Sunday 23 September 2018

The synergy of CS Lewis and Owen Barfield

It is well known that CS Lewis and Owen Barfield were best friends, from soon after 1919 when they met as undergraduates in Oxford University until Barfield's death in 1997, some 34 years after Lewis had died.

Because Barfield's active engagement with Lewis - as man and thinker - continued right throughout his life, as evidenced in the fascinating (and deep) 1989 collection Owen Barfield on CS Lewis.

Most people, until recently, have approached Barfield via his more famous and influential friend; or have tired to tease out the 'influence' one had upon the other. But I have gradually come to realise that there are richer rewards from considering both together as complementary - indeed synergistic - writers. I mean by this that each offers something that the other lacks and needs; and considered together they are greater than their sum.

Starting with Lewis, we can see that he was the more creative and accomplished writer, and that he was able to express instinctively more than he could (or would) comprehend explicitly. For example, there are depths, there is heart and resonance in Lewis's imaginative fiction - especially the Narnia stories but also the Planetary trilogy, and also in his imaginative essays such as the Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce - that are absent-from, and even contradicted-by, Lewis's theoretical and explicitly-Christian writings..

Barfield was a deeper, more rigorous and honest theoretician than Lewis. Indeed, Barfield understood Lewis and Lewis's writing, better than Lewis understood himself. In this sense, Barfield was 'largher' than Lewis - but Barfield could not accomplish what Lewis did - so it could be said that Lewis expressed Barfield better than Barfield expressed himself! This is why they are complementary.

They are also synergistic, because when they are considered together, we can see that the combination of Lewis and Barfield make-up a really tremendous resource with vast potential for exploration and extension: something which has barely yet been begun.

Something that has limited this, so far, is that while the basis for understanding Lewis's fiction depends on an understanding of his interaction with JRR Tolkien and Charles Williams - and these are accessible and comprehensible writers; understanding Barfield depends on getting to grips with Rudolf Steiner - and this is a very much larger and more difficult task!

However, over the past several years, it is something I have done - and the rewards are immense. Barfield in deed, made it easier for us by telling us to focus on two of Steiner's earliest, and most straightforward, writings: The theory of knowledge based on Goethe's world conception of 1894; and The Philosophy of Freedom of 1896. Both take careful, prolonged, thought-full reading to understand - but the task is not beyond someone who really wants to do it.

So what might we get from this endeavour of combining Barfield with Lewis?  In brief, we get to understand - both in practice and in theory - exactly what it means that imaginative literature is true. We all sense, as Lewis sensed, that imagination takes us to places beyond and different from what can be stated explicitly in concepts - that indeed imagination is a kind of knowledge. And that fantasy, and invented worlds, provide something more real than real life.

We see all this demonstrated in practice in Lewis's writing, and we feel it with our hearts. But Lewis himself was confused and contradictory when it came to explaining how this works. Whereas Barfield understood it, in a conceptual and explicit fashion, as well as anybody ever has - but in ways that Lewis himself never really engaged-with.

Barfield often commented that although Lewis claimed to have been influenced by him; Barfield could not really perceive that influence. Barfield also explained that after Lewis became a Christian, Lewis absolutely avoided any deep and focused discussions on fundamental, metaphysical issues. (A fact that Barfield deeply regretted, although it never threatened their deep affection for one another).

And although Lewis read, admired and praised Barfield's writings - for example multply re-reading Worlds Apart during his final months of illness - Lewis did not show any sings of having either understood or accepted the major ideas in Barfield's writings.

This is not too surprising, because the differences between Barfield and Lewis were very deep; at the very deepest level of metaphysical assumptions. For Lewis to have accepted Barfield would have overthrown several of his most basic Christian theological beliefs - and this was probably why Lewis never engaged with Barfield. Lewis's main assertion was that all Christians shared a core Mere Christianity - yet Lewis's description of the content of Mere Christianity was quite different, in many significant respects, from Barfield's understanding of Christianity.

For instance; Lewis believed that God, and ultimate reality, were outside of Time; while Barfield believed that Time was universal, sequential, linear, irreversible. Linked; Lewis believed that human nature was the same among all people and in all times and places; while Barfield believed that human consciousness unfolded, developed, evolved throughout history. Lewis believed in an infinite gulf between God and Man; Barfield that it was Man's ultimate destiny to become divine in the same qualitative sense as God. 

This emphasises that for the fullness of the complementarity between Lewis and Barfiled to be recognised, requires that the reader be prepared to 'take Barfield's side' on these explicit philosophical questions - at least as a starting point. Whether someone wishes to entertain such a possibility depends on whether he believes that a theoretical understanding of imagination is important and necessary. Lewis was able to avoid engagement with Barfield, because Lewis regarded it as unnecessary and probably undesirable (perhaps lethal to imagination) to analyse and explain the structure and inner nature of imagination.

But Barfield believed that to become conscious of the truth in imagination was simply the most important and urgent task for modern Man. I agree with Barfield. If you also agree, then you simply could not do better than to study Lewis and Barfield together, as complementary, as indeed synergistic writers - as together yielding even more than both added together.

This essay has been published on L. Jagi Lamplighter's Superversive Inklings blog.

Monday 17 September 2018

Till We Have Faces - is it CS Lewis's best or worst book?

This is a real question - in the sense that some people - including his best friend Owen Barfield - say that the 1956 novel Till we have faces (TWHF) is Lewis's best fiction book, and Lewis himself sometimes said it was his best book! On the other hand it has never been very popular among the majority of Lewis devotees. I myself don't care for it*.

But this is also something of a trick question, in the sense that, uniquely in the entirely of Lewis's prose writings (novels, essays, theology, literary criticism, letters, journals) TWHF does not read as if it was written by Lewis.

So, those who enjoy Lewis's writing style would not be likely to enjoy TWHF. Indeed, they might - like me - actually dislike it because it appears under Lewis's name and with Lewisian expectations; even though, taken in and of itself, TWHF is a good quality novel.

The reason why TWHF reads differently is that it was, in effect, co-written by Lewis and his wife Joy Davidman - who was a professional writer and editor. To my eye and ear, TWHF is an edited book - that is, a book subjected to line-by-line editing; and this is unique to Lewis's oeuvre.

Lewis, in fact, wrote many of his most loved books in a single, 'first' draft, merely requiring correction. His personal letters are thus just as good as the Screwtape Letters! His journals are as good as The Allegory of Love. His journalistic essays, his sermons, his devotional books share a style and a spirit.

So why did Lewis think it was his best book? Perhaps because he wrote it with his wife, who soon after died. Perhaps because he laboured over it, and achieved something different from anything he had managed before. Perhaps because authors nearly always favour their least popular book - their beloved but unpopular child!

Why, then, did Barfield like TWHF best? I think perhaps because - and this comes across in many of OB's reflections on Lewis, Barfield had reservations about Lewis's normal, natural style. He recognised that Lewis was accessible and effective, and in a sense what was needed in his time and place - but Barfield's own taste in literature was more highbrow; and TWHF is Lewis's most highbrow novel, by some margin.

*Note: I do, however, love the title! One of the best ever, I would say. 

Tuesday 11 September 2018

My 'depictions of the Inklings by the Inklings' essay is posted at Superversive Inklings

L Jagi Lamplighter has posted my 'depictions' essay at the Superversive Inklings website - which is well worth browsing.

Wednesday 5 September 2018

The Last Battle - Narnian litmus test

The Last Battle - Book 7 of the Chronicles of Narnia by CS Lewis - is a real fan base-breaker, and serves as a litmus test of which side someone occupies in the culture wars.

This is the kind of book that gets either five star (top) reviews; or else elicits one star loathing.

I can recall before I was a Christian finding the book utterly intolerable, viscerally detestable - despite a long-term liking for several of the earlier books in the series. This is very common. Such people as I was, and as most Western people currently are, find exactly what is best about the book, to be the most revolting. They are simply revealing their own lost-ness and self-inflicted nihilism; and lashing-out with displaced anger against politically correct pseudo-flaws which are actually the book's deepest and most complex virtues.

It is the anger of the damned who know - deep down - that damnation is their own choice, that they could be saved - the door will open if they knock; but who have instead taken the ultra-selfish, ultra-short-termist, ultra-egotistical choice in Life; have disguised this under a show of fake-virtue - and don't want reminding of the fact.

But now... well... the first part of Last Battle is really hard to read, because it is so sad, and so real (here and now), and so effective at raising then dashing our hopes; but the book as a whole, including its later section especially, is absolutely wonderful! And the marvel of the second part depends on us having gone through the first part; and the resulting reshaping of priorities.

The passage on the dwarfs in the stable, for example, was directly instrumental in the late stages of my conversion, in crossing the line to become a Christian. It simply elicits gratitude. And several other parts of the book have become touchstones for particular problems in these end times, or for the ultimate nature of God, salvation and Heaven.

(This despite my very definitely not being a Platonist, like Lewis - here it doesn't matter.)

So, if you have not yet read The Last Battle, or have not read it recently; then perhaps you should - not least to see how you perform in the test, what colour you turn the litmus paper...

Comment from David Llewellyn Dodds - Listening again to Brahms's Alto Rhapsody the other day, I was struck by the similarity between Goethe's text and the experience of those Dwarfs in the Last Battle - and heartened by the prayer. We know Lewis knew some Goethe, and it got me wondering if this part of 'Harzreise im Winter' might have contributed to Lewis's work, here. (Interesting to compare, in any case, and leaving me wondering about any broader context of both...)

Sunday 2 September 2018

The genius of Tolkien's dwarves explained in terms of life history theory and the endogenous personality: a guest post by Kevin McCall

Tolkien’s Middle Earth is a slow life history world. Hobbits mature at 33 and regularly live to 100. Numenoreans also mature slowly (Gilraen at 22 was at first considered too young to marry Arathorn) and live to between 100 and 200. At over 100, Dain was considerd a mere “stripling” at 32 when he killed Azog and the dwarves regularly live 250 to 300 years.

 Furthermore, dwarves invest highly in their marriages: “For dwarves take only one wife or husband each in their lives, and are jealous, as in all matters of their rights”

All the things that are associated with slow life history should be associated with Middle Earth: the dwarves, hobbits, and the men of Gondor value their families and and Middle earth must be a highly stable environoment that changes slowly. All in all a highly "conservative" world, in the best sense of the word.

Most remarkable is the degree to which the dwarves match the ideas about genius described by Bruce Charlton in The Genius Famine. According to this book, the genius exhibits the endogenous personality:

“The Endogenous personality is the ‘inner’ Man; a person whose outlook on life is ‘inward.’ He is inner-directed, inner-driven, inner-motivated; one who uses inner modes of thinking, inner evaluations, in-tuition; one who is to a high degree autonomous, self-sufficient; one who is relatively indifferent to social pressures, influences and inducements”

In contrast to the exogenous personality:

“He stands in stark contrast to the Exogenous personality; that is, to most people. The Exogenous Personality is orientated toward the environment, particularly the social environment. These are people who want more than anything else social (including sexual) status, worldly success; people whose perceptions are directed outwards and who try to align their behaviour with group norms.”

Many dwarves exhibit this characteristic: “As for the men, very many also do not desire marriage, being engrossed in their crafts.” The endogenous personality is more common in men than in women and dwarves have an imbalance of men and women: “It was said by Gimli that there are few dwarf-women, probably no more than a third of the whole people.”

We can imagine that in dwarf society due to their high investment in marriage, marriage and children would be highly valued. Dwarf craftsmen would not have children, but would probably take apprentices at a young age, focusing not on reproducing but on passing down their knowledge. Furthermore, the ordinary dwarves, including dwarf women would be more endogenous, more focused on work and crafts than ordinary human beings. Dwarves would not be anti-social but dwarf socialization would be based around crafts and work.

The Genius Famine states “it was group selection which led to the evolution of geniuses.” In fact, the dwarves exhibit a high degree of group cohesion: after Thror was killed by Azog, all the dwarves, even those not descended from Durin began a massive war against the orcs: “Durin's folk gathered all their host, and they were joined by great forces sent from the Houses of other Fathers; for this dishonour to the heir of the Eldest of their race filled them with wrath.”

The dwarves are a species that relies on the products of genius rather than using genius occasionally, as is the case for humans: “There need not be many such men – indeed, there should not be too many, since the necessary mind is relatively unfit for the primary, day-to-day, activities of survival and reproduction of the species. But such men are needed – sooner or later, from time to time.”

It appears that about one third of the dwarf population is genius craftsmen, while the remaining two thirds raise a family in addition to their work. Actually, the number is fewer than this since of the dwarf women: “some desired none [husbands], some wanted one they could not have and would have no other.” This is the dwarven gambit: a species sustained by genius rather than by reproduction. In the harsh but stable environment of their mountain domains, the dwarves rely on the products of their craftsmen. Yet, there is a cost to produce such a large proportion of geniuses: “It is because of the fewness of women among them that the kind of the Dwarves increases slowly, and is in peril when they have no secure dwellings.”