Owen Barfield

Christianity and Literature, Vol. 43, No. 3-4 (Summer 1994), 427-28.

1994 CCL Lifetime Achievement Awards

At the Annual CCL Luncheon on 29 December 1994, held during the MLA Annual Convention in San Diego, Charles A. Huttar and Jewel Spears Brooker presented Lifetime Achievement Awards, respectively, to Owen Barfield and Denise Levertov on behalf of the organization. 

Owen Barfield

The publications of Owen Barfield go back more than seventy-five years—a lifetime indeed, as lives are ordinarily measured. They have a remarkable range:   essays, translation, philosophy, literary criticism, children's fiction, poetry, drama. The major writings also have a remarkable unity: Barfield insists that there is no "earlier and . .. later Barfield"; rather, "I have always been saying the same thing" (Shirley Sugerman, "A Conversation with Owen Barfield," in Evolution of Consciousness: Studies in Polarity, ed. Shirley Sugerman [Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1976], 9). This is all the more noteworthy because there was a period of about thirty years, right in the middle of his life, when his writing career was able to survive only on whatever energy might be left from working days spent in a busy law practice. During this period especially, Barfield exemplifies the oft-uttered ideal of an educated person as one who continues beyond formal schooling a vigorous intellectual life. He is Emerson's scholar—"Man thinking" (if we may risk Emerson's rather obsolete phrasing). Thus his career may give heart to those who worry about academia becoming too in-grown, too merely self-referential.

In Barfield's case, the lifetime of thinking has concentrated on an idea that he had as a young man—that the history of words opens for us a window onto much larger landscapes of thought, ultimately a whole philosophy of history and a whole metaphysics and epistemology. All of that is too much to go into now, but we may notice some key words: evolution, recovery, wholeness. The way the Western mind today seeks to apprehend reality is radically different from how it once was, and the change has involved loss as well as gain. Barfield's use of the word "evolution" is no endorsement of the Darwinian paradigm, for he rejected any divorce between the spiritual side of human being and the biological side. In the course of this evolution, knowledge of reality acquired through the ability to analyze has typically obscured the knowledge that comes by participation, so much so that meaning itself has been drastically diminished. Thus, central to Barfield's project is a call to the recovery of meaning, to the bringing together again of aspects of our being which have become polarized. For the kind of thinking that makes us excessively aware of polarities is not an end but a step along the path to wholeness.

If these are true insights, it is necessary to challenge the contrary assumptions that underlie much modern thinking—the chronological snobbery and the denial of meaning. And Barfield's persistence in doing so is a significant part of the lifetime achievement for which we recognize him today. So a fourth key word as we think about Barfield must be independence. His remarkable ability to "step outside the tyranny" (G. B. Tennyson, "Etymology and Meaning," in Evolution of Consciousness, 177) of the positivist mindset has pointed the way for countless others.

I will close by mentioning one passage where that independence of thought is evident. Early in the development of his ideas, Barfield found a great deal of stimulation in the writings of Rudolf Steiner. In an essay called "Philology and the Incarnation" he tells how these, in the crucible of his own keenly critical mind, led him from agnosticism to Christian belief (see The Rediscovery of Meaning, and Other Essays [Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1977], 235-36). I particularly value this not only for the clarity and wit of the argument—always typical of Owen Barfield, in a field of discourse too often marked by crabbed obscurity—but also for his mastery, in the account, of a fine surprise: enough, almost, to leave us silent upon a peak in San Diego.