The Holy Grail of the Unconscious
By SARA CORBETT
This is a story about a nearly 100-year-old book, bound in red leather, which has spent the last quarter century secreted away in a bank vault in Switzerland. The book is big and heavy and its spine is etched with gold letters that say “Liber Novus,” which is Latin for “New Book.” Its pages are made from thick cream-colored parchment and filled with paintings of otherworldly creatures and handwritten dialogues with gods and devils. If you didn’t know the book’s vintage, you might confuse it for a lost medieval tome.
And yet between the book’s heavy covers, a very modern story unfolds. It goes as follows: Man skids into midlife and loses his soul. Man goes looking for soul. After a lot of instructive hardship and adventure — taking place entirely in his head — he finds it again.
Some people feel that nobody should read the book, and some feel that everybody should read it. The truth is, nobody really knows. Most of what has been said about the book — what it is, what it means — is the product of guesswork, because from the time it was begun in 1914 in a smallish town in Switzerland, it seems that only about two dozen people have managed to read or even have much of a look at it.
Of those who did see it, at least one person, an educated Englishwoman who was allowed to read some of the book in the 1920s, thought it held infinite wisdom — “There are people in my country who would read it from cover to cover without stopping to breathe scarcely,” she wrote — while another, a well-known literary type who glimpsed it shortly after, deemed it both fascinating and worrisome, concluding that it was the work of a psychotic.
So for the better part of the past century, despite the fact that it is thought to be the pivotal work of one of the era’s great thinkers, the book has existed mostly just as a rumor, cosseted behind the skeins of its own legend — revered and puzzled over only from a great distance.
THIS COULD SOUND, I realize, like the start of a spy novel or a Hollywood bank caper, but it is rather a story about genius and madness, as well as possession and obsession, with one object — this old, unusual book — skating among those things. Also, there are a lot of Jungians involved, a species of thinkers who subscribe to the theories of Carl Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist and author of the big red leather book. And Jungians, almost by definition, tend to get enthused anytime something previously hidden reveals itself, when whatever’s been underground finally makes it to the surface.
What happened next to Carl Jung has become, among Jungians and other scholars, the topic of enduring legend and controversy. It has been characterized variously as a creative illness, a descent into the underworld, a bout with insanity, a narcissistic self-deification, a transcendence, a midlife breakdown and an inner disturbance mirroring the upheaval of World War I. Whatever the case, 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 later would compare this period of his life — this “confrontation with the unconscious,” as he called it — to a mescaline experiment. He described his visions as coming in an “incessant stream.” He likened them to rocks falling on his head, to thunderstorms, to molten lava. “I often had to cling to the table,” he recalled, “so as not to fall apart.”
Had he been a psychiatric patient, Jung might well have been told he had a nervous disorder and encouraged to ignore the circus going on in his head. But as a psychiatrist, and one with a decidedly maverick streak, he tried instead to tear down the wall between his rational self and his psyche. For about six years, Jung worked to prevent his conscious mind from blocking out what his unconscious mind wanted to show him. Between appointments with patients, after dinner with his wife and children, whenever there was a spare hour or two, Jung sat in a book-lined office on the second floor of his home and actually induced hallucinations — what he called “active imaginations.” “In order to grasp the fantasies which were stirring in me ‘underground,’ ” Jung wrote later in his book “Memories, Dreams, Reflections,” “I knew that I had to let myself plummet down into them.” 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.
What he wrote did not belong to his previous canon of dispassionate, academic essays on psychiatry. Nor was it a straightforward diary. It did not mention his wife, or his children, or his colleagues, nor for that matter did it use any psychiatric language at all. Instead, the book was a kind of phantasmagoric morality play, driven by Jung’s own wish not just to chart a course out of the mangrove swamp of his inner world but also to take some of its riches with him. It was this last part — the idea that a person might move beneficially between the poles of the rational and irrational, the light and the dark, the conscious and the unconscious — that provided the germ for his later work and for what analytical psychology would become.
The book tells the story of Jung trying to face down his own demons as they emerged from the shadows. The results are humiliating, sometimes unsavory. In it, Jung travels the land of the dead, falls in love with a woman he later realizes is his sister, gets squeezed by a giant serpent and, in one terrifying moment, eats the liver of a little child. (“I swallow with desperate efforts — it is impossible — once again and once again — I almost faint — it is done.”) At one point, even the devil criticizes Jung as hateful.
He worked on his red book — and he called it just that, the Red Book — on and off for about 16 years, long after his personal crisis had passed, but he never managed to finish it. He actively fretted over it, wondering whether to have it published and face ridicule from his scientifically oriented peers or to put it in a drawer and forget it. Regarding the significance of what the book contained, however, Jung was unequivocal. “All my works, all my creative activity,” he would recall later, “has come from those initial fantasies and dreams.”
Jung evidently kept the Red Book locked in a cupboard in his house in the Zurich suburb of Küsnacht. When he died in 1961, he left no specific instructions about what to do with it. His son, Franz, an architect and the third of Jung’s five children, took over running the house and chose to leave the book, with its strange musings and elaborate paintings, where it was. Later, in 1984, the family transferred it to the bank, where since then it has fulminated as both an asset and a liability.
Anytime someone did ask to see the Red Book, family members said, without hesitation and sometimes without decorum, no. The book was private, they asserted, an intensely personal work. In 1989, an American analyst named Stephen Martin, who was then the editor of a Jungian journal and now directs a Jungian nonprofit foundation, visited Jung’s son (his other four children were daughters) and inquired about the Red Book. The question was met with a vehemence that surprised him. “Franz Jung, an otherwise genial and gracious man, reacted sharply, nearly with anger,” Martin later wrote in his foundation’s newsletter, saying “in no uncertain terms” that Martin could not “see the Red Book, nor could he ever imagine that it would be published.”
And yet, Carl Jung’s secret Red Book — scanned, translated and footnoted — will be in stores early next month, published by W. W. Norton and billed as the “most influential unpublished work in the history of psychology.” Surely it is a victory for someone, but it is too early yet to say for whom.
Even as some of his peers in the Jungian world are cautious about regarding Carl Jung as a sage — a history of anti-Semitic remarks and his sometimes patriarchal views of women have caused some to distance themselves — Martin is unapologetically reverential. He keeps Jung’s 20 volumes of collected works on a shelf at home. He rereads “Memories, Dreams, Reflections” at least twice a year. Many years ago, when one of his daughters interviewed him as part of a school project and asked what his religion was, Martin, a nonobservant Jew, answered, “Oh, honey, I’m a Jungian.”
Shamdasani first approached the family with a proposal to edit and eventually publish the Red Book in 1997, which turned out to be an opportune moment. Franz Jung, a vehement opponent of exposing Jung’s private side, had recently died, and the family was reeling from the publication of two controversial and widely discussed books by an American psychologist named Richard Noll, who proposed that Jung was a philandering, self-appointed prophet of a sun-worshiping Aryan cult and that several of his central ideas were either plagiarized or based upon falsified research.
While the attacks by Noll might have normally propelled the family to more vociferously guard the Red Book, Shamdasani showed up with the right bargaining chips — two partial typed draft manuscripts (without illustrations) of the Red Book he had dug up elsewhere. One was sitting on a bookshelf in a house in southern Switzerland, at the home of the elderly daughter of a woman who once worked as a transcriptionist and translator for Jung. The second he found at Yale University’s Beinecke Library, in an uncataloged box of papers belonging to a well-known German publisher. The fact that there were partial copies of the Red Book signified two things — one, that Jung had distributed it to at least a few friends, presumably soliciting feedback for publication; and two, that the book, so long considered private and inaccessible, was in fact findable. The specter of Richard Noll and anybody else who, they feared, might want to taint Jung by quoting selectively from the book loomed large. With or without the family’s blessing, the Red Book — or at least parts of it — would likely become public at some point soon, “probably,” Shamdasani wrote ominously in a report to the family, “in sensationalistic form.”
“It is the nuclear reactor for all his works,” Shamdasani said, noting that Jung’s more well-known concepts — including his belief that humanity shares a pool of ancient wisdom that he called the collective unconscious and the thought that personalities have both male and female components (animus and anima) — have their roots in the Red Book. Creating the book also led Jung to reformulate how he worked with clients, as evidenced by an entry Shamdasani found in a self-published book written by a former client, in which she recalls Jung’s advice for processing what went on in the deeper and sometimes frightening parts of her mind.
“I should advise you to put it all down as beautifully as you can — in some beautifully bound book,” Jung instructed. “It will seem as if you were making the visions banal — but then you need to do that — then you are freed from the power of them. . . . Then when these things are in some precious book you can go to the book & turn over the pages & for you it will be your church — your cathedral — the silent places of your spirit where you will find renewal. If anyone tells you that it is morbid or neurotic and you listen to them — then you will lose your soul — for in that book is your soul.”
And finally, there sunbathing under the lights, sat Carl Jung’s Red Book, splayed open to Page 37. One side of the open page showed an intricate mosaic painting of a giant holding an ax, surrounded by winged serpents and crocodiles. The other side was filled with a cramped German calligraphy that seemed at once controlled and also, just given the number of words on the page, created the impression of something written feverishly, cathartically. Above the book a 10,200-pixel scanner suspended on a dolly clicked and whirred, capturing the book one-tenth of a millimeter at a time and uploading the images into a computer.
The Red Book had an undeniable beauty. Its colors seemed almost to pulse, its writing almost to crawl. Shamdasani’s relief was palpable, as was Hoerni’s anxiety. Everyone in the room seemed frozen in a kind of awe, especially Stephen Martin, who stood about eight feet away from the book but then finally, after a few minutes, began to inch closer to it. When the art director called for a break, Martin leaned in, tilting his head to read some of the German on the page. Whether he understood it or not, he didn’t say. He only looked up and smiled.
ABOUT HALFWAY THROUGH the Red Book — after he has traversed a desert, scrambled up mountains, carried God on his back, committed murder, visited hell; and after he has had long and inconclusive talks with his guru, Philemon, a man with bullhorns and a long beard who flaps around on kingfisher wings — Jung is feeling understandably tired and insane. This is when his soul, a female figure who surfaces periodically throughout the book, shows up again. She tells him not to fear madness but to accept it, even to tap into it as a source of creativity. “If you want to find paths, you should also not spurn madness, since it makes up such a great part of your nature.”
The Red Book is not an easy journey — it wasn’t for Jung, it wasn’t for his family, nor for Shamdasani, and neither will it be for readers. The book is bombastic, baroque and like so much else about Carl Jung, a willful oddity, synched with an antediluvian and mystical reality. The text is dense, often poetic, always strange. The art is arresting and also strange. Even today, its publication feels risky, like an exposure. But then again, it is possible Jung intended it as such. In 1959, after having left the book more or less untouched for 30 or so years, he penned a brief epilogue, acknowledging the central dilemma in considering the book’s fate. “To the superficial observer,” he wrote, “it will appear like madness.” Yet the very fact he wrote an epilogue seems to indicate that he trusted his words would someday find the right audience.
Shamdasani figures that the Red Book’s contents will ignite both Jung’s fans and his critics. Already there are Jungians planning conferences and lectures devoted to the Red Book, something that Shamdasani finds amusing. Recalling that it took him years to feel as if he understood anything about the book, he’s curious to know what people will be saying about it just months after it is published. As far as he is concerned, once the book sees daylight, it will become a major and unignorable piece of Jung’s history, the gateway into Carl Jung’s most inner of inner experiences. “Once it’s published, there will be a ‘before’ and ‘after’ in Jungian scholarship,” he told me, adding, “it will wipe out all the biographies, just for starters.” What about the rest of us, the people who aren’t Jungians, I wondered. Was there something in the Red Book for us? “Absolutely, there is a human story here,” Shamdasani said. “The basic message he’s sending is ‘Value your inner life.’ ”
After it was scanned, the book went back to its bank-vault home, but it will move again — this time to New York, accompanied by a number of Jung’s descendents. For the next few months it will be on display at the Rubin Museum of Art. Ulrich Hoerni told me this summer that he assumed the book would generate “criticism and gossip,” but by bringing it out they were potentially rescuing future generations of Jungs from some of the struggles of the past. If another generation inherited the Red Book, he said, “the question would again have to be asked, ‘What do we do with it?’ ”
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