Stephen King on life callings: the daimon meets the geiger counter

As I’ve stated here many times, I’m fascinated by the idea of the daimon, the guiding force inside a person’s psyche that acts like a spiritual/psychological compass, always pointing north, always reminding you of what your true life direction is no matter what direction you may currently be turned. This has led to my always being on the lookout for things that resonate with this idea. I’ve found that such references occur with surprising frequency once you’ve trained yourself to scan for them constantly. They’re especially common whenever people talk about their childhood dreams, drives, fears, and passions.

A case in point is a recent British television interview with Stephen King, wherein King talks ever so briefly about his early childhood attraction to horror entertainment. He uses the metaphor of an internal “geiger counter” that lights up when a person comes in contact with something meaningful to him or her. I find this radiation-based image to be pretty neat.

Here are his words:

Interviewer: What sort of a child were you, then?

King: A quiet one.

Interviewer: Were you?

King: Yeah, I was quiet. I had a lot of things to make up and I lived a lot of life, you know, inside my head. I had a normal enough childhood, I think. On the outside, anyway.

Interviewer: So when did the love of horror kick in?

King: Oh, from the very first. Basically, when someone says, “What was your childhood like?” I know that what they’re trying to get at is, “What twisted you to make you the sort of fellow you are today?”

Interviewer: [Laughs] Yeah, that’s exactly what I was asking.

King: But you have something inside that’s just your thing. It’s there and you go toward it. Lance Armstrong has the bike, and it’s like when that bike thing came up, his internal geiger counter went crazy. And mine, when I saw those horror comics and The Creature from the Black Lagoon, that was it for me. I wanted to do that.

(The rest of the interview is well worth watching. The portion I’ve just quoted occurs at a little over a minute into it.)

With these words King is getting at what I take to be very largely the same idea developed by psychologist James Hillman in his best-selling 1997 book The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling, which approaches being the definitive modern statement of daimonic psychology. Hillman speaks of “reading life backward” by looking at one’s lifelong behavioral patterns in symptomatic terms. Consider you lifelong loves and hatreds, desires and aversions, obsessions and neuroses, and from these “symptoms” try to divine what you are “meant” to be in the world by innate endowment and inclination. “Reading life backward,” he writes,

enables you to see how early obsessions are the sketchy preformation of behavior now. Sometimes the peaks of the early years are never surpassed. Reading backward means that growth is less the key biological term than form, and that development only makes sense when it reveals a facet of the original image. Of course a human life advances from day to day, and regresses, and we do see different faculties develop and watch them wither. Still, the innate image of your fate holds all the copresence of today, yesterday, and tomorrow. Your person is not a process or development. You are that essential image that develops, if it does. As Picasso said, “I don’t develop; I am.”

By way of illustrating the point, consider Hillman’s further words in an excellent 1998 interview:

It’s important to ask yourself, “How am I useful to others? What do people want from me?” That may very well reveal what you are here for.

Suppose that throughout your childhood you were good with numbers. Other kids used to copy your homework. You figured store discounts faster than your parents. People came to you for help with such things. So you took accounting and eventually became a tax auditor for the IRS. What an embarrassing job, right? You feel you should be writing poetry or doing aviation mechanics or whatever. But then you realize that tax collecting can be a calling too. When you look into the archetypal nature of taxation, you realize that all civilizations have had taxation of one sort or another. Some of the earliest Egyptian writing is about tax collecting — the scribe recording what was paid and what wasn’t paid.

So when you consider the archetypal, historical, and cultural background of whatever you do, it gives you a sense that your occupation can be a calling and not just a job.

. . . . I think the first step is the realization that each of us has such a thing [i.e., a calling]. And then we must look back over our lives and look at some of the accidents and curiosities and oddities and troubles and sicknesses and begin to see more in those things than we saw before. It raises questions, so that when peculiar little accidents happen, you ask whether there is something else at work in your life. It doesn’t necessarily have to involve an out-of-body experience during surgery, or the sort of high-level magic that the new age hopes to press on us. It’s more a sensitivity, such as a person living in a tribal culture would have: the concept that there are other forces at work. A more reverential way of living.

Finally, the current incarnation of the Wikipedia page about Hillman gives a very good summary idea of his overall approach in The Soul’s Code that will make a good conclusion to this post (but let the reader beware a couple of strange wordings in the text, courtesy of Wikipedia’s lack of editorial oversight):

Hillman’s 1997 book, The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling, outlines what he calls the acorn theory of the soul. This theory states that each individual holds the potential for their unique possibilities inside themselves already, much as an acorn holds the pattern for an oak, invisible within itself. It argues against the parental fallacy whereby our parents are seen as crucial in determining who we are by supplying us with genetic material and behavioral patterns. Instead the book suggests for a reconnection with what is invisible within us, our daimon or soul or acorn and its calling to the wider world of nature. It argues against theories which attempt to map life into phases, suggesting that this is counter-productive and makes people feel like they are failing to live up to what is normal. This in turn produces a truncated, normalized society of soulless mediocrity where evil is not allowed but injustice is everywhere — a society that cannot tolerate eccentricity or the further reaches of life experiences but sees them as illnesses to be medicated out of existence.

In this way Hillman diverges from Jung and his idea of the Self. Hillman sees this as too prescriptive and argues against the idea of life-maps by which to try and grow properly.

Instead, Hillman suggests a reappraisal for each individual of their own childhood and present life to try and find their particular calling, the seed of their own acorn.

Personally, I find Hillman’s theory and King’s geiger counter metaphor to be mutually illuminating. Thus it is that the mental image of an angelic/demonic being carrying an acorn in one hand and a geiger counter in the other can become a holy icon.

FYI, for some of my extended ruminations about daimons and the daimonic drive, I encourage you to read some of my previous posts, including: “Daemonyx: What’s in a name?”, “The Passion of Rob Zombie,” “The Daemon is someone inside you,” and “The Greeks and their daimones.”

About Matt Cardin


Posted on July 14, 2007, in Arts & Entertainment, Religion & Philosophy. Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. This was a pretty fascinating post, Matt. Thanks for throwing it up here.

  2. Of course, there’s also Phillip Pullman’s trilogy, His Dark Materials, which figures heavily on the idea that we wear our soul — that is, our daemon — on the outside of our body for everyone to see so that the actual shape of one’s character is discernible to all.

  3. One of my best childhood friends was a great guy — a natural linguist and scholar. He became a writer for the C.S. Monitor.

    His favorite way to pass an evening (as a child and as an adult) was to engage in a sing-along, either by himself, or as a member of a group. He’d have me play the piano or guitar, and sing his heart out.

    Sadly, he was the most tone-deaf person I ever heard. He had no illusions about his ability. He knew he couldn’t carry a toon in a paper bag. But he didn’t care one wit. I always admired him for that.

    Now imagine a genius, a Mozart for example. And this young Mozart is unable to develop his natural ability to produce music. Perhaps, as a child, he had an illness that destroyed his hearing. Perhaps he lost his hands. What if he were born not to a musician (as the real Mozart was), but into a non-musical family in a culture opposed to music (perhaps for religious reasons — like old-time Baptists and dancing).

    If one were to make an in-depth study of all the possible means of expression and employment available in the world, one would likely find more than he could ever have imagined.

    This would mean that most people — in spite of intense self examination — would never find their “callings.”

    I suspect we all have more than one calling. Perhaps these are recognized and explored, perhaps not.

    If you are one of those few, terribly lucky people who is good at what you enjoy doing, be aware that this is not ordinary. This is rare.

    For all I know, I might have been a remarkable goatherd, or a brilliant mummifier. How would I ever know? How could anyone?

    I think Hillman’s model is intriguing. Exploring yourself in this way would likely be fascinating. However, if you come up empty, you’d do well to think on all the possibilities in the universe — all the “callings” to come, all the ones long forgotten.

    Just a thought …

  4. Simon — I’m glad you found the post worthwhile. Thank you for commenting.

    Maria — I’ve read descriptions of the daemonic element in Pullman’s trilogy and have found them very interesting, for obvious reasons. Thank you for bringing that up here. Maybe I’ll have to invest the time to read those books some day.

    Elizabeth — Thank you for your insightful comment. I think you raise a very interesting point. I also think you’d find much of interest in Hillman’s THE SOUL’S CODE since he examines the issue of life callings from many different angles and asks all sorts of questions to clarify the idea of the daimon or acorn as innate life pattern. This includes the question of what happens when a person is born into a situation where this seed potential, this inborn sense of direction and reservoir of potential, is apparently opposed, smothered, or untapped by objective circumstances. His answer tends in the direction of saying that “the truth will out,” and that a person’s calling will make itself known in some form by taking advantage of whatever means and circumstances are available.

    Having said that, I personally sense something oddly moving and powerful in your speculation about a possible multitude of untapped life potentials inside a person that may never find expression because his or her life circumstances don’t elicit them. Surely the question should be explored in terms of when, where, and to whom one is “meant” to be born — that is, in terms of fate or destiny. But then, that’s exactly what the daimon theory is all about. Hillman’s book is effectively an extended exploration of the existential-psychological meaning of Heraclitus famous cryptic statement, “Ethos anthropoi daimon,” which is usually translated as “A man’s character is his destiny.” But what does this mean? A host of alternative translations render “daimon” in that statement as “genius,” “fate,” “calling,” and more. This is seen in the very subtitle of Hillman’s book, “In Search of Character and Calling,” where “character” is the “ethos” and “calling” the “daimon” from Heraclitus’ statement. So the idea is that one’s daimon isn’t just the inborn pattern but the external circumstances into which one is fated to be born. Since the whole idea is a metaphor, then it’s surely as legitimate to speak of fate working in the one realm as in the other.

    A Google search will return links to a number of excellent interviews with Hillman and articles about him. I think his thoughts about this matter will probably figure somewhere among them.

  5. Um, as someone who once lost her hands and went on to be a professional fiction writer, I must say I strongly agree with Matt. The truth will out indeed!

  6. I’m also a fan of the works of Joseph Campbell, Jung, Bly and Hillman. Thanks for posting that, will track down the interview.

  7. For what it’s worth, you’ve been tagged with a Thinking Blogger Award for your consistently intriguing and thought-provoking work. Cheers & best regards.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.