“To the superficial observer, it will appear like madness.”
Long awaited and just released in the fall of 2009…
“There can be few unpublished works that have already exerted such far-reaching effects upon twentieth-century social and intellectual history as Jung’s Red Book,” so writes the translator of Carl Jung’s recently published personal journal. Shown to only a few colleagues during Jung’s life, and then held in a bank vault by the heirs of Jung’s archives for 40 years after his death, the Red Book has remained a mysterious document known to contain imaginative art illustrations and detailed records of Jung’s courageous explorations into the underworld and dark depths of his own unconscious. By Jung’s own admission, the period of self-examination at mid-life that was recorded in the Red Book was fertile ground for all that Jung would write about for the next several decades. Even Jung’s popular autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, is drawn from the Red Book, yet the document itself has been closely guarded and withheld from the public.
During an intense period of several years after Jung broke with Freud, the younger Jung withdrew from teaching, since he felt as if he could not in good conscience teach a psychology he know longer believed in. In an effort to revise his psychology, he underwent a lengthy period of self-exploration in which he recorded in detail his dreams and fantasies that occurred in self-engendered trance-like states.
While the Red Book is described as Carl Jung’s dream journal, it actually contains very few of his dreams. Instead, what we have are details of his explorations with an imaginal method he later came to call Active Imagination. As a way of exploring the deeper realms of his own psyche he would relax into a restful state which we would think of as a light trance or meditation. He described this as a descent, a falling downward towards a ground below where he normally lived in waking consciousness.
It was in this deeper state that Jung allowed the imagination to spontaneously present him with images. Here he would enter into strange and unfamiliar landscapes and have meetings with unexpected characters. He respected these imaginal beings as real and entered into conversation with them.
It was in such states that a drama played itself out; Jung would have lengthy dialogues with the imaginal beings that spontaneously presented themselves. For Jung this was not play acting, since he took these presences as real and allowed himself to experience real emotions ranging from bliss and surprise to nausea, disgust, guilt and shame. The experiences were so intense that Jung said that at times he had to grip the table with both hands to steady himself as he endured the experiences brought on by the unconscious. For this reason he called this period of self-exploration a “confrontation with the unconscious.” The Red Book is essentially a narrative of Jung’s discoveries during this endeavor.
Jung continued this practice alone and in a frequent and intense manner for 4 years and with less frequency for another ten years, recording in detail all that was presented him. It was an experiment to see what he would learn if he simply trusted Nature to communicate.
Jung began this enterprise in his late thirties after his break from Freud, upon being thrown into a period of profound uncertainty regarding his psychology and philosophy. In was in these intense years that he fashioned a new psychology, and one could also say a new spirituality, since Jung sought to find a new conception of God that would be more psychologically whole. Wholeness is a key feature in Jung’s psychology, both in terms of each human integrating or assimilating lost and undeveloped potentials of the Self, but also in terms of seeking to understand God as containing both light and dark. See Jung’s childhood experience with Active Imagination and God.
In the Red Book we witness what Jung called a “confrontation” with unknown aspects of himself, giving voice to the inner figures that spontaneously arose during his descents into his unconscious. Jung’s method of dialoguing with images and presences within himself was undoubtedly influenced by his observation of mediums that would go into trance states and perform séances, a widespread and common practice throughout Europe in the early part of the 1900’s. Jung found such experiences fascinating and instructive in how one could access remarkable intelligences that exists within oneself but which seem distinctively different than the (ego) self.
While the Red Book contains many beautiful paintings, it should be remembered that Jung did not feel as if he was doing art. In fact, this was an inner conflict that he faced within himself, eventually affirming that his artistic expressions were a means of evoking meaning rather than being primarily an aesthetic experience. Thus, for Jung the purpose of illustrating his inner journeys with art was a means of evoking a deeper connection to the inner figures of his imagination. It was a way of making the significance of his inner experiences more real. In other words, he do not do the art for art’s sake, but rather to bring himself more fully into the feelings of his explorations.
A way to understand this process is to see how Jung interacted with one of the imaginal beings who appeared to him early in his explorations. The painting below depicts a pagan figure, Philemon, with whom Jung carried on imaginal dialogues for many years.
While many adults might see this as strange, we should remember that talking with imaginary friends is a common occurrence among children. In fact, deep friendships are established between children and their stuffed animals or invisible beings that inhabit their world. Jung felt that something similar was at play in the séances he observed which were widespread in the early part of the 20th century. In other words, deeper aspects of the larger self can be accessed when we objectify or externalize our thoughts and feelings as if they distinct from us. For Jung, this was a method to access remarkable intelligence that is waiting to present itself if only we ask. This method of accessing wisdom is largely overlooked in a technological age in which linear, digital thinking is highly valued. The Red Book demonstrates the potential power of another way of acquiring knowledge and unusual insight.
The method of Active Imagination, dialoguing with internal fantasy figures, became a hallmark of Jungian dreamwork. You can see examples of this in the following Dream Stories I have written: There Are Some Loves You Should Never Leave and Disturbed by Beauty. Entering into the world of a dream or fantasy figure allows us to be more fully affected by the intelligence that comes from a source of wisdom outside our normal consciousness. Interpretation is most often the goal and conclusion of working with a dream. This is not the case with Jung’s method. Finding an interpretation of a dream is only the first step in unleashing the power of an image. (See my article, How Dreamwork is Different than Dream Interpretation)
The Red Book is a testament to what might be called Natural Religion or a spirituality that is developed from the ever evolving Self that is indeed as aspect of nature. It was Jung’s desire to see what Nature would present him if he simply put aside his dominant mode of apprehension, the linear, analytical mind, and allowed what else was in him to manifest itself. The conversations we see in the Red Book are a detailed description of what Nature did with Jung. It can be the same with us as well, since our dreaming is Nature speaking with us. All that is required is that we learn how to enter into the imaginal dialogue that would allow this other intelligence to be understood.
Jung’s courage is infectious to many people the world over because he took seriously his inner world and also sought to live true to what Nature, his natural self showed him. In the Red Book you see that this cost Jung a great deal. He was confronted with ideas and experiences that at times felt like an assault on his accustomed way of being. However, he endured these confrontations simply by allowing the full force of feelings and did not run away, and subsequently derived great power from the unconscious forces that desired to be known in his life.
It would be a grave misfortune to look at the Red Book and marvel at Jung’s creative intelligence and leave it there, assuming that indeed he is greater than us. Jung was very adamant that each of us can and must enter into our own experiment with the unconscious. Ultimately, if we are to become the full potential of our being then we cannot have heroes above us who do things that we cannot do. In Jung’s words, we must be the Christ; that is, we must live our lives as distinctly and as uniquely and as fully as Christ lived his life, taking on himself the full weight of a human life and being true to all that he was.
This reminds me of a story I have heard pertaining to a comment that Jung made one day when looking around and noting the tendency of his admirers to follow and imitate him: “Thank God I am not a Jungian!” Each of us must bear the full engagement with who we are, which means that we must be in relationship to our full potential that is speaking to us through latent desires, yearnings, and voices being expressed through dreams and images. This places a great weight upon a human being, but to turn away and not do so causes a deep divide and cuts us off from our Wholeness.