Culture Masters of Mind

C.G. Jung’s Red Book: Making the Soul in the Modern World

Where do we begin with Jung? 

Perhaps it is appropriate to begin with an image. A tall, wizened man with a stocky, powerful build sits in his office chair. He is likely smoking a pipe. You—the patient—sit in your chair facing him. Unlike Sigmund Freud’s famous psychoanalytic couch, where the doctor sits behind the patient while the patient lies down, facing away, Jung’s method requires the psychoanalyst and the patient to look at each other and establish a dialogue. During the course of your session, Jung may direct your attention to a strange book sitting opened on an easel in his office. It is The Red BookLiber Novus. It looks like a medieval illuminated manuscript, like the Irish Book of Kells. Written in German with exquisite calligraphy, the evocative text—reminiscent of Nietzsche’s metaphysical thunderbolt Thus Spoke Zarathustra— is nearly as striking as the imagery present, and the images are, indeed, present. Serpents and world trees. The piercing eyes of the sage, Philemon. Buddhist-like mandalas. One might wonder if this book is really Jung’s at all. Everything about The Red Book feels anachronistic, from another time, but it stirs something in you—the patient—something that comes up from your own depths. Jung encourages you to go over to itand examine it for yourself. He may even draw practices from it for your therapy, recommending clinical techniques and advice. He goes so far as to suggest that, in the process of your own inner work, you go and create your ownred book.

A Life in Images

Carl Gustav Jung was born in 1876 and lived well into the midcentury, 1961. He is known for being the founder of analytical, or Jungian psychology, and with it a plethora (and pleroma) of concepts such as the archetypes, the collective unconscious, synchronicity, and the introversion/extraversion personality types. 

For the purposes of this article, we can circumnavigate (circle around”) the image of The Red Book as depicted in the imagined scenario above, in order to get a sense of his life, his work, and his contributions to the 20thcentury as a profound thinker and advocate of the imagination. And, as The Red Book editor and scholar Sonu Shamdasani often notesThe Red Book—this strange luminary text full of gods and archetypes— is the foundation of Jung’s psychoanalytic method.

It came about after a series of spiritual-psychological breaks and a mid-life crisis Jung experienced after falling out with his mentor, Sigmund Freud. Freud had hoped that Jung would help to legitimize psychoanalysis as a true science in the eyes of European intellectuals (who carried an anti-Semitic  bias against), going so far as to describe Jung as his “scientific son and heir.” Their initial friendship, however, and was a true meeting of the minds in intellectual fire: they day were introduced, they spoke non-stop for thirteen hours.

The Occult Tide of Psyche

Jung was always a strange one. His mother was what we might now describe as an intuitive or a mystic—in the evenings as a child he would watch her to slip into strange reveries, communing with invisible spirits (Jung’s father, by contrast, was a protestant minister who struggled with a loss of his faith). As a young psychologist, Jung’s research never tried to shy away from the paranormal: his doctoral dissertation was entitled, “On the Psychology and Pathology of So-Called Occult Phenomena.” This was a point of profound tension between Jung and Freud.

In Jung’s memoir, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, he calls how Freud confronted him: “Promise me never to abandon the sexual theory… We must make a dogma of it, an unshakable bulwark,” Freud begged him, “against the the black tide of mud… of occultism.” 

Psychology has always been, well, weird. Its hidden, occult history betrays its present day appearances of clinical orthodoxy and magisterial taxonomy that is the modern day DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). Long before Freud was eroticizing the psyche, Franz Anton Mesmer (1780-1850) was promoting an “animal magnetism” which would become known as mesmerism. Mesmer would later be denounced by the encroaching materialism of the scientific community as a charlatan, but his theory was essentially an early form of psychology: that the human body was full of a kind of vitalistenergy—a living electricity—erotic and creative, connective and transformative, capable of anything from healing bodily illness to healing the soul. Mesmer’s patience would be hypnotized (mesmerized), self-diagnose their illnesses, and even channel disembodied entities. Occultism indeed. It’s no wonder that Freud, desperate to legitimize psychology in the eyes of the scientific establishment, wanted to sweep all of this under the rug and never touch it again. 

A Vision of a Flood

“The years of which I have spoken to you, when I pursued the inner images, were the most important time of my life. Everything else is to be derived from this.

My entire life consisted in elaborating what had burst forth from the unconscious and flooded me like an enigmatic stream and threatened to break me.” — Carl Jung

Freud’s materialism would seem to have been a desire, rather than his disposition: he was often very uncomfortable discussing the paranormal with Freud. Once, as Jung was going into a thorough discussion on the subject of ghosts with an interested follower, Freud allegedly fainted. 

Their falling out was devastating for Jung. He was deeply concerned that his own method, after Freud’s which de-emphasized the sexual libido of the unconscious and encouraged a practice that we will soon learn about, “active imagination.” He entered into a midlife crisis. 

This is where Red Book, literally, emerges, or I should say irrupts for Jung. He writes in his biography,

“In October [1913], while I was alone on a journey, I was suddenly seized by an overpowering vision: I saw a monstrous flood covering all the northern and low-lying lands between the North Sea and the Alps. When it came up to Switzerland I saw that the mountains grew higher and higher to protect our country. I realized that a frightful catastrophe was in progress. I saw the mighty yellow waves, the floating rubble of civilization, and the drowned bodies of uncounted thousands. Then the whole sea turned to blood. This vision last about one hour. I was perplexed and nauseated, and ashamed of my weakness. 

Two weeks passed; then the vision recurred, under the same conditions, even more vividly than before, and the blood was more emphasized. An inner voice spoke. “Look at it well; it is wholly real and it will be so. You cannot doubt it.” That winter someone asked me what I thought were the political prospects of the world in the near future. I replied that I had no thoughts on the matter, but that I saw rivers of blood. 

I asked myself whether these visions pointed to a revolution, but could not really imagine anything of the sort. And so I drew the conclusion that they had to do with me myself, and decided that I was menaced by a psychosis. The idea of war did not occur to me at all.”

The outbreak of World War I, as horrific as it was, relieved Jung somewhat from the anxiety that he was losing his mind completely. But the experiences, the visions, and the fears would not stop. As Patrick Harpur notes in Daimonic Reality, “Jung… had no choice but to abandon the Heraclean ego, the Apollonic detachment, of Modern Western man — and risk the descent. If he did not, his unconscious images would take him over.” Jung feared losing control entirely, and so in December of that same year, be began to work on Liber Novus

“It was during Advent of the year 1913 – December 12, to be exact – that I resolved upon the decisive step. I was sitting at my desk once more, thinking over my fears. Then I let myself drop. Suddenly it was as though the ground literally gave way beneath my feet, and I plunged into the dark depths.”

The active imaginationis a kind of inward theater of the mind: “You yourself must enter into the process,” Jung writes, “with your personal reactions… as if the drama being enacted before your eyes were real.” Whatever comes forth in this practice is written down in automatic writing, or else drawn out via imagery. The idea is to concretize whatever is welling up in your unconscious. This is your soul speaking to you, or, as we’ll see, perhaps even the world soul, albeit personalized through the individual imagination. It is also the way that countless writers and artists describe the process of their creative work: Ursula K. LeGuin describes how she findsher stories and worlds already present. Tolkien’s similar writing practice was what he called “sub-creation.” Jorge Luis Borges or Umberto Ecco and countless other novelists describe a similar process of discovering these places, characters, or entire worlds in their imagination rather than inventing them whole cloth.

Modern Humanity in Search of Soul

Importantly for Jung, though, in the pages of the Red Book, the practice of active imagination was a means for him to heal a crisis in his own soul, his own psyche (which means soulin Greek; psychology literally stands for the study of the soul). He needed to descend into the unconscious underworld, and threaten being overwhelmed by the psychic waters, in order to retrieve an elixir of sorts—not only his soul, but what would become his modern psychological practice.

Through his crisis, Jung began to develop just such a study of the soul, and his depth psychology, though framed in philosophical and intellectual terms as a modern science, drew drank deeply from magical and mythical sources of the premodern world. As he worked on Liber Novus, he began to formulate a new psychology that renewed the spirit of the medieval alchemists such as Paracelsus and sympathized with the same efforts of the medicine healer and soul-retriever (the psycho-pomp). Jung became interested in the medieval and Renaissance alchemists, whom he interpreted as precursors not only to modern chemistry but modern psychology. The process of alchemy was a psycho-spiritual one—transmuting the leaden materia of the unconscious through the process of individuation into spiritual gold. Visionary filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky famously included this concept in his groundbreaking film, The Holy Mountain(1973): “You are excrement. You can change yourself into gold.”

Jung would not publish The Red Book in his lifetime—though he had cautiously been willing to do so—and only privately published Seven Sermons to the Dead in 1916. These were a part of what emerged from his work on The Red Book,  precipitated by what sounds like poltergeist activity (precipitated by a rap at the door and disembodied voices calling to be heard). Seven Sermons is reminiscent of the early Christian Gnostics, who described the pleroma, and which Jung would draw as inspiration from for his own collective unconscious. The original sermons, included in the last pages of The Red Book, also feature the prominent figure of Philemon—a kind of visionary guide for Jung’s descent into the psychic underworld.

It is important to note, as we sweep quickly through Jung’s life and ideas, that these images he discovered were not fabricated or “made up.” That would merely be what Samuel Coleridge describes as the “secondary imagination,” mere fantasy. Instead they are an example of the “Primary Imagination,” what Coleridge famously described as the “repetition in the finite mind of the eternal art of creation in the infinite I AM.” Similarly, Jung writes that, “Philemon and other figures of my fantasies brought home to me the crucial insight that there are things in the psyche which I do not produce, but which produce themselves and have their own life.” 

Perhaps more than anything else, this insight is crucial for Jung—and for the modern world for that matter, where Western philosophers such as Rene Descartes have cleaved mind and matter apart into a disparaging dualism. Jung’s astounding insight for a secularized culture steeped in rationalism and materialism—adrift without soul, as it were—was the “reality of the psyche.” 

Archetypes and Ensoulment

The “reality of the psyche” is a fascinating phrase, and underpins what Jung means by archetypes. Rather individuals being born “tabula rasa” (with a “clean slate”), the human psyche is born with certain primordial images—archetypes—that order the psyche apriori(a kind of abstract or universal truth rather than an empirical observation). This “psychic orderedness” coalesces around cultural particulars (the Mother becomes your mother, etc. ) and only then becomes recognizable. Joseph Campbell would be deeply influenced by Jung’s archetypes and develop them in his own monomyth, now known as “The Hero’s Journey,” in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. We can imagine archetypes as general psychic forms such as The Trickster, the Mentor, the Mother, the Father, or even Jung’s own vision of the Flood. As James Hillman writes, “an archetype is best comparable with a God,” and, for that matter, are “the deepest patterns of psychic functioning, the roots of the soul governing the perspectives we have of ourselves and the world.” Psychic reality, indeed.

Not only do we have an individual unconscious, Jung posits, but there is also a collective unconscious, where we draw these archetypes from. They dochange, as it were: in a fascinating text later in Jung’s life, Flying Saucers, Jung posits that UFOs could be a manifestation of the god archetype for a scientifically oriented world. In a time of great divide in the Cold War, where the world was split into East and West, UFOs presented us with the image of the mandala—Jung’s archetype of wholeness—as an attempt by the collective unconscious to heal a world in crisis. 

Circumnavigating the Path of Individuation

One mustspeak about mandalas if they are to introduce Jung, and so we should mention that the mandala is a central image for Jung’s psychology: it is an image of wholeness. It is the image of the Self

For Jung, the Self is a central—and quite literally centering—concept for the process our psyches take towards Individuation. The soul, for Jung, is always oriented towards wholeness. The unintegrated parts—the shadow—must be reintegrated. “Wholeness… is anticipated by the psyche in the form of spontaneous or autonomous symbols.” This very often is the Anima, or Animus archetypes in ourselves that we must reconnect with, and listen to (for Jung, during his own crisis, it was the Anima he needed to rediscover; in Dante’s classic Divine Comedyit was Beatrice). In order to embark on this journey—a kind of monomyth of self-realization—we must go down into the dark, dark places of the unconscious, or, more difficult yet, “take back the projections,” the aspects of ourselves that we so often try to disown.

The Golden Chain: A Psychology of the Image

“Whoever speaks in primordial images speaks with a thousand voices.” — Carl Jung, The Red Book

“You could not discover the limits of soul, even if you traveled every road to do so; such is the depth of its meaning.” — Heraclitus

The language of the waking (conjure the god, the archetype, Apollo) mind, with its emphasis on intellect and rational analysis, can only do so much in these realms. So, we must develop a new capacity to read the symbolic language of dream and myth, liminality and archetype. Liminalityintroduces us to yet another god, Hermes, the messenger of the gods. We would do well to listen to Hermes who dances to-and-fro across the sky, rendering the invisible, visible for us. The soul communicates through the image, through imagining.

The more that we can do this, the more we can listen to our own soul and what it is asking us—what cries out for integration. James Hillman (a student of Jung’s who would go on to found archetypal psychology), in his groundbreaking Re-Visioning Psychology, has stated this succinctly, but potently: “…I am suggesting both a poetic basis of mindand a psychology that starts neither in the physiology of the brain, the structure of language, the organization of society, nor the analysis of behavior, but in the process of imagination.” A poetic basis of mind.

As Patrick Harpur tells us, linking Jung and W.B. Yeats as kindred spirits who worked to resuscitate the lost visionary and imaginal in their cultures, a culture is only as healthy as its imaginative life. This imaginative life is found through myth—so we can ask ourselves were ourmyths are today: for our culture, for ourselves?

Jung saw his role as a champion of the imaginative life; he was a healer, working as an advocate of the soul as mediatorin a world where spirit and matter were utterly cleaved apart. But he was not the first. He followed the ancient Gnostics and the alchemists and the Hellenistic world. “It was like a last attempt to hold together under the banner of Imagination the disparate elements of spirit and matter, soul and body, inner and outer, before they flew apart,” Harpur writes on the spiritual work of the medieval alchemists,

“…thus the outward transformation of chemicals and metals mirrored the inward transformation of the alchemist himself, each acting on and reflecting the other. The Philosopher’s Egg or Hermetic vessel in which his substances took on archetypal significance — Sun, Moon, King, Queen, Mercury, Sulphur, Fire, Water — was an image of soul itself in which fiery Imagination distils itself out of itself, forever separating, conjoining, mortifying, subliming, and multiplying.”

Alchemy, for Jung, offers us a language of the soul, not as a static abstraction but as a quicksilver flame of creative churning. As William Blake poeticizes in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, “Energy is Eternal Delight.” 

And, finally, as Hillman writes, 

“[Jung] is the immediate ancestor in a long line that stretches back through Freud, Dilthey, Coleridge, Schelling, Vico, Ficino, Plotinus, and Plato to Heraclitus—and with even more branches which have yet to be traced. Heraclitus lies near the roots of this ancestral tree of thought, since he was the earliest to take psyche as his archetypal first principle, to imagine soul in terms of flux and to speak of its depth without measure.”

Although we are no longer a text-based culture emphasizing a rationally detached Enlightenment, we in ournew age of Hermes, the age of networks and electronic icons, have nevertheless retained some of the very same pathologies, the very samepathos(which, in Greek, means suffering) that the West has taken on in its ambiguous accomplishment of individualism(which is not Individuation) and scientific dis-enchantment. 

We have lost soul—that ability to mediate between matter and mind, soul and spirit, subject and object. It is imagining that heals this divide, as Jung well knew, and worked to develop as means to heal a world in crisis. 

Thanks to Jung’s estate, and the work of Sonu Shamdasani, Jung’s Red Bookirrupted into public consciousness for the first time in 2009. We might consider this a synchronicity,the a-casual connecting principle Jung developed with physicist Wolfgang Pauli. In those moments of slippage, when the innermost thoughts and images mirror the outermost physical reality, we receive an invitation. In our time of planetary crisis, the Red Book emerges as a catalytic book that cries out, “Look at it,” like Jung’s flood vision, “it is wholly real.” The psyche is indeed a reality, and so perhaps we should interpret Jung’s psychoactive manuscript as an invitation to discover the process of soul-making ourselves and write our own Red Books. 

Make your images, make your soul.


C.G. Jung, The Red Book (2009)

C.G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections (1961)

Patrick Harpur, Daimonic Reality: A Field Guide to the Otherworld (2003)

James Hillman, Re-Visioning Psychology (1975)

All featured images are from The Red Book

You Might Also Like...