• Michael Martin

On the Edge of the Unthinkable: An Interview with Owen Barfield



This interview was conducted by James Wetmore in 1996, about a year before Barfield's death at age ninety-nine. James (who at the time of the interview was connected to the Perennialist movement) kept the interview in his archives, unpublished, until he offered it to me for the first volume of Jesus the Imagination. Barfield, one of the Inklings and a dear friend of C.S. Lewis, found his way into meaning through poetry and the work of Rudolf Steiner (academics and apologists appreciate the former and ignore the latter for the most part). In the interview, Barfield muses on his long life of thinking and his relationship to the Christian path.


Wetmore: It seems to some that there are two Barfields, one a literary critic and Coleridge scholar, intimate of C.S. Lewis and the Inklings, who, no matter where he casts his net (poetry, philology, history of science, epistemology, imagination, Scholastic metaphysics, etc.) always comes up with the same haul: evidence for an evolution of consciousness. And more than this: a metaphysic for this evolution—contradictory though this sounds—that involves a polarity in the changing significance of the subject-object distinction. This you are always careful to couch in “respectable” terms, though you permit yourself occasional reference to the “other” Barfield even in the academic milieu, the Barfield who for more than seventy years has been a close student of Rudolf Steiner. This second Barfield claims that individual human consciousness, if it can begin to make its own the full depth of the imaginative faculty that underlies its experience of itself and the world, is the stage on which the drama of redemption will occur; he claims, in fact, that in overcoming the polarity of self and world through accomplishing a “turning-inside-out” of this polarity, we become conscious agents in the great return, the “spiritualization of matter” that is finally the same as the “union without confusion” of the return to God. Too much said too generally! Can you help sort this out?


Barfield: Actually, it would be more true to say that I began by being profoundly changed while reading poetry, and it would be more accurate to say that the essence of my work—apart from all the later associations—represents a deduction from what can happen when one reads poetry. I hope this doesn’t sound too mundane. That I became an exponent of the evolution of consciousness was due to my experience of literature, especially poetry. And it happened that I was exposed to Rudolf Steiner’s work at a very opportune moment in my own development. I quickly saw that my intimations on the subject were as nothing compared to Steiner’s vast work.


Wetmore: Let’s back up a moment. Much is said these days about “tradition,” the loss of metaphysical principles, the deviation of individualism, the dis-enchanting of nature, and so forth. On the other hand, there are many movements (most spurious, some serious) trying to recall “tradition” in some form or another. Most popular just now seem to be non-Christian (or pre-Christian, especially “pagan”) forms, though the appeal of ancient (hence, purportedly, truer) forms of Christianity, especially Orthodoxy, seems to be growing. Since the term “evolution” has proved central to your work, we might describe the fundamental difference in perspective at work here as that between evolutionists and devolutionists. The latter tend to see the course of history, especially Western history since the medieval age, as a deviation from traditional principles, and to discern no final good in the morass of unprincipled individualism, with its relativizing of all things, that has come to hold sway. I see on your bookshelf titles by René Guénon, and so you no doubt know that this view has been powerfully stated in our century by the so-called “traditionalists,” including such thinkers as Frithjof Schuon, Titus Burckhardt, Huston Smith, S.H. Nasr, etc. The evolutionists (and for you Steiner would be the major example here, I presume) see the loss of tradition and the rise of individualism, with a concurrent alienation of the self and despiritualizing of nature, as a necessary precondition for the development of moral freedom, without which love, and man’s return to God intact, so to speak, would not be possible. That is, “to light one’s own lamp” requires the impetus of experienced darkness, and the real possibility of perdition—something not conceivable, some would say, in a view where God simply returns to Himself through a haze of illusion He Himself creates, with no clear final end in view.


Barfield: Well, the devolutionary, or Guénonian position, boiled down to its essence, implies an endless recurrence of cycles, and the individual doesn’t seem to have any positive significance.


Wetmore: The Traditionalist or Perennialist position would claim that the cycles begin with a Golden Age, and that the great Traditions only arose when our consciousness was sufficiently distanced from spiritual reality that we needed to be “reminded” from without. With our increasing forgetfulness, more and more concrete religious forms became necessary, and eventually, in our willful disregard, all traditional attachments were dissolved. We then entered upon the chaos of the modern age. When this process has reached its term there must be some final dissolution before the onset of a new Golden Age.


Barfield: I just don’t see what the question is. What is this earlier spiritual consciousness? If there is no positive result during the cycle, then the ideal must be represented by its beginning, by some kind of collective, undifferentiated consciousness. You have to be clear about your terms. Do you mean that “individuals,” in our current sense, were around in the Golden Age, somehow united with spiritual reality but still individual? If not, then the movement toward individuality during the cycle cannot simply be written off as a “devolution.” Spiritual awareness is no virtue if there is no virtuous individual who is its subject. Spiritual in some sense this consciousness may have been, but it was not self-conscious. If individuality breaks with tradition and represents a final falling away toward “nothingness” as some kind of limit, then I suppose the ideal must seem to be a reversion to the earlier state of non-individualized consciousness. But can one seriously hold to such a position?


Wetmore: It is difficult to express these things. The Perennialist view has an extraordinary depth and clarity, but you’re saying that it leaves out the significance of the movement toward individuality? Or sees it at any rate as a deviation only?


Barfield: It comes down to the function of freedom in the generality of things. Freedom is meaningless without a free agent. If the Perennialists wish to be consistent, then freedom is an illusion. The ideal would then seem to be some pre-individualized state! Or, you might say that only God is free, individuals being illusory in the final analysis. I realize what a host of subtleties and precisions one can become entangled in here. The evolutionary view on the other hand (and I’ve tried to make this clear in one way or another in all of my books), which also envisages a non-individualized initial state, sees the movement toward individuation as the very meaning of the cosmic process.


Wetmore: In your Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry you discuss this subject in some detail. What makes your argument so difficult is that it is not only a question of individuality arising (or “falling”) from a non-individualized state, for you speak there more from the point of view of such polarities or complementarities as subject-object or self-world. We find it very difficult not to see everything in some such terms of inner-outer, all of which already presume some trace of individualizing subjectivity.


Barfield: It’s only natural, given our starting point. But it is inconsistent—when pretending to discuss matters comprised in this polarity—to foist upon the argument terms embedded in our present vantage-point, which stands outside the state we are trying to characterize. I have called this application to an earlier state of the features and terminology of our own “advanced” subject-object experience “logomorphism.” To find our way back would in truth amount to a kind of inner archeology, and could not be achieved without some transformation of the researcher’s consciousness in parallel with the transformations we see in evidence in what remains to us of earlier cycles (comparatively late historical ones of course) in “outer” cultural artifacts. This is where I find Steiner’s work illuminating.


Wetmore: So the devolutionists imply that, at the outset, or at least at the beginning of the remotest historical cycle, “spiritual states” occurred in individuals who were (quite paradoxically, in view of their devolutionary views) more or less like ourselves—that is, in individuals located in space and time essentially as we know it, who had sense organs and perceived an “outside” world essentially as we do, but one somehow so illuminated by spiritual reality that the subject did not come into such clear relief?


Barfield: This is the very nub of the error. “Subject” and “object” are only relative terms, entirely independent of content. It is easy enough for anyone to state abstractly that ultimately “I am the World, and the World is I,” but “reality” may be a far better starting point. As Coleridge points out, there is a polar logic at work in all things (Steiner invoked Goethe, particularly his scientific writings, to make the same point). You must be able to distinguish the two sides (and their common boundary continually shifts) without dividing them. If you divide only, then you end up either as an esoteric Perennialist devolutionist, or as a crass materialist evolutionist. There are certainly elements of truth—and imposing truth—in both sides, but the whole truth is lost.


Wetmore: In Saving the Appearances you imply that we in fact must “make” the world; that our observed world in the past was “made for us” (and this in differing measure as time progressed). On the historical, or macrocosmic, level this could lead to a discussion of the move from an “enchanted” or mythopoeic consciousness, through our contemporary epistemological starting point, and on to the spiritually creative function of future human culture. On the individual or microcosmic level, you point out that, in a way, the nature and role of the faculty of imagination has now retreated to a pre-conscious position in the modern individual, whose much-touted “objectively clear” consciousness is in fact as determined by what now constitutes the imagination as were his allegedly gullible forbears by “external” imaginations of mythological form. This pre-conscious faculty you call “figuration.” This, raised into consciousness, you speak of as active “participation,” whereby separation between subject and object is overcome through direct, creative spiritual collaboration in the divine drama. This collaboration derives from the initiative of the individual will that can only realize itself through first facing the abyss of alienation from “externally” imposed principles, through freely embracing—in love—these same principles, but newly “created” in each moment by a moral imagination and moral intuition. As you say, before he moved into the astonishing esoteric material that characterized the last twenty years of his life, Steiner had presented his exposition of the epistemological foundations for such a view, especially in his Philosophy of Freedom, which he always referred to as far more important than the far-ranging details of his later lectures. He claimed that his epistemology represented the way back for modern man, but a way “back” by going forward.


Barfield: Yes. But to return to “figuration.” This process is like an unconscious imagination. Now, what I mean by conscious “participation” is our gradual taking over of the pre-conscious figuration process. This has to do also with the imagination, but an imagination at the conscious disposal of an individual. My goodness, the subject is quite complex! But Coleridge had a good handle on it. I tried to make some sense of it in my What Coleridge Thought. The point is that our very concepts of the most fundamental starting-points of discussion give evidence of the evolution of consciousness; how then can we pile them all up on the past?


Wetmore: Perhaps we can put it this way. One side looks at dissolution in the Absolute as the goal, and individualization as a fall; the other side sees the Absolute as well, but believes there to be a meaning in the individual: that the individual is in fact the meaning of the cosmic process. The rub seems to come in with the role of the individual. In fact, without some precisions being made, it may seem that even the “individualists” want to end up at the same dissolution in the Absolute. But is such a dissolution that never crystallizes out individuals (or does so only provisionally) the same as one that arises from the conscious choice of individuals somehow fallen from the non-individual state? Does the re-integrated individual or ego not give at least some faint “pastel tint” to the Absolute when “fused, but not confused”?


Barfield: We’re on the edge of the unthinkable here, you and I. You can’t use “individuality” or “ego” as a final criterion. Such terms signify different things during the overall process. And in any case, “ego” carries other connotations. Individuality becomes commensurate with the cosmos. (I think we must leave aside here the question of the Absolute.) This is true of the ego, but in using this term we are clear that where it enters in there is a moral issue. The obligation to become commensurate with the cosmos is certainly rather overwhelming!


Wetmore: What is the end-point? Perhaps it would make things clearer by beginning at the end.


Barfield: Excellent! Let us then be “pre-posterous”! Well, I suppose you’d have at one and the same time the maximum of both the individual and of the cosmic: the polarity of microcosm and macrocosm attains its maximum contrast and is then overcome.


Wetmore: You see, all this gives a profound metaphysical meaning to the discussion of time. Processes in time—history, the whole drama of individuation, if we want to risk a term that has such intractable Jungian overtones—these you are treating as not ultimately relative, but as having an ontological significance. And as for the individual that unfolds in time, along with the freedom that is its concomitant, you suggest that when and if it can return to the Absolute it somehow retains its identity?


Barfield: Ultimately for me, as for Steiner, freedom is the Absolute. We go through all this troublesome evolution to procure individual consciousness, and then cooperate freely with cosmic consciousness. “Ye shall be as gods” is a dangerous formulation, and highly elliptical, but it has its significance here.


Wetmore: Are you saying that the individual, exercising its freedom, can overcome the polarity it arose from, dissolve subject-and-object, bring things together again in a unitary state, while remaining individual? Can it accomplish this alone?


Barfield: I’m afraid such questions are beyond me. This coming-together, however, certainly cannot be only by virtue of the individual, but also by virtue of God, of the Godhead, of the Absolute. One cannot make the many necessary distinctions involved here in such a brief conversation. Certainly we need God to “become as gods”; otherwise we have fallen into the trap Satan set for Jesus Christ in the wilderness.


Wetmore: In the final analysis it seems that we are focused on the final significance of time, or perhaps of time and space and that point of final condensation we have been calling individuality.


Barfield: We can’t use our concept of time here in the usual way. Time is so difficult to understand. We usually think of it as some kind of mathematically contrived system with elements of space brought in (clocks and so forth), as some kind of measurement. We have to have a different grasp of time to answer such a question. Space seems to derive from the non-sensible world, something relatively easy to picture after one has become convinced of its existence; but time derives from something that I suppose we can only call duration.


Wetmore: That sounds a good deal like Guénon. But he speaks in terms of possibility; that is, that a world is deployed (this word is felt to somehow circumvent the issue of evolution) temporally in accord with a system of “compossibles,” the rudiments of a world that exist in a pre-temporal state—call it duration if you like. But he infers very different things from this than you do, for you center on the notions of individuality and freedom.


Barfield: If all manifest processes pre-exist as possibilities, or systems of these as “compossibles,” where is there room for individuality and freedom? In the “possibility of impossibility,” as Guénon somewhere puts it?


Wetmore: I believe this unique possibility Guénon reserves for what we call evil.


Barfield: It seems more suited to the possibility of freedom, though I wouldn’t deny that freedom and evil are closely connected, very closely connected, indeed. Freedom, duration, and time are hard to grasp. We mathematize these notions and make them into abstractions.


Wetmore: Again, what is the end-point?


Barfield: Well, I think the New Jerusalem described in the New Testament is as good a description as any I could come up with. One thing is certain—we are in an evolutionary crisis right now… But you seem uncertain about what I am saying?


Wetmore: The stakes are high aren’t they? If we opt for the evolutionary view, then what of traditional forms? It’s one thing to discuss these matters: it’s another to face life’s trials with nothing but the promise of some glory of the individuality-to-come. What of the remnants of tradition that still surround us, and to which many sensitive spiritual seekers instinctively turn when they begin to see through the deceptions of the chaos that surrounds them? Have they no significance?


Barfield: Of course they do. We cannot decide anything about that in any case. There are many people and many needs. Tradition will be there (but undergoing change, howsoever you may wish to reconcile this apparent contradiction) as long as need be. Ultimately, traditions are inwardized—that’s the crux. I don’t think one can come to a clear understanding of this unless one sees it in the light of reincarnation.


Wetmore: But let’s suppose you’re right. Even so, the flimsy individual—your own flimsy individuality, if you’ll pardon the presumption, but in your case...


Barfield: Indeed!


Wetmore: …the flimsy individual must seem shadowy indeed, even in the dying light of Tradition, especially as one confronts the last of life’s trials.


Barfield: Of course. And I can understand the tendency to turn back to the past. I think it is, finally, a matter of one’s own destiny. But in the long view I cannot doubt that what is so understandably sought for now in the past (or, as might be objected, in the “eternal” outside time and space, for which the “past” often seems to stand in Perennialist thought) will eventually be found to lie in the future, though “with a difference”— the very difference for which the whole process was set in motion! We only have this abyss to cross, this intersection of time and eternity, the horizontal and the vertical. And this is the Christian symbol par excellence.


Wetmore: This Christian image of the intersection at the center of the cross, is it so relevant to your view?


Barfield: Indeed it is. God became Man. The Incarnation of the Word is the meaning of human history. Christ was resurrected and the great process of the Redemption of Creation began. This is too complex a subject to go into lightly, and I, in any case, am not qualified to give the answers. But, ultimately, we are talking again here of the overcoming of the polarity of I and the World. Since the Incarnation, Passion, and Resurrection, I cannot see how the final meaning of the evolutionary dimension, the redemptive dimension, however difficult it may be to reconcile it with the Perennialist position, can be denied.



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