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The Red Book Liber Novus: A Reader’s Edition

by C.G. Jung,, edited by Sonu Shamdasani. New York, W.W. Norton and Company, 2012, 600 pp., $39.95.

Reviewed by Ann Belford Ulanov, Ph.D.
Am J Psychiatry 2013;170:687-688. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.2013.13020194
View Author and Article Information

The author reports no financial relationships with commercial interests.

New York, N.Y.
Dr. Ulanov is Christiane Brooks Johnson Professor of Psychiatry and Religion, Union Theological Seminary, New York, and Jungian Analyst in private practice, New York.

Accepted March , 2013.

Something happened to Jung, and when we read The Red Book, something happens to us. Jung describes this experience of his 40th year as the pivotal one of his life: It took “forty-five years to bring these things that I once experienced and wrote down into the vessel of my scientific work” (p. 85). Jung consented to the images, the different voices that arose within him, and engaged fully in the drama that unfolded: “I have learned that in addition to the spirit of this time there is still another spirit at work, that which rules the depths of everything that is contemporary” (p. 117). Despite his revulsion and the slanging matches that often occurred between him and those he encountered within, Jung found that he lived far from the depths and had to go looking for his lost soul. His soul asks, “Who should live your own life if not yourself?….The way leads to mutual love in community” (p. 125). Jung says, “It cost me a great deal to undergo [the fantasies and emotions that erupted]…. I had to plummet down into them, as it were. I felt…violent resistance to them…and distinct fear” (1, p. 178).

It also costs the reader to engage this book; for as if in a dream, when closing the book, it is hard to remember what we read! That has to do, I believe, with the level at which the book proceeds. Images startle and address Jung in personified forms; motifs bleed into each other and repeat; conflicting affects of fear, disgust, and joy pile up; tasks are demanded, even sacrifice. An unconscious level of psyche is stimulated in the reader, and one’s own drama happens, verifying Jung’s adamant injunction: Do not imitate my way; you have your own mysteries and your own way. We do not become Jungians, imitating his images and problems. We become ourselves.

This new reader’s edition is a handy size, making it portable (in contrast to the heavy, large original edition that requires a Sherpa to carry), and presents the text in ordinary pages of type (in contrast to the double-column style of each page of the original that makes for slow, meditative reading). Also omitted in this new edition are the German text, styled as a medieval manuscript, and the paintings! That is a great loss. Happily, however, Jung’s original daily sketches on which the paintings are based (made while on military duty in World War I) are included, as well as all the text from Liber Novus, Liber Secundus, Scrutinies, and Appendices A and B. Shamdasani’s introduction situates the volume in its historical setting, and in relation to Jung’s prior and subsequent psychological theories, and gives a useful summary of the book’s contents. The translators’ introduction alerts the reader to three different interpenetrating levels of the writing in which Jung faithfully reports images and dialogues that engaged him, his conceptual reflections upon them, and his expression of the experience in a mantic and prophetic mode.

Jung’s fantasy encounters occurred in 160 days (from November 12, 1913 to April 19, 1914), and the writing took place from 1913 to 1916, while the paintings took until 1927 to create (2). Finished 82 years before it was published, locked in a Swiss vault for 50 of those years, it stops midsentence in Jung’s discovery that what he uncovered was not his own mental disturbance, as he initially feared and faced with courage that can inspire any of us when we face our demons, but instead the way the psyche works in all of us. He spent all of his working life developing the implications for clinical work and for understanding human treasures of myth, art, and religion. With his increasing understanding of alchemical texts and with the arrival of Richard Wilhelm’s translation of The Secret of the Golden Flower displaying motifs parallel to Jung’s own experiences, Jung saw a better way to further the legacies of The Red Book in a comparative study of psychic transformation across cultures (formulated in his theory of individuation).

What did Jung discover? That to find his lost soul he had to descend to hell: “The way to your beyond leads through Hell and in fact through your own wholly particular Hell….Every other Hell was at least worth seeing or full of fun….Your own Hell is made up of all things that you always ejected…with a curse or a kick of the foot” (p. 231). He must face and accept, indeed love, his own inferiority, all that lies undeveloped in himself. If he does not, he will kill it in his neighbor: “But since men do not know that the conflict occurs inside themselves, they go mad, and one lays the blame on the other….If you kill your fellowman who is contrary to you, then you also kill that person in yourself and have murdered part of your life” (p. 200).

Jung discovers that good and evil are not murdering opposites unless we stop growing because they unite in growth. He discovers that we must accept chaos as the other half of life, that all our “ruling principles,” our guiding values and all our “formations”—that is, our images of the good, of God, and of the right way to live—are our constructs, of precious value, but not to be equated with the real (p. 323). The real exceeds all patterns of human order, and seeing this changes Jung’s experience of the divine: “If you marry the ordered to the chaos you produce the divine child, the supreme meaning beyond meaning and meaninglessness” (p. 139), concluding that “you do not become God through this, or become divine, but God becomes human.” Jung explains, “I do not myself become the supreme meaning…but the symbol becomes in me such that it has its substance, and I mine…insofar as it takes place in me, and I am part of the world, it also takes place through me in the world” (p. 189; also see reference 3, ch. 4).

Jung discovers that what we fail to live and still could live we should live. He does not clean up the language of his encounters with strange and eerie figures, nor his failures to understand what they mean, thus distinguishing this book from the self-help variety with its clear steps to better living. Faults, confusions, and ignorance crowd in with valuable insights, for example, into the place of destructiveness in living, the need to distinguish between our images of God and God, and our inextricable connections to each other that make our individual spiritual development of utmost social importance. One of Jung’s earliest readers said of the manuscript, “A book can swing even a whole world if it is written in fire and blood” (p. 130, n 44).

Jung  CG:  Memories, Dreams, Reflections . Edited by Jaffe  A,  New York,  Random House, 1963
Stein  M:  Critical notice: The Red Book.  J Anal Psychol 2010; 55:423–437
Ulanov  AB:  Madness and Creativity .  College Station, Tex,  Texas A and M University Press, 2013
References Container


Jung  CG:  Memories, Dreams, Reflections . Edited by Jaffe  A,  New York,  Random House, 1963
Stein  M:  Critical notice: The Red Book.  J Anal Psychol 2010; 55:423–437
Ulanov  AB:  Madness and Creativity .  College Station, Tex,  Texas A and M University Press, 2013
References Container

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