Red Book

Janet Piedilato

Red Book, the dream journal of the great Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, was published in the fall of 2009. It sold out before publication, and is already in its fifth edition. While many knew of its existence through references Jung made to it, the complete work remained hidden for decades, banished to a dark bank vault in Switzerland. Few were privileged to actually see or read what lay between the richly bound red leather covers. Like the secret truths of some ancient mystery tradition, Red Book gathered an awed respect. Whispers like prayers in candle-lighted churches echoed for years, expanding the allure of the text reputed to be the Holy Grail of Jungian philosophy.

The confrontation with the Unconscious, as Jung referred to his Red Book experience of active imagination, is offered in meticulously worked calligraphy, an endeavor that took Jung some sixteen years to accomplish. The exquisite illustrations, some directly related to text, others not, were added separately. The large format, the hand-worked illuminated text, the rich red leather cover were all props of Jung’s intention to manifest his experience in the form of a medieval alchemical text. And he succeeded.

Red Book is stunning, perfect in every way, powerful, beautiful, a masterpiece of a gifted writer, author, mythologist and artist. It is speculated that it was not published during Jung’s lifetime due to its unusual contents which might have been greeted with mixed feelings, with thoughts that its chaotic inner world visions were more appropriate for a schizophrenic than for a medical doctor. Yet time has worked its magic. The last hundred years have generated a vast literature on the mind, on consciousness, and on the often strange workings of the visionary world. The long wait in the bank vault has paid off.

Among the fortunate ones to receive a copy of the first publication, I deliberately allowed myself time to view Red Book. At its publication festivities back in 2009, editor Sonu Shamdasani remarked that it would take at least a year and a half for an individual to read it. One season later, I can appreciate his comment and would add that a year and a half would probably be just a beginning.

Like many, I have my confrontations with the Unconscious. Sometimes for months I am consumed by them, having little time to do more than to record their stories and paint their imagery before they evaporate into the ethers. Each time I return to them I am drawn into their depths, seeing, hearing and learning something different, something new. As I try to understand these complex and often confusing inner experiences, I seek answers by working with my recordings and commentaries. In no way do I compare my notebooks or feeble attempts at illustration with those of one so gifted as Jung. Still, such inner work is within the reach of many. Mystical, alchemical, and holy texts are filled with visionary work experienced by a few yet widely shared and honored, often viewed as divinely inspired. Jung would agree that these works have a life of their own appearing to arise from outside the sphere of personal waking consciousness.

Visionary work often commences at a crossroads or confrontation in a person’s life. For Jung it began after his breakup with Freud as he sought to understand more deeply the meaning of life. Red Book is his search. The process unfolded in several phases. From 1913 to 1930 he recorded his inner visions in several little black notebooks; then he beautifully transcribed the text into calligraphy along with colored illustrations on parchment sheets. He ordered the impressive red leather cover with Liber Novus embossed on it, and pasted his parchment leaves in what became the first section of Red Book, the Liber Primus. He continued to write directly in the new book, producing a second section, Liber Secundus.

Jung begins the Liber Primus with “The Way of What is to Come,” and, following the Spirit of the Depths, leaves his ego-driven life behind as he finds his way, imitating the agony of Christ and embracing the path of suffering. At the end of Liber Secundus he concludes:

The touchstone is being alone with oneself.

This is the way.

In a world filled with ego-driven noise and moment-to-moment static, Red Book calls us to stop, to turn off the cell phones, the TVs, the chatter of the lines . . . to be still . . . and to turn inward to listen to, to engage with, and to be transformed by the wisdom that lies within us. Jung looks upon his inner visions as neither sense nor nonsense, maintaining a middle course, suggesting that is not by embracing extremes but by holding a sacred tension between them that one finds the way. As a biologist how well I understand this in the homeostasis of the body. Life is a continual minute-to-minute struggle between birth and death at the cellular level: as within, so without. Jung has suffered a holy illness, a shamanic dismemberment on his journey to the depths and he has emerged a wounded healer. Like Christ he takes upon himself suffering to earn transformation. His transformation leads him away from the ego-driven desires of the outer world into quiet reflection of the inner landscape. In front of the tower sanctuary Jung built at Bollingen he sculptured his herma, the stone beyond which he sought his inner world for inspiration and for meaning. Like the alchemist of old, he sought to transform the inner experience into manifest reality. He sought to live the way. And so he did.

Red Book is a glimpse of what lays within the depths, accessible to each of us willing to make the necessary sacrifices of the journey. Its stories warn that such a journey demands a strong spirit capable of suffering the challenges of a lifetime pursuit, not a comfortable pastime or an ego-satisfying endeavor. It is quite simply a vocation, a dedication to the truth. Jung was such a being and Red Book is the result.

Qualified scholars shall, I am certain, fill volumes with their understanding and their explanations of this book. As a dreamer, one who shares in the power of the inner experiences. I welcome Red Book as a beautiful manifestation of a tiny portion of the great inner landscape, one that is familiar yet strange, perilous yet welcoming—a place where one is dismembered before being remembered, where confrontation with the deepest and darkest parts of oneself becomes handmaiden to transformation. I shall sit without thought and allow myself to be drawn into the beauty of the imagery, of the German calligraphy, moving into a space of pure feeling. I shall return over and again to visit the text in a random fashion, using it as inspiration for my own personal confrontations. That is the way of the dreamer. As such Red Book shall act as a herma of the ancient pilgrimage, a stone marking the boundary beyond which the dreamer must journey alone.

Norton’s Red Book does honor to Jung in presenting a beautifully executed edition within reach of all who wish to explore and better understand the rich landscape that lies in the Unconscious. In addition to Jung’s original leather-bound opus, the reader is given the joy of both Jung’s and the editor’s commentaries, additional material from the little black notebooks, and copious notes for those wishing to understand more completely some of the less familiar mythological and religious figures that appear in the work. For those thirsty for a personal inner experience, Red Book shall fuel their passion. For others, content to visit the travelogue of an accomplished shaman of the inner realm, Red Book shall not disappoint. The work of a lifetime by one of the most gifted thinkers of the twentieth century is surely a treasure that will provide a lifetime of inspiration for each of its readers. I highly recommend it.

Janet Piedilato is a transpersonal psychologist, a complementary health care consultant, and an ordained minister.  She holds a doctorate in biology from New York University and a doctorate in transpersonal psychology from Saybrook Graduate School. She took her herbalist training at David Winston's Center for Herbal Studies. Janet holds the distinction of being the first woman practitioner to present shamanic ritual at the Harvard Divinity School Conference on Reinterpreting Shamanism. In private practice she creates complementary therapies incorporating natural supplements as well as psycho-spiritual techniques. Janet is the founder of Immaginal, a company that grew from her practice of creating scent memory experiences during relaxation therapy protocols. She resides at Temenos, an environmental sanctuary, co-founded with her husband and soul mate, Iggy.

Read more about Janet Piedilato

Comments (2)
  • This review walks, almost successfully, the line between scholarship and idolatry.

    — Rick Steele on March 31, 2010

  • I am fascinated with reading the Red Book.I hope to read it before June and have read 100 pages and written comments in a journal. It is of course only a beginning. I find it monumental in its breadth of scholarship, in his courage and strength to confront the unconscious and dialogue with the contents. I don’t find it difficult to understand, the calligraphy and illustrations are good but the old calligraphers did more precise work. The mandalas are excellent but the eastern tankas are more refined.I pay it great respect but I don’t think we need to regard The Red Book as too imposing to understand. It is a magnificent attempt to illuminate the mind of his time so it is a historical document too. It will be interesting to see peoples views on reading it and various disciplines parse it. But lets all relax and enjoy it and not blow it up into a divine text. Connie

    — Connie Butler on April 5, 2010

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23 March 2010

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