The Red Book

Liber Novus: Jung’s ‘Red Book’

In the winter of 1913, Jung commenced a prolonged period of self-experimentation, which he called his “confrontation with the unconscious.” His task was one of getting to know his own myth, as a means of overcoming the contemporary malaise of spiritual alienation. In the evenings, while maintaining his therapeutic practice, professional activities and family life, he deliberately gave free rein to his fantasy thinking and carefully noted what ensued. He later called this process active imagination. He wrote down these fantasies in the Black Books. These are not personal diaries, but rather the records of a self-experimentation. The dialogues that form these active imaginations can be regarded as a kind of thinking in a dramatic form.

When the First World War broke out, Jung considered that a number of his apocalyptic fantasies were precognitions of this event. This led him to compose the first draft manuscript of Liber Novus, which consisted in a transcription of the main fantasies from the Black Books, together with a layer of interpretive commentaries and lyrical elaboration. Here, Jung attempted to derive general psychological principles from the fantasies, as well as to understand to what extent the events portrayed in the fantasies presented, in a symbolic form, developments that were to occur in the world.

The overall theme of the book is how Jung regains his soul and overcomes the contemporary malaise of spiritual alienation. This is ultimately achieved through enabling the rebirth of a new image of God in his soul and developing a new world view in the form of a psychological and theological cosmology. Liber Novus presents the prototype of Jung’s conception of the individuation process, which he held to be the universal form of individual psychological development.

At the beginning of the book, Jung re-finds his soul and then embarks on a sequence of fantasy adventures, which form a consecutive narrative. The chapters follow a particular format. They begin with the exposition of dramatic visual fantasies. Jung encounters a series of figures in various settings and enters into conversation with them. He is confronted with unexpected happenings and shocking statements. He then attempts to understand what had transpired, and to formulate the significance of these events and statements into general psychological conceptions and maxims. Jung held that the significance of these fantasies was due to the fact that they stemmed from the mythopoeic imagination that was missing in the present rational age. The task of individuation lay in establishing a dialogue with the fantasy figures – or contents of the collective unconscious – and integrating them into consciousness, hence recovering the value of the mythopoeic imagination.

The material went through a number of drafts, and was then recopied by Jung in an ornate gothic script into a large red leather folio volume, to which he added historiated initials, ornamental borders and a substantial number of paintings. The work was modeled after the illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages. The ensemble of text and image strongly recalls the illuminated works of William Blake. Initially, Jung painted the “the images that emerged through reliving” the fantasies as he transcribed them, and the images depicted scenes in them. As time went on, the images were connected to subsequent active imaginations in the Black Books, or indeed, could be considered as active imaginations in their own right, continuing where the text left off.

These paintings evidence striking ability. In his youth, Jung had been drawn to the works of Holbein, Böcklin, and the Dutch painters of the 17th century. He took up painting towards the end of his studies, and his early landscapes show fine technical proficiency. While he was in Paris in 1902-3 he devoted much time to painting and visiting museums. From then onwards, he was preoccupied with his professional career. Whilst transcribing the text of Liber Novus, Jung recommenced painting in a full-blown abstract and semi-figurative manner. Jung maintained a classical nineteenth-century conception of art. During the First World War, there were close contacts between Jung’s circle and avant-garde artists in Zürich such as Augusto Giacometti and the Dadaists, including Hans Arp. Paradoxically, it was Jung’s distance from a nineteenth-century aesthetic and his drawing upon non-European sources that brought his creative work into proximity with the European avant-garde. Jung eschewed viewing his own work as art: seeing them rather them as expressions of a spontaneous symbol-making capacity which was innate in everyone. He maintained that it was only in symbols that rational and irrational truths were united. He encouraged his patients to create similar symbolic expressions as they could have a therapeutic and integrative function.

Professor Sonu Shamdasani
UCL Centre for the History of Psychological Disciplines, London