Introduction: A Comprehensive Exam on The Red Book of C.G. Jung

On this New Moon in the heart of spring, I wish to share my comprehensive exam on The Red Book of C.G. Jung, which has been my primary academic focus since the start of this year. This is the second of my two comprehensive exams for my dissertation on the Red Books of Jung and Tolkien. My first exam, on the works and context of J.R.R. Tolkien, can be found here. As with the previous exam, much of the material I’ve written will be part of my dissertation, so I am again not posting it in its entirety, but rather sharing the introduction to give a taste of the work. 

A Comprehensive Exam
on
The Red Book of C.G. Jung

“The years when I was pursuing my inner images were the most important in my life—in them everything essential was decided. It all began then; the later details are only supplements and clarifications of the material that burst forth from the unconscious, and at first swamped me. It was the prima materia for a lifetime’s work.”
– C.G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections[1]

“But your vision will become clear only when you look into your own heart. Without, everything seems discordant; only within does it coalesce into unity. Who looks outside dreams; who looks inside awakens.”
– C.G. Jung, Letter to Fanny Bowditch, October 22, 1916[2]

Introduction

The sea, the mountains, the infinite expanse of stars, the fiery depths, the darkness of the abyss—the world recorded on the pages of C.G. Jung’s Red Book is not the physical domain of the outer world, the world of common day. It is the realm where dreams and fantasy visions arise. It is the wellspring of imagination. It is the natural habitat of the soul, the place where the depths of the psyche are encountered. Many creative individuals have attested to the existence of this second world and have recorded their experiences there in the forms of art, literature, and mystical revelation.Jung – The Red Book

Beginning in 1913, Jung began to engage with a series of profound, visionary fantasies, an encounter with inner images and figures that would change the course of his life. Some say that Jung had gone insane, others that he had received a revelation. Perhaps he had descended to the source where such visions emerge, whether such visions are the delusions of the insane, who are entirely severed from outer reality, or the revelations of the mystics who remind us, as Nietzsche says, that “the world is deep, deeper than day can comprehend.”[3] But rather than proclaiming himself a new prophet, Dr. Jung instead maintained his scientifically-oriented, empirical perspective: he sought an understanding of the origins of the visions, dreams, and fantasies. The journey toward understanding their source led him through the veil into the collective unconscious, the realm of archetypes.

In an effort to understand the meaning of his visionary wanderings, Jung chose to craft a record of his experience in an exquisite, leather-bound volume with the words Liber Novus—the New Book—etched in gold along its red spine. Sonu Shamdasani, editor of The Red Book, has described Jung’s unique project as “a literary work of psychology.”[4] Liber Novus can be seen as the meeting of many rivers, an intersection of psychology, art, literature, and religion—an expression of the efflorescence of human experience.

To enter into an understanding relationship with this unusual work, it must be situated: first in relation to Jung’s biography, and then in relation to the arena of world events in which Jung’s experiences were unfolding. Thus, I begin by focusing on this pivotal period in Jung’s life, drawing from several biographical perspectives and scholarly positions. Next, I look into the practice of active imagination to better understand the method Jung employed to engage with his emerging fantasies. From here I enter into a distillation of The Red Book itself, drawing forward a narrative summary of the three sections Jung composed: Liber Primus, Liber Secundus, and Scrutinies. Finally, I conclude by exploring the implications of The Red Book, first as it shaped Jung’s subsequent theories and writings, and secondly, how its publication in the twenty-first century has begun to change depth psychology, as well as our understanding of the ontology of imagination.

[1] C.G. Jung and Aniela Jaffé, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, trans. Richard and Clara Winston (New York: Vintage Books, 1989), 199.

[2] C.G. Jung, C.G. Jung Letters, Vol. 1: 1906-1950, ed. Gerhard Adler and Aniela Jaffé, trans. R.F.C. Hull, Bollingen Series XCV: 1 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1973), 33.

[3] Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, trans. R.J. Hollingdale (London: Penguin Books, 2003), 333.

[4] Sonu Shamdasani, Jung Stripped Bare by His Biographers, Even (London: Karnac, 2005), 25, note 59.

 

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