Posts Tagged ‘The Inklings’

Saving the AppearancesI read this book with a Tolkien and the Inklings discussion group I’m part of here in Korea. Owen Barfield was one of the Inklings – the Oxford University literary group that included J R R Tolkien and C S Lewis. Barfield’s thoughts on semantics and nature apparently influenced his more famous fellows; he also helped develop theosophy and translated Rudolf Steiner. He died relatively recently – 1997 – at the grand old age of 99.

Saving the Appearances starts off pretty innocuously, talking about how perception and reality are necessarily two different things. Barfield uses the example of a rainbow, arguing that the light and the raindrops are not directly perceptible to an observer – they are ‘particles’ or ‘the unrepresented’. He says further that the rainbow doesn’t meaningfully exist without an observer. The emergent phenomenon of the rainbow is a representation – something that can only exist because of the unconscious effect of particles on an observing consciousness.

Anyone who’s ever heard of subatomic particles will immediately understand the logic of this argument. The building blocks of reality are whizzing specks of mostly empty probability and yet we perceive things as solid objects. I couldn’t help thinking that photographic equipment easily proves the existence of rainbow absent a seeing, thinking being (although, of course, someone still needs to look at the resulting photograph).

He goes on to say some interesting things about how the pre-scientific mind may have interacted cognitively with the world. Namely, that, instead of recognising objects, nature itself, as being other entities, it was, to use the cliché, ‘at one with’ nature and things, it saw them as being no different from itself; it was pantheistic. This relationship to the world Barfield names original participation.

From here leads the crux of the book. The rise of Judaeo-Christianity and of science has led humanity to lose all sense of this original participation. Instead of perceiving self and world to be two sides of the same thing, humanity has categorised natural phenomena as other, independent, real, objective. In Barfield’s terms, the representations we perceive have become idols, and we, idolators. The book’s subtitle is A Study in Idolatry.

Original participation is a way of perceiving the world that can never be regained. It would be easy to brand Barfield anti-scientific (and in some senses, he is), but he takes pains to commend much of what science has achieved and he regards the scientific mentality as an inevitable and necessary part of the evolution of human consciousness. The next stage, he argues, is final participation.

I think final participation is not sufficiently explained or explored, but, putting it as best I can, seems to be an imaginitive, creative engagement with phenomena. You might call it a spiritual connection to representations; you might call it a kind of internalised pathetic fallacy.

Towards the end of the book, there’s lots of stuff about Christianity. He appears to regard Jesus as some kind of singularity in history, a fulcrum between original and final participation. Yet the friend who introduced this book to me via the discussion group I mentioned, swears that Barfield is not a Christian, rather a pantheist. Saving the Appearances belies that assertion; he clearly regards Jesus’s life as a divine intervention in history.

Barfield also appears not to believe in prehistory – he continually states that the evolution of consciousness and the evolution of nature have gone hand in hand. The implication being that, in some sense, nature – phenomena – did not exist before there was a consciousness to appreciate it. To put it in a way that I find easier to understand, pre-history is an ineffable wave function that is impossible to collapse without direct observation. Everything we believe about pre-human eras is a model. It’s a useful thing to bear in mind, but the idea that pre-historic plants, animals and geological processes didn’t exist – or can’t be said to have existed – is pretty ludicrous. You might as well say that no one can ever be convicted of a crime unless someone actually observed the perpetrator commit the act.

Owen Barfield

I think there are two main flaws in Barfield’s thinking. One is his anthropocentrism; the previous paragraph highlights this. Nature doesn’t meaningfully exist without people to, effectively, create it by perceiving it. There is some metaphorical truth to this, but accepting this as literally true seems to be far too great a leap of faith away from a mountain of evidence to the contrary.

The idea of final participation, that the best way to see phenomena is creatively, empathetically, is also very self-centred. The corollary of this is that how you feel about something is more important than the way something actually is. It’s quite a dangerous tendency, in fact. The sun, for instance, may be regarded as a god-like, life-giving, friendly, golden orb in the sky – but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a vast, continuous, cancer-causing thermonuclear explosion.

This leads on to the second main flaw, which is that the book basically urges a synthesis of scientific and creative views of the world – without apparently realising that they’re two different things that exist for two different reasons. Science is a careful attempt to explore and explain nature as objectively as possible. Creativity – spirituality, if you like – is a form of therapy – it’s a way of helping humans feel content in and connected to the world; it’s a way of explaining the world in a way that makes sense to limited human mentality. Science cares nothing for human feelings (except as a field of study); nature cares nothing for its own comprehensibility.

Clearly, both ways of understanding the world are very important for humans; life would be meaningless without art – but it would be intolerable without science. The Darwinian in me wants to point out that science is just an incredibly successful way of regarding the world; spirituality didn’t discover penicillin or put a man on the moon or create the internet.

Saving the Appearances, then, is certainly an interesting book, but ultimately not convincing and not more than a footnote in the debate to which it contributes. Finally, this particular edition – from the Wesleyan University Press – alternates between two (albeit very similar) fonts at random points in the text. Bizarre.


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The last few weekends have been a bit of a whirlwind of socialising for me. Which is pretty strange, given that I’m not only shy, but a shy introvert. I guess I’m finally discovering my inner extrovert. He’s been a shy chap most of my life. Someone once described that part of my personality as a monkey in a cave – every now and then he’d come out for a bit then duck back inside and hide.

Since my end of year holiday, I’ve:

been to see Life of Pi with a book group,

attended a Tolkien and the Inklings appreciation group,

attended the Life of Pi meeting with said book club,

been on a hike out near Chuncheon,

held two coffee mornings in Cheonan,

gone on a weekend ski trip to Yongpyeong – venue of next year’s Winter Olympics,

attended a Toastmasters event

and gone to a Father Ted-themed night out (with my black shirt and a homemade dog collar).

Add to that a good sprinkling of gaming and the faintest hint of romance (well – I met someone and we seemed to have a good rapport, but nothing further developed), and January has been a full month (actually, the latter couple of items on the list occurred in February). I’ve also met a bunch of new people. However, with my full weekends and full weekdays, I haven’t had much opportunity to write about all this stuff.

One of my new friends from New Year’s Eve invited me to a Tolkien and the Inklings group. I extended this invitation to my gaming friends; one of them suggested I should scope the group out first and report back on the number of weirdos in attendance; I countered that any of attending wouldn’t necessarily reduce the weirdo ratio. Although the meeting went on a bit long, it was pretty interesting. The organiser had prepared materials and talked about Owen Barfield and some of the philosophical underpinnings of the Inklings’ work. There’ll be another meeting in a couple of weeks.

As I have barely met anyone in Cheonan yet, I followed the example of my friend Peter, a resident of Daegu, and started a coffee morning group for Cheonan people. On the first such event, one person turned up, a woman I’d met at a small dinner event a couple of weeks earlier. We had a perfectly nice time chatting about work and life and stuff. I held the second one on Wednesday – more about that later.

The Mug

I went on a hike near Chuncheon in Gangwondo, which involved my taking the subway from Ssangyong in Cheonan to Sanbong in Seoul (about two and a half hours) then meeting the hiking group and heading east for another hour or more, still on the subway system. I hadn’t got much sleep and didn’t get much on the train, so I was pretty miserable by the time we started hiking, but a few conversations got my social brain in gear and I met some nice people.


One of whom I went on a ski trip to Yongpyeong with (along her friends and a bus load of other foreigners). The skiing was good fun and, by the end of the evening session, I was fairly zipping down an intermediate slope time after time (while my fingers were getting terribly cold inside my gloves – when I went inside to warm up, they really hurt for a couple of minutes). I met more nice people.


One of whom invited me to Tedfest the following weekend – which was quite a modest affair in a bar out in Incheon, but the organisers put on various Father Ted-themed events, such as a Lovely Girls competition. I met further nice people, including – uniquely, in my experience in Korea – a Scouser. We got drunk.

I just had a great attendance at my second coffee morning event – seven people besides me. The conversation went pretty well, by an large; there were some slightly awkward lulls in the conversation, but they were fleeting and few. I didn’t really make a great effort to lead the conversation and it mostly took care of itself. At one point, one person suggested everyone say what their hobbies and interests were – which was a good idea, and one I may adopt and adapt for future meetings.

So now I’m going on a return trip to Chuncheon to pick strawberries on Saturday and I’m ‘hosting’ a ‘watching Die Hard 5’ event on Monday – which is a holiday here in Korea (Seollal – lunar new year – is actually a three day holiday, but because the other two days (actually, only the middle day is Seollal) fall on a Saturday and Sunday, they don’t count).

Life seems decidedly not too shabby at the moment. It’s actually become a bit of a mission for me to do all this stuff and develop as a human being. Maybe, one day, I’ll become the confident, charismatic leader of men I’ve always dreamed of being. Until then, I’m just me.

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