There’s been a deep shift in my thinking over the past five or so years, and this book has been a crucial pivot. It’s Hillman’s most “extreme” book, pushing his impatience with modern psychology’s “developmental” bias to counter-intuitive and provocative limits. His central contention is that psychology has followed Freud’s tendency to betray the unconscious rather than moving past it. The depths of the psyche are hauled into the light, sacrificed on the ego’s altar. Hillman forcefully and brilliantly argues:

It is this dayworld style of thinking—literal realities, natural comparisons, contrary opposites, processional steps—that must be set aside in order to pursue the dream into its home territory. There thinking moves in images, resemblances, correspondences. To go in this direction, we must sever the link with the dayworld, foregoing all ideas that originate there—translation, reclamation, compensation. We must go over the bridge and let it fall behind us, and if it will not fall, then let it burn.

Such dark rhetoric, like that of Norman O. Brown, often seems at odds with the rather cerebral and conservative personal style of Hillman himself. This tension in these radical thinkers whose teen years fell long before the eruptions of the 1960s I find fascinating. But it’s not just a case of tension between behavioural style and intellectual commitments; central to Hillman’s (and Brown’s) view is the fight against literalism. While their rejection of psychedelics and shamanic revelry is a little out of synch with contemporary culture, their stern reminders that literally, overtly wild behaviours can repress the subtleties of the unconscious as much as their prohibition, are interesting foils to common counter-culture wisdom.

Pagans will surely be as challenged as me in grappling with Hillman’s railing against the “materialism” of heathen symbolism. He rejects the use of nature-based metaphors for approaching the dream, insisting on the dream’s location in Hades: not the earthy, dark underground of fertility and regeneration, but the cold, airy, liminal underworld of insubstantial shadows.

He inevitably cautions against catalogues of simplistic symbolic interpretation, but graciously admits that the genre of books about dreams demands that he include a section discussing particular themes (e.g. “black”, “animals”, “smell and smoke”). He recognizes how ingrained our need for direct interpretation is, though, and constantly bats it down. This is challenging, sometimes annoying, but ultimately revelatory.

A book of understanding, not improvement; unsentimental compassion, not hope of cure. He ends by invoking Hades, whose “fearful cold intelligence […] gives permanent shelter in his house to the incurable conditions of human being.”