An article in the Sunday New York Times magazine on September 16 entitled The Holy Grail of the Unconscious caught me by surprise. When young, I’d read Carl Jung, founder, along with Freud, of the school of analytical psychology. I was familiar with his ideas about archetypes and the collective unconscious. But who knew that one of his most seminal (finally, my big chance to use that, uh, seminal word) works had never been published?
But first, for those unfamiliar with Jung, the article’s author, Sara Corbett, informs us that he “regarded himself as a scientist [but] is today remembered more as a countercultural icon, a proponent of spirituality outside religion. … His central tenets — the existence of a collective unconscious and the power of archetypes — have seeped into the larger domain of New Age thinking while remaining more at the fringes of mainstream psychology.” Of course, then she goes on to chronicle the high regard in which he’s held by many psychologists and psychoanalysts, who practically worship him.
As for The Red Book, his family claimed it was unsure if Jung wanted it published. In fact, they sought to protect both his reputation and the family’s name because the book is personal to a fault — read: stark, raving bonkers. But that was the point.
Ms. Corbett explains the “mid-life crisis” that precipitated Jung keeping this journal.
What happened. . . to Carl Jung has. … been characterized variously as a creative illness, a descent into the underworld, a bout with insanity. … Whatever the case, in 1913, Jung, who was then 38 [became] haunted by troubling visions and heard inner voices. Grappling with the horror of some of what he saw, he worried in moments that he was. . . “menaced by a psychosis” . . .
Had he been a psychiatric patient, Jung might well have been. . . encouraged to ignore the circus going on in his head. But as a psychiatrist. … Jung worked to prevent his conscious mind from blocking out what his unconscious mind wanted to show him. [Emphasis added.]
Jung recorded … a curious, shifting dreamscape … in a regal, prophetic tone. … Writing in German, he filled 205 oversize pages with elaborate calligraphy and with richly hued, staggeringly detailed paintings.
I can attest to that after viewing The Red Book at the Rubin Museum of (Himalayan) Art in New York City, where it’s being shown along with supporting materials such as sketches and paintings. In addition a facsimile of The Red Book has just been published, with translation from the German and commentary.
What’s it look like in the flesh? Light years beyond just a journal, it’s really a latter-day illuminated manuscript. Strange, too, how pristine its condition is. The family, however unyielding, as Ms. Corbett portrays it, deserves credit for its conscientious custodianship.
But what’s The Red Book doing in a museum of Himalayan art? Mandalas. Lots of mandalas. From the museum’s website: “Jung was fascinated by the mandala — an artistic representation of the inner and outer cosmos used in Tibetan Buddhism to help practitioners reach enlightenment — and used mandala structures in a number of his own works.”
As you can imagine, The Red Book is ensconced in a kiosk of Plexiglas or similar material and is fixed open at one spread.
“They’ll turn the page in a few weeks,” an employee informed me.
Whoopee. I told her they should have positioned her inside the kiosk, where she could turn the pages for us. Still, it was dazzling.
Fortunately, the museum had a couple of copies of the book laying around for museum-goers to leaf through, which I did. Good thing, because between but a single spread of the real book visible and the $114 cost of the reproduction (probably cheap under the circumstances), viewing the latter was just as much of an opportunity as seeing the real book.