall short.”

For Hillman, the therapeutic relationship is essentially a secret. He is prepared to say that the analyst should “take a soul history ” and must be a competent mythographer who will-play the “psychopompos” to the soul in despair. “The person obsessed with suicidal fantasies has not been able to experience death psychologically,” he asserts, so the analyst must enable that experience to be had. At base, this is quite a simple argument for compensatory therapy. The person has “failed to experience death psychologically” and must be enabled to do so to move on in whatever direction. What Hillman never seems to account for is the specific in human experience. He fails to comment upon, perhaps even to notice, the anger, self-hatred, guilt, conflict, etc., that surround thoughts of self-slaughter in many cases. Instead substituting the cure-all notion that souls must experience death psychologically and, I think, almost directing the analysand that way. I began to wonder what drove Mr. Hillman to this allegiance, what had made him decide on this interpretation of a particular behaviour (suicide) to the exclusion of all others? For that is what I felt he was doing. Among theories of suicide, this particular one seems narrower and less based in observation than most.

Mary Montaut