Jung’s Therapeutic Gnosticism
by Circle or Line
For the better part of a century, Carl Jung and (later) his estate kept the manuscript of his unfinished Red Book—or Liber Novus, as he originally entitled it—hidden safely away from public scrutiny. Jung’s most ardent admirers, making their hopeful pilgrimages to Zurich, were denied so much as a glimpse into its pages, no matter how plangent their entreaties. For a time, the book was even locked away in a Swiss bank vault. The result, inevitably, was that it became something of a legend among Jungians: a secret visionary tome, written in the master’s own hand, containing the mystic key to all his thought. Jung himself, after all, had once spoken of the book as the “numinous origin” from which all the work of his later years had flowed. Clearly, many came to believe, the family was jealous of its treasure.
In reality, Jung’s son Franz probably kept The Red Book hidden only because he regarded it as an embarrassment, or at least as so eccentric a performance that its release could only harm his father’s already precarious reputation. His refusal to grant the curious access to the text was reportedly marked by a sternly protective peremptoriness. But after Franz’s death in 1996, the Jung estate slowly relented. In 2009, the book at last appeared, in a large, lavish, very expensive English critical edition that included a complete, full-scale, and high-definition photographic reproduction of the original manuscript.
It is, if nothing else, an impressive physical object. The Red Book is an immense illuminated manuscript, which Jung indited on cream vellum in the private scriptorium of his study over a period of about sixteen years, copiously illustrated with elaborate, vivid, and occasionally ghastly painted panels, and bound in red leather. He was a talented amateur calligrapher, as well as a minor painter with a fairly good sense of color and a modest flair for abstract design. His visual imagination was somewhat vulgar, but occasionally striking. There is something almost kaleidoscopic about the final product of his labors, what with its bright colors and constantly shifting images (narrative and pictorial). Chiefly, however, it is meant to have the appearance of a holy book, because that is precisely what it purports to be: a genuinely revealed text, recording visions imparted to Jung during a period of intense psychological and “parapsychological” struggle.
The official story of the book’s genesis is that Jung began receiving revelations in 1913, when he was thirty-eight years old, beginning with three premonitory trances in which he twice saw a great flood inundating Europe and once saw something like rivers of blood glowing on the far horizon. He would have dismissed the episodes as symptoms of mental fatigue had not the onset of war the next year convinced him that they had been genuine auguries of the future. So he undertook to lay open his thoughts to whatever other messages his unconscious mind might care to send him and soon began suffering terrifying and absorbing visions and auditions (and, apparently, the odd paranormal event), which he called his “active imaginings,” but which he sometimes feared might be signs of incipient psychosis.
Some of that may be true. Then again, The Red Book might be no more than a mediocre artist’s abortive attempt at a great work of art, draped in a veil of apocalyptic mystique to hide its deficiencies. Or the truth may lie somewhere in between. It does not matter, really. Whatever stories Jung may have told about the book, the story he tells in its pages is of a perilous odyssey through fantastic interior landscapes—a twilit borderland of the mind, somewhere between dreams and waking, supposedly the haunt of great artists, mystics, and lunatics—where, at the risk of his sanity, our redoubtable hero has gone on a quest to find his lost soul. Along the way, he encounters a succession of allegorical figures who, we are informed, are not merely fictions of his own devising, but real and autonomous powers dwelling in the depths of his psyche.
The most important of these is Jung’s special spirit-guide, Philemon, an ancient magician with a flowing white beard, a kingfisher’s wings, and the horns of a bull. Jung also meets a woman who turns out to be his own soul personified; the hero Siegfried, whom he rather discourteously murders; a bird-girl; a one-eyed tramp dying by the wayside; a jocund rider in red who reveals himself to be the devil (and who helps put Jung in touch with his vegetative side); a heretical Christian anchorite from the Libyan desert; a huge, horned, axe-wielding god named Izdubar (or Gilgamesh) who has been made lame by the “terrible magic” of science and whom Jung reduces to the size of an egg and places in his pocket; the Cabiri (ancient Greek chthonic deities), who are really only subterranean gnomes; the disembodied shade of Christ; and so on. Many of them seem intent on getting Jung to abandon his conventional belief in any real dichotomy between good and evil, and to recognize that God and the devil are just two sides of a single reality; none of them, however, has any great gift for getting to the point.
And, needless to say, Jung has many curious adventures in his inner world. He wanders through forests and mountainous wastes, walks beside radiant seas, skulks in caverns beneath the earth, ambles about inside a volcanic crater, and even visits hell a few times. He encounters two enormous snakes, one white and one black, entwined in battle until the latter leaves off and instead attempts to crush Jung as he is contemplating a cross. Later, clad in green and wearing a hunting horn, Jung stands guard before a tower until the devil arrives and teaches him that it is far better to cavort in the greenwood as a forest sprite than to squander one’s days in somber vigilance. In hell, he devours the liver of a little girl (I do not recall why, exactly). He is briefly confined in a madhouse. He plays Parsifal in Klingsor’s magic garden. On the orders of a gnome, he severs the “knot” of his own brain with a sword. He is dangled between heaven and earth like the Hanged Man of the Tarot. And so on and so on. (And so on.)
I have to admit that I have never been an admirer of Jung’s writings, even on those rare occasions when I have fleetingly spied what looked like a glimmer of insight among their caliginous fogs. The Red Book, however, makes his other works seem quite tolerable by comparison. It is an essentially silly exercise—sub-Nietzschean, sub-Blakean, sub-Swedenborgian—full of the kinds of garish symbolism and pompous antinomianism one expects from more adolescent minds. To anyone seeking fantastic journeys through strange oneiric realms, I would much more readily recommend Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, which are far better written, far better illustrated, and far more profound (Humpty Dumpty’s discourse on the meanings of words puts all of Philemon’s drearily portentous maunderings to shame). The Red Book is fascinating not in itself, but as an extraordinary symptom of a uniquely late-modern spiritual paradox, which I can only call the desire for transcendence without transcendence.
The book’s religious sensibility is thoroughly Gnostic, in a number of ways. It is, for one thing, simply saturated in imagery and concepts drawn from the Gnostic systems of late antiquity, and its narrative form—its incontinent mythopoeia, its rococo excesses, its figural syzygies and archons and aeons (or whatever one might call them)—has all the occult grotesquerie of authentic Gnostic myth. More to the point, its entire spiritual logic is one of “gnosis”: a saving wisdom vouchsafed through an entirely private revelation; a direct communication from a mysterious source that is also one’s own deepest ground, but from which one has become estranged; a truth attained not through the mediation of nature or culture, and certainly not through the moral “law,” but solely in the apocalyptic secrecy of the illuminated soul.
And yet, it is also almost wholly devoid of the special pathos that is the most enchanting, sympathetic, and human aspect of ancient Gnosticism: the desperate longing for escape, for final liberation, for a return to the God beyond. Jung’s scripture is, in the end, a gospel not of salvation, but of therapy—not of deliverance, but of conciliation—and in this sense it truly is a liber novus, a newer new testament, a “sacred” book of a kind that only our age could have produced.
To the Gnostics of old—to indulge in a bit of synoptic generalization—this world is an immense prison guarded by malevolent powers on high, a place of exile where the fallen and forgetful divine spark dwelling deep within the pneumatikos (the “spiritual man”) languishes in ignorance and bondage, passing from life to life in drugged sleep, wrapped in the ethereal garments of the “souls” it acquired in descending through the planetary spheres, and sealed fast within the coarse involucrum of an earthly body. The spiritual experience at the heart of the Gnostic story of salvation was, as Hans Jonas puts it, the “call of the stranger God”: a call heard inwardly that awakens the spirit from its obliviousness to its own nature, and that summons it home again from this hostile universe and back again to the divine pleroma—the “fullness”—from which it departed in a time before time.
Thus the spiritual temper of Gnosticism is, first, a state of profound suspicion—a persistent paranoia with regard to the whole of apparent reality, a growing conviction that one is the victim of unseen but vigilant adversaries who have trapped one in an illusory existence—and then one of cosmic despair, and finally a serenity achieved through final detachment from the world and unshakable certitude in the reality of a spiritual home beyond its darkness. The deepest impulse of the gnostic mind is a desire to discover that which has been intentionally hidden, to find out the secret that explains and overcomes all the disaffections and disappointments of the self, and thereby to obtain release. It is a disposition of the soul to which certain individuals are prone in any age, but one that only under special conditions can become much more than a private inclination.
What the specific conditions were in the late antique world that caused the gnostic tendency to crystallize on so large a scale, in so many distinct sects, with such irrepressibly luxuriant myths and doctrines, is hard to say: perhaps the despondency induced by an ever more cosmopolitan and ever less hospitable imperial civilization, the dissolution of local cultures and cults amid the fluid diversity of changing populations and beliefs, a growing remoteness from the indigenous deities in whose presence more settled peoples were accustomed to dwell, a pervasive sense of religious rootlessness . . . all of these things and more. Whatever the case, there are periods when the human longing for transcendence can find so little to nourish it in this world that it begins to seek for another reality altogether, of which this world is not even a shadow.
On a number of occasions, Jung wrote about the ancient Gnostics in a somewhat more analytic key than The Red Book permitted, and those works provide a wonderfully illuminating picture of the odd ways in which he at once adopted and subverted Gnostic themes in his thought. As far as he was concerned, the Gnostics of old should be understood as his own distant, if naive, precursors: They had, he believed, dimly intuited many of his own “discoveries” regarding the psyche, but had then ineptly translated them into mythic cosmologies and metaphysical fables and so “projected” them outward onto the universe around them. For him, Gnostic myth was really just a poignantly confused way of talking about the universal human tragedy of the ego’s alienation from the unconscious, which each of us enacts in growing out of childhood. The infant dwells in the super-personal unity of the unconscious, so the story goes, wholly unaware of any duality of self and other; but with age comes progressive individuation, which involves the ego’s traumatic emergence from that original state of blissful plenitude into the winnowing drama of personality.
And the same story, says Jung, unfolds itself in the development of human society; cultural phylogeny, so to speak, recapitulates psychological ontogeny. Primitive cultures remain just at the boundary of the infantine state, half dreaming in the tender dawn-light of the nascent ego, effortlessly projecting the contents of the unconscious onto the world in the forms of gods, spirits, ghosts, and demons. The somewhat more mature civilized peoples of the ancient world then transformed those projections into rigid religious systems, thus abandoning the flowing immediacy of dreams for the static day-lit objectivity of doctrines. Modern persons abandon myth and creed alike in favor of the subtler projections of ideological and social prejudice. In each case, though, a tragic internal division persists, and is even hardened over time. All of us have lost touch with that inner world in which our souls were born, and remember it only in the alienated forms of imaginary external forces and principles.
According to Jung, it was the special distinction of the ancient Gnostics in some sense to have understood this: to have recognized that the stories we usually tell about the world are in fact just projections—just fabrications—behind which lies the true tale we have forgotten, the perennial story of that primordial catastrophe that has shattered each of us within. Unfortunately, not having the benefit of Jung’s “scientific” psychology to explain their spiritual distress to them, the Gnostics inevitably fell back upon projections of their own. They imagined the unconscious as a divine pleroma from which the spirit had literally suffered a prehistoric fall. They interpreted the latent but restless presence of the unconscious behind the ego’s elaborate plaster façade as the imprisonment of a divine scintilla in the vast dungeon of the cosmos. They dramatically transcribed their inchoate awareness of inner inhibitions and confusions into a figural language of hostile cosmic archons. They transformed the ego’s denial of its dependency upon the unconscious into the story of the “god” of this world, who proudly denies that there is any God above himself whose creature he is. And they mistook the dreamlike deliverances rising from their own inner depths for the voice of a savior descending from beyond the sphere of the fixed stars.
All understandable errors, Jung thought, but with some singularly unfortunate consequences. In Gnostic thought, the primal human longing to overcome the ego’s alienation from the unconscious was distorted into a yearning for a final escape from spiritual exile and a return to a divine unity transcending world and ego alike. But that, thought Jung, stripped of its mythic garb, is nothing more than a pathetic longing for the ego’s disappearance into its impersonal ground. That would be to trade one tragedy for another. The only true rescue from the human predicament lies not in a retreat from the ego back into the abyss of the unconscious, but in one’s reconciliation with one’s own primordial depths, achieved by raising the unconscious up into consciousness without sacrificing one’s individuality or autonomy. In the end, he concluded, psychic alienation can be conquered only through Jungian psychotherapy. The only true pneumatikos, it turns out, is a psychiatric patient (one whose psychiatrist likes to talk a great deal about archetypes).
I am omitting many details, admittedly, but I doubt it matters. What is truly astonishing about this sort of psychologistic reductionism is its absolute inversion of the spiritual aspirations it is meant to explain. The Red Book manages to preserve the most ungainly aspects of ancient Gnosticism—its boringly rambling symbolic narratives, the pretensions of its spiritual patriciate, its self-absorption and ethical sterility—but none of its genuinely sympathetic religious qualities: the ennobling sorrow, the tragic sense of estrangement from the world, the delightful paranoia. Behind all of that lay not simply some need for personal accommodation, psychological integrity, or mental health, but a true hunger for a transcendent Other with the power to set the soul free from the bleak circumscriptions of the self: a longing not just for the ego’s reconciliation with its own hidden depths, but for a final revolt against everything—height and depth, principalities and powers, the frame of this “present evil order”—that separates the soul from the truth that can waken it from illusion and death.
To tell the truth, I find The Red Book a rather disconcerting document, not simply because it has the feel of an expression of arrested pubescence, lurching clumsily between the morbid and the hilarious in its attempts at profundity, but because I cannot shake the sense that it is somehow a real reflection of the spiritual situation of our times. It seems to me that ours is one of those epochs that is hospitable to a gnostic sensibility. Certainly, the newer religious movements that have flourished most abundantly in the developed world over the last century and a half (including a great deal of American Evangelicalism) have often assumed strikingly gnostic forms; and the smaller sects that keep springing up at the margins (Scientology, for instance) are even more acute manifestations of the same spiritual impulses. Gnostic themes, moreover, have been a persistent and recurrent element in Western literature since the Romantic age—from Blake to Baudelaire, from Hugo to Patrick White, and so on—and all the arts of the modern age, high and low, often express spiritual longing in gnostic terms. (The science fiction film that is really a gnostic allegory, for instance, is in danger of becoming a cliché.) And most of us now are susceptible to the psychologistic assumption that spiritual disaffection is something to be cured by discovering and decoding some forgotten, half-effaced text inscribed somewhere within the self.
I suppose it may all—the suspicion of the apparent world, the turn inward towards hidden foundations and secret depths, the fantasy of escape to an altogether different reality—have something to do with the constant erosion of Christendom over the past few centuries, and with the final collapse of the old social order of the West in the twentieth century’s political and ideological storms, and with all those seas of human blood that overwhelmed the ruins. With the loss of all the seemingly stable institutions and tacit accords that once provided the grammar of belief, it is only to be expected that religious yearning should express itself in ever more individualist, transcendentalist, and psychological forms.
It may also have a great deal to do with that seemingly irreversible alienation from the natural world that defines modernity: dark satanic mills, air conditioners, split atoms, industrial waste, biological weapons, the dissolution of any natural sense of space and time in the fluent instantaneity of modern communications, medicines that actually heal, opiates that genuinely obliterate pain, entertainments that relentlessly cretinize, constant technological change, the mutability of the “transparent society,” the shrill fragmentariness of the “society of the spectacle,” ubiquitous advertising, market fetishism, and so on. The realm of the senses has become ever more remote from us, and ever less meaningful for us.
Moreover, the metaphysical picture of reality that the West has embraced ever more unreflectively since the rise of a mechanistic philosophy of nature is one that forcibly expels the transcendent from the immanent. At one time, it seemed enough simply to open one’s eyes to see the light of the divine reflected in the mirror of creation: The cosmos was everywhere the work of formal and final causes and of a pervasive divine wisdom, an endlessly diverse but harmonious scala naturae rising up from the earth to heaven. The whole universe was a kind of theophany, and all of reality participated in those transcendental perfections that had their infinite consummation in God. Now, however, we have learned, generation after generation, to see nature as only a machine, composed of material forces that are inherently mindless, intrinsically devoid of purpose, and therefore only adventitiously and accidentally directed towards any end, either by chance or by the hand of some demiurgic “Intelligent Designer.” And, with the rise of Darwinism, even this latter hypothesis has come to seem largely otiose. In the context of the mechanistic narrative, the story of evolution appears to concern only a mindless process of violent attrition and fortuitous survival, random force and creative ruin, in which order is the accidental residue of chaos and life the accidental residue of death.
In such a cosmos, nothing of the “here below” shows us the way to the “there above,” and it is hardly surprising that many of us should come to imagine transcendence solely as an absolute absence of God from the world, a beyond ever further beyond, of which we become aware not through the beauty or order of the world, but precisely through our estrangement from the world—through our distrust of its seductive illusoriness, and through an insistently dissonant voice within each of us announcing that this is not our true home.
Yet even so, there remains an essential disparity between that voice as we hear it now and as it was heard by the ancient Gnostics. For them, the inner “call of the stranger God” remained an expression—however tragically muted and distorted—of a perennial and universal spiritual longing: the wonder at the mystery of existence that is the beginning of all philosophy and all worship, the restlessness of the heart that seeks its rest in God, that luminous elation clouded by sorrow that is the source of all admirable cultural achievements and all spiritual and moral heroism. Even at its most despairing, the Gnostic religious sensibility still retained some vital trace of a faith that, in more propitious circumstances, could be turned back towards love of the world and towards a vision of creation as a vessel of transcendent glory. Our spiritual situation may be very different indeed.
Above, I made passing reference to the figure of Izdubar in The Red Book, the god made lame by the dire “magic” of modern science, but I did not mention that, as the story advances, Jung heals Izdubar of his infirmity. He does this by convincing the god to recognize himself as a fantasy, a creature of the imaginary world. This does not mean, Jung assures him, that he is nothing at all, because the realm of the imagination is no less real than the physical world the sciences describe, and may in its own way be far more real. Once Izdubar accepts this, Jung is able to shrink him down to the size of an egg, and then later to give him a new birth as a god whom no modern magic can harm. “Thus my God found salvation,” writes Jung. “He was saved precisely by what one would actually consider fatal, namely by declaring him a figment of the imagination.” This is, I think, a rather monstrous story. A kinder and less narcissistic man would have allowed Izdubar the dignity of a god’s death rather than reduce him to a toy to be kept in a cupboard in the unconscious.
The deep human longing for transcendence is ultimately inextinguishable, and can always be stirred and provoked and compelled anew by moments of beauty, love, creative exultation, spiritual ecstasy, and so forth. For the Platonist, it is a longing that can be satisfied only when one sees that the world of ordinary experience is a cave filled with flickering shadows and so learns to seek the true sun of the Good. For the Christian, this is a fallen and wounded world, but also one groaning in expectation of the glory that one day will be revealed in it. For the Gnostic, the world is a prison from which the spirit must flee altogether in order to find the true light of truth. In each case, though, what remains constant is the real hope for an encounter with a divine reality greater than either the self or the world.
Our spiritual disenchantment today may in many ways be far more radical than even that of the Gnostics: We have been taught not only to see the physical order as no more than mindless machinery, but also to believe (or to suspect) that this machinery is all there is. Our metaphysical imagination now makes it seem quite reasonable to conclude that the deep disquiet of the restless heart that longs for God is not in fact a rational appetite that can be sated by any real object, but only a mechanical malfunction in need of correction. Rather than subject ourselves to the torment and disappointment of spiritual aspirations, perhaps we need only seek an adjustment of our gears. Perhaps what we require to be free from illusion is not escape to some higher realm, but only reparation of the psyche, reintegration of the unconscious and the ego, reconciliation with ourselves—in a word, therapy.
That may be, if nothing else, the best palliative for psychological distress that we can produce these days. But if so, there is a cultural cost to be borne. The gnostic expression of spiritual longing is the most extreme and hazardous religious venture of all; it is the final wager that the soul makes, placing the entire universe in the balance in its search for redemption. If it should be subdued by the archons of the age, the only spiritual possibilities left are tragic resignation or banal contentment. Beyond that point, for a culture or an individual, lies only one drearily predictable terminus: the delectable nihilism of Nietzsche’s Last Man, the delirious diversions of consumption and expenditure, the narcotic consolation of not having to think about death until it comes.
This, at least, is the troubling prospect that The Red Book poses to my imagination. It may truly be possible for an essentially gnostic contempt for the world to be inverted into a vacuous contentment with the world’s ultimate triviality. Jung quaintly imagined he was working towards some sort of spiritual renewal for “modern man”; in fact, he was engaged in the manufacture of spiritual soporifics: therapeutic sedatives for a therapeutic age. For us, as could never have been the case in late antiquity, even distinctly gnostic spiritual tendencies are likely to prove to be not so much stirrings of rebellion against materialist orthodoxies as convulsions of dying resistance. The distinctly modern metaphysical picture of reality is one that makes it possible to regard this world as a cave filled only with flickering shadows and yet also to cherish those shadows for their very insubstantiality, and even to be grateful for the shelter that the cave provides against the great emptiness outside, where no Sun of the Good ever shines. With enough therapy and sufficient material comforts, even gnostic despair can become a form of disenchantment without regret, sweetened by a new enchantment with the self in its particularity. Gnosticism reduced to bare narcissism—which, come to think of it, might be an apt definition of late modernity as a whole.
At least, that is how I tend to see the spirits of the age. This is no cause for despair, however. Every historical period has its own presiding powers and principalities on high. Ours, for what it is worth, seem to want to make us happy, even if only in an inert sort of way. Every age passes away in time, moreover, and late modernity is only an epoch. This being so, one should never doubt the uncanny force of what Freud called die Wiederkehr des Verdrängten—“the return of the repressed.” Dominant ideologies wither away, metaphysical myths exhaust their power to hold sway over cultural imaginations, material and spiritual conditions change inexorably and irreversibly. The human longing for God, however, persists from age to age. A particular cultural dispensation may succeed for a time in lulling the soul into a forgetful sleep, but the soul will still continue to hear that timeless call that comes at once from within and from beyond all things, even if for now it seems like only a voice heard in a dream. And, sooner or later, the sleeper will awaken.