Carl Jung and the Red Book
Can we envision a space where art and science coexist? I’m not thinking of the chemical composition of paints or film, or the electronics of the microphone; but an interweaving of creativity, philosophy, spirituality and empathy with the scientific study of the workings of the mind.
Carl Gustav Jung is a gateway figure of immense accomplishment. He began as a doctor. The years of his residency were spent at the Burghölzli Mental Hospital in Zürich where he rose to become the director. Over the years his studies brought him to the works of the great thinkers of the post-enlightenment age. He read Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, Arthur Schopenhauer’s The World as Will, Karl Robert Eduard von Hartmann’s Philosophy of the Unconscious and The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud.
Freud’s book was published in 1900 and sold only 531 copies in its first six years of publication. In his work with many very disturbed patients, Jung formed his own views, but Freud’s work on the interpretation of dreams became part of Jung’s method. He was to have a spirited correspondence with Freud and then a six-year relationship which proved to be challenging for both.
J.B Priestly said that Jung was a ‘master physician of the soul.’ and ‘one of man’s great liberators.’ He spoke Latin, Greek, English, French, Italian, German, ancient Latin and other ancient languages. He kept his personal notebooks in Greek.
In his book Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious, Jung takes up a discussion of the persona and the shadow. The persona is the face that you prepare to show to the world as you would like to be seen; a mask that you wear. The shadow is the sum of traits that the persona rejects; the negative qualities that are suppressed or denied, the capacity for which is present in all of us. According to Jordan Peterson, that recognition of the evil of the self is part of the journey to enlightenment. There is the need to employ what he calls ‘radical truth’ in confronting the shadow.
Jung said that a genuine moral effort was a good substitute for psychotherapy. Peterson suggests that if we are willing to acknowledge our own strengths with all their possibly violent or even frightening aspects, then we become stronger, more capable of exercising restraint and compassion, as opposed to the person who shrinks from conflict and loathes that part of himself that is immobilized by fear.
Years ago I encountered an idea that has stayed with me: that if everything about you was known by everyone, it would be a great relief. One wouldn't have to maintain the fiction that he is somehow a good person, he would be free to strive to be good with the full knowledge of the fallibility, the frailty of the human character and would take responsibility for the choices going forward. Not to take refuge in the excuse that nobody's perfect, but to personify that of which he is capable in progressing toward the light.
In an interview Jung explained his belief that: “We cannot change anything unless we accept it. Condemnation does not liberate, it oppresses. I am the oppressor of the person I condemn, not his friend and fellow sufferer ... What if I discover that the least among them all, the poorest of all beggars, the most impudent of all offenders, yea the very fiend himself, that these are within me, and that I myself stand in need of my own kindness?”
When I read Jung's statements about working with patients and the importance of embracing the whole of one's behavior and character, ours and theirs, I think about the process of songwriting and the listener to that eventual song, who like Jung's patient deserves our consideration and the benefits of our skills. Not skills of psychoanalysis, but musical and lyrical skills that can convey a truth, give comfort and possibly inspire. So to know and be known by the listener is a worthy goal.
Who are the models for us as we prepare to do the kind of work of which we are uniquely capable? Certainly this man is one for me. I offer these glimpses of him as a guide to a path that one might explore, not to do what he did, but to do that thing which we can’t quite envision for ourselves. Our time is different, and the way we will address the issues that come up in our time will be the thing that renders our work meaningful or not.
I don't limit the definition of success to only the tangible rewards of wealth or fame; the Oscars, Emmys, Tonys, Grammys, and Presidential honors. There may not be any recognized affirmation of something we create, but if the process is authentic and we bring our best to it, that achievement is a validation of the effort.
I’m always looking for a ground plane. Some place to stand while things are shifting around us. Change is the only constant as they say. Fats Waller said, “One never knows, do one?” What do we know? What can we rely on? We always say, “The sun'll come out tomorrow,” and somewhere that’s true even if the rain continues in our little corner of the cosmos. But it can seem like the rain is incessant in our troubled time.
Grant me the power to change what I can, but what about the rest? In the effort to understand the great mysteries, or at least to put them in a context I can live with, I continue to find courage in the voices of those who have gone before, and acquitted themselves well.
There is the tool belt of survival that includes not only the job skills, but the living skills, and the more intangible faith-based skill set, harder to define. Again, the work of Carl Jung has given me much that I cherish in my little survival kit of spirituality.
This is not to say that I reject the spiritual teaching of the ancients. I respect it and I work to interpolate it into my present life, continually unfolding to reveal leaves of insight that I had to accept in a more simplified form until I was ready to take up a more nuanced study. ‘When I was a child, etc.’ I don't ever truly put away those childish things, I still appreciate the familiarity and comfort of the childhood magic, but I believe I understand it in new ways, more grown-up ways.
There are many famous quotes attributed to Jung. These come from his pages and interviews:
“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”
“Dreams are the guiding words of the soul. Why should I henceforth not love my dreams and not make their riddling images into objects of my daily consideration?”
“The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances: if there is any reaction, both are transformed.”
This last is similar to a thought that I had, something I wrote down because it seemed to have merit. It was, "Do you mean to say that ever since then you've wanted to be like him? No, I mean that ever since then I've been like him."
And more of Jung’s thoughts:
“Neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering.”
“Every form of addiction is bad, no matter whether the narcotic be alcohol, morphine or idealism.”
“Shrinking away from death is something unhealthy and abnormal which robs the second half of life of its purpose.”
I know of many ways of thinking about death, much of it from tradition and mythology, from song and fable and from tract. The one thing that stands out for me is that offering to give the listener a life after death, something which I can't possibly know or legitimately offer, is fraud; cruel and exploitative of the listener's fears.
“Where love rules, there is no will to power, and where power predominates, love is lacking. The one is the shadow of the other.”
“Understanding does not cure evil, but it is a definite help, inasmuch as one can cope with a comprehensible darkness.”
“There is no coming to consciousness without pain.”
“Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word 'happy' would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness.”
“Knowledge rests not upon truth alone, but upon error also.”
“Unfortunately there can be no doubt that man is, on the whole, less good than he imagines himself or wants to be. Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual's conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. If an inferiority is conscious, one always has a chance to correct it ... But if it is repressed and isolated from consciousness, it never gets corrected.”
“A man who has not passed through the inferno of his passions has never overcome them. The privilege of a lifetime is to become who you truly are.”
When we take up the work of the great teachers, the Greeks, the Tao, the Gospels, the Enlightenment philosophers, we need to understand them in the context of their time. Many of their writings are largely collections of the wisdom that was current in their circle. They may contain fresh insights, true genius, but generally are built on what has come before.
The Gospels, for instance have us reading words of ancient wisdom, but presented within the story of heroes more or less contemporary with their authors. Those authors wanted to share with us the wisdom that helped them through their day and their days. And so we have the teaching of Jesus which is generally uplifting and encouraging to the extent that we identify with a person much like ourselves.
If there are other messages about obedience to a vision which is so specific to his time and situation in the iron-age turmoil of first century Israel, then we might need to evaluate that in the light of what works for us in our time. It wouldn't do for us to impose that stricture on our neighbors who have come to their own understanding of what works for them. Otherwise we make of ourselves Talibans of dogma, disrupting the living path of spiritual discovery and growth – the one truly sacred thing. If any person is sacred, then all are. To make a separation there is to commit the original sin of duplicity.
Active imagination is a conscious intention to engage the unconscious in waking life by focusing on an image or a thought and letting that image or thought have a life of its own. Jung said to a patient, “Call up that yellow mass that you described from your dream, just attend to it, focus on it until it moves or does something of its own.” This is calling up the autonomous capability of the unconscious mind so that the ego or present mind can interpret it and better understand. Jung also suggested that this approach could work within the dream which he called ‘dreaming the dream forward.’ I’m sure a lot of us have dreamed songs that we are sometimes able to recall.
For Jung, the personal unconscious was the catalog of memories, events in life that are forgotten or repressed because of their distressing nature. The collective unconscious, or the universal unconscious, was the repository of symbols and ‘psychic structures’ which are shared by all others and are present in the primitive and ancient world as well as the realm of dreams.
Out of this collective unconscious Jung identified what he called the ‘archetypes’ applying a term from archaeology. He wrote: “From the unconscious there emanate determining influences which independently of tradition, guarantee in every single individual a similarity and even a sameness of experience and also of the way it is represented imaginatively.”
In Jung’s words: “The ancient alchemical symbol known as the self, is the circle in the square or the square in the circle. This symbol goes right back into the pre-history of man, and is found all over the earth.” It shows a center and a periphery, usually with the additional feature of a square, cross, or some other representation of quaternity, and seeks to embrace a sense of wholeness.
“When there is chaos or disorder in a man’s mind, then this symbol can appear as a mandala in a dream or in nature or in fantastical drawings and provide a compensatory archetype to bring order – showing the possibility of order. The center of the mandala is the center of the whole personality. It is not the ego, that is a fragment only.” And “The debt we owe to the play of imagination is incalculable.”
Freud recognized the unconscious as had others before him. He collected sculptures and fragments of ancient art, oriental, primitive as well as classical. He recognized that they represented traits of the unconscious mind. He knew that the unconscious was the real basis of the personality, far older and greater than the conscious mind, expressing itself in mythical, magical and religious ways. He sought to resolve these disparate elements in rational thought.
Jung was more curious about the occult nature of these elements of the unconscious and sought to integrate them into his research and practice. Both recognized that the unconscious mind appeared to be threatening and disordered, but that it may seem so because we have become so alienated from it. Freud saw this exploration as useful for the interpretation of dreams and psychoanalysis, but saw his job as strengthening the ego of the patient so that he or she could cope with their lives.
When Jung met Freud he liked him very much. But he soon discovered that when Freud had thoughts on something, then it was settled, while Jung was doubting and questioning all the time. Jung found that he disagreed with many of Freud's assumptions about the world.
He came to feel that Freud’s practice was very largely based on his own personality and his own discoveries, and Jung was troubled by his disregard for the historical and inherited conditions of man. Jung felt that this background was the predominant factor in psychology. “We are not of today, or yesterday, we are of an immense age.”
Jung had come to his work from years in a mental hospital where he took on patients with true madness, frightening psychoses, where the ego resources were overwhelmed by the violence of the unconscious. Jung went further into the areas of creativity and paranormal phenomena, something that Freud rejected, and this too was a point of discord between them.
Also, Freud placed sexuality at the center of his theories, and was less tolerant of the role of history and religion. Those issues contributed to the break in their collaboration that occurred in 1913. Freud had hoped that Jung would carry on his work and help to promote his theories and was disappointed when Jung moved on ahead with his own work and research.
In this quote Jung was speaking of one of his patients, but it may also apply to his struggle with his mentor and friend. “Man won’t stand for his nullification. There will be a reaction, I see it setting in, When I think of my patients, they all seek their own existence, and to assure their existence against that complete atomization into nothingness or into meaninglessness. Man cannot stand a meaningless life.”
“We need more understanding of human nature, because the only real danger that exists is man himself. He is the great danger and we are pitifully unaware of it. We know nothing of man, far too little. His psyche should be studied because we are the origin of all coming evil.”
As a student of archaeology and ancient languages Jung became interested in alchemy. Many of the scientists who preceded him, Newton, Galileo and others were alchemists. You can imagine the fascination with glass and its properties, melting, refining, tempering, shaping, the hundred ways that the technician was guided by alchemical wizardry, and yet, still early in the discoveries of modern physics and metallurgy and lens making.
To a scientist all facts are of equal value, since facts have no usefulness in themselves. To be aware of too many facts of equal value would be immobilizing and daunting. Instead we choose facts according to their relevance to our needs.
The songwriter and the joke teller choose the elements of their work according to what lends strength to the song or the joke. It's the same for the rocket scientist or the sanitation worker. Dirt is just matter in the wrong place; clutter can ruin a good joke or a good song.
My personal belief is that Jung believed that much of what was at work in the unconscious mind needed to be considered in spiritual or religious terms, but by this I don’t think he meant conforming the exploration to religious doctrine so much as allowing for a spiritual component. He sought a spiritual language that was not the dogma of organized churches, which might be more accurately characterized as political entities.
When the Oracle of Delphi was once asked about the outcome of an upcoming battle, the reply was, “Whether called upon or not, God will be present.” This is the pre-Christian motto Jung chose to be inscribed in Greek above the door of his home in Zurich. For Jung it meant the religious question is inescapable; sooner or later the wisdom of the unconscious which is present in religious terms as well as all the other symbolic, archetypal and instinctual terms will come to bear.
Jung wrote that: “Man’s task is to become conscious of the contents that press upward from the unconscious. As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.”
When the final break with Freud came in 1913, Jung retreated from many of his professional activities to intensely reconsider his personal and professional path. Biographers and critics have disagreed whether these years in Jung's life should be seen as “a creative illness,” a period of introspection, a psychotic break, or simply madness.
Both Freud and Jung coped with mid-life crises, twenty years apart. Jung experienced the emergence of strange impulses and fantasies from his own unconscious. Rather than reject or repress these visitations, he encouraged them. He took up the practice of spending his evenings creating drawings and calligraphic panels which eventually became part of what he called the Red Book.
During World War I, he began to refine his own abilities with art in order to represent the symbols that he envisioned. Some of this was based on journals he had kept, and some came from his archaeological studies. Eventually he was to travel to remote places to find sources of universal symbols and in time he learned ancient languages to be able to interpret original texts in this same pursuit of the nature of the deeper mind.
He recognized that the images that came to him in these paintings and drawings were not purely personal; they were drawn from a primeval world of myth and symbolism. The Red Book reveals his thinking about the language of psychology as imagistic, and as poetic. When the psyche is addressed, the language is not clinical but poetical. The Red Book is the repository of Jung's private thinking of years of exploration of these ideas, and as such was protected, kept from public view until after his death. It might have subverted his credibility as a therapist and a scientist, and so he had to keep it separate from his otherwise voluminous published work.
One of the things that it takes up is the myth of separateness. The tendency to remain locked in a logic of opposites, the adherence to the 'break' which fractures the soul into right and wrong being – right and wrong nature. “Four legs good, two legs bad,” was Orwell's way of expressing a similar absurd reduction of complexity. Contraries are not opposites, they're necessary to each other. They are correlative to each ether, they are coexistent, you don't have one without the other.
Jung said that he felt that the best creative work that he did was with his adoption of the technique we know now as ‘active imagination.’ This was a system of exercises that he began in his forties. His work on the Red Book, and his concepts of shadow and delineation of the archetypes came out of this practice.
One way to think of active imagination is as a dialogue between consciousness and the unconscious. Meditation, dream analysis and other techniques can be part of this practice and experimentation is encouraged. Jung was reluctant to systematize active imagination as a technique or to name it at all. At first he referred to it as ‘the transcendent function’ and also ‘the picture method’ or ‘active fantasy,’ or ‘visioning.’ The important thing was to facilitate a dialog with the unconscious.
In 1957, near the end of his life, Jung spoke to Aniela Jaffé about the Red Book and the process which yielded it; in that interview he said: “The years when I pursued the inner images, were the most important time of my life. Everything else is to be derived from this. It began at that time, and the later details hardly matter anymore. 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. That was the stuff and material for more than only one life. Everything later was merely the outer classification, scientific elaboration, and the integration into life. But the numinous beginning, which contained everything, was then.”
James Hillman, in his talk on the Red Book, quotes the poet W. H. Auden by way of explaining his approach to understanding the experimenting that Jung was doing. “We are lived by powers we pretend to understand.” What Jung in his work was trying to make clear is the pretending to understand, trying to understand the powers that are living us. This way of thinking is in opposition to the mechanistic model, the belief that all can be explained as processes to be evaluated and accounted for.
Jung and the English Dominican priest, Victor Francis White, had a rich correspondence for years, but ultimately split over their inability to accept the theologies of each other. It seems that in their correspondence Jung and White were very self-disclosing, and that Jung felt obligated to be honest about his feeling that White was trapped in an institution and should be open to question the vows that were keeping him there. Rather than progressing to a more positive outcome, this resulted in an irreparable break between them.
In 1954, Jung wrote to White: “Since you cannot overthrow a whole world because it harbours also some evil, it will be a more individual or “local” fight with what you rightly call avidya.* As “tout passe,” even theological books are not true forever, and even if they expect to be believed one has to tell them in a loving and fatherly way that they make some mistakes... The people who write such books are not the voice of God. They are only human.
[* The Yoga Journal defines avidya as something that goes far beyond ordinary ignorance. Avidya is a fundamental blindness about reality.]
“And, If you try to be literal about the doctrine, you are putting yourself aside until there is nobody left that would represent it but corpses. If on the other hand you truly assimilate the doctrine you will alter it creatively by your individual understanding and thus give life to it ... If you fully agreed with them you could replace yourself just as well by a gramophone record. Moreover, if you don’t disagree, you are no good as a directeur de conscience, since there are many other people suffering from the same difficulty and being badly in need of your understanding.”
He is clear, though, that it would be beyond the competence of scientific empiricism to talk about the divine entity. He says that he does not preach but attempts to establish psychological facts. He can confirm and prove inter-relationship of the God image with other parts of the psyche, but he cannot go further without committing the error of a metaphysical assertion which is beyond his scope. He is not a theologian and he has nothing to say about the nature of God.
On the subject of Huxley's research with mescalin, Jung wrote: “It has indeed very curious effects of which I know far too little. I don’t know either what its psychotherapeutic value with neurotic or psychotic patients is.”
“If I once could say that I had done everything I know I had to do, then perhaps I should realize a legitimate need to take mescalin. But if I should take it now, I would not be sure at all that I had not taken it out of idle curiosity. I should hate the thought that I had touched on the sphere where the paint is made that colours the world, where the light is created that makes shine the splendour of the dawn, the lines and shapes of all form, the sound that fills the orbit, the thought that illuminates the darkness of the void. There are some poor impoverished creatures, perhaps, for whom mescalin would be a heaven-sent gift without a counterpoison, but I am profoundly mistrustful of the “pure gifts of the Gods.” You pay very dearly for them.”
This video provides a very enjoyable interview with good sound and picture, good editing, but most of all, a very candid and thoughtful presentation of the man and his ideas. He doesn't avoid answering truthfully and thoughtfully and it's engaging to see his mind at work.
Legendary Psychiatrist Carl Jung in a Fascinating Rare Interview (1959).