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Travels with Jung: The Red Book September 21, 2009

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Culture, Current Events, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Science.
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Amazingly, a book by C.G. Jung is about to be published, for the first time. It has been known to exist, but the manuscript has been locked away in a vault since his death in 1961. It was probably never meant for publication; it is the journal of Carl Jung’s own mental crisis in his late 30s in the second decade of the 20th century, during which he—following his own associative method of imagery, drawing on his theory of human archetypes and the collective unconscious—allowed the visions to flow, rather than try to bring them to a halt and “cure” himself. The crisis lasted some 6 years, and he worked on the book for another decade, and then locked it away—but just a few years before his death he added a postscript, hinting that he did consider the possibility of having it published. Sonu Shamdasani, who became the English translator of The Red Book, approached the Jung family in 1997, having found two partial copies of the book elsewhere, and persuaded the family to release the original work for translation and publication. Sara Corbett writes in the New York Times,

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. “It is the nuclear reactor for all his works,” Shamdasani said, noting that Jung’s more well-known concepts — including his belief that humanity shares a pool of ancient wisdom that he called the collective unconscious and the thought that personalities have both male and female components (animus and anima) — have their roots in the Red Book. Creating the book also led Jung to reformulate how he worked with clients, as evidenced by an entry Shamdasani found in a self-published book written by a former client, in which she recalls Jung’s advice for processing what went on in the deeper and sometimes frightening parts of her mind.


Shamdasani figures that the Red Book’s contents will ignite both Jung’s fans and his critics. Already there are Jungians planning conferences and lectures devoted to the Red Book, something that Shamdasani finds amusing. Recalling that it took him years to feel as if he understood anything about the book, he’s curious to know what people will be saying about it just months after it is published. As far as he is concerned, once the book sees daylight, it will become a major and unignorable piece of Jung’s history, the gateway into Carl Jung’s most inner of inner experiences. “Once it’s published, there will be a ‘before’ and ‘after’ in Jungian scholarship,” he told me, adding, “it will wipe out all the biographies, just for starters.” What about the rest of us, the people who aren’t Jungians, I wondered. Was there something in the Red Book for us? “Absolutely, there is a human story here,” Shamdasani said. “The basic message he’s sending is ‘Value your inner life.’ ”

My first thought was that had this book been published earlier, it might have made an impact on psychoanalysis as well as philosophy, but that it was probably too late now—both Freud and Jung have become historic icons rather than gurus for most of us (who are not Freudians or Jungians), and an unpublished work seeing the light of day is not likely to change that. And yet…there is a willingness among neuroscientists these days (see Antonio Damasio and others) to break with the Cartesian tradition and accept that our fundamental human nature is not a thinking thing, but rather a feeling thing, and that most of our decisions (for better or for worse) are fundamentally grounded in our emotional life rather than in our rational mind. This is not exactly the same as saying that we are primarily influenced by our unconscious, emotional self, but it could be interpreted as being in the same neighborhood: the path toward (paradoxically) a science-based emotionalism has been opened up—for better or for worse. So it is just possible that this book might coincidentally hit the bookstores at exactly the right time, after all—with more opportunity to make a philosophical difference now than, say, ten or twenty years ago. But regardless of whether it is going to be seen as a historical document, allowing us to peer into a great mind struggling with itself, or a work giving further inspiration to a new anti-intellectual wave, it should be an interesting encounter…