Thursday, 24 August 2017
Finishing the Red Book
I finished Jung's Red Book (see post of June 7th). I was going to try a vaguely literary, dramatic style: how I put the book carefully onto the coffee table; how I looked ponderously out the window at the shafts of late afternoon sunlight shining on the rooftops; how I felt a strange mix of awe, relief, and bewilderment. I wisely decided against it. Instead, I report simply: I reached the last page.
It wasn't easy. Rarely have I read so much and understood so little. It is not a book to 'understand' in the normal sense of the term. A tome consisting entirely of Jung's visions as he descends into the realm of images, followed by his own valiant yet frequently futile attempts to come to terms with them. Five hundred pages of this. Relentless, unrelenting; tortured at times, tortuous more often, tricky, impossible, uniquely inspirational.
Jung frequently has a hard time. The images give him a hard time, he gives them a hard time, Jung gives himself a hard time. Amongst all this is a man undergoing deep transformations of his being. Not just conceptually, but viscerally. And here's the nub - or one of them. It is easy to consider Jung to be conceptual - overly conceptual. People object to his terms like 'the unconscious', 'the shadow', 'the anima'. So get this. None of these classical Jungian terms pop up at all in the Red Book. It is all image, vision, wrestling with the figures, what they do and what they say. For some folk, it should demand a radical reassessment of what they consider 'Jungian' to be. The concepts are not something that Jung just came up with in a philosophical kind of way over a cup of coffee in Bollingen. No, they came afterwards - most of them at any rate. They are one man's attempt to provide maps, guidelines, frameworks, for others who wish, or need, to follow the path of the imagination. But that is all they are. The images come first; no image, no Jungian psychotherapy. You can do without the shadow and the psychological types, but you can't do without the direct experience of the image. This is the 'message', should we look for one, underlying the Red Book.
Somewhere there is a story in which a man approaches the, by now rather elderly, figure of Jung, and blurts out: 'I don't believe in your theory of the anima.' Jung looks back, gives a wink, and says: 'Don't worry. I won't tell anyone.'
Reading the Red Book I found something of a shocking experience. Partly, I think, because it is so different to most of the methods of communication that I have come to associate with Jung. It is the prima material of the work of the last 45 years of his life. It is the source. Also, I have rarely been confronted with another person's intimate experience in such utter nakedness as I was in the Red Book. Sometimes it seems more like a confessional of a man afraid of going completely off the map.
In terms of the precise 'content' of Jung's encounters with the figures, I feel surprisingly little resonance. The characters who Jung spends his evenings with are largely Biblical figures, obscure Gnostics (is there any other type of Gnostic?). The occasional dwarf and anchorite, plus a serpent and his soul. Jung engages in complex and emotionally-charged conversations with them about philosophical and theological matters, and follows this up with further monologues on similar subjects. I, on the other hand, during my period of intensive shamanic journeying, and working with imaginal figures more recently, have rarely got beyond "What's your name?", "What are you doing here?", "Friend or foe?", and "Are you going to attack me?"
There are a number of complications for Jung which I am happy to be free of myself. Firstly, there is abiding anxiety to somehow make what comes out of his imaginal dialogues acceptable to the medico-psychiatric-scientific community. One part of Jung remains a scientist, or at least of a scientific mindset, and some of the more conceptual body of work that ensued is a result of this perspective.
For my part, I have never felt any need to 'validate' any of my inner work within a context of modern science. In fact, should it begin to appear scientifically acceptable, I would wonder if I was doing something wrong. The priesthood of rational scientific materialism and its accompanying armoury of academia is over as far as I'm concerned. 'Research shows...', 'Recent studies suggest....', the opening fanfares of the modern wise ones, have no hold over me. Aside from inducing vague feelings of nausea every time I hear them.
Needless to say, Jung needn't have bothered: his effort to reconcile his pioneering work with the small-minded constraints of much modern science and rational materialism was a miserable failure.
Another of Jung's complicating concerns is with Christianity. He sees clearly the problems that have been created by the lop-sided nature of the religion, and he is painfully aware of the deficiencies of the figure of Christ. Yet he maintains the faith. He struggles to do so throughout the many pages of the Red Book, and keeps up the fight until his death forty-five years later. His persistence with Christianity stems, it seems to me, from a standpoint that he takes. We must stick with, work with, if you like, our history - our western heritage. Disappearing into Hinduism, Buddhism, or some exotic form of shamanism, is escapism to Jung. It is avoiding the issue of the past of the west, which remains ours, like it or not.
I can't really buy this line. Cultural and spiritual past, yes: it's in the bag I carry on my shoulder come what may. I have no choice. It's in the ways that I react, see things, how I behave, often unconsciously. Something it is perilous to ignore. But the way that I relate to all that is a bit different to how Jung does. I am no slave to that collective inheritance. And to equate it with Christianity, as Jung does, is a bit off-target in the early 21st century. Christianity remains one strand, but one strand only. I wonder what Jung would make of the ways his ideas have been incorporated into a multitude of non-Christian and post-Christian groups, ideas, spiritual practices, and the rest today.
And, as if all that was not enough....... Jung appears to feel that his visions, his adventures, as he terms them early on, have to be validated through outer action: taking it all somehow or other into society, as if there is a duty to social usefulness. I draw another question mark here. The inner necessity of images - archetypes, to get conceptual, though we don't need to - is sufficient unto itself. Of course, it's nice to be able to shed light for other folk, but I feel that as no prerequisite. Neil Kramer once opined that half of the most meaningful moments in our life can be shared with others, while the other half is incapable of communication. It's mine. Or I share it with Soul and with the Gods.
What the Red Book tells us, if it tells us anything, is not to follow Jung in his ideas, his concepts, his idiosyncrasies. It is to find the images which sit behind our life - those images which are simultaneously deeply personal and not personal at all - to explore them, chat with them, live with them. Honour the part they play in our life. Like it or not, they are there....
Image: Sonu Shamdasani, editor of the Red Book