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Thursday, March 9, 2023

More on the parental fallacy and the daimon, thanks to Hillman

 Hillman’s depiction of mother and father is not intended, at least from this perspective, to be a rejection of the family. Rather it is a highly articulate and relevant critique of the various excesses, perfections even, that are expected, adopted and then suffered by many parents. Rather than be overcome by the ‘family-systems’ approach there is a case to be made for considering, reflection upon and then embodying a different perspective on the whole ‘business’ of parenting.

Whether parents live through their child’s accomplishments as a vicarious surrogate for their own somewhat ‘empty’ and ‘unfulfilling’ and ‘unfulfilled’ lives, or whether, on another hand, the parents over-reaches in setting expectations and demands on the child, (as only two possible both determinative and detrimental approaches), seeing the ‘acorn’ in the unusual, unique, different and potentially defining qualities of the child, as Hillman’s counsel suggests, requires a different perspective that one based on either accomplishment/reward/conditioning in order to validate the parent.

If and when the parent who gets to know what his daimon is about, and sets about to validate that process, there is a significantly reduced likelihood that the child’s life and daimon is either ignored or denigrated. It is the intensity and the degree of control over the conventional perks of childhood success, on the part of the parent, that Hillman is attempting to moderate. It is also the attempt, by Hillman, to help parents get to ‘know’ the deep and demanding voice of the child’s daimon,

a process best facilitated and enhanced by the parent’s claiming his/her own profound reality and truth.

A few words, from Hillman, about the envisaged father lying on the couch, ‘shamed by his own daimon for the potentials in his soul that will not be subdued. He feels himself inwardly subversive, imagining in his passivity extremes of aggression and desire that must be suppressed. Solution: more work, more money, more drink, more weight, more things, more infotainment, and an almost fanatic dedication of his mature male life to the kids so that they can grow up straight and straight up the consumer ladder in pursuit of their happiness…A ‘happy’ child was never and nowhere the aim of parenting. An industrious, useful child; a malleable child; a healthy child; an obedient mannerly child; a stay-out-of-trouble child; a God-fearing child; and entertaining child—all these varieties, yes. But the parental fallacy has trapped the parents also in providing happiness, along with shoes, school-books, and van-packed vacations. Can the unhappy produce happiness? Since happiness at its ancient source means eudaimonia, or a well-pleased daimon, only a daimon who is receiving it due can transmit a happy benefit to the child’s soul. Yes, I am saying that ‘care of soul,’ as Thomas Moore has written, may thereby help the child’s soul prosper. Should the onus of soul-making in the parent shift to making the soul of the child, then the parent is dodging the lifelong task set by the acorn. Then the child replaces the acorn. You feel your child is special, and you care for it as your calling, seeking to realize the acorn in your child. So your daimon complains because it is avoided, and your child complains because it has become and effigy of the parent’s own calling. Your mother…may be a demon, but she is not your daimon; so your child, too is not your daimon. (Hillman, The Soul’s Code, p. 83)

Hillman then goes into the details of the then current sociological condition of children in the U.S. using Michael Ventura’ observation that Americans hate their children….

What culture in history ever spoke more as a child, felt more as a child, thought more as a child, or was more reluctant to put all childish things away? And what culture today campaigns more to save the children globally, provides more emergency help for preemies and for surgical transplants in infants whatever the cost, and engages in more frontline defense of the fetus? Yet all this is a cover under which hides an appalling neglect. Just look at the evidence. Of the 57 million children (under fifteen years of age) living in the United States, more than 14 million are living below the official poverty level. The United States ranks below Iran and Romania in the percentage of low-birth-weight babies. One of every six children is a step-child, and half a million make their ‘homes’ in residential treatment centers and group and foster homes. More children and adolescents in the United States dies from suicide that from cancer, AIDS< birth defects, influenza, heart disease, and pneumonia combined. Each day at least 1 million ‘latchkey children’ go home to where there is a gun. Besides these children who  find their way into sociological statistics, there are those from all economic classes in treatment for attention deficit disorders, hyperactivity, obesity, defiance, bulimia, depression , pregnancy, addiction….Gross economic injustice, political passivity, and the delusions of circuses (without bread) are responsible for the plight of children. But also I accuse the parental fallacy of sponsoring this negligence. Parents’ deficient attention the individual call they brought with them into the world and the hyperactivity of their distraction from this call betrays their reason for being alive. When the child becomes the reason for your life, you have abandoned the invisible reason you are here. And the reason you are here as an adult, as a citizen, as a parent? To make the world receptive to the daimon. To set the civilization straight so that a child can grow down into it and its daimon can have a life. This is the parenting task. To carry out this task for the daimon of your child you must bear witness first to your own. Any father who has abandoned the small voice of his unique genius, turning it over to the small child he has fathered, cannot bear reminders of what he has neglected. He cannot tolerate the idealism that arises so naturally and spontaneously in the child, the romantic enthusiasms, the sense of fairness, the clear-eyed beauty, the attachment to little things, and the interest in big questions. All this becomes unbearable to a man who has forgotten his daimon. Instead of learning form the child, who is living evidence of the invisibles in everyone’s life, the father capitulates to the child, disturbing its growing down into civilization by setting it us in a toy world. Result: a child-dominated fatherless culture with dysfunctional children with pistol-packing power. Like the vampires that so fascinate them children in our culture, sentimentalized for their innocence and neglected on account of the other they cause, drain away the blood of adult life.
(Hillman, The Soul’s Code, p.83-4)

This scribe, without either the language or the conscious awareness of the words and perspective of Hillman, has experienced both the vicarious living out the daimon of the mother, and the flat-lining of the unfulfilled father. As an aspiring vocalist, partially trained, and highly ambitious for at least an audition for operatic roles, all of it lying relatively dormant and deployed occasionally in community choirs, especially when assembled to present Handel’s Messiah, mother was both insistent and over-weening in her determination that I study piano from a very early age. And then, as seemed somewhat natural, there were Conservatory examinations, Kiwanis Festivals, and solo performances at ‘high-society’ dinners of local service clubs. Performance, achievement, social recognition and reputation were the ostensible goals, as a path to her vicarious self-fulfilment, through my fingers. Never was the quality of the music, the intentions of the composer, the intonations of the dynamics or the over-all musicality of each piece a topic of conversation with her. Length of practice time, correct counting of each bar, perfect execution of each note, and hubristic extolling of the competitive grade on those exams, as compared with peers, comprised her intense focus. As the piano instructor told me, decades later, “It was your mother who had to win the competitions; that was not nearly as important for you.”

On the other side of the parental cast, my father harboured a deep-seated passion to become a dentist. And yet, after the death of his father, and his sense of responsibility for his younger sisters and widowed mother, he began work at seventeen, in a lumber yard. Years later, when he had married his partner, and when, as a graduate nurse, she pleaded with him to enrol in dentistry, he deferred. One can only speculate that, having attained only a grade ten education, he considered himself academically unworthy even to contemplate a professional university education and dental practice. A similar deferral emerged when, after decades as a successful hardware store manager, having been offered the purchase of his own store by the widow of a colleague. Again, his deferral became a pattern which hung like an unspoken and virtually unidentified cloud over the home.

A daimon, unlike a profession, or a talent, is more like a calling, in that it expresses how rather than ‘what’ a person is called to be. “In the beginning, even before Socrates and Plato, was Heraclitus. His three little words ‘Ethos anthropoi daimon” frequently rendered as ‘Character is fate,’ have been quoted again and again for twenty-five hundred years. No one can know what he meant, though few fail to offer interpretations as this list of English translations demonstrates:

                                ‘Man’s character is his genius.’

                                ‘Man’s character is his daimon.’

                                ‘A man’s character is his guardian divinity.’

 ‘A man’s character is the immortal and potentially divine                     portion of him.’

 ‘Man’s own character is his daimon.’

‘Man’s character is his fate.’

‘Character is fate.’

‘Character for man is destiny.’

‘Habit for man, God.’

The daimon part is easy enough, for we have already accepted the translation of daimon as genius (Latin) and then transposed it into more modern terms such as ‘angel,’ ‘soul,’ ‘paradigm,’ ‘image,’ ‘fate,’ ‘inner-twin,’ ‘acorn,’ ‘life companion,’ ‘guardian,’ ‘heart’s calling.’ ….Among native peoples on the North American continent, we find a parade of terms for the acorn as an independent spirit-soul: yega (Coyukon); an owl (Kwakiutl); ‘agate man,’ (Navaho); nagual (Central America/southern Mexico); tsayotyeni (Santa Ana Pueblo); sicom (Dakota)…these beings accompany, guide protect, warn. They may even attach to a person, but do not merge with your personal self. In fact, this ‘native’ acorn belongs as much to the ancestors, the society, the ambient animals as it does to ‘you’ and its power may be invoked for crops and hunting, for community inspiration and health—the actual world. The acorn stands apart from the inflated self of modern subjectivity, so separate personal and along. Though your acorn, it is neither you nor yours…..

The ‘self’ that permeates our daily language has expanded to titanic proportions. (op. cit. p 256-7)

Dentistry, for example, may have been only a possible iteration of my father’s daimon. His work with his hands, however, continues to light up his legacy in and through iron-wood lamp polished from its drift-wood salvage into a virtual sculpture; his hand-therapy, too, clings to hundreds of hangers, in the webbing of his patient wrapping. And his ‘grasp’ of hand, when encountering another, was memorable not merely for its muscle strength but for its authenticity. Similarly, performing ‘in’ the opera, may not have been mother’s daimon; yet performance at a very high level (including singing soprano), whether in nursing, gardening, food preparation, or  smocking of a two-year-old’s dress, had a quality of attention to detail and patience that discipline that accompanied each of her activities.

The daimon, however its voice emerges, does not bring a moral code, or a precise direction or vocation. It can also be, as Hillman calls, a “bad seed.”

And the bad seed is next.

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