I. “… opening The Red Book seems to be opening the mouth of the dead.”
James Hillman in James Hillman and Sonu Shamdasani, “Lament of the Dead: Psychology After Jung’s Red Book”
II. “We need the coldness of death to see clearly.”
C.G. Jung, The Red Book
We have reached chapter VI of Liber Secundus, which is the second part of The Red Book. The title of the chapter is “Death,” and death indeed seems to be one of the central themes of Liber Novus. The quote above comes from a fascinating book of dialogues between James Hillman and Shonu Shamdasani, editor and cotranslator of Jung’s Red Book. In one of the first dialogues, Hillman stresses that it is the dead of the human history that have fired the imagination of Jung in Liber Novus. He mentions the Egyptian ceremony of the opening of the mouth, which involved an animation of a statue or a mummy in a symbolic ritual. This was “the quintessential Egyptian rite for consecration, deification, and the infusing of spiritual presence into matter,” which pointed to “the process of birth and rebirth.” (1) As a result of the ceremony, the mummy or a statue was able to breathe, speak and receive sustenance.
Jung’s psychology saw the soul as “suspended between a larger continuity,” (2) between the aeons that precede us and what we are leaving for future generations. In the soul history, “the voices of the dead,” (3) have a palpable presence, even if the overall tendency is to disassociate from the dead, to cut them off, repressing their haunting presence. I was struck by the following words of James Hillman, who sees this approach as an important tenet of Jungian psychology:
“It’s almost as if you have to spend your whole life disengaging from your life, disengaging from the supposed reality of your living. I think that’s what Spinoza and Socrates meant about life is the study of dying…” (4)
Not only do we have to look to the dead to answer the questions that are haunting us now, but we actually should reach to our own depths, slow down, find pause instead of constantly engaging in the maddening stream of daily life.
“Death” is another chapter in The Red Book, which is simply beautifully written. Shamdasani and Hillman also expressed their admiration for the language that Jung used in Liber Novus; a language free from psychological concepts and scientific jargon. Jung’s writing here is a raw expression of a direct experience of the inner depths. It is “a lyrical elaboration,” “an evocation.” (5) Jung begins:
“I strive to those lowlands where the weak currents, flashing in broad mirrors, stream toward the sea, where all haste of flowing becomes more and more dampened, and where all power and all striving unites with the immeasurable extent of the sea.”
Jung follows “his brother,” the sea, and finds Death standing on the last dune at the edge of the world. Jung says to the lonely figure:
“There is only one who stands this way, so solitary and at the last corner of the world. I know, you are ice and the end; you are the cold silence of the stones; and you are the highest snow on the mountains and the most extreme frost of outer space.”
The place of death is where inequality stops, where “all are one with another,” adds Jung. The vision that follows deeply disturbs Jung and is a premonition of the atrocities of the I World War. He sees a silent multitude of the dead “flowing past in an enormous stream” towards the surging sea, where they get dissolved “in murky clouds of mist.” Jung sees a sea of blood foaming at his feet and has a vision of the red sun:
“Blood and fire mix themselves together in a ball – red light erupts from its smoky shroud – a new sun escapes from the bloody sea, and rolls gleamingly toward the uttermost depths – it disappears under my feet.”
He calls the red sun the sun of darkness, “bloody and burning like a great downfall.” The image accompanying the chapter is that of a monster emerging from the depths, where the red sun glows.
Jung saw evil as something we are all engaged in. As Shamdasani said, “We are taking part in each murder. What happens in the collective is also taking place within us.” (6) Following the disturbing massive death scene, Jung engages in the subject of evil and virtue. He asks:
“But did you know what evil is, and that it stands precisely right behind your virtues, that it is also your virtues themselves, as their inevitable substance? You locked Satan in the abyss for a millennium, and when the millennium had passed, you laughed at him, since he had become a children’s fairy tale.”
He refers to vices and virtues as brothers. Evil and virtue, life and death must all “strike a balance in your existence” since “dying increases life,” he adds. For me, the quality of Jung’s writing that has always grabbed me is his ability to convey the unfathomable. You cannot explain Jung; maybe just hint at what he meant at best. The following sentence rings simultaneously true and deeply disturbing:
“Blood and murder alone are still exalted, and have their own peculiar beauty; one can assume the beauty of bloody acts of violence.”
The final vision of the chapter is Jung’s own death and first shy signs of rebirth:
“… I perish on a dung heap, while peaceful chickens cackle around me, amazedly and mindlessly laying their eggs. A dog passes, lifts his leg over me, then trots off calmly. … The ancients said: Inter faeces et urinas nascimur [we are born in urine and feces]. For three nights I was assaulted by the horrors of birth. On the third night, junglelike laughter pealed forth, for which nothing is too simple. Then life began to stir again.”
This takes us back to chapter 3 of Liber Secundus (One of the Lowly), in which Jung watched in horror as a poor trump died a wretched death. Now he, the “I” of The Red Book, lives through a similar woe.
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(1) Aaron Cheak, “Thigh of Iron, Thigh of Gold: On Alchemy, Astrology, & Animated Statues,” in: Austin Coppock and Daniel A. Schulke, eds, The Celestial Art: Essays on Astrological Magic, Three Hands Press 2018, p. 227
(2) James Hillman in James Hillman and Sonu Shamdasani, Lament of the Dead: Psychology After Jung’s Red Book