When Symbol Becomes Fact: Reflections on “Saving the Appearances”

“The world of final participation will one day sparkle in the light of the eye as it never yet sparkled early one morning in the original light of the sun.”
– Owen Barfield[1]

When sunlight refracts on the droplets of a raincloud, and an arc of colors bend across the sky, we must ask ourselves, “Is the rainbow really there?” With this image Owen Barfield opens his book Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry, a short but profound tale of the evolution of consciousness from original participation, through the non-participatory (or rather, unconsciously participatory) scientific revolution, to final participation. But what does Barfield mean by participation? And how might one trace an evolution of consciousness?Saving the Appearances

Barfield begins with the image of the rainbow, demonstrating how it is a shared collective representation. A representation is something that I, and others, perceive to be there: whether it is a rainbow, a tree, a house, or any other phenomenon available to sensory experience. A representation is more than what any phenomenon can be reduced down to—such as subatomic particles; a representation is the phenomenon in its wholeness. The particles, which Barfield calls the unrepresented, are what science claims really exist in the world prior to human perception of them. “The world we all accept as real,” Barfield writes, “is in fact a system of collective representations.”[2] We do not perceive collective representations with our sense organs alone, but with “mental habits, memory, imagination, feeling.”[3] The generation of representations is what Barfield means by participation: “Participation is the extra-sensory relation between man and the phenomena.”[4] The world as we know it is created by participation in that world.

Through imagination Barfield enters into the participatory consciousness of previous world views, from the Medieval European, to the Graeco-Roman, to the Hebraic, each of which lived in original participation with the world to some degree. Original participation is “an awareness which we no longer have, of an extra-sensory link between percipient and the representations.”[5] Modern consciousness also participates in the phenomena, but does so unconsciously, believing instead that the perceived phenomena are independent of human perception. “Thus the phenomena themselves are idols, when they are imagined as enjoying that independence of human perception which can in fact only pertain to the unrepresented.”[6] This misperception of the phenomena as entirely independent of human perception Barfield terms idolatry, and it is to idolatry that he is attempting to bring awareness, to thus overcome and lead human consciousness into final participation—an awakened recognition that the phenomenal world is one of collective representations.

Simply put, it was through the development of the scientific revolution that original participation was expunged from the consciousness of the modern West and idolatry took hold in its place. “If therefore man succeeds in eliminating all original participation, without substituting any other, he will have done nothing less than eliminate all meaning and all coherence from the cosmos.”[7] Not only does idolatry empty spirit from the cosmos, it eventually eliminates spirit from the human as well. In order to move beyond idolatry into final participation, Barfield turns to religion, to the Incarnation of the Word in the Christian faith.

Idolatry suffers from literalness, thus to the idolatrous mind an event can be historical or it can be a symbol: it cannot be both. Barfield uses the Incarnation of the Word—the birth of Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity incarnating into a human body situated in historical time—to usher in final participation. Because the Incarnation is both historical and symbolic, it breaks down the schism between human consciousness and perceived phenomena. Yet by turning to religion, and particularly Christianity, in this way, it feels like Barfield narrows the field of those to whom final participation might apply. He defines religion as “essentially an ‘I-Thou’ relation between man on the one hand and the Creator of man and of his phenomena, on the other. A man who cannot think of his Creator as a Being other than himself cannot be said to have religion.”[8] This definition of religion is quite narrow, and excludes many of the world’s religious and spiritual traditions (and the masculine language unconsciously excludes women as well). Yet Barfield writes that the only possible answer to idolatry is acceptance of a “directionally creator relation to the phenomenal world.”[9] Is that really the case? Can there be a wider reading of final participation that can allow for the inclusion of those who have entered into that stage of consciousness by paths other than the Christian one?

To begin answering this question perhaps a wider reading of what Barfield means by the Incarnation of the Word is also necessary. Idolatry, or non-participatory consciousness, has brought with it gifts as well as shadow. Barfield writes, at first in seemingly negative terms, that “a non-participating consciousness cannot avoid distinguishing abruptly between the concept of ‘man,’ or ‘mankind,’ or ‘men in general’ on the one hand and that of ‘a man’—an individual human spirit—on the other.”[10] This is the literalness of idolatry. But this literalness allows something else to be born as well, of which Barfield speaks shortly thereafter:

The awakened clarity of retrospect . . . will . . . be obliged to recognize that the gradual emergence of man from original participation amounts also to the gradual emergence of ‘men’ from ‘man;’ that it is not just the cumulative history of the race, but the biography, also, of each individual spirit.[11]

What Barfield fails to mention explicitly here, yet can be implied by this statement when read half a century after it was first written, is that not only can individual men emerge from the all-encompassing term “Man,” but so can individual women, as well as others whose identities have been obscured by the Western male conception of Man. The symbolic becomes situated, and thus refracts into a myriad of individuals. This is the gift of the non-participatory stage of the evolution of consciousness as Barfield describes it.

Beginning in the chapter entitled “Israel” Barfield writes about the Divine Name, the “I Am.” The Divine Name, when spoken within the mind of an individual human—one who has only been able to individuate through the refraction of non-participatory consciousness—indicates the divinity not only of the Creator whose name is being spoken, but the divinity of each individual speaking it. This is the Incarnation of the Word, the Word become flesh, that Barfield sees as able to overcome idolatry and usher human beings into final participation. I find myself drawn to read Barfield’s use of the Christian mythos itself as both a symbol and a historically situated reality. If I were to reject Barfield’s concluding thesis on the premise that his turn to Christianity excludes those for whom this perspective does not, or perhaps even cannot, apply then I too would fall into the literalness of idolatry. From my situated perspective I can recognize the way in which the Incarnation of the Word—which allows for a new form of individual participation in the Divine and participation with one another as individuals—was for Barfield the real way in which idolatry could be overcome and final participation entered into. Yet I can also read the Incarnation as a symbol of something beyond the Christian faith alone, a symbol of the recognition of the Divine within, that can encompass a multiplicity of forms of spiritual connection and religious perspective.

Work Cited

Barfield, Owen. Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1988.

[1] Owen Barfield, Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1988), 161.

[2] Barfield, Saving the Appearances, 20.

[3] Barfield, Saving the Appearances, 20.

[4] Ibid, 40.

[5] Ibid, 34.

[6] Ibid, 62.

[7] Ibid, 144.

[8] Barfield, Saving the Appearances, 156.

[9] Ibid, 159.

[10] Barfield, Saving the Appearances, 183.

[11] Ibid, 184.

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