Jung’s Red Book for our Time: Searching for Soul in the 21st Century

Jung’s Red Book for our Time: Searching for Soul in the 21st Century

This past weekend I had the extraordinary privilege of attending the Jung’s Red Book for our Time: Searching for Soul in the 21st Century symposium held at Eranos and Monte Verità in Ascona (Switzerland).[1] This short post is intended to capture what stood out for me at the conference and an attempt at some type of synthesis from the various related but also quite diverse papers. This is not intended as a journalistic account as it is too fragmentary for that. Unfortunately I missed a few of the papers and am a poor note taker, so this post is a single attendee’s subjective impression of this epic, one could even say, historical, event. Nevertheless, despite these shortcomings, I trust it may be of interest.

A reasonable and intuitive question one might ask at the onset of a symposium such as this is, does Jung and particularly his Red Book, which in addition to being a century old, the description of a deeply personal experience – so much so, that the heirs of the material debated for decades as to the merits of its publication,[2] and something inspired by and written in a Medieval theological style, have any currency in our contemporary world and zeitgeist, other than as a historical artifact, of serious interest only to the history of analytical psychology?

Truthfully, I remain unsure as to the answer to that question, even assuming a conclusive answer could be given. I was asked pointedly by someone after the second day of the conference, what it (The Red Book) had to say to our contemporary global situation and found myself unable to offer any sensible answer. More modestly, what I can say is the symposium was an unusually rich offering and lived up to its billing. It was fascinating, or, more modestly, at least such was my impression.

Thomas Fischer, speaking to the surprising number of sales of The Red Book, since its publication in 2009[3], the continued purchase of Jung’s other texts, and the ongoing scholarship and research in the field, characterised the field of Jungian Studies as being in ascendence.  In an attempt to understand and contextualise this he offered the observation that we live in a time which has seen an exponential rise in fantasy literature. Although potentially a backhanded comment for the secular “scientific” Jungian, the inference I take from this is that we live in a time where arguably the traditional rationalist and scientistic ideology of modernity are failing to provide the sought-after utopian ideals hoped for. That we live in a time where there is an almost desperate need for something approaching religious phenomena and experience. And this turn to fantasy literature, film, and gaming, is attempt by the collective psyche of contemporary man to meet this need.

In my own view that hypothesis makes sense. We are living in a time of a fragmentation of all the traditional myths and grand narratives. Of course, one could correctly observe that that is the very definition of post-modern and we have been living in that time for at least the last half century, since roughly the nineteen sixties. That is true and that is one of the reasons the relevance of Jungian psychology has continued to grow over the last fifty years, whilst Freudian and neo-Freudian psychoanalysis has been on the wane over that time.[4]

That said, the early 21st century has seen an exponential acceleration of the rate of change and the breakdown of 20th century liberalism, capitalism, or liberalist-capitalism, traditional social hierarchies, identity, individual sovereignty, the traditional symbolic structure or the “name-of-the-father” in a Lacanian sense and most recently even “Truth”. To discuss the why and wherefores of that here would take us beyond the scope of this post. Suffice to say that Jung the mystic is fast eclipsing Jung the psychoanalyst, and shifting ground in our field is, ironically, in tandem with the “spirit of the times.”[5] What is desired and arguably desirable today is no longer adaptation to a broken world or the secular medicalised psychotherapist tending to the neurotic analysand.  Rather the demand is for the Jung the shaman, the mystic and even the prophet. One might say the writing has been on the wall for some time, although it has taken us a while to recognise it.[6]

This inability to conclusive answer this overarching opening question conceded, I found the symposium deeply and profoundly re-enchanting. To the degree this was its intention, to inject soul into the desert of the post-modern or “liquid modernity”[7], it was a rich offering. And, my sense is, most who attended felt similarly.

Something that stood out worth mentioning at the outset was the obvious warmth, open-heartedness and humility of the program committee, Murray Stein, Joseph Cambray, and Ricardo Bernardini. This and the obviously very high regard the committee members, as well as many other speakers, had for their late colleague, Thomas Arzt[8], who along with Murray Stein gave birth to the idea for this symposium. For a symposium ostensibly speaking to the issue of soul, this felt significant and congruent.

The papers were varied and rich in content, impossible for me to do justice to here. The papers presented will be published in a fifth and final volume in the ‘Jung’s Red Book for Our Time: Searching for Soul under Postmodern Conditions’ series. I will focus on only one or two ideas here to give you a very small taste of the presentations and to share what stood out for me, among many other wonderful presentations of course.

The scale, visionary nature, moral courage, imagination and, it would be remiss not to mention, work-ethic, of The Red Book’s, or “Liber Novus”, creation by Jung, between the years 1913 and 1930, is apparent. He truly went into a place, during the visionary experiences that are recorded in the text, where, whilst it might be going too far to say was without any precedent, he certainly went in alone, and culturally and spiritually naked, as it were. It is genuinely difficult to overstate the enormity and value of this self-imposed task.

A remark made by Michael Fordham to Murray Stein, speaks to this, wherein Michael Fordham suggested to Murray that Jung’s greatest discovery, was his discovery on the inner world. [9] Now I don’t think one should take this as the suggestion that no one had heretofore – prior to Jung’s visionary experiences, travelled into the inner world. Just as one should not suppose Freud invented the unconscious. But such was the significance, articulation, and lasting impact of this journey by Jung that to say he “discovered it” is also not without truth. It was both a discovery and an act of creation, that gave birth to analytical psychology and for which countless people have, and countless will continue to, benefit from.

The primary experiences themselves, their recordal in Jung’s journals, Liber Novus, and of course their role in inspiring Jung’s later work is cultural contribution of no small value. And of course, one must mention the tremendously valuable work of Sonu Shamdasani, his research, scholarship and role in the publication of these texts. Whether one considers the Jung of the Red Book a mystic, scientist, or artist, what transcends these categories is the visionary nature of the work. That, and how he opened up a new world, heretofore inaccessible, with his efforts. Speaking to and providing an instance of the potential value of Jung’s primary ethical imperative, individuation.

To the effect and scale of this inner world I really appreciated Lance Owens challenge of Jung on his term “collective unconscious”, feeling that it failed to capture and fully communicate the space that Jung visited in these visionary experiences.[10]  Saying he slightly preferred the phrase “objective psyche”, but ultimately felt neither term quite captured the “psycho-cosmology” Jung shares in his Black Books and Liber Novus, both in his prose and visual art.

This challenge by Lance Owens is perspicacious, I feel, and has certainly left me wondering at to the ontological and even conceptual status of the place the subject goes to in such a visionary state. I found it telling that Murray Stein in his paper, characterised The Red Book as a type of “medieval mystery play”. Whilst this resonates to the degree that a characterisation of the Red Book as an inner drama, feels right and on point, whilst almost certainly unintentional, I thought the phrase was an interesting allusion to the anthroposophical “Mystery Dramas” and more obviously to the classical theological character of the medieval mystery plays. Both of which are clearly speaking of a realm beyond “psychology” in the traditional sense of that word. Here we might look to Henry Corbin and the Sufi tradition for answers, and the “mundus imaginalis” as Corbin speaks of it. Suggestive, possibly, that there is more research and scholarship to be done, such as is being undertaken in texts such as the Jung’s Red Book for our Time: Searching for Soul in the 21st Century Series by Chiron and Catafalque: Carl Jung and the End of Humanity, by Peter Kingsley, to understand the exact nature of the inner world described by Jung in Liber Novus.

Christine Maillard’s[11] paper “Death and the Dead: Ideas on a Figure of Thought in Jung’s Red Book” dealt with central motif of and surely one of the motivations for Liber Novus. The importance of Jung’s Seven Sermons to the Dead (Septem Sermones ad Mortuos) in Jung’s oeuvre was made even more apparent. It is, or at least I find it, deeply intriguing this notion that Jung was addressing himself not only the living but the dead. That and, the spiritual and psychological importance, as Maillard emphasised of indeed addressing oneself to one’s dead, certainly made an impact on me. This being the content of both Liber Secundus and Scrutinises in The Red Book.

Beyond dealing with the dead as a living psychic reality, Maillard emphasised that what Jung aims to achieve in these reflections is acquiring a proper philosophical attitude towards death. Maillard referenced the following passage from the Red Book that communicates this idea very compellingly,

“We need the coldness of death to see clearly. Life wants to live and to die, to begin and to end. You are not forced to live eternally, but can also die, since there isa will in you for both. Life and death must strike a balance in your existence. Today’s men need a large slice of death, since too much incorrectness lives in them. What stays in balance is correct, what disturbs balance is incorrect. But if balance has been attained, then that which preserves it is incorrect and that which disturbs it correct. Balance is at once life and death. For the completion of life a balance with death is fitting. If I accept death then my tree greens, since dying increases life. If I plunge into the death encompassing the world, then my buds break open. How much our life needs death!

Joy at the smallest things comes to you only when you have accepted death. But if you look out greedily for all you could still live, then nothing is great enough for your pleasure, and the smallest things that continue to surround you are no longer a joy. Therefore I behold death, since it teaches me how to live.

If you accept death, it is altogether like a frosty night and an anxious misgiving, but a frosty night ina vineyard filled with sweet grapes. You will soon take pleasure in your wealth. Death ripens. Oner needs death to be able to harvest the fruit. Without death, life would be meaningless, since the long-lasting rises again and denies its own meaning. To be, and to enjoy your being, you need death, and limitation enables you to fulfil your being.”[12]

Maillard also spoke to the idea of the unconscious self, the unrealised latent self as a type of inner dead self, needing birth or resurrection through consciousness. This is a useful segue to the final paper by Robert Michael Mercurio, “The Red Book and Our Contemporary Crises: Active Imagination, Mass Migration, and Climate Change”, I want to touch on.

Mercurio spoke to the critical role of consciousness in the psychic economy, and its task as both the servant and harbinger of transformation. Challenging the potential apathy of waiting for the (impersonal) unconscious to effect change without personally taking up the task of the great work. Mercurio also spoke to the transformative nature of consciousness itself in simply being a conscious witness, citing the example of the contemplative lives of monks and nuns, who turn their full attention toward the inner world. It occurs to me actually that one might see Mercurio’s thesis here as in tandem with Taoist philosophy and the interplay of action and non-action.

Listening to this talk the obvious association was with Jung’s emphasis on the intrinsic and incalculable value of consciousness both in its unique alchemical role affecting transformation impossible without it, and as witness such as he speaks about in Memories Dreams Reflections, characterising the conscious subject as co-creator. Mercurio shared a vignette of a dream image that I found very compelling in this respect. The dreamer needing to reach a lighthouse in a very stormy sea, not to switch the lighthouse on, it was already on, but simply to be present in the lighthouse which (conscious) presence would calm the sea. A good metaphor perhaps for the value of remaining conscious and not averting our gaze from the multiple atrocities currently unfolding around us.

These are of course the smallest sample of the many papers presented, most of which were exceptional. I won’t list them here as they are already a matter of record, and I wouldn’t want to leave any out.

I will say though it would feel remiss not make a special mention of the paper by Riccardo Bernardini, “Rebirth Symbols in the Basilica of San Miniato al Monte in Florence (XI-XIII c.): Millenarian Anguishes and Eschatological Hopes in a Romanic Architecture – From Joachim of Fiore to Jung’s Red Book”. Although it might read facetiously to make the remark that Bernardini came across as a real-life version of the archaeologist-historian from (that dreadful book) The Da Vinci Code, it is not so intended. His talk was more than intriguing, although I confess, having so little context of the field, much of it went over my head. However, his obvious passion, lucidity and incredible scholarship were apparent.

I certainly looking forward to pouring over the published volume of presented papers, and can hardly overstate the re-enchanting and at times even numinous nature of the symposium.


Until we speak again,




[1] Jung’s Red Book for our Time: Searching for Soul in the 21st Century, Eranos and Monte Verità, Ascona (Switzerland), April 28-May 1, 2022,  http://www.eranosfoundation.org/redbook

[2] Thomas Fischer (Foundation of the Works of C. G. Jung, Switzerland): “Jung after the Publication

of The Red Book (A View from The Foundation of the Works of C. G. Jung)”

[3] Over 200 000 copies sold.

[4] At least seemingly; I confess this is an impression I have, which may or may not be supported by the data.

[5] Jung famously juxtaposes the “spirit of the times” with the “spirit of the depths” in The Red Book, pp. 132-133, Readers Edition.

[6] I was speaking about this in 2011 already, with my paper at the time “Apocalyptic premonitions: a post-Jungian perspective”, Edinger was speaking about this in 1999, with his book Archetype of the Apocalypse, and according to Marie Louise von Franz, and I see no reason to doubt her, Jung was predicting the coming apocalypse fifty years after his death in 1961.

[7] As Murray Stein put it.

[8] (1955 – 2020), co-editor with Murray Stein of the 4 volume Series, Jung’s Red Book for Our Time: Searching for Soul under Postmodern Conditions. His essay was the first in the Series and laid out the basic concept of the project.

[9] From Murray Stein’s opening talk, ‘“Acts of Imagination: The Creation of the (Inner) World”

[10] Lance Owens (The Gnosis Archive, USA): “The Alchemists’ Apprentice: Vision, Imagination, and

Mysterium Coniunctionis”

[11] From the University of Strasbourg.

[12] The Red Book (Readers Edition), pp. 266-277.

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Comments (14)

  • Yvonne Reply

    I am so envious of you being able to attend that symposium Stephen. I have the first four books of this series. I dip in and out and find them illuminating. I look forward to the fifth.

    May 7, 2022 at 1:14 pm
  • Marybeth Carter Reply

    So appreciate your window into the world of this conference. I had hoped to attend but could not. Honestly glad it evoked a sense of re-enchantment during these times.

    May 7, 2022 at 2:45 pm
  • Peter Britz Reply

    What a wonderful synopsis Stephen! I particularly liked your framing of the societal need for the myth and to explain Feb ascent mystic Jung.

    May 7, 2022 at 4:00 pm
  • Alan G Vaughan Reply

    Thank you Stephen
    I am inspired to read the papers and will be alert for their publication. I do appreciate Maillard’s thoughtful scholarship.

    May 7, 2022 at 4:09 pm
    • Scott Gibbs Reply

      This is great! Thanks Stephen

      May 7, 2022 at 7:48 pm
  • gail smith reynolds Reply

    This is a remarkable conversation. Thank you so much for cracking the door for us to see into the symposium. I feel better even knowing that such a thing exists. what I take away is the bit about the “psychic economy”. I find that concept extraordinary. “Mercurio spoke to the critical role of consciousness in the psychic economy, and its task as both the servant and the harbinger of transformation. Challenging the potential apathy for the (impersonal) unconscious to effect change without personally taking up the task of the great work.” It validates the work that I have been doing within as decisive intention NOT to “avert our gaze from the multiple atrocities unfolding around us.” Finally the lighthouse dream, knowing that being present can calm the sea….I’d call this stuff ……magic. alchemy: a True regard for the natural world and myself as a natural player, dangerous as I may be. Thanks again. I’m inspired. gsr

    May 8, 2022 at 1:25 am
  • Robert Johnson Reply

    Thank you

    May 9, 2022 at 11:55 am
  • Barbara Robinson Reply

    Stephen Thank you for this powerful gift inspiring me to re-open that door towards a deeper engagement with the challenges of the Red and Black Books. The Symposium sounds as if it was charged by the current multiple unfolding destructions around us but as articulated in the talk by Christine Maillard life needs death for the fulfilment of life.

    May 9, 2022 at 11:57 am
    • Rick Reply

      Thanks for sharing from your “front row seat”…
      You got me thinking:
      For me The Red Book and Jung’s theory of personality development helps me in feeling comfortable in accepting there is more than just ego issues that could be described as “spiritual” or even “cosmic” but yet still not relate to any established religious organization…
      So Jung and his Red Book” inspires me and shows me the way to create my own Red Book as my own unique spiritual testament even If I am the only one who gets it…
      (Can you dig it??)

      May 11, 2022 at 9:59 pm
  • Loretta Reply

    Thank you Stephen for taking the time and trouble to share your take on the symposium with us. I appreciated the passages regarding death and its value, particularly linked to today’s modern society. Inspiring. Many thanks, Loretta

    May 9, 2022 at 2:00 pm
    • Klara Reply

      Thank you for sharing this Stephen. I am happy that you were able to make it there and to attend this beautiful event.

      May 9, 2022 at 5:34 pm
  • Michelle Halsall Reply

    I nearly bought a ticket to be there but was not able to get away for the event. I’m glad you were there and were so well “fed” in the experience. Thank you so much for your generous sharing.

    May 10, 2022 at 4:45 am
  • Nadine Reply

    It sounds like it was a life changing experience, Stephen. Thank you for sharing a glimpse of it with us. Hopefully you will share the link of the papers too, when it becomes available.

    May 10, 2022 at 11:16 am
  • Sandra Nwagboso Reply

    Thank you Stephen for this concise post. I am very interested in Jungian psychoanalysis and wrote a dissertation where I used his ideas as a theoretical framework. Though I have not read his Red book,this write-up makes me wish I have it now so that I can start immediately. I am glad that Jungian psychology keeps expanding in its scope and is becoming quite relevant in these post-modern perilous times we live in. It convinces me that this field of research does have many things to offer the post-modern man who in my opinion is clearly adrift. And that Jung can be a mystic,artist,scientist and prophet makes me confident that I am the right field of research and scholarship,i.e., the one that can boldly speak to and in our troubled existence and times. Finally one term that really jumped out to me was “psycho-cosmology”, this is one concept that I am going to Muse on to see what I can make of it. Thank you once again.

    May 12, 2022 at 5:21 pm

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