Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Red Book

Sitting before me is a piece of buried treasure: an over-sized manuscript with a red fabric binding and a very simple title: The Red Book. I open the cover and gingerly thumb through the thick pages, setting my eyes on beautifully ornate paintings of mythical creatures paired with calligraphic text. I find myself transfixed, and I know I am not the only one. The whole of the Jungian community is abuzz with W. W. Norton's 2009 publication of this more than 350-page volume. Carl Jung's personal journal, The Red Book has been kept in a Swiss bank vault for decades—until now. Why is its release such a big deal? The answer to that question rests in the heavy tome's history.

In 1913, at the age of 38, Carl Jung had a crisis during which he found himself shaken by visions of gods and demons. He dealt with his breakdown by sequestering himself in the evenings with a red-leather bound volume of parchment paper in which he wrote about, and elaborately illustrated, his emotionally charged imaginal world. What is now called The Red Book served not only as a forum for Jung to process his chaotic inner life, but also as a chronicle of the evolution of his fundamental theories.

In an NPR interview, the book’s editor and translator, Sonu Shamdasani, described The Red Book as the story of "how Jung recovers his soul, recovers meaning in his life through enabling the rebirth of the image of God in his soul. In so doing, he created a psychology that created a vehicle for others to regain meaning in this."

Wow! So Jung found the sacred within himself and created a whole new genre of psychology just by what amounts to some serious journaling time? Imagine what any of us could do by paying equally close attention to our dreams and images. Granted, Jung’s soul-rattling visions were a little more than dreams. But, still, even with just our lowly nightmares and imaginal visitations by ex-lovers, we have the power to do what Jung did: heal ourselves. That’s what I love about The Red Book: It’s concrete proof of the psyche’s innate capacity to achieve a sense of wholeness. If Jung can do it, so can you.

Want to know more about this much celebrated work? Check out the trailer for the book on YouTube, as well as Sarah Corbett's in-depth New York Times article, "The Holy Grail of the Unconscious," which served as the primary source for this blog entry.

Want to know more about yourself? Start recording your dreams!


  1. LOVE this post! thanks for the inside info on our Beloved Carl ;)

  2. lovely and amazing !

  3. I like your post but I'm not entirely convinced you can call it a breakdown. I know it fits Well, but the similarity with people achieving mental breakthroughs through introspective techniques, Zen meditation, Yoga, ect. is actually more pronounced. I should probably mention I work with psychotic patients, and I see episodes of psychosis daily and actuall breakdowns rather often too. Jungs descreptions in the red book dosent seem to fit the pattern of a breakdown or a psychotic episode. I think if you look hard enough internally the mind needs to interpret the sensations, just like dreams, as something tangible, and thats probably what happend for Jung. The pattern Jung exibits in the red book seem to fit more with descriptions given by people who meditate, there method might wary but in a sense what they do is deep introspection, like Jung.

  4. Lars, Thank you for your comment. I actually wondered if "breakdown" was the right word. I know of one Jungian-oriented therapist who used that word to describe this period in Jung's life, and I deferred to her interpretation. But I was unsure of it, and so I am glad that you are pointing out that a more accurate way to look at Jung's experience would be to see it as a kind of altered state of consciousness that those in deep meditation or introspection may experience.