Reviewed by Lance S. Owens
C. G. Jung: A Biography in Books is the most important biographical study of Jung published in a generation, and the essential companion to reading and understanding Jung's The Red Book: Liber Novus. And to boot, the book is beautiful - sumptuously illustrated, artfully designed, and exquisitely crafted (it is printed in Italy by Mondadori, the company that produced the Red Book). Whether you are just starting to read about Jung or have been studying his work for decades, an evening with A Biography in Books will open new perspectives.
Why is A Biography in Books essential reading? Here we have the first rendition of Jung's history that integrates an understanding of Liber Novus into the story. By illustrating the centrality of Liber Novus in Jung's life, Sonu Shamdasani radically transforms the way in which Jung's biography will hereafter be rendered and read. This is a landmark accomplishment.
Sonu Shamdasani has spent decades immersed in the universe of Dr. Jung - including thirteen years preparing Liber Novus for publication - and the breadth of his mastery of C. G. Jung's work is daunting. A Biography in Books reflects not just that scholarly passion, but his genuine delight in sharing the treasures touched and the insights earned during his years cloistered with Jung's incalculably important but until now mostly sequestered archival legacy. And he writes here with a delightful eloquence.
After years of study, Shamdasani is unequivocal in his affirmation that Liber Novus is the long occulted key to understanding everything Jung said and wrote after 1916 (which is to say, the last forty-five years of his life). In the introduction to The Red Book: Liber Novus, Shamdasani made this declaration:
"It [Liber Novus] is nothing less than the central book in his oeuvre. With its publication, one is now in a position to study what took place there on the basis of primary documentation ... and to grasp the genesis and constitution of Jung's later work. For nearly a century, such a reading has simply not been possible, and the vast literature on Jung's life and work that has arisen has lacked access to the single most important documentary source." (The Red Book: Liber Novus, p 221)
Now he gives elegant example of how a biographical study informed by "the single most important documentary source" begins. I say, "Begins," because this is not a rounded or complete biography, but a concise and eloquent introduction to a new biographical reading of C. G. Jung. (The book was first conceived simply as a catalog for the Red Book exhibition at the Bodmer Library in Geneva, and then quickly grew into this major prologue to a biography.)
To understand Jung, we must meet and understand Liber Novus. That is easy to say, but Liber Novus is not an easy book to meet or to understand. Most readers have difficulty grasping what the dear doctor was doing during the critical period of visionary activity documented in his big Red Book. After a couple of years lecturing about Jung and his Liber Novus, it is my observation that very few people succeed in reading the Red Book all the way through.
Shamdasani helps penetrate mists of incomprehension and open up the book for a reading. He gives an excellent account of what Dr. Jung was doing in his visionary adventure. In the process, he locates Jung and his Liber Novus within the historical tradition of visionary literature and the humane legacy of the great book. Shamdasani then demonstrates how Jung's primary effort at interpreting his visions and materializing them into the Red Book informed his life-long understanding of visionary literature writ large.
Employing immense erudition, Shamdasani has accomplished something of great import in this study: he has removed Jung from the oft-cultish cloisters of analytical psychology, and located his experience and his New Book into the comparative context of visionary literature as well. He illustrates how Jung offers a radical new visionary hermeneutics of creative activity. As Dr. Shamdasani states:
"Rather than present his own material as 'art,' Jung sought to mine it for insights into the psychology of creative works in general. Jung was in effect proposing a new theory of creativity and literary inspiration." (p 143)
Now academia may finally be forced to confront Jung - a challenge that has been a long time in coming. How can one now comparatively read Dante's "Inferno" along side William Blake's "Marriage of Heaven and Hell" without adding a reading of Jung's journey to "Hell," recorded in Liber Novus? Shamdasani illustrated this point in his June 2010 address at the Library of Congress (available on the LOC website), and again here in his book. He concluded his remarks at the Library Congress with a comment every student of Jung should ponder:
"If, as Jung claimed, Dante and Blake clothed visionary experience in mythological forms, could we not pose the question: Did Jung in turn attempt to clothe visionary experience in conceptual psychological forms? If so, the power and significance of his work does not reside in his concepts, which are familiar to us, but in the visionary experience which was at the back of them." (LOC transcript online)
In sum, this sumptuously illustrated and powerfully written volume is a landmark in Jungian studies. It is not the very first book to read about C. G. Jung, but it should be on everyone's short reading list. If you are considering finally trying to read The Red Book: Liber Novus, spend a few evenings with Dr. Shamdasani and C. G. Jung: A Biography in Books.