THE FORCE OF CHARACTER

And the Lasting Life

By James Hillman

Random House. 236 pp. $24

"dying is fine)but Death?" begins one of e.e. cummings's poems, and continues: "o baby i wouldn't like Death if Death were good." Dying is fine because it is perfectly natural, "perfectly putting it mildly lively," whereas death "is strictly scientific & artificial & evil & legal." That was cummings's way of saying that dying is a living experience, one to be treasured, by contrast with death, which is synthetic and final, and thus to be loathed.

Psychologist James Hillman presumably would agree with the first half of that formula, though he might beg to differ with the second, since he is determined to see the sunny side of just about everything, death included. That is what he does throughout "The Force of Character," a strange book aimed, so it seems, at the New Age market, with its insatiable appetite for anything--music, videos, Web sites, books--that makes life on Earth peaceful and laid-back and serene.

As one who is staring his 60th birthday all too squarely in the face, I am receptive to any evidence, real or imagined, that aging is not merely a benign process but also a positive and enriching one. Hillman offers some thoughtful speculations and ideas along those lines (though precious few facts), and for this his book is worth examining. But he also indulges himself in a generous amount of huffing, puffing and gasbagging, most of which contributes more mud than light to the undertaking.

Hillman tosses many arguments on the table, most of which in one way or another boil down to the notion that aging is "an art form" in which our individual characters achieve whatever heights and breadths are within each of us. By character Hillman means--the distinction is important and useful--not the "Victorian virtues" now so widely touted but each person's discrete nature: "We are trying to free [character] from both religion and science by deepening its psychology, finding character defined less by moral virtues than by individual oddities. These traits may often be unsuitable to the programs of religion and unserviceable to the genes' survival, yet they may further the imaginative richness of life."

One's character is not bred in the bone but shaped by experience, curiosity, intelligence and all the other ingredients that go into a human life. Though it doesn't necessarily follow that the longer one lives the more character one will achieve, Hillman does argue--convincingly, on the whole--that the old have much more with which to work than the young and that, being freed from the preoccupations of youth, they have more time and energy to devote to the business of being themselves, of letting their characters flower:

"What ages is not merely your functions and organs, but the whole of your nature, that particular person you have come to be and already were years ago. Character has been forming your face, your habits, your friendships, your peculiarities, the level of your ambition with its career and its faults. Character influences the way you give and receive; it affects your loves and your children. It walks you home at night and can keep you long awake."

Yes, Hillman constantly teeters at the edge of sentimentality and not infrequently lapses into it, but this is a humane and generous theory of character, one that grants each of us our individuality and oddness rather than trying to force us into a moral straitjacket. The idea that the eccentricities of old age are not signs of incipient dementia but expressions of our true inner selves is appealing and may well have merit.

Hillman devotes the central portion of the book to brief inquiries into some of these eccentricities--memory lapses and inconsistencies, irritability, the dirty-old-man syndrome, nocturnal sleeplessness and the like--each of which he tries hard to interpret in positive ways.

Occasionally he's persuasive, but often he overreaches, as when he says of old age's dry, desiccated skin: "A damp soul with its sloppy thinking and gushy feeling bogs us down, occludes the brightness of vision and softens the edge of decision. The dry soul reaches up, seeks illumination. It sparks with flashes of insight and quickly catches fire. And it brings light, as elder, as mentor. But wisdom seems to require some wizening."

Another instance: "This book twists conventional ideas about aging, attempting to convert much of what plagues later years into intelligible insight. We are trying to find a home for our happenings. The facts of aging become more understandable when brought back to soul, which can give them value. A symptom suffers most when it doesn't know where it belongs." Unfortunately, foggy thinking and writing such as that predominate in "The Force of Character," greatly diminishing its occasional flashes of common sense and decency.