Review of Owen Barfield’s “Saving the Appearances”

I just finished reading Saving the Appearances by Owen Barfield. It was recommended to me by a friend, and since I try to prioritize books that friends recommend, I spent the last couple months slowly chewing through it.

I want to like Barfield. He pushes all my buttons — he likes to pretend that philology can successfully take down philosophical arguments and force them into submission through lexical and poetic games. He seems to have a romantic streak. At times he seems to think that words have a life of their own, that words are alive and magical. Because I suffer from the same temptation, I found myself cheering him on, even when I suspected that he was wrong. Like Tolkien, he seems to think that modern industrialization and the worship of technology have dehydrated our view of the world, turning it into a dry husk of utility and efficiency. At the outset, I thought that Barfield’s project was an attack on a secular Baconian view of the world, and a defense of a premodern Christian-sacramental view of the world. But I was wrong on many levels.
Throughout the book, I kept feeling as though I did not really understand what Barfield was saying. Even after finishing the book, I am still quite fuzzy on what exactly he was arguing.
Barfield’s central point is that the world has been moving between three distinct stages. The first stage was what Barfield calls “original participation,” a magical world where humans did not view things in the world as independent objects, but as all part of the same web of being. The second stage, what Barfield provocatively calls “idolatry,” is the stage during which humans came to see the world as just a set of independent objects, just things, which do not participate with us in any way. The final stage, which admittedly I did not fully understand, Barfield calls “final participation.” As far as I can tell, final participation entails a way in which human imagination is able to re-participate with the rest of reality.

I can’t shake the thought that Barfield’s whole project is an exercise in spurious reification. I was fully on board with his diagnosis of the problem of modernity (everything is sterile, things are just things), but his proposed solution (final participation) left me very dissatisfied. For Barfield, Christ seems to become just the principle of imagination within us, by which we re-infuse reality with a kind of magical participation that comes from within us. If original participation happened “to” us (objects around us appeared to exert independent, even personalized force on us), final participation works in the opposite direction: our imagination imparts all kinds of participatory connections onto the world. Yeah, I’m not sure I’m buying it, either…

I can’t figure out what I think about this book. It is either a work of genius or a piece of fluff. It feels like a strange artifact, a fossil from the twentieth century. Like American theology from the sixties, it has an oddly dated and insular feel to it.
As I began the book, I wondered why more people didn’t cite Barfield. It seemed like his project was an important voice in the conversations about secularism, the “buffered self” (Charles Taylor’s phrase), and the decline of allegory as a viable mode of interpretation. But now that I have read the book, I think the reason that so few people cite him is that he just might be crazy.
There is something distinctively non-mainstream about this book. Maybe it is the positive references to Rudolf Steiner, but something about the book feels like the kind of book you would see on the bookshelf of a health food store, alongside books about aligning your bed to the magnetic poles of the earth, or about how the energies of the moon affect your job search process, or your digestion. It feels a little wacky to me.

And yet, I am enough of a postmodern to think that the dominant scientific-technological narrative is only the loudest voice, not the truth by default. There’s just enough Foucault coursing through my veins that I can’t accept the metanarratives of big agriculture, big pharma, silicon valley, and big oil as the truth about the world. But I’m stuck, because the alternatives to corporate truth-production are often a lot more bizarre and dangerous than the mainstream view.

Selfishly, I want the world to be magical, I want allegory to still ‘work,’ I want metaphor to grow legs, and get up and walk on its own. But that is not the world I live in, and even Barfield’s proposed remedy does not succeed for me. Back to the wasteland it is, then…