Crossing the Threshold with Owen Barfield, Part II

Part I of this essay attempted to follow the soul-spiritual individuality of Owen Barfield to the current period (1923) of his after-life review. Barfield wished that his biography be communicated in the form of ‹psychography› – particularly by distilling the aspects of his personal life that might be most universal and salient for readers in the present and near future. The following question arose from a consideration of his life circumstances in 1923: «What experience granted Barfield insight into the imagination such that he remained committed to its truth-value throughout his life?» Part I then explored how his gymnastics training and deep involvement in folk dancing might provide at least a partial answer to this question. Part II will elaborate these themes further and trace additional moments in Barfield’s life that led up to the experience which inspired his confidence in the imagination and, eventually, Anthroposophy itself.

I ended Part I of this essay claiming that it would be poetry that ultimately carried Barfield across the abyssal threshold of meaninglessness characteristic of the present age. But how? Barfield first realized that poetry could effect changes in consciousness due to the influence of his grade-school friend Cecil Harwood. As Blaxland-de Lange recounts,

When he was eleven or twelve years old, attention was being drawn in a Latin lesson to the way that the accusative case is used to express duration of time; and the particular sentence chosen to illustrate this point was «Cato, octoginta, annos natus, excessit e vita» (Cato died aged eighty). «Nevertheless», recalls Barfield… [Harwood] suddenly observed: «Cato at the age of eighty ‹walked out of life›—that’s rather nice!» or words to that effect… [What Harwood] was drawing attention to, because it tickled his fancy, was a metaphor. You can say ‹Cato died.› You can also say ‹Cato walked out of life.›1

This moment would become one of the major touchstones to which Barfield returned repeatedly when reflecting on the development of his theory of poetry and the evolution of consciousness. In his view, to say that «Cato died» is to employ language in a prosaic way, wherein ‹died› is used «with a blunt and, as it were, purely material, meaning.»2 According to Barfield’s philological research, prosaic language tracks with an «anti-poetic process» associated with the rise of scientific accuracy exclusively entrained on what appears to the senses and is mediated to them through technological instruments. Words become abstract to the extent that they are employed purely for the sake of accurate communication in accordance with the laws of this material world; language here imitates a deadened, machine-logic. The «real world» of prosaic language—in today’s English, at least—is laden with a worldview which presupposes the primacy of matter over consciousness: according to the dictates of prosaic language, to to say «Cato died» would be less accurate. In contrast, when Harwood said «Cato walked out of life,» he employed metaphor and achieved what Barfield calls ‹poetic diction›: «when words are selected and arranged in such a way that their  meaning either arouses, or is obviously intended to arouse, aesthetic imagination… [that activity which] produces pleasure merely by its proper activity.»3 The pleasure of aesthetic imagination may be accompanied, says Barfield, by a «‹felt change of consciousness›, where ‹consciousness› embraces all my awareness of my surroundings at any given moment, and ‹surroundings› includes my own feelings. By ‹felt› I mean to signify that the change itself is noticed, or attended to.»4 To say «Cato walked out of life» evokes a meaning that somehow exceeds materialistic assumptions about consciousness—for if Cato has walked out of life, what does he then ‹walk› into? The register of some such meaning may have been what inclined Harwood to say «that’s rather nice!» and exemplifies perfectly what Barfield means when he says that «true, imaginative metaphor… expresses and may communicate participant knowledge.»5 Harwood’s metaphor conveys «participant knowledge» by suggesting that death may mean something more than the end of biological life and, therefore, the extinction of consciousness. «I find that, in addition to the moment or moments of aesthetic pleasure in appreciation,» says Barfield,

I gain from them a more permanent boon. It is as though my own consciousness had actually been expanded… Now my normal experience, as human being, of the world around me depends entirely on what I bring to the sense-datum from within; and the absorption of this metaphor into my imagination has enabled me to bring more than I could before.6

According to Barfield, the capacity to create true metaphors which expand one’s actual experience of the sense-perceptible world is a recent development. Prior to this possibility, language reflected a form of human consciousness wherein thought and feeling were experienced as unified with the perceived world: meaning derives here from direct perceptual experience. «The speaker,» says Barfield, «has observed a unity, and is not therefore himself conscious of the relation. But we, in the development of consciousness, have lost the power to see this as one.»7 The «direct perceptual experience» of primordial human consciousness is reflected in the fact that, etymologically, «an overwhelming proportion, if not all, of them [words] referred in earlier days to one of these two things—a solid, sensible object, or some animal (probably human) activity.»8 Unlike other theorists of language, Barfield’s great merit was to take those ancient words at face-value rather than interpolate the materialism of 20th century Europe into his interpretation. The fact that etymologies reveal the origin of most word-meanings in reference to solid, sensible objects and human activities is testament to the thoroughly embodied character of the ancient psyche, for they reflect the figurative—not to be confused with «figure of speech»—«perceptual or aesthetic, the pictorial, form in which these unitary meanings first manifest in consciousness.»9 Ancient words such as the Greek ‹pneuma› convey this primordial unity of inner and outer with their compact meanings, which, in this case, include denotations of ‹breath› and ‹spirit,› among others. Barfield designates this form of consciousness as «original participation» and eventually identified it with what Steiner called «atavistic clairvoyance.»10 According to both, the gradual awakening of human subjectivity to its relation with the world has historically coincided with a loss of participation, especially as catalyzed by the «anti-poetic», prosaic process referred to earlier: that differentiating force through which «single meanings [have] split up into contrasted pairs—the abstract and the concrete, particular and general, objective and subjective.»11 And though many today might not associate breath with spirit or soul, Barfield assures us that such «relations exist independently, not indeed of Thought, but of any individual thinker,» and that, through the use of true metaphor, the world may be made whole again in imaginative perception.12

Reality, once self-evident, and therefore not conceptually experienced, but which can now only be reached by an effort of the individual mind—this is what is contained in a true poetic metaphor; and every metaphor is ‹true› only in so far as it contains such a reality, or hints at it.13

The confidence with which Barfield declares this potential to ‹consciously› return to a unified experience of reality—the telos of what he called «final participation»—was something he was graced with after confronting the challenge posed to individuals in the age of the Consciousness Soul. But how exactly did that pan out?

Sometime between 1919 and 1920, Barfield plunged into an abyss of despair, what he would later call an «acute case of depression.» During his first years touring Cornwall with the English Folk Dance Society, he fell in love—or so he thought at the time—with a young woman whose feelings were not requited. «I was in despair,» remembers Barfield,

and the despair was not simply because of this, for I had no confidence in the meaning of life, that life had any meaning; and I was very much oppressed… Looking back at the past, I realize I wasn’t really in love with her but either in love with love or what I hoped to find in the world of nature in general… But what was really at the root of the misery, I realized afterwards, was this being caged in the materialism of the age.14

Carol and Philip Zaleski suggest that Barfield here exhibits a case of Romantic ‹Weltschmerz›, or world-pain—that archetypal experience of disillusionment in face of the world’s inability to live up to the meaningful ideals of the mind. And while I think this is certainly true, for Barfield was avowedly Romantic, he seems to have understood this experience and its resolution more specifically as typifying the initiatory null-point which sensitive individuals have the potential to reach in the Age of the Consciousness Soul. In a wonderful pair of essays, «Of the Consciousness Soul» and «Of the Intellectual Soul,» Barfield explicates these two members of the human constitution and their respective roles in the evolution of consciousness. He characterizes the overall movement of this evolution as the gradual separation of microcosm from macrocosm followed by the possibility of their freely-willed reunion. The crucial moment of separation comes when human beings become conscious of the paradox of thought during the Age of the Intellectual Soul (8th c. BCE to 15th c. CE):

When I think the truth…  I am one with all Egos and with the macrocosm. Yet it is only because I have my separate existence as an Ego that I can think at all! What does this suggest? That here in the intellectual soul is the crucial point of this great mysterious process of separation… What, then, do we mean when we say that the Ego is working in the consciousness soul? We mean that the severance, or birth, of the human microcosm from the macrocosm has just been completed. The consciousness soul, we might say, is ‹the having been cut off.›15

Owen Barfield in 1950s.
Courtesy of ‘Owen Barfield Papers’ held in the Bodleian Library, Oxford University. Source: Owen Barfield Literary Estate

The Age of the Consciousness Soul (beginning 15th c.) is thus characterized by humanity’s growing awareness of, and confrontation with, this «having been cut of» from the macrocosm. According to Steiner, the consciousness soul as a member of the human constitution inversely corresponds to the physical body which, as Barfield notes, «is complete in itself, enclosed within its own skin, like a little island. And when the Ego works right down into this principle, then on a higher level of consciousness is developed the consciousness soul with its corresponding spiritual isolation.»16 The rise of scientific materialism over the last 500 years is symptomatic, says Steiner, of this evolutionary development. Nature has been thoroughly objectified, emptied of all value, made opaque, and no longer mediates macrocosmic wisdom through its appearances to the human soul. Indeed, says Steiner, the soul is «poorest of all as Consciousness Soul, shriveled up to the consciousness of the self, as though to one point.»17 But with this poverty of soul, this «loss of participation,» comes also the boon of freedom. «At last,» writes Barfield, «the microcosm is fully and finally severed from the macrocosm. Only the uneasy question arises: has this microcosm any content? Does it really exist? Am I?»18 Thanks to a note Barfield wrote a friend, Leo Baker, we know that he was asking such questions during his period of acute depression. On August 20th, 1920, Barfield writes:

I have been seeing practically no-one with whom I can talk naturally of the things I want to talk about, and the result is that I am being forced in on myself like an ingrowing toe-nail. It has come to such a pass that I seem to be living in a land of dream. My self is the only thing that exists, and I wear the external world about me like a suit of clothes—my own body included. It—the world—seems to have about as much objective importance as a suit of clothes, and quite often I have a suspicion that I am really naked after all. When I am alone at night, I sometimes feel frightened of the silence ringing in my ears. Something inside me seems to be so intensely and burningly alive, and everything round me so starkly dead.19

Though he was alone in his despair, Barfield was alone in good company—for the note above is a perfect example of the existential ‹angst› suffered and exhaustively thematized by philosophers and artists in the late 19th and first half of the 20th century. Unmoored from tradition in the destructive aftermath of World War I, European intellectuals and artists stewed in the nothingness of freedom. Human beings were doomed to act, to choose their own paths and make their own meaning in a world without prescriptions. Early Surrealists even valorized suicide. Fortunately, Barfield made it across the abyss thanks to another experience, one that, though not yet typical, may become so: «Out of the nothingness and uncertainty, overtones begin to sound forth, bringing with them… a certainty of pure feeling, and then perhaps a conviction, an absolute knowledge, of the truth that resides in beauty and imagination.»20 Barfield knew this possibility from experience, for, after months of suffering through his acute depression

Rather suddenly one evening, one fine evening, at the end of a holiday in Switzerland, the clouds sort of lifted—I know this sounds very dramatic, but it is rather essential—all the misery I had felt, all this lifted with it, because I felt I would be able to find all the beauty I had fallen for in this woman in the whole world of nature.21

Barfield would later call this turning-point his «Sophia experience» and considered it the basis for all his subsequent literary and philosophical work on poetry and the evolution of consciousness. What brought this experience about? Undoubtedly, it was a moment of grace, but one for which Barfield’s individuality had somehow prepared him. According to Steiner, the major potential of the Consciousness Soul Age is to metamorphose this member of the human constitution into what he called the «Imagination Soul.» To do so necessitates a withdrawal of the consciousness soul inwards, away from external sense-impressions, to be then gradually filled with ‹Imaginations›, which in turn fill the physical body itself. «To clairvoyant vision», says Steiner, «the physical body is transformed into imaginations, which are pictures of the macrocosm.»22 Had Barfield’s gymnastic training attuned him, however unconsciously, to the macrocosmic correspondence of bodily gestures such that he might one day catch a moment’s glimpse of unitary meaning bodied forth by the gestures of Nature? Was the nascent insight catalyzed by Harwood back in Latin class—that metaphor can expand consciousness—brought to fruition in this most expansive «Sophia experience?» Apart from these speculations, we do know—per Barfield’s note to Leo Baker—that his crisis drove him inward «like an ingrowing toe-nail!» We also know that during this time he was marinating in true metaphors. As he reports, «I was deeply involved with poetry, both reading and writing it, especially the English Romantics, Keats and Shelley, Shakespeare’s Sonnets and so forth.»23 After this experience, Barfield added a line to one of the sonnets he wrote during his depression that conveys the power of aesthetic imagination to restore meaning to the world: «O Eve, my soul, my eyes with which I see!»24 But Barfield would not stop there—«human consciousness,» he insists, «can never, in its forms of expression, come to rest.»25 That many do stop here was what Barfield called the «tragedy» of Romanticism, for imagination gradually fell prey to the explanatory wiles of psychoanalytic reductionism and the like. A new question arises for the consciousness soul at this point: «in what way is Imagination true?» And this is where, for Barfield, the collaboration of consciousness soul and intellectual soul especially comes into play. We must cross the threshold of subject and object; the first step forward, he insists, is to arrive at a «right theory of knowledge,» one that can be verified through experience. Anthroposophy, Barfield says, is the solution to this dilemma—a Romantic theory of knowledge «come of age»:

Anthroposophy is, in one sense, the intellectual soul speaking to the consciousness soul. It is the science of meaning. «In genuine creative imagination,» it says to the consciousness soul, «you are already taking the first step towards reunion with the macrocosm; for it is not man alone who creates in Imagination, but Nature herself!»26

The gradual expansion of consciousness through creative imagination leads, it is said, to clairvoyance—the capacity to see through appearances and once more perceive the world’s unitary, yet dynamically unfolding, meaning. Having reached this point, theoretically, one then passes through the null-point initiated by the awakening of self-consciousness and achieves an individualized participation in the living sphere of macrocosmic Wisdom. «And the soul which makes ‹anthroposophia› a part of itself,» says Barfield, «gradually begins to know this mystery of the emergence of the old man from the new as a fact of concrete experience.»27 He alludes here to the resurrection after the Mystery of Golgotha of course, but as recapitulated in individuals through the process described above. Crucially, this also involves the resurrection of the body: when the consciousness soul metamorphoses into the Imagination soul, the body becomes transparent once more and shines as an image of the weaving whole—as microcosm. «The instinct for self-knowledge, one might say for the body, is growing at a rapid pace,» writes Barfield in 1944, «and undermining not only ‹Romantic› experience but all experience of an emotional nature.»28 Today this sounds prophetic in wake of advances in science and technology which strive to reduce the human organism to a manipulable machine, one that may be progressively augmented along transhumanist lines. «It is good to bring to the surface of consciousness the hidden workings of the body,» says Barfield, «but only if one is prepared to go further and unmask in that body itself the hidden workings of the spiritual hierarchies.»29

Such is the guidance which flows from my attempt to follow the individuality of Arthur Owen Barfield as he finishes the remaining days of his review. Discovering that the summer of 1923 was the genesis point for his lifelong intellectual conflict with Lewis and Maud pointed me further back to his period of acute depression and its resolution in the «Sophia experience,» that which gave him confidence in the truthfulness of imagination. I propose that this constitutes Barfield’s «crossing of the threshold,» a spiritual mutation which, according to Steiner, all of humanity has been undergoing (mostly unconsciously) since the end of the 19th century. The confrontation with nothingness, nihilism, extreme materialism—all of which are rampant right now: we all face this in the age of the consciousness soul. And though we might find fellowship on the other side, we must each pass through the null-point alone—as individuals. That Barfield could maintain fidelity to his own experience and his friendship with Lewis, his marriage with Maud, testifies to his love for them and their own freedom. Apart from these reflections, I leave each reader to decide what guidance issues from the essay as a whole. To end, I share a quote from the book authored by Barfield that he reportedly loved the most, ‹Unancestral Voice›:30

Men have called me by many names; Batkhol, Daimon, Khochmah, and many more. But that was long ago. Men have also called me Sophia. Once I was the ancestral voice of the Father-wisdom, the theosophia that spoke inarticulately through blood and instinct, but spoke articulately only in the mysteries and through the sibyls, the prophets, the masters. But at the turning-point of time, by that central death and rebirth which was the transformation of transformations, by the open mystery of Golgotha, I myself was transformed. I am that anthroposophia who, by whatsoever communications howsoever imparted she shall first have been evoked, is the voice of each one’s mind speaking from the depths within himself.31

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  1. Blaxland-de Lange, Owen Barfield: Romanticism Come of Age: A Biography, 28.
  2. Owen Barfield, Poetic Diction (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1973), 122.
  3. Barfield, Poetic Diction, 41.
  4. Barfield, Poetic Diction, 48.
  5. Barfield, Poetic Diction, 37.
  6. Barfield, Poetic Diction, 55.
  7. Barfield, Poetic Diction, 86-87.
  8. Barfield, Poetic Diction, 63-64.
  9. Barfield, Poetic Diction, 88.
  10. Blaxland-de Lange, Owen Barfield: Romanticism Come of Age: A Biography, 186.
  11. Barfield, Poetic Diction, 85.
  12. Barfield, Poetic Diction, 86.
  13. Barfield, Poetic Diction, 88.
  14. Blaxland-de Lange, Owen Barfield: Romanticism Come of Age: A Biography, 20.
  15. Owen Barfield, Of the Consciousness Soul in Romanticism Comes of Age, pp. 84-103. (San Rafael, CA: The Barfield Press, 1966), 85-86.
  16. Barfield, Of the Consciousness Soul, 87.
  17. Rudolf Steiner, Lecture X in The Effect of Occult Development on the Self and Sheathes of Man, 1913.
  18. Barfield, Of the Consciousness Soul, 91.
  19. Philip and Carol Zaleski, The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings, 107.
  20. Barfield, Of the Consciousness Soul, 96.
  21. Blaxland-de Lange, Owen Barfield: Romanticism Come of Age: A Biography, 20.
  22. Rudolf Steiner, Lecture X in The Effect of Occult Development on the Self and Sheathes of Man, 1913.
  23. Blaxland-de Lange, Owen Barfield: Romanticism Come of Age: A Biography, 21.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Barfield, Of the Consciousness Soul, 96.
  26. Barfield, Of the Consciousness Soul, 101.
  27. Owen Barfield, Of the Intellectual Soul in Romanticism Comes of Age, pp. 126-143. (San Rafael, CA: The Barfield Press, 1966), 140.
  28. Barfield, Of the Consciousness Soul, 100.
  29. Ibid.
  30. When Robert McDermott brought Barfield a copy of Unancestral Voice for his signature, saying «this is my favorite,» Barfield reportedly replied with appreciation: «mine too!»
  31. Owen Barfield, Unancestral Voice (Oxford, England: Barfield UK Press Press, 2010), 221.

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