Notes from Jung’s The Red Book (part one)

Notes from Jung’s The Red Book (part one)

As a birthday gift this year my husband gave me a copy of Jung’s The Red Book, a reader’s edition as the facsimile is very large and very expensive. I’m not especially visually orientated so the absence of pictures isn’t something that bothers me. (I do intend to get a copy of the complete book one day when I can justify to myself spending £150 on one book). I’ve long wanted to read this rather mysterious book, which was only made public in 2009, long after the death of Carl Gustav Jung in 1961. It’s hard to say what lured me most, the mystery or the possible clues to an inward journey. I’ve long held Jung to be something of a personal hero, for his work in realms few have dared to explore, and there is something that draws me to such work myself. Of course, his descent into the world of archetypes was backed by decades of study and thought, and mine is quite different. I’m no hero either. But I do believe that there is something that I must seek within my own unconscious, that it holds the key to my soul.

Anyway, I began reading and have decided to share some of it as I read. Things that resonate with me and things that have leapt off the page as being worth considering more closely. This first essay is prompted by a passage in the introduction:

In 1922, Jung wrote a paper on, “The relation of analytical psychology to poetic art works.” He differentiated two types of work: the first, which sprang entirely from the author’s intention and the second, which seized the author. Examples of such symbolic works were the second part of Goethe’s Faustus and Nietzsche’s Zarathustra. He held that these works stemmed from the collective unconscious. In such instances, the creative process consisted in the unconscious activation of an archetypal image. The archetypes released in us a voice that was stronger than our own:

Whoever speaks in primordial images speaks with a thousand voices; he enthrals and overpowers…he transmutes our personal destiny into the destiny of mankind, and evokes in us all those beneficent forces than ever and anon have enabled humankind to find a refuse from every peril and to outlive the longest night.

The artist who produced such works educated the spirit of the age and compensated for the one-sidedness of the present.” ~ The Red Book, C.G.Jung (introduction by Sonu Shamdasani)

Among writers one of the most entertaining of the memes that appear is the apparent irreconcilable differences between the Plotter and the Pantser. A Plotter will have worked out the entire plot, have folders of character background information, of research, often even chapter plans before ever starting to write the story. A Pantser writes by the seat of their pants, making it up as they go, and are often as surprised as the reader where a story ends up. I’ve seen a number of massive arguments going on in social media between proponents of both strategies, and have been baffled by them. There seems to be a sense of moral outrage that someone else uses a radically different strategy to produce a story.

Plotters claim that Pantsers are somehow lazy and disorganised, and are at the mercy of their own imaginations. Pantsers claim that Plotters take the joy out of storytelling, by being so meticulous and having so little spontaneity. It’s a conflict that’s unlikely to ever end.

I’m not going to come out entirely as either. I do write without much conscious planning, I admit this but I have begun to recognise that any book I have written was already mostly formed before I ever began to write it. A few have emerged fully formed, grabbing me by the scruff of the neck and making me write at breakneck speed. The Bet is one such. But every work is in there somewhere, fermenting, roiling and boiling away in a process of alchemy that I cannot control but can only be scribe to. I know there are writers who get very annoyed about other writers who feel as if they are more like archaeologists uncovering a pre-existing text, translating it perhaps or merely cleaning off the dust of millennia. I have seen arguments presented that this attitude denigrates the hard work and effort involved in inventing and crafting a story from scratch. I have no answer to that. I am one who is seized by the work, and I cannot either change or deny that. I have no control over what emerges from the unconscious, either mine or a collective one. I’d like to believe that I write in a voice that is stronger than my own personal one, that I channel something larger and more mysterious than stories. But nor do I deny that those who meticulously plan their work may also be subject to such a seizing either. Just as each of us reacts differently to life because of our own unique psychological make up, so too do we react differently to the promptings of the unconscious.

In essence I consider myself open to being seized, to become an oracle for something that needs to speak through me. It’s not a comfortable place to be. The process of being seized is akin to ecstasy, of loss of self and of being subsumed by something greater than the simple self. When it is done, there is a sense of being a shell, or being abandoned. There is a need to be willing to go where it takes you, of letting go of the reins. I have studied literature, I have read widely and I know ingredients make for a good story, yet none of this is ever deployed consciously when the voice of the unconscious seizes control. There is also the forlorn feeling when it is over that one may never again experience such a thing or produce such a work alone.

There is also trepidation because while it can seize, there can be prolonged hiatuses where it withdraws seemingly in the very middle of dictating a story (so to speak) leaving you high and dry. I can only speculate about why this happens. There are forces at work that are beyond my own reckoning. One can get a way through a work and then have it falter, the words drying to a dribble, then to nothing. I’m still unsure what to do when this happens, whether to keep on by dint of determination and invention or whether to retreat, withdraw and allow the flow to resume when the time is right. If my ponderings are correct, then for me it is time to take stock, go into the cave and become still, become ready and wait for the seizing to return.

12 thoughts on “Notes from Jung’s The Red Book (part one)

  1. I resonate with the experience you describe so well. Being interconnected in the psychic realm, we can potentially access a huge cast of characters, whether their qualities manifest in our lives or not. I own a few of C G Jung’s volumes published by Routledge & Kegan Paul, and hope to purchase The Red Book when my finances are on the up. Jung had great courage in personally testing his ideas, and developed concepts way ahead of our time, much informed by science. He had interesting dialogues with Wolfgang Pauli, theoretical physicist.


    • I had an interesting experience of being in the company of people expresssing archetypes I have written about; quite freaky to realise that to all intents and purposes I have not created but rather exposed and delineated such beings in my own fiction.


      • Great. Bringing these forces to consciousness can ease the compulsion to act out their powerful demands, make us less driven. Archetypal patterns shape the behaviour of everything alive. My two novels have some great scenes featuring archetypal masks.


  2. I agree that it seems silly to argue about “whether ’tis better to seize or be seized!” What difference does it make? It’s like arguing about what’s better, water or fire? Or maleness or femaleness! There’s need for both poles in any pair of opposites or they wouldn’t be part of us and the universe. We each have our own daimon, or genius, and our job is to empower it and be true to it. There’s no right or wrong in that picture.

    I just finished The Bet an hour ago and am still under its spell. I’ll be writing a review for Amazon soon, but meanwhile I want to say congratulations for allowing yourself to be seized by your daimon. I feel the archetypal power of it and know it will evoke the beneficent forces that will enable many a suffering soul to find a rescue from peril.



    • Jeanie, your words mean a great deal to me and I am so happy that you found The Bet as powerful as you did. Would it be possible to post the review on UK Amazon too? I got home at about 2am from a long trip abroad and am very tired, so haven’t checked yet.
      Your comment also chimes with stuff I experienced these last days; the polarity many people express, demonising what is not to their taste or understanding, seeing it as *bad* simply because it is not of their liking, never seeing that this shuts them off from a million experiences.


      • Yes, I’ll post my review on Amazon UK too. It may take a while. I have a very busy schedule coming up but I’ll do my best. Yes, dualistic thinking is the major source of our psychological blindness. Recognizing it in ourselves is a huge step forward! Hugs!


  3. I have been fascinated by your tweets about Jung’s Red book, as I am also interested in Jung, though have read little about him other than a basic introduction to his work. What I like about this post is how your describe your process of writing and what it means for you without entering the debate, which like you say is unlikely to end. I align myself to the Pantsers end of the scale, as this is when I feel my best work happens, when I just let myself write. With plottering I seize up. I like your idea of the unconscious and that is where your writing comes from, I prefer to think of it as an edge of awareness (a person-centred term for what is just beyond our grasp at the present) as it is not hidden from me, I can feel it, I just don’t yet know its shape and won’t until the writing or art is finished.

    I look forward to reading more of your interactions with Jung’s Red book.


  4. Pingback: Notes from the Red Book ~ part two | Zen and the art of tightrope walking

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