DYING TO WRITE A BEST seller? Just put "soul" somewhere in the title. Since 1994, when Thomas Moore's "Care of the Soul" began its 150-week run on The New York Times best-seller list, there have been nearly 800 books published on the soul of this and the soul of that. The granddaddy of them all is Aristotle's "De Anima" ("Treatise on the Soul"), out in a new English translation but not yet booked for "Oprah." The really hot reads are books by the therapy industry's reigning household gods. To name a few that are coming soon to bookstores everywhere: "Denial of the Soul," by the well-traveled M. Scott Peck; "Buddha Nature: Death of the Soul," by the Dalai Lama, who says we don't really have one, and "The Soul Is Here for Its Own Joy: Sacred Poems From Many Cultures," by Robert Bly, who says we do. They'll be competing with "Chicken Soup for the Woman's Soul," the current No. 1 paperback on The New York Times list in the "advice" category. That's not to be confused with the five previous volumes in the "Chicken Soup" series, which has 12 million copies in print.
But the oddest entry in the soul sweepstakes is James Hillman's "The Soul's Code: In Search of Character and Calling" (334 pages. Random House. $32), which climbed to the top after Oprah raved about the book during an interview with the 70-year-old author last October. Hillman might call it fate, or at least poetic justice. A student of Carl Jung's who spent 10 years at the master's institute in Zurich, Hillman is the Eminence grise behind many of the other, more successful soul brothers and sisters. Moore, Bly and Jean Houston, the human-potential teacher who helped Hillary Rodham Clinton write her own best seller, "It Takes a Village," all pay intellectual homage to Hillman.
"The Soul's Code" repeats many of the ideas Hillman has spun out in more than 20 previous books, but presents them in simpler language and stories. Hillman wants to put the psyche back in psychology, which he believes has turned its professional back on the reality of the soul. Contra Freud and his contemporary offspring, Hillman argues that it is a mistake to assume that personality development is merely reactive--the product of what was or was not done to us by our parents. Forget maternal bonding, Oedipal and other complexes. All such theories, he says, are hopelessly reactive, providing plots without narratives, maps without destinations. "A thousand manipulating fathers cannot yield one Mozart," he says, "any more than can the pushiest mother in the world produce one Judy Garland."
Like Jung, Hillman believes in the power of myth and archetypes. He calls them our "Invisibles." Why is it, he wants to know, that so many gifted individ- uals recognized as children what their calling was to be: Ella Fitzgerald to be a singer, Picasso a painter, Manolete a bullfighter, Billy Graham a preacher? "Sooner or later, something seems to call us to a particular path," he writes. "You may remember this "something' as a signal moment in childhood when an urge out of nowhere, a fascination, a particular turn of events struck like an annunciation--that is what I must do, this is what I've got to have, this is who I am."
For Hillman, that "something" is a "defining image" that each of us is born with. Plato, he reminds us, thought that every soul received at birth a unique daemon, or angel, which defined that person's genius or calling. Just as the oak is present in the tiny acorn, he insists, so each soul is coded for a particular flowering, a destiny. But we can only decipher the code in retrospect, only see by hindsight that what seemed accidental or arbitrary was in fact demanded by our daemon.
Hillman delights in turning received opinion on its head. Thus, he writes, the acorn theory suggests that children choose their parents. The child grows down, not up; that is, life is the realization of the image we were destined to embody. Biography, then, always begins at the end; the man is father to the child.
In short, rather than see the soul as the seat of assorted pathologies, Hillman would have us imagine it as our core identity battling for appropriate expression. But in most of the artists and celebrities whose stories he examines, the daemon turns out to be indistinguishable from innate talent. At its most banal, therefore, Hillman's effort to recover the soul looks a lot like platitude: the very democratic notion that each of us is, well, a special kind of nut. But there's more to his book than that, proving once again that the soul may need chicken soup, but it's more than chopped liver.