Essays, Book Chapters, and Monographs
on Owen Barfield and His Work
Owen Barfield's This Ever Diverse Pair
Owen Barfield, a close friend of C. S. Lewis, was a philosopher and writer at heart. His numerous books range from a children’s fairy tale to a drama retelling the story of Orpheus to deeply philosophical books on theology and literary criticism. However, Barfield earned his living as a solicitor. For years he rode the train to and from his law offices and plodded determinedly through meetings with clients, court appearances, writing legal documents, and a daily barrage of legalese. Finally, after fifteen years in the legal profession, he reached the end of his tether. In This Ever Diverse Pair, Barfield begins to explore the relationship of his “true self” which had come to be completely at odds with his legal persona.1 According to Barfield scholar David Lavery, This Ever Diverse Pair was “written to avert a nervous breakdown”; as one of the characters, Burgeon, says in the novel, he “must now write about something or die” (13-14).2
Barfield begins the novel with an introductory chapter on the relationship between Burgeon (his creative, moral self) and Burden (his grasping, manipulative self); once introduced, we follow the two through eight chapter-length vignettes which deal with legal situations that Burgeon finds increasingly intolerable. Burgeon’s mental instability becomes alarming when, in the two final chapters, each character retells a dream. These dream tales seem to prevent Burgeon’s complete collapse and allow him to continue his life with a surprising new and healthier outlook.
Legal practice has some rewarding moments even for Burgeon; he feels the pride of a job well done (85), and he enjoys the sense of efficiency when he handles financial affairs effectively (69). However, more and more, he feels a sense of futility, “like Alice in the Looking Glass, running without getting anywhere” (52). He becomes increasingly frustrated that he must always be so responsible and make all the decisions regarding the law practice. Burgeon finds that dealing with clients (and the way they use language) has resulted in a general antipathy toward words. The constant “necessity to concentrate on the words so as to apprehend meaning” is something like a “mild or incipient . . . schizophrenia” (54). As Burgeon loses the will to focus and decipher what his clients are saying, he asks, “is it going to prove too much for me?” (103).
Burgeon has an unsettling dream in which he sees Burden as a fragmented image of himself, separated from him. Burden, he feels, is becoming “a sort of Frankenstein” (15). Yet, Burgeon admits that he is “responsible for the professional existence, almost for the existence at all, of Burden. I deliberately called him forth from his obscurity . . . and set him up in space and time” (14-15). He decides that he must do something to “arrest the process” of fragmentation, or “polarity,” to use one of Barfield’s own terms, and so he decides to keep a journal for Burden which he intends as his “declaration of independence” (15).
The journal details the daily lives of solicitors along with certain irritations, perhaps not so onerous in one instance, but problematic in their constant reoccurrence. The irritations elicit in Burgeon feelings of shame, animosity, bewilderment, dislike (for Burden in particular), and–perhaps what bothers him most–hypocrisy. The use of words as weapons or cloaking devises in cleverly constructed, inextricably intricate legal documents, causes his mind to wander, sometimes to fantastically orchestrated mischief. This all finally leads to “Rhematophobia,” the “fear and hatred of the spoken word” (52). This fear not only affects his office behavior, but the strain on his nerves has unhappy results even at home where he arrives wanting only “supper, silence and bed” (53).
The letters and comradeship of his friend, Ramsden, a writer–a rather thinly disguised C. S. Lewis–bring a sense of joy to Burgeon even in the midst of his discouragement with his own lackluster life. Burgeon takes over management of Ramsden’s publishing royalty accounts and in doing so must deal with Ramsden more as a client than a friend. Burgeon manages the legal aspects well and has pride in his work, but he can’t share this “triumph” with Ramsden who doesn’t have a head for figures and can’t be bothered with accounts. Ironically, his friend is living the creative life that Burgeon desires for himself.
While Burden only cares for the client because of the money he’ll earn (79), Burgeon continues to see the beauty in human beings and is concerned about the happiness of his clients, even to the extent of being happy for the client who turns out not to need legal services (87-88). More bothersome is the inescapable mechanical nature of the legal process and profession; Burgeon bemoans those “two leprous blights on the urban life of the twentieth century, the typewriter and the telephone” (89) and the frequent interruptions by clients.
We eventually get a clearer picture of what is bothering Burgeon, and again it has to do with fragmentation. At his club he has a vision of the “Absolute Solicitor”: the “great One, which manifests itself so partially and imperfectly in each of us individual solicitors . . . the seed of Adam, the battleground of warring Principalities and Powers” (90). Burgeon relates the men who people his daily life to an Absolute being, and, presumably, an absolute standard. These individuals fall into three categories: (1) the Lynx whose “Aura is dog-like or wolfish” (92) and who shades off into “a snake type”; (2) the tidily dressed Glossy is better educated than the Lynx, and more of a gentleman; he has wealthy clients (95); and (3) the Applejohn, wrinkled and old, is “the craftsman of our profession, [who] likes documents as such” (96). Like the four humours, Burgeon points out, the three solicitor types are mixed in any one solicitor, but in the Absolute Solicitor, the three are “mingled in just proportion and sweet harmony” (98). This is the balance missing in Burgeon’s own life.
As Burgeon begins to suffer more intensely from the fear brought on by troubles and work pressure, he finds “something [inside] is quivering practically the whole day now”; there is an anxiety emanating from the “expectations of little blows and bruises” (103). In final desperation, he cries: “God, what a way for a man that stands upright between the earth and sky to use the spirit that is in him!” (108).
In the last chapter, after things have reached crisis level between the two partners, Burgeon finds himself, along with Burden, in the dock, in a prophetic dream set in the 1990s, in a time when crime is viewed as a kind of disease (134). In the dream, Justice finds that Burden is too fond of security and has no imagination; for purgation he must leave the legal profession to perform menial tasks in a family of five (137), must read fairy tales aloud to the children, and read Blake and other poets aloud to the lady of the house. In addition, he will be required to actually make up stories (138).
In contrast, Burgeon seems to fare well with Justice; he is found to be “of exceptionally high character” and with “considerable mental powers.” However, he is accused of having a mind which “soars rather too easily–like a balloon (138-139). Because he shrinks from any “conflict of wills,” he has pretended all was well, “and so he fell” (141). His purgation is to “continue as a solicitor until further Order” (142).
Barfield seems to have achieved his goal of reestablishing equilibrium; Burgeon returns to the solicitor’s office obediently, while Burden, no longer living up to his name, must be rehabilitated by being made “to hew the wood of simplicity and draw the water of imagination” (144). In a final dream, Burden disappears, and Burgeon finds the wholeness of mind which had been sacrificed to the demands of his occupation–a danger many face in our modern world. Barfield has written a timely, cautionary tale which many of us would do well to heed. And it’s good to know that what all those composition theorists tell us is true; writing is indeed a way of learning and discovery.
Barfield, This Ever Diverse Pair.
London: Gollancz, 1950 (appearing under the pseudonym, G.A.L. Burgeon).
The novel was republished in Edinburgh, Scotland by Floris Classics in 1985
under Owen Barfield’s real name.
2 David Lavery, “The Owen Barfield World Wide Website,” <http://www.owenbarfield.com> (visited September 8, 2000).