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Life Arts

Jung's Successful Vision Quest (REVIEW ESSAY)

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) December 14, 2014: In the Homeric epic the ODYSSEY, Odysseus visits the underworld. In Virgil's AENEID, Aeneas visits the underworld. In Dante's DIVINE COMMEDY, the character named Dante visits the underworld with Virgil as his guide through the Inferno and Purgatory.

Figuratively speaking, C. G. Jung, M.D. (1875-1961), the Swiss psychiatrist and psychological theorist, could be described as visiting the underworld of his psyche periodically over a number of years. In his self-experimentation, he visited the underworld of his psyche through self-induced hallucinations -- visual and auditory hallucinations.

Self-inducing hallucinations is a potentially dangerous practice, and I do not recommend it. Instead of doing it for ourselves, we can read Jung's elaborate report of his experiences.

In 2009, Norton published Jung's RED BOOK: LIBER NOVUS, expertly edited by the historian Sonu Shamdasani, translated by Mark Kyburz, John Peck, and Sonu Shamdasani. It is a handsome over-sized book that includes many informative footnotes by Shamdasani. Jung's RED BOOK contains many of his works of art based on his visual hallucinations and the "fair" copies of the texts he produced in calligraphy based on his auditory hallucinations. In addition, some other material Jung recorded in connection with his encounter with the unconscious is included in three appendices.

In addition to the over-sized book, Norton also published the regular-sized book THE RED BOOK: LIBER NOVUS; A READER'S EDITION (2012). Both books contain the same textual material, but arranged differently. However, Jung's paintings are not reproduced in the READER'S EDITION.

In 2013, Norton published LAMENT OF THE DEAD: PSYCHOLOGY AFTER JUNG'S RED BOOK, which consists of the transcribed and edited transcripts of 15 conversations between James Hillman and Sonu Shamdasani, and endnotes prepared by Shamdasani and an index. (Hillman died in the fall of 2011. But he had reviewed the transcripts before his death.)

The main title of Hillman and Shamdasani's book is wording from part of the RED BOOK (page 297; READER'S EDITION, page 344).

The subtitle of their book, "Psychology after Jung's RED BOOK," announces the theme of their conversations. But here's how Hillman paraphrases the theme of their conversations: "What is the RED BOOK telling us about the psyche? What came to Jung is this book?" (page 38).

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As the first question suggests, the hallucinations that Jung reports are illustrations telling us about the psyche -- presumably including the psyches of progressives and liberals who might be curious to learn more about their own psyches, but who do not want to try self-inducing hallucinations. No doubt each person who engages in the potentially dangerous practice would experience self-induced hallucinations that probably not be exactly the same as those Jung experienced. Nevertheless, the hallucinations Jung reports illustrate what can be expected and are instructive for considering our own psyches. Jung's report is instructive for understanding Jung's psyche and his psychological theorizing in which he articulated insights based on lessons he had learned from the hallucinations he had experienced. In addition, his report is instructive for our understanding the depths of our own psyches and, as Hillman and Shamdasani suggest, for our understanding how the dead live on in the depths of our psyches. As they understand the reference to the dead, the dead include our cultural ancestors, not just our familial ancestors, presumably extending as far back as our hunter-gatherer ancestors.

Evidently, Hillman and Shamdasain are not familiar with the American cultural historian and theorist Walter J. Ong, S.J. (1912-2003). Ong liked to say that history is deposited as personality structure. Had Hillman and Shamdasani known of Ong's succinct way of saying this, they could have used it to their advantage as they go about discussing how they dead are indeed living in us -- somehow.

In any event, Shamdasani says, "Jung spent 16 years of work largely transcribing the typed manuscript into the calligraphic volume and adding the paintings [to THE RED BOOK}" (page 57). According to Shamdasani, "He [Jung] started it in 1915" (page 113).

For a recent discussion of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, our later ancestors in agrarian economies, and our more recent ancestors, see Karen Armstrong's book FIELDS OF BLOOD: RELIGION AND THE HISTORY OF VIOLENCE (Knopf, 2014).


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Everybody can remember having dreams when they were asleep. The same psychological mechanism that is involved in producing dreams when we are asleep is also involved in producing hallucinations when we are awake -- visual and/or auditory hallucinations.

By the time when Jung undertook this extraordinary self-experimentation, he had a well-developed mystique about the so-called unconscious and about dreams. As a result of this mystique about the unconscious, he styled his extraordinary self-experimentation as his encounter with the unconscious. As a result of the mystique about dreams, he understood the visual and auditory hallucinations as dream-like experiences.

But at a certain juncture in his so-called encounter with the unconscious, he had a crisis. For help, he turned to a former patient of his named Antonia ("Toni") Wolf (1888-1952). She was somehow able to help him get through the crisis he had experienced as a result of his extraordinary self-experimentation. As a result of her helping him through that crisis, the two of them were close the rest of her life.

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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