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Inside the Red Book


The position of Carl Gustav Jung in the intellectual history of the twentieth century remains sharply disputed. He introduced the concept of the archetype and developed a school of psychiatry that still has many adherents, though it seems peripheral to modern psychiatry. His knowledge of symbols across many cultures and times is stupendous, but he is plagued with accusations of being a crank. In 1917, for instance, he published Seven Sermons to the Dead, channeling a second century Alexandrian Gnostic named Basilides—a work that shook confidence in Jung in the scientific community even as it inspired the art world. Hermann Hesse’s Demian was clearly influenced by it, for instance. Now W.W. Norton is about to publish what has up to this point been a closely guarded Jungian treasure: the Liber Novus or “Red Book,” a thick leather bound manuscript. It will retail for a cool $195.

Sara Corbett of the New York Times Magazine takes us inside this volume, which will appear 48 years after its author’s death, and gives us a sense of what to expect. Like most of Jung, the work is in German, heavily seasoned with Latin, but a complete English translation has been put at the end, with annotations. The footnotes tell much of the story:

They include references to Faust, Keats, Ovid, the Norse gods Odin and Thor, the Egyptian deities Isis and Osiris, the Greek goddess Hecate, ancient Gnostic texts, Greek Hyperboreans, King Herod, the Old Testament, the New Testament, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, astrology, the artist Giacometti and the alchemical formulation of gold. And that’s just naming a few. The central premise of the book, Shamdasani told me, was that Jung had become disillusioned with scientific rationalism — what he called “the spirit of the times” — and over the course of many quixotic encounters with his own soul and with other inner figures, he comes to know and appreciate “the spirit of the depths,” a field that makes room for magic, coincidence and the mythological metaphors delivered by dreams.

And we’ll definitely see the return of the channeling Jung of the Seven Sermons:

About halfway through the Red Book — after he has traversed a desert, scrambled up mountains, carried God on his back, committed murder, visited hell; and after he has had long and inconclusive talks with his guru, Philemon, a man with bullhorns and a long beard who flaps around on kingfisher wings — Jung is feeling understandably tired and insane. This is when his soul, a female figure who surfaces periodically throughout the book, shows up again. She tells him not to fear madness but to accept it, even to tap into it as a source of creativity. “If you want to find paths, you should also not spurn madness, since it makes up such a great part of your nature.”

The editors also offer us a feast for the eyes: twelve manuscript pages with stunning illustrations. They can be accessed at the website by clicking on the “graphic” link.

This book is bound to add fuel to the debate about Jung’s position—on both sides. Whatever its scientific value, this also appears to be a rare treat for bibliophiles and a delight to the eye.

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