Sunday 30 April 2017

Owen Barfield's remarkable prophecies of 60 years ago

From Saving the Appearances by Owen Barfield, 1957.

Science, with the progressive disappearance of original participation, is losing its grip on any principle of unity pervading nature as a whole and the knowledge of nature. The hypothesis of chance has already crept from the theory of evolution into the theory of the physical foundation of the earth itself; but more serious perhaps than that is the rapidly increasing "fragmentation of science" . . . There is no "science of sciences"; no unity of knowledge. There is only an accelerating increase in that pigeon-holed knowledge by individuals of more and more about less and less, which, if persisted in indefinitely, can only lead mankind to a sort of "idiocy" . . . a state of affairs, in which fewer and fewer representations will be collective, and more and more will be private, with the result that there will in the end be no means of communication between one intelligence and another.

This has, indeed happened - with the added twist that people lack any explicit awareness of the fact; since they lack even the capacity to represent the problem to themselves. Furthermore, there has been a dual change: shrinking of interest into ever-more-micro specialisms combined with a narrowing of the criteria for evaluation. Not only do we lack a 'science of sciences' but we lack any overall evaluation by which we might judge whether science is progressing or regressing, making sense or degenerating into incoherence.

(see the chapter "Micro-specialization and the infinite perpetuation of error" in my book Not Even Trying: )

It may be objected that this is a very small matter, and that it will be a long time before the imagination of man substantially alters those appearances of nature with which his figuration supplies him. But then I am taking the long view. Even so, we need not be too confident. Even if the pace of change remained the same, one who is really sensitive to (for example) the difference between the medieval collective representations and our own will be aware that, without traveling any greater distance than we have come since the fourteenth century, we could very well move forward into a chaotically empty or fantastically hideous world. But the pace of change has not remained the same. It has accelerated and is accelerating. We should remember this, when appraising the aberrations of the formally representational arts. Of course, in so far as these are due to affectation, they are of no importance. But in so far as they are genuine, they are genuine because the artist has in some way or other experienced the world he represents. And in so far as they are appreciated, they are appreciated by those who are themselves willing to make a move towards seeing the world in that way, and, ultimately therefore, seeing that kind of world. We should remember this, when we see pictures of a dog with six legs emerging from a vegetable marrow or a woman with a motorbicycle substituted for her left breast. 

Barfield is here describing the capacity of imagination to make things worse rather than better - that a recognition of the power of imagination can be used to re-construct the world with dishonest purposes. As with the corruption of science, this works by changing both sides of the equation.

In the past sixty years; this has been the malign effect of the mass media. The mass media have grown and developed an addictive hold over The West; and thereby substantially gained control over the imagination - which it uses on one side to subvert and on the other to fill the mind with virtual realities; until the psychological effect is that the media have displaced reality as perceived by personal experience and reflection.  

A clear current example is in the realm of sex and sexuality. With respect to the sexes; on one side - the media (and its allies in professional academia) have incrementally reduced the understanding and distinction of male and female sexes into being regarded as nothing more than a mere social convention based on reactionary manipulations; and on the other hand claiming that surgical and pharmacological technology can change a man into a woman or vice versa. The resulting mixture of blatant falsehood and aggressive assertion (backed by state power) has (deliberately, strategically) thrust a profound confusion into societal discourse with an already massive and still growing destructive potential that affects both individuals and communities.

As for the domain of human sexuality; what would have been regarded (at the time Barfield was writing) as a chaotically empty and fantastically hideous world has come to pass. Many features of our contemporary world - a world actively endorsed and increasingly enforced by modern ruling elites - was depicted by Barfield in his 1984 novella Night Operation.

The appearances will be ‘saved’ only if, as men approach nearer and nearer to conscious figuration and realize that it is something which may be affected by their choices, the final participation which is thus being thrust upon them is exercised with the profoundest sense of responsibility, with the deepest thankfulness and piety towards the world as it was originally given to them in original participation, and with a full understanding of the momentous process of history, as it brings about the emergence of the one from the other.

Barfield was a Christian; who understood the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ as an event of cosmic significance - the inflexion point of human (and divine) history. He saw history as centred upon the divine destiny of enabling the increasingly divine nature of each person and of humankind in general - of both Men and Man.

And the centre of this divine destiny is the evolution of consciousness towards the god-like state of Final Participation - that is full consciousness of everything; which is a necessary prerequisite for becoming full Sons and Daughters of God.

Yet our divine destiny of Final Participation has been ignored, then rejected, by nearly all individuals and all the Western societies; and this is the cause of Barfield's prophecies negative coming true - indeed leading to a spiritual situation even worse than he articulated.

On the other hand; it is not too late. As individuals we may - by our irresistible free agency - choose to return to the path of destiny; and if enough individuals do this - then so will society at large. 


Lost Pilgrim said...

How would you move us closer to our Christ natures? I can see modern society is stepping backward so fast we're heading off a cliff.

Bruce Charlton said...

@LP - Trying to answer that is the main theme of another blog: