The Red Book: A Psychic Odyssey


If you have spent any time in a psychiatrist’s office during a time of life crisis, telling your story, seeking solace, understanding, and resolution—you may have also wondered: “Who is this person I am unburdening myself to?”

Imagine then, that your roles are reversed, that you are the listener rather than the narrator. Is the therapist’s psyche more, or less, haunted than yours? Now, imagine one step beyond this. What if the narrator is one of the two principal founding theorists of psychotherapy? What if Sigmund Freud or Carl Jung reaches across the mists of time and space and tells you of his darkest fears and fiercest imaginings: and then writes it all down?

There does exist such a document. It has been secured in a Swiss bank vault for the past quarter century; before that, it was locked in a cupboard in the family home. But now the world can see and read it. After years of negotiations and fitful, fruitless attempts by scholars, the family of Carl Gustav Jung has allowed the publication of his deeply personal and private journal, The Red Book, a legendary work that has been called “a document of a mid-life crisis.”

photo one-red book

By 1913, Jung had definitively broken off his relationship with his colleague Sigmund Freud. About this time, Jung began to experience incidents of dark forebodings, even hallucinatory visions, which drove him to make entries in an ad hoc journal he called the Black Book. Some time later he began a more formal journal, The Red Book, its thick, unruled, creamy pages a true tabula rasa. He wrote and made illustrations in it from 1914 until 1930, then ceased writing in it for 29 years, but kept it sequestered in his home. In 1959, he made one last entry, a brief single page epilogue, suggesting that when the book is revealed to the world he will be deemed to have gone insane. Jung was in his late 30s and a successful therapist when he began his record, a near mythic figure at 84 when he stopped, leaving it unfinished.


C.G. Jung, photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson

The existence and basic content of the book has been known for decades. Jung scholars, denied access to the actual text, have speculated that it in fact is the record of his nervous breakdown and his slow struggle toward rehabilitation. English author and psychiatrist Anthony Storr stated flatly that this was for Jung a period of psychosis. Jung refers to his decision during this seminal period, to engage in “active imagination,” alone at night in his office, the most disturbing fantasies, to explore them to their core, actively examining them as wakened dreams, ferreting out truths of the mind’s dark labyrinth, of the nature of existence itself.

Storr calls the book a “confrontation with the unconscious.” The intensely red cover of the original, and even more so the new facsimile edition fairly screams to be noticed. Its 205 pages have 53 full pages of vibrantly colored images drawn and painted by Jung, that feature mandala-like abstractions as well as literal representations of spiritual and demonic figures; it also contains 71 pages of text coupled with drawings, and 81 pages of text only. The text is rendered in a florid hand in the style of old German Gothic calligraphy that resembles a medieval manuscript. It would not be unfair to describe it as a secular Book of Kells:

photo two red book
photo three red book

Here are some of the other pages: The Red Book link

Sara Corbett in a recent NY Times article compares The Red Book to Dante’s Divine Comedy as a mythic odyssey of the self on a tumultuous spiritual journey. Like Dante, Jung is present in this traversal of a nightmarish landscape, one where he meets demons and gods and has dialogues with them and within himself. The Wikipedia entry describes the journey:

As Jung described it, he was visited by two figures, an old man and a young woman, who identified themselves as Elijah and Salome. They were accompanied by a large black snake. In time, the Elijah figure developed into a guiding spirit that Jung called Philemon (ΦΙΛΗΜΩΝ, as originally written with Greek letters). Salome was identified by Jung as an anima figure. The figures, according to Jung, "brought home to me the crucial insight that there are things in the psyche which I do not produce, but which produce themselves and have their own life."

The Philemon figure represented superior insight, and communicated through mythic imagery. The images did not appear to come from Jung's own experience, and Jung interpreted them as products of the collective unconscious.

It was during the 16 years of writing in The Red Book that Jung developed his concepts of anima/animus, archetype and individuation, which remain the cornerstones of his work. Here is a pdf file of a closer look at some pages: The Red Book link (pdf document will load slowly)

When you look closely you can see the hand penciled guidelines still, the differing ink densities and the exquisite detail of the calligraphy. I know this style well. When I studied German in high school, as it was taught by old German nuns, we were required to regularly read poems that were printed in this font. It is how I first encountered Wagner’s librettos to his Nibelung Ring cycle. To me this script looked magical, even alchemical, a direct link back into a mythic past.


Corbett’s article details the years-long efforts to bring the book to publication. It is titled, “The Holy Grail of the Unconscious.”:

The New York Times magazine article link

She visits the family at their home in Küsnacht; she visits the photo studio in Zurich where each page of the original manuscript is being scanned at very high resolution; she meets Stephen Martin, an American Jungian and Director of the Philemon Foundation, entrusted with the publication of remaining Jung materials; she interviews Dr. Sonu Shamdasani who spent five years decoding and translating the texts between long walks near his home on London’s Hampstead Heath. Much of this Corbett discusses with radio host Tom Ashbrook on his WBUR radio program, On Point:

On Point with Tom Ashbrook radio show link

Jung was a man thoroughly steeped in the traditions of High German and European culture and in many ways he may seem like a prototypical, even remote, character to us who live in an ADD-addled 21st century. So, it comes as a surprise to me to find a film clip of him speaking about “death”—in fluent English. His diction is remarkably clear, his ideas very up front. His advice about living in the face of death but always looking ahead to the adventure of tomorrow resonates like a claxon in our frantic self-help, media world:

The publisher of this beautiful edition of The Red Book, subtitled Liber Novus, is W.W. Norton and Company. The first printing, quite surprisingly to the publisher, is already gone, but a second printing will be available in December: The Red-Book link

Jungian scholars are already salivating at their close encounters with this facsimile edition of a landmark work, but you can see the real thing today. The Red Book, along with sections of the Black Book and other relevant materials, is on display at the Rubin Museum of Art on W. 17th St. in New York City until Jan. 25, 2010:

Rubin Museum of Art link

Also on their site is an 8-minute video about The Red Book, hosted by the exhibition’s curator, Dr. Sonu Shamdasani; he tells of Jung’s horrific epiphany of a watery apocalypse during a train ride. This event precipitated the idea for the journal. This “epiphany” became for Sara Corbett “a pre-cognitive dream of World War I.” Jung reveals just how key the experiences recorded in The Red Book are to the entire body of his subsequent therapeutic theories:

Rubin Museum of Art video link

At the conclusion of this video there is a further link to a discussion between Martin Brown of the Rubin Museum and Dr. Shamdasani. Their actual discussion begins at 10:30 into the video. A film series called “Cabaret Cinema” is running concurrent with the exhibition, held from late October through January. It features movies that are said to address Jungian themes; it is an eclectic group of independents and mainstream Hollywood:

Rubin Museum of Art “Cabaret Cinema” schedule link


After Jung ceased making entries into The Red Book in 1930, he took it up a final time in 1959, to enter only a one-page epilogue, written in modern cursive script. This final entry seems to anticipate that the work will one day be seen by the world. Part of the last sentence reads: “… aber trotz mehr Arbeit und Ablenkung blieb ich ihr getreu, auch wenn ich nie eine andere Möglichkeit…”

Then it stops—mid-sentence. The translation reads “… but despite much work and distraction I remained true to it, even if I never another possibility …”

What is absolutely fascinating here (and I do not think it was an accident that Jung ended the book this way)— he did live another two years—is that:

Pages 188 and 189, the last entries from 1930, are written in full Gothic calligraphy:

The next page, dated 1959 in the margin, is the epilogue, written in normal cursive. It is contained on a single page, except for one word that is tucked alone in the top corner of the next page. The rest of that page is blank—It is impossible to believe that Jung’s isolation of that specific single word on its own page is not premeditated.

photo five- red book

This freestanding, final word is the noun, “Möglichkeit,” which in German, is “possibility.”

photo six- red book


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