| Pardon my native New Yawk Anglo-Saxon, but I had to encapsulate the sentiments of Saul Bellow toward Owen Barfield as he expressed them in the letters they exchanged in the 1970’s --- letters which now appear in the new book of Bellow’s Collected Letters.
Here’s the review in the NY Times Review of Books:
Saul Bellow’s Quest for the Vernacular Sublime
I’ll give you “vernacular sublime” all right! I quote below the section about Bellow corresponding with Barfield and how Bellow finally tells Barfield --- in a much more polite and civilized way than I do --- to take Steiner, as it were, and shove him up Barfield’s bombastic British bio-dynamic butt!!!
But then the reviewer notes Bellow’s “turn to PoF” (metaphorical not literal) by praising Bellow’s “Declaration of Independence” from the doctrine of anthroposophy as well as Barfield’s prissy condescension to and haughty rejection of Bellow’s own artistic expression of his own ethical individualism.
In the mid-1970s, there came a crisis. The dazzling representation of the appearances no longer satisfied Bellow. “For some time now,” he writes to Owen Barfield in 1975, “I have been asking what kind of knowledge a writer has.” The “interest of much of life as represented in the books I read (and perhaps some that I wrote) had been exhausted. But how could existence itself become uninteresting.” He concludes that “images or representations this side of the mirror have indeed tired us out.” Even more startlingly, he informs Barfield that “lately I have become aware, not of illumination itself, but of a kind of illuminated fringe — a peripheral glimpse of a different state of things.”
Barfield was an extraordinary figure, a disciple of Rudolf Steiner’s eccentric “anthroposophy” and its belief in a spiritual world with which we may have direct acquaintance, but also a profound thinker in his own right about language and imagination and the spoliation of human inwardness by a scientific and technological civilization. Bellow’s letters to Barfield are perhaps the most fascinating in the book, not least because they are the only ones in which Bellow is humble.
At Barfield’s suggestion, he undertook a study of Steiner — in defiance, to put it mildly, of his own skeptical and secular temperament. Perhaps his old schooling in the Russian writers — “We were so Russian, as adolescents,” he recalls to Stanley Elkin in 1992 — inclined him to such explorations. His impish delight in outraging the advanced cultural consensus of his time might also have encouraged him in this flamboyantly anti-materialist heterodoxy.
But not surprisingly, the doctrine did not win him. No doctrine ever did. In 1977 he confides to a friend that “I can’t manage this new kind of consciousness. I don’t know what to do about it.” And in 1979, in a dramatic letter to Barfield, he revolts. “I am troubled by your judgment of the books I’ve written. I don’t ask you to like what you obviously can’t help disliking, but I can’t easily accept your dismissal of so much investment of soul.”
It is a stirring moment, and more than an outburst of pride. It is a vindication of the old calling on the new ground: he has found spirituality in the enterprise of fiction. The rumor of dessication is dispelled. He will have no more of the other side’s condescension to this side. Never mind that the form of the novel was built on the ruins of metaphysical certainty: novels, too, may be soulful. Three years later Bellow castigates his erstwhile teacher for an uncomprehending review of “The Dean’s December,” and in a parting shot he taunts the mystagogue that “ ‘the leap beyond’ . . . would have to be a leap into a world of which one has had some experience.” Without such a continuity, the consummation would be meaningless.