Dream Gates

Dream Gates

Jung’s Underworld journey: Not for the timid

posted by Robert Moss

jung_illustration.jpgLet’s be candid: Jung’s Red Book is not for the faint-hearted. Yes, there are passages of incandescent beauty, perhaps beyond any other of his writings. There are also vertiginous falls into places of rank terror and screaming madness. In my own reading, there was a moment when I wanted to throw the book violently across the room – and may well have done so, except that the book is the size and weight of a tombstone, and I feared for breakages. 

The moment when I was close to chucking the book came when Jung describes how he found himself compelled (by a woman he identified as his soul!) to eat part of the liver of a murdered girl. I was revulsed, almost gagging. And I forced myself to read on, to go every step with Jung on his frightful shamanic journey through the many cycles of the Netherworld.
Let’s be even more clear: Jung goes through hell. He converses with a Red Devil. He battles with a Bull God and shrinks him to the size of an egg he can fit in his pocket, then raises up the old horned god again again. He howls to a dead moon and a dark sea about combining good and evil, but he doesn’t trust his own shouting. 
He comes to a library that may be a place of sanctuary and reflection. When the librarian asks him to choose the book that he wants, to their mutual surprise he names The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis, a medieval favorite. He debates with the librarian what it would mean to imitate Christ today. He decides that since Christ imitated no one, this would mean going his own way, and paying the full price for creating that way that no one before him has mapped or trodden. 
 He finds himself in a kitchen attached to the library, conversing with a plump, matronly cook. There’s a great stir in the air and a host of the restless dead come flying through, yelling about going to Jerusalem. He demands why these dead are not at rest, and their leader tells him that he must explain that to them. He tells the dead that they can’t rest because of what they failed to do in their lives. The dead clutch at him, and he shouts, “Let go, daimon, you did not live your animal” – by which he means the instinctive, natural life of the senses. 
 The noise of this altercation is so loud the police come and carry him away to a madhouse where a little fat professor diagnoses “religious madness” after the briefest of interviews. “You see, my dear, nowadays the imitation of Christ leads to the madhouse.”
He is confined in a room between two other patients, one sunk in lethargy, the other with a fast-shrinking brain. He compares himself to Christ crucified between two thieves, one of whom will go up, the other down. His mind turns on the problem of dealing with the dead, which the kitchen scene taught him is vaster than he had known – “the dead who have fluttered through the air and lived like bats under our roofs from time immemorial.” This will require “hidden and strange work”, but it is not clear how he can do this from his confinement. 
 He listens to a voice praising madness, a voice he identifies as his soul. “Madness is a special form of the spirit and clings to all teachings and philosophies, but even more to daily life, since life itself is illogical.”
In the night, everything heaves in his room in black billows. The walls become terrible waves. He finds himself now in the smoking room of a great ocean liner, where the professor reappears in beautiful clothes and offers him a drink, while telling him he is utterly mad and must be committed. The torpid neighbor from his room reappears and announces he is Nietzsche, and also the Savior. Back in his locked room at the madhouse, he struggles with entangling webs of words and ideas. He cannot tell whether it is day or night when he hears a roaring wind and then sees a great wall of darkness advancing on him.
He opens his eyes and looks up into the jolly round face of the cook. “You’re a sound sleeper,” she tells him. “You’ve slept for more than an hour.” Jung thinks he is awake, but of course he is still in a dream, and far from his physical home.  
Once again, we see the price Jung paid for his knowledge of the depths.
He commented in his Epilogue to the Red Book, nearly half a century later, that he would certainly have gone mad “had I not been able to absorb the overpowering force of the original experiences.” 
Some of the processes he developed in that heroic effort are ones that are suitable for all of us. He wrote his way through, by journaling and then writing up his journals. He sought and created images of balance and integration, which became a fascinating series of mandalas. And he developed the approach he called active imagination, by which – instead of rejecting the characters and contents of dream and fantasy – we work with them, carrying the drama forward towards healing and resolution. This is the shaman’s way, attuned to our modern language of understanding, but born in the depths of primal experience.

  • Don

    The first thing I want to say is Thank You Very Much for posting this review.
    I had never even heard of “The Red Book” until you posted material about it. I have read quite a bit of Carl Jung. I think he describes the psyche better than anyone else. He picked up details that others missed, and still miss. My interest in Jung at first, however, was because he did cross-cultural work. But he goes much, much deeper than that in many ways. I admire him even more because he had the courage to say it as he perceived it.
    I am thinking of purchasing a copy of “The Red Book.” I realize that some of it might be hard to take. But I think there is much to learn there. The price is high and Christmas is coming. Still, I might decide to hang the price and buy the book. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
    In any case, thank you very much for posting your review.

  • Nina

    When I read this post for the first time I wanted to dismiss it thoroughly. But in the morning I felt the urge to come back so I gave it the second chance. To be honest, I am amazed how much wisdom all Jung´s dream images contain, although they are distorted, violated and really mad from the ordinary viewpoint.
    There is nothing insane when we follow the thread revealing here, but it´s extreme and Jung certainly needed a gigantic will to master all these manifesting energies. And without any doubts his final results are magnificent and beneficial to all of us.
    Some of Jung´s inner dream experiences are very similar to those of Ramakrishna when he went through a transformative process. As a young temple priest he used to fall into a deep trance and considered himself god or godess he prayed to. He suffered for years and later said to his disciple Vivekananda that he even didn´t know when the sun rises and when it sets. He was even claimed mad. Just one doctor disagreed when he maintained that this young Brahman is a great yogi and medical drugs would be useless. Vivekananda called this type of “madness” the spring from which all forces moving this world from the beginning come and they will move this world in the future as well. Ramakrishna himself compared the days of his stormy quest to the huriccane that ran through him and smashed everything in its way.
    So thanks a lot for such lunatics and thanks to you for an important reminder that there is much more to live than we have accustomed to.

  • http://blog.beliefnet.com/dreamgates/ Robert Moss

    Nina – Thanks, once again, for your wealth of cross-cultural knowledge and your ability to place a story in a broader context of understanding. The parallel with Ramakrishna is instructive. The shamanic type always undergoes a “spiritual emergency” and may lose his footing in the world for a time. I know, from my personal experience in the late 1980s, what this involves and what it requires to come back able to function in both worlds at the same time.

  • http://blog.beliefnet.com/dreamgates/ Robert Moss

    Don – Thank you for your admirable willingness to go on learning and growing. Be advised: the Red Book is quite a trip! But then I know you are not easily scared off :-)

  • Ananna

    I can relate to being ripped out of my comfortable paradigms and into the spirit of the depths. As part of a series of dreams, I once jump on a bus that was traveling to the insane asylum. A group of perhaps “forum dreamers” came into the dream, offered me a hand and I jumped off that bus landing on my feet.
    When I start feeling like I don’t want to travel this dreaming road anymore, I call up a perfect image. I imagine myself as a woman beside a large body of water taking fresh sheets out of a basket and putting them on a clothes line to allow them to wave dry and clean in the wind. Then I sit on a beautiful cliff over looking the sea with green all around me. I breath deep and smell the freshness of the sheets mixed with the wind, the green and the tinkle of sea water splashes against my skin. I know what it is like to wrestle with the larger dream, and my tame mind saying, “oh I only want the gentle dreams thank you”. Well then it’s like some higher self takes these symbolic sheets of my mind and wrings them out (ouch) and shakes and shakes them until I let go. Then oh the places my dream self lands. During these times it is as if I am breathing in so hard I miss out on the sweet gentle moment of freshness or the clear steady pace of vision.
    I’m putting this in my journal; “Let go, daimon, you did not live your animal”. It’s an empowering statement to me.
    I am deliberately, slowly exploring the meaning of “Children of Mary” because of a beautiful experience in a catholic church, a religion I no longer belong to, but am keeping a few great pieces within me. I guess I’ll be jotting down a few more things you have written in both these posts on Carl Jung.
    Thank You Robert

  • http://blog.beliefnet.com/dreamgates/ Robert Moss

    Patty – I like your active imagination (as Jung would call it) of becoming the woman by the sea with the sheets on the line, snapping in the wind. Very sensory. You take us right there, and I can see how cleansing and helpful entering this scene could be.

  • bernice

    Ijust thought to remind Samhain is actually on Novenber 7.
    It marks the midpoint between Equinox and Solstice which is 15 degrees of Scorpio, one of the four power points of the zodiac. These are in the fixed signs , 15 Scorpio, 15 Aguarius, 15 Taurus, 15 Leo used by in the Celtic calender.
    So for those wishing for the window of opportunity to contact the dead….

  • http://blog.beliefnet.com/dreamgates/ Robert Moss

    Bernice – The gates are opened by intention and expectation, so if All Hallow’s Eve/Samhain night is celebrated by most people on October 31/November 1, that is when we can expect most psychospiritual activity. Of course, any night (or day) will do just as well, when we are ready – and may come less cluttered!

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