Barfield and Metaphor
Barfield, Shakespeare, and Greek Gods
Steiner's Influence on Barfield's Poetic Diction
by Owen Barfield
This article originally appeared in TOWARDS, Fall-Winter, 1983.
Artist Rendition of the The First Goetheanum
Architect: Rudolf Steiner
" Rudolf Steiner was born on February 27, 1861 in Kraljevec (now in Yugoslavia) the son of a minor railway official. At the age of eighteen he entered the Technische Hochschule in Vienna, where he studied mathematics, science, literature, philosophy and history, developing a special interest in Goethe. Three years later, still in Vienna, he was employed to edit Goethe's scientific writings for Kurschner's Nationalliteratur; from 1890 to 1897, at the Goethe and Schiller Archives in Weimar, he was engaged editing, for another edition of the Collected Works, virtually the whole of Goethe's scientific writings published and unpublished. His autobiography tells how at this time he enjoyed the friendship of a number of eminent men, such as Ernst Haeckel, the dogmatic exponent of Darwinian evolution, and Hermann Grimm, the historian. It was during this period also that he took his Ph.D. at Rostock University with a dissertation later to be revised and published under the title Wahrheit und Wissenschaft (Truth and Science). During the next four years Steiner became deeply involved in the intellectual life -- literary and dramatic societies and periodicals and so forth -- of Berlin, while at the same time he began his lifelong lecturing activity by giving courses of lectures under the auspices of the Workers Education Movement."
"It was not till the turn of the century that his true genius, unable to find expression through any of these outlets, but which had been steadily maturing within him, first came forth into the light. The historical moment was that one in which the western mind had reached the lowest depths of materialism, and there were few who would even listen to what he had to say. Outstanding among those few were the members of the Theosophical Society, who were in the act of founding a German Section. Steiner joined it, became its president (making the condition that he would be free to propound the results of his own spiritual research whether or no they accorded with the tenets of the Society) and remained with it for some years, until the sensationalism and triviality which he felt was corroding the sound impulse that had led to the Society's foundation obliged him to separate himself from it altogether. "
"The next ten years of his life are best seen as the first phase of the Anthroposophical movement, and in 1913 the Society bearing that name was founded by his followers in Munich, where his four Mystery Plays were later to be written and produced. There is not space here to deal with the distinction between that and the General Anthroposophical Society, which he himself founded in December 1923, a little more than two years before his death on the 30th March 1925. Suffice it to say that from 1902 to the end of his life he devoted all his energies (writing some forty books and delivering not less than six thousand lectures) to the cultivation and dissemination of Anthroposophy -- to which he also gave the name of Spiritual Science -- and at the last, to the affairs of the Anthroposophical Society, which he hoped would become the germ of a worldwide community of human souls."
"So much for externals. As to the substance of his teachings and his life, I cannot see him otherwise than as a key figure -- perhaps on the human level, the key figure -- in the painful transition of humanity from what I have ventured to call original participation to final participation. The crucial phase in that transition was, and indeed is, modern man's inveterate habit of experiencing matter devoid of spirit, and consequently of conceiving spirit as less real, and finally as altogether unreal. That experience, for good and ill, lies at the foundation of contemporary science and technology, and is daily confirmed and ingrained by their predominance in all walks of life and areas of thought. Consequently the redemption of science is a sine qua non for the transition. Goethe's scientific work, properly understood, went far towards achieving that redemption, and Steiner welcomed it for that reason and then went on to develop it further. We see Goethe achieving and applying what he called "objective thinking," an activity and an experience that transcends the gulf between subject and object and thus overcomes that diremption1 of matter from spirit to which I have referred. The redemption of science presupposes the redemption of thinking itself. But Goethe refused to think about the "objective thinking" he applied so effectively. "
"Steiner on the other hand did precisely that and in his earliest writings, for example Truth and Science and The Philosophy of Freedom, succeeded in transcending the crucial dichotomy epistemologically too. The thinking of others, such as Hegel and the Nature Philosophers in Germany and Coleridge in England, had taken the same direction, but none of them had achieved their aim so authoritatively or so completely. Coleridge could write of "organs of spirit," with a latent function analogous to that of our more readily available organs of sense, and Goethe could apply his objective thinking to supplement causality with metamorphosis. But neither of them could carry cognition of spirit beyond spirit-as-phenomenally-apparent in external nature; it was in Steiner that western mind and western method first achieved cognition of pure spirit. The others were all apostles of Imagination in its best sense, Steiner alone of those profounder levels he himself termed Inspiration and Intuition, but which may together be conceived of as Revelation -- as Revelation in the form appropriate to this age -- as a mode of cognition, to which the noumenal ground of existence is accessible directly, and not only through its phenomenal manifestation, to which therefore even the remote past can become an open book. "
"It seems that at any point of time when human consciousness is called on to take an entirely new direction, to effect a real transition, a seed surviving from the past is needed to shelter the tender germ of the future. Aristotle, the father of modern science carried within him his twenty years under Plato in order to turn effectively away from them. In the early years of Christianity it was those in whom something of the old spiritual perception still lingered, who were best adapted to understand the cosmic significance of the life and death of Christ. Gnosticism had done its work before it was rejected by the Church. Steiner himself as a child brought with him into the world a vestigial relic of the old clairvoyance, the old "original" participation. Biographies and his own autobiography bear witness to it. And it is credibly reported of him that he took deliberate steps to eliminate it, not even rejecting the help of alcohol, in order to clear the decks for the new clairvoyance it was his destiny both to predict and to develop. "
"Rudolf Steiner was in fact not merely a phenomenally educated and articulate philosopher but also a Man of Destiny; and I believe it is this fact that is so grievously delaying his recognition. By comparison, not only with his contemporaries but with the general history of the western mind, his stature is almost too excessive to be borne. Why should we accept that one man was capable of all these revelations, however meaningful they may be? But there is also the other side of the coin. If those revelations are accepted, they entail a burden of responsibility on humanity which is itself almost beyond description. It is easy to talk of macrocosm and microcosm, but for man the microcosm not only to believe but to realize himself as such, implies a greatness of spirit, a capacity of mind and heart, which we can only think of as superhuman rather than merely human. The mental capacities which Steiner's lifework reveals even to those who reject his findings, and the qualities of heart and will to which all those testify who had personally to deal with him may reassure us, by exemplifying, that the stature of microcosm is not, or may at least not be in the future, out of reach of man as we know him. In him we observe, actually beginning to occur, the transition from homo sapiens to homo imaginans et amans. "
In 1928 Owen Barfield published "Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning" which lays a foundation for studying language and poetry in relationship to human consciousness.
Barfield clearly states that poetry exists primarily in the world of consciousness. Material things such as waves of air molecules or ink spots on paper may convey the thoughts of poetry but poetry itself is immaterial and in the world of consciousness.(pg 41). Barfield admits that his book will not discuss the effect that the rhythm and sound of groups of words have upon the meaning or poetry. Barfield will deal exclusively with the intellectual meaning of poetry.
Reader experiences pleasure at the time of the change in consciousness.
I believe that the change of consciousness that Barfield calls aesthetic imagination is a change of the "feel" of the sum total of a person's consciousness when they read poetry. At any given time we are aware of many things. Suppose a fly enters into my consciousness. This augments or expands my consciousness and may be said to add to my knowledge but I don't think Barfield would argue that this was a complete change of consciousness. Poetic diction changes the entire universe or field of consciousness. All of the objects of consciousness may be the same but their sum total as a unit of consciousness is altered and the ego of the conscious observer has a different relationship to field of consciousness. This issue is crucial in understanding the late evolutionary phase where our consciousness is becoming more and more an "object" or something the "I" can detach itself from and hence observe.(My own observation)
Poetic diction may cause us to match new concepts to familiar percepts(pure sense data)-if we read a South Sea Islanders phrase for a steamer:
"Thlee-piece bamboo, two-piece puff-puff, walk-along inside, no-can-see."
We feel the consciousness of the Islander because new concepts are matched to the usual percepts. This is not poetic diction to the Islanders themselves, but it is to the European.( 48). No conscious artistic effort is required if the recipient's consciousness is altered.
Same with poets from other times and civilizations. There's double change of consciousness-we experience aesthetic imagination of the individual and we experience the time and place, the social milieu of this person which comes in unconsciously on the poet's part.(51)
This altered consciousness may be achieved by nonverbal means. A westerner who enters a hindu temple experiences a change of consciousness by absorbing all the sensory impressions. Somehow the relationship and overall design of these impressions arouses new concepts from within. This is similiar to the experience of metaphor which Barfield addresses in Poetic Diction. The issue is the idea of latent concepts-Why do we possess concepts that seem to wait for the correct sensory input in order to activate? Also we need pre existing concepts for our experience of different consciouness fields. (MOO)
Barfield points out that poetry not only creates the pleasure of a change of consciousness but also gives the reader something permanent. Our conceptual apparatus expands and we now bring more to sensory data then we did previously. We gain knowledge and wisdom.
Crucial Issue of Pure Experience
On page 56 of Poetic Diction Barfield reveals how his ideas about poetry and consciousness owe a debt to Rudolf Steiner's theory of knowledge. Here Barfield posits a mighty imagination that Steiner used as the basis for his belief in the universality and objectivity of thinking. Barfield asks the reader to imagine normal sensory perceptions--everyday objects, sounds, and smells. Then the reader is given the difficult task of imagining the same but without the mental concepts that we bring to the perceptions. As we remove our concepts, "...the phenomenal cosmos is extinguished".
In The Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe's World Conception Rudolf Steiner presents a similiar imagination as a starting point for his theory of knowledge:
Barfield was influenced by Steiner's insistence of treating our thoughts and concepts about an object as part of the object. Steiner believed that thinking was universal and flowed in both the subject and object. An individual's thinking contributes to the phenomenal universe. Thinking is not something that we lay gratuitously upon already completed phenomena, but is an integral part of the phenomena themselves. Our thinking is comprised of the same substance which comprises all objects; therefore, human knowledge is possible. Thinking only needs to know itself, no mediating substance needs to be posited.
Barfield's Poetic Diction is an great example of applied anthroposophy. I believe that Barfield was greatly influenced by Rudolf Steiner's approach to knowledge. When we confront metaphor, familiar sense data feels different because a new, unifying concept is projected upon our old concepts. Armed with this new concept, we approach the sense data with a new consciousness. When we read about trees or stones in a poem, our basic concepts of these objects are brought forth from memory. The metaphor in the poem, I believe, brings forth a new latent concept from our thinking. The new concept resided somewhere within our thinking but the poem has brought it into consciousness for the first time. The change of consciousness lies dormant within ourselves waiting to be released from its dormancy by the active power of the poetic metaphor.
Furthermore, the higher unifying concept is generally not limited to the sense objects in question. This new concept may be a projection of the inner working of the human being. If we examine the bird in flight, we may be struck with the way the light falls upon its plumage. The poet may recognize that this visual presentation is strikingly similar to the feeling experienced when a beautiful or harmonious thought arises in the human being. The poet may use a "thinking" metaphor to describe this sense experience. Or he may describe the inner sense of thinking with a 'bird" metaphor. The recognized correspondence between inner thought and outer nature is an addition to human knowledge. The connection is not coincidental, but is real. The inner life of the human being exists in the relationships of outer nature.
Rudolf Steiner made extensive use of "metaphorical" knowledge and presented much of his "occult" knowledge through aesthetic perception. In "Man as a Symphony of the Creative World" Steiner examined the animals with artistic perception:
The observer achieves an "artistic" conception of the world by observing the dynamic forces at play in the object. Steiner observes that the bird's head is stunted in comparison with the heads of mammals. An aesthetic feel for the bird's form reveals that its head is "...not a head in a true sense.." and
Steiner asks the observer to look into the creative and formative forces of the bird. The observer cannot solely rely on the sense perceptible material forms of the creature, but must get a feel for the creative activity that "sculpted" those forms and how those froms work dynamically in the bird's actions. Steiner:
When we think away the purely material aspects of the bird, the formative force aspects stand revealed. What is very present in physicality in the lion-a huge head-is of little physical presence in the bird. But the physical head is transformed into a state of "headness" in the dynamic formative forces of the bird. What is minimal to purely material observation is dominant in the observation of the force nature of the creature.
Steiner traces this extra-sensible "headness" directly back to the thinking nature of the human head. Not only does the bird soar in the airy regions irradiated by the sunlight, but it bears light reflecting plumage. The sun light "conjures" up the bird's plumage and observation of this interplay of forces leads to direct perception of our own inner thought producing mechanism:
What we observe in the bird's plumage is a direct representation of thought forces within us.
Second Goetheanum in Dornach, Switzerland
Architect: Rudolf Steiner
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