Owen Barfield writes: “It is a good deal easier to see that language arises from an interpenetration of thinking and perceiving than it is to see that consciousness itself does. So that to study language historically, taking into account not only its analytical function but also its poetic substance, is a good way of studying the evolution of consciousness.” from “History, Guilt, Habit”, 1978
—–Barfield takes this method of studying “the evolution of consciousness” to extreme measures, with quietly sensational results. His study of the history of language, if taken seriously, calls almost every other version of history itself into question. But even the most drastic implication remains unstated, while it is an implicit assumption, easy to overlook. When isolated it is bound to find objection, for what task it therefore dictates to the future. This is the assumption that language is vital to consciousness. Essentally an analogue of it, enough so that one can fancifully study the evolution of the one via the other. The killing responsibility of this is that if language is intimately tied to consciousness, then there has to be a language (that is alive) of the present. There has to be great literature, here and now and just over the horizon. There has to be unknown volumes of poetry, if Consciousness is still at work drawing upon the historical reality of Language.
—–A killing responsibility, resting on a highly comical fact–it seems to me, that consciousness is rather absolutely only a phenonenon of the living. It is a property of life. Death rather does an end to it, and has vanquished it from the data base of history. Except as it is assumed, let back in so to speak, reported alongside what is still there from artifacts, books, buildings, nature!–as if to re-animate the people who were once alive. This, Barfield, like a magician, does in all his writing, throwing back this wretched dilemma of being alive onto all those who were alive, but, note, changing the task for them. Because that is the whole point of his retropective history: that there has been an Evolution, a shift, a radical departure, a history!, in consciousness.
—–The immediate question is whether the language of the present can be an exhilaration, a new poetry. Or is it a fatal step behind, ie: the language of disappointment in existence? It is the writer’s imperative to demonstrate the one; it is the critic’s to dispute it, and proceed merrily to promote the other. Don’t let the critics fool you: they are one hundred percent employed in discourage the association between language and truth in contemporary consciousnessness. Owen Barfield’s view that history cannot be even told without taking into consideration the consciousness of people in the past, and their points of view on reality, or their perception of an actually different reality . . . this view is not just unpopular; it is incomprehensible. It is the job of the philosopher, and the critic of literature, to console the public that literary greatness is a thing of the past.
—–And yet. There has to be a language of the present, if language is tied to consciousness–or consciousness would not be able to express itself. And since language is already a historical reality, the meaning (the content already in the words) has at least to be partially reenacted in the current use of words. Transhistorically and materially, words already exist, as does the grammar, which is virtually their deep structure. Thereby in the language of present consciousness the history of the world is constantly rephrased. Dramatically, it is reenacted. This is either the case, or literature is a thing of the past, and the speech on our lips a constant lament. But, I find myself thinking, this is so much the case, that it looks as though literature has hardly begun . . .
“We are studying that evolution from within, and therefore studying consciousness itself; not, as the biologists do, studying the evolution of something else altogether and then, on the basis of that study, making all sorts of unwarrented assumptions about the evolution of consciousness. You will be satisfied with that way only if you are blandly convinced that consciousness is a tiny bit of the world stuck onto the rest of it.” Owen Barfield.
—–Contemporary poetry is inevitable, and the poetry of the present should have more of the lure and luster, even the absolute truth of the past in it, than the past itself. For it is a new language, that is delivering everything. I realize with a shock that there is a world of content awaiting discovery and expression, that which only language can convey and which is not expressed because it hasn’t happened yet, for it’s content expresses the past in current thought. It is a strange thing about the past: it is as if it hasn’t happened yet. The past is what can only be thought of simultaneously as it is expressed. This is true because–pause here, for the second shock: you can’t have the historical delivering the historical. It has to be delivered and happen in the current form, as if in a repitition. This is the most radical synthesis.
—–And if it is proven to be possible, then we must realize that it must already be done. For we were not talking about preparing the ground for a new literature; we were only taking the blinders off so as to look for a literature that must already be in process.
—–Language, from the point of view of any writer, must be out ahead of the evolution, a frontline arsenal, a container of it; it can’t be short of the job of expressing new thoughts. And yet we see language is the very epitome of that which is old and sustained historically. Clearly, there is a difference between history and the present, while still–we have the language. So the only conclusion is that there is a dynamic synthesis at work producing novelty that matches the unique awareness of those who are alive. And not just mirroring or conveying it, but the fateful Identity of it. This creates an imperative to write for the future. And it will be . . . what has never been written, could never have been written before. It also incurs a responsibility, because if all this is true then it operates causally as if backwards: the language influences reality as much as reality produces the language. Therefore to fail to write, to employ new meanings, is to destroy life–or silence it.
—–This gets at the material nature of the language, as I have been pointing out. It is poetry that is the literal and the material use of language: poetry that is the identity of language. And this builds to something even more incredible. Which is that what such a writer produces is only explicable in the language in which it is expressed. It doesn’t exist in any other form or context. It is lightning in the mouth of the speaker, real just as it is born, and then irreversible and productive of further forces upon the world. Put together these facts, that language is a material reality, and that it has within it the evolution of historical meanings, destined to be in flux because of the fact that existence is unresolved and transhistorical, a mystery beyond the lifetime of any author . . . and you have Historical Gold, waiting to be mined; product of a radical synthesis.
And I rose to address the old audience–
We were overwhelmed in each other’s presence;
Our lives slowly took on an aspect of mystery,
The glory and absurdity of separate labors,
And the memory, covert, of a former universe,
When we were apart. The revelatory talk
Could only cease on a note of general
Expectation, as if the whole room or the
City about us were relapsing into chaos,
Or a pooling of ideas. Remember how it was?
We were set in a revolution of the light,
Announcing itself at the windows of the city
At the end of time on the historical earth.
Ahead of us lay a fortune in the truth.
from “The Mystery of Life” Edward Williams, 1980