The Red Book was a long time coming. For decades it existed only as a rumour, an unconfirmed report of the strange magnum opus of Carl Gustav Jung. It was published, finally, this month.
His followers regard him as a prophet, a master of the secrets of the psyche and the soul on the level of a Moses or Buddha or Jesus Christ. His detractors, most of whom work in his field, concede he had enormous potential as a young man, but that somewhere along the line he abandoned his science – and as a result, his sanity. Either way, almost fifty years dead, he has left a legacy that counts amongst the greatest of the twentieth century. Like his rejected teacher Sigmund Freud, his name has entered the dictionary as both adjective and noun.
Jungian. To the layman the word is synonymous with “mystic”, which is perhaps why the recent release of the Red Book has been met with an equal measure of exhilaration and scorn. Written – or, more apt, created – between 1914 and 1930, the original is a heavy, leather-bound notebook that had been deliberately entombed in a Swiss bank vault after the author’s death. Carl Gustav Jung worked on it during his “troubled” period, when he felt himself facing the same madness he’d observed in many of his patients. As the story goes, instead of fighting back he chose to let the psychosis envelop him, and he recorded his experiences in a calligraphic German script abutted by finely detailed drawings of gods and monsters. Jung left no instructions in his will about what was to be done with the book.
So up until October 7 this year, when W.W. Norton and Co. made the Red Book available to the general public, there had been less than thirty people on the planet who had ever seen the pages that are thought to provide the clues to Jung’s genius. As founder of the field of analytical psychology and progenitor of such seminal concepts as the collective unconscious and the archetypes, his other works had all been read and commented on by millions. Yet while Jung’s children and grandchildren agonised over how to deal with the dairy of the paterfamilias’s self-diagnosed schizophrenia, it remained little more than a rumour.
Which might have been just as well. The book’s key characters are referred to as Elijah and Salome, an old man and young woman who “visited” Jung during his dance with the unconscious. They were often accompanied by a talking snake. In time, Elijah developed into Jung’s spiritual guide Philemon, and Salome became an anima, his inner feminine personality. A decade or two ago, the world may not have been ready for the tale.
Is the world ready now? It’s impossible to tell. As Sarah Corbett wrote in a long, insightful piece for the New York Times Magazine: “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 thirty 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.”
By Kevin Bloom