Monday, 2 July 2018

Owen Barfield and The Notion Club Papers

[Jeremy - in The Notion Club Papers, by JRR Tolkien]

Sometimes I have a queer feeling that, if one could go back, one would find not myth dissolving into history, but rather the reverse: real history becoming more mythical - more shapely, simple, discernibly significant, even seen at close quarters. More poetical and less prosaic, if you like.

If you went back would you find myth dissolving into history or history into myth?... Perhaps the Atlantis catastrophe was the dividing line?

Tolkien had a problem with his legendarium: the First and Second Ages took place on a flat earth; but at the drowning of Numenor (i.e. the 'Atlantis catastrophe'), and the advent of the Third Age (and the time of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings) the world became a round: a sphere. By this change - which was accomplished by direct action of The One/ Eru/ Iluvatar - the undying lands (Eressea and Valinor) became qualitatively separated from the mortal lands (Middle Earth); so that only the enchanted ships of the Grey Havens could get from one to the other - ordinary ships that went West just came around the globe to reach the other side of the Middle Earth land mass.

But this change in planetary geography due to the Numenor/ Atlantis catastrophe was also the dividing line between a magical-enchanted world of the elves; and the mundane world of Men. The Third Age was a transitional phase between these, during which the High and Grey elves left Middle Earth, and the 'magical Men' of Numenor faded and were diluted into being like the mundane men of Middle Earth (although in LotR we meet several of the very few-remaining 'pure' Numenoreans such as Aragorn, Faramir and Denethor). 

In the Fourth Age (our Age) the elves have all departed or faded into invisibility; the Men have lost all their magic, and the world is disenchanted - lacking contact with, or belief in, elves, or the Valar. (Presumably the Ents and the Dwarves have gone extinct, or concealed themselves.) Hobbits, as a type of mundane Men, are said to remain, but hidden.

Tolkien was never happy about the mechanics and implications of this flat-to-round earth transition; and he kept tinkering with the 'cosmology' until shortly before he died; even (astonishingly, in his seventies) planning at one point to rewrite the entire Silmarillion as a round-earth mythology, involving enormous changes - quite beyond then-resources of Tolkien's time and energy.

Yet there was a possible solution to this problem - and it was one that had been worked-out in detail by Tolkien's fellow Inkling Owen Barfield.

I shall describe this in a moment - but it needs to be made clear that Barfield's solution was never an actual possibility for Tolkien, for many reasons. Barfield was essentially CS Lewis's friend, and Tolkien and Barfield had never been close - probably they spent very little time together outside Lewis's presence. Furthermore, Barfield did not enjoy Lord of the Rings, indeed he apparently was unable to finish reading it. And then, although both were strong Christians, there was a denominational gulf between the two - since Tolkien was a devout traditionalist Roman Catholic and Barfield a heterodox Anthroposophist-Anglican.

Barfield was, indeed, a philosopher with so radical and original a metaphysics that few - even of his admirers and scholars - have been able fully to grasp and explicate the sheer scope of what he assumed, argued and asserted.

For Barfield consciousness was primary, and 'matter' was merely a secondary 'condensation' from pure consciousness. Furthermore consciousness 'evolved' - which means it changed by a process of developmental unfolding; in accordance with the divine plan to enable Men incrementally (and over many thousands of years, and multiple incarnations) eventually to attain to god-hood.

The aimed at divine mode of consciousness was what Barfield termed Final Participation: 'final' because it was divine, and 'participation' because it entailed becoming co-creators with God. Because consciousness was primary, Final Participation happened in thought, in thinking. God thought the universe into existence, this thought was objectively real; and if man attained to this level of consciousness, each Man (in harmony with God's purposes) would become a participant in this creation.

And, because consciousness is primary, for Barfield there was no reality apart-from consciousness. What we perceive (what know by our senses, and by reasoning from sensory data) is all we know of anything. There is an indescribable stuff (what Barfield terms the unrepresented) that exists independently of our perceptions of it; but perceptions can only be understood with concept,s, by thinking - so we know nothing about this unrepresented reality.

We only know what we think, and our thinking is a product of our consciousness, and our consciousness can change qualitatively.

What we regard as objective facts are actually 'Collective Representations. In other words, beings with the same quality of consciousness, perceive the world in the same way, and therefore usually come to regard the world as consisting of data which they suppose to be independent of consciousness. When everybody perceives a tree, then people tend to assume that what is really there is a tree; when actually 'a tree' is a concept that is absolutely dependent on consciousness. 

(It can immediately be seen how alien this way of understanding would have been to Tolkien, even if he had known and grappled with it - which he would have been unlikely to do; probably regarding it as pride-full and blasphemous.)

If Barfield's understanding of the evolution of consciousness was applied to the Numenor/ Atlantis Catastrophe, we would understand it to be a qualitative change in consciousness, imposed upon the inhabitants of the world by The One. It was consciousness that changed, primarily; and as a result, the world became perceived as spherical instead of flat.

(It is not a matter of whether the earth 'really had been' flat, or not; but that such a question is meaningless - since there is no 'really' which is independent of consciousness. To the Second Age consciousness of elves, men, dwarves, Sauron, orcs etc; the new form of consciousness perceived the world as round. And there is no going-behind this perception.)

So, the drowning of Numenor really was, as Jeremy of the Notion Club Papers suggested, a 'dividing line' - in which the era of enchanted myth changed-into the era of mundane history. The change was instantaneous; but the working through of this change took some thousands of years.

(Such a Barfieldian perspective also explains how Tolkien's legendarium is real: really-real, not just applicable fiction! It is real because it is 'about' consciousness; it is a way of 'representing' consciousness and its development, under divine shaping.)

So where does that leave Modern Man, in our Fourth Age - which Barfield sometimes called the Age of the Consciousness Soul? Well, we are of course disenchanted, can no longer perceive the elves or the gods; indeed we deny the reality of any God at all. Whereas the enchanted world of Tolkien's First and Second Age was one where most things were alive and conscious and in communication to some degree (a residue of this remained in the Third Age, in Lothlorien - preserved by Galadriel's ring)  for mundane man, everything is dead: indeed Man understands himself to be dead, and consciousness to be an illusion or epiphenomenon of material processes. Because only matter is real, and matter is experienced as un-alive...

But this is incoherent, insane; it is not a viable form of consciousness: it is consciousness turned against itself. It simultaneously claims to know, while denying even the possibility of knowledge. It claims to discern meaninglessness, to know exactly that which is un-knowable (i.e. to know with certainty how things really-are, independent of that consciousness which knows). 

We need to move into a Fifth Age of Middle Earth; in which we can begin to know that consciousness is primary, and to know that consciousness and reality are indivisible.

This was not a matter that Tolkien addressed in any of the work published during his lifetime - but it is a special appeal of the Notion Club Papers that Tolkien comes to the very edge of this matter; which is a thing that can be done in high fantasy.

In a nutshell, we can - if we choose - regard the Notion Club as a fantasy version of The Inklings; and the unfinished text as the start of a process by which these Fantasy Inklings would, in the course of the full narrative and as its climax, solve this most important of all the problems facing modern materialistic Man.