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Climbing between the pages of Carl Jung's subconscious

'The Red Book,' abandoned by the analyst in the 1930s, finally sees publication and the light of critical eyes.

April 11, 2010|By Susan Emerling
  • Jung, who illustrated the book, acknowledges that it may "to the superficial observer appear like madness."
Jung, who illustrated the book, acknowledges that it may "to the superficial… (W.W. Norton & Company / Hammer…)

"Liber Novus" is the name Carl Gustav Jung gave his autobiographical magnum opus -- an illuminated manuscript filled with images of hissing snakes, dazzling mandalas, bloody battles, radiating beings and a German text describing a man's loss and rediscovery of his soul -- before abandoning it midsentence in 1930 on the 189th page. An epilogue handwritten in 1959, which also leaves off midsentence, describes a 16-year effort that he acknowledges may "to the superficial observer appear like madness" but which he credits with saving him from "the overpowering force of the original experiences."

Long known to followers of Jung as "The Red Book," because of its red leather binding, it had been hidden away in a safe deposit box in Zurich, Switzerland, and unread by all but the author and a handful of close associates, making it one of the great mysteries at the heart of psychology. That is, until a few months ago, when W.W. Norton & Co., Inc. published a facsimile and translation by Sonu Shamdasani, who as a graduate student wrestled the manuscript out of the bank vault and into print after his own 13-year odyssey editing and translating the text under a veil of secrecy mandated by Jung's heirs.

Today, in a vaulted gallery reminiscent of a chapel, "The Red Book" will go on display at the Hammer Museum. To amplify the momentous but small exhibition, the Hammer has also planned a series of nine public conversations, each between a highly regarded Jungian analyst and a well-known artist, writer or thinker.

The book's visit is one of those happy occurrences that befall nimble museums. It is poised to be greeted by the open arms of Los Angeles' large and long-established Jungian community, built by a small group of Jewish German refugees who had firsthand experience with Jung and founded the C.G. Jung Institute of Los Angeles. Longtime analyst, writer and widow of one of the Institute's founders, Gilda Frantz, says, "L.A. is at its core a creative community, and creative people love Jung, because the work doesn't damage creativity."

Nancy Furlotti, an analyst and co-president of the Philemon Foundation, a nonprofit that financed the the translation of "The Red Book," gives another reason for Jung's flourishing here. "L.A. is a city where people come to find themselves and explore new ways of thinking and being. They have a longing for an understanding of soul, and find themselves drawn to Jung."

Shamdasani says the book is nothing less than "the single most important work in Jung's oeuvre." Or as the poetic Jung wrote in a 1957 text chosen by Shamdasani to preface the edition, it is "the numinous beginning, which contained everything." All that followed was "scientific elaboration."

The book is based on journals in which Jung captured horrific visions he experienced during a crippling depression brought on by what he felt to be a loss of meaning in his life. "When he was writing in 1913 and '14, he had visions of blood flowing all over Europe and horrible devastation," Furlotti explains. "He thought he was going crazy and falling into psychosis because the visions were so horrible. When World War I broke out, he realized these visions were not personal to him but that he was connecting to something much deeper than himself." Jung would later come to use the word "archetypal" for these experiences.

Though there is no evidence that Jung had any prior experience with calligraphy or illuminated manuscripts, Cynthia Burlingham, the curator overseeing the Hammer exhibition, finds Jung's technique "incredibly accomplished." "It's an illuminated manuscript in a traditional 11th or 12th century way, but it is also incredibly contemporary," she says. "It's an amazing combination of illuminated letters, fantastical animals and pure landscape. And it's gouache, which is not an easy medium to work with."

Despite the predominant enthusiasm for the book -- small reading groups have sprung up in various cities to slowly tackle the dense text -- there is also a distaste among some Jungians that the facsimile should have been published at all. One psychologist who declined to be identified for fear of raining on her colleagues' parade, simply said, "A number of people are saddened because they think it is private."

Shamdasani acknowledges the detractors but says all evidence shows that Jung had every intention of someday publishing the book, though he may have preferred for it to happen posthumously. He likens some of the selective bad will to "some people in the church who wouldn't be too pleased if we found Jesus' lost diaries," because their publication would threaten their position on his teachings.

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