JUNG’S BLACK BOOKS (2): incipit descensus ad inferos

In this post I will be discussing the incipit to Jung’s THE BLACK BOOKS. This passage is also the incipit to Jung’s descensus ad inferos, his descent into Hell.

« A huge task lay before me – I saw its enormous size – and its value and meaning escaped me. I got into the dark, and I groped along my path. That path led inward and downward », incipit to THE BLACK BOOKS by Carl Jung.

Thus begin THE BLACK BOOKS, with an undated dream or vision, followed by the first dated entry, 12 Nov 1913, containing Jung’s cry to his soul « My soul, my soul, where are you? ». We find this cry to the soul again in what one could call the « second beginning » of THE RED BOOK.

THE RED BOOK’S « first beginning » is composed of a series of four Biblical quotes taken from the Book of ISAIAH followed by a long meditation on the agon between the « spirit of the times » and the « spirit of the depths ». These are later additions to the original text contained in THE BLACK BOOKS.

Jung was born on July 26 1875, and THE BLACK BOOKS begin in November 1913. Thus, Jung was a little over 38 years old, and not 40 as he later claims, no doubt for symbolic reasons. Jung at the age of 38 had already propounded an important series of concepts and theories, he was no beginner in psychoanalysis.

Thus, despite the seeming simplicity and naiveté of this beginning, these books contain the protocols of self-observation and self-experimentation made by an experienced and accomplished psychologist.

This first entry is no absolute beginning, it continues a chain of thought, it amounts to a thinking through by other means than conceptual thought the problem of meaning that besets Jung, and his epoch.

This first vision speaks of not knowing, darkness, a path, movement (down and in, and also by implication up and out), groping one’s way, descent, interiority. and escape. Jung does not know the « sense and meaning  » of this « huge task » lying before him, and so he must go down (and in), to the depths.

The « sense and meaning  » that are left behind here, are associated in the preamble to THE RED BOOK with the « spirit of the times ». Without explicitly naming them, this first vision mobilises two conceptual personae, the « spirit of the times » and the « spirit of the depths » that play an important role later.

This theme of going down and going up will recur throughout THE BLACK BOOKS, as it does in Nietzsche’s works, in particular THUS SPOKE ZARATHUSTRA.

There is a Nietzschean ring to the whole formulation of the vision. Jung leaves behind established « values » and instituted « meanings » in a process of transvaluation and trans-signification, later called « Übersinn » (badly translated as « supreme meaning »), on the analogy of « Übermensch », the Nietzschean Overman.

« Ûber » does not only have the sense of « above » but also of « across ». The translation of the term « Übersinn » by « supreme meaning » partakes of an operation of secondary elaboration of the empirical material.

Partially undertaken by Jung himself, in a philosophically nuanced way, this secondary elaboration has been pursued by the more conservative religionist followers of Jung. To get to the underlying empirical core of Jung’s project has required the deconstructive efforts of post-Jungian thinkers such as James Hillman and Wolfgang Giegerich, and the philological care and historical scrupulousness of Sonu Shamdasani.

It is thanks to these efforts that we are perhaps better prepared to read and to interpret these newly published BLACK BOOKS outside the religionist overlays.

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