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January 1997
The Satya Interview: Going Bugs with James Hillman


James Hillman is a psychologist and author of The Soul's Code, recently at the top of the New York Times bestseller list. His essay "Going Bugs" is a classic exposition of the meaning of bugs in the human psyche. Hillman examines the role that bugs - insects and creepy-crawlies - play in dreams and how human reaction to them is symptomatic of larger concerns about animals and the natural world. Satya talked with him recently about bugs and the ducks and chickens with whom he lives in eastern Connecticut.

Q: In "Going Bugs," you highlight four aspects of bugs that figure in the human consciousness: their multiplicity, their monstrosity, their autonomy, and their parisitism. What was important about these aspects?
A: It's particularly the parasitical aspect: that a tiny bug can change your behavior radically; that they seem to live off other forms of life - like fleas, flies, crabs, maggots, and so on. I think the multiplicity is a threat to any kind of consciousness that is identified with unity and singleness. And so the very fact there are billions of ants, and hundreds of thousands of aphids, and other kinds of things all looking exactly alike and swarming and flying in such huge amounts, makes the individual identified with singleness and singularity very threatened.

Q: What about the monstrosity? We see that in the various transformations - such as in Kafka's Metamorphosis and in movies like The Fly. You say that insects in dreams suggest the psyche's capacity to go beyond its humanistic definitions. What do you mean by that?
A: The bug takes you beyond the human as the model of formal beauty. As long as you follow the Bible and say, "Man is created in the image of God," then the question is, "what about bugs?" When God actually shows himself in the Book of Job, or at least reveals his power and his capacity, he shows himself as Behemoth and Leviathan - two animals. I think that the idea that Man is the model of how God actually looks is highly narrow and distorted. Therefore, bugs seem monstrous. But maybe they're not monstrous. Maybe we're monstrous if we look at things from their point of view. What I am trying to do in that whole piece is to get rid of this human-centered vision.

Q: How are bugs distinct then from any member of the animal world?
A: They're not. It's only that we human beings tend to see them as more monstrous. That has to do with their autonomy. One can charm a snake, supposedly, or rub the belly of an alligator and get it to do what you want, but it's pretty damn hard to get a bug to do anything you want it to do. There were flea circuses and in China there were cricket fights. But it's pretty hard to control them. They have an autonomy.

Q: They do not submit, you say. Bugs live on us and with us. They are insistent on their presence. They bug us, right?
A: There are hundreds of thousands of different species of beetle. They have this enormous range of forms and images and colors and shapes. They have their fundamental structures, of course, but besides that they have a range of imagination way beyond our understanding.

Q: What do you mean by that?
A: They represent the extreme ranges of imagination. You see, the imagination extends beyond the human will; there's more to the imagination than my mind or my will. Again, we're human-centered. We think that things begin and end with us. So we call bugs freaky or autonomous, because their extension is greater than ours - in their whole panoply, that is. [It's not that] each single bug is greater, because each single bug has its own small path of habit, but it feels that bugs are always pursuing their ends which cross ours. They seem to do things we don't want them to do: it's part of their autonomy. I'm not saying they do do that, I'm saying that's how we perceive them. That's why we don't like them. If we try to catch or swat a fly, it's because it is going its own damn way and it's autonomous to the way we predict it's going to go.

Q: And that is a source of the psychosis that one has when one is going bugs - or going mad?
A: One of the sources is the feeling that one is falling apart into multiple pieces, breaking down. Very often, bugs themselves carry the idea of psychotic breakdown.

Q: As you mention in "Going Bugs," in Western culture we have the association of bugs with disease and death. They are linked with decay, the lower realms of the body, the soul, and the underworld. Beelzebub means 'Lord of the Flies.' Why do we have that association when for other cultures, bugs carry a more positive association?
A: [By contrast] other cultures see bugs as originating and creative - the Navaho for example. And we can go to the Jains in India, where all life is holy and it doesn't matter what kind of life it is. There is the whole Christian destruction: first of all the alienation from nature, and secondly the alienation from the underworld, turning Hades into Hell. Hades was a realm in the Greek world, and in the Christian world it became Hell, a place where the damned go. That's left some pretty heavy traces on us. We've moralized a lot of the world, particularly in the last 2,000 years. We've moralized nature and moralized animals.

As long as the bug represents the underworld - the earth, the dark, the buried, and ever since the Bible, as Beelzebub - then pesticides become a scientistic way of harrowing Hell, of getting rid of that underworld.

Q: Why did you choose dreams of various people's response to animals and bugs in particular to focus upon?
A: I've collected animal dreams for 30, 40 years. I had a huge collection for a while and used to lecture on it a lot. But I wanted particularly to pick on the bugs because they are the most maligned and there's the most to be learned there. You see, just take that multiplicity for a minute. If you abandon the idea that everything must be unified into singleness, then you could look at the multiplicity of these hordes and swarms and so on as a collective soul - as a soul that can work as a beehive or an anthill in which many, many pieces all function with a soul that is not necessarily fixed to one single thing.

Q: How do we change our attitude towards bugs without going bugs - mad - ourselves?
A: Two of the dreams in that collection involve a man getting down on his knees and trying to see the world as the bug does, through its eyes. Now of course you can't do that literally. But there are some gestures that are rather important. One is bowing down, giving up one's superiority and looking down upon the bugs; a certain interest in all things that are not human. [Another is] that Man is no longer, as Protagoras said, "the measure of all things." We have a very narrow cosmos. The bugs penetrate and break through the walls and come up from the hidden corners and threaten the narrowness of our cosmos.

It only threatens our sanity if our sanity is identified with the narrow cosmos: what my will can do and what my reason can control. The first step for change would be an accommodation: a softening of the human border so it was a little fuzzier. Just take little kids. They play with bugs. They put them in matchboxes, they love caterpillars, they let them crawl all over their hands. Some kids even enjoy spiders. As you get older, and get more willful and rational and controlled and let your ego define your personality, you become more estranged from the animals. You have fewer animal dreams. A child is not as threatened by the bug as we are. That says something.

So it's not really going crazy. It's the adult vision that makes it seem like going crazy. Suppose we're already crazy and the bugs are our deliverers?

Q: What do you do with the bugs in your own house?
A: I try to open the window and let them get out. But when I have black flies in the kitchen in June, I swat them, because they have encroached too far. And when it comes to ants, I try to stop them at their source and redirect them to another area. I certainly don't like deer tics. But I don't use a lot of pesticides and wasp killers and all that stuff.

Some Additional Conversation

Q: What have you learned from your ducks and chickens?
A: One thing that is extremely important - and I wouldn't say they taught me this - is the need to serve an animal (in my case by getting up in the morning and walking about 50 yards in January on ice to carry their water and make sure that the door is open so that they can walk out if they want to from their little house). It is a service that is extraordinarily valuable. I think it's what people feel when they have a dog and they take him or her for a walk, or if they have a horse and they comb her or him and muck out the stalls. There is something extremely valuable in caring for an animal. That's a lesson of the heart: it's a service, a ritual service.

Q: How is it different than serving a human being?
A: Because the animal is utterly dependent on you. If you don't go out there with water, they will die.

Q: How is it different then from serving a sick human being?
A: People who serve in a hospice may feel that. There is a leveling, a lowering of oneself, where all one's important matters - making the phone calls, going to the bank - are begun and ended by letting the chickens and the ducks out and putting them to bed at night. That's very similar I suppose to a mother with a child.

Q: Is there perhaps a sense in serving an animal that the animal cannot say "thank you"?
A: The thankfulness is in their living: that they live and come out into the daylight in the morning. That's the moment of their thankfulness. It's a pleasure that they experience and you experience as well. It's an ineffable sharing of something. Also, you learn the peculiarites of human beings within the animal world. The animals are like walking metaphors of scratching, pecking, pushing, snarling, domination and anxiety. All kinds of things we think are human are going on in their world as well. In that way, therefore, the tribal myth that animals taught human beings everything they know is true. I think that there's a great deal of metaphoric, imagistic language that we've learnt from animals.

Another thing I've discovered is that the life of the animals is not quite as terror-filled that the animal shows on TV seem to give us. I hold in suspicion the angle that everything is in constant danger and constant competition, that there are predators out to get you every minute, and that animal life is all camouflage and threat. I think that this is propaganda for the advertisers - it's predatory capitalism we're seeing displayed. I don't think the animals themselves live wholly that kind of life. They also live an extraordinarily symbiotic life with their environment.

James Hillman's The Soul's Code is available from Random House. His forthcoming book Dream Animals, with 35 paintings by Margot McClean, will be published by Chronicle Books this summer. The cassette "Going Bugs" can be ordered by calling 1-800-937-5557.


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