Tag Archives: Jung’s Red Book

Heroic Agnosticism

There seems to be a basic misapprehension, shared by traditional religion and Romantic narrative alike, that the absolutists are the heroes. Heroes stick up for what they believe in, regardless of what fate throws at them. They continue with the quest – across the oceans, deserts, and arctic wastes – they slay the monsters, and in the end they get their reward. Or, even if the hero does not get all he desires, his beliefs are at least upheld, even if he has to die for them, for the martyr too is a hero. It’s stirring stuff, constantly reinforced for us by Hollywood, by heroic literature, even by religion.

Who could question such a narrative? Nobody should underestimate the difficulties. But one of Jung’s visions in the Red Book confronts us with their full pain.

I was with a youth in high mountains. It was before daybreak, the Eastern sky was already light. Then Siegfried’s horn resounded over the mountains with a jubilant sound. We knew that our mortal enemy was coming. We were armed and lurked beside a narrow rocky path to murder him. Then we saw him coming high across the mountains on a chariot made of the bones of the dead. He drove boldly and magnificently over the steep rocks and arrived at the narrow path where we waited in hiding. As he came round the turn ahead of us, we fired at the same time and he fell slain. thereupon I turned to flee, and a terrible rain swept down. But after this, I went through a torment unto death and I felt certain that I must kill myself, if I could not solve the riddle of the murder of the hero. (p.161)Siegfrieds_deathJung is slaying, not a literal hero, but the archetype of the hero within himself. The belief that the hero will always succeed against the conditions, and that his desires and beliefs are intrinsically right according to some assumed cosmic law, is one that we may implicitly indulge every time we get caught up in the hero story. Not only do we absolutise the hero himself, but we may also identify ourselves with him. But if we are to recognise the limitations of this reassuring fantasy, we have to be able to recognise that the hero may be wrong in his assumptions. To recognise this may feel extremely painful, and the death of the hero symbolises this pain. The myths provide us with this death story as well as with the achievements of the hero, giving us the resources of meaning to be able to recognise it, but we may still have to go through that shock of dis-identification.

Jung identifies the death of the hero with the archetypal role of Christ, whose crucifixion plays a similar role: showing us that our absolutised idea of a human God must die so as to lead us on to an engagement with God that is no longer based solely on human projection. Jung puts it this way:

I must say that the God could not come into being before the hero had been slain. The hero as we understand him has become an enemy of the God, since the hero is perfection. The Gods envy the perfection of man, because perfection has no need of the Gods. But since no-one is perfect, we need the Gods. The Gods love perfection because it is the total way of life. But the Gods are not with him who wishes to be perfect, because he is an imitation of perfection. (p.171)

‘The Gods’ here are symbolic of our own wider recognition – of the limitations of our current egoistic view of ourselves and of our greater potential as more integrated beings. We do not attain perfection merely by imitating, because the model we imitate may have worked in the conditions it was produced but is unlikely to work in the very different conditions of our own lives. Only integrated creativity will do, and that requires us to let go of our identification with all heroic models of imitation.

Strangely enough, though, there seems to be an even greater heroism involved in this process. What could be more heroic, itself, than killing the hero? But if we reduce this to another model of imitation, an absolute set of beliefs about how the world is and how we should act in it, then we will find this new heroism just as limiting in the end, and find ourselves in a cycle of endlessly killing new heroes. The killing of the hero needs to be accompanied by the further development of integration in experience so that we come to rely positively on that rather than on absolute beliefs about the hero. Our heroism needs to become agnostic, but such heroism can be seen, not as abandoning heroism, but as finding a deeper and more adequate form of it.

I have often been puzzled by the way that agnosticism is frequently portrayed in popular discourse, as the very opposite of heroic. As Richard Dawkins describes agnostics (quoting a preacher with approval): “Namby-pamby, weak-tea, weedy, pallid fence-sitters” (The God Delusion, p.69). The assumption here seems to be that agnostics dare not attempt the heroism of belief, whereas I want to suggest that on the contrary, agnostics are even more heroic than the heroes caught up in their righteous assumptions. The dogmatic hero carries on against adversity in the certain feeling that God or the universe is on his side. The agnostic hero, on the other hand, has to manage without such delusory certainties, managing only with hope and embodied confidence. Nothing can be taken as determined about her success in the goals she takes up, and even those goals themselves have to be taken as provisional ones. The greatest hero ventures into the lands of uncertainty, and rather than just slaying the monsters, has the courage to question her own monstrous projections.

It is upsetting to find people like Richard Dawkins failing to recognise the heroism of agnosticism, when that very heroism is so central to science. The scientist always has to proceed in conditions of uncertainty, unless she constructs deluded assumptions of naturalistic ‘truth’ where none are available to us. The use of scientific method is distinguished for its heroic agnosticism. But this heroic agnosticism can also be a distinguishing feature of the very ‘religion’ that Dawkins so despises. The mystics, too, proceed on the basis of a faith that grows from their experience of what they call God, and have to slay their own heroic certainties in order to plunge into the cloud of unknowing. Religious believers and scientists alike may have to slay their own heroes on order to go on to a deeper recognition of human potential.

Picture: The death of Siegfried (public domain)

Jung’s Red Book 4: Embodied symbol

There are several points in the Red Book where Jung discusses meaning and symbol, all of them suggesting to me a radical understanding of meaning in which Jung was implicitly before his time. Jung recognises that meaning is experienced in our bodies, that it emerges over time, and that meaning needs to be separated from belief. These are insights that can now be more strongly supported using the findings of neuroscience (particularly the differing roles of the brain hemispheres) and the embodied meaning theory of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson: but Jung was a pioneer who (at least as I interpret his text) implicitly understood the basis of these developments.

Perhaps the most interesting episode in the Red Book where Jung engages with issues of meaning is his conversations with Ammonius, the Anchorite. Jung encounters Ammonius as a solitary in the desert, devoting himself to endlessly reading the scriptures and finding ever new meanings in them. But typically, Jung’s relationship with Ammonius changes in the course of his two main encounters with him. Jung starts off as a disciple respectfully approaching the master, but ends up being thought of as Satan and lunged at by Ammonius. Jung, like the rest of us, can learn from his inner figures, but can also challenge them and teach them, even suffer reactions from them, as he recognises their limitations.

As Jung writes of Ammonius

He wanted to find what he needed in the outer. But you find manifold meaning only in yourself, not in things, since the manifoldness of meaning is not something that is given at the same time, but is a succession of meanings. The meanings that follow one another do not lie in things, but lie in you, who are subject to many changes, insofar as you take part in life. (p.262)

I take this to mean that although Ammonius sought multiple meanings in scripture, he still assumed that the meanings lay in the scripture. His solitary studies in the desert reinforced that, as he became more abstracted and ceased to relate to others. But the meanings he was looking for lay in himself. Jung especially stresses the temporal aspect of this recognition. “Meaning is not something that is given at the same time”, as it would be, not only to scripturally-obsessed believers, but also analytic philosophers and naturalistic scientists, who take meaning to consist in a relationship between words and an actual or hypothetical reality, processed in a way that takes no account of the temporal aspects of our experience of meaning. But meaning takes time, and depth of understanding comes from the linking of experiences over time to ever-richer symbols. Meaning is experienced physically, in a gestalt way, through our right brain hemispheres in a way that depends on gradually accrued experience coming together, not just abstractly and hypothetically through the left. The very metaphors we use to describe the process take time: things “sink in”, or we “get our heads around” something. By “taking part in life” we can enrich that process, as meaning depends on experience rather than only on abstraction.

At the final moment when the previously respectful Jung gets lunged at and called Satan, Ammonius switches from right hemisphere receptivity to left hemisphere suspicion. At one moment he is open to Jung’s suggestion that he might find more of the meaning he seeks by returning to human society, but the next he shuts down. Becoming confused, he blames his confusion on Jung. This can stand for any occasion when a self-sufficient absolute belief is challenged, and the problem created by the challenge is projected onto the messenger by a person who feels threatened and defensive.Mandala_from_Jung's_Red_Book_2 Joanna Penn CCBY4-0

Elsewhere, Jung discusses the richness of experienced meaning in relation to symbols. For him, the distinction between a sign and a symbol is important. The sign merely represents, but the symbol connects with the wider gestalt experience of meaning.

The symbol is the word that goes out of the mouth, that one does not simply speak, but that rises out of the depths of the self as a word of power and great need and places itself unexpectedly on the tongue. It is an astonishing and perhaps seemingly irrational word, but one recognises it as a symbol since it is alien to the conscious mind. If one accepts a symbol, it is as if a door opens leading into a new room whose existence one previously did not know. (p.392)

Perhaps the most startling symbols are those of the kind Jung encountered in his visions (such as Ammonius himself, or the Tree of Life discussed in the previous blog), or that we otherwise encounter unexpectedly in dreams. What Jung particularly conveys throughout the Red Book is the importance of exploring the meaning of such symbols in a provisional space of meaning, held apart from any concerns about what we believe.

However, it seems that any word (or visual image, or sound) can be a symbol that evokes a range of associations, connecting more deeply to our embodied experience through the emotions. Signs, by contrast, are supposed to merely denote something within a certain model of belief: think of numbers, for example. But of course, signs are merely dried out symbols or dead metaphors that have been over-handled by the left hemisphere. They still depend on their connection to a set of embodied associations to mean anything at all for us, however clipped and controlled they may have become.

Obviously we need words, and we need both signs and symbols. the challenge is  to use the words for their limited contextual purposes and then (like the Buddha’s raft once it has crossed the river) let go of them. In this final passage that I will quote, Jung directly links the balanced use of words to the Middle Way, and recognises the practical reasons for turning words into beliefs: as long as those beliefs are also provisional.

The word is the guide, the middle way which easily oscillates like the needle on the scales. The word is the God that rises out of the waters each morning and proclaims the guiding law to the people.. Outer laws and outer wisdom are eternally insufficient, since there is only one law and one wisdom, namely my daily law, my daily wisdom. The God renews himself each night.  (p.393)


Previous blogs in this series:

Jung’s Red Book 1: The Jungian Middle Way

Jung’s Red Book 2: The God of experience

Jung’s Red Book 3: The Tree of Life


Picture: Mandala from Jung’s Red Book by Joanna Penn (CCA 2.0)



Jung’s Red Book 3: The Tree of Life

He sees the tree of life, whose roots reach into Hell and whose top touches Heaven. He also no longer knows differences: who is right? What is holy? What is genuine? What is good? What is correct? He knows only one difference: the difference between above and below. For he sees that the tree of life grows from below to above, and that it has its crown at the top, clearly differentiated from the roots. To him this is unquestionable. Hence he knows the way to salvation.

To unlearn all distinctions save that concerning direction is part of your salvation. Hence you free yourself of the old curse of the knowledge of good and evil. Because you separated good from evil according to your best appraisal and aspired only to the good and denied the evil that you committed nevertheless and failed to accept, your roots no longer suckled the dark nourishment of the depths and your tree became sick and withered.  (p.359-360)

Here Jung gives what for me is a brilliant summary of the basis of Middle Way ethics. A frequent theme of the Red Book is that of recognising the depths and integrating what we take to be evil. In this sense we go ‘beyond good and evil’ (to use the phrase also used by Nietzsche in his book of that name). To go beyond good and evil sounds to many like relativism or nihilism, leaving us adrift without any justifiable values. But what is required instead is a recasting of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ that takes into account our degree of ignorance, recognising that much of what we reject as ‘evil’ is bound interdependently with what we accept as ‘good’. Instead of rejecting good and evil altogether, we need to understand a more genuine or integrated form of ‘good’ as lying beyond our current understanding, and ‘evil’ only as that which prevents or disrupts integration.Jung Tree of Life Xabier CCBYSA 4-0

If we focus only on the uncertainty in our current understanding of good and evil, and take that uncertainty to be a negative thing, we will miss the positive implications that Jung brings out in his image of the Tree of Life. The crown of the tree, he tells us, is clearly differentiable from the roots. This would be the case only in terms of experience, not conceptual analysis, because the difference between the crown and the roots is incremental. Nevertheless integrative progress is part of our experience. There may be some adults who have got irredeemably stuck in one set of rigid beliefs and thus stopped growing, but this can hardly ever be the case for children: if we compare ourselves as toddlers and as adults, we have all made some sort of progress, addressing conditions better than we did then. The crown is thus differentiable from the roots, even though there is no absolute point of change in between.

It is also telling that Jung writes “To unlearn all distinctions save that concerning direction.” The new good is a direction, not an absolute, because we do not have full understanding of it and cannot pin it down just by intellectual analysis. Even God  as encountered in our experience (as discussed in the previous blog) is a symbol for a direction: the direction of integration in which we only get better, not ultimately good. That also implies that we cannot deduce that direction from any account of an ultimate goal, such as the Buddhist Nirvana. There can be no final goal, for such a goal would be irrelevant to us. As Jung writes in another place:

Not that I know anything about what my distant goal might be. I see blue horizons before me: they suffice as a goal. (p. 276-7)

The roots of the Tree of Life are nourished by every aspect of our organic experience, whether by ‘good’ or ‘evil’ as normally understood. This point is also put very graphically later in the text, where Jung shows his utter disgust with the devil at the same time as a reluctant recognition that the devil is necessary. He describes the devil as having a ‘golden seed’.

He emerged from the lump of manure in which the Gods had secured their eggs. I would like to kick the garbage away from me, if the golden seed were not in the vile heart of the misshapen form. (p.424)

This passage tells us something about how difficult it is in practice to face up to the integration of the Shadow. Think of everything you most loathe: paedophiles, Daesh, Donald Trump. Then try to get your head around the way that they have gained control of things that are necessary for you. To start with, your representations of such figures are yours – take responsibility for them. It’s your inner Donald Trump that you hate, not the one out there. The energy that you’re putting into hating your inner Donald Trump is your energy: don’t let him steal it from you. You need to reclaim it from Donald Trump and put it to better use.

But if we are to integrate ‘evil’ without falling into relativism, there also still needs to be a genuine evil that we recognise. Such evil consists in whatever stops the Tree of Life from growing, whatever interferes with the integrative process. That’s where I would draw conclusions that go beyond Jung, but to me seem to be implied by Jung’s insights. That is that what blocks the integrative process is absolutisation. Absolutisation is found in our rigid beliefs, whether positive or negative, which prevents us from responding to new experience and benefitting from it. A given belief is only a part of us, so no person is wholly evil, nor is any tradition or organisation. However, metaphysical beliefs poison the Tree of Life.

This new account of evil is not wholly distinct from the old evil. I think it can be shown how existing common conceptions of evil show the features of absolutisation, and I have explored this in a previous blog as well as in my book ‘Middle Way Philosophy 4: The Integration of Belief’ (section 3.n). Evil is associated with power, despotism, egoism, greed, cruelty, obsession, manipulativeness, defensiveness, rigidity, impatience, pride, short-termism, literalism, despair, emotional impoverishment, and false emotion. Some of these qualities are found in Jung’s experience of evil as found in the Red Book, such as Jung’s encounter with the mocking and sardonic ‘Red One’. All of these kinds of qualities can also be associated with narrow over-dominance of the left hemisphere of the brain when we make judgements.

So it’s not that we have been wrong in our instincts about what sorts of qualities are evil – the problem is only in how we apply those instincts. We have assumed evil to be something external to us, consisting in whole people, objects or institutions, when instead it is to be found in the beliefs that poison the Tree of Life. We need to learn to separate the beliefs from the people: to stop projecting the Shadow onto others, or onto external supernatural forces, and recognise it as an archetype in ourselves.

Another implication of the image of the Tree of Life is that its growth will happen regardless (as a result of life) if it is not interfered with. As long as the roots can get their nutriment without hindrance, we do not have to make the tree grow towards good. However, preventing the hindrance to the roots may take much more deliberate action. If someone were to try to pour poison on the roots we would have to actively stop them. That’s why I think we can’t take the process of integration for granted, but rather need to be on the alert and using our critical faculties to detect and avoid absolutisations. That’s why the practice of the Middle Way, the avoidance of absolutisations on both sides, is not just a matter of innocent effort. It also takes a degree of educated cunning. We cannot just tell those who want to absolutise that they are entitled to their opinion and leave it at that, but whenever we can do so fruitfully we need to contest, not them, but their opinion. Even if we fail to convince others, we need to free ourselves of the shackles of intrinsically rigid ways of thinking.

You should be able to cast everything from you, otherwise you are a slave, even if you are the slave of a God. Life is free and choose its own way. It is limited enough, so do not pile up more limitation. Hence I cut away everything confining. I stood here, and there lay the riddlesome multifariousness of the world. (p.378)


Previous blogs in this series:

Jung’s Red Book 1: The Jungian Middle Way

Jung’s Red Book 2: The God of experience


Picture: from Jung’s Red Book (Xabier CCSABY 4.0)

Jung’s Red Book 2: The God of experience

Though in many ways Jung’s Red Book is a unique text, the closest thing it reminds me of is the texts of Christian mystics who wrestled with God in their own inner experience: people like Julian of Norwich, Richard Rolle, or the anonymous author of ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’. These mystics, writing in the late Middle Ages, could not distance themselves explicitly from orthodox Christian theology in the way Jung could, but it nevertheless seems obvious to me that metaphysical beliefs really didn’t matter much to them. What really mattered was the living God they encountered within. One thing that disturbs me about the language of naturalists and so-called ‘skeptics’ is that they tend to use ‘mystic’ as a pejorative word. But if you genuinely value experience over dogma, mystics are worthy of the highest respect, and Jung is perhaps the most recent and the most striking of them: a man who tried to take scientific method and the experiential God seriously at the same time, whilst being critical of dogma, including the dogmas about God that atheists are rightly critical of. I find the same spirit of objectivity in the mystical Jung of the Red Book as I do in his psychological works.Mandala_from_Jung's_Red_Book_Joanna Penn CCA2-0

The apparent contradiction for the mystic is that God remains supremely powerful whilst being inner. It might be assumed that those who treat God as something within one’s own mind (remaining at least practically agnostic about claims of God beyond the mind) thus reduce God to a kind of powerless abstraction, and indeed some post-modern theology can apparently end up doing this. But this misunderstanding of the implications of an inner focus confuses wider inner experience with mere intellectualisation.   God does not become a mere abstraction when we treat him as an experience, because experience is recognised through the right hemisphere of the brain, and it is the over-dominant left hemisphere that creates mere abstractions unconnected to experience. Jung is very obviously not just engaged in an intellectual reduction of God to left-hemisphere terms. One of the indications of this the power of God as Jung encounters him. We’re talking about a full-blooded God here, not some sort of ‘mitigated’ God. A God who is, indeed, terrifying, in the spirit of the holy awe felt by the ancient Israelites.

Jung’s accounts of his visions bring this tension vividly to life. In the section headed ‘First Day’, Jung encounters God on a mountain path. He is terrified, but oddly enough the God himself also seems to be terrified.

As I approach the top, a mighty booming resounds from the other side of the mountain like ore being pounded. The sound gradually swells, and echoes thunderously in the mountain. As I reach the pass, I see an enormous man approach from the other side.

Two bull horns rise from his great head, and a rattling suit of armour covers his chest. His black beard is ruffled and decked with exquisite stones. The giant is carrying a sparkling double axe in his hand, like those used to strike bulls. Before I can recover from my amazed fright, the giant is standing before me. I look at his face: it is faint and pale and deeply wrinkled. HIs almond-shaped eyes look at me astonished. Horror takes hold of me: this is Izdubar, the mighty bull-man. He stands and looks at me: his face speaks of consuming inner fear, and his hands and knees tremble. Izdubar, the powerful bull trembling? Is he frightened? (p.277-8)

Jung then has a conversation with Izdubar, in which he tells him he comes from ‘the West’, with its science and rationality. On learning this, Izdubar is dismayed. He flings away his useless weapon and falls ill. This seems to reflect the initial impact of the modern outlook on God, which at first looks likely to kill him: the function of God undermined in the human psyche by the left-brain dominant explanation of the ‘natural’ world.

In ‘Second Day’ Jung finds himself on a mountain ridge with a sick Izdubar, whom he realises he loves and wants to save. But Izdubar cannot move, and is too heavy to be carried to safety. Then Jung has an idea.

I: My prince, Powerful One, listen: a thought came to me that might save us. I think that you are not at all real, only a fantasy.

Izdubar: I am terrified by this thought. It is murderous. Do you mean to declare me unreal – now that you have lamed me so pitifully?

I: Perhaps I have not made myself clear enough, and have spoken too much in the language of Western lands. I do not mean to say that you are not real at all, of course, but only as real as a fantasy. If you could accept this, much could be gained. (p.293)

Eventually he persuades Izdubar to accept that he is only as real as a fantasy “if it helps”, and Jung is then able to pick up Izdubar, who becomes “lighter than air” and carry him home. This is an extraordinary recognition, not just that God remains valuable when recognised as a human construction, but of the incrementality of the ‘reality’ involved: it is not just a question of being real or unreal, but rather of having more or less of the qualities we associate with ‘reality’, such as tangibility, extension in space, causal effectiveness, and so on.

When he gets home, despite being light, Izdubar will not fit through the door. So Jung squashes him into the size of an egg (p.295). Yet, despite being squashed into the size of an egg, God has lost none of his meaning and importance. Jung sings moving ‘Incantations’ over the egg containing God.


light of the middle way

enclosed in the egg


full of ardour, oppressed…. (p.300)

Come to us, we who are willing from our own will.

Come to us, we who understand you from our own spirit.

Come to us, we who will warm you at our own fire.

Come to us, we who will heal you with our own art.

Come to us, we who will produce you out of our own body.

Come, child, to father and mother. (p.303)

Jung conveys a wonderfully integrated experience here, at one and the same time recognising that we create God, that God is not something threatening us from without, and that God is nevertheless a matter of overwhelming yearning. But nevertheless, such an encapsulated God, without power, cannot fulfil all the functions of God, and Jung wishes to restore him to his former splendour. In ‘The Opening of the Egg’, Izdubar bursts out of the egg.

I: “Oh Izdubar! Divine One! How wonderful! You are healed!”

“Healed? Was I ever sick? Who speaks of sickness? I was sun, completely sun. I am the sun”.

An inexpressible light breaks from his body, a light that my eyes cannot grasp. I must cover my face and cast my gaze to the ground.

I: “You are the sun, the eternal light – most powerful one, forgive me for carrying you.” (p.307-8)

This to me conveys a powerful message about God as meaning. A meaningful God is not an inch less impressive and powerful than a real God. He remains perfect, omnipotent, omniscient and eternal in meaning. But such a God and his infinite qualities should not be an object of belief – for that would fix the nature and qualities of God in relation to everything else. Since God has the archetypal function of projecting forward a complete integration of the psyche, the form taken can vary with each person or each group sharing ideas about that supreme meaningfulness, it being only his function that creates universal consistency.

Elsewhere, Jung describes God as the supreme meaning.

But the supreme meaning is the path, the way and the bridge to what is to come. That is the God yet to come. It is not the coming God himself, but his image which appears in the supreme meaning. God is an image, and those who worship him must worship him in the image of the supreme meaning. (p.120)

This meaningfulness becomes all the more intelligible if we interpret it in the light of embodied meaning. The meaning of God does not have to be tied to beliefs about the circumstances in which propositions about him would be true, as analytic philosophers would have it. It is this representationalist assumption that makes most philosophy of religion a waste of time. Instead, the meaning of God, like the meanings of all other words and symbols, consists in synaptic links formed by associations with our active experience, and built up through inter-related metaphors that connect different areas of that experience. God does indeed reside in our bodies, but no one metaphor is solely adequate to describe him: rather it would require the synthesis of all metaphors into the widest possible meaningful experience. To ‘worship’ God should surely be to try to connect with that supreme meaning – not to reify it, but to get as far as we can in experiencing it.

Personally I find this portrayal of God in the Red Book both liberating and inspiring. One thing I have in common with Jung is a Christian background, indeed being like him the son of a pastor. In earlier life I have tried to evade God and think of him as irrelevant, but, as Jung writes:

God is unavoidable. The more you flee from the God, the more surely you fall into his hand. (p.164)

God is unavoidable, not just for those of us who have an image of God etched into our childhood experience, but even in a sense for others, since the God archetype is a dimension of human experience that may manifest in other ways using other labels, but nevertheless have the same function.

Reading the Red Book has reminded me of how important that function is to me, but it leaves me nevertheless in a continuing indecision about my practical relationship to Christianity that becomes, if anything, more loaded than it was before. Churches are rich sources of archetypal experience, but overwhelmingly still filled with people who externalise and absolutise that experience. Sometimes I encounter the wish to worship God, but any such worship seems destined to be solitary. Perhaps one day there will be a Jungian church led by people who explicitly acknowledge the archetypal  nature of God at every turn: but until that day, it is only churches empty of people that I, perversely, find attractive, and where it seems possible to explore Jungian interpretations of what one encounters in solitude.


Link to the first blog in this series: The Jungian Middle Way

Picture: Mandala from Jung’s Red Book: Joanna Penn CCA2.0

Jung’s Red Book 1: The Jungian Middle Way

I have just finished reading Jung’s Red Book, which is an extraordinary text. Only published since 2009, the Red Book is Jung’s personal record of a series of self-induced visions, which mainly took place between 1913 and 1917, together with Jung’s reflections and interpretations of them, which he continued to refine until about 1930. This book takes us to the core of the personal experience on which Jung drew more circumspectly in his psychological works. That experience is centrally one of integration, as Jung confronts the archetypal expressions of different aspects of himself – sometimes in reverence, sometimes in anger, but always with acceptance of his own multiplicity. The record of that experience often reads like a prophetic or religious text, and the religious language is full-throated and unabashed, but at the same time clearly placed in the framework of an ‘inner’ psychological rather than an ‘outer’ supernatural process.Jung's Red Book

I had at first thought to write a conventional review of the book, but on further consideration decided that this was not the best way of writing about it. For one thing, it is not a philosophical or scientific text: there is no argument in it. It is the record of an experience, and the main way I can assess that experience is by trying to share some of what I experienced as an incredible richness when reading it. It’s not so much a book that can be readily judged right or wrong in itself in any given respect, as one that you can engage in and find useful to a given degree in deepening your experiential understanding of integration and the Middle Way. So I don’t want to review it so much as share some readings of it. My plan is, instead, to write a series of blogs on different aspects of it. It is full of rich quotations, but ones that will nevertheless probably need interpretation.

This will be very much my reading of the Red Book rather than the one I would necessarily expect you to have. Obviously the meaning of any text varies with the reader, but this one most markedly so. I do think some readings are more helpful than others, but it is also easy to understand how such a rich and ambiguous text can give rise to very different readings. Jung’s own words reinforce such an impression:

There is only one way and that is your way.

You seek the path? I warn you away from my own. It can also be the wrong way for you.

May each go his own way. (p.125)

I do not interpret such words in terms of relativism. Some paths can be better for us than others, but Jung warns us against the assumption that we know what the best path is for someone else, or that we should assume someone else’s path is best for us. Jung was born in the nineteenth century, the son of a Swiss pastor, and it is unlikely that his path will very closely resemble most other people’s today. Nevertheless we can learn a good deal from it.

For the rest of this first blog I want to explore the central question of how far the Red Book reflects the Middle Way. I think the answer, obviously based on my own reading, is ‘quite closely’, though not without some caveats. The most important reason that it is about the Middle Way is that the whole text is about a process of integration (even though Jung does not use the word ‘integration’), and one cannot integrate two opposed beliefs or desires if one sees them in absolute terms. In a way the whole book wrestles with the question ‘What do God, the soul, the devil, the dead etc. mean when they are not absolute’? Simply by being recognised as aspects of the psyche subject to integration, they can no longer be absolute.

But I was also gratified to find several explicit mentions of the Middle Way in the text, all of which suggest that the Middle Way was central to Jung’s thinking, even if he did not develop it formally or philosophically in his other writings. There are three explicit mentions, plus of course a great many other points where the Middle Way is implicit.

The first explicit mention is very much in terms of the Christian Middle Way:

Divinity and humanity should remain preserved, if man should remain before the God, and the God remain before man. The high-blazing flame is the middle way: whose luminous course runs between the human and the divine. (p.289)

Here Christ is in a symbolic role as mediator between the absoluteness of the idea of God and the embodied situation of humans. Elsewhere Jung stresses the story of Christ ‘harrowing hell’ between his crucifixion and resurrection, to indicate the ways he symbolically unites heaven and hell, the heights and depths with human experience. If we can hold ideals in mind as meaningful at the same time as addressing the ordinary conditions of human life, we can internalise this symbolic Christ.

The second mention occurs in Jung’s conversation with a librarian, who represents the analytically-bound, scholarly, left-hemisphere-dominant aspect of Jung. Jung tries to moderate some of the librarian’s Nietzschean anti-Christian approach:

“…Like everything healthy and long-lasting, truth unfortunately adheres more to the middle way, which we unjustly abhor.” [Jung said]

I really had no idea that you take such a mediating position.” [The librarian replied]

Neither did I – my position is not entirely clear to me. If I mediate, I certainly mediate in a very peculiar manner.”

This suggests to me that, although Jung assumes the Middle Way a lot of the time, he never actually developed it explicitly in the way he is using it here (to avoid both extremes of a polarised intellectual debate). Perhaps he was afraid that public development of it was incompatible with the public reputation he wanted to cultivate as a scientist. But Jung’s corpus of writings is large and I have certainly not read it all, so I’d be happy to hear from anyone who’s come across a more explicit development of the Middle Way in Jung elsewhere.

The third explicit mention occurs in a discussion of ‘stretched hanging’ which Jung had experienced in a vision, hanging between heaven and hell. Again, Christ is the symbol of it.

To deliver the men of his time from the stretched hanging, Christ effectively took this torment upon himself and taught them “Be crafty like serpents and guileless like doves.” For craftiness counsels against chaos, and guilelessness veils its terrible aspect. Thus men could take the safe middle path, hedged both upward and downward.

But the dead of the Above and the Below mounted, and their demands grew ever louder. And both the noble and the wicked rose up again and , unaware, broke the law of the mediator. They flung open doors both above and below. They drew many after them to higher and lower madness, thereby sowing confusion and preparing the way that is to come. (p. 357)

The madness of the above here could be identified with what Buddhists call eternalism: the belief in positive absolutes such as God’s absolute existence and absolute command. The madness of the below, on the other hand, would involve nihilism, or the rejection of any moral judgement being better than another. The Middle Way requires craftiness not only in avoiding chaos, but also in avoiding rigid order, but guilelessness in making a straightforward response to the Middle Way itself.

‘The way that is to come’ here may be a reference to a recurring theme in the Red Book, which is the First World War (hardly surprising, since Jung’s visions either anticipated it or occurred during it). Jung clearly blames the ideological madness of the First World War on this kind of polarisation, and was well aware that Christians fought on both sides in absolute belief that God was on their side. Jung also writes elsewhere that “What stays in balance is correct, what disturbs balance is incorrect” (p.266), very much suggesting his moral commitment to avoiding this polarisation.

However, before leaving you with too unequivocal an impression of Jung’s relationship with the Middle Way, I must also mention some caveats. Obviously it is one thing to use the term ‘middle way’, and another to develop and apply a strong understanding of it which avoids any kind of appropriation by creeping metaphysical assumptions. As I’ve already mentioned, my impression so far is that although Jung’s understanding of integration was both profound and pioneering, its relationship to the Middle Way in his thinking was probably sketchier. The Red Book is also a very ambiguous text, which makes it pretty wide open to metaphysical readings, and I’m sure that the metaphysicians will already have been at work on it. In the comments section of my earlier ‘Middle Way Thinkers’ blog post on Jung, I have already had a discussion with ‘Gregory Wonderwheel’ who wanted to interpret Jung metaphysically.

It also has to be said that some of Jung’s own tendencies encourage such metaphysical readings. He is pretty incautious with the terms he uses throughout – basically he will take almost any terms from traditional religion (including ‘truth’, ‘knowledge’, ‘redemption’ and ‘revelation’) and trust entirely that the context will safeguard such language against absolutizing interpretation. For this reason, beware of apparently absolutizing Jung quotes taken out of context. Near the end of the book, too, his ‘Seven Sermons to the Dead’ seem to come close to offering us a metaphysical scheme (of the ‘Pleroma’, which is nothing and everything) based on that of Gnosticism, most of which seems to bear no relationship to any practical application. At the same time, these sermons are hedged around with the kind of disavowals that seem familiar from Buddhism (‘It is fruitless to think about the Pleroma’ – p.510). As with Emptiness talk in Buddhism, I often just want to shout back in frustration, ‘Well, why are you thinking about it then?’ Whether Jung’s gnostic cosmology is metaphysical or not is entirely a matter of contextual judgement, but it certainly threatens to turn into a diversion if one wants to use the Red Book as a text supportive of the Middle Way.

Such caveats should not be off-putting on balance. The Red Book is overwhelmingly experiential in most of its course, and there is a great deal more to say about it – for example, about the riches of its approach to God, to evil, to gender, to death, to Christianity, to the eucharist, to pride and humility, to power, to the individual and the group, to embodiment, to language, and to symbols. But all of these other themes will have to wait for other blogs.