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The Red Book: One Man's Turmoil

After reading Carl Jung's tome, you will consider yourself mad.

By Dave Levitan

Before I read a single page of Carl G. Jung's newly published Red Book, I admit that I harbored a degree of skepticism. The book had lain dormant for half a century, first in the cupboard of Jung's Zurich home and then in a bank vault. My interpretation of that fact alone? "It was so crazy that even Jung didn't think it should see the light of day." We can call that skepticism, right?

The other aspect to my dubiousness lay in the fact that this text was described by the iconic psychologist himself as that from which "everything else is to be derived." Jungian analysis and theory exists at least to some extent on the fringes of the psychological landscape, with dream analysis and controlled conflict between the conscious and subconscious (known as "individuation") as its central tenets. That there could be a huge, red leather-bound, highly illustrated and calligraphic founding tome to this genre struck me as mildly overblown. And I had seen its actual contents described as a long series of Jung's "active imaginations," or waking dreams that he hoped would help him understand his own mind. My skepticism, I think, was not unreasonable.

Still, though, I was excited to get started. What would it be like to wade through those dreams and visions, trying to make sense of one man's internal turmoil? Would it be like reading a dream diary, or a mythological treatise, or a narrative of insanity? I dove in.


Even the physical act of reading the Red Book is daunting. It is no bedside paperback, measuring 18 inches by 12 inches and tipping the scale at around 10 pounds. The first half of the book has ultra-high-definition scans of every original page, illustrations included, in a largely unreadable German-Latin-Greek calligraphy. The process of bringing those pages into the published version was brilliantly described, along with much of the Red Book's history, in a September New York Times Magazine feature.

The second portion of the book, if you can tear your eyes from multi-limbed dragons devouring things or goat-like humans staring your face off, contains the translation and various introductions and analyses by Jung scholar Shonu Shamdasani. Jung's text is divided into three parts: Liber Primus, Liber Secundus and Scrutinies. The text is littered with hundreds of footnotes from the translator, explaining mythological references and describing differences between various unpublished drafts. It is like reading a giant textbook, only, you know, fucking insane.

Liber Primus reads almost like a personalized Bible. "There is no other way, all other ways are false paths," Jung writes. "I found the right way, it led me to you, to my soul. I return, tempered and purified. Do you still know me?"

Much of the first book is a conversation, or a series of interactions, with the author's soul, who appears to be female. He describes visions and voyages into the desert, dreams and his frustration at an inability to interpret them. I search for why this book might be that from which the rest of Jungian thought is derived and find lines like this: "Dreams are the guiding words of the soul. Why should I henceforth not love my dreams and not make their riddling images into objects of my daily consideration?"

There is a rhythm and cadence to his writing that is mesmerizing, but the content is so hard to decipher or interpret that it continually ruins that rhythm. I come to the line: "You will consider yourself mad, and in a certain sense you will in fact be mad," and, for the moment at least, I find it hard to argue.

The stories in Liber Secundus begin to feel like parables. They are followed each time by lengthy ramblings and lessons about the nature of consciousness and the author's own psyche, but I find myself straining to find any particular thread on which to pull. The prophet Elijah and Salome, of John the Baptist's head-on-a-platter fame, are central characters in the story, and like almost every character they seem to come away from their interactions with Jung much worse for the experience.

Shamdasani wrote in the introduction that the book is generally about "the rebirth of a new image of God in his soul." In the context of the time period's intellectual leanings, I suppose this makes sense. Nietzsche had declared "God is dead" only 30 years earlier, and the inherent instability of language and consciousness portrayed by early modernist writers and artists painted an uncertain, almost vacant picture of our inner worlds.

The process Jung describes, though, seems anything but smooth and purifying, hardly a rebirth from that void at all. A section labeled Nox Tertia (third night) is full of terrified self-indictment: "Everything inside me is in utter disarray. Matters are becoming serious and chaos is approaching."

I finish Liber Secundus, and then Scrutinies, more interested, or involved, than when I began, but meaning still isn't exactly jumping off the pages. I call up Dr. Stephen Martin, a Jungian analyst and co-founder and President of the Philemon Foundation (whose goal is simply the publication of all of Jung's works), for some perspective.

"You're not going to buy the book and say ‘oh now I understand everything,'" Martin says. "If you want to have an intelligent discussion about the depth of the psyche, you're now going to have to refer to the Red Book. But it will be one of those longstanding processes of trying to understand something that's immensely complex."

Am I just skimming the surface, then, and shortchanging a deep thinker by wondering about psychotropic gas leaks in his study, or an unruly personal chef mixing in peyote with his evening meal? Shamdasani, who translated the work and is among the foremost Jung scholars in the world, would certainly say so. At the unveiling of the Red Book exhibit at the Rubin Museum in New York in early October, he said: "This was no lurid psychosis, this was no psychedelic trip.... This was a controlled experiment. He knew exactly what he was doing.... This was not someone stripping and running around the lake."

No, stripping and running around the lake would at least be fun. This was a strange and dark encounter with one's subconscious, and reading through it makes me think that one's subconscious is probably "sub" for a reason. But for anyone interested in psychology, Shamdasani insists the Red Book is required reading: "Regardless of whether you are a believer or a detractor, this is an essential text."

In the end, though, I almost feel cheated. "You will consider yourself mad," Jung told me. It feels small, and cheap, and in a sense unworthy and off-base, but I no longer feel mad once the book is closed: I feel confused, intrigued by the book's mythological and literary merit, and maybe a bit dismissive of its supposed importance. Martin, though, cites the imperative that Jung himself used to deliver to his patients as a means to finding meaning in the book's pages: "When Jung says, ‘create your own Red Book...' what he means is, value the material that comes out of your own inner world, and treat it with respect, dignity and objectivity. And if you do that, your life will be different."

In spite of such exhortations to the contrary, I crawl out from under the 10-pound behemoth much as I began: skeptical. So yes, read the Red Book for its aesthetic appeal and for its uniqueness, for its lyricism and its place in a period's canon, but expect no revelations to come. One man's "controlled experiment" is another man's naked run around the lake.

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