Rubin Museum of Art chief curator, Martin Brauen, left, and Felix Walder, great-grandson to Carl Jung, inspect Carl Jung’s “The Red Book” (Photo: Rubin Museum)
The Rubin Museum exhibit (and accompanying lecture series) that features The Red Book by Carl Jung has been on my mind since I first saw the show a few months ago. (I have referred to it previously here and here.) What is this oversized Bible-like tome that Jung used to record his personal journey over a number of years? I have never seen anything like it, particularly from someone whose primary contribution to the culture of ideas and concepts is as strong as Jung’s. On the content itself, I am not in a position to respond and evaluate as expertly as many Jungian therapists have done. But the meticulous calligraphy and polychrome illustrations (which he refers to as “mandalas”) are striking and reveal Jung’s strong visual orientation. Can it be approached as an art object? No, not for me. It feels like an intimate diary—more of an artifact—of one soul’s journey into the deep space of the subconscious. It is curious, peculiar, intense, and a bit haunting.
That’s the reason I have continued to follow the reviews and discussions around this event. I’ve included a few salient reviews, some laudatory and some very critical. It’s everyman’s call.
Do the decades between the completion and publication of “The Red Book” render it less potent or interesting? Not at all. As Shamdasani observes, “in a critical sense, ‘Liber Novus’ does not require supplemental interpretation, for it contains its own interpretation,” and so it is at last possible to begin a study of Jung with the work he held above all the rest. “The Red Book” not only reminds us of the importance of introspection, but also offers a guide to separating the self from the spirit of a time that would have astonished and offended Jung with its endless trivial distractions, its blogs and tweets and chiming cellphones. The creation of one of modern history’s true visionaries, “The Red Book” is a singular work, outside of categorization. As an inquiry into what it means to be human, it transcends the history of psychoanalysis and underscores Jung’s place among revolutionary thinkers like Marx, Orwell and, of course, Freud. The dedication — the love — with which it was assembled makes “The Red Book” as beautiful and otherworldly as a medieval book of hours.
New York Times
But what is particularly strange about this book is not its pretense or pomposity but its talismanic power. It was stashed away in a cabinet for decades by the family, then jealously withheld from scholarly view because of its supposedly revealing nature. Since being brought into the open, partly through the efforts of the historian and Jung scholar Sonu Shamdasani (who is also curator of this exhibition), it has become a sensation.
New York Times
Jung, shaman of the collective mind games that are supposed to give healing significance to the average person’s deepysleepy land, was one of the inventors of modern intellectual celebrity and its egomaniacal constructs. The Red Book is nothing more than a projection of his giant vanity and, observing the book in the flesh, so to speak, one cannot help but view it more as a manufactured testament than the spontaneous recording of Jung’s nervous breakdowns that it is purported to be.
Was he going mad? After World War I broke out in 1914, Jung decided with relief that his disturbed imagination had actually been sensing the coming conflict. He also concluded that he had entered what we would now call a midlife crisis, a period in which he was being compelled to re-examine his life and explore his deepest self. To do this, he recorded some of his dreams and visions in what were later called his “Black Books” (which have been available for some while). But he also began a remarkable visionary text, illustrated with his own bizarre paintings: “The Red Book” or “Liber Novus.” This he composed during a state of “active imagination” — that is, of reverie or waking dream. As he said, he wanted to see what would happen when he “switched off consciousness.”
For those of you who are not near New York, the show is coming to the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles (from April to June) and then to the Library of Congress in Washington.
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