The Uncertain Legacy of Owen Barfield
Owen Barfield: Man and Meaning
reviewed by Dale Nelson
Many people who look into the writings of Owen Barfield, who died last December at the age of 99, are C. S. Lewis admirers who are curious about this man who was Lewis’s close friend throughout his adult life, from 1919 until Lewis’s death in 1963. Barfield was Lewis’s legal and financial advisor, and he became an executor of his estate. Lewis dedicated his first scholarly book, The Allegory of Love (1936) to this “wisest and best of my unofficial teachers,” stating in its preface that he asked no more than to disseminate Barfield’s literary theory and practice. He also dedicated the first Narnian chronicle to his friend’s adopted daughter Lucy. In his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, Lewis portrayed Arthur Greeves as the First Friend, who reveals that one is not alone in the world in one’s imaginative outlook, and Barfield as the Second Friend, the one who never fails to challenge and to prod one to new understanding. In the thirteenth and fourteenth of the Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, Lewis draws on a recent book of Barfield’s to elucidate the “ontological continuity between Creator and creature” versus the “union of wills which, under Grace, is reached by a life of sanctity.”
Several unacknowledged traces of Barfield’s ideas may be found in Lewis’s writings; their Barfieldian quality will be evident to anyone who has read him. In 1930, writing a pseudo-scholarly commentary on J. R. R. Tolkien’s draft poem “The Lay of Leithian,” Lewis offered a supposed poetic fragment dealing with the same tale as Tolkien’s; but Lewis imports into this fragment an imaginative version of Barfield’s speculation about the primordial relationship of man and nature. Dreams “had bodies then,” and “were not cooped within. / Thought cast a shadow— / For spirit then / Kneaded a fluid world and dreamed it new each moment.” (See the Appendix to Tolkien’s The Lay of Leithian, edited by Christopher Tolkien, 1985.) Verlyn Flieger’s Splintered Light discusses the Barfieldian traces in Tolkien.
Another sign of Barfield’s thought in Lewis appears in the third lecture of The Abolition of Man (1947), where Lewis suggests that “Dr. Steiner”—meaning Rudolf Steiner, the founder of anthroposophy, which Barfield embraced as a young man—may have found the way to a redeemed scientific method that does not omit the qualities of the observed object. And when Barfield in a 1992 interview says that dryads, naiads, and such beings really existed, though they may have been “driven out” in recent history, this may remind one of Dr. Dimble in Lewis’s That Hideous Strength (1945), who discusses with his wife “the gods, elves, dwarfs, water-people” and long-livers of myth and folklore—beings with whom the revived Merlin has had much traffic, traffic that may have been permissible once, but not now (with a hint of Galatians 4:3,9).
More importantly for Lewis, Barfield taught him not to view earlier ages with disdain from the vantage point of our supposedly more knowing and more humane era. He learned from Barfield that our time is “a period” with its own limitations and errors. It may be hard for some of us to conceive of this insight as something Lewis had to learn, rather than as something he was born knowing, so integral a part of his thought it is! Where Lewis and Barfield could not agree, as in their “Great War” debate on the imagination (1925–1927), their disputations at least provided Lewis with an opponent worthy of his mettle.
Owen Barfield is associated in readers’ minds with Lewis also because he wrote about Lewis in many places. The 1989 compilation by G. B. Tennyson, Owen Barfield on C. S. Lewis, makes this information more accesible. Furthermore, many scholars and other inquirers seeking information about Lewis found Barfield a patient and helpful source, as a glance at the acknowledgments in various books and papers will show.
Integration of Imagination and Intellect
Owen Barfield: Man and Meaning does not pass over the Lewis friendship, but reminds us that there was more to Barfield’s long life. The video and accompanying booklet provide a general chronology, from a North London childhood, service in Belgium during the First World War, and the dull years in the law office, to the late burst of activity as writer and lecturer at an age when many people have retired. The solicitor’s office years are memorialized with wry humor in This Ever Diverse Pair, the pair being the two halves of Barfield himself embodied as the prosaic Burden and the imaginative Burgeon. Lewis called the book a “high and sharp philosophic comedy,” though it is one of Barfield’s least-known works. The years of lecturing at Brandeis, Drew, SUNY-Stony Brook and other North American universities were the occasion of some incisive essays. Still photographs from family albums complement the footage of Barfield being interviewed for the camera. It is no criticism of Barfield or the video’s producers to say that we are given little about his marriage; there is a hint that it may, like Charles Williams’s or Tolkien’s, have had its difficulties.
Barfield’s thought is always characterized by the conviction that the humanities matter very much indeed, for all of us—not only for professional academics. Poetic Diction, along with Lewis’s Experiment in Criticism and Tolkien’s “On Fairy-Stories,” will reward anyone needing assurance of the value of literary experience. Poetry, Barfield shows, can provide a “felt change of consciousness”—experiencing a single line of poetry, one may from that moment know more, though what is known is not a matter of “fact.” Poetic Diction (1928), dedicated to Lewis, is Barfield’s most extended treatment of this insight. In Speaker’s Meaning (1967), he expounds the “polarity” in language, with expression—a speaker’s unique meaning—as one pole, the other being communication, the lexical meaning. The first is expansive, the second contractive, and metaphor comes into being in the tension between the two poles. Speaker’s Meaning presents a favorite theme of Barfield’s, the evolution of consciousness. Barfield finds evidence of it in the change from the earlier experience of poetic inspiration as something that is visited upon a passive poet from without, as the work of a Muse or other agency, to the experience of poetic inspiration characteristic of the present, as proceeding from within oneself, from one’s own “shaping spirit of imagination.” Poetic Diction and Speaker’s Meaning complement each other by dealing with the nature of literary experience for the reader and for the poet. History in English Words (1926) early showed what U. Milo Kaufmann called Barfield’s unusual combination of idealism and empiricism.
Barfield’s major work on the evolution of consciousness, Saving the Appearances (1957), is the one of all his books that he most hoped would continue to be read. In the video, Barfield says that his lifework has basically been “thinking about thinking,” and this is the book where he endeavors to show the conclusion that he has drawn: that the relationship between consciousness and nature itself—a correlative relationship—has changed from the most ancient times to our own. Declining to affirm this idea as sober truth, Lewis was, at least, fascinated by it as an imaginative conceit, as suggested above.
Modern Western people have tended to perceive themselves and what is habitually called “our environment” as an array of discrete objects set in the midst of space, conceived of as “a mindless, wisdomless, lifeless void,” mankind being very separate individuals whose thinking and feeling occurs “inside” our skulls. However, the reader of Barfield may recall that, in biblical times, the seat of consciousness was felt to be the heart (Genesis 17:17, 1 Kings 3:12, Psalm 45:1, etc.), or the viscera (Genesis 43:30, 1 Kings 3:26, Colossians 3:12), or both (Psalm 26:2); Barfield gives us reason to doubt that these examples, which for us are merely metaphors, were “just metaphors” then. We may be reading anachronistically if we do not read these examples, and the many others like them, “literally.”
Barfield shows that the consciousness of primordial and even medieval man was not nearly so sharply differentiated from nature as is ours. This idea could help to explain the much more extended sense of identity that seems once to have been felt between members of families and, indeed, tribes. Barfield may make it easier to understand the corporate guilt and punishment of Deuteronomy 5:9, or the destruction of Achan’s clan (Joshua 7 and 22:20). Reaching farther back in biblical narrative, a now contracted psychic bond between man and the lesser creation may be implicated in the account of Adam’s naming the beasts (Gen. 2:19) or Noah’s management of the animals on the Ark. Barfield also offers one memorable item of evidence that seems to indicate the change whereby consciousness became more contracted into the individual, and more focused, namely, the discovery of perspective in art, which seems to point to a new way of perceiving, a new relationship between human consciousness and its objects.
From this it can be seen that Barfield’s project was an integration of imagination and intellect. He is very far indeed from the bloodless games-about-words of some modern philosophy, or from skeptical despair. The young, unconverted C. S. Lewis was humbled when, Lewis having said philosophy was a “subject,” Barfield and a friend disagreed emphatically with him; philosophy, as found in Plato, for example, was a Way. Barfield’s works are strong weapons against the reductive, quantitative agenda of scientism, which can never account adequately for the world as human beings can experience it.
Like Samuel Taylor Coleridge, about whom Barfield wrote an important academic volume, What Coleridge Thought (1971), Barfield is a fruitful writer for religious thinkers to read, though he generally did not write specifically about religious doctrine or practice. As more biographical material about him is published (and, perhaps, his letters appear in print), we will probably learn more about his faith, which he did not readily converse about. Sensing some affinity, I sent Barfield a copy of Alexander Schmemann’s For the Life of the World after one of my rereadings of Saving the Appearances. In typically generous fashion, Barfield replied with comments on Schmemann’s book that showed his engagement with it, commending the Orthodox theologian’s “painstaking coalescence of the three concepts, participation, symbol and sacrament.” Barfield, raised in an agnostic family, was baptized and became a member of the Church of England only in late middle age. In a very late interview with James Wetmore, Barfield expressed the centrality of Christ’s death and Resurrection for his faith. G. B. Tennyson stated (in a personal communication) that in retirement Barfield attended Anglican services, but the funeral rites for him were those of the Christian Community, the denomination set up by Rudolf Steiner. Evidently the Church of England generally does not discourage its members from participation in Steiner’s anthroposophic activities; in fact, the author of a laudatory 1954 biography of Steiner, called Scientist of the Invisible, was an Anglican clergyman, A. P. Shepherd. Barfield wrote the introduction.
Barfield retained the anthroposophic beliefs he had begun to learn while a young man. Rudolf Steiner’s “occult science” features reincarnation, Christ and Jesus as two separate beings, a “Fall” engineered by “Luciferian” beings to promote man’s ascent to his destiny of spiritual freedom, “post-Atlantean epochs,” and more. The Waldorf schools provide the contact that most people have with anthroposophical ideas, specifically those regarding human development as creative, spiritual, as well as psychological and physical, beings. Barfield once said that the contrast between his faith and Lewis’s could be summarized by Barfield’s belief that man’s destiny is to become a free spiritual being, to which Lewis replied that he was not born to be free, but to obey and to adore. I don’t know how much of Steiner’s doctrine Barfield accepted; certainly I know of no place in which he ever denied any of it. He wrote forewords to numerous anthroposophic books, by Steiner and others. Fortunately, there is little specifically Steinerite doctrine in Barfield’s books aside from Romanticism Comes of Age, a novel called Unancestral Voice, and the comments of a character in Worlds Apart (which also features, in the person of Hunter, a character who “is” C. S. Lewis). Barfield insisted that the main lines of his thought about the evolution of consciousness were laid down before he began to read Steiner or joined the Anthroposophic Society. The authorities cited in Barfield’s books are generally thinkers such as Erich Auerbach, Ernst Cassirer, and, certainly, the likes of Plato, Aristotle and Coleridge.
Using Barfield’s Contributions
A very worthwhile task that lies before some Christian scholar is the sifting of Barfield’s thought. He may well help us to see that some of the issues that vex us, as, for example, the apparent conflict between the Bible and geology, are at least in part due to misconceptions arising from our habits of thought (not just from erroneous ideas). A Christian apologist, however, must show the centrality for all humanity, bound in sin in all ages since Adam, of the Incarnation, Cross, and Redemption. It may be that here Barfield is weak—possibly too diffident, and muddled by anthroposophy. Since watching this video and reviewing some of Barfield’s books, I have found myself wondering if he may be something of an Origen figure. The Church has never canonized Origen; he always has had to be read with particular alertness and caution, but he has also been immensely stimulating and rewarding.
This well-made video is obviously a labor of love. An “Inklings” discussion group could view it before talking about, say, History, Guilt, and Habit (1979), an outline of his leading ideas, or “Imagination and Inspiration,” “The Meaning of Literal,” and the title essay from The Rediscovery of Meaning (1977). The elderly Mr. Barfield’s speech is not always distinct, but the producers have thoughtfully included a complete transcript in the accompanying booklet.
Dale Nelson is Assistant Professor of English at Mayville State University (North Dakota) and has published articles on C. S. Lewis, William Law, George MacDonald, John Mason Neale, and others. He is a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod, and lives with his wife Dorothea and his four children in Mayville, North Dakota.
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“The Uncertain Legacy of Owen Barfield” first appeared in the May/June 1998 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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