Each time I enter the East Building of the National Gallery of Art I stand entranced by the structure itself, and give thanks to the Mellons who by their magnanimity made it all possible. In this informative and often absorbing chronicle of the Bollingen program -- another astonishing instance of Mellon largesse -- William McGuire reminds us that in the depths of the Great Depression, in 1936, were unveiled the first architectural plans for the National Gallery of Art. The gallery would be the gift to the nation of the great Pittsburgh banking magnate and former secretary of the Treasury, Andrew Mellon. The Bollingen program, brainchild of the extraordinary Mary Conover Mellon -- Paul Mellon's first wife -- required less formidable, although far from trifling, expenditure, but was, in its own way, an equally bold experiment in giving. Masses of people visit the National Gallery; the Bollingen program was unabashedly elitist.

According to the first published announcement, which drew upon Mary Mellon's draft manifesto, "The Bollingen Series will attempt to make available books of the past and present which contribute to the evolution of human consciousness. The Series is particularly interested in the fields of philosophy, anthropology, archeology, psychology, mythology, comparative religion, and art in all its forms." Heady stuff; uncompromisingly so, for Bollingen would challenge the imperatives of the marketplace by welcoming throughout its history the recondite and esoteric -- and sometimes the eccentric: just the sort of program calculated to raise philistine hackles.

How it all came to pass is part of McGuire's story. The name of the series, as of the sponsoring foundation, furnishes a clue. Bollingen is a tiny village at the upper end of the Lake of Zurich. There, at the edge of the reedy water, the great Swiss psychiatrist C. J. Jung, aided by two stonemasons, built his rugged two-story tower, which came to be called Bollingen. Thither Jung would repair to surround himself with the silence of nature. In April 1940 he invited Paul and Mary Mellon to the tower retreat. Thereafter Bollingen would always have a special aura for them, especially for Mary. They had, sometime earlier, been in analysis with a Jungian practitioner, they had written to Jung himself, Mary had joined his seminar in Zurich, and the master had agreed to see them on a regular basis.

McGuire suggests that in the course of time analysis effected a profound transference, with a corresponding, subsequent countertransference, and that Mary "fervently embraced and assimilated" the great man's ideas. I don't doubt the assimilation part, which was demonstrably the case. Transference, however, belongs to the lexicon of Freudian psychoanalysis, whereas (as I understand these matters) Jung's analysands saw him as a guide or seer who helped put them in touch with their own internal spiritual or psychic resources.

Central to Jungian psychology was the concept of the collective unconscious, that profound reservoir of primordial images or archetypes, as expressed in -- among else -- the mystery religions of antiquity, in mythology, folklore, fairy tales, hermetic learning and alchemical formulations. These symbols Jung found to be similar to those produced by his psychiatric patients in their fantasies and dreams.

"Dr. Jung, we have too much money," Mary Mellon had once said to him. "What can we do with it?" The Bollingen program exploring the archetypes, gathering together Jung's writings in an English-language edition, and branching out into a variety of other areas, was Mary's adventure in creative philanthropy, and would in time become her enduring monument.

What hath Bollingen wrought? The first publication was Where the Two Came to Their Father: A Navaho War Ceremonial, a portfolio of 18 large silkscreen plates of gouache renderings of Navaho paintings, accompanied by a booklet of text. Among the entries which followed were books on Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization, Prehistoric Pottery and Civilization in Egypt, The Gothic Cathedral, The Tao of Painting, and Zen and Japanese Culture. Multi-volume collections include (in translation) the collected works of Paul Valery, The Divine Comedy (in the now celebrated Singleton translation), and large-scale editions of the notebooks and collected works of Coleridge.

Such titles are not predestined to become best sellers, but some Bollingen volumes have won large audiences -- among them the I Ching, or Book of Changes, a Chinese classic traditionally consulted as an oracle, and Joseph Campbell's seminal The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949). The Campbell book still sells 10,000 copies a year in paperback, while the I Ching, first published in 1950, in due course profited from its '60s counterculture appeal but transcended such bonuses to achieve a sale surpassing the half-million mark. The esoteric is not automatically debarred from winning popularity contests.

An extraordinary cast of characters -- some famous, others obscure -- files through these pages. Jung drives a hard bargain when it comes to his royalties, and receives top dollar for Psychology and Alchemy. Approached to do translation for the Collected Val,ery, Katherine Anne Porter declines to "work for the wages of unskilled labor." When invited in 1957 to select the translations and write the introduction to a one-volume Plato, Edith Hamilton agreed to do so at the age of 90; four years later the volume was published in the Bollingen Series. Another translation, Nabokov's much discussed version of Aleksandr Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, was also carried by Bollingen. Nabokov's constant revisions almost -- but fortunately not quite -- drove his copy editor round the bend, the page proofs of the vast work going through four stages of revision.

Then there was Winifred Shaughnessy, born in Salt Lake City. As a teen-ager she ran off to join a ballet company and changed her name to -- what else? -- Natacha Rambova. In Los Angeles she designed costumes for the movies, and married, then divorced, Rudolph Valentino. Occult lore -- Theosophy, ancient ritual; the lot -- came to absorb her. It was she who proposed that Bollingen reprint Plato's Timaeus and Critias. Rambova's symbolistic researchers carried her, under Bollingen auspices over a five-year period, to collectors, dealers, tribal sheiks, Coptic priests, and museum keepers in Aswan, Cairo, and Luxor. Reading about her peregrinations one expects at any point to encounter, appropriately costumed, Sidney Greenstreet or Peter Lorre. Rambova's book on "The Mythic Pattern in Ancient Symbolism" never achieved publication or -- as she judged -- perfection; at her death she left behind a typescript of over a thousand pages.

For this reader -- as I expect will be the case for many others -- the most affecting character is the Kansas city physician's daughter who compiled a Cp average as a French major at Vassar, then went on to have a year at the Sorbonne, another in New York at Columbia, and ended up marrying a patrician Mellon. A friend from the early days remembers Mary as bright, vivacious, and excellent company, but no intellectual. Intellectuality would come. Asthma was her downfall; Mary Mellon died at only 42. Her last words to her husband were, "And I had so much to do."

McGuire's Bollingen connection goes as far back as 1948. He began as a free-lance editor, became special editor, then managing editor, and house editor for the Collected Jung that was the keystone of the Bollingen Series. In 1963 Mellon proposed phasing out the Foundation -- costs for the program had escalated, and unfavorable tax strictures loomed as an ominous possibility. Proposals for new publishing projects ceased to be entertained; the fellowship program tapered off. But, happily, re the Two Cameongoing projects such as the great Coleridge edition are being seen through to completion.

The moment was clearly ripe for McGuire's chronicle; enough time has gone by to make retrospection appropriate, yet not so much as to dim recollection irreparably. Written by an insider whose allegiance remains intact, and published in the Bollingen Series, the Adventure is hardly given to irreverence (as the dust wrapper suggests), but it is candid; mistakes are not glossed over. The main handicap for the ordinary reader is, I expect, the plenitude of names, titles, and financial details, which can make the going something of a slog at times. Still the narrative remains shapely, and McGuire writes with lucid economy; he is no doubt an excellent editor. And he has an important, and very special, story to tell, in a book which, like all Bollingen publications, is itself a beautiful object.