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Jung’s imaginary worlds and psychic journeys: The quest for the Red Book

Jung’s imaginary worlds and psychic journeys: The quest for the Red Book published on No Comments on Jung’s imaginary worlds and psychic journeys: The quest for the Red Book

Inevitably, my research into paracosms and imaginary friends leads me in circles around Carl Gustav Jung, post-Freudian Swiss analyst who invented archetypes, introverts and extroverts during the beginning of the 20th century.

I keep coming back to Jung because his major contribution to the theory of psychoanalysis was to envision the psyche as home to many parts, In Jungian psychology, these parts can be personified (such as the Anima, Animus and the Shadow) and addressed in the way that people talk to imaginary characters.

Jung’s technique of talking to the aspects of oneself was known as active imagination. Please note that the Wikipedia entry suggests that active imagination means watching and recording one’s fantasy activity; however, Jung was very enthusiastic about encouraging, interrogating and otherwise assertively engaging with images and characters in one’s head.

Jung encouraged his patients to engage in active imagination techniques. He also used these techniques on his own. For sixteen years, he plumbed the depths of his own mind, verging dangerously close to obsession and madness. In a recent New York Times article, "Carl Jung and the Holy Grail of the Unconscious," Sara Corbett describes this formative period:

What happened next to Carl Jung has become, among Jungians and other scholars, the topic of enduring legend and controversy. …[I]n 1913, Jung, who was then 38, got lost in the soup of his own psyche. He was haunted by troubling visions and heard inner voices. Grappling with the horror of some of what he saw, he worried in moments that he was, in his own words, “menaced by a psychosis” or “doing a schizophrenia."

…[T]he [resulting Red Book] was a kind of phantasmagoric morality play, driven by Jung’s own wish not just to chart a course out of the mangrove swamp of his inner world but also to take some of its riches with him. …

The book tells the story of Jung trying to face down his own demons as they emerged from the shadows. The results are humiliating, sometimes unsavory. In it, Jung travels the land of the dead, falls in love with a woman he later realizes is his sister, gets squeezed by a giant serpent and, in one terrifying moment, eats the liver of a little child. (“I swallow with desperate efforts — it is impossible — once again and once again — I almost faint — it is done.”) At one point, even the devil criticizes Jung as hateful.

Clearly Jung was entertaining a very rich paracosm. But were his explorations deep and fruitful or excessive and mentally ill? Jungian adherents and author Corbett have no answers, and the case of Jung and his paracosm becomes especially confusing because he turned his paracosm into the crucible of his life’s work. Unlike Kirk Allen [previously discussed in a review of a Harper’s 1954 article, "The Jet Propelled Couch"], Jung did not find his paracosm to be an intrusion into and distraction from his mundane job. In fact, his paracosm and his job seem to have become inseparable, as he was practicing in his paracosm techniques that he would later publish and lecture about.

Corbett’s article does not deal with such fascinating topics, however; she is more concerned with the quest for Jung’s paracosmic records, or the Red Book, itself. As a sensitive, deeply personal document of a famous psychoanalyst, Jung’s diary of his travels in his mind has been closely guarded by his heirs and reverently visited only by a few adherents. It is soon to be published, though, with reproductions of its painstakingly done illustrations, as well as thousands of footnotes to explain its wide-ranging mythological, scholarly and alchemical allusions.

Again, Corbett’s article seems to ignore the significance of the impending debut of the Red Book. It’s a primary source about a paracosm, and primary sources about people’s imaginary worlds are pretty hard to come by. I don’t know why. It’s as if scholars are interested in paracosms only for what they tell us about their creators’ "serious," non-paracosmic works, not about the significance of paracosmic phenomena per se. But, as Corbett’s article implicitly suggests, paracosmic works such as Jung’s Red Book are indeed serious works. In these playgrounds of the mind, themes and characters develop in raw form the interests of many a creator, who then presents more refined versions of the paracosm in his or her artistry.

Why no, I’m not motivated to work today. Why askest thou? =P

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