The Red Book
by C.G. Jung
W.W. Norton, 2009; 416 pp.; $195 (cloth)
Reviewed by John Tarrant
When I was an undergraduate, somebody’s aunt in her
eighties came to stay with us for a couple of weeks. She was a Jungian analyst
and every morning sat out under the Chinese elm tree in the garden for two
hours, keeping company with her dreams and meditating. I knew my life was in
certain ways foolish and even desperate, but around her I could feel light,
grace, and forgiveness. That was my first exposure to Jungian work. Though it
started out in psychiatry and still makes valiant attempts to board the mental
health train, the Jungian work can probably best be thought of as a practice.
It is a way of having, in a Western package, the sort of thing that Eastern
religion gives you. It continues to interest us because its goal is not belief
If you stop for a moment and look inside, you immediately
notice the traffic in the mind. If you stop for a long moment, perhaps in a
retreat, the surface effects fade and other odd things happen. You find
yourself in forgotten memories and obsessions, and talking to people you don’t
know or who are dead and so on. The navigation decisions you make at that
moment are a determinant of your spiritual path. Jung chose to walk into this
territory, and The Red Book is a
vivid record of his travels and discoveries. It was also in a certain way the
means of Jung’s journey.
Jung began The Red
Book around 1912 and abandoned it around 1930. It is an illustrated account
of his personal practice and discoveries and also, you might say, an account of
how he got to be Jung. The book records an open-ended, exploratory, yet
disciplined practice, conducted over many years by one of the great minds of
the twentieth century. Sometimes he thought that he might be going mad but
persevered; madness became a metaphor for leaving behind the world he knew.
Madness and spirituality have something in common, in that
they both set in motion involuntary processes. Spiritual paths call it things
like surrender and spontaneous healing and enlightenment. At the other end of
the scale of involuntary processes are schizophrenia and mania. Jung knew a lot
about madness and at the same time had a trust in the resources of the deep psyche
that give us dreams, fantasies, visions, and symptoms. That trust and the
courtesy with which he approaches the inner life is probably the main feature
of his work, the thing that differentiates him most clearly from Freud.
The practice that Jung records in The Red Book was to sit down and quiet his mind and see what
figures of fantasy and vision came into his awareness. He would converse with
them, then he would write about the encounter and paint the scene.
When you open The
Red Book it is a shock—you have fallen into an involuntary process. It is
first of all a visual experience. Jung wrote in different colors and sizes of
German script, with elaborate initial letters on the page, as in an illuminated
manuscript of the high Middle Ages. He painted trees and dragons, madonnas with
child, mysterious veiled women, and men with wings. He painted lots of
mandalas, which he saw as both diagnostic of the state of his psyche and as
having an organizing capacity.
The problem of the period when Jung begins The Red Book, just before the start of
the First World War, seemed to be that a certain kind of analytic thought
process that left out much of reality was in charge of European culture, and
that the parts of the psyche that were left out were taking revenge in
irrationalism. Jung (in common with other prominent figures like Kandinsky) had
terrible dreams of destruction overwhelming the land. We know now that Europe
was heading toward a century of war.
In response, the idea of turning away from the
off-the-shelf ways of understanding and seeking a deeper meaning for life was
familiar in intellectual culture. Rilke was writing sonnets—which he received
more or less as dictation—to Orpheus, Yeats was studying automatic writing, and
Eliot was trying to educate his unconscious creative processes by immersing
himself in great literature. Picasso was experimenting with Cubism. The Dada
movement was for a while closely linked to the Jungians. The idea that
something had to come from the depths was important.
Here is how Jung says it in The Red Book:
I have learned that in addition to the spirit of this time
there is still another spirit at work, namely that which rules the depths of
everything contemporary. The spirit of this time would like to hear of use and
value. I also thought this way, and my humanity still thinks this way. But that
other spirit forces me to speak beyond justification, use, and meaning. … The
spirit of the depths took my understanding and all my knowledge and placed them
in the service of the inexplicable and the paradoxical. He robbed me of speech
and writing for everything that was not in his service, namely the melting
together of sense and nonsense, which produces the supreme meaning.
This is not a book in which you can read five points and
stroll away and apply them. In that sense it’s the opposite of a mindfulness
manual. Its spirit has more in common with the late Buddhist sutras, with
thousand-armed deities and paradoxes and impossible statements that nonetheless
make you feel changed after connecting with them. Sometimes it is as if Jung is
reinventing Buddhism and Taoism with very little prior knowledge of them.
Jung felt himself being stripped of his innocent and
heroic ideas, just as people do in a meditation tradition. The force of the
book is that it begins to take you on a journey, too. The charm of it depends
on whether, like Jung, you have a feeling for the continual creative tension of
a spiritual path beginning to open up, whether indeed you want to go on that
uncertain journey into the depths.
Here is a passage in which he is being lectured by one of
his vision figures:
The heroic in you is the fact that you are ruled by the
thought that this or that is good, that this or that performance is
indispensable, this or that cause is objectionable, this or that pleasure
should be ruthlessly repressed at all costs. Consequently you sin against
incapacity. But incapacity exists. No one should deny it, find fault with it,
or shout it down.
This sense of the irreducible power in what is most humble
was an important principle in Jung’s later work, when he turned to the
tradition of alchemy as a metaphor for the smelting that goes on in human
transformation. The humble was the dark, primary material of the inner work, as
it was in the Taoist sources of Zen. Chuang Tzu said, “The Tao is in the ant,
in the potsherd, in the shit and the piss.”
Jung’s work does touch me at a level deeper than the
cognitive force of whatever he is saying. He doesn’t impress as a particularly
good writer. Freud was a good writer—he won the Goethe prize for literature.
But I read Jung because I have a feel for his creative conflicts, which seem
universal. You can tell he took the journey himself and you go on it with him.
That is how he is like a good Buddhist teacher.
Jung’s ideas that there is the image of a man in a woman’s
psyche, and of a woman in a man’s psyche, and that the path through one’s own
depths might mean embracing what you think of as your opposite, are now
widespread in our culture. He talks with a convict:
Mustn’t it be a peculiarly beautiful feeling to hit bottom
in reality at least once, where there is no going down further, but only upward
One of the disadvantages of dream figures is that they
can, in daylight, seem so overdone, more exaggerated than opera. It is their
complex quality that makes Jung’s imaginary figures plausible. They are not
necessarily cheering Jung on and they say interesting and surprising things. I
remember thinking that understanding koans would make me more fearless and
tougher, and I found it actually made me more emotional and, ultimately, more
empathic. I remember at that time I was also very interested in working with
dreams, and I had a figure of a woman appear, a kind of muse whose head was
half turned away from me. I thought, “Well, I’ll have a shot at what Jung did.
It would be nice to talk with the muse.” So I spoke to her. No response.
“Probably I’m just not good at this,” I thought. But I took another shot: “Why
won’t you speak to me?’ I asked the muse. It seemed to me like a huge effort at
The response was immediate, unequivocal, and loud, “You
never listen.” I had to admit that she was right. I just wanted her to perform
when I wanted to write; I didn’t listen. This is another example of how, if you
enter a relationship with your own involuntary process, something
self-correcting might come into play. It’s not a rational path, but then
neither are the Mahayana or the Vajrayana in Buddhism—they are in service of a
deeper goal. The self-correcting quality in the figures is a clue that what we
think we are is being dreamed in turn by a more profound layer of existence.
For many years I lived in an outpost of Jung’s world,
working with people’s dreams, a peculiar and beautiful life. I worked in a room
with a red Bokhara rug on the floor and a Japanese screen of wisteria on the
wall. Dream figures filled the room. It was like walking inside stained glass
or moving underwater. People would often tell me about their sex lives long
before they would offer a dream or a vision. This was puzzling at first, but it
came to me that, say, selling your body for cocaine is a kind of ongoing
disaster, but in a sense public and uninteresting. A dream, though, is intimate
and tells something about who you really are.
The deep psyche has an autonomy the way nature does. You
have to work with dreams down at the dream level, or the presence goes out of
the room. You can’t really say a snake means a penis or the veiled woman is the
muse without dragging things up to a level at which they don’t breathe—the
elephant in the zoo walking disconsolately in circles does not indicate her
behavior on the savannah.
I found that the same was true of koans—you have to deal
with them down deep where they come from, where it is dark, before explanations
appear in the world, before the world appears. This is also of course true of
love, death, and eating breakfast. Jung conveyed this really well.
Jung’s journey is interesting, harrowing, ridiculous,
pompous, incomprehensible, amusing, sad, frightening, wise—the whole range of
the human is there. Just like Buddhist practice.
Jung’s point of meeting with Buddhism is that, at a time
when darkness seemed and was near, he offered the example of a trust in the
deepest possibility of transformation, and in the involuntary processes that we
contain, and in the depths of what it is to be human.
I think of meditation as the act of showing up for your
life, the one you actually have, now. We can, Jung said, live a genuine life.