1 Owen Barfield Library The Barfield Library contains books and pamphlets that were owned by Owen Barfield, a writer on language and myth, a philosoph...
1 Owen Barfield Library The Barfield Library contains books and pamphlets that were owned by Owen Barfield, a writer on language and myth, a philosoph...
1 Owen Barfield: Mystic Part Three sower and the seed This is the third and final installation of three posts on the Owen Barfield s book, Saving the ...
1 Owen Barfield: A Biographical Note by Marjorie Lamp Mead, April 1985 Originally published as the Afterword to The Silver Trumpet by Owen Barfield. B...
1 BIBLIOGRAPHY OF THE PUBLISHED WRITINGS OF OWEN BARFIELD COMPILED BY JANE W. HIPOLITO Acknowledgments: Owen Barfield was an astonishingly prolific au...
1 ANGELS AT BAY Three Plays by Owen Barfield i2 Angels at Bay I. The Wall II. The Human Dynamo III. The Paranoia Wing By Owen Barfield Edited by Jeffe...
1 An Introduction to IPv6 Owen DeLong Revised 2010 August 17 Hurricane Electric2 Acknowledgements Special thanks for: Content and graphics: Mukom Akon...
1 Dale Stout 55 saving appearances: religious invisibility and state secularism the myth of gyges revisited Dale Stout Bishop s University ABSTRACT Th...
1 An Introduction to the Book of Revelation Introduction: I. Goal of our study: A. To encourage people to spend more time in the book of Revelation. B...
1 Rudolf Steiner's Concept of Mind by Owen Barfield The true nature of human thought is a matter of concern to everyone, whether he knows it or not. E...
Jamie Hutchinson Department of English Bard College at Simon’s Rock Faithful Thinkers: A Barfieldian Reading of Emerson’s Nature (An abbreviated version of this paper was presented at the annual convention of the Rocky Mountain Modern Language Association, October 4, 2007)
In the “Introduction” to his book Saving the Appearances, Owen Barfield develops an analogy by using the familiar image of a perspectival drawing of a rectangular glass box. When we slide our hand across the image, as he reminds us, our perception of the box can be radically altered (indeed, almost turned inside out). Analogously, he says, what he hopes to do in the book that follows is slide a sort of hand over many of the things and ideas that western humanity has focused on for the past two to three hundred years and see if this might not similarly bring about an alteration in our perception – in this case our perception of such things as nature, evolution, human consciousness, language, and history. I suspect I’m not the only one in the room for whom such an alteration has occurred. Once you’ve read Barfield, assuming some degree of open-mindedness, it’s nearly impossible to see things as you saw them before. Among other things, that has certainly been the case when it comes to my reading of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s seminal work Nature (1836). To see Emerson’s text through the lens of Barfield’s theories of perception, imagination, and the evolution of consciousness is to begin to notice things not always highlighted by conventional criticism. What follows is a preliminary attempt to delineate a Barfieldian take on Emerson’s early philosophy of man and nature. In October of 1839, some three years after the appearance of Nature, Emerson turned to his journal to, as he put it, “make my annual inventory of the world.” True to his Puritan heritage, however, he took stock of himself in the process, assessing once again, as he had in the crucial years prior to Nature’s completion, what was to be the nature of his vocation. His answer is illuminating and seemingly enigmatic: “What shall be the substance of my shrift?” he
asks, and answers: “Adam in the garden, I am to new name all the beasts in the field and all the gods in the sky. I am to invite men drenched in Time to recover themselves and come out of time, and taste their native immortal air . . . . I am to indicate constantly, though all unworthy, the Ideal and Holy Life, the life within life, the Forgotten Good, the Unknown Cause in which we sprawl and sin.” Now, the tendency of traditional scholarship has been to see Emerson’s figure of Adam in light of R.W.B. Lewis’s thesis in The American Adam -- Adam as a prelapsarian or unfallen figure of innocence, with all of the problems attendant upon such a state (e.g., Melville’s Billy Budd). But I am going to argue that Emerson is constructing a vision of a post-lapsarian and Pauline figure of Adam as redeemer, the Adam mentioned in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians: “The first man Adam was made a living soul, the last Adam was made a quickening spirit.” This Adam, of course, is the Christ. It is the vision of this new Adam – or Christ -- and his life-giving power, rather than the old Adam, that holds the key to this passage from his journals and, I would argue, to the form and theme of Nature (this despite the fact that Emerson makes little reference in that book to orthodox Christian theology in developing his ideas). In addition, despite moments where a kind of nostalgia for lost innocence appears, Nature as a whole presents an argument for the historical emergence and significance of a new and redemptive (and progressive) visionary power on the part of the individual (or humanity in general). This emerging power is inseparable from Emerson’s concept of the new Adam. Central to Emerson’s argument in Nature is his belief that “A man is a god in ruins” and that “The reason why the world lacks unity, and lies broken and in heaps is because man is disunited with himself.” History, for Emerson, is fundamentally a history of human consciousness, and should be viewed as man’s descent from an original state of spiritual union with the cosmos to our current condition of fragmentation and alienation. In turn, the
historical changes in the cognitive processes and capacities of man have had a qualitative (i.e., ontological) effect on (and are mirrored by) the external world. Nature, as Emerson never ceases to remind us, is a metaphor (or emblem) of the human mind, a correspondence that, in his view, is no mere poetic fancy but an objective spiritual fact. Mind and nature are dual, or better, polaric manifestations of one creative power, which Emerson refers to as the universal soul (and occasionally God) in this early work (later it was to achieve its more famous, or notorious, designation of Over-Soul). This universal soul manifests itself within human consciousness as the Reason. To designate its correspondent workings within the natural world he uses the term Spirit. One power, two poles of activity – one conscious (or potentially so), one unconscious. Indeed, the very fact that man normally fails to recognize (apprehend) the workings of the Reason means he experiences himself as separate or estranged from nature, as a spectator rather than as a participant in its being (and in its coming into being). Put another way, he has lost his capacity to exercise the unifying and creative power that lies dormant within him. The very structure of Nature, its progressive movement from the material mindset of Commodity, through the intermediate steps of Beauty, Language, Discipline, and Idealism, to the climactic revelations of Spirit and Prospects reveals Emerson’s purpose of guiding the reader from a fallen (or one-dimensional) vision of the world to a redemptive and unifying one, as well as to the conscious role we must play in implementing this new visionary power. Emerson’s implicit intention is to awaken us, to educate us, step by step, so that we can begin to exercise this new form of consciousness. So long as nature appears to us merely as commodity (a material and wholly external reality) we will exist in the state that Barfield, in Saving the Appearances, has called idolatry. Nature as idol is nature as physical commodity, dead matter over which we exercise control purely by virtue of our analytic or discursive intellect
(Emerson’s Understanding) and our corresponding science and technology. By learning each of the lessons of nature, Emerson appears to be implicitly saying, we can acquire a new kind of power within ourselves, one capable of restoring nature’s spiritual dimension, not as mere concept but as lived experience. Beginning with Commodity, the lesson of the physical world and the physical senses, Emerson moves on to Beauty, Discipline, Language, and Idealism, each section describing another way in which contact with or the study of nature can be instrumental in awakening our consciousness, thereby moving us one step closer to a new way of seeing, and thus to the prospect of a spiritually re-enlivened world. In particular, the sections on Beauty, Discipline, and Idealism use the language of education, revealing how attention to various aspects of the natural world can effect a change in one’s consciousness. A particularly clear example of this educative emphasis occurs near the beginning of the Discipline section: “Space, time, society, labor, climate, food, locomotion, the animals, the mechanical forces give us sincerest lessons, day by day, whose meaning is unlimited. They educate both the Understanding and the Reason.” What is especially significant here is the connection he draws between the two faculties, arguing that what is learned by the Understanding (our intellectual capacities) can be transformed by the Reason into higher knowledge, a marrying of mind and matter. The full meaning of this potential marriage, however, isn’t revealed until Prospects, the final section. Reading Nature in this way, as an implicit guidebook to higher knowledge and transformative vision, adds a sometimes overlooked practical dimension to Emerson’s prophetic claim towards the end that “The problem of restoring to the world original and eternal beauty is solved by the redemption of the soul.” Nature can thus be read not only as history and prophecy but also as suggesting an answer to the question of how one goes about
achieving the redemptive visionary capacities (the healing of the soul) that Emerson demands of us. In the final sentence of the paragraph just quoted, Emerson presents a further, and critical, clue concerning the nature of the spiritual task we must undertake. So far as I know, this sentence has never been fully attended to in discussions of Emerson’s belief in the apocalyptic power of the mind (i.e., the Reason), perhaps because it has seemed simply one more variant on the traditional Romantic theme of marrying the contraries of head and heart, or mind and nature. (It was, however, the source for the title of a collection of essays on the work of Rudolf Steiner, published in 1961 on the centenary of his birth -- evidence that some, at least, have taken Emerson’s ideas seriously.) I hope to show, with some essential help from Barfield, that the sentence goes beyond such traditional critical commonplaces and holds the key to defining Emerson’s implicit doctrine of the new Adam (as well as the tremendous importance of the Romantic doctrine of the Imagination for the present day). Here is Emerson’s key sentence: “But when a faithful thinker, resolute to detach every object from personal relations and see it in the light of thought, shall, at the same time, kindle science with the fire of the holiest affections, then will God go forth anew into the creation." In this sentence Emerson asserts yet again the essential role of human consciousness in relation to the external world, a theme central to Barfield’s work as well. And in order to elucidate the full meaning of Emerson’s statement, I need to step away from it for a moment and outline some of Barfield’s key points regarding the nature and evolution of consciousness. Despite various contemporary denials of the mind’s constitutive role in bringing the world into being, Barfield reminds us in Saving the Appearances that there is hardly a philosophical or psychological theory of perception extant today, or since Kant effected his “Copernican revolution in philosophy,” which does not argue for some version of the theory that the
familiar world of everyday reality depends in some fashion on our own activity – that is on the perceptual and mental activity of the perceiver. Without this activity, as the philosopher and psychologist William James once put it, we would experience only a “blooming, buzzing confusion,” not the familiar three-dimensional world we take for granted. To this largely subconscious process of mind and senses working together to present us with what we then consciously apprehend as the familiar world, Barfield gives the name of figuration. What but the mind’s constructive/constitutive role in creating the world of appearances is Emerson talking about, for example, when he says “That behind nature, throughout nature, spirit is present; one and not compound it does not act upon us from without, that is, in space and time, bur spiritually, or through ourselves: therefore, that spirit, that is, the Supreme Being, does not build up nature around us, but puts it forth through us, as the life of the tree puts forth new branches and leaves through the pores of the old.” The image is deliberately provocative, designed to shock us into a new way of thinking about our participation in the coming into being of the world. This subconscious participation, as I’m sure you are aware, is what Coleridge calls the activity of the Primary Imagination, which he defines as “the living Power and prime Agent of all human Perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I Am” (Biog. Lit., XII). Barfield, in trying to establish a case for the validity of the Romantic concept of the mind and its constitutive and redemptive capacities, argued all his life that an ongoing evolution of consciousness is the central fact of human history, and that over the centuries this had altered the way in which the human mind participates in the phenomenal world. Inspired by anthropology but largely on the basis of his own etymological research into the origins and history of language, Barfield posits that there once existed an earlier stage of consciousness, which he calls, in Saving the Appearances, original participation. By this he means an experiential
sense of identity -- given in the experience itself -- between the observer and what he/she perceives, “an awareness which we no longer have of an extra-sensory link between the percipient [and the appearances]” (STA, 34). Barfield’s argument, then, is that if we are willing to grant that the familiar world of appearances is correlative to consciousness, that figuration occurs and is the process whereby the raw data of the senses (the particles, in Barfield’s terminology -- sound waves, light waves, dance of atoms and electrons, etc.) become the familiar three-dimensional world of everyday experience, and that the consciousness of earlier peoples was different (i.e., differently participatory), then we must be willing to conclude that they simply did not live in the same world that we live in – unless by same we mean no more than the waves of sound, light, and sub-atomic entities just referred to (what Barfield calls the particles or “unrepresented”). But even then, to assert that the bottom line of reality is this unfigurated or pre-figurated invisible substrate is to forget that what we normally mean by the term “reality” is a world that has already been organized into something approximating everyday appearances (i.e., trees, clouds, humming of insects, colors, forms arrayed threedimensionally in space, etc.). A different form of consciousness will necessarily result in a different form and experience of everyday reality (Barfield calls this everyday reality – or phenomenal world -- the world of appearances, thereby suggesting that it can’t be simply taken as an ontological given or absolute in the traditional Cartesian sense). The evolution of human consciousness, as Barfield defines it, has been “a more or less continuous progress from a vague but immediate awareness of the ‘meaning’ of phenomena [participatory consciousness] towards an increasing preoccupation with the phenomena themselves . . . . This latter experience, in its extreme form, I have called idolatry” (STA, 142). To put it in other terms, humanity has evolved from a time when natural phenomena were experienced as a matter of course as inherently meaning-filled “images” of some inner life or
spiritual force (and thus inherently cognate with oneself or the group) to our present day when they are experienced simply as physical phenomena, without any representational or figurative qualities inherent in our experience of them (and thus without any inherent sense of connection to us). “The essence of original participation,” in Barfield’s words, “is that there stands behind the phenomena, and on the other side of them from me, a represented which his of the same nature as me. Whether it is called ‘mana,’ or by the names of many gods and demons or God the Father, or the spirit world, it is of the same nature as the perceiving self, inasmuch as it is not mechanical or accidental, but psychic and voluntary” (STA 42). I should add here, as well, that original participation is something that happens to the individual (or the group), not something that is consciously enacted. It is simply a given condition of one’s experience, though it may be heightened by various forms of ritual or ceremonial activity. It also implies a much less individuated sense of self than what we might take for granted. The boundaries between self and world are simply not so defined as is true of our normal, twenty-first century Western experience. This “original participation” stage of evolution and its subsequent disappearance takes the form of a miniature creation myth in the last section of Nature: Man is the dwarf of himself. Once he was permeated and dissolved by spirit. He filled nature with his overflowing currents. Out from him sprang the sun and moon; from man the sun, from woman the moon. The laws of his mind, the periods of his actions externized themselves into day and night, into the years and the seasons. But having made for himself this huge shell, his waters retired; he no longer fills the vein and veinlets; he is shrunk to a drop. The net result, in Emerson’s view, is alienation from nature. What Barfield calls the experience of a world of idols emptied of any inherent meaning Emerson refers to as “the immobility or bruteness of nature.” It is a world bereft of any inner light or inherent meaning and characterized by a kind of fixity and opacity radically different from what Emerson suggests was
true of an earlier age (in Barfield’s terms, an age where there were still vestiges of original participation). Just as Barfield points out how Wordsworth, in the face of such a deadened, spiritually lifeless world, occasionally lapsed into a longing for a return to original participation (pantheism), one can see the same sort of longing in Emerson. The famous transparent eyeball passage early in Nature can be read as an expression of and experience of atavistic original participation given its seeming emphasis on the dissolution of the individual within the All, as well as the fact that it happens to the individual rather than being something consciously willed by him (a passive rather than active, willed experience). That it stresses mystical ecstasy and dissolution over clear-headed objectivity similarly marks it as a kind of throwback to an earlier stage of consciousness (in Barfieldian terms, that is). Barfield himself is unequivocal on the question of returning to an earlier stage of consciousness: “. . . it is not part of the object of this book to advocate a return to original participation”(STA 45). How exactly to move into the future, however, was not something the Romantics typically addressed (with the exception of Coleridge and Goethe), especially from an epistemological angle. The Romantic theory of mind and imagination, in other words, was never given a clear epistemological basis. As a result, according to Barfield, Romanticism “was never grounded satisfactorily in reality,” and as a further result, “the metaphysic of Romanticism has gradually fallen sick, lost faith in itself” (Romanticism Comes of Age, 28-29). One of Barfield’s aims, quite obviously, is to supply this missing metaphysic and thus reclaim imagination as a way of knowing, with its attendant transformative power. The key to understanding imagination in its true sense, as Barfield makes clear, lies in an understanding of figuration and the possibility of making it a conscious rather than unconscious activity. He further points out that to make figuration conscious, to participate fully and
wakefully rather than subconsciously in the coming together of the data registered by the senses and whatever it is the mind supplies by way of organizing this data, must involve or require a kind of mental exertion quite different from ordinary discursive thinking. I would argue that this same idea of an approach to imagination as a form of enhanced consciousness underlies the section in Emerson’s Nature entitled “Beauty,” wherein he labors to show various ways in which an aesthetic experience of nature can aid in an awakening of our participatory and re-creative relationship to the world. The discussion of art, in particular, implies the achievement of a new form of consciousness: “Thus in art does Nature work through the will of a man filled with the beauty of her first works.” The key word here is “will,” with its suggestion of enhanced consciousness and agency in our involvement with the natural world. In Barfield’s words, “the future of the phenomenal world can no longer be regarded as entirely independent of man’s volition” (STA 160). This emphasis on man becoming an active agent of perception is central to Barfield’s concept of conscious figuration as well as Emerson’s concept of the artist. Emerson’s discussion of the artist in this early section prefigures what he later says more definitively in the final “Prospects” section in proposing the idea of the faithful thinker. Barfield’s concept of conscious figuration isn’t so abstruse as it may at first appear. I suspect everyone has encountered one of those black and white figures purposefully designed to appear as two different forms or outlines (e.g., the well known vase or profiles form) and experienced that fleeting moment when it suddenly metamorphoses from one to the other before our eyes (e.g., vase to profile). Nothing has changed in the way of the sensory data, but the appearances have changed. The transitional moment from one appearance to the other feels at once like something inner and outer, both in the mind and in the realm of the sensory. Barfield would argue that what occurs here has to do with a different organizing concept being
brought to bear by our thinking activity on the sense data. Conscious figuration, then, would simply involve making this subconscious process of percept and concept coming together into a fully conscious one. (Incidentally, the previously mentioned analogy of the rectangular glass box that he uses in the “Introduction” to Saving the Appearances nicely anticipates this same idea: the mind’s constitutive role in shaping the familiar world of appearances.) The experience of figuration can become ever more conscious if we are willing to work at it. As he says in another work, Worlds Apart, “If you systematically strengthen your thinking, so that you gradually become aware not only of the result of it, but of the positive act of thinking itself, . . . you become aware of a conceptual area which was previously unconscious” (WA 173). “And if I do this with the thoughts which are already inherent in my perception, I render that perception also more conscious and may increase its range and depth”(WA 174). To increase the range and depth of one’s perception – that is the key phrase, it seems to me. Barfield is suggesting nothing less than the possibility of seeing into dimensions of reality that have been heretofore hidden from us by the limitations of our mind and senses (comparable to the poet William Blake’s famous dictum about cleansing the doors of perception, though now grounded epistemologically). Let’s look, then, at the specific application of Barfield’s theory to Emerson’s idea of the faithful thinker. If you will look again at that passage, you will see that it is a two-step process: first the object is viewed in a wholly objective and disinterested way as an object. Emerson refers to this as “science,” by which he clearly means objective knowledge of the kind that can be gleaned through clear observation and logical inference (the approach of the Understanding). Second, the viewer consciously brings reverential feeling (“the fire of the holiest affections”) to bear on the existing perception and one’s objective knowledge of it. In using the metaphor of fire Emerson imaginatively extends his fundamental premise that faithful thinking brings about
a cleansing and re-enlivening of the phenomenal world. What is important to note here is that Emerson proposes no retreat from objective perception and knowledge into a mystical dissolution of the self but, instead, a fusion of rational thought and exact observation with consciously awakened feelings (akin, I would argue, to divine love or caritas). In Barfield’s terms, Emerson’s faithful thinker consciously figurates or “participates” the empty idols. Nature is thus experienced once again as possessing inner spiritual meaning and as being intimately related to ourselves, not in theory but experientially in consciousness. Unity between self and world is restored (but, and this is key, without the mystical dissolution of the individuated self characteristic of original participation or Emerson’s transparent eyeball experience). The movement of faithful thinking is from within to without, the reverse of what is true in original participation, in which consciousness is passive participant and recipient rather than agent. In Barfield’s terms, the movement from original to what he calls “final participation” (imagination or conscious figuration) involves a “violent change in the whole direction of human consciousness. . . . Henceforth the life of the images is to be drawn from within. The life of the image is to be none other than the life of imagination. And it is of the very nature of imagination that it cannot be inculcated. There must be first of all the voluntary stirring from within” (STA 179). The relation of this “stirring” of imagination to man’s feeling nature, so central to Emerson’s faithful thinker, receives similar emphasis from Barfield: “Original participation fires the heart from a source outside itself; the images enliven the heart. But in final participation – since the death and resurrection -- the heart is fired from within by the Christ; and it is for the heart to enliven the images” (STA, 172). The imagery of fire here, with all of its redemptive connotations, echoes Emerson in a way that feels happily coincidental, especially in light of an earlier passage in Saving the Appearances on the same subject: “The world of final participation will one day sparkle in the light of the eye as it never yet sparkled early one
morning in the original light of the sun. But the coming of this light presupposes a goodness of heart and a steady furnace in the will, which have only not been emphasized in this book, because they are not the subject of it”(STA 161, emphasis mine). Again, parallel to Emerson, Barfield emphasizes that this new form of participation involves no loss of objectivity, no relinquishing of “the ability which we have won to experience and love nature as objective and independent of ourselves” (STA 146). Finally, in a statement that is remarkably close to Emerson’s description of faithful thinking as a two-stage process, Barfield defines imagination (the beginning stages of final participation) in terms of his theory of conscious figuration: “To be able to experience the representations [objects or appearances] as idols, and then to be able also to perform the act of figuration consciously, so as to experience them as participated, that is imagination” (STA 147). Imagination, in short, sounds remarkably like what Blake called two-fold vision (“May God us keep/From Single vision & Newton’s sleep!”), something Henri Bortoft has pointed out in his study of Goethean science, The Wholeness of Nature. As in Emerson, the process entails clear observation and objective thought combined with an inner activity that enlarges the range and ontological status of one’s perception. What Emerson couches in oracular and poetic language, Barfield sets forth as a plausible epistemic (if one accepts his premise that we are capable of developing our inner capacities such that figuration, and thus by implication the work of the incarnate Word or Logos, can become conscious). The faithful thinker, to return to the beginning of my discussion, is Emerson’s name for the new Adam, the quickening spirit proposed by St. Paul. This is Adam as redeemer or Christ rather than Adam as prelapsarian Edenic (or American) innocent; it is a vision of Adam possessed of the potential “to new name all the beasts in the field and all the gods in the sky,” to quote once again the words from Emerson’s journal. Barfield describes the new Adam in
similar terms (Adam as creative namer) when he says that “in the course of the earth’s history, something like a Divine Word has been gradually clothing itself with the humanity it first gradually created – so that what was first spoken by God may now be respoken by man”(STA 127). As an aside, it’s perhaps worth noting that the Adam who originally names the creatures in Genesis is an Adam not yet divided into male and female. Similarly, the faithful thinker, beginning with the oxymoronic flavor of the term itself, is an image and theory of recovered spiritual wholeness within the human being and in the relations between the self and nature. It isn’t too far fetched, I would suggest, to infer that this might also mean a further transformation of our experience of masculinity and femininity -- both outer and inner – beyond the purely ideological level that is part of contemporary discourse. But this is another topic, and one I’m not all that confident to discuss further. In an age characterized by myriad psychological, social, and environmental problems, problems arguably stemming from idolatry (the one-dimensional view of the world as matter empty of meaning), it seems curious that so few have recognized and explored Romanticism’s call for a new form of consciousness (and thus an overcoming of our figuration of the appearances as mere things or idols). At the very least, as Barfield so convincingly has shown, we have a responsibility to look once again at the arguments they propose. A failure to do so may well be catastrophic. Rather than Emerson’s redemptive apocalypse of (new) Adamic imagination, there will only be, as Barfield argues, chaos and inanity: “If therefore man succeeds in eliminating all original participation, without substituting any other, he will have done nothing less than to eliminate all meaning and all coherence from the cosmos” (STA 144). Embracing faithful thinking (and perhaps even beginning to practice it in rudimentary ways) seems a wiser and more practical alternative.
Works Cited Barfield, Owen. Romanticism Comes of Age. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1967. ---. Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1965. ---. Worlds Apart (A Dialogue of the 1960’s). Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1971. The quotations from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Nature can be found in almost any edition of his work. The quotation from Emerson’s journal is dated October 18, 1839, and was taken from Joel Porte, ed. Emerson in His Journals. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982.