Destroyer and Preserver

Anthroposophical Movement 9.18 (15 Sept. 1932): 145-147

Some members may have seen a Russian film which was recently shown in London under the title of “The Road of Life.” It was the story of an attempt to deal with the problem of the roving bands of derelict children with which some Russian towns were infested at one time since the Revolution. The film was interesting in various ways, but one of the things which struck me most forcibly was the acting of one boy (or man) in the representation of a weak character who, becoming possessed by the lust for destruction, nearly wrecks all that the principal characters have built by their long and laborious effort.

The organiser of the experiment which the film depicts sets about his task by establishing in a country district a communal workshop, which provides employment for the children, enables them to support themselves and to take a pride in so doing, and gradually builds up in them that dignity, self­ respect and enthusiastic solidarity which, according to Bolshevik principles, are induced by working together in a factory equipped with up-to-date machinery. At a critical period, however, the little settlement is cut off by floods from access to the raw materials which it requires. The adult organiser departs to see what can be done, and the children are left to look after themselves. Idleness breeds discontent and discontent that mischief into which the old habits make it only too easy too relapse. Suddenly, in this particular boy, the impulse to mischief turns into the impulse to destroy. He throws a stone at the dog, which kills it, and in a few minutes has run amok and with his followers has nearly succeeded in destroying the entire workshop before he is overpowered by the soberer elements in the community and at last left bound, gagged and gasping on the ground.

The actor who took this part left on the mind of the spectator a double impression. He made it seem as if a sudden access of physical strength had come to him at the same time as the mad fit, and he also gave with a quite alarming vividness the picture of a man possessed. A sharp impression of this kind sometimes starts a train of reflection at the back of the mind. In the writer’s case it set him thinking of the human relationship to evil. This would appear to be changing. Whereas it has long been customary to depict the working of evil in a human being as a sort of involuntary surrender on his part, a succumbing to temptation, during the last decades there have been attempts in art and (for those who are sensitive to the workings of the human soul) examples in real life of a very different kind of relation, a relation in which the human being seems actively to take the part of the evil forces working in him, and voluntarily and consciously to identify himself with them. He chooses evil, not because it is pleasant but because it is evil. The ordinary fish swallows the hook because it is baited. It would be a new kind of fish which found the bait appetising precisely because it knew there was a hook concealed there. Yet the sea in which we and our children will have somehow to keep afloat in the future is likely, it seems, to contain such fish.

I do not think there is any need here to collect a large number of examples. The thing I mean may be felt in some of Dostoievsky’s characters. In Albert Steffen’s novel Der Rechte Liebhaber des Schicksals (“The True Lover of Destiny”) one of the most striking passages is that in which the hero recollects a terrible period of his early manhood, a period which commenced with his entry on a certain wretched day into a squalid modern town. The author clearly describes, not how his hero succumbed to the insidious snares of a decadent civilisation, not how he slipped unwarily into the gilded puddle, but how, from the beginning fully conscious of the decadence and indeed horribly depressed by it, his mood suddenly changed from one of conscious revolt to one of conscious exultation. He becomes glad of the decadence, he himself becomes active in furthering the forces of destruction that are in the air, and it is this alone which for a time induces him to continue a course of life that in itself has little savour for him.

To experience such things in artistic representation makes it easier to understand and appraise them, when we meet them in real life. This identification of the will with the forces of destruction is a thing which confronts us today, if not in the sensational forms depicted by a Russian novelist, yet still in forms which can be recognised and unmasked.  Often the first symptom is an acute feeling of depression which is induced in us by something that on the face of it seems merely trivial. Take for instance irony. Underneath much of the speaking and writing that goes on today there is to be detected a ground-tone of vapid irony. It is an irony which does not know at the expense of what it is being ironical. Its object is to have no object. If it could it would prevent anything anywhere being taken seriously – even itself. Thus, in the “brilliant” talker or writer today we can often observe a process by which the essentially noble quality of true irony fouls its own nest. The strength of the wings of irony is an implied assertion that the wrong things are being reverenced or taken seriously. Whereas in the irony which is typical of the twentieth century there is only an implied assertion that nothing can be taken seriously. Thus in the end it ceases to be irony. The keen hawk of self-conscious wit turns into an unclean and greasy vulture. In anthroposophical terms the Ego is obscured and its function taken over by the half-possessed astral body.

In these matters, to perceive what is wrong is to have gone more than half-way towards finding the correct remedy. But one must perceive and think precisely. And then, in the present case, one will perceive that it is not the mere awareness of forces, or even impulses, of destruction in one’s own being, in one’s own will, that is wrong. On the contrary, these are the mark of conscious strength. What is wrong is the inability to disentangle the Ego from these forces, the inability so to adjust the Ego that it shall use, instead of being used by them. Diffusion is weakness; concentration is strength; the centripetal forces of destruction and decay are revealed, by the very way in which they are experienced, to be strong for battle.

That is why it is important to realise, and to accept, that in our time the forces of destruction must be looked for not only without but also within the soul, where of course they are experienced as impulses. Otherwise we may be inclined rather to avoid the powers of evil than to meet them. Confronted with the rarefied intellectualism, the nervous symptoms, the imbecile excesses of self­ contemplation which characterise our age, we may without discrimination fly for the refuge to the “living” in any shape or form in which it presents itself. But this reaction to the decadence of the age is not the distinctively anthroposophical one. On the contrary it is just in the twentieth century that we are continually meeting on all sides this dread of the sharp outlines of self-consciousness, and the same consequent relapse into that vague semi-conscious “life” whose function it is to build up the physical body without the co-operation of the conscious Ego. Such “life” is diffusive and (where the battlefield and the prize is human consciousness) merely weak. For it is still at the mercy of the destroyer before whom it flies. It will not bear the full light of consciousness.

In his “Leading Thoughts,” Dr. Steiner stated clearly that the astral body is realised then, when we are able to perceive the essentially destructive nature of consciousness. And he went on to show how, as distinct from this, realisation of the Ego is won through an ability to distinguish, from that which destroys the physical, that which again makes good the void which this destruction has left. For this re-creator is the Ego itself.

This then is the distinction between the Anthroposophical Movement and all those vague movements and tendencies which have come into being since its foundation. Alarmed by a rapidly dawning realisation of the essentially destructive nature of consciousness, these other souls would flee from it backwards into the innocent creativeness of a child’s etheric body.  Whereas for the follower of Steiner the way to the etheric lies through the Ego.

Owen Barfield
Copyright © 1997 — Owen Barfield Literary Estate.       Return to Top.