The Red Book Liber Novus by C. G. Jung; Sonu Shamdasani; Ulrich Hoerni; Mark Kyburz; John Peck Review by: Ann Belford Ulanov
Something happened to Jung, and when we read The Red Book, something happens to us.
Jung describes this experience in his fortieth year as the pivotal one of his life: it took “forty-five years to bring these things that I once experienced and wrote down into the vessel of my scientific work” (219); this was “the numinous beginning, which contained everything” (Frontispiece).
But the living of it was like an erupting lava of fantasies, characters, and overwhelming affects that “burst forth from the unconscious… and threatened to break me” (Frontispiece).
“The first imaginings and dreams were like fiery, molten basalt, from which the stone crystallized, upon which I could work” (219).
With what can only impress the reader as brute strength, Jung faced into these experiences, surrendered to the images, consented to the different voices, engaged fully in the drama that unfolded: “I have learned that in addition to the spirit of this time there is still another spirit at work, that which rules the depths of everything that is contemporary” (229).
And further, “the spirit of the depths teaches me that I am a servant. . .of a child. This dictum was repugnant to me and I hated it” (234).
Despite his revulsion and the slanging matches that often occurred between him and those he encountered within, Jung found he lived far off from the depths and had to go looking for his lost soul who addresses him directly: “Within us is the way, the truth, and the life. … who should live your own life if not yourself?. . . . The way leads to mutual love in community” (231); “the other is also in you” (301). Jung says, “It cost me a great deal to undergo [the fantasies and emotions that erupted]…. I had to let myself plummet down into them, as it were. I felt… violent resistance to them… and distinct fear” (Jung 1963, 178).
It also costs the reader to engage this book, for it is as if we descend into water, even under its currents, and the images and dramas float by, sometimes shocking in their negative power.
As if in a dream, when closing the book it is hard to remember all that we read!
That has to do, I believe, with the archetypal level at which the book proceeds; images bleed into one another, the paintings show motifs that recur, for example, the upturned shoes, the birds hidden in the tragacanth-like background, the reappearance of the young helper.
An archetypal level of psyche is stimulated in the reader and one’s own drama and mysteries happen, verifying Jung’s adamant injunction: do not imitate my way, you have your own mysteries and your own way (246 n 163; 247 n 164; 254 n 138).
I found I can only read about 3 pages at a time; the text sinks into a depth and takes you with it, stirring up your own images that begin to erupt.
That is what The Red Book gives the reader who receives it with excitement and a matching fear.
We do not become Jungians, imitating his images and problems.
We become ourselves.
The plan of the book is difficult in that one must turn pages backwards and forwards to link paintings to text, (which do not securely connect or all in the one place), and to link prior to later drafts, and footnotes to sections in the end of the book.
Yet I cannot imagine an easier way to have constructed its whole.
For we find in Appendix A some of the original lively images that Jung sketched in his Black Books while on military duty, and only later converted into formal rather fixed paintings in order to study what the psyche was communicating.
Writing out what happened to him, as Liber Novus, Liber Secundus, each with many titled sections, took numerous drafts and the English translation includes a section of his added commentary, called Scrutinies, and then an added commentary as Appendix B.
The whole book took 16 years of painstaking care to create, and stops abruptly mid-sentence (!) as a result of what Jung dis- covered.
Finished eighty-two years before it was published, locked in a Swiss bank vault for fifty of those years, it needed thirteen more of those years of patient negotiation between editor Sonu Shamdasani and Jung’s heirs to bring it to publication by Norton which has done a handsome job.
The Red Book consists of 190 handwritten pages in German in medieval manuscript style, 70 pages of full or half page color paintings which are astonishing in their artistic skill.
(We can see how an anima figure tempted Jung to call his paintings art, which Jung rejected.) In addition, Shamdasani ‘s introduction situates the volume in its historical setting, and in relation to Jung’s prior and subsequent psychological theories, and includes a useful summary of the book’s contents (207-208).
The translators’ introduction is especially fine in alerting the reader to three different interpenetrating levels of writing in which Jung faithfully reports images and dialogues that engaged him, his reflections on them conceptually, and his expression of the experience in a mantic and prophetic mode (222).
This destabilization of language is promoted by the “psychic promptings” of what happened (222).
What did Jung discover? And what do we, his readers, discover as his gift to us in this book?
I will touch on some of his arresting themes that weave in and out, and forth and back in the whole text, as if circling round a center that only intermittently and gradually emerges as distinctly new, and commend the reader to devoted study of the text and the paintings to search out her or his own way. Jung’s path to find his lost soul meant descent to Hell, including murder, loathing, despair at what he was summoned to do.
Repeatedly, he is repelled: “A sickening feeling of nausea sneaks up on me, in the face of abominably perfidious serpents… crackling through parched under- growth, they hang down… from the branches looped in dreadful knots… [the] air smells of crime, of foul, cowardly deeds. I am seized with disgust and horror” (290). Indeed, he is asked to do terrible things.
Yet “the way to your beyond leads through Hell and in fact through your own wholly particular Hell, whose bottom consists of knee-deep rubble, whose air is spent breath of millions, whose fires are dwarf-like passions, and whose devils are chimerical sign- boards. … Every other Hell was at least worth seeing or full of fun. … Your own Hell is made up of all things that you always ejected. . . with a curse or a kick of the foot. . .you come like a stupid and curious fool and gaze in wonder at the scraps that have fallen from your table” (264).
Yet in Hell he must stay, to love his inferiority, what is degraded, low-lying, dishonorable, disheartened in himself. If he does not, he will kill it in his neighbor.
Thus, our very personal Hell affects the wider social realm of living with each other: “But since men do not know that the conflict occurs inside themselves, they go mad, and one lays the blame on the other… you are part of mankind, and therefore you have a share in the whole of mankind, as if you were the whole of mankind.
If you overpower and kill your fellowman who is contrary to you, then you also kill that person in yourself and have murdered part of your life. The spirit of this dead man follows you and does not let your life become joyful” (253).
We must remember Jung was undergoing his descent when the First World War was coming down over Europe, shocking everyone with its bloodbath and destruction of whole generations of soldiers. Jung saw we must accept the basest in us for “the lowest in you is… the cornerstone…. Salvation comes to you from the discarded…. But the lowest in you is also the eye of the evil that stares at you and looks at you coldly and sucks your light down into the dark abyss” (300).
Evil then finds a necessary place in the whole scheme of things.
“Evil has to be accepted . . .and must have its share in life. In doing so, we can deprive it of the power it has to overwhelm us” (288). For accepting the “lowest in me, I lower a seed into the ground of Hell.
The seed is invisibly small, but the tree of life grows from it and conjoins the Below with the Above” (300).
We are thus “freed from the old curse of the knowledge of good and evil” for “if you aspired only to good and denied the evil that you committed nevertheless and failed to accept, your roots no longer suckled the dark nourishment of the depths and your tree became sick and withered… good and evil are united only in growth” (301).
If we accept that, including death, “then my tree greens…” (274).
But then our whole sense of order is upturned; instead of certainty of an ideal and one secure meaning, chaos supervenes: “You cry out for the word which has one meaning, so that you escape boundless ambiguity… from the countless possibilities of interpretation… against the ‘daimons of the unending,’ which tear at your soul and want to scatter you to the winds” (270).
Jung writes, “But for him who has seen the chaos, there is no more hiding, because he knows the bottom sways and knows what this swaying means. He has seen the order and the disorder of the endless, he knows the unlawful laws” (299).
His soul tells him, “Life itself has no rules. That is its mystery and its unknown law” (298).
“Nothing protects you against the chaos other than acceptance” (298 n 189).
One way I understand Jung here is through his perception of the space between our construction of meaning, ideals, order, and the reality they attempt to capture but which is not equatable with our forms for it.
Our God-images are not God. Our “formations” (29 1 ) are not the real.
To see that is to accept chaos, “the boundless, the abyss, the inanity of eternal chaos.
It rushes toward you” (295) “an unending multiplicity… filled with figures that have a confusing and overwhelming effect” (296). And more strongly, “The divine appears to me as irrational craziness. I hate it; it disturbs my meaningful human activity” (291).
Thus, Jung sees we not only exceed binary thinking and his favorite and troubled opposites of thinking and feeling; we exceed all patterns of human order. Accepting this encounter changes Jung’s experience of the divine.
I find astounding how imbued are all his experiences recorded here with the Christian ethos. Good and evil, God’s death and rebirth, the figure of Christ, the soul’s independent life, living in service to God, thread through all these pages.
Jung’s later writings show specific challenges to Christianity’s view of God, of evil, and of the full wholeness of Christ (see Ulanov 2007, Chap. 6).
Here, we see how saturated his consciousness is with ardent encounters with God.
Witness this passionate utterance of his soul: “you open the gates of the soul to let the dark flood of chaos flow through your order and meaning. If you marry the ordered to the chaos you produce the divine child, the supreme meaning beyond meaning and meaninglessness” (235).
This new meaning and child God is found in Jung’s experience of Christ: “We should not bear Christ as he is unbearable, but we should be Christs, for then our yoke is sweet” (283). “God sank into my heart…. He was born as a child from my own human soul…” (244).
For the “depths… will force you into the mysteries of Christ” (253 n. 228). He says, “at one time I believed I was a Christian, but I had never been a Christ” (253 n 228) meaning, “To be Christ oneself is the true following of Christ” (254 n 233). To draw close to Christ’s mystery, is to feel “the fist of the iron one on your back” (254), meaning we cannot cast the burden of redeeming onto the redeemer, but must undergo the mystery ourselves.
By this Jung means, “You do not become God through this, or become divine, but God becomes human. He becomes apparent in you and through you, as a child” (254 n 238). This new presence “whose will is simple and beyond split… you can’t learn it through description, it can only become in you'” (255 n 238).
Jung explains, “I do not myself become the supreme meaning… but the symbol becomes in me such that it has its substance, and I mine. . .insofar as it takes place in me, and I am a part of the world, it also takes place through me in the world…. I am its servant” (250).
Many more themes resound through The Red Book, but space dictates I must confine myself to these that I have touched on all too briefly – the soul, descent into Hell, connection to social and collective dimension, our inferiority, chaos, the divine born in us.
Others, for example, concern masculine and feminine, the reality of fantasy, two kinds of consciousness, the ruling principle and its destruction, the powers of the Below, madness, the figure of Philemon, how to work with the paintings, the beginning of the notion of synchronicity.
Remembering Jung’s repeated admonition, “You may follow me, not on my way, but on yours” (247 n 164), it is important to underscore that Jung means what he says.
The Red Book shows the reader how the psyche works in images, in compelling summons, and in patterns of encounter that unfold a path we create and find when we respond.
What the actual experience will be for each of us when we find our souls will vary as much as we do from each other.
But together we might discover “your God leads you to the God of others, and through that to the true neighbor of the self in others” (245).
The paintings require more than this brief note.
They are remarkable in their colors and design, their monsters that terrify and the mandalas that contain, their figures, and especially their visions of the whole.
Nowhere is it stated what the medium is, but artist colleagues say tempera. With patient labor over years, Jung created these pictures so the psychic images could be studied.
They require reciprocal labor and time in the viewer to glean the psyche’s com- munications.
It helps, I find, to select one or two paintings to study in depth and register our resonating response, and then to move to a new one.
One last word. Jung stopped his work on The Red Book mid-sentence in his discovery that what he uncovered was not his own mental disturbance which he initially feared but faced into anyway and, I would say, with a courage that can inspire us when we face into our demons.
He discerned he had through this fearful experience come upon the way the psyche works in all of us and devoted his remaining working life to developing its implications for therapy and for understanding human treasures of myth, religion, art, unconscious factors in political and historical life.
With his own increasing understanding of alchemical texts and with the arrival of Wilhelm’s translation of The Secret of the Golden Flower, Jung saw a way to further consolidate the legacies of The Red Book in a comparative study of psychic transformation across cultures (formulated in his theory of individuation).
The journey the book relates led him to what we might call Liber Quartus (for which idea I am indebted to John Peck): the building of his Tower where he lived the last years of his life.
Living what The Red Book gave him became more important than finishing the manuscript. He intended its publication, but not for many years.
It lay hidden in a bank vault, only now speaking directly to us if we have ears to hear.
As Jung says, “a book can swing even a whole world if it is written in fire and blood” (232 n 44). ~Ann Ulanov, A Review of The Red Book, Journal of Religion and Health, Vol. 49, No. 3 (September 2010), pp. 395-398
References Jung, C. G. (1963). Memories, dreams, reflections. In A. Jaffe (Ed.). (Richard & C. Winston, Trans.). New York: Random House. Ulanov, A. B. (2007).
The unshuttered heart: Opening to aliveness and deadness in the self. Nashville, TN: Abingdon. A. B. Ulanov, PhD Union Theological Seminary, Psychiatry and Religion, 3041 Broadway, New York, NY 10027, USA e-mail: ABUlanov@aol.com