95 of 105 people found the following review helpful
Leaves you wanting more -- and not in a good way,
This review is from: The Soul's Code: In Search of Character and Calling (Paperback)"The Soul's Code" starts with an interesting idea, the Acorn Theory, where an individual's talents lies as dormant and inevitable as the oak tree inside an acorn. Those essential qualities of one's talents are fed and nurtured throughout one's life, and while the final size, shape and appearance of a tree are determined by many factors, the acorn will grow into an oak as long as it is able to grow. Not a pine tree, not a rose bush, not a ficus, but an oak. And while this theory applied to humans is an interesting and somewhat far-fetched one, it does have a certain appeal, explaining why some people have an almost preternatural gift for art, music, writing, speech and so on. Basically, their acorns were allowed to grow into what they were destined to be, unfettered and unrestrained.
But maintaining this theory is a bit of a magic act, requiring some sleights-of -hand and diversions to keep the audience from picking up on those telling signs that something else is going on. Hillman tries to come up with a grand theory that can explain genius, but contradicts himself on some points along the way. The biggest one I found, or the one that bothered me the most, anyway, explained violent and destructive acts.
In Chapter 10, "The Bad Seed, " he uses as examples both Adolf Hitler and a woman named Mary Bell, who, at 10 years of age, strangled to death two boys, aged four and three, in two separate incidents. In both of these people, says Hillman, a lifetime of indicators showed that these were evil acorns leading to evil oaks. Hmm, interesting, except that in every other example and anecdote he related in the preceding chapters, people would become violent when their true talents were not allowed to take shape. In the very first chapter he uses the example of Elias Canetti, Nobel Prize winner for literature in 1981, and his confrontation at age five with his slightly older cousin, who was learning to read and write. When she teases him and refuses to let him see her notebooks, holding them above her head and out of his reach: "All at once, I left her there and walked the long way around the house to the kitchen yard, to get the Armenian's ax and kill her with it...I raised the ax high and...marched back over the long path into the courtyard with a murderous chant on my lips, repeating incessantly: ...'Now I'm going to kill Laurica! Now I'm going to kill Laurica!'" How cute! Hillman's response? "They seem to have no other choice. Canetti had to have letters and words; how else could he ever be a writer?" That's all?
One is left with the old conundrum: What if Hitler had been a better painter? It seems flippant and facetious, but with everything Hillman has written to this point, it seems a valid question. What if Hitler, Mary Bell, and any other evil individual in history were encouraged to develop their talents, to tend to their acorns? Hillman dismisses such thoughts. Hitler was inherently evil, and he goes to great lengths to try and prove this. Only a person who was born evil and had talents only for evil deeds could do what he did and what Mary Bell did. While Elias Canetti may run around, swinging an ax at his cousin to get her notebooks -- a disproportionate response to the situation if ever there was one -- that's just the passion of his latent talent exercising a kind of survival instinct. Hitler's "cold stare" as a child, however, proved that he would grow up to be a genocidal maniac. Huh?
The book's reach exceeds its grasp, though, and the whole thing starts crumbling from that point on. It had taken an effort from the beginning to make the whole theory hold together in my mind, but once the doubt seeped in, it was difficult to resist finding an example of my own for every one he used, easily poking holes in his reasoning. While "The Soul's Code" makes for an interesting launching point for a bull session, it doesn't work as a grand psychological theory.
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Showing 1-4 of 4 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Oct 4, 2009 8:13:39 AM PDT
Posted on Mar 12, 2011 9:00:50 PM PST
Andrew C. Erickson says:
I haven't read the book, but you seem to be supporting the basic idea of it.
Posted on May 15, 2012 5:57:07 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on May 15, 2012 5:57:37 AM PDT
M. Barbieri says:
Interesting. I haven't read the book either, but the study of Hitler sounds like it would contrast with Alice Miller's study of Hitler in "For Your Own Good".
Posted on Mar 16, 2013 4:29:49 PM PDT
Excellent review. Now I know why I have been slow to get through this book in spite of my general admiration for Hillman's other work.
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