From Little Acorns . . . : THE SOUL’S CODE: In Search of Character and Calling.<i> By James Hillman (Random House: $23, 334 pp.)</i>

<i> Sven Birkerts is the author of "The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age" (Faber and Faber). He recently edited "Tolstoy's Dictaphone: Technology and the Muse" (Graywolf Press)</i>

There was a time--possibly a better time--when a person could use a word like “soul” or “fate” without swallowing hard first, when philosophers actually occupied themselves with questions about the meaning and purpose of human existence. All such terminologies and musings are now considered romantic bosh, at least by sophisticates. Serious talk about human possibility--which in fact has quite a noble tradition--is exclusively new age business. Soft, even contemptible.

Psychologist James Hillman, author of more than 20 books, including “The Dream and the Underworld” and “Kinds of Power,” devotes himself to just such “soft” concerns; not surprisingly, he is slotted in many peoples’ minds as a new age guru. His latest book, “The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling,” will do nothing to counter that impression.

Drawing on a tradition that begins with Plato, moves through Plotinus and the neo-Platonists and emerges, modified, in Jung--a tradition grounding existence in essences and archetypes--Hillman sets himself in complete opposition to the prevailing dogmas of contemporary psychology and social science. His defiance is exhilarating. His thesis, meanwhile, reminds us how removed we are from any outlook that proposes the self--the fact of it--as something marvelous.

Hillman proposes his “acorn theory,” a soul- and destiny-centered philosophy that basically holds that we are each given, or molded around, a primary image or blueprint, and that it is the task of the life to realize its imperatives. “Even before there are life stories,” writes Hillman, “lives display themselves as images.” And: “Unpacking the image takes a lifetime. It may be perceived all at once, but understood only slowly.” The oak, in other words, inheres in the acorn.


Hillman expands upon this basic idea with dozens of examples. Indeed, he does not proceed half so much by explanation as by illustration, which eases the path of the idle reader but may prove maddening to one who would nail an assertion down and hold it accountable.

Mohandas K. Gandhi, we read, was terrified of the dark as a child “because the daimon that held his destiny knew of the lathi charges and beatings, of the long imprisonments in dark cells,” while Spanish dictator Francisco Franco did not develop his overbearing presence to compensate for his diminutive stature but more “as a demonstration of the dignity of the daimon.”

Hillman is a contrarian and a romantic--a William Wordsworth crying out in a wilderness of reductive rationalists. He protests against the idea that compensation accounts for exceptional attainment or that a child is in any way a sum of parental genes or influences. Quite the reverse: “According to the acorn theory, the couple came together not for their personal unity, but to beget the unique person, endowed with a specific acorn, who turns out to be you.”

Schools and social structures of all kinds are, predictably, anathema. The soul finds what it needs elsewhere, as it always has; achievers become themselves in spite of institutions, not because of them. Inspired mentoring is what really matters, the fostering presence of some other person--not necessarily a parent--who senses the potential and helps to tend it.


The ruling metaphor must, of course, break down. Acorns, cared for, amount to oaks, while people so rarely achieve remarkable destinies. Hillman’s soul-oriented conception is predicated upon exceptionality. Though the call goes out to many, or all, very few are chosen. The deeper will to realization is, it seems, in short supply.

The author indicts American culture for its obstructive attitudes. Ours is a society and a time “when oddballs are shelved in shelters, medicated into seratonin serenity, and recovered by groups from compelling individual intensities. . . .” We pledge to mediocrity in the name of democracy. Sweeping as Hillman’s claims may be, they are hard to repudiate. Where, other than in business or on the sports field, do we see any celebration of attainment? We don’t. We view any manifestation of excellence as a putting-on of airs.

“The Soul’s Code,” rich with exemplary anecdote, compels us to think through our premises, but it does not finally persuade. Fascinating as some of the stories are--of Josephine Baker, of the bullfighter Manolete, of Ingmar Bergman--they do not make an argument. Yes, analytic accounts may be limiting, but they do not invalidate analysis and the vigorous pursuit of explanation. It is telling that for all his eloquence on soul images and their unfolding, Hillman does not raise the vexing question of where these images come from. Are we really to trust in a pantheon of Platonic daimones? Where is theology in all this?

Hillman’s language can also be problematic at times. He lapses quite readily into lecture-circuit demotic, writing things like: “There remains one last biggie: the one Plato put right in the middle of his myth. . . .” The elusive soul cannot be stalked by a stylist who employs pop neologisms like “biggie.”

No question we need a vocabulary of soul and a conception of being that honors our private inklings and intuitions. “The Soul’s Code” moves to meet these needs in places and offers a most seductive description of the inner call to vocation. It does not rear up, alas, an oak that can resist the hatchets and saws of any but the most soft-headed of skeptics.

“The Soul’s Code” is also available, abridged, on two audiocassettes from Random House for $18.