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The Symbologist

“The Red Book: Liber Novus”

By Kathryn Harrison

Dec. 3, 2009

From 1914 until 1930, C. G. Jung recorded, revised, rewrote, recopied and painstakingly illustrated what he considered “the numinous beginning” from which all the rest of his work derived. “The Red Book,” or as Jung called it, “Liber Novus,” consisted of some 200 parchment pages of meticulous calligraphy and visionary paintings collected into a huge folio bound in red leather. While its content, either whole or in part, was made available to a handful of colleagues and patients, its publication was postponed until now, nearly 50 years after his death, because Jung feared the book’s potential impact on his reputation. After all, anyone who read it might conclude what Jung himself first suspected: that the great doctor had lost his mind.

Jung began what would become “The Red Book” shortly after he had fallen out with Freud, each unable to accept the other’s understanding of the unconscious. Though Jung agreed with Freud’s basic theory that the unconscious mind existed beyond the reach of consciousness and yet influenced human behavior, he believed Freud’s conception of it as a dark vault of repressed urges and denied emotions was incomplete and unnecessarily negative — too focused on neurosis. The 1912 publication of Jung’s “Psychology of the Unconscious,” which had grown out of his psychoanalysis of the heroes and heroines of “mythology, folklore and religion” made the two doctors’ differences of opinion public, and the Zurich Psychoanalytical Society, with which Jung was actively involved, broke away from Freud’s International Psychoanalytic Association.

Undoubtedly, Jung’s liberation from his mentor was as unnerving as it was exciting, and in the fall of 1913 he had a series of waking visions that disturbed him both for their overwhelming, bloody devastation, and because he could not interpret them. Having worked with schizophrenic patients in thrall to their own tormenting hallucinations, he concluded he was “menaced with a psychosis” and, ever the clinician, decided to take notes on his madness. But the advent of World War I changed his understanding of the visions. In the face of actual widespread carnage, he now received them as prophecy, evidence, the editor and translator Sonu Shamdasani writes, of “deep subliminal connections between individual fantasies and world events.”

Jung’s study of archetypes in myths had convinced him that the creation of symbols was a characteristic of mankind; it wasn’t necessarily pathological — quite the opposite. The “union of rational and irrational truth,” symbols were the essential and necessary product of the unconscious, its “most important function.” Using a language of archetypes and symbols to speak to the conscious mind, the unconscious offered a means toward self-awareness far more profound than the groping of consciousness alone. Armed with this conviction, Jung embarked on a journey into his own unexplored depths.

Practicing “active imagination,” Jung conjured characters with whom he interacted and conversed. Dreams, he felt, were “inferior expressions of unconscious content” because there was less tension in sleep. “The Red Book” “faithfully transcribed” visions Jung recorded privately in his “Black Books,” adding commentary and painting what he had seen in his waking dreams to encourage readers to “understand the psychological nature of symbolism” and challenge them “to a new way of looking at their souls.” The whole is structured after Nietzsche’s “Thus Spoke Zarathustra,” a work of great influence on Jung. But while Nietzsche had announced the death of God, “The Red Book” described “the rebirth of God in the soul,” drawing from many and varied sources, including the Bible, the Apocrypha, Gnostic texts, Greek myths, the Upanishads, the ancient Egyptian “Am-Tuat,” Wagner’s “Ring,” Goethe’s “Faust” and Dante’s “Divine Comedy.” And, as Shamdasani points out, although the writers on whom Jung drew “could utilize an established cosmology, ‘Liber Novus’ is an attempt to shape an individual cosmology.” Jung continued to practice while working on “The Red Book” and encouraged his analysands to summon and record their own visions, as he had done. The book a patient created would be, he said, “your church — your cathedral — the silent places of your spirit where you will find renewal.”

In fact, reading “The Red Book” is like visiting a foreign place of worship. To understand Jung’s text — to meet and listen to the creatures of his unconscious — requires solitude, silence, concentrated effort. At the beginning of the book (which is divided into “Liber Primus,” “Liber Secundus” and “Scrutinies”), Jung rediscovers his soul, alienated while he “had served the spirit of the time.” With it, he embarks on a series of adventures and meets, among others, Elijah, Salome, a serpent and the Devil. The narrative proceeds like a blend of biblical prophecy and dialectic, in places unexpectedly funny, as when, in “The Castle in the Forest,” he encounters a woman from the kind of novels he had “spat on long ago.” “I am truly in Hell,” Jung remarks, “the worst awakening after death, to be resurrected in a lending library!” But the conventional heroine who fills Jung with disgust has something to teach him: what he considers “banal and hackneyed contains the wisdom” he seeks. The heroine trapped in a castle in a forest is an archetype — one that, in this instance, challenges his intellectual snobbery.

“Individuation” is the word Jung used for the integration of conscious and unconscious required for a person to reach psychological wholeness, an evolved state of being he did not consider within the reach of every person. Rather than breaking with convention, the “insufficiently creative,” as Shamdasani calls them, should remain within the “collective conformity” of society, which encourages us to assume that all cosmologies, all myths and religions, lie without rather than within ourselves. But, as Jung argued, the collective unconscious, even deeper than the personal, is a realm into which we can travel to discover all we contain, making the beauty, terrors and wisdom of the unconscious available to consciousness.

“The Red Book” includes a facsimile of every page of the original, followed by a comprehensive introduction by Shamdasani and the full translation of Jung’s handwritten text. Jung’s paintings, many of mandalas or, as he described them, “cryptograms on the state of my self,” are vibrantly reproduced. Accomplished works informed by various ancient motifs, they encourage one to leave “The Red Book” on the coffee table. Most likely, it will not fit on the shelf. At 15› by 12 inches and nearly 10 pounds, the physical size and weight of the book serve as a warning: once a reader decides to follow Jung into his unconscious, it will be some time before the tour is over. Shamdasani provides the historical context of Jung’s inner journey, on which he embarked when self-­experimentation was common and spiritualism attracted the interest of leading scientists, who explored methods used by mediums, including “automatic writing, trance speech and crystal vision” as means of accessing the minds of the living rather than the dead.

Do the decades between the completion and publication of “The Red Book” render it less potent or interesting? Not at all. As Shamdasani observes, “in a critical sense, ‘Liber Novus’ does not require supplemental interpretation, for it contains its own interpretation,” and so it is at last possible to begin a study of Jung with the work he held above all the rest. “The Red Book” not only reminds us of the importance of introspection, but also offers a guide to separating the self from the spirit of a time that would have astonished and offended Jung with its endless trivial distractions, its blogs and tweets and chiming cellphones. The creation of one of modern history’s true visionaries, “The Red Book” is a singular work, outside of categorization. As an inquiry into what it means to be human, it transcends the history of psychoanalysis and underscores Jung’s place among revolutionary thinkers like Marx, Orwell and, of course, Freud. The dedication — the love — with which it was assembled makes “The Red Book” as beautiful and otherworldly as a medieval book of hours.

“What is this I am doing?” Jung asked himself at the beginning of his “most difficult experiment.” A voice answered him. “ ‘That is art,’ ” it said.

The Symbologist