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Beyond the Map and the Manuscript

Jung, Nerval and Visionary Art

Published 8 months ago • 6 min read

Jung, Nerval and Visionary Art

In 2015, Princeton University Press published On Psychological and Visionary Art: Notes from C. G. Jung’s Lecture on Gérard de Nerval's Aurélia. (Cover and link above.)

Assembled from materials in the Jung archives, this book includes previously unpublished original notes for two lectures given by Jung in 1942 and 1945 on Aurélia, the short novel which was the final work of the nineteenth century writer and poet Gérard de Nerval. It is accompanied by an insightful essay by the editor Craig E. Stephenson.

On Psychological and Visionary Art was part of a series of volumes on lectures delivered by Jung at ETH Zurich in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Until the publication of this book, and apart from one short paragraph that appeared in 1977 in Volume 18 of Jung's Collected Works, there had previously been no information about these lectures on Nerval and Aurélia publicly available.

I am indebted to reader HW for bringing this book, previously unknown to me, to my attention.

Jung, alchemy and Le Serpent Rouge

As I describe in The Map and the Manuscript, my long journey in unravelling the problem of the enigmatic poem Le Serpent Rouge, began with an inkling: that whoever was primarily responsible for conceiving it must have been familiar with the writings on alchemy of C.G.Jung, and in particular the two volumes Psychology and Alchemy, and Mysterium Coniunctionis.

Much later, I arrived at the conclusion that the author of Le Serpent Rouge was the French academic and author, Professor Jean Richer. The detailed arguments both literary and historical in support of this identification may be found in The Map and the Manuscript. Richer wrote extensively on two main topics: the works of the nineteenth century poet and writer Gérard de Nerval, and landscape zodiacs in the sacred geography of the ancient world.

When I began to delve into Richer's various books for myself, it was satisfying to find that his works are replete with references to Jung, and in particular to his writings on alchemy. In fact, Richer specifically references the very pages in Psychology and Alchemy which I had narrowed down as the primary expression of the inspiration which underpinned Le Serpent Rouge. The mysterious author of the poem who had read Jung on alchemy was Jean Richer. Furthermore, his identification as the author led to the unveiling of the "grand voyager of the unknown", the key personage represented in the poem under this veil, as Nerval himself.

In The Map and the Manuscript, I quote extensively from Richer to show how he applied a Jungian interpretation to the life and works of Nerval, and how he came to consider that the poet was a true alchemist, in the sense that Jung understood it. I also quote directly from Jung on dreams, alchemy, and the real meaning of the alchemists' work.

As I was not aware of these 1940s lectures by Jung on Nerval, I (obviously!) could not and did not mention them. They are of course of great interest to me now, but the thought immediately occurs that they would also have been of great interest to Jean Richer. However, I do not believe that he was aware of them either. Certainly there is no positive evidence that I am aware of, such as a foot note reference, which would indicate this. It is far more likely that he simply never saw the single paragraph in Volume 18 of the Jung Collected Works in 1977.

It is not surprising that Jung should have taken a close interest in this visionary final text of the poet. Written at the behest of his doctor, as he was recovering from one of his bouts of mental illness, the novella is a lucid account of both Nerval's dream world and his descent into madness. It was published in two parts in a Parisian journal, the first of which appeared in January 1855. On the 26th of that month, Nerval was found hanged in a small alleyway by the Seine. The second part was published soon after, and his untimely death adds an almost unbearable poignancy to its conclusion.

An account of Jung's lecture by one who was in attendance conveys the depth of his engagement with Nerval's work.

“He didn’t have a manuscript. He had a few notes and some pictures and the book. He started his lecture by giving a biography of Gérard de Nerval and then to read from the book, the original, in French. His French was very good. Suddenly, he got so much into the story and into the language that he gave the whole lecture in French. … [H]e so completely entered into the spirit of the book.” Marie-Jeanne Schmid interview with Gene Nameche, Jung biographical archive, Countway Library of Medicine, Boston, 60–61.

Given that Jean Richer had applied a Jungian, alchemical interpretation to Nerval's works, On Psychological and Visionary Art now offers an opportunity to discover if Jung himself also found the themes of alchemy present in the poet's work. Indeed, he does.

Jung is particularly struck by a scene in Aurélia in which the narrator describes a strange vision in which a winged creature fell out of the clouds into the courtyard where he is standing. It is the colours which attract Jung's commentary:

"The daemon's 'rosy hues' indicate a fiery quality. The wings of a thousand colors evoke the alchemical idea of cauda pavonis, which for its part, represents a colorful unfolding, a breaking open."

This passage is footnoted to the following additional comment by the editor:

"1942 lecture: “The daemon’s ‘rosy hues’ (‘teintes vermeilles’) indicate Eros or fire.” See 92. 11. Cauda pavonis: “‘The ‘Peacock’s Tail’ is a significant moment in alchemical work when the material in the vessel changes into many colors, the play of colors leading back to the one white color that contains all colors and to the creation of the Philosopher’s Stone.” C. G. Jung, Mysterium Coniunctionis, vol. 14 of Collected Works (1963; repr., Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1970), para. 388."

I discuss this concept of the cauda pavonis, or peacock's tail, in The Map and the Manuscript on page 360, where I link these ideas of Jung to the "colours of the rainbow" ("les couleurs de l'arc-en-ciel") mentioned in the first stanza of Le Serpent Rouge.

Ironically, Jung identifies these alchemical undercurrents in Nerval's writing whilst noting (incorrectly as it happens) that the poet had little direct knowledge of alchemy itself. In fact, as the editor points out in the footnotes, he was very well informed on the topic, even writing a play called L'Alchimiste.

I have no doubt Richer would have been extremely interested to have read these notes of Jung on Nerval. The timing of the original lectures, in 1942 and 1945, which were given in Zurich, to a private circle, coincides to within a few years of the appearance of Jean Richer's first book Gérard de Nerval et les Doctrines Esotériques, which was published in Paris in 1947.

Nerval and Jung's "Red Book"

Craig Stephenson, the editor of On Psychological and Visionary Art, suggests that Aurélia had such an influence on Jung's thinking that it can be regarded as a source of inspiration for his own visionary masterwork, The Red Book, or Liber Novus. He writes:

"Nerval’s 'autobiographical fragments' provide a clue for understanding Jung’s Red Book, about which Jung himself was reticent to speak publicly even late in his life. In fact, Aurélia can be regarded as a precursor of The Red Book. (...) The lecture suggests how Jung’s own experiments with active imagination and the writing of The Red Book influenced his reading of Nerval’s Aurélia as a parallel text to his own Liber Novus. Here, then, is a key to understanding Jung’s argument about the significance of symbolism in modern thought."

And even here, in the nexus between Nerval's text and Jung's private work of visionary art, the influence of the alchemical is at the forefront. Here is Stephenson again:

"The 1959 calligraphic transcription of The Red Book breaks off with Jung acknowledging that he left his protagonist and his book in order to study the imaginal inherent in alchemy. This strategic leap resembles the double-edged ending of Aurélia. Jung’s move to investigate alchemy as premodern art/science before its separation into rhetoric versus chemistry was an effort to imagine a possible reunion or, at least, reclassification of art and science. At the time of its publication in English, Jung’s Psychology and Alchemy was praised as both an important explanation of the practice of psychotherapy and a lexicon of symbolism that is a key to Western culture and language (Frye [1954] 2006). "

This new (!) 2015 book, On Psychological and Visionary Art: Notes from C. G. Jung’s Lecture on Gérard de Nerval's Aurélia, throws fascinating light on the relationship between Richer, Nerval and alchemy.

It also suggests an uncanny parallel can now at last be pointed out between Richer's The Red Serpent, (or Le Serpent Rouge) and Jung's The Red Book. Both were inspired by the late career novellas of Gérard de Nerval, the former by Sylvie, the latter by Aurélia. I imagine that Jean Richer would have been quietly pleased to have known this.

The Map and the Manuscript: Journeys in the Mysteries of the Two Rennes

Available in Kindle, paperback, hardback and now ePub.

Kindle, paperback: Amazon.co.uk

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Beyond the Map and the Manuscript

Simon M. Miles

Author, researcher, speaker. My first book, The Map and the Manuscript: Journeys in the Mysteries of the Two Rennes, was published by Ignotum Press in 2022. I blog here on topics connected with the book, including landscape alignments, ancient sites, France, the Pyrenees, Jean Richer, Rennes-les-Bains, alchemy, geometry, Jung, Gérard de Nerval, Le Serpent Rouge, the Affair of Rennes, and more.

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