The Red Book

Red Book_p4 copy

Last year a large red leather book was pulled up out of a Zurich bank vault, meticulously reproduced, and tentatively unleashed into the world after being hidden for nearly 50 years. The book—called simply The Red Book—is the highly personal work of visionary Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung. It was a work of key importance to Jung, one that was the career hinge in which he went from maverick scientist to full-blown mystic. With its publication we are given access to the imaginative realm of Jung’s spirituality, his artwork, and his own psychological process. The Red Book also offers an alluring possibility: that getting a glimpse at Jung’s inner workings might offer the chance to follow him on his extraordinary path.

Since its publication, the nearly 100-year-old tome has become something of a cultural phenomenon, attracting media attention and selling in a way that no one could have anticipated. The original leather-bound copy has drawn large crowds as it tours museums in New York, Los Angeles, and Paris.

To support the publication of The Red Book, a group of Jungian scholars and psychologists came together and organized as the Philemon Foundation, named after one of the main figures of Jung’s imagination (and pictured on Catalyst’s cover this month). Nancy Furlotti, co-president of the Philemon Foundation, will be in Salt Lake City December 2nd speaking to the Jung Society of Utah about why The Red Book is important now. Judging by the reception the book has received, the timing of the publication is right on. As Furlotti has said, “it’s a book that has found its time. It’s like a good wine that is ready to be drunk.”

Evidence of this can be found in the numbers. The Red Book is something of a freak of publishing nature. After much searching for a publisher willing to take the risk and reproduce the book without major alteration, Furlotti and the Philemon Foundation came to an agreement with W. W. Norton & Co. The final product costs nearly $200, and is as hefty as Jung’s original torso-sized Red Book—18 x 12.3 x 2.4 inches and weighing in at nearly ten pounds. The first half of the book is a full-sized, full-color glossy reproduction of Jung’s meticulous calligraphy and surprisingly deft paintings. The second half of the book contains the introduction by Jungian scholar Sonu Shamdasani, and a translation from the original German letterpressed onto thick, creamy paper. The whole lovely object is printed and bound in Italy. W.W. Norton decided to publish just 5000 copies for a first run, because they were concerned that the book wouldn’t sell. It was expensive, huge, and odd. At the time of this writing, a year later, the book is in its 7th printing and has sold over 50,000 copies.

Were you to come across The Red Book with no context for what you were looking at, you might think at first that you’d discovered the lost life work of a medieval German monk. Jung illuminated his text in a style not unlike the pre-printing press hand-scribed bibles—he uses two forms of calligraphy, and includes careful and intricate illustrations. Looking at the highly patterned and symbol-filled paintings in the book, you might feel you’d entered a culture that is somewhat familiar and yet frustratingly opaque. The paintings seem to speak a language—in the same way that medieval European paintings, sculptures, town fountains, and frescoes created a visual text for an illiterate public, telling them stories and lessons from the bible. Many of the paintings do feel biblical, archaic, and dominantly steeped in a European Christian tradition, but then others seem as if the same medieval monk spent time in China, Africa, and aboriginal Australia. It’s interesting to think that at the time Jung began work on The Red Book, 1913, Picasso was done with his blue period and was well into cubism, and van Gogh was 23 years dead and his work was showing in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Darwin’s Origin of the Species had been in print for over 50 years, and the world was becoming increasingly secular and scientific.

Perhaps the beauty, the old-world quality craftsmanship, and the hefty physical gravity of the book have something to do with its desirability. The Red Book is a refreshing contrast in a literary world that is becoming increasingly electronic and intangible. The object itself feels both pleasurable and important. But the popularity surely stems from what The Red Book represents to people, and a certain hope that it offers. Interestingly, it’s creation stemmed from a year of inner crisis.


Gazing out over insanity.

On a train heading to Schaffhausen, Switzerland, as his mind wandered across the October landscape, Carl Jung had a vision of Europe destroyed by a great flood. The clarity and intensity of the hallucination deeply disturbed and startled him. Two weeks later he had the same hallucination. It was 1913 and Jung—who lived from 1875-1961—was 38, an influential psychiatrist and one of the key players in the new field of psychoanalysis. He had a family, a lovely home, a thriving practice, and international professional respect. Much of his therapeutic practice was conducted with mentally ill patients, so Jung was well acquainted with the themes and nature of psychosis. The visions made him fear he might be experiencing the onset of schizophrenia. From 1913 to 1914 Jung was to have nearly a dozen vivid and awful hallucinations: glowing rivers of blood, a sea of ice, throngs of marching dead.

The visions sent him plunging into an investigation of his psyche. He kept faithful accounts of his hallucinations and began intentionally inducing waking visions between sessions with patients and after dinners with his family. From the time he was very small, Jung had had a talent for creative visualization, and during this time he relaxed his customary scientific mental discipline and let his creative mind run freely. He invited visions, a process he referred to as “active imaginations.” He was trying to quell his consciousness in order to access the “background activity” that was the unconscious realm of dreams.

Jung had always been drawn to medieval history and iconography. Growing up he had a sense of having two different selves (an idea that was groundwork for later theories about introverted and extroverted personality types). One self was intuitive, contemplative, and “connected to history, particularly the Middle Ages” as Shamdasani writes in the introduction to The Red Book; the other was “the Basel schoolboy, who read novels.” Jung had been a deeply spiritual child from a long spiritual lineage, his father was a pastor—as were many of his relatives—and it was expected that he would follow them into the clergy. But from age twelve, when he had a waking vision of God sitting upon the Basel cathedral, and, well, brace yourself: defecating upon it—he felt liberated from the church. As he writes in his Memories, he began to seek contact with the “direct living God, who stands omnipotent and free above the Bible and the Church.”

Despite his inner crisis, Jung kept his professional and family life strongly intact, but privately he couldn’t ignore the similarities between his personal fantasies and his clients’ psychoses. He was so troubled by the horror his subconscious mind was spewing forth that he quit his job as lecturer at the University of Zurich, and left his post as president of the International Psychoanalytical Association. There has been much speculation about what happened to Jung during that period—many assumed that his depression was the result of parting ways with his close colleague Sigmund Freud after acknowledging irreconcilable personality and theoretical differences. Some argued that Jung actually had gone mad.

The active imaginations documented in The Red Book do look a lot like madness, partially because according to Jung, that’s the nature of the unconscious. Furlotti says that Jung “became very interested in [his patients’] fantasy material.” Jung noticed “a lot of [the] material he saw was mythological, it came from all sorts of other cultures. The themes were pretty incredible, and he started thinking about that, and wondering.” Furlotti says that when Jung decided to venture into the unconscious, “he was afraid to get down there and get caught like his patients had gotten caught, but he didn’t.” She says “he had a very strong ego and a very substantial life, so he was able to hold the tension between being ripped apart in the unconscious and living his life with his family.” He was afraid, though, that allowing himself to delve into his unconscious would bring on madness. Nevertheless, he continued.

And then war broke out and changed the entire context of Jung’s experiment. On the day war was announced, Jung presented a lecture on schizophrenia. In a conversation years later he recalled that in the morning before the lecture, “I kept saying to myself: ‘I’ll be speaking of myself! Very likely I’ll go mad after reading out this paper.’” He made it through with sanity intact, though, and as he recalled, “…immediately after my lecture, I learned from the newspapers that war had broken out. Finally I understood. And when I disembarked in Holland on the next day, nobody was happier than I. Now I was sure that no schizophrenia was threatening me. I understood that my dreams and my visions came to me from the subsoil of the collective unconscious. What remained for me to do now was to deepen and validate this discovery.” He realized that what he’d thought were warnings from his personal unconscious about his sliding sanity were actually premonitions, and confirmations of a theory he’d been working with. As Furlotti explains it, “Jung was really a visionary [who] tapped into and recognized the existence of… the collective unconscious, which is that layer within all human psyches which transcends the personal realm and connects us to historical past all the way back to very ancient times and archaic cultures, and it also takes us forward in time, in dreamtime.”

Once he realized that he had actually been intuiting coming events, Jung began to take his visions seriously. With the realization that it was possible to dip into the “subsoil of the collective unconscious” it became important to him to understand the process. The year of existential crisis and depression had also set a process of self-examination in motion for him that resulted in a creative plunge, the purpose of which was to create his own myths and to reclaim his soul. The result and record of the active imaginations, musings, and artwork Jung employed are the content of The Red Book, or as he called it, Liber Novus, New Book.


A church for one: the mystic’s guidebook to creative navigation of the soul.

Long before beginning his work on Liber Novus, Jung had been a passionate student of mythology. In the introduction to The Red Book, Shamdasani writes that based on some of his early work with myth and symbols, Jung realized what it meant to live without a myth. A mythless person, Jung wrote, “is like one uprooted, having no true link either with the past, or with the ancestral life which continues within him, or yet with contemporary human society.” Jung also wrote that, “I was driven to ask myself in all seriousness: ‘what is the myth you are living?’ I found no answer to this question, and had to admit that I was not living with a myth, or even in a myth, but rather in an uncertain cloud of theoretical possibilities which I was beginning to regard with increasing distrust.”

One of the functions of The Red Book was an attempt to find his personal mythology. In the introduction, Shamdasani writes that at its most basic level The Red Book also “presents a series of active imaginations together with Jung’s attempts to understand their significance.” Beyond that, Shamdasani writes that, “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 cosmology.”

Let’s back up for a moment.

Where is the best spot to stand when evaluating the work of Carl Jung? From what branch of knowledge do we look back and judge his work? Art criticism? Literary criticism? Religious studies? Cognitive science? Yes, all of these apply, but it’s easy to reach for what’s familiar, especially in today’s environment where education branches quickly into specific areas of specialization. Yet trying to critically evaluate The Red Book from any one discipline leaves the ground tilting and unsteady. Jung is one of the great founders of an entire discipline of study, but even psychology doesn’t work to provide the critical framework necessary to read The Red Book. (Certainly reading it from a Freudian standpoint would be just a slap in Jung’s face.)

The Red Book is such a vulnerable work that it often feels almost naive, but it’s good to keep in mind that the work was done by a man who was a scientist; a medical doctor who was a formidable scholar also trained in languages, myth, and art. Furlotti says that, “Jung, being a psychiatrist and a scientist, was very much involved in that world of experiment and factual reality. And being so immersed in that world, he felt, well, he didn’t quite know, but something beckoned him from the spirit of the depths, which called him back down to find his soul, because that was what he’d sacrificed in the service of his rational, scientific mind.” It is easy to imagine why Jung’s heirs were reluctant to allow the book to be published. The scientist in Jung didn’t go without a bit of a fight, either. He wrote in the text of The Red Book, “Many will laugh at my foolishness. But no one will laugh more than I laughed at myself… I overcame scorn. But when I had overcome it, I was near to my soul.”

While he may have helped to shape psychology as it is today, in his own life Jung went further out—or perhaps deeper, Jungians might say—than the field he created has been generally willing to go. While he may have ventured out through a discipline, what he was seeking was something inclusive, something Shamdasani used the words “worldview,” and “cosmology” to describe.

It sounds a bit Taoist to say so, but the method that Jung created in The Red Book is really the best method to approach The Red Book. We don’t really get a ground in The Red Book, lot of it feels like a freefall, like searching. In the place of any kind of certainty, empathy and curiosity are really all we’ve got, and the best tools should we hope to follow him. Jung’s vulnerability and openness in his Liber Novus are accounts and examples of the process of individuation. It seems that his writings of his visions are a gift. They also expose him in a way that maybe he was too nervous to release while he was alive— though he does address parts of his manuscript to future readers. It is exhilarating to be allowed access into Carl Jung’s imagination. The content is so rich a blend of his study of art and myth, mixed with his immense creativity.

The western world has become increasingly squeamish about spirituality and insistent that spirituality has no place in the sciences, and Jung’s work is deeply steeped in spirituality. In fact, as Shamdasani writes in an interview for Harper’s, Jung was trying to use his psychology to find a bridge between natural sciences and religion.

Jung was concerned with the schism that he saw between science and religion. Though he was not comfortable with the religion of his childhood, he also saw spirituality as a necessary component of wholeness. Furlotti says that Jung identified “a real longing in human nature to connect with a higher power,” a longing he referred to as the “religious function of the psyche,” or “the god image.”

If you were to draw an arc, and put impassioned religious fundamentalism on one end, and cool, rational, atheism on the other, Jung’s spiritual cosmology would fall on a different graph altogether. Imagine instead a circle with four quadrants representing the four modes of human personality: action, intuition, emotion, and rationality—Jung’s spiritual cosmology is the whole cookie. So often our perceived options for spirituality are spun in that overly simplified either/or, right/wrong, polarized way that include a kind of dogmatism at either end. In his active imaginations and subsequent work in The Red Book, Jung was seeking a new model.

This balancing of rational and spiritual, emotional and physical, introverted and extroverted tendencies—this is the process that Jung would later call individuation, but was still just working out in Liber Novus. The symbolic world he creates/dips into is highly subjective and not meant to be imitated. His book is a mystical text, in the sense that Jung encounters his own soul as well as the divine in a very personal, spiritual way. In the text of Liber Primus—the first section of The Red Book—Jung writes, “The way is within us, but not in Gods, nor in teachings, nor in laws.” And then (in one of his addresses to his future readers): “There is only one way and that is your way. You seek the path? I warn you away from my own. It can also be the wrong way for you. May each go his own way.” His main gift in leaving The Red Book is as an example of how to find one’s own path.

Shamdasani writes in the introduction to The Red Book that Jung shared his artwork and accounts of imaginings with his patients, and advised them to engage in their own active imaginations and create their own records of these accounts. In regards to one of his patient’s active imaginations, Jung said:

“I should advise you to put it all down as beautifully as you can—in some beautifully bound book.” He continues regarding one of the patient’s visions, “Think of it in your imagination and try to paint it. Then when these things are in some precious book you can go to the book and turn over the pages and for you it will be your church—your cathedral—the silent places of your spirit where you will find renewal.”

With the publication of Jung’s personal cathedral, it seems as if we have been handed a very weighty, exciting invitation. Individuation as Jung experienced it included mysticism. He prescribes spirituality as a necessary part of a complete human—as part of a system that embraces science, emotions, and the physical body as well. And maybe this is why there’s so great a hunger for The Red Book—we’re ready to take our spirituality out of the locked vaults and make it part of our unique, intelligent wholeness.


Originally published in Catalyst Magazine, November 2010 Read in Catalyst.

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