Owen Barfield on C.S. Lewis allows us to enter into the friendship of the two men in some mysterious and possibly mystical way. It is not just a testament to that friendship, it is a testament to friendship in general. “He stood before me as a mystery as solidly as he stood beside me as a friend,” Barfield once said of Lewis…
Owen Barfield on C.S. Lewis, by G.B. Tennyson (188 pages, Barfield Press UK, 2011)
I find the memoirs written about a great man to be endlessly fascinating, as an exercise in writing and as well as an exercise in leavening one’s soul. Always, these memoirs are labors of love, but the modern market finds them nearly impossible to sell. Thus, it’s an art form that is vanishing quickly if not utterly in this day and age. Still, looking back over those written in the last century, there is much to praise, analyze, and remember.
When an Anglican clergyman, for example, writes about his friendship with T.S. Eliot, I rejoice and absorb the book. When a travel partner and life-long friend of Willa Cather writes of her, I inwardly give thanks and, again, absorb the book.
When, however, the author of the memoir is nearly as famous and as interesting as the subject of the memoir… well, there one finds a priceless pearl, a treasure beyond any real human measure.
In 1989, such a thing happened as Owen Barfield—a philosopher and poet in his own right—wrote about his best friend, C.S. Lewis. The book, Owen Barfield on C.S. Lewis, came out through Wesleyan University Press, with authorship credit given to Barfield and editorial credit given to one of Russell Kirk’s long-time friends, G.B. Tennyson. Admittedly, the nerdiest parts of my soul reveal themselves in almost unadulterated glee when I read and re-read this memoir. Barfield on Lewis? I smile in the deepest parts of my being. It just doesn’t get much better than this. For here, in glorious writing, is the understanding of one soul of another soul, allowing the reader to become a third soul, a witness in communion with the other two.
After all, Lewis explained in The Four Loves, every act of friendship is a sort of secession, a declaration that the friendship provides something the current society lacks. This is as true of the immediate friendship—for example, that between Lewis and Barfield—as it is for us in 2018—a full fifty-five years after Lewis’s death. Owen Barfield on C.S. Lewis allows us to enter into that very friendship of Barfield and Lewis in some mysterious and possibly mystical way, even encouraging us, a half-century later, to secede from our normal and tapioca conformist society of today.
Further, Lewis explained in The Four Loves, the best friendship is that of three, rather than of two. I’m guessing—though, Lewis never stated this explicitly—that he was thinking of the Most Blessed Trinity and the love of the Father for the Son for the Holy Spirit for the Father:
[Charles] Lamb says somewhere that if, of three friends (A, B, and C), A should die, then B loses not only A but A’s part in C, while C loses not only A but A’s part in B. In each of my friends there is something that only some other friend can fully bring out. By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facets. Now that Charles is dead, I shall never again see Ronald’s reaction to a specifically Caroline joke. Far from having more of Ronald, having him to myself now that Charles is away, I have less of Ronald. Hence true Friendship is the least jealous of loves.
Barfield’s admiration of Lewis is clear. Even when he disagrees with Lewis—which he does frequently—he loves the man. True to Lewis’s understanding, though, Barfield brings the reader in as the “C” in their friendship, and we become, again, in some mysterious way, a participant in this stunning friendship.
Owen Barfield on C.S. Lewis is comprised of a number of shorter pieces, introductions, talks, and interviews Barfield gave on Lewis between 1964 and 1987. Though Tennyson edited the book, he did so only with the explicit permission of Barfield, who not only read his own previous works, but commented on them, noting where he might have exaggerated or when he might have misunderstood. After all, his memories reached all the way back to 1919, when he and Lewis had first met at Oxford. They had remained relatively close to one another until Lewis’s untimely death in November 1963. For most of Lewis’ adult life, Barfield had served as his lawyer, and he inherited the literary estate, along with Lewis’s older brother, Warnie, when Lewis died.
Not surprisingly, their friendship went through seasons, some more fertile than others. In their Oxford years, they were inseparable, best enemies and best friends, intellectual pugilists who admired each other more than anyone around them. They had seceded! To be sure, Lewis the northern Irishman was more cantankerous than Barfield the English gentleman, but they each gave and they each took. They continued to debate one another—in what they called the “Great War”—throughout the 1920s, long after they had left their undergraduate days. In the roaring decade of the 1920s, Barfield was a theist but Lewis a radical individualist, worshipping the “Absolute,” meaning the self. Before his Christianity, Barfield explained, Lewis “has this subjectivist idealist conception of ‘the Absolute,’ which was in some way the ultimate individuality, the ultimate ‘I’ of the world and therefore of every human being.”
In the fall of 1931, Lewis famously converted to Christianity, and, from Barfield’s point of view, the relationship between them changed dramatically. Just as Cardinal Newman had famously declared his intellectual search over when he joined the Catholic Church, so the discussions that Lewis and Barfield had once enjoyed so intensely were over. On one of their frequent walking trips soon after Lewis’s conversion, Barfield began a discussion in the way he had over the previous decade and a half, with some disputatious question. To which, Lewis shockingly replied in great anguish, “I cannot bear it!” And, the two never had another such conversation for the remaining thirty years of Lewis’ life. This moment troubled Barfield greatly, and he never did figure out exactly what Lewis had meant: that he was embarrassed about his earlier views; that he was unwilling to discuss the issue any longer; or that he was too stressed to think about anything on a walk. Whatever it was, Barfield never knew, but it bothered him to the end of his own days.
Despite this drastic change in their friendship, Barfield claimed that Lewis’s conversion to Christianity did not so much represent a change in Lewis as it did a fulfillment of Lewis. Lewis became more Lewis, not less Lewis. “Lewis’ genius came into its own,” Barfield charitably noted, “as it emerged for the first time from the husk of his previous immaturity.”
Throughout the book, Barfield stresses the qualities that made Lewis loveable.
First, was Lewis’s immense charity as a person. Not only did he not think much of (or about) himself, but he also gave almost everything he had to others—whether it was his time, his thoughts, or his money. Barfield, as Lewis’s lawyer, had to prevent his friend from giving everything he earned away. There was no artifice in this. It was simply a part of Lewis’s character. Barfield estimates that even when Lewis was alive, he was donating roughly seventy percent of his regular (professorial) income to charity and almost one-hundred percent of his literary royalties. He spent much of his life seeking out those who needed aid, and he would take their comfort and health quite personally.
Second, at the root of all problems—pre- and post-Christian conversion—was the moral question, the humane question, for Lewis. Did a given idea, philosophy, or policy hurt or hinder personal dignity? Not surprisingly, Lewis despised all things “progressive,” believing them a con-game, pretending to be pro-humanity, when, in fact, they did all but destroy humanity. Even mentioning the word “progress” around or near Lewis would irritate him. Lewis considered it his God-given duty to destroy every one of the “idols of our age,” the false gods and golden calves of the twentieth-century, with “progressivism” being a convenient short-hand term to sum them all up. Nowhere was this more true for Lewis than in the halls of academia, which, he thought, housed and harbored the most trivial, silly, and confused elements of modern life.
Third, was his deep honesty. Lewis hid nothing, though he did not always advertise himself either. “There was something in the whole quality and structure of his thinking, something for which the best label I can find is ‘presence of mind,’ Barfield wrote, in one of the most moving passages of the book. “If I were asked to expand on that, I could say only that somehow what he thought about everything was secretly present in what he thought about anything.”
Fourth, Lewis did not just like myth, he loved it, “romantically.” He believed the study of it a heresy, akin to the rape of the human person. One could only accept and embrace it, not deconstruct it. Importantly, Barfield claimed, images came to Lewis almost fully formed. Indeed, he could not shut them off if he had wanted. They merely appeared in his mind.
Finally, fifth, Lewis’s greatest strength as a thinker came from what Barfield labeled “the two Lewises.” One Lewis was the atomic rationalist, ready to tear an argument apart for its inconsistency and internal (if not immediately obvious) contradictions. He was the modern Socrates, always arguing for truth, not for victory. One might find this Lewis best in The Abolition of Man, one of the author’s two best books, according to Barfield. The second Lewis was the “mythopoeic Lewis,” the man who loved (romantically!) myth and who wrote what Barfield considered the other great book he wrote, Till We Have Faces. That both sides of Lewis formed a perfect whole—rather than a being divided against itself—fascinated Barfield to no end.
That Barfield was still pondering their friendship a quarter of a century after Lewis’s death also reveals much. Owen Barfield on C.S. Lewis is not just a testament to that friendship, it is a testament to friendship in general. “He stood before me as a mystery as solidly as he stood beside me as a friend,” Barfield concluded.
I presume the best friendships always have some element of this.
I dedicate this piece to twenty-five years of friendship with W. Winston Elliott III.
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