Carl Jung’s Red Book

When I was a much younger man, a teenager even, the world exploded in my mind. There were many things I’ve discovered since that have helped me make sense of the shrapnel that was left behind but, at the time, one of the most significant for me were the writing and ideas of Carl Jung.

I’m definitely not an expert on Jung and, although I re-read Man and his Symbols again not too long ago, it has been quite a while since I really explored his theories and insights. In October 2009, almost 50 years after his death, The Philemon Foundation published Carl Jung’s very rarely seen Red Book (also known as Liber Novus). A few weeks ago I was finally able to get a copy, and I am fascinated.

Early in his career, Carl Jung was a close friend and follower of Sigmund Freud. In 1912 Jung’s book, The Psychology of the Unconscious, caused a rift and made rivals of Jung and Freud because Jung’s book basically called Freud’s theories incomplete. This caused Jung to sink into a deep depression, and left him completely uncertain of his future. Jung retreated into a sort of meditation and began experiencing unusual states of consciousness which he started writing down. Soon he was editing, revising, illustrating and collecting those writings into what would eventually become known as his Red Book. This intense visionary period lasted from 1913 to 1916, although Jung continued to add to the Red Book throughout the rest of his life.

Some people describe the Red Book as Jung’s descent into madness. Jung himself was afraid he was going crazy, but realized he wasn’t losing his mind because he was able to maintain relationships with his wife and children, saw patients, and interacted with others socially. By contrast, the insane might descend into the imagination and never return. The Red Book, and maybe the ideas that followed, came out of a very profound and irrational time in Jung’s life.  Even now, Jung is sometimes considered to be a little loopy, new age, and maybe even dangerous. From what I understand, there are many psychologist (including some Jungian psychologists) who have severe reservations about the Red Book. Perhaps this is because the book is not written in psychological jargon and the ideas may not be fully developed? Of course, at the time it’s writing, many Jungian terms weren’t defined yet.

The images and illustrations in the book are beautiful. Although some depict scenes or characters from the accompanying text, many have nothing to do with the surrounding copy. A number of them are what Jung would eventually call personal mandala, meant to be meditated upon. The illustrations and pictures in this book build a link between the modern world and our forgotten past, a connection I felt right away. I’ve actually read that, for a brief time, Jung considered becoming a painter. But not for long. He realized that was a temptation meant to distract him away from his real work in psychology.

In the end, the Red Book was a personal journey that allowed Jung to discover and connect with what he might describe as ‘the god within’. Jung believed we all must take a similar journey in order to become complete human beings, and it has been a pleasure for me to wander along the route Jung mapped out for himself.

Here are some links and interviews I also enjoyed:

Where Does Meaning Come From?

Reinvest in Your Inner Life

The General Neurosis of Our Age

Face to Face – Part 1 (of 3)

The World Within – Part 1 (of 6)

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