Monday, 30 October 2017

Romanticism Comes of Age by Owen Barfield (1944) - From East to West

The first essay in Owen Barfield's 1944 collection Romanticism Come of Age is named From East to West - and it is one of the clearest, and most exciting, statement's of Barfield's basic field of concern: that is, the imagination. Here I will summarise the argument of the first four-and-a-half pages.

Barfield's thesis, and this is something of which he has convinced me, is that The Romantic movement was the start of something that was intended (by divine destiny) to be the next - and indeed final - qualitative stage in the evolution of human consciousness towards the divine mode of thinking.

Romantic artists such as Shelley, Beethoven, Byron and Wordsworth felt a creative-power in themselves in a way, and to a degree, that was new in human experience. However, this powerful feeling was never explicitly articulated - and because of this, the Romantic impulse was thwarted.

More exactly, the Romantics were clear that their sense of creative-power implied a new freedom - which appeared in a distorted, perverted, materialistic form to drive the French Revolution - and also a new emphasis of Beauty. Shelley stated that truth must be poetic - and not, therefore, abstract and dry, like the typical 'science'; Keats equated Truth with Beauty, and stated that he was certain only of the heart's affections and the truth of imagination.

Yet, for all their (correct, according to Barfield - and I agree) emphasis on the new possibilities of Freedom (more exactly human agency) and Beauty; the Romantics lacked an ultimate, metaphysical explanation of the basis of these assertions. In other words, although The Imagination was hailed as vital; it never was explained in what sense Imagination was True - in what sense imagination was a form of actual knowledge.

The Romantics should have explained why imagination was indeed a kind of knowing. That they did not, was what Barfield termed the tragedy of Romanticism; the lack of which led to the collapse of Romanticism into its present status as merely a kind of diversion, a superior form of 'Rest and Recuperation' (R&R) whose pragmatic role is now merely to keep-us-going in an increasingly materialist, reductionist modern world typified by globally-linked bureaucracy and the mass media.

In essence, Romanticism gave us Freedom and Beauty - but left Truth to unreformed, materialistic 'science' - where it throve for a while, but has by now died for lack of broader context - as professional science has become nothing-more-than a vast generic, careerist bureaucracy, that is not even trying to attain Truth.

For Barfield, the crux of this tragedy was specifically-located in chapter thirteen of ST Coleridge's Biographia Literaria (1817), at the point where the author postponed (and, as it turned-out, abandoned) his incipient attempt to do exactly what was needed - in a concise and explicit form. This crux has been subjected to deep analysis in Barfield's later work - especially the book What Coleridge Thought (1971) - in the course of which Barfield recovers the scattered fragments of Coleridge's 'lost' solution to the problem of imagination from the corpus of his writings.

However, Barfield is able to announce that Romanticism has, indeed, come of age, and has achieved its philosophical completion, in the work of Rudolf Steiner. This happened via Goethe - who did not articulate philosophically but instead lived the fullness of Romanticism - the answer being made explicit and public in the years between Steiner's Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe's World Conception of 1886 and The Philosophy of Freedom of 1894. Steiner made Goethe's implicit-lived-answer into exactly the concise, focused and explicit philosophical account that the original Romantics failed to provide.

However, for various reasons (mostly bad, some understandable) Steiner's answer has been ignored by the mainstream - and Western Society continued as if it never had happened. In one sense, Barfield's life was spent in trying to revisit this lost-moment when Romanticism failed to ask and answer the necessary question. Barfield compares this with Sir Percival/ Parsifal's failure to ask the right question at the right time in the Quest for the Holy Grail - it took a long time and a lot of suffering before the question could again be asked, and this time answered.

For Barfield, the period of suffering would include the terrible 20th century he lived-through (with its materialism, atheism, totalitarianism, world wars and international mass exterminations) and - no doubt - the current 21st century with its pervasive nihilistic despair and mandatory insanity in all Western societies.

But now we have Barfield to add to Steiner; and the answer is there for anybody prepared to make the effort first to understand it; and then to begin to practise it. The destiny of Romanticism can now be completed, imagination and science can be synthesised - and can become our way of life.

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