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“The Red Book” Uncovered: Explorations into Carl Jung’s ‘Descent into the Unconscious,’ Sessions 3 & 4

The following posts are guest authored by Peter Rinko, a Portland writer, and a participant in my recent seminar on Jung’s Red Book, held through Literary Arts in collaboration with The Portland Art Museum.


[Guest post by Peter Rinko]


We. Are. Deep. In. It.

Tonight, we started off this third session with most of us getting lost. But soon enough, we all found each other in the depths of PAM, where we spent the first half of the meeting investigating illustrations from Jung’s Red Book.

Red Book.Sun.Portland therapy.Jung

First, we see a ship. Beautifully styled and colored. It reminds some of Ancient Greece—a Trireme. Others of Ancient Egypt—the Khufu Ship, perhaps? Both seem right and helpful. But the ship’s bow is curled, I think to myself, more like that of a Viking vessel. Maybe it’s all three? Throw another point on the board for the Collective Unconscious and Synchronicity. I make a note: See Buckminster Fuller’s ‘Critical Path’. I’m remembering something, albeit foggily, about his assumptions regarding the origins and relay-race of human power structures, which he sums up in the phrase “Venetians-Phoenicians-Veekings”. If this piques any one’s interest, well, here’s a fun rabbit hole to jump down.

We discuss how Jung’s boat sails between two worlds—a Celtic knot-work of blue sky above and a swirly sea of aquamarine below. In the sea there’s a monster of the deep, about as big as the boat. It has giant chomping teeth and the kind of eyes that have been giving the world nightmares since the Cretaceous Period. Perhaps there are spirits deeper than the depths? Perhaps those nightmares mapped out in us all—somewhere, somehow—phylogentically?

It’s a great image of the kind of creatures that lurk in our Unconscious—so frightening and grotesque. But what if we were to talk to it? Maybe this deep blue beast is really a friend? Maybe his name is Ted? And maybe he, too, likes to dress like a lady from time to time?

In Jung’s confrontations with the unconscious, the apparitions he meets in the depths of his imagination are almost always at first scary monsters, depressing damsels, or dilapidated giants. But then he walks with them, talks with them, becomes friends with them, holds their hands while dying.

“The essential thing,” he says in Memories, Dreams, Reflections, “is to differentiate oneself from these unconscious contents by personifying them, and at the same time to bring them into relationship with consciousness. That is the technique for stripping them of their power.” (MDR, p. 187)

This reminds me of Clean Language, a psychotherapeutic technique developed by David Grover in the 80s, through which patients develop symbols and metaphors to confront, unpack, and deactivate mental and emotional disorders brought on by traumatic events and memories. It’s proven to be highly effective for everyone from kids in grade school who can’t control their nerves to Iraq War vets suffering from PTSD. If you want to read more about this, I highly recommend the chapter on it in James Geary’s I Is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World.

But back to the painting!

Our eyes are drawn to the giant circle at the center of the ship. It’s big and quiet like the obelisk in Kubrick’s 2001. It appears to have antennae, like some sort of existential scarab traveling with us on the yacht of life. There’s something ominous about it, something deific. Is Jung conjuring Ra’s “solar barge”?

Solar Barge.therapy portland

Is that, then, Horus steering in the back, wearing his pharonically phallic pschent? Does the gothic script above this scene read, “Eine straße ohne ende”—A road without end? Glenn, we need your German skills!

When I get home, I get Wiki to tell me more about “solar barges”. It lists many more from distant cultures, but my eye hones in on this one:

Nordic Bronze Age petroglyphs, including those found in Tanumshede often contains barges and sun crosses in different constellations.”

Sun Cross.portland book

This is a “sun cross”.

Here it is again as a Celtic cross in a 16th century church in Hiiumaa, Estonia.

Celtic sun cross.portland therapy.jung

And then again, as we see later in our discussion, in another beautiful illumination by Jung.

Here, Jung’s Horus is four-legged instead of four-armed. But still he sits at the meridian line between two worlds—a Van Gogh heaven high above, and just another day in humankind’s garden of good and evil down below.

Red Book.Jung.Cross.Portland therapy

Jung’s impressionistic sun is both beautiful and horrifying to me.  All that energy spewing forth over a coming war, symbolized here by the soldiers at firing practice and the fort with the cannon in the foreground. I can’t help but think of Georges Bataille’s theory of excess. For Bataille, the sun is the most abstract and paradoxical force at the center of our existence. Abstract because it allows us to see, yet we cannot look at it directly with the naked eye. Paradoxical because it brings life to Earth but also results in death due to its incessant outpouring of unrestrained energies—the result of which is madness and war.

Is Jung suggesting something similar? A solar dictation of human behavior? A road without end, from dawn to dusk and back again? Peace. War. Peace. Soil, wash, repeat.


[Guest post by Peter Rinko]

I’m going to focus this week’s post on the “Liver Girl” episode, which we encounter in Chapter 13 of Liber Secundus entitled, The Sacrificial Murder (pp. 320-328).  It is a highly Gothic novel, Grimm’s fairytale type of encounter, and while reading it I couldn’t help but see it as a David Lynch short with heavy Bergman overtones. So, buckle up and let’s dive in.

“But this was the vision that I did not want to see,” Jung writes, an opening that’s a little comical considering all the crazy, far-out and oftentimes wretched and bewildering visions he’s encountered so far, especially immediately following a chapter entitled “Hell”. Sardonic humor aside, Jung continues:

“A sickening feeling of nausea sneaks up on me, and abominable, perfidious serpents wind their way slowly and cracklingly through parched undergrowth; they hang down lazily and disgustingly lethargic from the branches, looped in dreadful knots” (RB, p. 320). book.jung.portland therapy

I’m reminded of Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark, of the scene where he descends into the aptly (dare I say, synchronously) named “Well of Souls”, forced to face his fear of snakes in order to acquire the Ark.

But unlike Indy, Jung has no idea yet why exactly he is pressing on through this treacherous valley of snakes. All he knows so far is that every detail is ominous, gloomy, and moribund:

“I am reluctant to enter this dreary and unsightly valley, where the bushes stand in arid stony defiles… its air smells of crime, of foul, cowardly deeds. I am seized by disgust and horror. I walk hesitantly over the boulders, avoiding every dark place for fear of treading on a serpent. The sun shines weakly out of a grey and distant sky, and all the leaves are shriveled.” (Ibid.)

If there’s a time for some serious “California Dreamin’” (…all the leaves are brown, and the sky is grey…) it is now! Like a 19th Century Gothic novelist, Jung is painting us his version of “It was a dark and stormy night,” walking us through the kind of nightmare environment that puts the human limbic system on high alert. The best stories, many writing workshop teachers will tell you, start with the car crash, not the events leading up to it. Here Jung is giving us one of his best literary performances in The Red Book.

Tip-toeing through the treacherous terrain, he soon happens upon a marionette with a broken head. Then a small apron. This can’t be good. And then, even worse, behind the bushes, the body of a little girl covered in gruesome wounds:

“One foot is clad with a stocking and shoe, the other is naked and gorily crushed—the head—where is the head? The head is a mash of blood with hair and whitish pieces of bone, surrounded by stones smeared with brain and blood.” (RB, p. 320)

Was she playing high up on the rocks and then fell? Or did something more villainous happen—an assault, a stoning? All the clues of a horrific violence hang heavy in the air, and it’s made even worse by the fact that the victim here is a little girl—a timeless symbol of innocence and purity. Even if we imagine the worst, such imaginings are not far from the facts in evidence: that this little girl met an untimely end at the hands of a wretched brutality. And it’s important to note that there are no signs of an animal attack. Jung does not report evidence of bite marks or fur or other bestial indicators. All evidence points to something monstrously human and devilishly inhumane.

The surreality of the scene advances into the shadows as Jung encounters a shrouded figure—a woman wearing an impenetrable veil, standing calmly before the child. My mind immediately screams, “Death!”, and I see Bengt Ekerot from Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal.

Seventh Seal

A brief but deep existential dialogue begins, wherein Death asks Jung what he thinks of all of this, how does he understand and make sense of such an alarmingly brutal scene. “I refuse to understand such things,” he replies, “I can’t speak about them without becoming enraged.” Death subtly mocks Jung’s anger in the form of a question: “Why become enraged?” she asks, “You might as well rage every day of your life, for these and similar things happen every day.” The cold hard truth of Death’s observation is stunning, and in turn a stunned Jung replies, “But most of the time we don’t see them.”

“So knowing that they happen is not enough to enrage you?” the mysterious figure inquires.

“If I merely have knowledge of something, it’s easier and simpler. The horror is less real if all I have is knowledge,” replies Jung, his words like a tail wagging sheepishly between his legs (RB, pp. 320-321).

Before we go any further, it’s important to clarify the difference Jung is making here between knowing something and understanding something, particularly as this differentiation applies to the dark sides of life and human existence. We can know facts and figures, even read and watch accounts of the most heinous crimes, abuses of power, and brutal human behaviors. But can we understand those things? Can we accept that, say, Hitler wasn’t a monster, but rather a human being who brought about monstrous things, and that being human we are connected to that?

I remember posing this same question to the group when we met for our fourth session to discuss this section. A couple days earlier, we all learned of Glenn’s untimely passing, so there was already a dysphoric air surrounding this meeting before we even got there. But then, hours before our 6:30 start, reports came flooding in of yet another mass shooting—and this time the bullets hit close to home at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon.

When I posed the abovementioned Hitler analogy, I remember my whole face shaking, my heart quaking, and a silent elephant-sized shock gripping the room. I can still feel that. Because it’s not an easy thing to say, to see, or to ultimately have to accept. We shake our heads “NO!” but that doesn’t make it go away. In fact, it makes it even worse.

It turns out that the ominous figure with whom Jung has been talking is actually the soul of the dead child. In revealing this to Jung she asks him to bow down, reach into the visceral cavity of the child’s corpse, and retrieve the liver. Then she says, “You know what the liver means, and you ought to perform the healing act with it.” We are not even two pages into this episode and it seems like every sentence has been yet another turning of the screw on our nerves. With this goory, nauseating request we’re all at our breaking point, and so is Jung. “What are you demanding?” he cries out, “This is absolute madness. This is desecration, necrophilia. You make me a guilty party to this most hideous of all crimes.”

seinfeld book

Seriously though. Why is it that the liver, of all organs, even more than the heart, is universally symbolic of such sacrament and sacrifice. What did our ancestors see in it—both in the animals they prepared to eat and the human corpses they prepared to bury—that secured its place in the pantheon of sanctimonious and mystifying innards?

“The liver,” writes Gopi Krishna, “has always been an important symbol in occult physiology. As the largest organ, the one containing the most blood, it was regarded as the darkest, least penetrable part of man’s innards. Thus it was considered to contain the secret of fate and was used for fortune-telling. In Plato, and in later physiology, the liver represented the darkest passions, particularly the bloody, smoky ones of wrath, jealousy, and greed which drive men to action. Thus the liver meant the impulsive attachment to life itself.” (Krishna, Gopi; Hillman, James (commentary) (1970). Kundalini – the evolutionary energy in man. London: Stuart & Watkins. p. 77. SBN 7224 0115 9).

Another interesting detail is the fact that of all the organs, the liver is the only one that can regenerate itself. Most organs, even big players like the heart, lungs and stomach, replace damaged tissue with scars. But not the liver. It alone is capable of renewal on a cellular level, replacing damaged tissue with new cells.

So then, the liver is a dualistically symbolic entity. It connects us to the dark sides of the human soul, as well as serving as an agent for renewal. Following through with this stomach-turning act of atonement, Jung obeys the soul’s commands and eats a piece of the dead girl’s liver. In doing so, he crosses over a ritualistic threshold, performing a sacrificial act, and just like that (snap!) the stoic, stony woman throws off her black veil and reveals herself to be a beautiful young maiden with ginger hair. “Do you recognize me?” she asks.

“How strangely familiar you are!” he exclaims. “Who are you?”

“I am your soul.”

If we are to get the story’s arithmetic right, then, the dead little girl with the missing stocking and shoe, covered in gruesome wounds, is Jung’s proto-soul. This is certainly an apt metaphor for a man who begins such a soul-searching quest with the feeling of being dead inside. Here, then, we have a perfect example of Jung using Active Imagination to translate the emotions he is feeling into images that he can work with; images that he can use to make it through the crisis he is in and become the integrated individual he yearns to be.

To do so, he realizes a hard truth—that “We must regenerate ourselves.” Continuing this line of thought he writes,

“But as the creation of a God is a creative act of highest love, the restoration of our human life signifies an act of the Below. This is a great and dark mystery. Man cannot accomplish this act solely by himself, but is assisted by evil, which does it instead of man.” (RB, p. 323).

The hard truth here, if I understand Jung, is that evil is necessary and plays a pivotal role in the greater order of things. Or, at the very least, it does indeed exist and it’s not going anywhere.

Just like the liver, Man himself is dualistic—both Good and Evil, Master and Slave, Hero and Villain—and if he is to make a proper evolution of his soul, he must first truly understand the mess he’s in before he can propose a proper, truthful way forward.

There’s an interesting footnote in the text, right when the beautiful maiden with ginger hair reveals herself to be Jung’s new soul. It links the scene back to an earlier version that appears in Black Book #3, wherein Jung composed it to end on a decidedly more direct and dramatic note:

“The curtain drops. What dreadful game has been played here? I realize Nil humanum a me alienum esse puto.”

The Latin maxim comes from the Roman playwright Terrence and translates as, “Nothing human is alien to me.” It is a bold assertion that says, “I accept it all.” The footnote gives more insight by way of a letter Jung wrote a fellow doctor one year before his death on September 2, 1960, just about forty-five years after the “Liver Girl” episode.

“As a medical psychologist,” he writes, “I do not merely assume, but I am thoroughly convinced, that nil humanum a me alienum esse is even my duty.”

“There are not many truths,” Jung writes towards the end of Chapter 13, “there are only a few. Their meaning is too deep to grasp other than in symbols.” (RD, p. 324). What we have here in Chapter 13, The Sacrificial Murder, is the awakening to a supreme truth and the construct of anthem that Jung would carry, praise and defend until the day he died.

[Guest post by Peter Rinko]

“Dear Lena”: An Interpretation of Lena Dunham’s Dream of Neglected Pets

I’ve often said, if only to myself, that Lena Dunham has made a career out of portraying the same neuroses of the twenty something years that I have made a career trying to fix (or perhaps, “heal”, “ameliorate”, “support” would be better verbs). I’m a fan of Girls, even if I squirm in discomfort throughout most of the episodes–it’s all just too accurate, too unfortunately spot on. So when Lena’s new memoir, Not That Kind of Girl, came out I was excited to read it. And reading it, I was delighted to see her stance of self-reflection on all the events–sexual, neurotic, physical, dietary–that she shares with us on HBO. When depicted there without a witnessing eye, it all just looks like such haphazard misery (which it is). But with greater awareness and some modern feminist perspective, Lena sheds light (see below for pun) on what her wiser self thinks about the trials of coming of age in the modern era.

In her explorations, luckily for us, Lena also divulged a recurring dream. After essays in Section II all about the body and her relationship to it, she ends with this:

My most frequent recurring dream is one in which I suddenly remember I have a number of pets living in my home that I haven’t tended to in years. Rabbits, hamsters, iguanas, stacked in dirty cages in my closet or beneath the bed. Terrified, I open the door, and the light touches them for the first time in ages. Desperate, I dig through the clumped, wet, wood chips. I’m afraid they’re decomposing there, but I find them still alive, thin and milky eyed and filthy. I know that I loved them once, that they had a better life before I got so distracted with work and myself to let them shrivel up and nearly die. ‘I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry,’ I tell them as I clean their cages and fill their bottles with fresh water. ‘How can i make it up to you?’

Dear Lena: 

Your dream is quite telling, and its regular recurrence suggests it’s revealing an issue of particular importance to you. You intimate a sense that the dream is related to your desire to have children, and your fears. After a diagnosis of endometriosis, you’re contemplating the possible necessity to have children in the near future, but you share your resentment too of these theoretical babies. That they’ll interrupt your life, that you’re not quite ready. “I can feel them. The babies. . . .They’ve come too soon, and I can’t do any of what I had planned. All I can do is survive.”

This dream may be about your mother instinct, about the fear of your ability to care for these babies, though I think it’s less to do with future kids and more about how you care for the subtler parts of yourself. As you note in your dream, something changed when you became so distracted with work. Those sweet creatures that live in your home with you, those creatures that depend on your conscious self for survival, they became neglected, buried in darkness, earth, and wood. If–speaking in sweeping dream interpretation generalities here–the “I” in the dream is your ego consciousness and your house is symbolic of your whole being, what are those parts of you that have become so neglected, under nourished, and unseen? Where have you hid them, and why?

I wrote an interpretation last year that shares a number of themes with your dream: thirsty iguanas and other animals in the house and backyard. It was a dream, like yours, pointing towards the persistent, undeniable demands of one’s animal nature in a modern life. Just because we pretend in all our work, intellectualism, and consumption of information, that we’re not connected to our bodies, doesn’t mean we’re not. And just like with babies, the occasional snack, glance, and moment of physical affection won’t cut it. More attention, more awareness is needed.

Your dream suggests that you have let your self-care slide, and you are terrified to face that neglect. The very good news, though, is that your dream indicates you’re already taking steps to heal. Nervous and scared, you go to face what you have done, entering the dark closet and shedding light on what was once in darkness. You are coming to consciousness, illuminating an area of your life that maybe you had hoped, if you paid it no mind, would just go away into the dark recesses of the earth. Luckily those aspects, although atrophied and weak, are still alive and grateful for your renewed attention. Your apologetic attitude towards them is a good sign too: though you’re horrified that you neglected yourself in this way, you are increasingly aware of your need to be gentle with yourself and your body, and increasingly sorry that you checked-out for so long.

You’re no stranger to admitting neglect of your body. Many a moment in Girls circles around this (semi-fictional) theme, and you share more personal stories in your book. What’s new in the book, however, is a revelation of your increased awareness about the importance of caring for your body, lady parts and all. Even though they are hidden and unseen, things like your instincts and your organs, critical for survival and well-being, must be as tended to over and above emails, deadlines, dates, and drinks with friends. They’re voices aren’t always as loud as the ping on your phone or the shouts of work and relationships, but it is critical that you listen. Your dreams can help you in that arena. If you ever see a suffering animal, pay attention. Ask it what it needs and don’t run away.

If the animals you encountered had been oceanic, animals like fish and octopus and whales, I would think you were being drawn to attend to issues of your emotional life. Animals that swim suggest something related to the waters of the mind and feelings. Earth bound animals, on the other hand, may point more directly to the well-being of the physical body. Jung viewed animals like iguanas, snakes, and crabs in dreams as prognostic indicators of organic issues. Iguanas, in their dragon-like quality, might relate particularly to issues of motherhood within the body as the Dragon in mythology relates to the Mother and the tricky life path of destroying the Mother Complex.

Wonderful that you have provided these animals with fresh water. You’re providing them with new life, new emotional energy and loving attention. You are providing yourself the same. You ask the animals at the end of the dream “How can I make it up to you?” I would encourage you to meditate on this very question in waking life. Do not shy aware from the discomfort that may arise when you go into that sad, frightened place within yourself, aware of the neglect and lack of awareness that was once rampant. Instead, listen. Keep opening that closet door a little wider, keep shedding light on the issue, and don’t turn your back on them again. Increasingly, these animals will find new life and you’ll notice it, joyfully, in every moment of yours.


Have you had a dream like this? Leave a comment and share!

Satya is a psychotherapist in private practice in Portland, Oregon specializing in dream work, the quarter-life crisis, and work with individuals in their 20s and 30s.