“The Red Book”: A Primer For Healing Madness In A Mad World

From “The Red Book”

Through his meticulous design of The Red Book, CG Jung interwove his experience of madness with the collective suffering of his era. Such syntheses are rare — and just what the current mental health field desperately needs. In what follows, I look at how The Red Book became Jung’s journey out of madness as well as the foundation for his analytical psychology. Even today, over 50 years after his death, Jung’s analytical psychology is a relevant, non-pathologizing method for transcending madness, while also relating individual suffering to the larger collective.

The Ways of Jung’s World

In the early twentieth century, when Jung was “flooded” with “an enigmatic stream” that threatened to break him, the field of psychology was just beginning to make a science of the study of madness. Practitioners still acknowledged the wisdom of artists, novelists, and poets with regards to the nature of the human psyche. The soul was still in need of cure, and hearts were broken as much as brains. There were perhaps five diagnoses in use — neuroses, hysteria, melancholy, dementia praecox, and mania. Mental illness was also a more fluid concept, often existing on a continuum with sanity (Shamdasani, 2009). It was in this Zeitgeist that The Red Book challenged distinctions between reason and insanity on which modern conceptions of mental illness largely continue to rest.

In the winter of 1913, Jung began writing down the fantasies and dreams that would later be the focus of The Red Book (Shamdasani, 2009). This was a very difficult period in Jung’s life. World events, misalignment between professional expectations and personal desires, failed relationships (including with Sigmund Freud), and old emotional wounds all conspired to make madness not just something the distinguished psychiatrist would treat, but also something he would have to address in himself. And isn’t that the nature of madness? Inopportune, a perfect storm, a test of resilience, and sometimes a trial beyond measure, but also an opportunity to transform oneself, if not the world?

To confront madness as a potentially transformative experience takes courage, and Jung’s life was scarred by tragedy he often endured on his own, perhaps making him more courageous than he ever wanted to be. Early on, he survived loneliness, betrayal, and alienation. His mother was institutionalized for depression when he was still a toddler. He was bullied as a boy for his preternatural intelligence. He had a difficult relationship with his father, a minister whose dogmatic religiosity contrasted with his son’s imaginative spirituality. And an older man he deeply admired sexually abused Jung as a teen (Kerr, 1994).

Despite these tragedies, Jung was able to perceive his mind as both the source of suffering and its panacea. To help him cope, as a child Jung developed two personalities, Personality No. 1 and Personality No. 2. In his biography, Memory, Dreams, and Reflections (1963/1989), Jung described the two personalities this way:

“Naturally I compensated my inner insecurity by an outward show of security, or — to put it better — the defect compensated itself without the intervention of my will. That is, I found myself being guilty and at the same time wishing to be innocent. Somewhere deep in the background I always knew that I was two persons. One was the son of my parents who went to school and was less intelligent, attentive, hard-working, decent, and clean than many other boys. The other was grown up — old, in fact — skeptical, mistrustful, remote from the world of men, but close to nature, the earth, the sun, the moon, the weather, all living creatures, and above all close to the night, to dreams, and to whatever “God” worked directly in him.” (p. 44)

Personality No. 1, who grew out of the schoolboy, performed for the world according to its rules, while Personality No. 2 became Jung’s private self, preferred peace and solitude, and was enchanted by the spiritual and mythical. Jung denied that these two personalities reflected a dissociated split typically associated with mental illness. He wrote in Memories, Dreams, and Reflections:

 “On the contrary, it is played out in every individual. In my life No. 2 has been of prime importance, and I have always tried to make room for anything that wanted to come from within. He is a typical figure, but he is perceived only by the very few. Most people’s conscious understanding is not sufficient to realize that he is also what they are.” (p. 45)

For Jung, reviving Personality No. 2, and its fascination with the mystical aspects of experience, marked the beginning of both madness and transformation. Furthermore, Jung’s efforts to validate No. 2’s worldview became his window into a larger cultural split that he addressed through The Red Book and many scholarly writings.


Photo of Illustration in “The Red Book”

I believe the fortitude required for writing The Red Book, which grappled with overwhelming imagery and dreams, scholarship from many disciplines, as well as being a formidable artistic endeavor, actually started early in life, when Jung first strove to balance the pull of the two parts of himself, each with different desires, drives, and needs. The child’s natural sense of wonder and limited need for judgment seemed to have kept Jung open to both parts, seeing their inherent worth as well as their limitations, and accepting their contradictions. He brought this capacity for holding contradiction to the fledgling science of psychology, and saw both the value and the meaning within so-called ‘symptoms’ of mental illness while also acknowledging the great suffering they often caused. Jung wrote, “If we feel our way into the human secrets of the sick person, the madness also reveals its system, and we recognize in the mental illness merely an exceptional reaction to emotional problems which are not strange to us” (Quoted by Shamsasani, 2009, p. 196).

For Jung, his “exceptional reactions” included two visions he had in 1913 while traveling on a train both to and from a conference. In these visions, Jung saw Europe being destroyed by a magnificent flood. Around that time, he was also feeling emotionally flooded, and thought these visual representations of disaster were psychological signs of the “debris of his former relationships,” including his relationship with Freud and a patient he had become romantically close to, Sabrina Spielrein. About these visions he wrote, “I thought to myself, ‘If this means anything, it means I am hopelessly off’” (Quoted by Shamdasani, 200, p. 198).

The outbreak of World War I confirmed Jung’s visions were of an apocalyptic future. Similar visions and imagery were also often found in the arts and literature leading up to the war. What perhaps made Jung’s experience exceptional was his maintenance of dual vision — awareness of the larger cultural currents as well as the personal stream of experience — and his continual efforts to weave both into a synthesized understanding of psyche and the times in which he lived. But it was a tenuous balancing act.

Pulling Away From the Fold

Eventually, Jung would pull away from the outer world created through Personality No. 1. He would leave Freud’s inner circle, along with the Burghölzli hospital where he worked in Zürich and had a distinguished career. He would buy a house in the suburb of Küsnacht and start a private practice there, but he would also spend time studying mythology, folklore, and religion — the preoccupations of Personality No. 2. Here he began to inhabit both Personality No. 1 and Personality No. 2, listening to both unconscious and conscious aspects of his psyche, exploring his inner imaginal world while also staying socially engaged and achieving worldly success.

Jung was looking for balance as well as integration of these different aspects of himself. He saw too much of either perspective leads to madness. In The Red Book he gave a description of the “spirit of the times” that seemed much like the world of Personality No. 1 — the modern world of science and achievement — which Jung believed had its own madness, and that he escaped through the “spirit of the depths.” He wrote in The Red Book:

“If you do not know what divine madness is, suspend judgment and wait for the fruits. But know that there is a divine madness, which is nothing other than the overpowering of the spirit of this time through the spirit of the depths. Speak then of sick delusion when the spirit of the depths can no longer stay down and forces a man to speak in tongues instead of in human speech, and makes him believe that he himself is the spirit of the depths. But also speak of sick delusion when the spirit of this time does not leave a man and forces him to see only the surface, to deny the spirit of the depths and to take himself for the spirit of the times.” (“Decent Into Hell in the Future,” Cap. V)


Photo of Illustration in “The Red Book”

In his home in Küsnacht Jung actively immersed himself in the fantasies and dreams he once suppressed. When caught in the spirit of the times, he had perceived such thoughts as childish, describing them as “incestuous intercourse” unworthy of attention, if not degrading of the capacity for pure thought. Initially, the practice of exploring his fantasies and dreams was deeply unsettling to his psychic balance. Jung described the early time at Küsnacht this way:

“It seemed to me I was living in an insane asylum of my own making. I went about with all these fantastic figures: centaurs, nymphs, satyrs, gods and goddesses, as though they were patients and I was analyzing them.” (Quoted by Shamdasani, 2009, p. 197)

Eventually, Jung began to make a method of his madness, and started to search for the myth he was living. He wrote:

I was driven to ask myself in all seriousness: ‘What is the myth you are living? ‘I found no answer to the question, and had to admit that I was not living a myth, or even in a myth, but rather in an uncertain cloud of theoretical possibilities which I was beginning to regard with increasing distrust…. So in the most natural way, I took it upon myself to get to know ‘my’ myth, and I regarded this as the task of tasks — for — so I told myself — how could I when treating my patients, make due allowance for the personal factor, for my personal equation, which is yet so necessary for a knowledge of the other person if I was unconscious of it.” (Quoted by Shamdasani, 2009, p. 197)

The Birth of Jung’s Analytical Psychology

Two robust theoretical ideas came from his experiment of ‘listening’ to madness. First, Jung identified two distinct yet intertwined ways of knowing, imaginal and thought, which he called “direct” and “indirect” thinking. He wrote, “We have…two kinds of thinking: direct thinking, and dreaming or fantasy-thinking…. The one produces innovations and adaptation, copies reality, and tries to act upon it; the other turns away from reality, sets free subjective tendencies, and, as regards adaptation, is unproductive” (1956, pp. 17-18). While fantasy-thinking is unproductive, it is nevertheless a central and necessary part of human experience: it is the psychic space where we can retreat from the spirit of the times — an imaginal experience that is potentially self-soothing, but also where we can confront unarticulated, often terrifying ideas, images, fantasies, and memories and find creative ways to make meaning of suffering and transcend it.

Second, Jung identified the compensatory, dialectic nature of the psyche in which the unconscious and conscious are not only complementary, but need one another and naturally strive toward integration and wholeness. With Jung’s model of the psyche, madness occurs when the conscious and unconscious become too separate, too distinct, such as when a person lived either from the “spirit of the times” or the “spirit of the depths,” not heeding and integrating the wisdom of both.

In a paper titled “The Importance of the Unconscious in Psychopathology” (1914) Jung described how madness is a response to living too one-sided, either too much from consciousness, or rational awareness and directed thinking, or too much from the unconscious, or fantasy thinking (Shamdasani, 2009, p. 201). Yet in the modern West, the greatest fear was of fantasy thinking and the power of the unconscious to override reason. Attitudes towards the unconscious have been much like medicine’s attitude towards the appendix: a part of human anatomy that no longer serves a purpose yet nevertheless could prove hazardous, if not deathly, when infected. For Jung, however, listening to the unconscious, even madness, was imperative to intimating the natural direction of growth.


Photo of Illustration in “The Red Book”

Along with rejecting Western attitudes about the origins of madness, Jung found himself developing ideas antithetical to Freud and his followers, who looked reductively to childhood and repressed sexual desires as the origin of psychopathology. With Freud’s psychoanalysis, unconscious material was brought into conscious awareness for the purpose of analytical reflection and resolution. Yet from his self-analysis, Jung identified the value of living through fantasies — a process described as “active imagination” — as a method for anticipating the psyche’s desired direction of growth. According to Jung, the unconscious “only lives when we experience it in and through ourselves.” From Jung’s perspective, the question to ask was, ‘how out of this present psyche, a bridge can be built into its own future?’” (Quoted by Shamdasani, 2009, p. 209).

Like Freud, Jung knew events in childhood were significant contributors to later psychological problems, but rather than remembering the story of what happened, Jung believed it was more important to recover “the emotional tone of childhood,” the part comfortable with the symbolic play of the imaginal material of the psyche (Quoted by Shamdasani, 2009, p. 198). For Jung, unconscious fantasies and dreams became a bridge to reconnect him to lost parts of himself, particularly Personality No. 2, who for Jung became central to the process of individuation and growth in the second half of life.

A Cultural Connection

Jung believed constraints on his psychological integration and individuation had much to do with the cultural fascination with Logos, or reason, and the neglect of Eros, or love. In The Red Book he wrote:

“The ancients called the saving word the Logos, an expression of divine reason. So much unreason was in man that he needed reason to be saved. If one waits long enough, one sees how the Gods all change into serpents and underworld dragons in the end. This is also the fate of the Logos: in the end it poisons us all…. We spread poison and paralysis around us in that we want to educate all the world around us into reason.” (Liber Secundus, First Day, Cap. viii)

Jung saw the loss of love, as the outcome of a world overrun by reason. He associated Eros with the unconscious, which was personified in The Red Book (Solomé). For Jung, Eros and the unconscious represented feminine aspects of psyche.

In another book, Answer to Job, Jung connected Eros with Sophia, Yahweh’s partner in the creation of Earth. Sophia was originally recognized as the fountainhead of wisdom. Her name is part of the etymology of the word philosophy. Philo-sophia translates to “the love of wisdom.”

In Answer to Job (1958/2011), Jung challenged the idea of God as perfect and all good. He wanted to show the goal of perfection, which is witnessed in Yahweh’s desire for perfect faith from Job, not only lacked insight, but also was cruel. He stated:

“The lack of Eros, or relationship to values, is painfully apparent in the Book of Job…. Yahweh has no Eros, no relationship to man, but only a purpose man must help him fulfill…. The faithfulness of his people becomes more important to him the more he forgets Wisdom [Sophia]…. Against his own convictions Yahweh agrees without any hesitation to inflict the worst tortures on him [Job]. One misses Sophia’s “love of mankind” more than ever. Even Job longs for the Wisdom which is nowhere to be found.” (pp. 33-34)

According to Sonu Shamdasani, The Red Book and Answer to Job emerged from the same realization: the madness of the world has to do with the eradication of Eros, love, and the soul. The truth is a simple one — sanity is found in joining our hearts and minds — and yet complex, because even the simplest of human experiences can become contorted by social worlds that both sustain and hamper us with their limits and expectations. This is a maxim Jung discovered in his journey into madness, and one he beautifully gave to the world through The Red Book.


Photo of Illustration in “The Red Book”


Jung, CG. 1956/1990. Symbols of Transformation. Translated by R. F. C. Hull, Bollingen Series. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Jung, C. G. 1958/2011. Answer to Job. Translated by R.F.C. Hull, Bollingen Series. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Jung, Carl. 1963/1989. Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Translated by Richard Winston and Clara Winston. Edited by Aniela Jaffé. New York: Vintage Books.

Jung, Carl G. 2009. The Red Book. Translated by Mark Kyburz, John Peck, and Sonu Shamdasani. Edited and Introduced by Sonu Shamdasani. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

Kerr, John. 1994. A Most Dangerous Method: The Story of Jung, Freud, and Sabina Spielrein. New York: Vintage Books.

Shamdasani, Sonu. 2009. “Introduction.” In CG Jung’s The Red Book. Translated by Mark Kyburz, John Peck, and Sonu Shamdasani. Edited and Introduced by Sonu Shamdasani. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

First published on DxSummit.

The post “The Red Book”: A Primer For Healing Madness In A Mad World was written by . Visit her website at Laura K Kerr, PhD.

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