Jung’s big 'Red Book'

jung2Mao had his little red book. Meanwhile, the influential Swiss psychiatrist and thinker Carl Jung had is own big red book. The only problem was that nobody outside a small circle of descendants and initiates had been able to see the century-old book since Jung's death in 1961. Until now. (Amazon is taking orders for the just-published $195 book for $114.07.) In her New York Times Magazine piece, "The Holy Grail of the Unconscious," Sara Corbett tells an 8,000-word-plus story about the book, its origins, its decades in hiding and its eventual publication. Along the way, provides more thrills and explores more mysteries than many readers will find a carton of Dan Brown novels. Corbett also shows how the red book (also known as "Liber Novus," Latin for "New Book") links Jung's "science" and his "spirituality."

Whether or not he would have wanted it this way, Jung--who regarded himself as a scientist--is today remembered more as a countercultural icon, a proponent of spirituality outside religion and the ultimate champion of dreamers and seekers everywhere, which has earned him both posthumous respect and posthumous ridicule. Jung's ideas laid the foundation for the widely used Myers-Briggs personality test and influenced the creation of Alcoholics Anonymous. His central tenets--the existence of a collective unconscious and the power of archetypes--have seeped into the larger domain of New Age thinking while remaining more at the fringes of mainstream psychology.

The article also illuminates the conflicts between Jung's devoted followers, some of whom revere him as a near-deity, and his cautious family members, who had prohibited publication of the book out of concerns it might cast a negative light on its author.

Corbett got some great quotes from Stephen Martin, one of the two Jungian scholars who edited the red book for publication. Martin is only partly jesting when he refers to one of the late psychiatrist's handkerchiefs as "the holy hankie, the sacred nasal shroud of C. G. Jung." In addition to honoring this sacred relic, Martin praises Jung as a prophet and seer:

"This guy, he was a bodhisattva," Martin said to me that day. "This is the greatest psychic explorer of the 20th century, and this book tells the story of his inner life." He added, "It gives me goose bumps just thinking about it."

The Red Book book began with Jung's own blue period.

...in 1913, Jung, who was then 38, got lost in the soup of his own psyche. He was haunted by troubling visions and heard inner voices. Grappling with the horror of some of what he saw, he worried in moments that he was, in his own words, "menaced by a psychosis" or "doing a schizophrenia."

... He found himself in a liminal place, as full of creative abundance as it was of potential ruin, believing it to be the same borderlands traveled by both lunatics and great artists.

Jung recorded it all. First taking notes in a series of small, black journals, he then expounded upon and analyzed his fantasies, writing in a regal, prophetic tone in the big red-leather book. The book detailed an unabashedly psychedelic voyage through his own mind, a vaguely Homeric progression of encounters with strange people taking place in a curious, shifting dreamscape. Writing in German, he filled 205 oversize pages with elaborate calligraphy and with richly hued, staggeringly detailed paintings.

The strangeness of the book can seen in a gallery of images that accompanied Corbett's article.

I hadn't meant to spend as much time reading this article as I eventually did, but Corbett overpowered me, drawing me into Jung's psyche and the circle of his devotees.

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