Tuesday 5 April 2016

Reviews of Unancestral Voice and Night Operation by Owen Barfield

Unancestral Voice (1965) is usually described as a novel, but it isn't: it is a philosophical 'dialogue', of the type pioneered by Plato. All the interest lies in the philosophy; and this is extremely interesting. I have now read the book twice, pretty carefully, and although I have learned a lot, I still feel that I have only scraped its surface.

Owen Barfield is, indeed, a very deep and rigorous thinker, who has a very appealing authorial persona - in other words it is a great pleasure to spend time in his company. However, he is not easy to read - or, at least, I do not find him so; and it took me quite a few years and attempts before I manged to tune-into him.

Unancestral Voice is about metaphysics - that is, it is concerned with the most fundamental level of understanding about reality. Indeed, its focus is pretty much the same as the very first philosophers of Ancient Greece, which is the nature of change. What happens when things change - what is it that changes, what remains the same - how can we conceptualize and explain this?

In particular, Barfield writes about evolution, including ancient ideas and the more recent theory of Natural Selection; and (speaking as a professional biological evolutionary theorist, who has read and thought about the subject a great deal for some 25 years) I have found Barfield's insights revolutionary - far, far deeper than anything else I have ever read on the subject.

There is also consideration of Rudolf Steiner, DH Lawrence, the sexual revolution, modern alienation, law and justice - and the whole is (very indirectly, but firmly) put into a Christian context.

I don't suppose very many people would find this book anything like as interesting as I do - but I can assure potential readers that any efforts to get to grips with it will be time very well spent; and indeed I think that, within Barfield's oeuvre some of the material here is not dealt with anywhere else - Unancestral Voice is thus close to being an indispensable book. I already know that I shall be re-returning to it - and more than once.


Night Operation (1975) is also called a novel, and described as dystopian science fiction; but again it is actually in the Platonic Dialogue genre - and the descriptions of the future and the (rather limited) action of the (undeveloped) protagonists is of little or no dramatic interest.

So, it ought to be read more as an essay than a story - and taken as such it is very interesting and at times heart-liftingly beautiful. It is also surprisingly waspish - even aggressive! - in its satire of modernity, sexuality and what we would now call Political Correctness.

Barfield saw clearly the way that things were going in The West - and the ways that problems would emerge and be dealt with: he is prescient in capturing the quality (rather than the detail) of our bizarre and insane world as it has turned out forty years after the book was published.

I think this very strong, in-your-face, anti-Leftism may be why this book has been so persistently mis-described in the accounts of it which I have read over the years (since most Barfieldians seem to be on the Left politically, and spiritual rather than religious - they would not relish those 'reactionary' aspects that I appreciated).

So the book came as a great surprise to me - very different in flavour and focus from what I expected.

However, Night Operation is very short indeed! Just 64 pages and running, I would guess, at considerably less than 20,000 words - yet it was sold in 2008 at the price of a full novel. As it was, I had to pay a lot to get a copy, even secondhand.

So, overall, I would say that Night Operation is well worth reading, but not really worth the cost.

The Owen Barfield Literary Estate would do better to make Night Operation available free online, and then perhaps the book might get the readership it merits.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for these lively and encouraging reviews!

I feel quite idiotic not to have read more Barfield when I was near good libraries that probably or even certainly had his books - given how much I have enjoyed what I have heard or read by him. (He permitted us to do a dramatic reading of some of Worlds Apart at the Oxford Lewis Society, once - do you think these dialogues would 'work' if heard?)

'Mutability' and 'continuity & change' are such interesting 'matters' - so much a part of Tolkien's mythology and legendarium, and, for instance, of Narnia, too. You make me keen to try Unancestral Voice! (A Coleridgean quibble with "Ancestral voices prophesying war" from "Kubla Khan"?)

The Owen Barfield Literary Estate at


gives links for books in print, gives ISBN numbers for all they select with the note "These books are widely available from online retailers. Please search by ISBN" - but also says, "40% discount for nine books or more. Please contact us directly." Have you tried contacting them to see just what they mean by this? (When I was living in and helping look after The Kilns, we used to go round the charity shops and buy up inexpensive second-hand copies, of Lewis, Inklings, Chesterton, MacDonald, etc., books, to have available for sale to visitors partly as a sort of 'public service': might they have some such thing in mind?)

David Llewellyn Dodds

Bruce Charlton said...

@David - I realized after posting this that, from fear of 'spoilers', I had said almost nothing about the actual content of Night Operation! But I decided to let this stand, since the strangeness and surprise are part of what I found enjoyable about it.

Thanks for the information about finding copies. I don't myself have any contact with the Barfield executors. I am, in a sense, quite new to Barfield as I have explained on this blog before - I have been reading him on and off for many years, but it was only last year (after reading the new The Fellowship Inklings biography by the Zaleskis) that the penny dropped, I tuned-into him and understood him.

Since then I have filled in nearly all of the gaps in my Barfield reading and given my main thought to understanding it. He is deep - and I have not got to the bottom!

Aside - my main virtue as an academic (including as a scientist) is that I know when I do *not* know - I knew that despite considerable effort I did not properly engage with Barfield - and therefore I knew when I did. This knowing when I do not know I regard as a precious gift, since it has led to the main breakthroughs of my scholarly life.

For example, psychiatric depression -- back in the mid 1980s when I was doing my doctorate 'everybody else' vaguely supposed they did understand this problem, but I knew they and I did not, and was therefore motivated to continue striving to understand it for some 15 years, until I pretty much achieved this aim.

Anonymous said...

Spoilers are always tricky, and to read that something is "described as dystopian science fiction; but again it is actually in the Platonic Dialogue genre" is already pretty enticing!

David Llewellyn Dodds

Bruce Charlton said...

@DLD - Yes - The difference is that Barfield does go in for a lot of description (world building) as well as the dialogue - but the aim is philosophical, not narrative.