Wednesday, 6 May 2015

On beginning to understand Owen Barfield - a matter of perspective.

I have been intermittently plugging-away at the writings of Owen Barfield over the past several years - I have read a selection of summaries and excerpts, essays online, read and watched interviews, the official biography; but so far had only really been able to engage with the enjoyable and stimulating Platonic dialogue Worlds Apart; which is a philosophical conversation between a variety of contrasting characters, taking place over a few days in a country house setting.

However, just over the past few days, I have quite suddenly 'tuned-into' what Barfield was getting-at; and have been finding it a very insightful and valuable thing.

The aspect which has grabbed my attention is his long-term endeavour to clarify how it is that Imagination (in a particular meaning, but one not far from ordinary usage) is not just a valid way of knowing, but an absolutely essential component of knowing (when knowing means genuinely to appropriate for oneself).

It was this which provided the focus of Barfield's 'Great War' (an extended epistolary debate with CS Lewis when they were best friends in the mid-1920s, and before Lewis became a Christian). Lewis loved Imagination, but not as a way of reaching reliable and valid knowledge. Barfield was trying to induce Lewis to change his mind on this matter, although Lewis never fully did so. I now think Barfield was correct.

Yet I still do not find Barfield at all easy to read - it is slow, it is hard work - but at least I have grasped what he is up-to; and discovered it is a matter with which I am in sympathy, I can at last begin to appreciate him and evaluate his contributions.

The lesson here is one that I have encountered before: with many writers there is a 'key' which unlocks them for appreciation and understanding; and that key is often a matter of perspective, which itself comes from an empathic identification with their agenda.

Since the writer may not himself be aware of his own true agenda, and since critics may also misapprehend this (or read-in a different agenda) this is something that the reader may need to discover for himself.

But the effort is worthwhile, because the key opens the author.



Anonymous said...

Very interesting - thank you!

I love Poetic Diction, and have enjoyed other bits and bobs I've read from other books, and find what he's written about Lewis interesting (if not always persuasive), but don't have enough of a sense of him.

I have not yet read the edition of the 'Great War' texts, but understand that Norbert Feinendegen is as at home in his works as he is in Lewis's and that this is evident from his dissertation (so far only available in the original German) - which I have not yet seen much less tried to read with my dodgy German.

David Llewellyn Dodds

Bruce Charlton said...

@DLD - No, I have not read the Great War book, although I would very much like to - it is just too expensive! I will perhaps see if I can borrow it from the British Library, but often you only get the book for a week with draconian fines for lateness...

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed Lionel Adey's book about their 'Great War' years ago, but I suspect getting through it all in a week might be a bit gruelling - unless reading on turned out to be irresistible as well as gruelling!

David Llewellyn Dodds