Saturday, May 26, 2012

Book Review: The Rediscovery of Meaning, And Other Essays by Owen Barfield

When I first find a new author that really excites me, I usually have a moment of Fall, in which I realize that this new author isn't really "all that." It's my first substantial disagreement with him or her. Maybe with Marilynne Robinson it was a few political comments in her recent book (reviewed above). With J.R.R. Tolkien for most readers it happens about 1/4 of the way through the Silmarillion -- maybe not disagreement, but just not getting it. For Neil Gaiman with C.S. Lewis it was probably the incident of Susan at the door in The Last Battle. Let it be known that I personally think the first of these three examples is the corrent reaction and the other two are misguided (then again, I would, wouldn't I?). Still, there's a moment of disenchantment that follows enchantment, and I knew it was coming with Owen Barfield, kind of like you know that there will be a big fight coming at some point after you get married. The only question is how soon.

As you can guess, I encountered that moment with Owen Barfield and it did take me three books to get there. If Barfield and I have to fight it would be over Rudolf Steiner. ("Rudolf, Rudolf, Rudolf! It's always about RUDOLF with you, isn't it?!") Barfield simply takes too much of his philosophy from this Steiner guy, and the way he talks about him -- not his "writings" but his "findings" no less -- well, I'm kind of glad that I disagree because it gives me a chance to assert my own individuality. There seems to be so much else that Barfield gets right but I am not convinced about Steiner. Which leads to some unconvincing passages about reincarnation as well. (But I've got to remind myself, as much as I disagree, I'm disagreeing with Plato as well, and I do believe the self can survive death -- I'm just a one-time-only kind of guy for many reasons, including sheer economy.)

The bottom line is, it's nice to know I'm not just blindly a Barfield disciple now, and really, the 90% of this book that I don't have a bone to pick with is excellent. I have a few forthcoming blog posts inspired by different topics, which should show that I still find his writing vividly inspirational, and I do feel like the parts of Barfield's philosohy I do want to retain are much stronger now. Looking forward to keeping on reading, even about Steiner, maybe there's something worthwhile there but I'm currently skeptical.

Lest anybody think I'm taking this in uncritcally, I'm not. Definitely, if you're reading Barfield, start elsewhere (or maybe just with the first essay, which gives its title to the collection and justly so, because it is a nice capsule of Barfieldisms). There's a rough dividing line around 1970, in which the stuff published earlier is 95% good and the stuff published later is about 66% good, so maybe it can be chalked up to the attention given him after he retired from law and the increased rate of publication. Still, 66% good is pretty good. I dream of 66% ...

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