Jung’s Inner Universe, Writ Large
We know the archetype; we cherish the myth. The hero, like the world around him, is in a state of crisis. And in seeking to restore himself and the shattered cosmos, he valiantly passes through a vale of despair, descending into darkness. He risks his life and psyche in perilous encounters with dreams or dragons and finally emerges into the light, spiritually transformed, ushering in a new age.
That restoration may be like Odysseus’ epic journey home or like the return of the Israelites to Canaan. It may be like Siegfried braving his way to the side of the sleeping Brünnhilde or like … well, perhaps like the journey that Carl G. Jung tried to outline in a private chronicle he kept for 16 years that until recently had scarcely been seen by anyone outside the extended family of his descendants. It’s an elaborately designed scripture, filled with his fantasies and surreal imaginings, known as “The Red Book.”
The title is not a metaphorical allusion to blood’s primal coloration nor does it require elaborate symbolic explication. The book really is red, and you can see it until mid-February, lying open in a glass case in an exhibition mounted in its honor at the Rubin Museum of Art in Chelsea: “The Red Book of C. G. Jung: Creation of a New Cosmology.”
Jung, who by the time he began work on this tome had already broken with Freud and was developing his mythically suffused conception of the human psyche, made certain that the book’s significance would not be overlooked by future acolytes. Bound in crimson leather, it is an enormous folio, more than 600 pages, bearing the formal title “Liber Novus” (“New Book”). Jung gave it all the trappings of antique authority and stentorian consequence, presenting it as a Newer New Testament.
He wrote it out himself, using a runic Latin and German calligraphy. Its opening portion, which begins with quotations from Isaiah and the Gospel according to John, is inked onto parchment, each section beginning with an initial illuminated as if by a medieval scribe with a taste for eyes, castles and scarabs.
The book’s accounts of Jung’s visions, fantasies and dreams are also punctuated with his paintings (some of which are on display in the exhibition), images executed during the years of World War I and the decade after that now appear as uncanny anticipations of New Age folk art of the late 20th century. They display abstract, symmetrical floral designs Jung came to identify as mandalas, along with almost childlike renderings of flames, trees, dragons and snakes, all in striking, bold colors.
But what is particularly strange about this book is not its pretense or pomposity but its talismanic power. It was stashed away in a cabinet for decades by the family, then jealously withheld from scholarly view because of its supposedly revealing nature. Since being brought into the open, partly through the efforts of the historian and Jung scholar Sonu Shamdasani (who is also curator of this exhibition), it has become a sensation.
A meticulously reproduced facsimile, published in October by W. W. Norton & Company, with detailed footnotes and commentary by Mr. Shamdasani (who also contributed to the volume’s accompanying translation), “The Red Book,” costing $195, is in its fifth printing.
This modest show, in which the book is supplemented by displays of the author’s notes, sketches and paintings, is now scheduled to travel to the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles from April to June, and then to the Library of Congress in Washington.
The book really is a remarkable object, and not just because it so eccentrically insists on its own significance. It represents Jung’s thinking during a period when he was developing his notion of “archetype” and a “collective unconscious,” positing a substratum of the human mind that shapes language, image and myth across all cultures. And as he was developing his ideas about psychological therapy as a form of self-knowledge, he seemed to have been engaging in just such a self-analysis: the book provides a bewildering, seemingly uncensored path into Jung’s inner life. Mr. Shamdasani writes, “It is nothing less than the central book in his oeuvre.”
That is something students of Jung’s life and work can ponder as they try to put these gnomic tales into intellectual and biographical context. As Jung himself warned in an unfinished 1959 epilogue to this unfinished book, “To the superficial observer, it will appear like madness.” Perhaps even to the nonsuperficial observer.
The narrator is a stand-in for Jung; he splits into multiple parts, engaging in cryptic dialogue with alternative souls. He is often in the company of a being named Philemon, an old man with the horns of a bull, a creature, Jung said, who evolved out of the biblical character Elijah. Philemon is a “pagan” who carries with him “an Egypto-Hellenic atmosphere with a Gnostic coloration.”
Nearly every visitation has some such mix of exotico-mythico-primitivo coloration. One painting on display here shows a centipedesque dragon, its jaws opened to swallow a yellow ball.
Jung’s explanation: “The dragon wants to eat the sun, and the youth beseeches him not to. But he eats it nevertheless.” An inscription goes into more detail, naming figures in the story without explaining them: “Atmavictu,” “a youthful supporter,” “Telesphorus,” “evil spirit in some men.”
Confusion about the meaning of it all was apparently shared by Jung, who transcribed these visions and then reflected on them in streams of semiconsciousness, invoking death, sacrifice, love and acceptance, sounding at times like a Greek priestess moaning from the bowels of the earth. He wanders in the desert, he cries aloud, he eats the liver of a sacrificed girl, her head “a mash of blood with hair and whitish pieces of bone.”
The temptation, after numbingly turning these pages, is to react finally like the psychiatrist Spielvogel at the end of Philip Roth’s “Portnoy’s Complaint,” and say: “So. Now vee may perhaps to begin. Yes?” Maybe that was Jung’s reaction too, which is why he abandoned the project in 1930. He couldn’t even complete the epilogue, some 30 years later, breaking off in midsentence.
Now it may be, of course, that Jung was speaking profoundly in tongues, and that more devoted souls may stumble on the key to all these mythologies. Perhaps. Jung himself, after all, was engaged in more compelling systematic work about the primal forces of the psyche during this period (ideas that may have also influenced the late speculations of Freud). Yet right now the lure of the book comes not from within, but from without, not from what it deciphers, but from what it signals about our own mythological predilections.
Mr. Shamdasani argues that “the overall theme of the book is how Jung regains his soul and overcomes the contemporary malaise of spiritual alienation.” And as he points out, Jung undertook his strange project after a series of apocalyptic visions in 1913 and 1914 that he later believed were prophesies of an imminent world war. He looked out a window, he said, and “saw blood, rivers of blood.” Jung felt it within himself as well, the “menace of psychosis.”
And so he began this enterprise of self-examination, a ruthless overturning of the rational Western mind, submerging himself in a pilgrimage through the pagan land of his own psyche. This project was his belated answer to Freud’s “Interpretation of Dreams,” which had also presented itself as the account of a heroic self-analytical descent into the maelstrom of the unconscious.
We are lured by that archetype still, even if it does not seem to shed the illumination Jung claimed. Go see this book and the exhibition, though, to glimpse an extraordinary relic of a particular way of thinking about the mind and its history. Then, cued by a 13th-century Tibetan mandala here that Jung owned, go upstairs and see the Rubin’s astonishing show of these ancient Tibetan designs, each enclosing an encyclopedic universe, encompassing desire, venality, wisdom, ecstasy and passion. Maybe “The Red Book” deserves a diagnosis: Jung had mandala envy.