Journey into The Red Book: Liber Primus


Detail of an illustration of a solar barge on page 55 of Carl Jung’s Red Book, via NPR

Speak and write for those who want to listen and read. But do not run after men, so that you do not soil the dignity of humanity–it is a rare good. A sad demise in dignity is better than an undignified healing. –Carl Jung

After reading the first part of The Red Book, by Carl Jung, I have come to the conclusion that it can only be read by completely embracing one’s subjective experience of it. Jung admonishes the reader as such, for, as he sees it, “One should not turn people into sheep, but sheep into people. The spirit of the depth demands this.”

Each section of The Red Book—the paintings, calligraphy, “Liber Segundus,” “Scrutinies,” and the Introduction itself, which is extremely well-written and provides an outstanding summary of Jung’s works and theories in a historical context—is a work in its own right, and deserves separate treatment.

Based on my own reflections, “Liber Primus,” and really The Red Book as a whole, is the deconstruction of a mind. The beginnings of this process for Jung, and all of its requisite fear, ranting and expounding, both for and against the project, are documented in detail in “Liber Primus”. The battle mostly occurs against the trappings of what Jung calls “the spirit of the time” in which his mind lives. One of the more interesting aspects of this deconstruction is that Jung purports to do it to himself, as a deliberate act of will; much in the way a yogi would treat a student in an Indian ashram, or as seekers in various traditions have done for millennia through spiritual teachers, elders, priests, drugs, dreamwalks, pilgrimages and fasting. In “Liber Novus,” Jung takes it upon himself to split himself into sage and pupil and rip apart his own limiting preconceptions and social conditioning through the power of induced trance and nighttime dreams.

In doing so, he inevitably takes up the battle both for and against Christianity as it exists in his time. His conflict with the dominant religion of European culture surfaces from the outset. He uses Christianity both to understand and to destroy fears of his own heresy, and these themes appear throughout the course of the book. The lens of Christianity also provides a focal point for much of Jung’s ambivalence around his own potential status as Outsider. To tackle Christianity is, for him, to tackle the backbone of his cultural beliefs, and those shared by the majority who make up his peers and neighbors. He calls his ultimate goal individuation a psychiatric term for what others might have referred to as “enlightenment,” “self-realization,” “attainment,” or any number of words used to try and capture a state of mind that operates independently of the confines of social, and perhaps biological, inherited elements of consciousness. Those elements, steeped in conformity, fear, and a particular historical moment, include a strong need to feel a part of the social group, and society at large.

Illustration on page 53 of Carl Jung’s Red Book, via The Art Blog

Therefore, when Jung does battle with his belief system, he fears for his soul. He also fears being seen as an outcast—or worse, a fool or a madman. His visions unfold a number of heresies which help him to better comprehend his own beliefs; he’s compelled to see past what the “spirit of the time” has labeled evil. This attempt to break through the confines of rational (and irrational) conditioned thought—through words, images, dreams and trance-states—puts The Red Book on the curious cusp between psychological text, dream diary, journal, theological text, philosophy and artistic expression. Jung himself embodies this split as seeker, artist, philosopher, thinker, scientist, even seer. And he attempts to transcend the parts of the mind that adhere to conformist beliefs, and to learn that which was previously unknown. It is this striving for an original mind that makes one a good artist, but also a praiseworthy scientist, a gifted thinker, even a revolutionary. But to reach it, Jung must first walk a certain, dangerous path between sanity and madness.

The very beginning of “Liber Primus,” however, is a treatise on Jung’s ambivalence about this journey and its need; in particular, his terror of exposing himself as “different” or “outside” the mainstream of contemporary thought. Of note is the fact that the impulse to conduct this experiment comes at a time when his own reputation is secure as a prominent scientist, a rising star with no small amount of credibility in his field. His beginning writings of the book therefore read as an apology of all that will follow, perhaps even a plea to the reader to still find him credible, since he himself believes that his present task must appear from the outside as madness. During this phase, he agonizes over every thought which places him outside of the “spirit of the times”. He writes:

[e]very step closer to my soul excites the scornful laughter of my devils, those cowardly ear-whisperers and poison-mixers. It was easy for them to laugh, since I had to do strange things.

It’s that fear of becoming ostracized, of being seen as living outside society and its belief constructs, that keeps us all from crossing certain lines. For as much as we claim to value originality as a culture, there is still a strong pull towards conformity. In fact, for most of us, anything that calls into question our basic beliefs around the ordering of our lives and our place in the cosmos is terrifying. We hold to our beliefs. And most societies (including the one during Jung’s “spirit of the times”), find it far more convenient to label the creatively-lived life simply irrational, or insane. These free-spirits, oftentimes artists and poets, are dismissed as misguided, irresponsible, reckless, or outright dangerous to themselves and others.

Yet that hunger for more, that longing to meet something that exists beyond the spirit of the time, something that contains depth beyond the conventional views that satisfy the multitude, proves to be stronger than Jung’s fears of what will happen if he exposes himself. For, in Jung’s view,

[h]e who possesses the image of the world possesses half the world, even if his humanity is poor and he owns nothing. But hunger makes the soul into a beast that devours the unbearable and is poisoned by it. My friends, it is wise to nourish the soul, otherwise you will breed dragons and devils in your heart.

Illustration on page 119 of Carl Jung’s Red Book, via NYTimes

So it is against these dragons that Jung ventures, risking the ridicule that could mean the end of his rather comfortable position in the world. Jung restates his own fear of living outside the comfortable confines of society in another way, chastising himself by claiming,

It appears as though you want to flee from yourself so as not to have to live what remains unlived until now.

In a footnote, he elaborates that this illness of conformity can be transferred from parent to child, by saying,

What usually has the strongest psychic effect on the child is the life which the parents . . . have not lived.

Taken from a different angle, one could read this part of “Liber Primus” as the hysterical rantings of the ego, fearing death. Jung’s dreams and waking illusions shatter him whole into the army of personality symbolized in the I Ching. The different members of the army argue back and forth, trying to find truth in the spaces between the fragments of identity, culture, conditioning and what he believes is the “spirit of the depths” accessible to all.

Jung does not condemn the ego altogether, however. Instead, he sees the “I” (and even the body) as a vehicle of pure symbol in this quest—a communication conduit from one soul to others. In other words, there is the spirit of the depths, a sort of transpersonal consciousness that resides below the more superficial level of conditioning, and in this place the soul resides, at least in part. Then there is the “I”, a means through which that “real” consciousness is interpreted. The “I” then uses language, its main tool of expression, and yet another layer of symbol, to communicate with the other “I’s” in which it comes into contact.

On the one hand, the “I” or ego, together with the group, makes up “the spirit of the times”. One the other hand, the ego mediates between the physical world and the “soul”. According to Jung, the “I” cannot help but be frustrated by its competing wants, and the ego’s lack of fulfillment arises from never reaching the place where the symbol originates.

In the desert, which is the place of the symbolic depiction of this drama, lives the question:

Is it solitude, to be with oneself?

and the answer,

Solitude is only true when the soul is a desert.

When the ego is silent, what is left? Af first nothing, according to Jung, only the desert of silence behind the voice we’ve always mistaken for our own. In The Red Book, the hero in the form of Siegfried must be slain before the real person can be found. The desert as a symbol appears in scores of spiritual texts, often interpreted literally as a wasteland of sand where seekers (such as Jesus) go to sit in the hot sun, and wait until God (or the Devil) speaks to them. Jung makes this connection too, saying, “The ancients lived their symbols, since the world had not yet become real for them.” Yet, he also writes, “The words that oscillate between nonsense and supreme meaning are the oldest and truest.” The relationship of truth to fantasy and fiction is another theme that runs through these pages. Jung asks again and again if factual truth in the strictest sense, is really the relevant question. Myth, after all, has the same goal as any powerful fiction—a lie to help us better see the truth.

The temptation is to return to the world of men, to become a slave to the world without enduring the desert. Jung ventures into that desert, though, and there he encounters his soul, who immediately begins to argue with him. She admonishes him first for his impatience, and for his surety that he knows the reason why he is there. “Can you not wait?” she says.

Should everything fall into your lap, ripe and finished? You are full, yes, you teem with intentions and desirousness. Do you still not know that the way to truth stands open to only those without intentions?

Jung answers that he is “just a human being who is weak and sometimes does not do his best.” But the soul responds, “Is this what you think it means to be human?” Jung later revisits this idea of intention versus action and experience. He writes:

We believe we can illuminate the darkness with an intention, and in that we aim past the light. How can we presume to know in advance from where the light will come to us?

Throughout his journey in the desert, Jung deconstructs and argues against the cleverness of the spirit of his age. But he often laments being “a victim of [his] thinking,” whereby he can’t hear past the “howl” of his own thoughts. The nature of thought occupies much of “Liber Primus,” as well as his own fears that he won’t make it to the depth he feels he must go within his own consciousness. Instead he believes he will only “rush in like a thief, seizing whatever I can and fleeing breathlessly.” Here he speaks eloquently through the character of his soul:

I indignantly answered, “Do you call light what we men call the worst darkness? Do you call day night?”

To this my soul spoke a word that roused my anger, “My light is not of this world.”

I cried, “I know of no other world!”

The soul answered, “Should it not exist because you know nothing of it?”

Illustration on page 105 of Carl Jung’s Red Book, via The Art Blog

In his attempt to nail down what is missing in the Christianity of his time, Jung emphasizes the need for a form of spiritual madness, which he equates with “divine life”. He writes, “[t]o the extent that Christianity of this time lacks madness, it lacks divine life.” Jung distinguishes between “divine madness” and psychological, “human” madness, and references Socratic and Neoplatonist attempts to distinguish different forms of divine madness and their utility in stepping outside the dominant wisdom of the time to attain higher forms of self-awareness and self-knowledge.

Jung does not go so far as to say madness is necessary to attain high states of exaltation. But he talks about the need to be able to straddle this line of madness and sanity. He emphasizes the importance of being able to return to stability in the spirit of the times. Without this one would lose the ground needed to reach the full state of individuation. Jung in fact describes his own journey by saying:

I had spoken to my soul during 25 nights in the desert and I had given her all my love and submission. But during the 25 days, I gave all my love and submission to things, to men, and to the thoughts of this time. I went into the desert only at night.

Through it all, Jung curses war and the needlessness of human death. He feels it is based on a fundamental error, the error of externalizing the inner conflicts of the individual in his or her search for understanding and resolution. He says, “But I ask you, when do men fall on their brothers with mighty weapons and bloody acts? They do such if they do not know that their brother is themselves.” He sees World War I as the struggle of every man to kill the hero in himself, meaning the false projection of the flawless “I” or ego, the image designed by the spirit of the times to project a desirable human self. He believes that Siegfried, his hero of the times, actually limits him from finding the more multi-dimensional reality of the individuated self. Because most don’t see this battle for what it is, they externalize the front to others. Jung sounds nearly bitter when he complains,

But whom do people kill? They kill the noble, the brave, the heroes. They take aim at these and do not know that with these they mean themselves. They should sacrifice the hero in themselves and because they don’t know this, they kill their courageous brother.

The war also provides a context for Jung’s deconstruction of the spirit of the times, especially that of the hero archetype. Jung sees the hero as the purveyor of society’s collective mythology, the exemplar of good/bad, right/wrong, the man in the golden helmet, the prevailing principle of the time. This part of us must die, in Jung’s view, for us to transcend the spirit of the time and be replaced by a higher form of reasoning that can think beyond absolutes. Jung saw that the “wisdom of the age” raised him to its zenith, precipitating the slaying of his own hero, after which he was tossed into the depths of the desert. In this way, Jung ties such crises of identity to cycles of growth and change, for everything that becomes old also grows corrupt, and must fall, even God, for “If a God ceases being the way of life, he must fall secretly.” I can understand some of Jung’s reluctance (or ambivalence at least) to publishing The Red Book during his own life. In the next passage, where he extends this need for death to the symbolism of the central mystery of the Christian religion, he writes:

After death on the cross, Christ went into the underworld and became Hell. So he took the form of the Antichrist, the dragon. The image of the Antichrist, which has come down to us from the ancients, announces the new God, whose coming the ancients had foreseen.

Therefore, God requires descent through Hell before Ascension can take place, just like a human being. Jung claims that ascent would be impossible without the transformation of Christ into the Antichrist. This spiritual concept relates to the idea of death and rebirth. The I Ching provides a striking parallel:

as wood draws strength for its upward push from the root, which in itself is in the lowest place, so the power to rise comes from this low and obscure station.

At the core of this belief is the idea that the battle between light and dark grows more intense in its extremes. One risks nothing by remaining inconspicuously gray among the majority, but once one grows in intensity in one direction or the other, they open the door to becoming its opposite.

Jung, too, speaks of the risks of toying with these extremes, and by extension, the risks of reaching for the heights of consciousness he so desires. In discussing the descent into Hell as ritual, and an integral part of the “initiation” of individuation, he says that without it, you never get past a certain point, and yet, many are lost there, and never escape. He elaborates on this:

The depths are stronger than us, so do not be heroes, be clever and drop the heroics, since nothing is more dangerous than to play the hero. The depths want to keep you, they have not returned very many up to now, and therefore men fled from the depths and attacked them . . .

Jung himself is nonplussed that his unconscious summons the character of Siegfried as the symbol to represent his “hero.” Jung seems embarrassed of the cartoonish Siegfried, and expresses frustration around his inability to interpret what it means. To me, however, the conflict seems quite straightforward and charmingly human—the idea that this childhood vision of a hero still informs his thinking, even as a part of him finds it silly and embarrassing. Of course, his feelings on killing the hero are mixed and intense, due to the love/revulsion of the icon and the self-love/self-revulsion engendered by his identification with the hero. This same type of conflict, which lives in the ego’s refusal to see itself as “common” and foolish enough to “buy into” the iconography of the dirty, unwashed and superstitious masses, manifests in several parts of The Red Book, such as in “Liber Segundus,” when he finds himself in a trite storybook dream about a beautiful princess in a castle. In that dream/imagining, Jung finds himself the hero of what he considers the most banal and insipid of all tales. Despite this, he falls for the story and its vulnerable princess anyway.

Inside these expressions of common humanity is where The Red Book really has its power. The deeply human, everyday struggles Jung has with his need to be different, special and “more than” the masses, coupled with his need to be one of them . . . and what he considers his deeper need to be his own person, free of the confines of either expectation . . . there is something truly inspiring in that. Jung uses himself as a mirror to reflect the base human conflicts through his own inner arguments, reflecting the different sides of himself in archetypes, characters, his soul, and locations such as the desert, Hell, gardens, a tower. A sort of miracle lives in the realization that these humble attempts to understand himself were the germ of his psychoanalytic theories from which his true fame would eventually come. The irony of his trip through the desert is that despite all of the fame he had during the period prior to his dreaming, none of it comes close to what resulted from the personal discoveries attained through the process of writing The Red Book—the process he feared might lose him everything in the eyes of his peers.

Not long after Jung’s discussion of the need for a correct balance and place for individuality and collectivism, Jung states:

With this, he [the spirit] showed me in an image that God will step between men and drive every individual with the whip of icy cold to the warmth of his own monastic hearth. Because people were beside themselves, going into rapture like madmen.

This sounds almost like prophecy to me about the nature of our current times, where religion often descends into a form of ecstatic madness, mixed with the fears of the shadow and a total unwillingness to look inside at our demons. Instead, we increasingly see our demons in the faces of our fellow humans. In relation to this, Jung speaks eloquently of the beauties and difficulties of solitude, another thing fast diminishing in our epoch. Jung describes how solitude leads one away from other people only to bring you closer to them once you are able to face yourself in your entirety. He states,

If you are in yourself, you become more aware of your incapacity. You will see how little capable you are of imitating the heroes and of being a hero yourself. So you will no longer force others to become heroes.

Could he be talking about compassion here, compassion that doesn’t try to conform or convert but instead accepts difference? If so, it’s a lovely way of seeing it.

At the end of “Liber Primus,” after all of Jung’s revelations and discourses, all of his struggles with his soul and arguing back and forth about whether he should fight the spirit of the age in himself or not, he makes up his mind, and reveals this part of The Red Book not as a discourse on the journey, but more of the period before the journey, the time in which he assesses the journey, and realizes its scope, and makes his decision to proceed:

[t]he mystery showed me in stages what I should afterward live. I did not possess any of those boons that the mystery showed me, for I still had to earn all of them.

For all of us, there is that period before the cliff where we look down to decide whether to plunge forward into the desert and into all of the pain, uncertainty and challenge it might entail . . . or wander back to the couch and see what’s playing on the telly. That, in essence, was my experience of the “Liber Primus,” that of the fork in the road, where one direction or the other must inevitably become the road not taken.


Julie Andrijeski has published short stories in webzines based in USA and Australia, as well as nonfiction articles, including a cover story for NY Press. She’s also written a children’s story illustrated and published in a collection by bizarro fictionist Andrew Goldfarb entitled Ogner Stump’s 1,000 Sorrows. She recently completed the first installment of a graphic novel, Rook, with artist Allison McClay, as well as screenplay and novel versions of the same story and characters, and has worked on a number of short independent films. She currently lives in Portland, Oregon with a disgruntled rabbit named Hazel, and a bird named Philemon who runs the joint.

11 responses to “Journey into The Red Book: Liber Primus”

  1. Social comments and analytics for this post…

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  3. davidmaclagan says:

    Thanks very much for an excellent and accessible introduction to what sounds like a very tricky terrain.

  4. Dear Julie,

    As someone who had a hand in facilitating the publication of Jung's Red Book and who has been involved with Jung's work for over 30 years, I appreciate the clarity and the emotional accuracy of your summary. It adds to my understanding of this remarkable man and his work.

    Thanks, Dr. Stephen Martin

  5. Dear Julie,

    As someone who was very involved in making possible the publication of Jung's Red Book, and who has been involved in Jungian psychology for over 30 years, I appreciate your elegant and thoughtful summary of Liber Primus. You have captured the “truly human” in Jung's journey and I thank you.

    Dr. Stephen Martin

  6. syrimne1 says:

    Wow – I'm immensely flattered that you liked the article! Thank you so much, both for bringing the Red Book to light and for taking the time to read my article!

  7. Leon G says:

    After reading the Liber Primus, I can say that I agree with you word for word on everything that you've said. I've had mostly (give or take) the same thoughts as you do while decoding the book, it does get challenging sometimes to interpret but that's Jung for you. Superb article!

  8. Anonymous says:

    Thanks much for your kind words – I’m glad you liked the article. Very cool that you had a similar experience, too. Have you made it through the whole thing at this point?

  9. EIL says:

    Thank you! We own the book itself as it is an amazing and aw inspiring one 🙂

  10. Soozmct says:

    Thank you very much.  Julie has here put into words somr things for me which I couldnt do for myself- yet felt.  THis is always a treat. By the way,it is what Jung did for me 20 years ago when I read his autobiography. 

  11. […] Red Book presents a curious situation. To unsuspecting eyes, such as  Julie Andrijeski and I quote from: “Jung himself embodies this split as seeker, artist, philosopher, thinker, scientist, even […]

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