It is a commonplace that consciousness raising is a significant step to any vital change. Would it not follow that the total renovation of consciousness would be the most important single step in achieving that universal regeneration which we are in search of? If so, the renovation in thinking that Owen Barfield endeavors to bring about is appropriate to this end. While Barfield's voice is not a solitary one--others of philosophers of culture and physicists, like Ernst Cassirer and David Bohm respectively, are raised--one may nonetheless say that all of Barfield's works of the past sixty years have sought to bring about a change of consciousness.
Through the years, his writings have enjoyed fit audience though few. His old friend, C. S. Lewis, once called him "the wisest and best of my unofficial teachers" in his dedicatory statement of The Allegory of Love. T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, Howard Nemerov, Thomas Altizer, Philip Wheelright, M. H. Abrams, Gabriel Marcel have praised his works. Saul Bellow, long influenced by Barfield, insists we take him seriously. But this is merely a naming of names. The minds Barfield awakened are many, for he was a visiting professor at many American universities during these last thirty years. As was soon realized, Barfield could not be categorized; his efforts are pointed in the direction of reconciling all disciplines and returning wholeness to our much fragmented view of the world and of ourselves.
Professor Howard Fulweiler, in his essay, "The [Other] Missing Link: Owen Barfield and the Scientific Imagination," delivered at the 1983 Los Angeles MLA seminar on Owen Barfield, opens with a reference to Thomas Berger's novel, Little Big Man, in which the old Indian, Lodge Skins, tells his adopted grandson "that the Indians believe everything in the world is alive, while the white men think everything is dead." Had Barfield been there, he would have said that such mechanical thinking on the part of the white men was new, the result of something called the Scientific Revolution, which began a few centuries ago and which has given rise to philosophical and scientific hypotheses which separated mind from matter, man from nature, and doomed the reality of the spirit-world. The very grave error was not the hypotheses put forth, but the white man taking them as facts. Barfield might have mentioned "the mental world of Plato, St. Augustine, Dante, Chaucer, so different from our own, but having things in common with that of nineteenth-century American Plains Indians," as Fulweiler puts it.
Is man alone in a world of inanimate objects, objects to be exploited and explored? Or does Nature have an inside se well se an outside se past periods thought? Is there, indeed, cosmic intelligence behind all creation and still the guiding and directing principle in earth's material evolution? While Professor Fulweiler's essay takes the direction of Science for Barfield's answer to those questions, I take the direction of Philology and specifically address those dichotomies of subject-object, man-nature, quantity-quality, particular to our way of thinking that Barfield hopes to change.
Fundamental to Barfield's thinking (and to our own understanding of Barfield's works) is the concept of the evolution of consciousness: mankind's changing view of his world, of himself in relation to the cosmos and to his fellowmen, an evolution simultaneous with the biological evolution. In the beginning--that mysterious, unknowable condition in time--Homo sapiens fully participated in his environment, in nature, in a universal consciousness. He was not conscious of himself as other than nature, other than his surroundings. As he slowly began to free himself from this "original participation,"1 as Barfield calls it, as this peripheral consciousness slowly contracted to individuation, myth and language arose. As he gradually perceived and named nature, he became aware of himself as more than merely a part of her. But the mental link between human beings and their universe was still felt, despite the ever slowly increasing self-awareness. Cosmic relationships remained real. The influential stars are still shining brightly in the seventeenth-century. People still experienced themselves a microcosm in a macrocosm. Shakespeare's universe was still one into which humanity importantly fit. What happened between the world view of a Shakespeare and, say, the world view of a Jean-Paul Sartre was the philosophy of Descartes with its clean division of mind and matter, along with the subsequent biology of Darwin with its postulation of mind evolving from matter, and the philosophy of August Comte with its insistence on empirical verification for all philosophical statements. The danger of these hypotheses, as noted before, is not that they were formulated and advanced, but that people still forget they were hypotheses and still take them as facts. What was a process of distinction on the part of Homo sapiens in his relation to nature, only in recent centuries became, and still is, an act of separation. Today, we lead fragmented lives. alienated from our environment and from each other. Some hold the philosophy that our world is absurd, with only the individual's unshakable morality, and dedication to that morality, as ordering the absurdity. Others hold that morality itself is a personal quality, not a transpersonal one, and one not suited to all contexts. Yet, such views are peculiar to our own period in the evolution of consciousness, a period more than any other that has sunk so deeply into matter as to harness those most violent forces of nature that may destroy the very earth, if man so wills. The disaster at Hiroshima was an expression of our own modern consciousness. But that is but an extreme example of the materialism which engulfs us. We have only to ask ourselves where our priorities lie in this world of dying species, of dwindling resources, of world hunger.
But as in every period, solutions come to those consciously willing to re-form their thinking. Because willing and thinking are inseparable, a conscious willing is vital to any ousting of ingrained habits of perceiving While Barfield's works are a corrective to our ways of thinking, they are not neatly packaged instructions on how to think differently. And rightly so. For the creative imagination in each of us can be only awakened; it cannot be harnessed to a methodology. But Barfield (among others) does not suggest a return to the past, since those periods, like our own, are moments in the evolution of consciousness and must give way to new modes of cognition. What he does charge us with is to re-think our link with nature by consciously reinvesting matter with an "inside." (Perhaps this charge is already being exercised, however unconsciously, in the recent phenomenon of jogging. Ask joggers why they jog, and more often than not the reasons will be mental, communicative, rather than biological. Perhaps jogging is the faint beginning of collective good habits.)
One approach to a consciousness of nature that Barfield would have us take is to give up the idea that thinking itself is "something spatially enclosed in the skin or in the skull or in the brain;" for "mind or consciousness is not the function of an organ [as light is not the function of the organ called the eye], though it makes use of organs--the brain among others." When we speak "about consciousness," he says elsewhere," about the point at which consciousness arose and so forth,"
we are speaking not merely about human nature, as we call it, but also about nature itself When we study consciousness historically, contrasting perhaps what men perceive and think not with what they perceived and thought at some period in the past, when we study long-term changes in consciousness, we are studying changes in the world itself and not simply the human brain. We are not studying some so-called "outer' world; we are trying to study the world itself from its inner aspect.2
Consciousness "is the inside of the whole world. . . . That is why . . . it is very easily distinguished from it. For what is easier than to distinguish the outside of something from its inside? It is just because men have come to distinguish so sharply the one from the other . . . that they have gone on . . . to imagine the inner divided from the outer."' But once we experience consciousness as inherent in all nature, or, to put it another way, once the metaphor of "communicating with nature" becomes actual experience, we shall better understand the true working of the imagination. Barfield, in an interview, speaks on the function of such imaginative process. He speaks of the "ontological status" of imagination, differentiating between the "common or garden use" of the word, which is synonymous with 'unreality.' "
But if there is "of the supposed absolute dichotomy between the objective world and the subjective . . . well then, what occurs when the imagination is functioning is not simply a subjective event. It's an event in the world, the outside world as well. . . . the ontological status of imagination does depend on your perception of the relation--a relation something like identity between objects and subjects.
In short, thinking "permeates the whole world of nature and the whole universe."3 As for the physicist, Roger Jones (Physics as Metaphor), scientists "conjure like the poet and the shaman;" "their theories are metaphors which ultimately are inseparable from physical reality," and "consciousness is so integral to the cosmos the creative idea and the thing are one and the same."4
In order for us to apprehend all this more clearly, we first must take the empirical view of reality, with its dictum that only the quantitative is open to objective scientific inquiry and measurement, for what ii is: merely one approach to reality. While it is easy for us to agree to that, thinking it is not easy. "Show me" is still written large on most minds. We put little faith in the corresponding fact that the Qualitative is real. We have been conditioned by science to relegate the qualitative in things to subjective thinking not objective thinking. "The philosophy of science, as we have it," says Barfield, began
with the rigorous elimination from its legitimate field of all so-called 'occult qualities.' The term occult guality was used to denote any immaterial, And therefore Imperceptible, force, or process, or substance or being. These, if indeed they existed. were henceforth to he treated as (a) unknowable and (b) without causal significance for the phenomenal world. At the same time all other qualities were, at first divided into so-called primary and secondary qualities, according to whether they were presumed to inhere in the natural world itself or to be bestowed on it by the perceiving mind of man. But that distinction did not last very long . . . with the further entrenchment of the empirical method, the increasing emphasis on mensuration and the further discoveries and hypotheses elicited and determined by these. it eventually transpired that all qualities are secondary, and thus, for the purposes of science, occult.
And the world "we live in is real only so far so it is measurable . . . the only really primary, objective and non-occult quality is quantity." But, continues Barfield, "to the unspoiled mind," qualities can never be wholly subjective or merely "conclusions at which reason arrives. They are premises from which it has to start."5
For Barfield (among others) qualities are se real se quantities, are objective se well as subjective. But the experience of the qualitative has not as yet achieved anything approaching scientific precision. Barfield argues that it is the task of all the Sciences today to find imaginal bearings for the qualitative if they ever hope to find that principle. or original force, behind transformation. behind existence. Since human beings have inner senses corresponding to their outer senses ("tasting victory" as one example), a condition inherent in the language they use, perhaps metaphoric thinking will actively enter the horizon of science, will become as accurate as measurement. We already have "black holes"--imaginary, though real, paradoxically, in the language of metaphor and mathematics. What does it mean when physicists tell us we are made of star stuff (other than our physical selves being comprised of like material of the universe)? Does the statement betoken some infinitely larger consequence?
Whatever the case, it may prove providential for us to re-think our tacitly held assumptions of isolated realities and begin to think again in correspondences, in the hopes of reestablishing that all but forgotten unity underlying human-kind and the universe. subject and object, quantity and quality. In a paper delivered before educators at the Columbia University Teachers College Conference at Woodstock Vermont, in 1980, Barfield suggests a preliminary way to loose our minds (and those of our students if we are teachers) from falsely held presupposition s (e.g. that people have always felt and thought as we do today)--that of "contemplative language study." For it is in the historical study of words that one becomes aware of the "changes that have been going on in their meanings," of "the fact that our twentieth-century way of thinking and perceiving and relating ourselves to nature is not the way of doing all that, but only one very recent way."6 Elsewhere, in Speaker's Meaning, Barfield makes the same point and uses the word subjective as an example. To the seventeenth-century thinker it meant (according to the Oxford English Dictionary): "pertaining to the essence or reality of a thing real, essential." By "the first half of the eighteenth-century" it meant: "having its source in the mind." By the end of the nineteenth-century, the meaning of subjective is actually reversed,
so that the adjective whose lexical meaning was real, essential, becomes an adjective whose literal meaning is: existing in the mind only, without anything real to correspond with it; illusory, fanciful.7
But we needn't stop at the word subjective. Our vocabulary is full of surprises.
And if, as educators, we prefer to approach language "with our eye on the future rather than the past," then what would "engage" us is the function of language as "symbol, or as a system of symbols," and its significance "as an instrument of recognition."8 As Barfield often points out, words themselves are but symbols of consciousness. And if some are led to the understanding of words not as symbols of things but of meanings, they may be further led to a new regard for words as signs not only of the reality of the quantitative, but also of the qualitative aspect of reality expressed in metaphor. They may be led to a conscious awareness of meaning as it reveals itself especially in the poetic element that is present in all language.
As Barfield points out in Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning,
language does indeed appear historically as an endless process of metaphor transforming itself into meaning. Seeking for material in which to incarnate its last inspiration, imagination seizes on a suitable word or phrase, uses it as a metaphor, and so creates a meaning. The progress is from Meaning, through inspiration to imagination, and from imagination, through metaphor, to meaning; inspiration grasping the hitherto unapprehended, and imagination relating it to the already known.9
To grasp the "progress" from Meaning to inspiration to imagination to metaphor to meaning is to "see" with William Blake, however dimly still. "A World in a grain of Sand,"
And a Heaven in a wild
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
One cannot overestimate the importance Barfield attaches to the language of metaphor as a vehicle of truth and illumination. Metaphor is the one great act of the imagination which unites subject and object, perceiver and perceived, the material and the immaterial. How else can we make aware--or be made aware of--the inner reality of existence except through metaphor and symbol? Can we find ways to impress upon others (our students, if we are educators) that this figurative action of the imagination is an ageless process, as fundamental to the life of the psyche as breathing is to the life of the body, and surely more native to the human mind than the much later development of logical, discursive thinking. As unconscious figuration of reality evolved to our conscious figuration of reality, so we must use that intuitive ability of the imagination to find the inside of nature; "only by imagination therefore can the world be known," says Barfield. and "the human mind should become increasingly aware of its own creative activity."
But this imagination "is not the fenced preserve of poetry. Or even of the fine arts in general," says Barfield, and no one saw this
more clearly than George Eliot. when she remarked, in Daniel Deronda: "Here undoubtedly lies the chief poetic energy:-- the force of imagination that pierces or exalts the solid fact, instead of floating among cloud pictures.''10
Any great change in thinking will come shout through the forceful imaginations of many who would effectively use that imagination, willing activate that "force of imagination" of which George Eliot spoke. to re-create the relation between them and nature that was there for those of centuries past and apprehensible still today in figurative language. We must come to understand, along with the poets (and an increasing number of scientists), the subtle interplay between man and the elementary forces of nature. We should. as Theodore Roethke does in his poem, "Root Cellar," endeavor to see life in seemingly dead things;
Roots ripe as old bait,
Pulpy stems, rank, aile-rich.
Leaf-mold. manure, lime, piled against slippery plants.
Nothing would give up life:
Even the dirt kept breathing a small breath.11
Imagination, then, is the bridge to wholeness, It perceives the infinite in the finite. It is the apprehending and creative faculty sorely in need of re-cognition. Were we to have the acute ability of Goethe, the scientist, to sink ourselves into the phenomenon, as he did in order to understand the growth of plants, we would come to know once again the universal consciousness behind all matter--and that from human consciousness slowly contracted into self-consciousness, Barfield hopes for a change, however gradual, "in the whole relation between language and those who speak and write it, between language and consciousness itself."12 For words, as mentioned before, are symbols of consciousness, and the imagination, the creator of new levels of consciousness.
Humanity still remains the microcosm in the macrocosm; metaphor and myth attest this. Physicists are learning that they cannot separate the perceiver from the perceived. If we can restore proper balance between us and nature, between language and meaning. between imagination and consciousness, we shall in time emerge from the mechanical existence in which we are engulfed, recover from the fragmentation which we have created.
In closing, I should like to sum up Owen Barfield's endeavors with a quotation from C. S. Lewis' note on Barfield's verse drama, Orpheus:
It is a mystery (not a "problem") drama. It executes in us a re-union of which we always stand in need, never more than at present.13
And this re-union of which Lewis speaks is that of our own individuality with the wholeness of reality. But such reunion is also felt in other works of Barfield: History in English Words; Poetic Diction; Saving the Appearances; Worlds Apart; Unancestral Voice; What Coleridge Thought; History, Guilt, and Habit; and so on.
Owen Barfield's works, often difficult, always demanding close attention, may not convince us to join "the Tribe of Owen," as R. J. Reilly phrases it in Romantic Religion A Study of Barfield Lewis. Williams, and Tolkien;14 but they surely should leave us with a felt change of consciousness. They should challenge us to new ways of thinking and perceiving and feeling. And with such change and challenge will come new approaches to knowledge and to the transmission of that knowledge. If enough feel the change and meet the challenge, the revolution in thinking that Barfield hopes for will eventually come about, and will lead to a reformation of the existing reality then no longer acceptable to the many.
Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry (1958; rpt.
New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, n.d.), chap. 4.
2 lnterview. Towards. I (Summer 1980), 10; lecture delivered at University of California at Fullerton, 1980; "Evolution;" Owen Barfield, History. Guilt, and Habit (Middletown. Conn: Wesleyan University Frees, 1979), 18-19.
3 lnterview. Towards 6; Owen Barfield, Romanticism Comes of Age (1944; rpt. London: Rudolf Steiner Press. 1966), p. 226.
4 Roger Jones, Physics as Metaphor (London: Abacus, 1987), 5.
5 "Language, Evolution of Consciousness and the Recovery of Human Meaning," delivered at Columbia University Teachers College Conference, Woodstock, Vermont, 1980.
7 Owen Barfield. Speaker's Meaning (Middletown. Conn: Wesleyan University Press. 1967), 114.
8 "Language, Evolution of Consciousness and the Recovery . . ."
9 Owen Barfield, Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning (1928; rpt.. London: Faber & Faber, 1957), on. 140-141.
10 Poetic Diction, p. 28; History, Guilt, and Habit, p. 80.
11 Theodore Roethke. "Root Cellar," Poets & Poems, eds. Herbert Goldstone. Irving Cummings (Belmont. Ca: Wadsworth Publishing Co.. Inc. 1967). 275.
12 "Language, Evolution of Consciousness and the Recovery of Human Meaning."
13 Personal correspondence file. Lindisfarne Press has recently published Barfield's verse drama Orpheus.
14 R. J. Reilly. Romantic Religion. A Study of Barfield. Lewis. Williams, and Tolkien (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1971). 13.