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September 20, 2009 - 10:32pm



On the morning of the day my father killed himself, I woke up from a dream in which I was walking through a cemetery. The dream was very clear in my mind.
Just as clear, as I lay in bed, was the following thought: I should call my parents.

I was in Rochester, New York; they were in Washington DC, where my father had not long ago come home from a week in a psychiatric hospital after a suicide attempt. He'd been depressed for months.

I'd visited him in the hospital. It was difficult to see him unshaven and helpless. It was difficult to know how to behave.

I didn't call home that morning after the dream. I got dressed and went to my teaching job at the University of Rochester.

A few minutes before I went to meet my class, I sat in my office, looked at the telephone on my desk, and again felt compelled to call my parents.

Their number rang and rang. No answer.

I got home late that afternoon to a ringing telephone. I knew what it was, and considered not picking it up.

My aunt's voice was unsteady, but she was willing herself to be tough. I spoke to her calmly as she told me the news, and less calmly to my mother when she came to the phone.

Was the last thing he heard, I wondered, the phone ringing with my phone call? The phone call I made because the dream told me to?


Carl Jung, among twentieth century thinkers, most famously told us to mind our unconscious, to remember our dreams, to respond to their murmur. I've only had one encounter with what Jung called synchronicity -- this coincidence of my morbid dream and my father's death -- but I've never forgotten it, and I've felt a range of emotions about it. Guilt: Since I seem to have known what was what, why didn't I do more? Pride: What powerful access to the collective unconscious I have! Dread: What else will my unconscious reveal? Doubt: Did this really happen? Did I really have that dream, make that phone call? Well, yes, I did. But is the coincidence of my father's death afterwards merely a coincidence?

I doubt anything like this will happen to me again in my life; yet, having happened, it has teased me through the decades since my father's death with the possibility -- a possibility I resist because of the strong empirical orientation I inherited from him -- of deep-lying connections, selfless access to the selves of others, intimations that transcend time and space.

Of course if you're a Jungian you positively cultivate your unconscious; you endlessly record and analyze your dreams; you seek experiences that dim your daylight ego and illuminate darkness. But non-Jungians too quite commonly experiment with various levels of semi- and non-consciousness in order to see what revelatory material might underlie ordinary perception and feeling. In my reading of literature in graduate school I was fascinated by Thomas DeQuincey's opium visions, by Malcolm Lowry's consul in Under the Volcano, with his mescal hallucinations, and by other writers who ventured to the subtropics.

Whatever relationship you have to the underworld, you might be as intrigued as I about a forthcoming book by Jung, a book unpublished and unknown to almost everyone until now. In an article about it in the New York Times, Sara Corbett provides background:

...[I]n 1913, Jung, who was then 38, got lost in the soup of his own psyche. He was haunted by troubling visions and heard inner voices. Grappling with the horror of some of what he saw, he worried in moments that he was, in his own words, “menaced by a psychosis” or “doing a schizophrenia.” He later would compare this period of his life — this “confrontation with the unconscious,” as he called it — to a mescaline experiment. He described his visions as coming in an “incessant stream.” He likened them to rocks falling on his head, to thunderstorms, to molten lava. “I often had to cling to the table,” he recalled, “so as not to fall apart.”

... He found himself in a liminal place, as full of creative abundance as it was of potential ruin, believing it to be the same borderlands traveled by both lunatics and great artists. Jung recorded it all. First taking notes in a series of small, black journals, he then expounded upon and analyzed his fantasies, writing in a regal, prophetic tone in the big red-leather book. The book detailed an unabashedly psychedelic voyage through his own mind, a vaguely Homeric progression of encounters with strange people taking place in a curious, shifting dreamscape. Writing in German, he filled 205 oversize pages with elaborate calligraphy and with richly hued, staggeringly detailed paintings.

... [T]he book was a kind of phantasmagoric morality play, driven by Jung’s own wish not just to chart a course out of the mangrove swamp of his inner world but also to take some of its riches with him. It was this last part — the idea that a person might move beneficially between the poles of the rational and irrational, the light and the dark, the conscious and the unconscious — that provided the germ for his later work and for what analytical psychology would become. The book tells the story of Jung trying to face down his own demons as they emerged from the shadows. The results are humiliating, sometimes unsavory. In it, Jung travels the land of the dead, falls in love with a woman he later realizes is his sister, gets squeezed by a giant serpent and, in one terrifying moment, eats the liver of a little child. (“I swallow with desperate efforts — it is impossible — once again and once again — I almost faint — it is done.”) At one point, even the devil criticizes Jung as hateful.

This book, The Red Book, has finally been released by Jung's family, and will be available in English soon. It will take its place alongside the mystic writings of monks, the peyote memoirs of hippies, and the chemical experiments of Learys and Huxleys. It will almost certainly be bizarre and off-putting and sometimes ridiculous; but it will no doubt also stir our sense of another world, recall us to our memories of fundamental mysteries.


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