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Reading The Red Book: How C.G. Jung Salvaged His Soul

Is the Red Book a record of Jung's flirtation with madness?

The recently published and impressive-looking Red Book (2009) tells the personal story of psychiatrist C.G. Jung's insidious descent into what many believe to have been madness, and his eventual triumphant return to the world a transformed man. This alchemical process took almost twenty years, starting shortly after the acrimonious split from Sigmund Freud and the Freudians when Jung was in his late thirties. This loss catalyzed what Jung would come to call a massive "mid-life crisis," in which much of his libidinal energies were withdrawn from the outer world and redirected inwardly to his inner life. Prior to this terrifying and unwelcome journey into the hellish depths, Jung had, as he recalls, accomplished everything he had ever set out to do in the world and had all that he ever wanted: professional success, fame, marriage, children, wealth, prestige, etc. But he unexpectedly came to a critical juncture in his life that forced him to recognize that this was not enough. Some vital part of him had been denied. That in achieving these ego-centered outer accomplishments and material acquisitions in life's first half, he somehow lost touch with his soul. The Red Book is a very personal record of Jung's complicated, tortuous and lengthy quest to salvage his soul, and a first-hand description of a process that would later fundamentally inform Jung's unique approach to psychotherapy he called Analytical Psychology. As Jung (1957) put his life's work in retrospect, "everything later was merely the outer classification, the scientific elaboration, and the integration into life. But the numinous beginning, which contained everything, was then."

Jung's style of writing in the Red Book resembles that of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche in Thus Spake Zarathustra, a book he had read and obviously been profoundly influenced by. It is basically an inner dialogue with himself, with his unconscious, his complexes, his "demons," his soul, those personal and archetypal aspects of his personality that had been neglected, denied or underdeveloped, and with what he calls the "spirit of the depths." Each of these repressed elements of his psyche manifest in dreams and waking visions as vivid images, many of which Jung--who had studied art and painting as a young man--depicts vibrantly in his journal, leading eventually to the technique of encouraging his patients in analysis to draw or paint images from their own dreams. Jung's therapeutic technique of active imagination stems directly from these sometimes frightening but edfiying and enlightening conversations with himself.

Prominent Jungian analyst and scholar Andrew Samuels noted recently that as the fiftieth anniversary of Jung's death (June 6, 1961) approaches hot on the heels of the controversial publication of his Red Book, there is likely to be renewed speculation regarding Jung's mental state during this time period. For most Jungians, this is an extremely touchy subject. The suggestion by some that Jung suffered a psychotic break after his traumatic break with Freud is furiously disputed, taken as a vicious slur and gross misunderstanding of what actually happened. Jung, they argue, spuriously and naively in my opinion, wasn't psychotic because he consciously and willingly chose to confront the unconscious, deliberately delving into its uncanny depths while, at the same time, always remaining tethered to reality. This is partly true. There is no doubt that during this devastating period in his life, Jung was deeply depressed, and inundated to the point of being overwhelmed at times by these powerfully intrusive images, thoughts and feelings, which, as he put it, "burst forth from the unconscious and flooded me like an enigmatic stream and threatened to break me." And there is also no doubt that this extremely introverted (a necessary compensation for his former excessive extraversion), treacherous state of mind (see my prior post on the dangers of the unconscious) that took almost total hold of Jung affected his reality testing, impaired his psychosocial functioning, caused him to consider suicide, and forced him to withdraw from most of his former worldly activities, with the exception of his family and, oddly enough, his private practice. Indeed, two of the things that likely kept Jung's head above water and feet more or less on the ground during these difficult and disorienting years--other than writing regularly in the Red Book--were his wife and children and daily sessions with troubled patients seeking his psychiatric assistance. As I sometimes tell my students, one of the perks of being a psychotherapist is that spending so much time focusing on helping with other people's problems prevents us from dwelling too much on our own.

It seems probable to me that Jung did experience some so-called psychotic symptoms during these dark days, including hallucinations. But having said that, there is nothing pejorative intended. Indeed, to me, denying the depth of Jung's despair and severe psychic disturbance tends to undercut the power and importance of his monumental achievement: Rather than being defeated by it as are most, Jung stared psychosis in the face, unflinchingly confronted and explored what he found there, and ultimately came out the other side stronger, wiser, and more whole. What he discovered were manifestations of both his personal and collective unconscious. In this sense, he demonstrated by personal example that the enigmatic phenomenon we call "psychosis" is often about being completely inundated or possessed by the personal and archetypal unconscious rather than caused by a genetically predisposed biochemical imbalance or "broken brain," that it has psychological and spiritual significance, meaning and purpose, and that it can potentially be psychotherapeutically treated with the proper skills, commitment and knowledge. C.G. Jung's Red Book begins as a detailed log of one man's personal, lonely nekyia or night sea journey to the underworld and ends with his heroic return to the outer world renewed, much like a latter day Dante, Jonah or Ulysses. This, as he came to understand, is an excellent description of what real psychotherapy is or can be all about.

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