I have to apologize for subjecting the readers of this blog to two rambling and practically incoherent essays on “epistemology” and Owen Barfield without taking the time to read much of what Barfield actually had to say.
Barfield is not easy reading. It takes effort to follow his arguments and even more effort to decipher where he wants you to go with what he is giving you. Fortunately, I started with a book of his that covers very familiar territory: Owen Barfield on CS Lewis is a collection of essays and addresses, written or delivered at various times after Lewis’ death, in which Barfield remembers and comments on the thought and writings of his intimate friend, CS Lewis.
What struck me deeply about the book was the profound affection Barfield felt for his absent friend. Although the period of their deepest communion was a brief two years while they were both still undergraduates, the two of them were fortunate in being able to continue their friendship for the remainder of their lives. In addition, their friendship appears to have been one of those which Lewis himself described in The Four Loves; one in which the friendship is enriched rather than diminished by the inclusion of other friends. Charles Williams, J.R.R . Tolkien, Walter Hooper, Barfield’s fellow Steinerite A.C. Harwood, Joy Davidson, and the phelgmatic Mrs. Moore, with whom Lewis conducted a maybe-not-so-platonic affair for the majority of his adult life, all make their way into the narrative and are all remembered by Barfield with great fondness.
The book is as much about Barfield’s thought as it is about Lewis. The best essay in the collection, “Either:Or: Coleridge, Lewis, and Romantic Theology” is also the densest and most impenetrable. Only twice have I had the unsettling experience of reading something that I was certain would tie up all the loose ends I have flapping around in my mind and present me with a Unified Field Theory of God, Life, Logic, Language, Imagination, Knowledge and Everything. Both times I have been following the thread of the writer’s argument with increasing excitement, saying “amen” under my breath to everything he has to say, when suddenly the writer sprouts wings and the argument flies into the Empyrean leaving me quite behind. I plod along through pages of material I cannot begin to assimilate until I come through to the other side, where the writer descends once again to my level of understanding. However, I find the world and everything in it completely changed as a result of something that occurred in that upper storey to which I, alas, still have no access.
The first time was while reading Zen and The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. The second was while reading the essay I mentioned above. Interestingly, both works dealt with something akin to what Barfield says that Coleridge called “polarity”. When two concepts are logically opposed, they cannot both be right any more than two physical objects can occupy the same space. However, when two concepts are in polar opposition, each one necessarily generates the other and is transformed into it. Barfield states that the proper faculty for the apprehension of this is not so much the logical, critical faculties of the intellect but rather the imagination. Here we run into problems. The imagination is suspect in our day and age since it is routinely relegated to the realm of the non-existent or the false.
You can see this the most clearly in the modern (not post-Modern) attitude towards the traditional Lives of the Saints among most Protestants and their fellow travelers for whom whatever could have been recorded by a time-traveler with a video camcorder is considered true and everything else is imaginary; that is to say – false, illusionary, leading to deception. Of course, these same Protestants take it very hard when you approach the Bible itself with the same attitude. You are either told that if you refuse to hear the voice of God speaking in the Bible, you are not likely to consider the truth if it comes to you from another source (presuppostional apologetics), or you are buried in a avalanche of minutae about Darius the Mede or ingenious arguments about alternative dates for the regencies of Hebrew kings (evidential apologetics).
Remember my earlier discussion of Francis Schaeffer and Malcolm Muggeridge? Schaeffer is a firm believer in Christianity as the great historical religion. I take this to mean that Schaeffer believed with all of his heart that if he had been a time-traveler with a camcorder he would have captured a woman, a snake, and an apple. To be very fair to Schaeffer, I believe this myself and unapologetically, but I am getting very close to the opinion that it is the wrong question to be asking. For example, if someone had been present with a tape recorder at the time recorded by John 12:28,29 , would he have recorded the voice of God the Father, the voice of an angel, or a simple thunderclap?
I think that what Barfield is saying is that imagination is as active a component in establishing the truth of a thing, especially the truth of a person, as is what Carlyle referred to as “imperial analysis”. To illustrate what I mean, go and see Father Stephen’s embedded video of Saint Nikolai Velimirovich, where the saint, at the end of the video, is portrayed in a series of photographs as an aging man, then finally, as an icon. Now an icon is a product of the Church’s contemplation of that saint. Barfield, I believe, would call it an exercise of the Church’s imagination, as if, when the man who can be caught on video and photograph perishes, he is meant to be translated into legend.