In the very short time since its publication, it is now in its seventh printing. No one knows exactly why or how this mysterious book engages its public. Nor do we know what the implications may be. Already, however, in professional circles, conversations take place around the themes of re-visiting the life and work of C.G.Jung, of looking back on his past publications in a new light, of considering the meaning and ways of psychotherapy, and – above all – of looking afresh at the subject of individuation and what it means to be a human being – a subject to be approached not only by academicians and therapists but by the diverse array of persons that thumbs through its compelling pages.
As background for experiencing The Red Book, even before considering Sonu Shamdasani’s erudite and objective introduction, we do well to refresh our knowledge and memory of C.G.Jung’s life situation at the time of his experimentation with psychic depths. From there, we can do two things: (1) establish a perch from which we look at The Red Book as a work of human frailty as well as genius; and (2) position our lives, in details accessible to us, so as to undertake our own journey into the psychic depths.
First, then, I will summarize the unique moment for C.G.Jung when he began his work with fantasies, visions, dreams, active imaginations, and psychological interpretations that make up The Red Book.
1. Considering Jung’s developmental phase, he is around 38 years old, a period of energy, intellectual curiosity, and professional ambition.
2. He is ending a very significant relationship with Sigmund Freud, professional colleagues, contacts, status, and potential for professional recognition within the emerging world of the psychoanalytic movement.
3. He is re-aligning himself with a relatively small number of colleagues who share his intellectual and research interest.
4. He is severing ties to very important, and relatively prestigious professional institutions: the Burgholzli and the medical faculty of the University of Zurich.
5. He is drawing upon his contacts with the artists and their followers who make up the Dadaist, the Symbolist, the Expressionist movements – the powerful currents of modern art sweeping Europe and washing ashore in the U.S.
6. He is falling back on his extensive background and education – formal and informal – in mythology, philosophy, the classics of western civilization, science, and religion as considered from the perspective of comparative studies and Gnosticism.
7. He is also working through the “hole” within his own psyche regarding the failure of an experienced religious faith that would shape and inform his personal myth.
8. In particular, Jung is strongly influenced by Nietzsch’s Zarathustra, who proclaimed the death of God, as well as Dante’s Virgil, who outlined a religious cosmology. Jung is also well acquainted with William Blake’s texts and pictures.
9. He has studied the frescoes and mosaics of artists and architects who projected a vision of human yearning, suffering, and aspiration.
10. He is greatly disturbed by dreams, visions, and fantasies that depict the coming catastrophe to his world – interpreted first as an emerging psychosis and only later, after the outbreak of WWI in the summer of 1914, as pre-cognitive psychic eruptions having to do with outer events and the “general cultural upheaval.”
11. He is wrestling with the dynamics of psychological typology as a way of trying to understand the differences in ways of perceiving and judging among people who are “normal” and free of psychopathology, but more to the point of how the tension of opposites may be psychologically resolved.
12. Recognizing these differences among people with whom he is involved and with whom he acknowledges gifts and limitations in communicating and relating, he decides to commence the relationship with Toni Wolff, a move that runs into the standards of Swiss conventionality as well as the norms of his family and friends.
13. He draws upon his earlier work with the Word Association Test and his knowledge of psychological complexes to support himself in his confrontation with the collective unconscious.
14. Among his personal complexes that make up his shadow, in addition to what has been described above, no doubt Jung would have listed his ambition, his dependence upon rational and critical thinking, and his tendency to take from people what suits his needs and interests without always showing value for the person otherwise.
Given Jung’s fine intellect, his wide-range of life experiences, his tenacious pursuit of his research interests, and his sense of personal, professional, and cultural collapse, more could undoubtedly be said about the background to his work that culminated in The Red Book. But I have said enough to assist us in tracking his descent into the unconscious, and also to assist us in describing ourselves before we descend into our personal and collective depths.
The result of Jung’s courageous and unique work with his unconscious may be summarized, in the briefest way, as follows:
A. He demonstrated a way to approach the inner depths of one’s psyche with a process that challenges the “spirit of the present age” (Zeitgeist), enabling anyone who takes the plunge to escape the cultural complexes, the family enmeshments, the religious
dogmas, as well as all ideological entrapments that hinder realizations of one’s creative spirit and authentic self.
B. He demonstrates how to engage fantasies, visions, and inner images through active imagination.
C. He encourages “the return trip” back to one’s outer world with a commitment to bring news from the spirit of the depths so as to enrich the present moment and place.
D. He teaches and shows respect for the process by suggesting that the experience be conscientiously noted and artfully reflected in a worthy volume, one that may serve as a cathedral of the soul.
E. He places psychology between the humanities, the sciences, the arts, and the religions at such a point that serves to connect one with the inner God image from whom and around whom life – past, present, future – circumambulates in a spiral of purposiveness, guided by the unique star of one’s personal being.
That said, given Jung’s erudition and immense capacity, how are we not to feel intimidated at the prospect of emulating him? How can we proceed when we may feel so inadequate for the task? When our “credentials” are so “humble?”
It does not matter!
It does not matter that our backgrounds may look quite modest. Actually, it is not the resume and credentials that matter but rather the attitude and desire to fulfill our individual life. What matters is the commitment to be ourselves as faithfully and wholistically as possible. As the old Rabbi Zusya said, “On the day of Judgment, God will ask me not why I have not been Moses, but why I have not been Zusya.”
So… what matters, then, is that we do as much as humanly possible to bring the truth of our inquiry to the work. In other words, this work is not an exam for entrance into some elite club; but neither is it an airy parlor game. Rather, the work proceeds best when the known condition of our conscious life – our present condition, our shadow, our fears and desires, our failures and accomplishments, our knowledge and our sense of being at the end of our rope – when all of these are put in our backpack as we descend into the shadowy depths where we bring to our encounters our most honest questions, but also our most determined resolve to represent ourselves with courage and respect.
Notice, then, how the process unfolds:
· In the realm of fantasy and vision;
· In respectful meetings of whatever the unconscious brings forth;
· In active imagination through dialogue or whatever mode may be called for;
· In recordings of the process;
· In reflections on what the encounters may mean for our outer life;
· In symbolic expressions: drawn, painted, danced, sung, recited, carved, modeled, etc.;
· In keep-sake containers of this numinous journey.
Remember, The Red Book went through many lives, even after it evolved from Jung’s Black Books. It was a work in continual process. He probably roughed out his experiences, recorded them in the Black Books, and then transposed them to The Red Book which itself was edited, to which paintings were added later. In addition, he worked on three levels: (1) The reporting of his active imagination, (2) his commentary that attempted to say what the experience means in psychological language, and (3) a Romantic rendition of the experience in a prophetic, pseudo-religious over-tone.
We do not have to labor so intensely as did Jung. He was the first, and he was experimenting with a form, a language, a genre, and a report susceptible to review by the ages.
We are free from all that. But, at the same time, one never knows.
And it is from that perspective that we begin.
Chodorow, J. (Ed.). (1997). Jung on Active Imagination. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Jung, C.G. (2009). The Red Book (Liber Novus). (S.Shamdasani, Ed. and Introduction; M. Kyburz, J. Peck, and S. Shamdasani, Trans.). Philemon Series. New York: W.W.Norton and Company.
McGuire, W. (Ed.). (1989). Analytical Psychology: Notes on the Seminar Given in 1925 by C.G.Jung. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Shamdasani, S. (2003). Jung and the Making of Modern Psychology: The Dream of a Science. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.
The above essay was written in honor of C.G.Jung on the 50th anniversary of his death.