The Black Books 1913-1932. Notebooks of Transformation

The Black Books 1913-1932. Notebooks of Transformation

A Summary and Review by Shane Eynon, PhD

Author: Carl Gustav Jung

Original title:  The Black Books 1913-1932. Notebooks of Transformation

Translator: Martin Liebscher, John Peck, Sonu Shamdasani

Publisher:  Philemon Foundation and W. W. Norton & Co.

Publication date: 2020

Pages 1648

ISBN   9780393088649

The Black Books (Jung, 2020) have been promoted primarily as the source material for the Red Book (Jung, 2009) in the material used by the publisher (Philemon Foundation, 2020). 

The text of The Red Book draws on material from The Black Books between 1913 and 1916. Approximately fifty percent of the text of The Red Book derives directly from The Black Books, with very light editing and reworking. The Black Books are not personal diaries but the records of the unique self-experimentation that Jung called his ‘confrontation with the unconscious.’ He did not record day-to-day happenings or outer events but his active imaginations and depictions of his mental states together with his reflections on these. The material that Jung did not include in The Red Book is of equal interest to the material that he did include. The Black Books shed light on Jung’s ‘confrontation with the unconscious,’ for which they are the prime documentation, as well as the genesis of The Red Book, the further elaboration of Jung’s personal cosmology, and the making of analytical psychology.

(Philemon Foundation, 2020)

However, as we can see in the summary above, Jung’s Black Books are a bit more than simply source material. They are the actual and real-time experiences of Jung’s attempt to document his own unconscious. These notebooks are unrefined material for the reader. The subject matter is raw and pure in comparison to the Red Book. In these notebooks, none of the esoteric and elaborate trappings of the Red Book can mystify and confuse the reader without knowing Jung’s self-referential system of personal cosmology and all of their deeply personal associations. With the Black Books, we peer into the heart of Jung unguarded by mystery and see a man confused and bewildered with a strange and unfamiliar landscape of his inner world. Here we find, perhaps for the first time, C.G. Jung unguarded and unmasked.


On 12 November 1913, C.G. Jung began to document his contemporaneous account of his earnest struggles with his unconscious. The context of this time in Jung’s life is an essential factor in understanding what he is writing in these journals. Sigmund Freud had previously dethroned C.G. Jung as the “Crown Prince” of Psychoanalysis for publishing a book that deviated from the core tenets of psychoanalytic theory (i.e., Symbols of transformation. Jung, C., Collected Works of C. G. Jung, Vol. 5. 2nd ea., Princeton University Press, 1967). This work, coupled with Jung’s complicated dalliance with his patient, unrecognized collaborator, and student, Sabina Spiellrein (see Sabina Spielrein: The Woman and the Myth Hardcover – August 1, 2017, by Angela M. Sells), cemented the complete break between Jung, Freud, and the larger Psychoanalytic movement.

Jung comes through in The Black Books as a man, a remarkable man, yes, but a man struggling mightily with his own greatest problem patient, himself. This is Jung speaking plainly and expressing his struggle in a format that makes him completely relatable. This is no mystical Merlin, but a man and scientist working with a team to use his suffering as an experiment that would later become Analytical Psychology. During this experiment, detailed as every scientist does in his documentation of experiments, we are left with the Black Books. These experiments would go on to form both Jung’s own branch of psychotherapy, but to also be used as the raw un-chiseled stones used later to lay down the foundations of his personal cathedral dedicated to his inner journey, The Red Book. Just as Bollingen Castle was an outer expression of his personal psychological discoveries, the Red Book served as a testament to his own inner journey and what he discovered within himself.

The question confronting us during this eight-month study of the Black Books is how these encounters with Jung’s unconscious became the bedrock for Jung’s Analytical Psychology. How did Jung use this primary experience to shape a field of psychotherapy and an entire school of psychology that stands so far apart from other schools? The transformation and contextualization of these experiences is the fulcrum of what Jung would do with the rest of his life. There is literally no further down to dig in terms of understanding Jung. This is bedrock and we cannot go further. With Memories, Dreams, Reflections (1963), The Red Book (2003), and the Black Books (2020) we now have all the keys needed to unlock the mystery that is C.G. Jung. And what we find when we turn the keys and unlock the mystery is a man in whom steps, we can follow, if we dare to.

The Work of Transformation

The Black Books are separated into a series of 7 separate books that roughly correspond to the actual experiential journals Jung kept that capture his experiences of the unconscious in real time. Jung tells us in many sources that he had developed a technique called “Active Imagination” that allowed him access to the unconscious while awake and conscious. This is not exactly ‘lucid dreaming’, but rather a technique where dream material or some other stimuli is used as an anchor point while an individual allows themselves to sink into a state of relaxation and hypnagogic fantasy. The ego and unconscious are able to meet and construct a fantasy that typically involves a plot, conversations, and a narrative.

Since the individual is conscious, these fantasies can be written down and memorized. It is not all that complex a process as it is what writers such as Stephen King or J.R.R. Tolkien described as their own process for writing fiction. In Jung’s case, he is focused on an imaginary conversation with his own soul and other personified characters in his unconscious (i.e., from his dreams). The secret to the process is to not edit or allow embarrassment to creep in to defend and block the unfolding fantasy. The ego, typically, does not enjoy this activity because it loses control, becomes somewhat less defended, and a good bit and frightening or uncomfortable material can enter.

What is most intriguing to contemplate is how exactly Jung takes this material that comes from his unconscious and begins the deliberative and rational process of formulating a map of the dynamics of the psyche from this experience. The Black Books give us a great deal of insight into how Jung started to formulate this process in a methodical and deliberate method that obviously came later. The early characters that present themselves to Jung are actually surprising and ordinary in some regards. For example, early on his ‘soul’, for whom he calls out to meet, turns out to be a little girl. What Jung discovers, using his scientific and scholarly training, is a developmental process at play in the actual manifestations of these unconscious personalities as he interacts with them. And this may be his greatest insight in terms of a psychotherapeutic (soul-healing) endeavor; by interacting with the contents of the unconscious, they change and shape-shift developmentally along with the attitudes of the ego. And from this dynamic process, a collaborative and symbiotic relationship develops between the ego and unconscious. This is the great “mystery” that Jung would later find had parallels in Alchemy and other ancient traditions. From the raw material that is documented in the Black Books, we can easily see for the first time, Jung deliberately sought out parallel, analogous, and dynamic processes in historical, mythological, and anthropological research available to him in his era. This in turn, fuels his prolific writings of the Collected Works and the Red Book. Moreover, he applied these insights to the clinic and the patient’s he treated.

However, it must be stressed, that Jung was never alone in this research, nor in his confrontation with his soul. No, he was being emotionally and intellectually supported day and night by Toni Wolf and Emma Jung throughout the entire ordeal. For it was an ordeal for Jung. He describes it as tortuous and believed at certain times he was going insane (psychotic). So vivid and persistent these characters became for Jung terrified him and broke through into his daily wakeful conscious work. It is fairly obvious that Jung was, at this point in his life, acutely stressed, depressed, and having panic attacks. In other words, Jung was psychologically at his most fragile while writing the Black Books. He cannot be said to be psychotic per se, because he is able, with Emma and Toni’s help, to maintain a foothold in the waking world and not be swallowed whole by the unconscious. In this, what led to his fall and ‘crack-up’ became his greatest strength and shield. In other words, Jung’s intellect and his eros (i.e, the love of the women in his life) saved him from madness.


For now, with the publication of the Black Books, we finally have all of the keys to unlock Jung’s work and fully understand the mystery of his insights. And what a mystery it has been for almost a century. From the moment Jung started to have inklings that the unconscious was far more than sexual and aggressive impulses and drives, as stressed by Freud, a small seed of an idea bore forth a great tree which would eventually bear for us fruit. From this fruit an orchard was planted in the world. It is a small and mysterious orchard that few in the field of psychology decide to enter into and partake. We can see these first seedlings growing in his love affair with Sabina Speilrein and their shared fantasy of the Seigfried myth bringing forth a child that melded the ancient Jewish traditions with the Germanic myths. This is indeed the first seed for it was gotten from misdirected, but nonetheless pure eros. From their collaboration was born the ideas of phylogenetic Archetypes residing in the Psyche as a blood memory. This irrational fantasy between them for a ‘child’ was the equivalent of a psychological birth that foreshadowed Jung’s rebellion, breakdown, and transformation. Dr. Speilrien’s mistreatment at the hands of Jung and her discovery of the death drive would likewise foreshadow her own doom and ostracization at the hand of ‘Aryan’ men in a few decades that followed her time in Switzerland and Austria.

Next, we have Jung’s rebellion, with his book and lectures on the Symbols of Transformation (Collected Works of C.G. Jung Vol.5). We may never know for certain if this project was wholly consciously undertaken with the intention of invoking Freud’s rage and rejection, but nonetheless, the work laid down the gauntlet to intellectually (and emotionally) challenge Freud’s dominion over Psychoanalysis. There are many perspectives to take from this episode, but as a middle-aged man myself, I see it through the lens of Jung’s need for self-destruction and unnecessarily aggressive attitude. The content of Symbols of Transformation is also noteworthy because it concerns the fantasies (active imaginations) of a Miss Miller. Jung’s psychoanalytic interpretation of these fantasies have direct bearing on the Black Book and how they develop Jung’s own later ‘confrontation with his soul’.


The concept of ontogenetic recapitulation of phylogenetic psychology is explained by showing the relation between man’s unconscious, or nondirected thought, and mythology or legend. Two types of human thought are described: a directed thinking, of which the highest form is science and which is based on speech’ and a nonverbal, undirected, associative thinking, commonly called dreaming. These two modes of thought deal with two activities of man: adapting to outer reality, and reflecting on subjective concerns. Undirected thought is seen as characteristic of ancient cultures, of primitive man, and of children. The parallels that are drawn between the mythological thinking of the ancients and that of children and primitives, or that found in dreams, lead to the supposition that there is a correspondence between ontogenesis or individual development, and phylogenesis, or the racial development of man’ in psychology. An examination of certain fairy tales and myths illustrates the concept that what is in modern man an unexpressed fantasy was once an accepted custom or belief: the source of fantasy in the individual is described as an attempt at compensation, exemplified by the adolescent who dreams of belonging to wealthy, important parents, a fantasy found in myths and legends such as Romulus and Remus, or in the story of Moses. Through the fantasies, directed thinking comes into contact with the product of the unconscious, although not with its motivation.”

Two kinds of thinking. In: Jung, C., Collected Works of C. G. Jung, Vol. 5. 2nd ea., Princeton University Press, 1967. 557 p. (p. 7-33).

I believe it is beyond question that Jung got what he wanted one way or another in his rebellion from Freud. If driven by unconscious designs or conscious intentions, he definitely got more than he bargained for in his rebellion. While he may have broken from the psychoanalytic movement, to which he had hitched his rise to fame and international prominence, when he was given his complete intellectual freedom, he became lost and unmoored emotionally. In my opinion, Jung was not fully aware, at this time, that his unconscious designed this very scenario to play out as it did for him. His rebellion as a willfully neurotic, impulsive, and emotional act could be disputed, but that would be a rather hard argument to make given what followed and coupled with the observations of Jung by his contemporaries at this time. Jung went mad, they said of him. Others, including Freud, condemned him for his behavior. Jung himself, for a time, even said he was ‘menaced by a psychosis’ or ‘doing schizophrenia’. This is the price Jung paid for and I believe it was self-punishment, because really, Jung did not have to fear financial ruin or threats to his survival. The only thing really at stake was his reputation. And there we have the crux of the matter. And we see this freely admitted to and discussed in the Black Books. We may never know why exactly Jung needed to push things to such an extreme. We can guess, but in his darkest hour, at least Jung had the courage to be honest with himself, even if he was being melodramatic, in my opinion. But this is Jung’s story, not mine. I also believe that the women around Jung, and again I am stressing this point to drive it home to you, would not allow him to get away with his self-destruction and melodrama for long. It was they that turned him off the path of melancholy and guided him gently onto a path of self-discovery though love and stern support. After all, to women especially of Jung’s time, reputation would have likely seemed a silly thing to lose one’s mind over, but they understood men better than they understood themselves, for they were Jung’s intellectual equals if nothing else, and just as skilled by all accounts.

So, the Jungfrau saved Jung and got him to turn his brilliant and piercing mind on itself to turn this madness into an ultimate experiment of discovery. This in the end is what the Black Books are; Jung’s cure for his own madness. He transforms his experience of mental illness into a grand adventure of discovery for himself and for others. He goes into rather uncharted territory for Western Europeans and returns with the rough cartographic outlines of a universal picture of a churning and ever transforming psyche. What follows from this period, captured in the Black Books, is a project that will take decades to complete.

The final mystery to ponder, now that we have all the keys and can open the treasure chest, is how exactly Jung takes these experiences and constructs a coherent psychology that can be accepted and digested by the hyper-rational western audience he needs to convince. We can, over the next 8 months, begin to piece that together. We will also get to see Jung ‘unmasked’ from his carefully crafted and well-maintained persona that has seemed impossible to penetrate. Lastly, we will see what exactly these Black Books would unleash into the collective Psyche of the world and how that impact ripples down to this very moment. It is a bit hyperbolic to say, but Jung did reclaim the Soul for western humanity and there is not turning back, for she will be heard. We simply can continue to turn a willfully blinded eye, or look on her squarely and with an open heart.


Jung, C. G. (2009). The Red Book: Liber Novus. Philemon Foundation and W. W. Norton & Co.

Jung, C. G. (2020). The Black Books 1913-1932. Notebooks of Transformation. Philemon Foundation and W. W. Norton & Co.

Philemon Foundation. (2020, October). The Black Books 1913-1932: Notebooks of Transformation. Philemon Foundation. Retrieved October 30, 2020, from 


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