Self-Consciousness, Language, and Spiritual Decline — Part II: The Reign of Quantity

Barfield’s “story” in History in English Words is a tale of immense loss of concepts and things in one area disguised by a proliferation of concepts and things in another area, so that an increase of quantity camouflages, as it were, a decrease in quality.  The loss affects a core-vocabulary having to do with spiritual experience, participation in an organic cosmos, which is itself minded, and states of transcendence.  These things in turn have to do with tradition and memory, while memory has to do, in its own way, with consciousness.  Therefore, any loss of meaning in respect of transcendence implies a retraction of consciousness.  Barfield argues in History in English Words, that while English-speakers have more words than ever before at their disposal in the dictionary, they have fewer meaningful words than at any moment in the previous centuries, including the recent ones.  The vast increase of words in English in the last three centuries – or even in the last half-century – is in words of purely technical or bureaucratic usage; or else they refer to devices of a ceaselessly burgeoning consumer ethos that has fixated itself on the acquisition of shiny objects that sparkle and beep.  Such words are essentially trivial.  A Man of 1940 would certainly be baffled by references to microchips, personal computers, laptops, cell phones, MP3-players, and satellite television; and owners of those devices might find humor in soliciting the Man of 1940’s perplexity by mentioning them constantly, but this would be only an insipid game, degrading to its instigators.


The entire political and regimental vocabulary belongs to the same insipid order of functional usages.  “Diversity,” “multiculturalism,” “sustainability,” “human resources,” “best practices,” and “the global economy” decorate many a speech or bulletin, but they carry no meaning beyond their being a gesture of conformity to a regnant political ideology.  As my late friend Steve Kogan used to say, such words are group-identity noises.  Has a single significant new word entered English in the last one hundred years?  Possibly not.

Can exclusively modern people understand History in English Words?  If Barfield’s argument were right – that a catastrophic loss of meaning afflicts the Anglosphere or by extension the whole of the contemporary Western civilization – then those exclusively modern people, as one might predict, would likely encounter no little difficulty in coming to terms with Barfield’s basic thesis.  How could people afflicted by loss understand their own impoverishment?  With what would they compare their state?  When I recently asked a group of college sophomores and juniors to read the History in the context of a course introducing them to principles of literary criticism, they responded with a good deal of bewilderment.  There might have been a number of reasons for this.  For example, contemporary college students are not habituated to reading; or in those cases of actual readers, the reading is usually adolescent narrative.  Barfield’s book makes its argument, in two large parts, chapter by chapter in each part.  Students are used to textbook-like exposition in which typographically emboldened theses, without subordinate clauses, introduce basic exposition and everywhere on the page there are side-bars and explanations of terminology.  The chapters of their high-school – and many of their college – textbooks are short and use simple syntax.  The History, while superbly organized, makes its argument step-by-step and rehearses the art of etymology at large, each chapter-heading having a subtitle consisting of important words to be discussed under the particular topic.  The book’s expository procedure is methodical, constituting the major argument element by element until, in Part Two of the exposition, the groundwork having been established, Barfield begins to make his criticism of the modern mentality.

This is the point at which students, those specimens of the modern person, face their first conceptual stumbling block in the way of understanding.  Barfield is arguing that the present is deficient and the past is replete: In simple, that the past is qualitatively superior to the present and the present qualitatively inferior to the past.  The concept is nearly insuperable for the typical modern mind to grasp.  How could we; how could this moment, in which we live, be inferior to some other, previous moment?  Is the present moment not the culmination of Progress?  Are we not all climbing a ladder, rung by rung, and are we not rungs above everyone else in our climb?  I ask them about their impressions of the Medieval Period.  They respond with noticeable certitude that the Middle Ages are synonymous with a Dark Age; that those centuries were dirty, pest-ridden, illiterate, superstitious, and anti-scientific; that they were the era of the wicked Crusades, in which time women could not have the jobs that they wanted.

The students say these things after having read Barfield’s chapter on “Devotion,” in which he makes an excursion through the chivalrous and courtly poetry of the Thirteenth Century.  Barfield cites the medieval carol “I Sing of a Maiden” in its entirety:

I sing of a maiden that is makeless
King of all kings to her son she ches
He came all so still where his mother was
As dew in April that falleth on the grass
He came all so still to his mother’s bower
As dew in April that falleth on the flower
He came all so still where his mother lay
As dew in April that falleth on the spray
Mother and maiden was never none but she
Well may such a lady godës mother be

Barfield sets forth in the chapter on “Devotion” that the chivalrous and courtly poets assimilate religious themes associated with Mariolatry to the objects, desirable or marriageable young women, of their earthly interest.  “I Sing of a Maiden” exemplifies the starting-point of the development or something near to it.  The little lyric, still within the domain of Mariolatry, celebrates the essential maidenliness of the Mother of God, while emphasizing also the purity of her volition (“she ches”).  Sensitive readers will note the extraordinary delicacy of the recurrent procreative simile (“as dew in April that falleth on the grass”).  The carol’s diction expresses powerful protective instincts solicited by the immaculate character of the “lady.”  Barfield writes: “The medieval lyric, as it gradually loses its exclusive preoccupation with ecclesiastical subjects, becomes more and more concerned with woman, and concerned with her in a new way.”  Under this novel convention of “devotional love” the poets refine an “affectionate” meaning out of an originally “theological” one, such that the transcendence implicit in the Annunciation now informs and elevates courtship and marriage.  As Barfield puts it, “A new element had entered into human relationship, for which perhaps the best name that can be found is ‘tenderness.’”

The original essay concluded by discussing the dialectical character of Barfield’s philological history.  In the drawing-down and drawing-in of the heavenly so as to inform the earthly, the two linked gestures which animate medieval love-lyric, an exemplary dialectical synthesis appears; and as it does so, it enriches, first, the vocabulary, and second the consciousness that receives that vocabulary.  There is a fecundation of meanings.  How absolutely different that historical and literary transformation was from its modern counterpart!  Under the regimes of Liberalism and its offshoot Feminism, and over the last century, a massive propaganda drive has all but expunged, not merely femininity from the image of woman, but every speck of transcendence from the images of courtship and marriage.  Barfield remarks that the word conscience comes into usage in the same social-cultural context that produces tenderness: “Used in ecclesiastical Latin and later in English, conscience seems to have grown more and more real, until at last it became that semi-personified and perfectly private mentor whom we are inclined to mean today when we speak of ‘my conscience’ or ‘his conscience.’”  Here too the modern program has savaged an immense cultural achievement in the direction of human decency with the aim of suppressing it in the name of the new rigid political Puritanism, which categorically rejects tenderness.

In the original essay, I wrote: “The modern worldview posits all phenomena external to the ego, including the animal kingdom, as so many things and automata whose behavior, if that were the word, is non-intentionally determined.  The modern worldview disdains intention, a dogma that extends as far as the humanities in such doctrines as structuralism and deconstruction.”  In its form of political correctness, the modern-liberal regime expresses great hostility to intentionality, which is a difficult thing to disentangle from conscience.  This hostility becomes evident in the thesis that the proclaimed and observable decency of individuals matters not a whit because evil forces of racism, sexism, and so forth, are “structurally present” in the social matrix in such a way that certain people channel them (to borrow a term from the realm of psychic performances) whether they intend to do so or not.  In addition to regulating conscience insofar as it can, the modern-liberal regime also, in its doctrinal anti-epistemology of deconstruction, claims that intentionality is a delusion – or a construction which may be deconstructed, as the regime pleases, and without the consent of the individual.  An era is self-evidently in a phase of diminishing consciousness when its reigning doctrine declares the non-existence of consciousness; nor is the development a recent one, for Barfield traces it back, in its gross form, to the Nineteenth Century.  In a commentary on the German naturalist Ernst Haeckel (1834 – 1919), Barfield writes: “Under its influence [i.e., the notion of mechanical causality] even consciousness itself was, and still is, often conceived of as being caused by mechanical movements taking place within the body.  We also find thought described as a function of the brain.”

In the framework of such notions, the phrase from “I Sing of a Maiden,” that “she ches,” cannot signify because the mental disposition has reduced everything to the level of functions in a web of mechanical causality.  In its most common contemporary usage, the verb to choose actually means to kill, which the carol’s Maiden would never have done, nor her son whose begetting befell her like the April dew.  What use such tenderness?  The subject, even while endorsing the preposterous claim of not being a subject because subjectivity is an illusion, may nowadays liberate herself from her trammels – and this by the putative choice, which mechanical causality in fact renders logically choiceless, no matter the feeling of intentionality that accompanies it.  Perhaps the feeling of intentionality really absents itself from the resolution, by way of preventative psychic anesthesia, before during and after the procedure.  The subject merely submits herself to an entirely impersonal and automatic function.

In an environment of degraded language and debased consciousness, not everything is as wicked as the perversion of the verb to choose, but the rest undergoes obfuscation and dirtying even so.  A few years ago a senior colleague, who considered himself très au courant in theoretical matters, insisted during a lunchtime conversation that the statement, “the ideas are in the library,” made no sense.  He was not a Platonist, so he meant not at all that the ideas were in the Heaven above the Heavens that Plato describes in the Phaedrus, as opposed to being in the library.  In fact, during the same conversation, the colleague said, in a tone of indignation, that Plato’s view of the world was a fairytale.  He conceded that the books were in the library, but not (again) that the ideas were in the books.  When I asked him whether there were any ideas in his head, he glowered at me like a miscreant from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Possessed and changed the subject to his retirement plan.  The colleague, since retired, exemplified the petulance and stubbornness, the contempt for commonsense and rejection of figure, that permeates the selfsame environment where the integrity of language is supposed to find its defenders.  A vision of evacuated intelligence flashed on me darkly.  As Barfield writes, meaning increases through figural application.  It follows that meaning decreases through the banishment of figural usage.

Much of this devolution of modern humanity, instantiated in self-esteeming English majors who cannot read and headless English professors who cannot understand figural language, lay beyond Barfield’s horizon when he revised and reissued History in English Words in the still-more-or-less-normal-seeming world of 1953.  He reports on certain absurdities – the modern insistence on freedom as the obverse of the modern insistence that everything is mechanically determined – with some amusement.  He nevertheless intuits the vector.  In later writings, moreover, Barfield could take a sterner view of the prevailing dogmas.  In Saving the Appearances (1965), Barfield applied the terms idol and idolatry to the modern conception of the world – including human nature.  Indeed, those two terms have a bearing on what in the History he calls internalization.  By idol and idolatry Barfield referred to the evacuation of appearances that accompanies the withdrawal of participatory consciousness into the more restricted Cartesian ego.

In its way modern consciousness is far more restricted than archaic consciousness, which sensed content in appearance and conjured the figures of myth to represent that content.  It belongs to internalization to evacuate the appearances – indeed to expel not only the content of the appearance but to abolish the internal space where that content might abide.  One of those appearances is human being itself.  Adopting the modern worldview entails, therefore, that the subject should retreat within the observational lodgment of the ego with a diminished vision, not only of the external world, now reduced to flat surfaces, but also of the self, which likewise becomes two-dimensional.  Considering that Romanticism is a response to this psychic impoverishment, it is no wonder that the metaphor of depth so fascinates and obsesses the Romantics.  In his History Barfield never quotes from Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” but he might have:

But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced:
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail…

In Coleridge’s figural Return of the Repressed, the inner cosmos of vitality breaks through the mortifying ossification of meanings in restricted and predicative literalisms on the regime of which the modern dispensation insists.  Spirit hates confinement.  Romanticism, as Barfield understood it, signified the revolt of embattled spirit against the Enlightenment’s dehumanization of human being in the name of immaculate rationality.  Barfield writes in the History how Romanticism insists on finding meaningfulness in rejected-by-rationality topics such as “the supernatural element in romance,” where, by “romance,” he means medieval narrative.  The Romantics – like Coleridge himself and his friend and sometime collaborator William Wordsworth – rehabilitate “that despised habit of looking at life through the spectacles of the old Romances, the mysterious faculty of superimposing on Nature a magical colour or mood created in the observer by the fictions of genius or the myths of bygone ages.”

In one book especially, Barfield confronts head-on the political implications of triumphant modernism, with its flattening and oppressive imperatives, and its stupefying politicization of everything.  Barfield’s Night Operation (1975) is his sole late-in-life science-fiction story – a dystopia in the vein of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), C. S. Lewis’s Hideous Strength (1945), and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1948).  In Barfield’s novella, set in the Twenty-Second Century, surviving humanity has indeed retreated into the fortified keep, retreating underground to escape terrorist attacks and the threat of biological warfare, somewhat like the Morlocks in H. G. Wells’ Time Machine (1895).  More particularly, Barfield’s dystopians have abandoned the open air to live in the sewers although no one remembers what the word sewer means.  The word is now merely the functional name for the place where people live.  Barfield is also working with Plato’s Parable of the Cave – composing, as it were, a Parable of the Sewer, more fit for modern comprehension than Plato’s original.

Details of “Sewer Society” merit notice.  For example, that society is, if not quite totalitarian in its strictures, nevertheless coercively authoritarian.  The society’s establishment promulgates numerous doctrines and requirements that contemporary readers in 2016 will recognize as belonging to political correctness.  Thus the mandate for instruction in the schools rests on the premise that “the primary purpose of education is to avert all elitism by scotching discrimination.”  In the early stages of the society the state tried to reach this goal by restricting the curriculum to the “three Rs.”  Because the “three Rs” were cognitive disciplines, however, and because “the ingrained habit of speaking and writing correctly is the deepest and most pernicious of all the hidden roots of class-distinction and racism,” it became necessary to substitute the “three Es” for the “three Rs.”  As Barfield puts it, “The three Es [excretions] were of course ejaculation, defecation, and eructation” – or “fucking, shitting, and puking.”  Sewer Society is not only subterranean; it is sub-cognitive – a cult of evacuation!  The regime requires and therefore permits the inculcation of functional literacy, but discourages thinking through emphasizing body over mind, but not athletically, as that might create an invidious difference.  The state also broadcasts rock-and-roll music ubiquitously in the tunnels, and ceaselessly, again for the purpose of rattling the thought processes.  The “acoustic arrangements” of the cloacal polity, as Barfield writes, “ensured that, if not the detail, at least the moan and thump of it remained unceasingly audible as background.”

By a series of gracious flukes, Barfield’s protagonist Jon gains access to the old libraries and receives a rare license to study on his own.  He follows, with much struggle, what might best be described as the philological itinerary of History in English Words.  Linguistically impoverished, his learning-curve rises steeply.  Jon’s path leads not only into the realms of discarded words and meanings but into a many-layered falsification of history, in which important things began only with the “fearless thinker called Darwin” and “the fearless thinker called Freud.”  Their advent marked “Real History” and “the final stage of progress.”  When Jon makes his way finally into “Traditional History,” which is antecedent to “Real History,” he discovers early in his research a plethora of unfamiliar terms that initially baffle him, not least that “there were other and still earlier forms of [his own] name – Joannes, for instance.”  According to the books “Joannes was Greek,” but Jon has no notion what “Greek” means or “Hebrew” when his etymological quest leads him to that proper noun.  Jon learns that grasping the meaning in names and words requires the effort “to think and feel and imagine with them.”  That effort in turn requires that “one indeed had to become a little different from one’s ordinary self.”

Jon shares his discoveries with two close friends, eventually persuading them to undertake with him a journey to the surface world.  Their concepts match reality so inadequately that they understand little of what they see even though what they see transforms them inalterably from what they have been.  They become aware of nature as other than an empty word and of themselves as that which can participate in nature by bridging the gap between the inner world of the self and the outer world of objects.  After two days and a night, the trio decides to return underground to bring news of the discovery.  Barfield brings the story to an end without telling the sequel of the decision, but anyone who has read Plato’s Republic will know the likely outcome: The dwellers in the cave will reject revelation and, in their fearsome annoyance over utterances that suggest their paltriness, they will resolve to kill the messengers.  As Barfield’s friend T. S. Eliot put it in his Four Quartets, “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.”  Words being the window on reality, reality-shy societies will actively shrink the store of words and they will shrink the range of meanings of whatever words they retain.  That would be Barfield’s implicit definition of ideology, the regime of mandatory consciousness-restriction by the evacuation of meanings.

I said to my students, “Let me make a demonstration to illustrate Barfield’s thesis in History in English Words.”  I set out two tracks measured by dollar bills at regular intervals from the back of the room to the front of the room.  “Let the back of the room,” I say, “be the year 10,000 BC, the moment when the original Proto-Indo-European speakers began to leave their homeland for parts far away.  Let the first dollar bill in each track represent a word that I coin, out of necessity, on coming to a new territory, and encountering new phenomenon.  I pick up the first dollar bill and I now have that new word and its meaning, including the aspect of the world that it names.  The centuries pass.  The next dollar bill represents the first coinage used in a new context by a great-grandchild, perhaps.  Notice that I now have two bills rather than one; and stage by stage I have three, four five – and finally ten bills, each representing a nuance of the word in an expanded horizon of its meanings.  I also have that many more aspects of the world, which the variants name.

“Now,” I continue, “I shall leave that word-hoard on the table, in 2016, as it were.  I return to the back of the room – to 10,000 BC – to repeat my curriculum.  I pick up the first bill, but when I pick up the second, I discard the first, and so on until I reach the front of the room, whereupon I deposit a single bill beside the stack of ten bills on the table.  And that bill stands for only the latest meaning of the word.”  I turn to the students.  “In respect of language,” I ask, “which would you rather have – or which strikes you as the most richly applicable and useful – the stack of ten bills or the single bill?”  The students answer, immediately and unanimously: “The single bill.”  I offer that answer as the grim token of our sorry pass.  Into that spiritual poverty the vaunted Progress has brought us.  Good God! – I’d rather be a Pagan in a creed outworn!

Thomas F. Bertonneau earned a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of Califonia at Los Angeles in 1990. He has taught at a variety of institutions, and has been a member of the English Faculty at SUNY Oswego since 2001. He is the author of three books and numerous articles on literature, art, music, religion, anthropology, film, and politics. He is a frequent contributor to Anthropoetics, the ISI quarterlies, and others.

Thomas F. Bertonneau earned a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of Califonia at Los Angeles in 1990. He has taught at a variety of institutions, and has been a member of the English Faculty at SUNY Oswego since 2001. He is the author of three books and numerous articles on literature, art, music, religion, anthropology, film, and politics. He is a frequent contributor to Anthropoetics, the ISI quarterlies, and others.