The Bollingen Series

Twenty-five years have slipped away since the Bollingen Series first started to come out, three or four years under the Old Dominion Foundation, and from then on under the Bollingen Foundation, a separate entity set up for the specific purpose by Paul and Mary Mellon. There are now almost ninety separate titles, some of them series of many books — the works of Paul Valéry and the works of Carl Jung, for instance. I own all of them, and the other day I separated them out from my library, where all books are arranged by subject. The effect was overwhelming. There has certainly never been another publishing enterprise like this.

Many of the books have cost more to produce than their retail price — The Egyptian Texts, for example. Others would be difficult indeed to get done today at any price. Over half the years the series has been in existence it has had books on the list of the Fifty Books of the Year, in addition to numerous other awards of merit.

From the very beginning many of the finest designers in the profession have worked for the series — Jacques Schiffrin and E. McKnight (Sandy) Kauffer until their deaths, and since then, Andor Braun, Bert Clarke, Paul Rand, Herbert Bayer, Joseph Blumental, P.J. Conkwright, Algot Ringstrom, Carl Purington Rollins, Stefan Salter and Joseph Weiler. Until 1961 the books were distributed by Pantheon, and Kurt and Helen Wolff probably had a good deal to do with advice on production, because the characteristic Bollingen design is not unlike their pre-Nazi German publications come true, with unlimited funds.

Not since the days when Claude Bragdon was designing books for the young Alfred and Blanche Knopf has a publisher achieved such an unmistakably individual design, characteristic and yet continuously varied in typography, binding and jackets. Bollingen books are as easy to recognize as the uniform, dark blue Oxford University Press volumes, and yet each title has its own dress, expressive of itself.

There used to be a story, quite apocryphal, around publishing circles that Paul and Mary Mellon, talking with Carl Jung, said, “We don’t know what’s the matter with us.” Jung answered, “You have too much money.” Paul Mellon said, “It’s not my fault. What can I do about it?” Jung said, “Give it away.” Mellon replied, “That’s easier said than done. I don’t know how to give it away effectively,” and Jung said, “Give it to me; I’ll give it away for you.” This was thought very funny in the more despicable post-War II literary cocktail parties. It’s quite untrue, but it does bear a kernel of truth. Looking back now over almost one hundred titles and twenty-five years it is obvious that the Bollingen Series constitutes and important pivot in the swing of Western culture to a new taste quite contrary to the one dominant between the wars.

When the series began, the world was sliding once again into catastrophe, the same catastrophe from which it had never recovered in 1918. The interbellum years had been years without interiority, years of rational organization of values measured by things. What the Russians vulgarized as Socialist Realism was dominant everywhere in literature. The American Scene Painters were still riding high. The intellectuals were all either fellow travelers of one variety of Marxism or another, or violent anti-Marxists, obsessed with the paranoias or jilted mistresses. Here and there an odd man out called himself a Buddhist, or a pacifist, or became a Trappist, but even the dream world of the surrealists or the neo-scholasticism of Jacques Maritain were rationalistic, authoritarian and mechanistic to the core. Read today, the manifestoes of the surrealist leader André Breton sound like hysterical Haeckel, high on hash. Although most people haven’t found it out yet, what came to a close in the period from the Spanish Civil War, the Moscow Trials, to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was the age of mechanism, the reign of reification. A not unimportant force in closing that historical door has been the Bollingen Foundation.

Whether D.T. Suzuki, Mircea Eliade, Heinrich Zimmer, Joseph Campbell or William Blake or Coleridge, there is a kind of relentlessness about the consistency of the Bollingen program. What is this program? A steady drive toward reclaiming interiority, reinstating values that cannot be reduced to quantities. And it’s all been done so handsomely. The old order may have been bankrupt and grubby, but it was still almost all-powerful when the Bollingen Series began to marshal its elegantly caparisoned forces.

No one has ever put it better than Teilhard de Chardin, when he said that the revolutions of the past two hundred years have been struggles for political and economic liberty, but that the revolutions of the latter part of the twentieth century would be struggles to give meaning to life. “Not the rule of men,” said Engels, “but the administration of things” — but the rearrangement of things does not produce its own value. What is it all for? For this, a purely rationalistic materialism, whether Diderot, Marx or Freud, provides no permanently satisfactory answers.

We are living in a time when answers are being demanded in prayer and contemplation in monasteries and ashrams, in turmoil and repression in the colleges, and in violence and fire in the streets. The program of the Bollingen Foundation has been an adventure for significance, a quest for meaning, just as much a part of the struggle for revaluation and refounding of a collapsed Western civilization, as any of the headline-making disturbances which have become a characteristic mode of life of this society, whether “expansion of consciousness,” negritude, free option in styles of dress, the mystical revolt, painters like Mark Tobey and Morris Graves and their descendants, poets like Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan. The connection is closer than Paul Mellon may imagine. Many of the most scholarly Bollingen publications, now that they are being reissued in paperback, are an integral part of the counter-culture, the alternative society. In the words of a member of my own Poetry and Song workshop, “The Ballad of Tom Jefferson”:

Po boy, jes a settin in the winder
A workin the I Ching
When the pigs come and hauled him away.
O cast them yarrow sticks and flip them coins
The oracle reads so plain
In this hate world there’s truth to the test
So children come ye hear.

I doubt if Carl Jung, Richard Wilhelm or Mr. and Mrs. Mellon anticipated exactly this comeuppance of the publication in English of Wilhelm’s the I Ching.

Some of these books are unlikely ever to be equalled — African Folktales and Sculpture by Paul Radin and James Johnson Sweeney, a most brilliant idea, and perhaps the greatest book bargain of the century. In addition, the combination of profoundly searching folk tales and beautiful sculpture is a most concrete showing forth of negritude, more objective than all the speeches of Leopold Sédar Senghor, however estimable those may be. Think of the books that have challenged the very fundamentals of the old culture — The Art of Indian Asia, by Heinrich Zimmer and Joseph Campbell; The Tao of Painting, by Mai Mai Sze; the beautiful books on Navaho religion; the collected Daisetz T. Suzuki’s Zen and Japanese Culture; Carl Jung’s works on alchemy; Kathleen Raine’s Blake and Tradition — books like these, although genuinely popular with the educated public, could not be produced commercially at anything but prohibitive prices. And there are the lavishly illustrated scholarly works in many volumes. The Egyptian series, the Samothrace excavations, and Goodenough’s Jewish Symbols, are the sort of things that once were sponsored by Royal Societies and now are hardly ever published. There are the complete works of Carl Jung, or Paul Valéry, of St. John Perse, André Malraux’s Psychology of Art, Hugo von Hoffmansthal, the Mellon Lectures at the National Gallery of Art, seventeen of them to date, the complete Plato and most of the important books of the school of comparative religion inspired by Heinrich Zimmer, Joseph Campbell, Mircea Eliade and others, as well as major classics never done in English, like the Muqaddimah of Ibn Khaldoun, one of the world’s major histories, the Eranos Yearbooks, collections of the discussions held at Ascona on the northern shores of Lago Maggiore, now in their sixth volume in English and their thirty-sixth in German, 1933-67 — conferences in the history and meaning of the spiritual life of man in all times and places.

What an impressive thing it is, this vast array of books, dedicated to the creative rather than destructive subversion of a materialistic, competitive, acquisitive society. It has been the fatal flaw in the social upheavals of our time that they have lacked objectives which were in themselves structures for a satisfacoty alternative society, a scale of values around which men could live without preying on each other. Lacking a new humanism which could meet the unsatisfied and fundamental demands of humanity, social change in the twentieth century has usually slipped back into a reinstatement of the most drab and least satisfying spiritual, or rather anti-spiritual, values of the nineteenth century. The Bollingen Series has been a vast enterprise in practical utopianism, the search for values for a society in which all men might live creatively with the assurance gained both from their fellows, from within themselves and from association with nature that this creativity was meaningful.

It’s all been done graciously, too, with a minimum of sweat and bureaucracy. Long ago I got the idea of doing the other major history then still untranslated, the Historical Memoirs, or perhaps it should be called the Historical Encyclopedia of Ssu-ma Chien. I talked to one of the senior advisors for a couple of hours, and he said, “Go ahead and set it up.” I would translate from the French of Chavannes (about half the original work) and the rest with a couple of Chinese assistants, a project of several years’ duration, all arranged so simply and pleasantly. Then I discovered to my horror that somebody else had already devoted a good deal of his academic life to the job and I withdrew in haste. There are plenty of gentlemen in foundations, but qua foundation, graciousness is not the besetting virtue of most of them. The things you have to fill out always make me lose my temper, and with it, my interest, which is why I have to work for a living — if you call it work. Mark Twain said he never did a lick of work after he left the riverboats. But I have never forgotten that conversation, and now, looking over 25 years of accomplishment, I would like to repay my compliments to Paul Mellon and his co-workers. The Bollingen Series and the Foundation are more than very civilized. They have proved to be very civilizing. In no trivial way they have modified the Zeitgeist.

What is this all for? Who these days is satisfied? The young, like Diogenes — “I am looking for a satisfied man.” What values guide the satisfied — the non-grasping, non-authoritarian, the non-invasive?



The review originally appeared in The New York Times Book Review (1967, exact date not known) and was reprinted in With Eye and Ear (Herder & Herder, 1970). Copyright 1967. Reproduced here by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

Other Rexroth Essays