Book World

Book World: Michael Dirda reviews 'The Red Book' by Carl Gustav Jung

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By Michael Dirda
Thursday, November 12, 2009


Liber Novus

By C.G. Jung

Edited by Sonu Shamdasani

Translated from the German by Mark Kyburz, John Peck and Sonu Shamdasani

Norton. 371 pp. $195

Starting in 1912, Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961), a specialist in the treatment of schizophrenia, began to experience strange dreams and frightening visions. Once when returning home on a train, the 38-year-old Swiss psychologist hallucinated that everywhere he looked he could see nothing but "rivers of blood." In one enigmatic dream a bird-girl hauntingly announced, "Only in the first hour of the night can I become human, while the male dove is busy with the twelve dead"; in another he encountered a wise old man, with wings, holding four keys. After a while, Jung began to carry on conversations with the winged "Philemon" during his daytime walks.

Was he going mad? After World War I broke out in 1914, Jung decided with relief that his disturbed imagination had actually been sensing the coming conflict. He also concluded that he had entered what we would now call a midlife crisis, a period in which he was being compelled to reexamine his life and explore his deepest self. To do this, he recorded some of his dreams and visions in what were later called his "Black Books" (which have been available for some while). But he also began a remarkable visionary text, illustrated with his own bizarre paintings: "The Red Book" or "Liber Novus." This he composed during a state of "active imagination" -- that is, of reverie or waking dream. As he said, he wanted to see what would happen when he "switched off consciousness."

To the modern reader, the result recalls an allegorical-mythological amalgam of Nietzsche's "Also Sprach Zarathustra," Blake's illuminated poems, Renaissance Neoplatonic dialogue, Eastern scripture, Dante's "Inferno," Yeats's "A Vision" and even the biblical book of Revelation. Jung's pictures sometimes resemble simplified versions of Georgia O'Keeffe's flower paintings and sometimes the symbol-laden images in treatises about alchemy (a subject that Jung was soon to study intently). Throughout, one finds illuminated capitals, interlaced roundels that call to mind stained-glass windows, stars, half moons, swords, crosses, dying animals. Jung also drew circular patterns that he later recognized as versions of the mystical shape called the mandala.

"The Red Book" was never published during the psychologist's lifetime, though a few friends and disciples were allowed to examine it. Apparently Jung felt it was not only too personal and quirky for publication, but also that he had already mined the text for the insights set forth in his later writings. As editor Sonu Shamdasani stresses, "The overall theme of the book is how Jung regains his soul and overcomes the contemporary malaise of spiritual alienation. This is ultimately achieved through enabling the rebirth of a new image of God in his soul and developing a new worldview in the form of a psychological and theological cosmogony." After Jung's death, "The Red Book," was safely locked away in a bank deposit box.

But, as happens, Jung's heirs and disciples have now decided to bring out this facsimile edition (with English translation), as well as mount an exhibition about "The Red Book" at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York (through January). The resulting volume is certainly one of the most distinctive gift books of the upcoming holiday season. With a rich crimson dust jacket, thick cream-colored paper and calligraphied pages, this huge tome is the size of a lectern Bible and looks like the kind of spell book a wizard might consult.

During the initial period covered by "The Red Book" -- mainly 1913 through the 1920s -- Jung broke permanently with the founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, and resigned from his teaching position at the University of Zurich. When Jung emerged from this period of crisis, he brought with him the first inklings of his most important contributions to psychology -- positing the existence of a collective unconscious common to all human beings. This primordial ocean within us affects our lives through various universal "archetypes" -- forces or situations that represent our inmost needs, desires and fears. To the most common archetypes, Jung assigned names: anima and animus, the wise old man, the shadow. The anima, for instance, represents the feminine side of a man, his idealized woman, his fatal type. The shadow embodies everyone's dark side, the impulses we suppress, the immoral and evil aspects of our personality. The good Dr. Jekyll's "shadow" was the wicked Mr. Hyde.

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