Book Review: The Red Book (Liber Novus) by Carl Jung

Edited and translated by Sonu Shamdasani

W.W. Norton & Co., 2009 (416 pages, hardcover)

Reviewed by Dr. David Shoemaker

“The word is a creative act…The words that oscillate between nonsense
and supreme meaning are the oldest and truest.” (p. 236)

C.G. Jung’s Red Book, a work of mythical stature, even within the myth-laden corpus of Jung’s life and writings, was finally released in 2009. The material in the Red Book had its genesis in a series of visionary experiences beginning in 1912. Over the next sixteen years, Jung intermittently compiled, edited, and expanded the core material, working in the solitude of his tower at Bollingen, by the shores of Lake Zurich.

To the casual reader, and indeed to a number of the colleagues to whom Jung showed the Red Book close to the time of its genesis, the work appears as the wild fantasies of a mind straddling the abyss of madness. It was likely for this reason that the Jung family hesitated for decades to publish the Red Book. In the intervening years, the work was locked in a vault in Switzerland, accessible only to a select few family members and close colleagues. Sonu Shamdasani, the editor of this edition, was eventually able to convince the family of the importance of the work, and they allowed the publication to go forward.

Visually, the book is nothing short of astonishing. The original Red Book was a huge tome—12 by 16 inches, written in a beautiful calligraphic hand, and illuminated with Jung’s own paintings of his visions. The publishers of this edition have wisely chosen to reproduce the book in a format as close as possible to the original, including its monstrous size. The scans of the original calligraphy and artwork are absolutely pristine; these form the first section of the book. Following this, Shamdasani presents a cogent historical and biographical overview of Jung’s approach to this work, giving much-needed context for the role of the Red Book in his evolving thought. Finally, we are given a complete and well-annotated English translation of the original German and Latin text.

A publication of this quality and heft could easily cost a fortune, but the publishers have somehow managed to make it available at a very reasonable cost. As of this writing, new copies are obtainable online for just over $100—a fraction of its true value, in my view. (Of course, this doesn’t include the cost of the special shelf readers will need to construct in order to house the book!)

As one might hope, the content of the book is as impressive as its form. The central motifs of the text concern Jung’s attempt to “recover his soul” in a series of visions, journeys to Hell, “lectures” from various entities he encounters, and dialogues with characters as diverse as the prophet Elijah, Salome, and the Holy Guardian Angel-like magician Philemon. (Fans of Gematria will enjoy the fact that Philemon (rendered in Greek) has the same value as “Persephone” and “thrice-great”.) In the course of fleshing out these visions, Jung presents a number of ideas and themes which resonate powerfully with those of Thelemic philosophy, and the Hermetic corpus generally. Among the most prominent of these is the intensifying relationship between Jung and Philemon, essentially Adept and Angel, which resulted not only in visionary experiences, but in Jung’s later attempts to translate these experiences into cogent scientific theory and psychoanalytic practice. Many years after the completion of the Red Book, near the end of his life, he wrote of this process:

“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. 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, the scientific elaboration, and the integration into life. But the numinous beginning, which contained everything, was then.” (p. vii)

In other places, we have hints that Jung was experiencing his own version of the shifting of Aeonic formulæ so well documented by Crowley, such as in this passage:

“Everything that becomes too old becomes evil, the same is true of your highest. Learn from the suffering of the crucified God that one can also betray and crucify a God, namely the God of the old year. If a God ceases being the way of life, he must fall secretly.

The God becomes sick if he oversteps the height of the zenith. That is why the spirit of the depths took me when the spirit of this time had led me to the summit.” (p. 241)

The motif of the underworld journey to recover the soul is of paramount importance as well, including much focus on the balancing of light and dark, known and unknown, reason and irrationality, science and spirit, and Ego and Self. It must be admitted that Jung appears to be wrestling with dualistic, sin-based complexes in his work here, but the results are still compelling. Consider:

“Because I wanted to live in the light, the sun went out for me when I touched the depths. It was dark and serpentlike. I united myself with it and did not overpower it. I took my part of the humiliation and subjugation upon myself, in that I took on the nature of the serpent.

If I had not become like the serpent, the devil, the quintessence of everything serpentlike, would have held this bit of power over me. This would have given the devil a grip and he would have forced me to make a pact with him just as he also cunningly deceived Faust. But I forestalled him by uniting myself with the serpent, just as a man unites with a woman.” (p. 322)

The reader can feel Jung wrestling uncomfortably with the contents of his own unconscious in many of these passages, as he has admitted in various autobiographical writings. He frames much of this tension in the context of a dialogue between the “spirit of this time”, representing Jung’s rational scientist-Ego, and the “spirit of the depths”, embodying his eternal, trans-egoic deeper Self. The struggle for connection and balance between Ego and Self, as presented on these pages, became a focus of much of Jung’s later theories of the structure of the human psyche, its ailments, and the central method of its rehabilitation. In the relevant passages in the Red Book, we can even see evidence of the New Aeonic “child” archetype in Jung’s vision—perhaps a validation of Crowley’s hypotheses concerning the shifts in collective consciousness manifesting in the early years of the 20th century. Consider this important passage:

“I had to recognize that I am only the expression and symbol of the soul. In the sense of the spirit of the depths, I am as I am in this visible world a symbol of my soul, and I am thoroughly a serf completely subjugated, utterly obedient. The spirit of the depths taught me to say: ‘I am the servant of a child.’ Through this dictum I learn above all the most extreme humility, as what I most need.

The spirit of this time of course allowed me to believe in my reason. He let me see myself in the image of a leader with ripe thoughts. But the spirit of the depths teaches me that I am a servant, in fact the servant of a child: This dictum was repugnant to me and I hated it. But I had to recognize and accept that my soul is a child and that my God in my soul is a child.” (p. 234)

Finally, and compellingly, there are moments of exquisite adoration and yearning, akin to the inspired writing in Liber LXV and similar Holy Books, reminding us that the journey inward, in every human life, ultimately brings us to the feet of the Beloved:

“Where in my soul do I shelter you? In my heart? Should my heart be your shrine, your holy of holies? So choose your place. I have accepted you. What crushing tension you bring with you! Isn’t the bow of my nerves breaking? I’ve taken in the messenger of the night….

I bow, my soul, before unknown forces – I’d like to consecrate an altar to each unknown God. I must submit.” (p. 308)

To the eyes of a modern occultist, the Red Book is nothing less than Jung’s magical diary—a record of his interactions with various entities, mythological themes, and his own “demons”. His experience wrestling with these forces was fundamental in shaping all of his later research and writing. In his process, and especially in his success, we find a vindication of the central method of individual attainment and societal evolution enshrined in the system of the A∴A∴. That is, the seeker journeys to the center of his being, obtains the reward of deep knowledge and of True Will, and spends the rest of his life translating this secret wisdom into a tangible treasure – accessible and apprehensible to those who follow. Highly recommended.

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  1. Pingback: Symbol of Sun/Star-Swedenborg, Jung, and Crowley | Dreaming in Symbols

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