C.G. Jung’s Red Book, publicly exhibited for the first time at the Rubin Museum of Art in Manhattan through February 2010, is as electrifying a trip into the unconscious as one could hope to find. Not much knowledge of the rest of Jung’s work as a psychologist—or even his place in the history of psychology—is required to connect with the brilliant presentation at the Rubin. Jung’s ultimate text is a rich postcard from a world spawned by the active imagination—the inquisitive and fearless plunge into the land of symbols, abstractions, and dim connections that reside below our conscious awareness. The magic in this exhibit is in its reminder to the contemporary viewer of the powers of introspection, the sense that there are vast worlds within each of us that await the curious traveler.
The work is considered Jung’s hidden masterpiece, a crucial anchor for his entire oeuvre and the embodiment of his deepest and most profound thoughts on the self. In the Red Book, Jung was weaving his own myth, mining his own experience and imagination for all their offerings in this epic quest. We gaze at these images of foreign lands, mandalas, and intricate cosmological symbols, and we marvel at the capacity of the human imagination.
For me, it was an example of a fascinating interaction between art and science. For here is a man who, in plumbing his brain for these words and images, is combing through the grand record of his own existence in the world. By moving through the world with his senses from the moment he became a conscious being, Jung allowed the raw data for the Red Book to begin brewing in the depths of his unconscious. The great scientific art here is Jung’s active quest back into this world that most of us leave untouched, and the product transcends a work of art and verges on an as empirical a document we could hope to find of one man’s active imagination and the unconscious it has mined.
The role of the unconscious has been the subject of several recent neuroscientific studies, and though such work does not handle the complexity of an introspective journey such as the Red Book, the empirical data only affirms the presence and power of the deep ocean of thought beneath our conscious awareness. A study published in Nature Neuroscience in February of 2009 by Ken Paller of Northwestern University demonstrated that the visual system can work “offline” in simple memory tasks, storing information for accurate retrieval even while the subject is distracted during the original presentation of the image. According to Paller, “The novel results show that when people try to remember, they can know more than they think they know. This suggests that we also need to develop our intuitive nature and creativity. Intuition may have an important role in finding answers to all sorts of problems.”
The Red Book reminds us that in moving through the world each day, thinking privately, acting publicly, and absorbing it all, we are all artists of our own brain, rewiring, reshaping, and retrieving. We study for an exam, deliberately painting our neural landscape with information we want to remember. Or we walk through the woods, harping on one concern in our conscious thought while the physical landscape around us washes into our memory, trickling into the dim corners of our unconscious. No matter how actively or passively we have painted, built, sculpted and composed our own brains, journeying back into the depths of this constructed world can be painful—tantamount to an artist cringing at a first viewing of his own work—yet in doing so we may hope to know ourselves and the world we have been moving through in new and perhaps deeper ways. What better source for artistic inspiration could there be?