Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Book Review: Saving the Appearances

The Owen Barfield Reading Tour continues. Saving the Appearances was a bit more uncomfortable for me to read than Poetic Diction, which had been written by Barfield about a quarter century before. It's a smidgen less pithy than Poetic Diction and lost me in abstract terms a few times -- something that never happened in Poetic Diction -- but if I want to be honest, the reason Saving the Appearances made me uncomfortable is that in it, Barfield goes after science. Well, "goes after" is a little too harsh, because Barfield is not suggesting a return to Medeival non-science -- he's suggesting going forward from what he terms the "idolatry" of materialism and scientism. He does it with the same dense but clear style that was such a revelation to me in Poetic Diction, and my goodness, I used to think some writers made me think but Barfield leaves everyone else in the dust for making you THINK. I spent as much time staring off into space processing what I just read as I did actually reading.

I'm going to have a bunch of quotes coming up to show you exactly what I mean by all this, but for now, my recommendation is to definitely read Poetic Diction first, but then read this one. At the end of the book Barfield finally gets specific about Christianity and he just rattles off fascinating paragraphs about topics I've spent years thinking about -- the creation of Adam, how to take the Eucharist, etc. -- and in each case he says something I've never really heard before (although I hear echoes of these ideas in Tolkien and Lewis).

A few "really?!" moments: the proposal that Galileo was insisting that the church's model of the heavens was wrong and that his was the only one to be right (with Barfield's implicit support of the proposal that BOTH could be right?!); the assertion that evolution and the Christian faith naturally go together (Lewis was never quite that sanguine, although his long quote from the Problem of Pain about human evolution would fit right in with Barfield's ideas); and the quote that I think may go too far, that "Man is the messiah of nature" in interpreting Romans 8.

I'm beginning to understand why Barfield isn't more widely read. He is indeed brilliant and seminal, but while Lewis and Tolkien work to make themselves accessible, Barfield is intent on clarity but not as much accessibility. He is intent on iconoclasm and that's an uncomfortable thing! He and Lewis do not agree on every point, but the importance of his thought is obvious in Lewis's quote that Barfield was "the wisest and best of my unofficial teachers". Your mind may be blown, and the fact that he's a Christian may not be obvious till the end of this book, and you may argue with him on certain points (I think I will!) but I fully recommend taking a "class" from Professor Barfield. (Even though he never was a professor, this was his side work from his day job as a barrister!)

Monday, December 12, 2011

Poetic Diction Quotes Part 4

p.181: “It is only when we have risen from beholding the creature into beholding creation that our mortality catches for a moment the music of the turning spheres.”

p.196: “It is precisely when such a writer starts complaining that his author uses the same word in two different senses that the discerning reader will prick up the ears of his imagination in the hope of acquiring some real knowledge.”

p.210-1: “The Greeks had no such word as ‘principle’: they called what I have been speaking of – with that divine concreteness which makes the mere language a fountain of strength for the exhausted modern intelligence – simply poiein and paschein – Do and Suffer.”

p.222: “It should be noted that Poetic Diction does not simply exalt the Poetic at the expense of the Prosaic, but emphasizes their essential relation, their dependence upon each other, and indeed their interpenetration.”

p.223: “But to take the Poetic really seriously is another matter. It is not to slang the Prosaic, and with it the whole world of science and technology, as the French Symbolists did, and hide yourself away in an ivory tower of ‘art.’ It is to begin to work on the interpenetration of the two by seeking to overcome in a man’s own experience what Coleridge termed the ‘outness’ of the phenomenal world. To say that this involves experiencing that world and his own individual spirit, not as other, but as ‘opposite’ is perhaps to say something. It is indeed to say what Coleridge said.”

p.224: “There is much work still to be done in revealing the part played by that underground stream in the development of modern science. Kepler is an obvious example, but we also need a new and unbiased biography of Isaac Newton and a study, not based on petitio principii, of such matters as the relation between alchemy and chemistry, astrology and astronomy.”

Friday, December 9, 2011

Books Review: Graphic Novel Round-Up, December Version

Here's a few one-sentence reviews of four recent graphic novels I've checked out from the library:

The Death-Ray by Daniel Clowes: Promising premise and style conveys razor wit and artistic spot-on renditions (see: the bully) at points, but I can't help feeling that the Japanese saga with the similar premise (average boy gains ability to "disappear" people) is better.

Batman: Noel by Lee Bermejo: I'm a sucker for creative renditions of The Christmas Carol, this one with Batman as Scrooge; some nice "fits" with the original story, especially Robin as Marley's Ghost, but feels underactualized, doesn't really convey the story but is a pretty nifty trick.

Hark! A Vagrant, by Kate Beaton: Silly and somewhat erudite, a combination I'm also a sucker for (the whole reason I'm a They Might Be Giants fan perhaps), and if half the strips don't quite work, I still found it diverting; kind of annoying to be reading this at the same time as I'm reading something about how people in different ages actually thought differently from us, because much of her humor comes from assuming they thought exactly the same as us! (PS: It's still funny.)

Nursery Rhyme Comics: Fifty nursery rhymes done by comics artists ranging from famous (Mike Mignola, Craig Thompson, Gene Luen Yang) to not-so-famous but intriguing, this was the most rewarding of the whole lot, and by far the most beautiful, with the bonus that I could give it to my kids without a second thought; there's a clever joke or bonus of artistic expression in each one.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Poetic Diction Quotes Part 3

p.126: “Yet it serves well enough to show how the man of today, overburdened with self-consciousness, lonely, insulated from Reality by his shadowy, abstract thoughts, and ever on the verge of the awful maelstrom of his own fantastic dreams, has among his other compensations these lovely ancestral words, embalming the souls of many poets dead and gone and the souls of many common men.”

p. 130-1: “When we can experience a change of meaning – a new meaning – there we may really join hands and sing with the morning stars; for there we are in at the birth. There is one of the exact points at which the genius, the originality, of the individual poet has first entered the world.” [like enzyme specificity/activity more than domains joining?]

p. 133: “Unless he has enough imagination, and enough power of detachment from the established meanings or thought-forms of his own civilization, to enable him to grasp the meanings of the fundamental terms – unless, in fact, he has the power not only of thinking, but, of unthinking – he will simply interpret everything they say in terms of subsequent thought.”

p.136-7: “Oscar Wilde’s mot – that men are made by books rather than books by men – was certainly not pure nonsense; there is a very real sense, humiliating as it may seem, in which what we generally venture to call our feelings are really Shakespeare’s ‘meaning’.” [The Shakespearean “explosion" = The Cambrian explosion?]

p.138-9: “Really, there is no distinction between Poetry and Science, as kinds of knowing, at all. There is only a distinction between bad poetry and bad science.”

p.144: “For all meaning flows from the creative principle, to poieion, whether it lives on, as given and remembered, or is re-introduced by the individualized creative faculty, the analogy-perceiving, methaphor-making machinery. In Platonic terms we should say that the rational principle can increase understanding, and it can increase true opinion, but it can never increase knowledge.”

p.167: “We have to but substitute dogma for literature, and we find the same endless antagonism between prophet and priest. How shall the hard rind not hate and detest the unembodied life that is cracking it from within? How shall the mother not feel pain?”

p.168: “For the pure prosaic can apprehend nothing but results. It knows naught of the thing coming into being, only of the thing become. It cannot realize shapes. It sees nature –and would like to see art – as a series of mechanical arrangements of facts. And facts are facta – things done and past.”

p.176: “No genuine lover of poetry and of words can pick up a book on, say, Botany or Metallurgy, and read of spores and capsules and lanceolate leaves, of pearly and adamantine lustres, without feeling poetically enriched by that section of the new vocabulary which actually impinges on his own present consciousness of Nature.” [my own fascination with geology is similar]

p.179: “’Language,’ wrote Emerson, in a flash of insight which covers practically all that has been written in these pages, ‘is fossil poetry.’”