Red Book, Middle Way – Introduction


Jung’s Red Book

Imagine one of the great creative figures of the past whose experiences have ignited a whole new world-view: Buddha, Jesus, or Muhammad, say. Imagine that, rather than themselves writing nothing, and being dependent on others to record their experiences, one of these figures was able to write down their own experiences extensively, and even add pictures. Imagine, too, that rather than being absolutised by religious traditions with a vested interest in winning quick converts, one of these figures was able to be quite explicit that his aim was not to set up a new set of claims about ultimate ‘truth’, but rather to help people develop in relation to the cultural and religious frameworks they already found themselves in. Imagine, too that rather than being at best narrowly educated in one tradition, one of these figures had a wide understanding of the arts and the sciences, and had a rich familiarity with both Christian tradition and the critical debates of nineteenth-century German thought, together with an openness to other traditions from around the world.

Such is the position with Jung’s Red Book, which I would personally judge to be one of the most remarkable, and above all helpful, documents yet produced by Western civilisation: not because it is perfect but because of its self-recognised imperfection, profound ambiguity, and intense appeal to our most vivid and insightful selves. The Red Book offers Jung’s own practical conclusions, based on direct experience, as to how individuals can develop in their adequacy of response to the world by engaging in a personal integration process. It consists of a series of visions, reflections and paintings, primarily based on Jung’s intense visionary period between September 1913 and April 1914, but then worked over and interpreted over a further fourteen-year period until 1928.

The Red Book contains accounts of visions that Jung cultivated using his own technique of active imagination, often recalled in striking detail. It also contains his own reflections on those visions, filled with insights that are expressed in solemn and universal language. These are all the more valuable and striking because they were never compromised to meet the expectations of any particular audience, not being published until 2009, nearly fifty years after Jung’s death.

The Red Book is a book of vision and wisdom. It is not a book of theory, unlike the remainder of Jung’s substantial corpus of writings; but all the more useful for that, because instead it generally maintains the right degree of ambiguity to be both intensely personal and intensely universal. It is helpful to make use of Jung’s subsequent theory in interpreting the Red Book, but that might also have the effect of obscuring how much the Red Book consists of a set of developing intuitions taking a more open form than Jung’s subsequent theory. Where the Red Book does start to develop a set of claims about the universe (in the Seven Sermons to the Dead towards the end), as I shall argue, Jung’s judgement starts to become much more questionable.

It is also not in the least a book about analytical psychology, which is never mentioned. It seems to be mainly a historical accident, due to the field in which Jung primarily worked, that The Red Book has been most discussed so far by psychologists, rather than, say, philosophers, or scholars and practitioners of religion, literature or art. If Einstein had produced a prophetic book in his youth, that would not make it physics. The study and interpretation of The Red Book, insofar as it is an academic matter at all, needs to be very much an inter-disciplinary affair. More than this, however, it is a document of personal practice that should be of interest to anyone who feels themselves to be engaged on a spiritual or integrative path.

The fact that it was never published during his lifetime makes the Jung we meet in The Red Book apparently much more adventurous, provisional, experimental, and sceptical than the Jung of the psychological writings, who wished to be taken seriously as a scientist and scholar. Always impatient with binary extremes, Jung consistently seeks out a subtle position between them, but very often the Red Book records a process of questioning established beliefs in order to seek such ‘mediating’ positions. For example, he does not rest content either with Christian orthodoxy or with Nietzschean rejection of God, nor with thinking as opposed to feeling, nor with masculine identity as opposed to feminine.

In the process of questioning and seeking, he sometimes appears to be contradicting himself and occasionally strikes false notes. It is easy to misread his failure to accept a given position as the embrace of its opposite, which he generally tried to avoid. It is also too easy to read contradictions into the Red Book, because one can easily forget the particularity of its assertions, which work for Jung at the particular point he had reached in his development, and are obviously not intended to be final. Once one learns to accept this, the text will seem all the richer for the fact that it records a process rather than offering unrealistic finality.

However, The Red Book is just as much a book of (often startling) visionary experiences as it is of reflection. Jung meets all sorts of characters inside his own head. He puts a wounded god into his pocket to smuggle it home. He eats the liver of a murdered child in order to acknowledge the commonality of human guilt. He argues about Nietzsche with a musty librarian, and about the meaning of words with a desert hermit. He is accosted by a crowd of obsessive dead Anabaptists tearing about the world between prayer venues. He regularly falls in love with his own soul in female form. He seeks out a magician to learn magic, only to find that the magician has retired. The incidents in the Red Book could potentially be turned into a stack of intriguing novels and films, rich in twists, but the stories also nearly always direct one towards a direct and dramatic appreciation of startling and subtle insights, often even before the ensuing reflections begin to unpack them.

The Middle Way

On first reading the Red Book myself, it seemed to me that I had hit upon, not just an extraordinary book, but something approximating to a religious scripture that was about the Middle Way. The Middle Way is a principle that I have cultivated and developed in the form of practical and critical philosophy for around twenty years now, initially within the context of Buddhist tradition where the term ‘Middle Way’ originates, but more recently in a more universal way beyond any one particular tradition. Though I was already aware that Jung offered many resources for understanding the Middle Way, I didn’t yet think of his work as being directly about the Middle Way until I read the Red Book.

The central principle of the Middle Way is the reliance on imperfect experience, integrated over time and critically reflected upon to support provisional beliefs about both facts and values. To remain in this uncertain but productive space, though, we also need to avoid our tendency to absolutise, which means to set up certain claims as finally ‘true’ or ‘false’ rather than incrementally justified. Absolutisation can be either positive or negative, affirming or denying some claimed ‘truth’ which is generally promoted by a group and used as a tool of power. Thus the Middle Way requires us to stay in that ambiguous zone between ultimate affirmation and ultimate negation, affirming and denying only for provisional and practical reasons.

This account of the Middle Way is a reasonable practical interpretation of the Buddha’s Middle Way as offered in the Buddhist scriptures of the Pali Canon, as I have argued fully in my recent book, The Buddha’s Middle Way. It is illustrated particularly by the progress of the Buddha in the story of his early life, from the absolute assumptions represented by the Palace and the Forest, to the point where he explicitly recognised the Middle Way as independent of either. Rather than being based on conventional obedience to social expectations on the one hand, or the repressive exercise of will on the other, the Middle Way is built on recognition of the body and the conditions it creates as the starting point of a path of autonomous and experiential judgement. The Buddha’s ‘silence’ in the face of metaphysical questions, and his famous raft simile, showing that no teaching is an end in itself, are also crucial to the understanding of the Middle Way in Buddhism.

The Middle Way Philosophy I have been developing in other books, however, is independent of any appeal to Buddhist tradition or authority. It takes seriously a point that many Buddhists seem to recognise only theoretically – that the Middle Way is universal. It offers tools for the critical assessment of the helpful and unhelpful elements in any religion, as well as other traditions (such as political, scientific, or artistic). It offers the potential to unite people from a variety of backgrounds in a critical type of universalism that does not blandly assert that all traditions are of equal value, but rather subjects those traditions to practical tests that they are likely to pass only to varying degrees.

Apart from the obvious influence of the Buddha and Buddhist practice, Jung has been a major influence on Middle Way Philosophy from the beginning of my work on it. His concept of integration or individuation is a central element of Middle Way Philosophy, providing a positive account of how human judgement can improve, not just through the avoidance of absolutising dogmas, but also through the overcoming of both internal and external conflict. This Jungian concept can be further refined today using developments in cognitive psychology, embodied meaning, and neuroscience, and is beginning to gain purchase well beyond explicitly Jungian circles. I have also made much use of Jung’s concept of archetypes, which I find astonishingly fruitful. A wide variety of different scientific resources can now be brought together in support of some of Jung’s key insights, especially including that of Daniel Kahneman and his associates on biases, of Iain McGilchrist on brain lateralisation and its implications, and of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson on embodied meaning.

I will be making some connections with these new forms of scientific insight in this book, but for more details you will have to look at my Middle Way Philosophy series. Rather than following through the interpretation of all Jung’s psychological theory in detail, my main aim here is instead to interpret The Red Book as a resource of the most direct and inspiring kind – let us say, a scripture – of the Middle Way. The Red Book is not easy to read and interpret, and I suspect that many of those who have an intuition of its great significance are somewhat at a loss as to how to interpret it in a way that is relevant to their lives. I am aiming to offer an interpretation of the Red Book that makes it of universal practical value by drawing out the Middle Way Philosophy that I find there.

Interpreting the Red Book

I am happy to acknowledge that the Red Book can potentially be interpreted in a variety of ways, and that each individual who engages with it will need to go through their own process of interpretation. My own experience, however, is that when I read The Red Book I find Middle Way Philosophy apparently already there shaping it. As we will see, there are a number of explicit references to the Middle Way itself in it, as well as a whole integrative approach and recognition of the role of archetypes that fits the Middle Way’s implications in other respects. Jung’s approach is profoundly anchored in a recognition of the need to gradually integrate opposing forces wherever they are found, in a way that acknowledges and harnesses both forces dialectically rather than attempting to impose one upon the other.

Like any other human, I am subject to confirmation bias, and to an extent will find what I seek when I interpret the text. I do not have a final interpretation of it, but then the text itself largely eschews the type of approach that claims to have a final position. Nor can a final position be based on historical facts about Jung himself. I do not claim to know Jung’s ‘real’ intentions, nor would these necessarily change my response if I somehow knew them, as a book can surpass its author. However, what I am confident of is the practical value of a Middle Way approach in interpreting this text. If you can follow me to the extent of at least including the Middle Way within your repertoire of interpretations, you should be able to modify your understanding of The Red Book in ways that help to make human judgement more, not less, adequate. Of course, I also hope that my interpretation may provide a way in, both for Jungians to recognise and explore Middle Way Philosophy, and for those interested in the Middle Way to explore Jung.

Outline of this book

The structure of this book is thematic rather than following the order of the Red Book itself. This is a more effective way of bringing out the relationship of the text to aspects of the Middle Way approach, and in any case the role of a commentary following the order of the text has already been filled by Sanford L. Drob’s Reading the Red Book. Whilst I disagree with Drob’s occasional tendency to interpret Jung metaphysically, and there are surprising limits to his grasp of the more difficult parts of the text, there is also a good deal of useful information in his book, and it raises a variety of issues relating to the text of the Red Book. If your interest is primarily in the relationship between The Red Book and Jung’s psychology, Jung’s life, his sources and the cultural background behind his symbols, you will generally be better turning to books like Drob’s, or writings by other Jungian scholars (including Shonu Shamdasani’s introduction to the text). I have a larger task here that is more reflective of the text’s original purpose: that is, to expound a practical philosophical approach for which the Red Book can offer a major source of inspiration.

To do this, I shall begin with the Middle Way itself, drawing out the ways that Jung himself presents it both explicitly and implicitly, and also including some comparison with the Middle Way as it is presented in the Buddha’s quest. Even the explicit treatments of the Middle Way in the Red Book appear to have entirely escaped the notice of scholars so far, but they are clearly there for those who look. There is no mention of the Buddhist Middle Way in the Red Book, and Jung’s explorations of Buddhism generally developed later in his life, so it seems most likely that the Middle Way as it is presented in the Red Book is not at all a product of Buddhist influence, but rather an instance of another thinker independently developing approaches that parallel those of the Buddha – in the process providing further evidence (if it should be needed) that the Middle Way is not a Buddhist monopoly but a more general description of a practically valuable approach to human judgement. Like the archetypes, the Middle Way is universal because it is a product of the very structure of human responses, appearing in a variety of cultural guises that are nevertheless functionally similar.

The next seven chapters are all concerned with what might be called the archetypes that feature prominently in the Red Book, even though Jung does not use the term ‘archetype’ at this stage. These are the God archetype (or what Jung would later call the ‘Self’), the Shadow represented by Satan, the Anima or soul, and the hero. All of these archetypes are represented by characters that Jung finds within himself. At one and the same time he regards them as ‘real’ because they represent genuine forces in his experience, but also as symbolic because they represent characters within himself rather than beyond. Any of these archetypes can be absolutised and projected, mistaken for external realities, but they can also be engaged with positively as aspects of oneself.

The God archetype, that Jung refers to as ‘the God’, ‘my God’, or ‘the New God’ (and later ‘the Self’) represents Jung’s own capacity for integration, and must thus encompass all the other archetypes. It does not represent an external, supernatural or metaphysical entity, for the important reason that to take it to be thus would be an act of projection in conflict with the integration process itself. Nevertheless, this God does not lose an inch of his power in experience. In the Red Book, the God archetype is also encountered in the forms of wise old men (like Elijah and Philemon), Christ (who also has elements of the hero archetype), the Tree of Life, and the mandala, all of which are explored here in successive chapters. The next three chapters after these are on the three other archetypes.

Jung encounters Satan and talks of descent to Hell in the Red Book, laying much stress on the importance of acknowledging Satan as an aspect of God. This is basically because we can only integrate the evil within us by recognising it as part of ourselves, and indeed as essential to what is good in ourselves. In this lies a whole implicit challenge to the inadequate ethics that has become traditional in Western culture, where ‘good’ is recognised as ideal but set apart from what is practically feasible. If we are ever to make ethics practically effective, it is necessary to integrate the Shadow.

Jung also constantly encounters his soul, a female figure he would later call the Anima and that is represented by the attractive other. The soul leads him on to the God archetype, but at the same time challenges him with the recognition that his idea of the attractive other is interdependent with the rejected and repulsive other. Jung’s dialogues with the figure of Salome in the Red Book reflect this difficulty in the path of integration.

The other archetype in the Red Book is the hero, who represents the egoistic quest, the desire to win through and fulfil one’s goals. The Red Book is preoccupied with the motif of the death of the hero, representing the ways in which we may need to let go of our current goals in order to fulfil more integrated and more adequate goals. Nevertheless, the acknowledgement and channelling of desire has a positive and appropriate place in Jung’s emerging philosophy.

With all of these archetypal figures, I shall stress that the usefulness of Jung’s approach to them depends on the role of the Middle Way. It is only if we avoid absolutising these characters, whether as ‘real’ or ‘unreal’, that we are able to work with them helpfully as aspects of our experience.

The chapter on embodied meaning draws on the many references to meaning in the Red Book, and argues that they implicitly fit the account of embodied meaning that has more recently been developed by Lakoff and Johnson. The ‘meaning’ Jung refers to throughout is not ‘merely’ emotive, nor is it readily compatible with the representationalist accounts of meaning that still dominate in science and philosophy, in our time as in Jung’s, falsely dividing the cognitive from the emotive, thinking from feeling as they do. Jung’s visionary encounters with dusty scholars and the linguistically obsessed ascetic Ammonius emphasise this point.

The dead also have a role in the Red Book, particularly those returning unfulfilled from Jerusalem who are then addressed in the Seven Sermons to the Dead near the end. The dead are unfulfilled because they have been given unintegrated, absolutised religion, and Philemon becomes Jung’s mouthpiece in addressing them with a vision for a revitalised religion that draws heavily on Gnosticism. Since I find this section of the Red Book incompatiblewith the insights of the rest of it, I am reluctantly obliged in the penultimate chapter to make my case against it, concluding that Jung here made some unfortunate mistakes in spite of his huge achievements in the rest of the Red Book.

Overall, though, Jung’s ethical intentions in the Red Book are clear. He presents us with a revaluation of good and evil, in which good is integrative and evil is disintegrative. This type of ethical approach appears to have been almost totally ignored by moral philosophers, despite its clear practicability and potential for resolving a whole range of moral problems. It thus seems important to conclude with an exploration of the moral and practical implications of the Red Book, and at least a glimpse of the far-reaching implications of a Middle Way ethics. Though focused on intense individual experience, the Red Book has plenty of implications for social and political as well as individual ethics, and these as yet remain insufficiently explored.