There’s never a bad time for finding wisdom that heals our wounds and helps us chart a path through the rough patches of life, but so far, 2020 seems an uncommonly rich opportunity for us to plumb wellsprings of personal growth, a time when necessity is quite the mother for all kinds of inventions and reinventions.
From his first published work, “Harold Pinter: The Poetics of Silence,” a breakthrough study of the famed playwright published in 1970, Dr. James Hollis has exhibited an uncanny ability to effortlessly synthesize disparate social, cultural, philosophical and psychological studies into cogent therapeutic tomes. Best-known for his decades-long work in the field of “depth psychology,” and a practicing Jungian therapist based in Washington, D.C., Hollis has authored more than a dozen best-selling books, while his many video lectures and interviews are widely available to those seeking more enriching alternatives to movie and TV series binging.
“Living Between Worlds” (Sounds True), which came out June 23, is a terrific place to start digging into Hollis’ sage counseling, packed as it is with his trademark bracing, no-punches-pulled observations about what he sees as the increasingly perilous state of modern life.
Hollis travels the Jungian path in his fundamental belief that modernity may have infinite comforts and distractions, but nothing can or will replace the certainty about our place in the world that disappeared in the 19th century.
“On a collective level,” Hollis writes, “our culture’s treatment plans for the absence of a personal, intimate relationship with the gods are materialism, hedonism, narcissism and nationalism, as well as a coursing nostalgia for a world that never really existed. Our contemporary Odysseys are redirected to the Apple Store, the palliative pharmacy, or forays along the River Amazon Prime. Guided by Google, whereby all things are knowable, we wonder why we are so absent-spirited, so lost, and so adrift. We may say that these secular surrogates, these ‘isms,’ constitute our values, our de facto religions, those in which we most invest our energies. But we have to ask the obvious question, ‘How well are are they working for us?’”
The short answer to that question, derived from Hollis’ 40 years as a therapist, clearly is “Not that well.”
In between his packed schedule of therapy sessions and zoom conferences, Hollis spoke with Variety from his D.C. office about his new book and his long-view of how we got to the present moment and how we might navigate our way through it, to a healthier, better, more productive place.
The pandemic has wreaked havoc on the entertainment business, but it’s also wreaking havoc on the personal lives of the people who work in this business. Your profession deals with the discomforts and disequilibration that comes with so-called “normal” times. How have things changed this year?
There’s been almost no other topic among my patients for the last few months. Productive people who are professional and mature are finding it intellectually difficult to achieve motivation. There’s a general disorientation.
What have you learned from the reactions to the pandemic that you’re seeing?
It reveals how much all of us plug into a work schedule, to our workouts, our sports and entertainments and when there are suddenly no plug-ins, we are very quickly at loose ends. Frankly, for some folks on this planet, getting up in the morning is a supreme victory.
People are more depressed?
It’s less depression and more a sense of oppression, a heaviness, a malaise. And the rush back is part of the denial system. We can fix this!
“Living Between Worlds” was written before the pandemic and upheaval, but you were already lamenting a kind of disorientation that feels very current and alarmingly accelerating.
For quite some time, people have been recognizing how their roles define them. Suddenly, when they can’t perform those roles, that directed energy tends to invert. The result, very often, is self-medication, but the truth is that people are floating around looking for any possibility. And it has accelerated, even before the pandemic, there’s no question about it. Yeats [wrote], “Things fall apart and the center cannot hold.” That was 1917.
Has this led us in some way to the current political situation?
The rapidity of change is taking us to a place where many political states are something other than benevolent. I know many people who said Trump would change once he became president, the weight of the office might curb his tendencies. But I worked with patients decades ago who were in daily contact with him. So it appears to me that he’s the same guy today that he was then. There’s no accountability, he’s not responsible to the truth or even to what he said yesterday.
So how did he become president?
His appeal is to the America that has disappeared. He’s a carny man, a showbiz guy who brags that he’s No. 1. He puts on an interesting persona. He also has a promise that appeals to many people’s deepest fears and needs and he’s very intuitive about those needs and fears.
“Living Between Worlds,” like your previous books, blends an enormously positive message about healing with some very tough observations about the way people live today, including the larger culture that we all live inside and experience every day.
I like to quote Harry Truman, who said, “I don’t give people hell, I just tell them the truth and they think it’s hell.” Jungian psychology flies in the face of the “five easy steps to happiness” and the whole self-help industry.
If you’re not offering “instant inner peace,” to use a Bob Dylan phrase, what draws people into Jungian therapy?
Violence and sensation are the essence of popular culture. Sex, drugs and rock and roll. It’s often harder for those who are seduced by the glitz and their own expectations. It’s all very seductive. They live in a world of expectations and it’s difficult for them to break away and come to their own encounter. The select population of people who seek me out are pretty thoughtful people. They’ve reached a point where they say, “I have to go forward in my life.” This usually happens in their 30s and 40s when they have a history that they have to look at.
You’ve written extensively about what you call “The Middle Passage.” Is that another name for “middle age” and does it still happen somewhere around the age of 40?
There’s also a later version of that middle passage, when a person is radically obliged to ask, “Who am I, apart from my roles and my history?”
In your 50s and 60s, it comes again perhaps with a second marriage that worked out better, along with aging and mortality and discovering a purpose in life. Though when I meet people who tell me they are successful, I tell them, “That and a couple of bucks will get you a cup of coffee.” Ironically, they are suddenly introduced to issues they never thought they had to deal with.
Some might ask if that isn’t happening right now on a national or global scale.
It is happening to our culture and the more fragmented the culture, the more ambiguity that is introduced into our bloodstream and that leads to anxiety. Today, there is a greater fragmentation, an erosion of family foundations, of a national consensus. We always have conflicts and disagreements, but today it’s hard to find something that holds. Someone once said, “When all the brave knights are beaten, the know-nothings will steal the culture.”
In your books, you celebrate artists and the creative types, but I get the distinct impression that outside of Harold Pinter, you’re not that plugged into a lot of what we call “popular culture.”
I guess you could say I remain a devotee of modernism and postmodernism. I’m still drawn to the great masters: Rilke, Yeats, Kafka.
I’ve always been drawn to the works of Ingmar Bergman. He has great insights into subjects I study, such as loss of faith, betrayal, depression.
What do you hope that people might learn during this difficult time?
To learn what fear makes us do, or keeps us from doing. There is that summons to each of us, to face all of this. It is a moment of accountability, when you ask, “Am I going to accountable to what wants to enter the world through me?”