Essays, Book Chapters, and Monographs
on Owen Barfield and His Work
Legacy of the Second Friend
Owen Barfield: Man and Meaning. Documentary video produced by G. B. Tennyson for OwenArts Productions. Approx. 40 min. VHS, 1996. Available from OwenArts, P. O. Box 260038, Encino, CA 91426. $43.00. (Includes transcript booklet.)
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 till Lewis's death in 1963. Barfield was Lewis's legal and financial advisor, and 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, and 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 one and prod one to new understanding.
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 limits 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 (1925-27), 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, handily places this material between boards. Furthermore, numerous scholars and other inquirers seeking information about Lewis found Barfield a patient and helpful source, as a glance at the acknowledgements in various books and papers will show.
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 sketch provide a general chronology, from a North London childhood, service in Belgium during the First World War, the dull years in the law office, and the late burst of activity as writer and lecturer, at an age when many people have retired. 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.
The video indicates Barfield's intellectual pursuits. I am not sure how meaningful some of the ideas cited will be to viewers who have not read any of his articles or books.
One characteristic of Barfield's thought is the conviction that the humanities matter very much indeed, for all of us, not only 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 line in a poem, one may 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, lexical meaning, the first expansive, the second contractive, and metaphor as coming into being in the tension between the two poles. This book presents a favorite theme of Barfield's, the evolution of consciousness; here, he 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." The two books 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 my friend U. Milo Kaufman called Barfield's unusual combination of idealism and empiricism.
Barfield's major work on the evolution of consciousness is the one of all his books that he most hoped would continue to be read, Saving the Appearances (1957). In the video, Barfield says that his lifework has basically been "thinking about thinking," and this is the book wherein 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 ourselves and 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 occurs "inside" our skins. Barfield shows that the consciousness of primordial and even medieval man was not nearly so sharply differentiated from nature. 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, the destruction of Achan's clan (Joshua 7 and 22:20), or the household Baptisms of Acts (16:31-33). 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. One memorable item of evidence Barfield offers for the change whereby consciousness became more contracted into the individual, and more focused, is the discovery of perspective in art, which seems to point to a new way of seeing, a new relationship between human consciousness and its objects.
It will be glimpsed, then, that Barfield's project was an integrating 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 humans can experience it.
Barfield generally did not write specifically about religious doctrine and practice. I would have liked to see a long review by him of Sebastian Brock's The Luminous Eye: The Spiritual World Vision of St. Ephrem of Syria, or a piece on Andrew Louth's Discerning the Mystery, which has some affinity with the view of Saving the Appearances, that the Bible was "lost at the Reformation." I think he would have appreciated the critiques of modernity in Lesslie Newbigin's Foolishness to the Greeks and, especially, Colin Gunton's Enlightenment and Alienation, since the latter book is so indebted to Coleridge, and Coleridge is one of the very most important writers for Barfield. (His What Coleridge Thought, from 1971, shows what he could do within the form of the heavily-footnoted academic treatise.) 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 typical generous fashion, Barfield replied with comments on the book that showed his engagement with it, commending Schmemann'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.
However, he retained the Anthroposophic beliefs he had begun to learn while a young man. Rudolf Steiner's "occult science" seems to be a modern Gnosticism, complete with 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, etc. 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. Fortunately, there is little 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. Although Barfield had to wait until late in life before he could dedicate himself to the writing of books, this may have been all to the good for those books, because by the 1950s he had had plenty of experiences, I'm sure, demonstrating that he would get a better hearing if he left out the specifically Anthroposophical material, which, on the evidence of most of these books, is not needed.
I propose that a very worthwhile task lies before some members of Christ's Church, 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). However, a Christian apologist needs strongly to 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, 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 has always had to be read with particular alertness and caution, but he has also been immensely stimulating and rewarding.
This video is obviously a labor of love. If an Inklings discussion group wanted to read something by an author other than Lewis, Tolkien, or Charles Williams (or Dorothy Sayers), the video could be shown before the evening's symposium * perhaps discussing 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) * began. The aged Mr. Barfield's speech is not always distinct, but the producers have tactfully included a complete transcript in the accompanying booklet.
The video's production values are good. It should be acquired by academic and public libraries that aspire to represent the Inklings in their collections.