Carl Jung's Frightening Demons

Was Jung’s visionary phase due to mental illness or an existential crisis?

Posted May 13, 2010

Carl Jung Estate
Source: Carl Jung Estate

One reason for the enigma surrounding Carl Jung's Red Book is that he wasn't able to finish it. The haunting book ends mid-sentence, just after its author concedes, "My acquaintance with alchemy took me away from it . . ." It's a tantalizing end to a book full of riddles.

Jung's unfinished sentence isn't the only reason mystery has surrounded the book for decades. As Arnie Cooper notes in "Jung Confronts His Demons," a fascinating article in yesterday's Wall Street Journal, Jung's manuscript and paintings about communing with deities and demons (his own and those of others) were kept "in a locked cupboard in [his] Kusnacht house in the Zurich suburbs after his death in 1961." In 1984, Cooper continues, the manuscript "was transferred to a bank." Norton published it in translation only last October, almost exactly a half-century after its author had died. The book's editor and translator, Sonu Shamdasani, had spent five years trying to decipher and interpret the manuscript, and a further three trying to persuade the Jung family to allow him to publish it.

Although Jungians have been quick to downplay any suggestion that the book records more than its author's spiritual crisis or a foretaste of his evolving intellectual path, the book, which Jung christened Liber Novus (Latin for "New Book"), documents such matters as his conversations with the winged "Philemon" during his daytime walks. By that point, the Swiss psychiatrist had been treating schizophrenia for several years. And though Shamdasani insists that Jung was engaging in a controlled experiment—"There wasn't anything like a psychosis"—the wrinkle in that story is that Jung's unusual hallucinations appear to have been involuntary. Were they therefore signs of madness? Indeed, it's worth asking whether Jung today would be at risk of receiving the diagnosis "psychosis risk syndrome." The DSM-5 task force is currently formulating the term to include hallucations and delusions.

In one waking dream-state, Jung claimed to hear a bird-girl announce, "Only in the first hour of the night can I become human, while the male dove is busy with the twelve dead." At other moments, the influential thinker—either haunted by premonitions of the First World War or hyper-aware of the growing threat of European militarism—saw what Cooper calls a "landscape submerged by a river of blood carrying forth not only detritus but also dead bodies"—possibly a premonition of the devastation that would persist in Europe for the next five years.

Cooper's astute article doesn't try to settle either way whether Jung was mad or sane to experience such visions. His account of the book, as well as an exhibition at UCLA that's been organized around its thoughts and paintings (one of them reproduced above), is well worth reading.  Follow me on Twitter @christophlane