Reading The Red Book (1)

1.“It is not an uncommon experience to feel somehow changed after reading The Red Book.”

Stanton Martin

2.”The years … when I pursued the inner images were the most important time of my life. Everything else is to be derived from this.”

C.G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections

3.“You should carry the monastery in yourself. The desert is within you. The desert calls you and draws you back, and if you were fettered to the world of this time with iron, the call of the desert would break all chains. Truly; I prepare you for solitude.”

From the Prologue to The Red Book

An image from The Red Book

When I moved to Zurich in autumn of 2010 the first cultural event I attended was a newly-opened exhibition at the Museum Rietberg, which celebrated the groundbreaking moment in the history of depth psychology – the publication of Jung’s Liber Novus, commonly known as The Red Book. The book was created by Jung between 1915 and 1930. It is a misconception that he descended into madness or psychosis in order to write it. No doubt, for those who are sensitive to its vibrations, the book appears as a revelation from beyond. But it is important to remember that it was a fruit of Jung’s mysterious nocturnal activity. During the day, he continued to see patients, give lectures and even serve as an officer in the Swiss army.

In the Prologue to The Red Book Jung reflects on the nature of two spirits that have been moving his life – “the spirit of this time” and “the spirit of the depths.” The former is concerned with daily practicalities, conventions and being of use. The latter goes beyond the “belief in science” and teaches spiritual knowledge (gnosis) that goes beyond space and time, escaping the confines of daytime logic. One gets seized by the spirit of the depths, just like Jung’s soul was seized by eternal ideas. He confesses in the Prologue:

“I resisted recognizing that the everyday belongs to the image of the Godhead. I fled this thought, I hid myself behind the highest and coldest stars.”

Perhaps to protect his scientific reputation, Jung never decided to publish The Red Book in his lifetime. After his death in 1961 the manuscript was moved to a bank vault in Zurich, where it remained for decades. I have recently felt an enormous pull to study The Red Book in more detail. Though I have read it before, I feel like at this point in my life it will hopefully bring new revelations. In his wonderful interpretative guide to The Red Book, Sanford L. Drob made a very striking statement in the Introduction:

“While Jung raises many questions in Liber Novus, he answers few, as he tends to circle around the problems that concern him and try out various possibilities.”

It is so because Jung’s prose is moved by the spirit of the depths; it invites the reader to join the quest whose path leads within. This does not mean following Jung as a prophet. As Jung says in the Prologue:

May each one seek out his own way. The way leads to mutual love in community.”

Perhaps the most important message that can be taken from the Prologue is that each of us carries the instruments of our salvation within. I find the following two further quotes from the Prologue key:

“Do you not know that you yourselves are the fertile acre which bears everything that avails you?”

“The way is within us, but not in Gods, nor in teachings, nor in laws. Within us is the way, the truth, and the life.”

Since the visual and the verbal aspect of Liber Novus are inseparable, another great source that I consulted while reacquainting myself with The Red Book was The Red Book Hours: Discovering C.G. Jung’s Art Mediums and Creative Process by Jill Mellick, who focuses on Jung’s lifelong dedication to visual arts. I realized how devoted Jung was to his creative process and how self-sufficient in his endeavor. Mellick reminds us:

“In the late Middle Ages, a team of specialists divided the intensive, prolonged labor required to illuminate a manuscript; a scribe wrote black minuscules; a rubricator designed and rendered majuscules; an illustrator painted designed majuscules, decorations, and images; and often a separate illuminator added the precious metals that gave the manuscript their name. Jung became his own scribe, rubricator, illustrator, and illuminator.”

Apparently, a master calligrapher could not believe that Jung has done the whole Red Book calligraphy single-handedly.

In her book Mellick also includes the account of Hugh Milstein, who was in charge of scanning the manuscript for publishing purposes. Here is how he recalls the experience:

“It was late November, 2007.

The book was seeing oxygen for the first time in a long time. As it was opened, the pages started curling. While the curling has a scientific explanation – humidity and age – … the phenomenon was still uncanny: as though someone was turning the pages one by one.

You could sense what everyone was thinking: another dimension of human experience was happening. I could never quiet the thought that Jung himself was turning the pages. And who was I to say he wasn’t? But it’s at least accurate to say that the pages were moving independently. They were moving for whatever reason we care to think they were moving.

The pages had luminosity. When I was working directly with the book, I noticed how vibrantly the gold and greens were reflecting under the light!”

The Red Book – the original

The opening image of The Red Book

The opening image of Jung’s Prologue contains the first of his paintings – the letter D from “Der Weg des Kommenden” (“The Way of Things to Come”). It shows a small town by the lake and a typical church with a steeple. Sanford L. Drob muses:

“Mountains and fair weather clouds can be seen in the background, and an ancient or medieval sailing vessel drifts close to the shore. The masted vessel, which seems suitable for a lone adventurer, signals the beginning of a journey, one that will take Jung into the primitive depths and the astral heights. This scene, which is peaceful, indeed idyllic, in the center, has much that is troubling around its edges – a harbinger of things to come. Astrological objects and symbols range across the sky, and below there are strange, perhaps primitive, plants and corals in a dark lake. The staff of the letter “D” contains a flaming cauldron, and a serpent wearing a golden crown rises high above it.”

It is worth pointing out that the astrological glyphs refer to the phenomenon of precession and the dawning of the Age of Aquarius ( the last symbol in the sequence). I will come back to this in future instalments of the series.

In the introduction to Memories, Dreams, Reflections Jung wrote:

“What we are to our inward vision, and what man appears to be sub specie aeternitatis, can only be expressed by way of myth. Myth is more individual and expresses life more precisely than does science.”

Sanford L. Drob wonders about the accessibility of The Red Book and whether Jung’s “unique experience can be generalized to others.” Is it just a private, ultra-esoteric account, as some critics have stated, or is it in fact “an effort to engage the problem and paradox of comprehending the universal in the particular,” as Drob thinks. This question will be answered differently depending on whether you have heard “the call of the desert” or whether the writings of Jung have never captivated you.

Reading The Red Book – part 2

Reading The Red Book – part 3

Reading The Red Book – part 4

Reading The Red Book – part 5

Reading The Red Book – part 6

Reading The Red Book – part 7

Reading The Red Book – part 8

Reading The Red Book – part 9

Reading The Red Book – part 10

Reading The Red Book – part 11

Reading The Red Book – part 12

Reading The Red Book – part 13

Reading The Red Book – part 14

Reading The Red Book – part 15

Reading The Red Book – part 16

Reading The Red Book – part 17

Reading The Red Book – part 18

Reading The Red Book – part 19

Reading The Red Book – part 20

Reading The Red Book – part 21

Reading The Red Book – part 22

Reading The Red Book – part 23

Reading The Red Book – part 24 

Reading The Red Book – part 25

Reading The Red Book – part 26

Reading The Red Book – part 27

Reading The Red Book – part 28

Reading The Red Book – part 29

Reading The Red Book – part 30

Reading The Red Book – part 31

Reading The Red Book – part 32

Reading The Red Book – part 33

Reading The Red Book – part 34

Reading The Red Book – part 35

Reading The Red Book – part 36

Reading The Red Book – part 37

Reading The Red Book – part 38

Reading The Red Book – part 39

Reading The Red Book – part 40

Reading The Red Book – part 41

Reading The Red Book – part 42

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16 Responses to Reading The Red Book (1)

  1. I enjoyed this first part very much, Monika! Thank you for your thoughtful reflections, quotations and images. Looking forward to the next one… My several weeks of immersion in Liz Greene’s commentary on the Red Book for the review you read recently, certainly had a powerful effect on me, whose impact I am only slowly beginning to realise. Returning to study the Tarot is one such effect…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. wolfcircle says:

    After reading the Red Book, I found this quote very meaningful: “The dream, we would say, originates in an unknown part of the psyche and prepares the dreamer for the events of the following day.” ~Carl Jung, CW 5, Para 5. The dream is a potentially daily and eventually easily accessible tool and connection.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Pingback: Reading The Red Book (1) – lampmagician

  4. lampmagician says:

    Wow, dear friend, You’ve got me through and through 😍 A magnificent post and I excitingly waiting for the next part 💖🙏💖🙏

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ve been following your blog for a while now, I am very happy to see this post.
    The red book definitely does something to readers. quite often I open the book and read random pages to bring up imagination and colours what I cannot think of.
    by any chance have you ever had a chance to have a look at ‘Black book’ apparently it is still being edited?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your kind comment. I do the same with The Red Book – it is a sort of bibliomancy if I may call it that. I have heard that the black book(s) are going to be published – this or maybe next year. I do not know anything else.


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  7. Pingback: Reading The Red Book (22) | symbolreader

  8. Pingback: Reading The Red Book (1) | symbolreader – thurstonchrichton

  9. Anne Hawley says:

    Hello. I stumbled on this series yesterday, after having delved into the Liber Novus for the first time, and I wanted to thank you for it. I was searching for commentary on page (and image) 129.

    I wonder: have you thought about putting this series out as a book? I would love that! In any case, thank you for your work in this area. I’ve subscribed to your blog and look forward to your future writings.


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