On Jung’s Red Book, Part I

On Jung’s Red Book, Part I

The Red Book (Liber Novus) by C. G. Jung, resting on Jung office desk.


I have been planning on writing commentary on Jung’s Red Book for a long time, ever since it was released, actually. Until today, I have never been able to begin. I don’t know whether it was something in me that feared going down that rabbit hole, or whether it was simply a lack of time. Whatever the reason, I am now ready to begin the journey.

Most of you already know the story behind the Red Book, so I won’t bore you with it. My comments will begin directly with Liber Primus. Jung names the first section, The Way of What is to Come. From what I understand, this entire enterprise is Jung’s personal transformative experience. It is a plunging into the depths of his unconscious mind, which, at times, is not at all a pleasant endeavor. It can be akin to battling all the demons of Hell. By quoting Henri Ellenberger, James Hillman refers to Jung’s experience as a “creative illness.”1 From what I have read about that time in his life, he nearly lost his mind. He suffered excruciating mental duress.

Jung practiced what he called “active imagination.” I wrote about this 2010, in a small essay called Active Imagination: The Bridge to the Unconscious. In particular, pay attention to the Jung quote near the end. This is exactly what he was doing during his ordeal. He found an immense underground river, which he promptly dived into. The subterranean river of images is an integral part of the mystical geography. As rivers on the surface wander through many different topographies, so this river meanders through the topographies of the Underworld before emptying into the Great Mother, the ocean of the unconscious. As it moves along, it gathers more and more images. Sometimes, images are washed up along the banks. These are images which are no longer viable for human experience and must needs be discarded. Heraclitus said no one can enter into the same river twice. The flow is constantly changing. If we refuse to at least wade in its shallow places, we will be cut off from the flow of images. Our dreams are our built-in way of wading in the shallows. If we desire to venture further into the current, something like active imagination would be required.

It is very significant that Jung had these experiences after his break with Freud, which occurred in 1913. He was on his own in a psychological wilderness, with only his own ideas and theories to protect him. He speaks of it in his autobiography, Memories, Dreams, and Reflections:

. . . I lived as if under constant inner pressure. At times this became so strong that I suspected there was some psychic disturbance in myself. Therefore I twice went over all the details of my entire life, with particular attention to childhood memories; for I thought there might be something in my past which I could not see and which might possibly be the cause of the disturbance. But this retrospection led to nothing but a fresh acknowledgment of my own ignorance. Thereupon I said to myself, “Since I know nothing at all, I shall simply do whatever occurs to me.” Thus I consciously submitted myself to the impulses of the unconscious.2

The “impulses of the unconscious” led him to begin the journey that would transform his life entirely.

If I speak in the spirit of this time, I must say: no one and nothing can justify what I must proclaim to you. Justification is superfluous to me, since I have no choice, but I must. I have learned that in addition to the spirit of this time there is still another spirit at work, namely that which rules the depths of everything contemporary. The spirit of this time would like to hear of use and value. I also thought this way, and my humanity still thinks this way. But that other spirit forces me nevertheless to speak, beyond justification, use, and meaning. Filled with human pride and blinded by the presumptuous spirit
of the times, I long sought to hold that other spirit away from me. But I did not consider that the spirit of the depths from time immemorial and for all the future possesses a greater power than the spirit of this time, who changes with the generations. The spirit of the depths has subjugated all pride and arrogance to the power of judgment. He took away my belief in science, he robbed me of the joy of explaining and ordering things, and he let devotion to the ideals of this time die out in me. He forced me down to the last and simplest things.3

These two phrases he uses are important to begin with. “Spirit of this time,” and “spirit of the depths” contrast the two voices within Jung’s psyche. In the notes, Shamdasani refers us to Faust, Part I, lines 577-579: “What you call the spirit of the times / is fundamentally the gentleman’s own mind, / in which the times are reflected.” The “spirit of this time” is the individual spirit that fuels the rational mind, the everyday consciousness, things of “use and value.” This spirit sometimes brings pride and blindness. It is associated with the ego.

In Memories, Dreams, and Reflections, personality no. 1 is equivalent to the spirit of this time, and personality no. 2 is equivalent to the spirit of the depths.4

That’s all I have time for today. There will be subsequent posts for quite awhile, I would imagine.




Works Cited

Hillman, James & Shamdasani, Sonu. Lament of the Dead. Norton, New York: 2013.

Jung, C.G. Memories, Dreams, Reflections. trans. Richard and Clara Winston. New York: Vintage, 1961.

Jung, C.G. The Red Book: Liber Novus. Edited by Sonu Shamdasani. Translated by Mark Kyburz, John Peck, and Sonu Shamdasani. Norton, London: 2009.

  1. Hillman & Shamdasani, p. 110
  2. Memories, p. 173
  3. The Red Book, p. 229
  4. Memories, p.45

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2 thoughts on “On Jung’s Red Book, Part I

  1. Glad to see you writing on this. I recently started delving into the Red Book finally after buying it 10 yrs ago or whenever it came out! Anxious to see what else you can glean from it…

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