Jung's Therapeutic Gnosticism: The Red Book, David Bentley Hart Argues, Reflects a Late-Modern Desire for Transcendence without Transcendence
Hart, David Bentley, First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life
For the better part of a century, Carl Jung and (later) his estate kept the manuscript of his unfinished Red Book--or Liber Novus, as he originally entitled it--hidden safely away from public scrutiny. Jung's most ardent admirers, making their hopeful pilgrimages to Zurich, were denied so much as a glimpse into its pages, no matter how plangent their entreaties. For a time, the book was even locked away in a Swiss bank vault. The result, inevitably, was that it became something of a legend among Jungians: a secret visionary tome, written in the master's own hand, containing the mystic key to all his thought. Jung himself, after all, had once spoken of the book as the "numinous origin" from which all the work of his later years had flowed. Clearly, many came to believe, the family was jealous of its treasure.
In reality, Jung's son Franz probably kept The Red Book hidden only because he regarded it as an embarrassment, or at least as so eccentric a performance that its release could only harm his father's already precarious reputation. His refusal to grant the curious access to the text was reportedly marked by a sternly protective peremptoriness. But after Franz's death in 1996, the Jung estate slowly relented. In 2009, the book at last appeared, in a large, lavish, very expensive English critical edition that included a complete, full-scale, and high-definition photographic reproduction of the original manuscript.
It is, if nothing else, an impressive physical object. The Red Book is an immense illuminated manuscript, which Jung indited on cream vellum in the private scriptorium of his study over a period of about sixteen years, copiously illustrated with elaborate, vivid, and occasionally ghastly painted panels, and bound in red leather. He was a talented amateur calligrapher, as well as a minor painter with a fairly good sense of color and a modest flair for abstract design. His visual imagination was somewhat vulgar, but occasionally striking. There is something almost kaleidoscopic about the final product of his labors, what with its bright colors and constantly shifting images (narrative and pictorial). Chiefly, however, it is meant to have the appearance of a holy book, because that is precisely what it purports to be: a genuinely revealed text, recording visions imparted to Jung during a period of intense psychological and "parapsychological" struggle.
The official of the book's genesis is story that Jung began receiving revelations in 1913, when be was thirty-eight years old, beginning with three premonitory trances in which he twice saw a great flood inundating Europe and once saw something like rivers of blood glowing on the far horizon. He would have dismissed the episodes as symptoms of mental fatigue had not the onset of war the next year convinced him that they had been genuine auguries of the future. So he undertook to lay open his thoughts to whatever other messages his unconscious mind might care to send him and soon began suffering terrifying and absorbing visions and auditions (and, apparently, the odd paranormal event), which he called his "active imaginings," but which he sometimes feared might be signs of incipient psychosis.
Some of that may be true. Then again, The Red Book might be no more than a mediocre artist's abortive attempt at a great work of art, draped in a veil of apocalyptic mystique to hide its deficiencies. Or the truth may lie somewhere in between. It does not matter, really. Whatever stories Jung may have told about the book, the story he tells in its pages is of a perilous odyssey through fantastic interior landscapes--a twilit borderland of the mind, somewhere between dreams and waking, supposedly the haunt of great artists, mystics, and lunatics--where, at the risk of his sanity, our redoubtable hero has gone on a quest to find his lost soul. Along the way, he encounters a succession of allegorical figures who, we are informed, are not merely fictions of his own devising, but real and autonomous powers dwelling in the depths of his psyche. …