Carl Jung’s ‘Red Book:’ Science or Revelation?


Carl Jung has entered the canons of history as one of the founding figures of modern psychology. One aspect of his career which is often overlooked, though, is his development of theories which contributed to the resurgence of mysticism as a driving force in modern thought. Originally a student of Freud’s, Jung eventually broke with his mentor due to Freud’s theoretical rigidity – he refused to ackowledge the possibility of meaning beyond humanity’s repressed sexual and violent drives, seeing man, rather than a being with purpose, as an amalgamation of conflicting impulses. For Jung, however, there was more to human nature, and he parted ways with his predecessor in order to develop his own conclusions about the nature of the unconscious.

          What awaited the disillusioned psychologist, though, was, to say the least, unexpected. Towards the end of 1913, at the age of thirty-eight, Jung experienced what he terms in his autobiographical work Memories, Dreams, Reflections his “confrontation with the unconscious.” Exactly how he triggered this phenomenon or whether it arose spontaneously remains unspecified. Beginning as a series of vivid dreams and visions, this period in Jung’s life provided him with the original source material from which he would later develop his ground-breaking theories. What is most special about this experience, though, is that, rather than a specifically scientific revelation, this “confrontation” belonged to the order of the mystical or the spiritual, bearing remarkable similarities to what one would traditionally understand as contact with the realm of the supernatural, or even demonic possession. As words and images flowed into his consciousness, Jung felt compelled to transcribe the information he was receiving in the manner of modern-day “channeling:” “Sometimes it was as if I were hearing it with my ears, sometimes feeling it with my mouth, as if my tongue were formulating words; now and then I heard myself whispering aloud. […] I had conceived my voluntary confrontation with the unconscious as a scientific experiment which I myself was conducting. […] Today I might equally well say that it was an experiment that was being conducted on me” (202). Jung describes how these thoughts took hold of his mind, driving him to the brink of insanity – ultimately, though, he allowed himself to be overtaken, realising that resistance to their influence could be more damaging than to succumb to them: “in order to grasp the fantasies which were stirring in me ‘underground,’ I knew that I had to let myself plummet down into them” (202). Rather than abandon his project and attempt to return to normal, though, Jung embraced the forces that were assaulting his consciousness. This led to further revelations, culminating in direct contact from spiritual entities during his sleep. Three beings appeared; an old man, initially identified as “Elijah” but who eventually developed into “Philemon,” a young blind girl named “Salome,” and a black snake. Jung makes it clear that it is the old man who fascinated him the most: “Suddenly there appeared from the right a winged being sailing across the sky. I saw that it was an old man with the horns of a bull. […] He had the wings of the kingfisher with its characteristic colours. […] Philemon was a pagan and brought with him an Egypto-Hellenic atmosphere with a Gnostic colouration”  (207). Initially Jung identified each of these figures as “archetypes,” or symbols of primordial concepts dwelling within the hidden realms of the unconscious; the Elijah/ Philemon figure represented “intelligence and knowledge,” identified also as logos, while the young blind girl, he felt, symbolized the “anima,” or the eros principle. He perceived the snake as a motif which suggested the theme of the “hero-myth,” failing to develop the significance of this in relation to his inner state.

          Following the attempt to categorize each figure, though, Jung makes some startling revelations. As a psychologist and a scientist, one would expect him to be satisfied by the explanation of these apparitions as pure products of his subconscious mind. But Jung goes further than this, conceding that from his perspective these beings, particularly Philemon, were independent of his mind and will, suggesting that these were indeed living spiritual entities: “Philemon represented a force which was not myself. […] he said things which I had not consciously thought. For I observed clearly that it was he who spoke, not I” (207). Jung eventually developed a relationship with this being, becoming his student by absorbing his mytical teachings: “At times he seemed to me quite real, as if he were a living personality. I went walking up and down the garden with him, and to me he was what the Indians call a guru” (208). Jung recounts that some years later he had a conversation with an elderly Hindu Indian during which they discussed the idea of gurus. When the man interjected that he had once studied under a long-dead Hindu scholar, Jung asked if he was in fact referring to a spirit. The other man confirmed, very matter-of-factly, that some individuals had the special privilege of benefitting from the tutelage of a non-human entity: “‘Most people have living gurus. But there are always some who have a spirit for a teacher'” (209). The benevolent nature of Jung’s spirit guide, though, came into question after he metamorphosed for a second time, displaying what Jung describes as characteristically demonic traits: “Later, Philemon became relativised by the emergence of yet another figure, whom I called Ka. […] Ka’s expression has something demonic about it – one might also say, Mephistophelian. […] Ka represented a kind of earth demon or metal demon” (209). Surprisingly, this discovery did not startle Jung or cause him to question the nature of his experience. He continued to receive information from these beings and to obey their demands.

          Jung’s interaction with these entities resulted in a series of “automatic writings.” It eventually became clear that there was a definite purpose to their relationship – Jung was to be the vessel through which these beings would manifest their knowledge, providing the psychologist with the prima materia that would form the basis of all of his subsequent speculations on the realm of the “unconscious.” In 1916, Jung was impelled to transcribe what he called Septem Sermones ad Mortuos, or “Seven Sermons to the Dead,” an act which was accompanied by a panoply of supernatural occurrences experienced not only by Jung himself, but by his entire family:

I was compelled from within, as it were, to formulate and express what might have been said by Philemon. […] It began with a restlessness, but I did not know what it meant or what “they” wanted of me. There was an ominous atmosphere all around me. I had the strange feeling that the air was filled with ghostly entities. Then it was as if my house began to be haunted. My eldest daughter saw a white figure passing through the room. My second daughter, independently of her elder sister, related that twice in the night her blanket had been snatched away […] The whole house was filled as if there were a crowd present, crammed full of spirits. (214-215)

          When Jung finally succumbed to this irresistible pressure, taking the pen into his hand, he relates that the tension in the house was immediately relieved. The first words that came to him were “‘We have come back from Jerusalem where we found not what we sought'” (216). This phrase is understood by some as an indication of the specifically pagan nature of the message communicated by these spirits – disillusioned by the tenets of traditional religious belief (i.e. Judeo-Christianity) the dead have left “Jerusalem,” the holy city, and seek a new revelation to satify their longing for peace. The implication is that esoteric religions like Gnosticism, the Kabbalah, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sufism and Freemasonry are preferable to the rigid doctrines of Western theology, communicating a “higher truth” than the Christian “slave-mentality” (to use a Nietzschean term). While the latter rejects the idea of spiritual enlightenment, demanding submission to the current order of things and faith in the divine promise of eternal life in a world to come, the former encourage humans to develop their “divine” potentialities, acquiring a “perfect inner balance” and, in some cases, superhuman faculties through the practice of various techniques like meditation, tantric yoga, “sex magick,” the use of mind-altering substances and a host of other ritualistic practices. These themes can also be observed in the numerous paintings that Jung included in his work, establishing him not only as a talented psychologist but as a highly accomplshed artist. One in particular stands out as a representation of Hindu “kundalini yoga,” in which a sacred serpent, winding up the spinal column, eventually explodes into the mind, igniting man’s cosmic consciousness.

          The process of automatic writings that followed these bizarre events resulted in Jung’s composition of his mysterious Red Book or Liber Novus, a process that extended over a period of sixteen years. Jung, in fact, kept this work secret for fear that its contents would destroy his reputation as a psychologist – his heirs, in accordance with his wishes, didn’t even allow scholars to examine it until 2009. And from this material, obtained directly from the “spirit realm,” Jung constructed his theories. He compared the contents of his work with previous studies he had conducted on gnosticism, perceiving a direct link between the two. This, in turn, led to an interest in alchemy, which he saw as possessing similarities with the ancient Gnostic religion and his theories: “Between 1918 and 1926 I has seriously studied the Gnostic writers, for they too had been confronted with the primal world of the unconscious […]. [F]or a long time it proved impossible to find any bridge that led from Gnosticism – or neo-Platonism – to the contemporary world. but when I began to understand alchemy I realised that it represented the historical link with Gnosticism, and that a continuity therefore existed between past and present” (226-227). From the information he uncovered during his research, Jung came to the conclusion that he had been called upon to resurrect the ancient wisdom of the past and present it to the world under the form of a modern psychology of the unconscious. Not only had the spirit-world singled him out as its prophet, but Jung also possessed a strong conviction that it was a task which he had inherited from his ancestors, notably his grandfather, who was “an ardent Freemason and Grand Master of the Swiss Lodge” (259). Later on he writes:

When I was working on the stone tablets I became aware of the fateful links between me and my ancestors. […] It often seems as if there were an impersonal karma within a family, which is passed on from parents to children. It has always seemed to me that I had to answer questions which fate had posed to my forefathers, and which had not yet been answered, or as I had to complete, or perhaps continue, things which previous ages had left unfinished. (260)

          Jung embraced his task. Among his numerous treatises on the psychology of the unconscious, one can instantly recognize alchemical and Gnostic influences. The idea of the “transference,” for example, or the integration of the “dark” side of the mind, represents a unification of the mind in a type of hieros gamos (the mystical “sacred marriage or union of opposites) that can be traced to the teachings of medieval alchemists. Jung’s concept of the collective unconscious, that cosmic repository of archetypal images, is none other than a modern reformulation of the Gnostic conception of the universe in which “all is one” and man’s mind is understood as a microcosmic reflection of the vastness of the cosmos. From this we obtain the idea of the world as maya, or illusion, and the teaching that through knowledge man can shatter the barriers of the material universe and reunite with the Source, the center of the universe. Jung’s archetypes, therefore, can be accounted for as living entities within the cosmic mind, of which man, breaking the rules of his everyday reality, can occasionally obtain a momentary glimpse.

Jung therefore readily accepted his task as the ambassador of the occult to the modern world. Using his depth of insight into the working of the human mind, he was able to formulate a system in which concepts that had long-since been dismissed as so much superstition and nonsense could be re-integrated into the human experience. Modern man, alientated in an age of industrialization and consumerism, could finally turn away from the dominant paradigm of materialism and search for a new spirituality that had been legitimized by the research of a leading figure in the world of psychology. At last, he could rediscover his soul.


About toniocolonna78

I am a 26 year old student at UCC undertaking a master's degree in modernities
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8 Responses to Carl Jung’s ‘Red Book:’ Science or Revelation?

  1. Elle I. says:

    Just want to express my sincere gratitude for this wonderfully enlightening article, thank you.

  2. Pingback: Carl G. Jung – Just another deceived spirit channeler? | Evilkind®

  3. Thank you for this summary of a book that confused the heck out of me when I first looked at it in 2011. After four years studying down and upon this river, I revisit the Red Book and start to see.

  4. dbrasic92 says:

    I disagree with you when you say, “The implication is that esoteric religions like Gnosticism, the Kabbalah, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sufism and Freemasonry are preferable to the rigid doctrines of Western theology, communicating a “higher truth” than the Christian “slave-mentality” (to use a Nietzschean term). While the latter rejects the idea of spiritual enlightenment, demanding submission to the current order of things….”

    The greatest truth of the Christian doctrine is not that we are slaves, but rather that we are loved by an all-loving all-knowing God who acts as our Father (and Mother). Christians are only ‘slaves’ in the sense that a child is a slave to their parents who love and care for them. Islam might represent this relationship differently between Allah and people as a master-slave dynamic. However, Christianity is a religion that sets people free via love and truth from their own egotistical selfishness, which is what truly makes us slaves. (“The truth shall set you free John 8:32) Each person is, after all, their own biggest enemy.

    I believe you mean to say that the practice of Christianity may be flawed and tainted with hypocrisy, to which I may be able to concede. The way in which Christians live out their religion is different from the essence of the religion. You see? Therefore, I believe it incorrect to state the esoteric religions transmit a higher truth than Christianity, and I’m sure CG Jung himself would disagree with that statement as well since his study was not one of pure spirituality but rather of psychology, meaning that these esoteric religions simply are projections of the inner structure of the psyche, not absolute truths about the world. Make sure to be careful when you attempt to claim truths about the outside objective world from psychology which is meant to uncover the secrets of the hidden parts of the psyche.

    • Dear Dan,

      Thank you for your comment — and I apologize if the text gives the impression that I agree with the passage you mentioned. There was little room for expressing my personal opinion on the subject when I first wrote this post as it was completed as a partial requirement for my MA in English lit. I am, in reality, a Christian (see reply above), and I also deeply disagree with the idea we entertain a master-slave relationship with God — the New Testament quickly dispels this notion, as do numerous passages in the Old Testament, and you expressed the essence of our relationship with Him quite eloquently in your comment. I agree that there are a lot of underlying assumptions in my treatment of Jung’s beliefs, and that your criticism regarding Jung’s (probable) attitude towards the esoteric systems that I discussed above is fair. However, if you push my reasoning a little further, what Jung felt about his “instructors” and their teachings — and the manner in which he would explain his view of psychology to the public — ultimately becomes irrelevant. If the poltergeist phenomena described above really did happen (I’m not among those who believe that the human mind alone is responsible for such incidents), then he was dealing with entities that exist objectively. If this is true, and we look at these events from a Christian perspective, then it is likely that these entities were, to put it simply, demons. If they were demons, then they — and, by association, their “disciple” Jung — espouse a philosophy that (I hope you’ll agree with me on this) is thoroughly incompatible with Christianity and seeks to discredit Christianity by whatever means it may. One of the favorite “tricks” of such systems is to represent the Creator as a tyrannical demiurge who seeks to thwart any attempts to transcend our fallen condition. So — the aim of the post was not to discuss Jung’s psychology on its own terms, but to connect it to broader cultural and spiritual trends that were occurring during the early twentieth century, and which have gained increasing influence since that time. Hope that helps.

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