Jung Confronts His Demons (WSJ 12/5/10)
Modern men in the throes of a midlife crisis have been known to overhaul their careers, their relationships—even their bodies. Few, though, intentionally induce hallucinations in order to commune with demons and deities and end up creating a text transforming—at least indirectly—the entire field of psychology.
Carl Gustav Jung was 37 when by most accounts he lost his soul. As psychological historian Sonu Shamdasani explained, “Jung had reached a point in 1912 when he’d achieved all of his youthful ambitions but felt that he’d lost meaning in his life, an existential crisis in which he simply neglected the areas of ultimate spiritual concern that were his main motivations in his youth.”
Foundation of the Works of C.G. Jung/W.W. Norton & CompanyImage 125 from Jung’s ‘Liber Novus.’
In fact, the dilemma was so profound it eventually caused the father of analytical psychology to undergo a series of waking fantasies. Traveling from Zurich to Schaffhausen, Switzerland, in October 1913, Jung was roused by a troubling vision of “European-wide destruction.” In place of the normally serene fields and trees, one of the era’s pre-eminent thinkers saw the landscape submerged by a river of blood carrying forth not only detritus but also dead bodies. When that vision resurfaced a few weeks later—on the same journey—added to the mix was a voice telling him to “look clearly; all this would become real.” World War I broke out the following summer.
These experiences prompted Jung to question his own sanity. But they also motivated him to embark on what turned out to be a 16-year self-seeking journey documented in a red leather journal titled “Liber Novus” (Latin for “New Book”). It features ethereal, often unsavory passages and shocking yet vibrant images expressing what Jung himself termed a “confrontation with the unconscious.”
Mr. Shamdasani, who got hold of a copy in 1996, took five years to understand it and three years to convince the Jung family to allow the journal’s publication, which was ultimately funded by the Philemon Foundation, a California-based organization dedicated to bringing Jung’s work into print. Over 13 years, Mr. Shamdasani translated Jung’s words into English and added a detailed introduction and extensive footnotes.
The result was W.W. Norton’s “The Red Book: Liber Novus.” Scanned with a 10,200-pixel scanner, the 11½-by-14¼-inch volume was first published in October 2009 and is now in its sixth printing—no small feat, given the $195 price tag.
The Red Book Of C.G. Jung
The Hammer Museum
Through June 6
The journal is also the featured attraction of “The Red Book of C.G. Jung: Creation of a New Cosmology” at UCLA’s Hammer Museum. The show, which also includes a series of sketches and various oil, chalk and tempera paintings, affords visitors a close (behind glass, of course) encounter with one of psychology’s most significant texts—one devoid of any of the theories or jargon of the field itself.
No question it’s the field’s most beautiful—illuminated (in the style of a medieval manuscript) by Jung’s own hand. Beyond the carefully scribed, often gothic-like calligraphy are hundreds of blazingly colored, strikingly detailed paintings depicting Jung’s self-imposed hallucinations. (Mr. Shamdasani says Jung was able to do this by using writing to connect with his soul and then visualizing a scene until characters emerged.)
One of the more stunning works on display (image 125) depicts one of Jung’s childhood daydreams “in which,” writes Mr. Shamdasani, “Alsace is submerged by water, [and] Basle is turned into a port” in the bottom third of the picture. Hovering above is a human figure—legs in lotus position, arms reaching above to support a jug that is connected to a huge mandala with pointillist-like flourishes of red, orange, pink, white, purple and blue.
But don’t expect the book’s editor to provide his analysis.
“I approach these as a historian,” says Mr. Shamdasani, a professor at University College London, “so I refrain from speculation or interpretation of the images. It’s not 100% clear—it’s clear that Jung thought about each element of these images, and sometimes said it would take him many years to figure out what they actually meant.”
No doubt, Jung was captivated by mandalas, not merely because of his attraction to Eastern philosophy, but also because he saw the circular images as, according to Mr. Shamdasani, “representing the self or totality of the personality.” Included in the show is Jung’s first-known mandala-inspired work, “Systema mundi totius” (image 105), which he illustrated in 1916. The brightly hued circular graphic forms, Mr. Shamdasani says, “represent a pictorial cosmology of the work he was engaged in at that time, which he called ‘The Seven Sermons to the Dead.’ He had a striking parapsychological event in the winter of that year, in which the dead, whom he’d encountered in his fantasies about two years earlier, end up at his door.”
Jung also came across divinities, exemplified by a tempera and gold bronze-on-cardboard piece he painted in 1917. Though it isn’t part of “The Red Book,” its back contains a passage from the text that Jung inscribed referencing the Cabiri, a group of Greek gods thought to promote fertility. “He who wishes to conquer new land brings down the bridges behind him,” Jung writes. “Let us not exist anymore. We are the thousand canals in which everything also flows back again into its origin . . . ” While the text seems only tangentially related to multiplying fruitfully, it does suggest Jung’s broader message of deconstructing and reconstructing one’s soul.
As for the original book itself, open to pages 54 and 55, one might think those two pages had special significance. But Mr. Shamdasani says (while laughing) that the choice was made “simply by taking a look at what [the Hammer Museum] liked.”
One footnote: The volume—which resided in a locked cupboard in Jung’s Kusnacht house in the Zurich suburbs after his death in 1961 and was transferred to a bank in 1984—was never finished. “My acquaintance with alchemy took me away from it,” Jung wrote in the book’s epilogue in 1959, when he finally returned to the work. But he stopped in midsentence, as he had done with the original text.
As Jung explained on the final page: “to the superficial observer, it will appear like madness.” Yet Mr. Shamdasani says Jung was engaged in a clearly controlled experiment. “There wasn’t anything like a psychosis,” he insists. In fact, what emerged during what many describe as a crippling depression were Jung’s groundbreaking theories on archetypes, the collective unconscious, and the process of individuation—the interior work one must engage in to become a person or individual.
Arnie Cooper is a writer living in Santa Barbara, Calif.