Liber Novus (The Red Book)—A Book Review

| October 30, 2010 | 0 Comments

by Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, DLFAPA
Dr. Meymandi is in private practice as a psychiatrist and neurologist and serves as an adjunct professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is a noted physician, editor, and philanthropist who frequently speaks and writes on diverse topics that relate to his interests in medicine, the arts, religion, and philanthropy. He lives in Raleigh with his wife Emily.

Psychiatry (Edgemont) 2010;7(10):52–54

Liber Novus (The Red Book)
by C. G. Jung and edited by Sonu Shamdasani

Reviewed by by Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, DLFAPA

To an old book reviewer such as myself, I find that as I hold a book and read it repeatedly, it becomes like a good friend to me. An object relation develops that is full of mystery and, of course, some love. A book can take on a life of its own, just like a beloved pet, and it is not unusual for me to give favorite books pet names. For example, I call Diarmaid MacCulloch’s book, Christianity: The First 3000 Years, “The Fat Book” (it’s a hefty 1,184 pages). I nicknamed O’Donnell’s Biography of Saint Augustine of Hippo and John Cooper’s encyclopedic book Plato “the Brainy books,” the sapience of which are not for history beginners. And now, after reading and studying Jung’s Liber Novus (The Red Book), I refer to it simply as “The Big Book.” Afterall, it measures a chunky 15.5 inches by 11 inches. But that pet name refers more to its contents than its size.

Liber Novus (Latin for “a new book”) is probably best known as The Red Book—it is red, after all. This weighty book is a compendium of fascinating writings and art work by Swiss psychologist Carl Gustav Jung (1875–1961), which, it is believed, he compiled between the years 1914 and 1930 after a falling out with Sigmund Freud in 1913; it was not published or shown to the public, however, until 2009 because until 2001, Jung’s heirs denied scholars access to the book. Jung originally titled the manuscript Liber Novus, but it was informally known and published as The Red Book.

There is no writer whose books I look forward to with more pure, raw curiosity than Carl Jung. In the early 1960s, as I was going through psychiatric residency training, I found myself consumed by the writings (and art work) of Jung. I saw him as a consummate thinker, seeker, and creator of knowledge. His writings were fascinating to me. I found him to be a brilliant chronicler and dream interpreter—attributes enveloped in the cosmogony of a rich and transcendent imagination. During this time in the early 60s, I even fantasized of writing my own handbook of dream interpretation, similar to handbooks about interpretation of electrocardiograms. I posited that just as various electrical discharges and impulses, such as elevated ST segment and the width of Q wave on electrocardiogram (ECG), signify the status of cardiac circulation and the myocardium, dreams ought to have standards with which they may be interpreted and used to assess a patient’s mental status at deeper levels (I have not given up on the idea!). During this time of my personal Jung discovery, I learned that he had compiled, over the course of 30 years, a “secret” book that he kept in his safe: The Red Book. Ever since I learned of its existence, I kept an eye out for the day the book would make its public debut, which it finally did in the latter part of 2009. I am pleased to offer you, readers, my own summary and thoughts on Carl Jung’s The Red Book.

Theme of Dreams

The theme of The Red Book is heavily entrenched in the interpretation of dreams. In order to appreciate the content of the book, a brief discussion of dreams is necessary. The dream is a phenomenon as ancient as creation. The Old Testament records that God chose to communicate His will to the people of Israel through the vehicle of dreams or “visions of the night” given to selected individuals (the prophets). The following are a few examples:

Incubation dreams are initiated by God to the sleeping dreamer in holy places, without the recipient having deliberately sought to receive such a dream. Perhaps the most celebrated example of an incubation dream is Jacob’s dream of the Divine ladder at Bethel (Genesis 28:11–19):

“Jacob… came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the night had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and laid down in that place. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reached to Heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And the Lord stood beside him and said, ‘I am the Lord, the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac…’ Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, ‘surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!’ And he was afraid and said ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the House of God, and this is the gate of Heaven.’ … He called that place ‘Bethel,’ (i.e. the ‘house of God’).”

Scholars document that divinely sent dreams, as recorded in the Old Testament, were either declarations in plain words understandable to the recipient or in symbolic language or images needing an inspired interpreter. An instance of the former type of dream occurs in God’s command to the grieving Jacob (Joseph’s father) to travel to Egypt (Genesis 46:1–4). Such a dream needs no interpretation. An example of the latter type is the Egyptian Pharaoh’s two enigmatic God-sent dreams of the seven thin cows eating the seven fat cows grazing by the Nile, as well as that of the seven withering ears of grain swallowing the good ears of grain. These dreams demanded a skilled interpreter of divine dreams, which in this case was the wrongly imprisoned Joseph (Genesis 41:25–30):

“Then Joseph said to Pharaoh ‘Pharaoh’s dreams are one and the same. God has revealed to Pharaoh what He is about to do…the dreams are one. The seven lean and ugly cows that came up after them (i.e., the fat cows) are seven years, as are the seven empty ears…they are seven years of famine…There will come seven years of plenty throughout all the land of Egypt. After them, there will arise seven years of famine…”

Dreams are recited in ancient pre-Biblical literature, such as Gilgamesh, Beowulf, Avesta, the Holy Book of Zarathustra, and the Quoran. What Freud and Jung brought to us is the concept that the “dream is the highway to unconscious…” Freud posited that dreams represent repressed sexual urges. Modern theorists have suggested that dreams are simply the product of neurons firing randomly. And to others, dreams are believed to be the mash-ups created by the unconscious mind as it processes, sorts, and stores emotions from the day. Modern dream researchers have access to more exacting metrics, such as biochemical markers, magnetic resonant imaging (MRI), functional MRI (fMRI), and positron emission tomography (positron emission tomography scan that actually measures the rate of metabolism of various segments and demonstrates structure of the brain). Folks, such as Rosalind Cartwright, Emerita Professor of Neuroscience at Rush Medical Center in Chicago, who has spent nearly 50 years studying sleep and dreams, suggest that we take our problems to sleep and we work on them during the night. The mind latches onto some thread of unfinished emotional business from the day. Then in the rapid eye movement (REM) period when most dreaming occurs, the mind calls up bits of older memories that are somewhat related and melds them together.

A Rich Content

The Red Book is a celebration of the feast of dreaming and dream interpretation. Also, it is rich in demonstrating the possibilities of boundless imagination. It contains a well-written preface by Ulrich Hoerni entitled, “Foundation of the Work of C. G. Jung,” in which Ulrich explains the genesis of the book going back to Jung’s book Memories, Dreams, Reflections. This is followed by an enlightening note from the able editor of the book, Sonu Shamdasani. The prologue is followed by 11 chapters with titles like “Redefining the Soul,” “Soul and God,” “On the Service of the Soul,” and “Conception of the God,” followed by dozens of abstract art pieces and calligraphy. The book ends with “Scrutinies” and an index.

After more than 30 years of waiting and sleuthing, I am delighted and gratified that the wait was not in vain. Jung’s prose reads as romantic, elegiac, and fluent as Plato’s. Yet his intense curiosity, richness of imagination, and total engagement in the occult sends chills down one’s intellectual spine. Few writers of the 20th century spark as Jung did. He formed a critical role in the formation of modern psychology, psychotherapy, and psychiatry. He pioneered a large contingent of analytic psychologists to unite and make significant contributions to the understanding of the unconscious.

One of the major contributions of this work is to clearly differentiate between active and engaged imagination and psychosis in psychiatric patients. He posited that active imagination is voluntary (at will), while a patient has no control over his or her psychosis, hallucinations, and delusions. On this topic, Jung wrote the following:

“The essential thing is to differentiate myself from these unconscious contents by personifying them, and at the same time bring them into relationship with consciousness…It is of course ironical that I, a psychiatrist, should at almost every step of my experiment (of willful or voluntary imagination) have run into the same psychic material, which is the stuff of psychosis and found in insane. That is the fund of conscious images that fatally confuse the mental patient….My science was the only way I had to extricating myself from that chaos…”

Jung’s greatest impact is outside of the professional circles. His work has been widely disseminated in the arts, humanities, film, and popular culture. As I am writing these lines, I am aware of a very popular movie which debuted recently. The movie, “Inception,” is pure Jung. The story is a dream within a dream within a dream. In the movie, a master thief is able to infiltrate people’s dreams and steal their subconscious secrets—even plant a dream idea they will think is their own.
These new curiosities, such as what was suggested in the movie, have led to some meaningful scientific studies of sleep and dreams. In fact, the study of dreams and nightmares may be an effective tool in finding help for those who suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

To my knowledge, there has not been an author who has exerted such far-reaching effects upon the 20th century’s social and intellectual history as Jung, and his recently published book, The Red Book, carries Jung’s influence into the 21st century. I find many creative geniuses—and I use the word genius in its most exacting sense, not like some people use the word wonderful—at some stage during their lives have profound self doubt. Such was the case with Gioacchino Rossini, the genius composer who quit composing half way through his professional life. The same is true of Jung. In 1913, Jung wrote, “I had achieved everything I had wished for myself. I had achieved honor, power, wealth, knowledge, and every human happiness. Then my desire for the increase of these trappings ceased…” Jung resigned presidency of the International Psychoanalytic Association and shortly after that he left the psychoanalytic movement altogether. He then undertook the writings and paintings that culminated in The Red Book or Liber Novus.


No profession attracts phonies and pseudos like the generic field of “therapy.” There are therapists of all sorts from acupuncture to Z-therapy and all the other letters in the alphabet in between, including massage therapy and touch therapy. The only other fields that may approach the bewildering variety of so many who call themselves “therapists” may be the inexact fields of cultural diversity studies, religious studies, and “professional financial planners.” I fear these “therapists,” who use a bit of knowledge of Jung and his dream work, pose as experts fleecing the public as “Jungian Therapists.” Buyer beware!

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Category: Book Review, Meymandi at Large, Past Articles, Psychiatry

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