The Disappearing Trick1

The Golden Blade, 1970, pp. 53-66

In my opinion a great deal of what is going on around us today can be traced to the presence in very many minds of an unspoken question and an unspoken answer to it. For the most part both question and answer remain not merely unspoken; they are not even consciously formulated. The answer, if it were formulated, would be either ‘No’ or ‘I don’t know’. As to the question, in the ordinary life of society perhaps the nearest it usually comes to formulation occurs in early adult life in the shape of what is sometimes called ‘the identity crisis’. In circles interested in philosophy or metaphysics however it is sometimes explicitly formulated and as explicitly answered in the negative. The question is ‘Do I exist?’

In almost any modern American university one of the most popular and flourishing departments is likely to be the Department of Sociology; and if we look a little into what is meant by ‘sociology’. If we meet the Professors for example, and see the books on their shelves and on the shelves of the students’ bookstore, we quickly learn that what is meant is ‘behavioural’ sociology. The label reminds us that, for the purposes of sociological study, human beings are normally taken to be simply their external behaviour. Should any student be inclined to wonder at all why human beings behave as they do, he is likely to seek the answer in the Department of Psychology; and when we have pursued the same line of investigation here, and this time have met not only Professors but also the rats, with which they spend the bulk of their time experimenting, we shall realise that academic psychology is hardly less exclusively behavioural than academic sociology. Not only human beings in society, the student learns, but each single human being really is his physical behaviour.

Look for instance at the book Walden Two, which appeared three or four years ago. It is a utopia on the lines of Brave New World, but unlike Brave New World, it is not intended as a satire. Perhaps it is an extreme case, but its well-known author, Professor Skinner, is a leading Professor of Psychology at Harvard University and, if we read that book or hear him lecture or broadcast, we shall soon grasp that the basic assumption underlying all he thinks and says is, that the question ‘Do I exist?’ has already been definitively answered on everyone’s behalf in the negative. If you actually asked him the question, he would tell you that you had ‘missed the point’. Nobody doubts his senses; for the rest, there is response to stimulus, there is motivation, there is aversion, there is habit, and all this adds up to behaviour. To raise any question about ‘I’ or ‘me’ is to miss the point.

It follows of course that to raise the issue of responsibility is also to miss the point; and, lest it should be thought I am tilting at American universities or unfairly singling out sociologists and psychologists, let me also mention a broadcast talk on Criminal Law, which was heard on the BBC a year or two ago. It was called ‘Dispensing with Responsibility’ and was summarised in the Radio Times as follows:

The most challenging and interesting critics of the law believe we should eliminate or by-pass the question of an individual’s responsibility.

Reflect for a moment on all that that implies. No one is likely to dispute that the question of responsibility is a difficult one. Justice, wisdom, psychology, human sympathy and understanding and the quality of mercy all enter into it. But, unless that other question has first been answered in the negative, a proposal to ignore responsibility altogether, though it may indeed be ‘challenging’, can hardly be described as ‘interesting’.

Of course the root question is not always answered so emphatically in the negative. Uncertainty, anxiety about the proper answer are a much commoner condition. Psychiatrists are familiar with that uncertainty and the existential psychologists among them have already traced a good deal of anxiety to its source in the unanswered question (see for instance R. D. Laing’s The Divided Self). Examples are all too easy to find, it is just a question of selection. In Canada one naturally thinks first of the starling réclame achieved by Marshall McLuhan with his prophecies. Individuality, he assures us, was a by-product of the invention of printing and is now on its way out. And he, too, is rather fond of replying in advance to any reader who may be showing signs of disagreement, that he has ‘missed the point’. But I put his answer, with some hesitation, among the ‘Don’t knows’ rather than the ‘No’s’, because, though he makes it quite clear that he knows where we are all going, and generally seems to welcome the prospect with enthusiasm, he does very occasionally speak as if we had come choice and even as though he intended a warning rather than a prophecy. At least he does so in Understanding Media.

After all this are there any indication that the question is being answered anywhere in the third possible way, that is, in the affirmative? Of course there are any number of individuals and small groups scattered about the world who do so answer it – who have no doubt that they exist and will continue to do so whether they like it or not. There are many such in the Churches, though it is not so with everyone who goes to church, and there are many others outside them. But my concern here is with general trends, movements of thought or of impulse (which is often potential thought) that are ‘contemporary’ in an easily recognisable sense (such as determine for instance the flavour of contemporary drama), trends which are as broadly tangible as those I have already chosen as examples in the other direction.

I believe there is one rather important indication, though perhaps it has not yet been very much noticed; and I refer to the marked increase during the last few decades in people’s concern with history – and with the past of mankind in general – but also to a subtle change in the nature of that concern. Side by side (and they may even exist side by side in the same personality) with an almost aggressive tendency to reject the past as irrelevant, to deride it, to resent any sort of preoccupation with it as a clog on ‘progress’, one notices an enormous increase in the number of paperbacks and other books of a historical nature now being sold. It includes historical fiction, but it is not only that. Both in the New World and in Europe popular historical magazines appear and are successful. Young people, who have no intention of becoming archaeologists, spend their vacation joining in a dig somewhere, and so on. Other examples could be added. I am convinced that what I am talking about is something real.

Moreover it has been observed, and I think with justice, that this modern concern with history is of a different nature from the older kind. You may be fond of history for antiquarian or nostalgic reasons, reasons of a sentimental nature; but what people are obscurely seeking today is something more like an existential encounter with the past, while still remaining in the present. It was summed up by the Dutch historian, Johan Huizinga, in the striking phrase: ‘Today historical thinking has entered our very blood.’

At this point I have to digress for a while and interpose a few observations on a different topic altogether. If you want to observe what is going on in the general consciousness at a particular time – or at all events in a large section of it – it is sometimes a good thing to look carefully into a particular word that keeps on cropping up all over the place. Such vogue-words may often furnish a key to what is working, not so much on the surface where the ideas and slogans are bandied to and fro and back and forth, but a little below the surface. When I was a young man, one of these key words was ‘functional’. One suddenly found every writer who was up-to-date, or wished to be thought so, edging it in at every possible opportunity, and without perhaps having a very clear idea of what he meant by it. I want for a moment to take a look at one such word which I keep on coming across today, and which shows signs of becoming one of those key words, if it has not done so already.

The word ‘psychosomatic’ is of course derived from two Greek words, one of which means ‘soul’ and the other ‘body’. It was originally used by doctors to designate the kind of disorder that is both physical and mental in its origin.  It marked a reaction against the typical nineteenth-century view of the body as a mechanism and of the soul or mind (if there is one) as quite separate from it, like a sort of ghost in a machine. If you want to understand such disorders, it was implied, you must accept the fact that the human being is a ‘psychosomatic’ organism. It began with medicine; but it has spread to wider circles; it is evident that emphasis on the fact that man, as a whole, is a psychosomatic organism (in which it is impossible to distinguish between mind and body) gives some sort of satisfaction to large numbers of writers and thinkers today.

That is why it is important to examine the word rather carefully. And as soon as we do so, we discover that what it necessarily implies is, not that mind and body – or soul and body – cannot be distinguished (though that is what it is generally taken to mean), but that they cannot be separated. If they could not even be distinguished, the word itself would have no meaning. It would not be there. For what it signifies is that the speaker’s mind has united two components of the human being which the mind has first distinguished. Yet if you watch it carefully, if you pounce on it next time you come across it and consider it in its context, you are as likely as not to find that what it is intended to imply is that psyche cannot meaningfully be distinguished from soma at all.

One could add here that this confusion between distinguishing and dividing – the tacit assumption that we cannot distinguish what we cannot divide – is a weakness that has been growing increasingly prevalent in the thinking of the western world throughout the last three or four hundred years. We first decide that A cannot be separated from B; and then, especially if it happens that B is something we perceive with our senses or of which we can at least form a visual image with sharp outlines, we go on to the second stage, which is to suppose that A cannot be distinguished from B. From there the step is a short one to the third stage: the conviction that B is ‘real’ and A is ‘unreal’. This, in spite of the fact that the whole function of what we call our reason, our thinking power, is to distinguish and then again unite what cannot be physically separated. The other we can do with our hands and our tools.

Now this fact has very much to do with the question whether I exist or not; and therefore the realisation of this fact has very much to do with the question whether I can feel convinced that I exist. If I am indeed indistinguishable from my senses and my muscles, whose sole business is to register and respond to external stimuli, I am clearly not responsible for my actions; or, to put it another way, I do not exist.

These considerations may seem a very long way removed from a popular concern with history. There is nevertheless a connection between them. For the study of history is, by its nature, a way out of just that paralysing inability to distinguish what we cannot divide, in the particular case of the distinction between soul and body, between psyche and soma. Or, if not a way out, it is at least a step in the direction of the door marked EXIT.

Of course it is only one way out. Another way is the way of intelligent reflection. But any such reflection is commonly, perhaps, rightly, labelled ‘philosophical,’ and not everyone is inclined for it. Not everyone is anxious, or even willing, to switch off the radio, sit still, and reflect that consciousness itself depends on two elements that must always remain distinguishable, though they are never divisible… the distinction between ‘that-which-is-conscious’ and ‘that-of-which’ it is conscious… or to reflect that this is a distinction which we re-affirm by the very act of denying it; or, putting it another way, that a theory about the brain, or about behaviour, can never (no matter what microscopic details it reduces to) perform the disappearing trick of vanishing into the brain, or into the behaviour, about which it is a theory.

It is one thing to realise such a crucial truth by reflecting on it; it is another to discover it for yourself when you are not even looking for it – to have it positively forced on your attention. But that is just what his concern with history may do to a man. As soon as he becomes really interested, not only in things as they are, but in how they came to be what they are, quite practical distinctions between inseparables are forced on him. Take language for instance. It is perfectly true to say that written or printed language cannot be separated from its meaning without ceasing to be language, and becoming mere ink shapes. Nevertheless the history of the alphabet is a different study from the history of meanings of words and cannot profitably be pursued until we have accepted that fact. Again, in a successful work of art, say a statue, the nature of the material, as is often pointed out, is inseparably fused with the form of the work and the quality of expression achieved. But the history of marble, or of that particular piece of marble, is widely divergent from the history of sculpture, or of that particular sculptor and his art. However far back you trace the history of sculpture, you will not find it emerging from the geological adventures of marble. So it is with the history of the psychosomatic organism called ‘man’. If you wish to seek its history, you must distinguish its components, because they have different histories and moreover different kinds of history.

Furthermore it is just a fact that history is all about the human psyche distinguished from the human soma. No doubt one may not improperly use the word ‘history’ in connection with marble, but the provenance of marble is not in fact history. It is geology. That is what made the well-known professor of history, J. R. Collingwood, go so far as to say that ‘All history is history of thought’. Whether or not one goes as far as that, or even if he does not trouble himself about the nature of history at all, the fact of the distinction is being forced all the time on anyone who is concerning himself seriously with the historic past.

Moreover – and this is particularly significant – the converse is equally true. It has been proved by experience that, if you start so to speak from the opposite end; if you are mainly interested in things as they are, so that your whole intention is to be a scientist rather than a historian; but if you have nevertheless chosen to focus your attention on the psychic rather than the somatic aspect of the human organism; then, you are simply driven into the past, you are driven into all manner of historical theory. That is what happened in the case of psycho-analysis, and particularly in the case of Sigmund Freud. Interesting himself as he did, in certain disorders whose origin appeared to be predominantly psychic, he was forced, in the first place, to go back to a point in the individual’s past life beyond the reach of memory. But then he found this was not far enough. He could not explain the disorders to his own satisfaction without going farther back still – back to experiences had before the patient’s birth. Therefore they must have been the experiences of ancestor, feelings of guilt, for instance, which each of us ‘inherits’ along with his physical heredity, by a kind of ‘inherited memory’, which is nevertheless unconscious memory.

As a good Darwinian Freud assumed as a matter of course that psychic symptoms originate in physical causes; but as his investigations proceeded and his experience increased, he found himself driven further and further back into history in his attempts to reach a point at which the divergence could be deemed to have first begun. Even the primordial guilt-feelings, which at one time he derived from crimes committed by primitive hordes against the father of the tribe, he later ascribed, not to any actual crimes but to a repressed desire to commit them. However far back he went, the distinction was already there – until he was reduced to talking about ‘hordes of wild cattle and horses, where conditions regularly lead to the killing of the father animal’.

Here is a very revealing example of a conflict between a motivated refusal to distinguish and a factual compulsion to do so. As a faithful observer and thinker he found himself more and more obliged to insist on the distinction. But as a good Darwinian he was obliged to assume that, if you go far enough back in history, you will reach the point at which psyche performs the disappearing trick of vanishing altogether into soma. The ultimate and effective cause of all mental phenomena must be physical! This is also the conviction, or the presupposition, which is sometimes taken as justifying the psychedelic movement, and is the tacit assumption that has given such alarming strength to it in our time.

What is perhaps especially remarkable is the way in which that slovenly concept of ‘inherited memory’ was allowed to slip in, and then to become the central pillar of his own theory, by one who frequently emphasised his loyal adherence to the Darwinian theory of evolution. For any idea that memories could be ‘inherited’ is in fact totally incompatible with the Darwinian theory. The biological theory of evolution is based, fairly and squarely, on the maxim that no qualities, not even physical ones, acquired by a single organism during its lifespan can be passed on by heredity. But this radical inconsistency is not peculiar to Freud, nor even to psycho-analysis. Even a biologist like Sir Julian Huxley is not about using the notion of inherited memory, when it is convenient for explaining something. As to popular science, and all kinds of current writing in journalism, fiction and so forth, how often we are told of obscure recollections arising in the man of today of the experiences of his ‘tree-climbing’ ancestors! And yet… if the ancestors really were tree-climbing animals, and no more (as Darwin for instance propounded), there can be no such thing as inherited or ‘racial’ memories. It was because he was absolutely convinced that there could be no such thing that Darwin invented the ‘tree-climbing’ theory.

But how else are we to explain the evolution of consciousness – particularly of our modern consciousness? How else are we to explain it, if we insist on assuming that there is no real distinction between mind and body – if we insist, not only that we are unable now to separate the two, but that we are unable to distinguish them, and that the mind comes into existence at birth as an attribute of the body? If the statue grew somehow out of the geological nature of the marble, from which it is now inseparable, and had no independent source?

I find all this very relevant to the unspoken question with which I began. You can say that ‘history has entered into our blood’ – or you can say that evolution has entered into it. It is the evolution of modern consciousness that people are interested in, when they become concerned with history today; when they begin to make the existential encounter with it. How did we get to be where we are… and what we are? That is the question. Because evolution is in my blood, I shall feel convinced that I exist, when – and only when – I have some understanding of how I came to be what I am.

Many books have been written from different points of view to show that our modern consciousness (which can only be termed ‘self-consciousness’, whether or not we afterwards go on to claim that the ‘self’ is illusory) has gradually evolved from a less individualised consciousness – such as is manifested at the stage of mythical thought, or by tribal consciousness. The picture such books evoke is our present, sharply-defined, isolated and isolating self-consciousness gradually, in the long course of pre-history and history, emerging from a dimmer and vaguer kind of consciousness, a consciousness shared by many human beings and extending over a wider area. It is a convincing picture for many different reasons; but on closer examination it proves to have one very serious flaw in it.

If self-consciousness can truly be said to have ‘evolved’, it must have increased very gradually. But what does it mean to say that self-consciousness must have ‘increased’, or must have ‘emerged’ gradually from another kind of consciousness? If self-consciousness can accurately be said to have ‘grown’, or ‘evolved’ from what it was say in 10,000 B.C. to what it is, say in A.D. 1970, then the same self must be assumed as present in both periods. The same self, though not the same organisms (bodies). What does ‘evolving’ mean? It makes sense to speak of the species horse ‘evolving’ through the ages, though individual horses have perished utterly; because there is something that has persisted through all those perishing, namely the species. But if it is individuality itself, selfhood itself, that is to be conceived as ‘evolving’, what then are we to say has persisted? It can only be the individuality. In other words something called individuality has taken the place of species in the process of evolving. In this case, then, it is not the same species but the same individual that must have persisted through those successive embodiments that reveals its evolution to an observer – becoming, in the process of transformation, gradually more recognisable as what it is today.

And this is something you do not find in the books to which I referred. Not yet.

It is quite extraordinary how many of these inconsistencies and inadequacies quietly disappear if we accept the fact of successive embodiments of an individual human spirit. No need now to play about with hopeless unscientific fantasies of physically inherited memories in a psychic Unconscious – since the Unconscious brings its own past with it into embodiment. And in that individual spirit – in the Ego as the unconscious kernel of a conscious personality, in the transbiographical Ego, which persists from life to life – we have a unity that is capable of actual, and not merely metaphorical, evolution.

There is of course no doubt that what we call ‘personality’ is psychosomatic. It is inextricably linked with the body and its functions, and particularly with the sense-organs. Men have been well aware of this ever since the study of psychology began. The Greek philosophers were well aware of it, and before them the Hindu sages, and others. What distinguishes our time is our overwhelming awareness of the contribution of the physical component; so that, if we were quite honest, we should be speaking, not of ‘psychosomatic’ but of ‘somatopsychic’.  The real issue today is the existence… or not… and the nature of that kernel of the personality of which we are normally unaware and which persists through historical and biographical changes. If there is in truth no such kernel, then personality itself is a kind of illusion; and it really would be better that it should perform the disappearing trick, for it can only be a kind of grit in the smooth machinery of life. So it is felt in many quarters, and with a good deal of justification. So it is argued by the behaviourists, so it is felt, by and large, by those who fall for such movements as the Hippy cult; so it is both felt and argued in a good deal of contemporary art and theory of art.

This acute awareness (which we all have, if we are honest) of the extent to which our consciousness is dependent on the brain and nerves and senses and other bodily functions, is making it particularly difficult for us to conceive of any element in the personality having existed before birth, and perhaps still more difficult to conceive of any persisting after death. Yet if we distinguish, or if we merely remember we do consistently distinguish, between psyche and soma the difficulty begins to disappear. For we do distinguish. If we converse with someone who is awake, and then afterwards see him asleep, we cannot help making the distinction. The psyche is still there; but it has ceased to manifest. Psyche and soma, we observe – or soul and body – are differently related at different times; so it is clear that, whatever the relation between the two is, it is not that of indistinguishableness; and it need not, and should not, be so very difficult to conceive of the converse happening in the case of death; or that, because the soma disappears, it does not follow that the psyche disappears with it.

The truth is that the human psychosomatic organism is one in which two elements are interrelated in an infinitely subtle way. In point of fact there are more than two, for we have already had to distinguish between the personality and the ‘kernel’ of the personality, but let us leave it now at two elements, which are related in a subtle way, and moreover in a way that varies rhythmically with the course of time. An adequate psychology of it would have to pursue the subtlety of that interrelation as far as possible into its physiological and psychological ramifications. It would have to pursue it by everywhere systematically distinguishing what cannot be divided. It would have to distinguish – and then to show the relation – between not only psyche and soma in general, but between their different interrelations with each other at different times; to show the different relations between the different parts of functions of the one and the corresponding parts and functions and systems of the other, and, in doing so, to distinguish and relate those parts and functions and interpenetrating systems themselves, as they are within the one system (the physical body for instance) considered apart from the other. And I must say without hesitation that the only psychology I know which even begins to fulfil those exacting requirements is Rudolf Steiner’s psychology and physiology of threefold man. To expound it would need a lecture in itself, or several lectures. Here I am merely stating my opinion that his is the only psychology and physiology, on the basis of which it is possible to understand in any detail the rhythmical variations in the complex interrelation between soul and body which manifest themselves in the sequences of sleeping and waking, of life and death – and indeed of other sequences also.

I regard it as a matter of great importance that we should never lose sight of the vast difference between the oriental concept of reincarnation and the occidental one. The occidental idea of successive embodiments of the individual human spirit is by no means the same as the oriental one of ‘reincarnation’, though unfortunately it is in the latter form that most people in the West are introduced to it. Whereas the oriental doctrine looks primarily towards the past, the occidental one looks primarily towards the future. This characteristic was clearly stamped on it from its first appearance in the speculative utterances of many western philosophers towards the end of the eighteenth century; but it remained almost wholly speculative until Steiner, by integrating it with his threefold psychology, transformed it into a firmly based interpretation of human existence.

Part and parcel of this integration are many features which markedly distinguish his treatment of repeated terrestrial lives, not only from oriental teaching but also from any other of which I at least have ever heard. As an instance of these, his alone pays as much attention to periods between death and re-birth as it does to periods of life in the body. And this appears to me to be, both psychologically and historically, significant. With the rise of depth-psychology there appeared for the first time in history an attempt, at least, to investigate the sleep-relation between soul and body, as well as their waking relation. We very badly need a similar move towards focussing on the pre-natal and the pre-mortem relation between the two – on the discarnate relation as well as the incarnate one. Indeed, I doubt if anything less than this can re-establish western man’s confidence in his free will and the personal responsibility which that alone entails.

At the centre of all Steiner’s teachings (or, as I prefer to say, ‘findings’) there stood what he always referred to as the Mystery of Golgotha; and it follows from almost everything he said that it is because the Being, whom Christians call the Christ and others have called by other names, united himself with the earth at a definite moment of time, and as a historical fact, that history may now be said to be ‘in our blood’ – or that evolution is in our blood. For Christ actually is the past, not dead, but living in the present and on into the future.

Just because of the heavy pressure technological civilisation is constantly exerting on us to identify with the present moment, that is, to identify with happenings to our senses, happenings of our bodily functions, and even with happenings in the world around us – and thus to disappear as responsible persons – it is essential that the Christ impulse should be increasingly realised in experience. Nor need we absolutely despair of this coming to pass. For what is it that sets us free for that realisation, for that existential encounter? If we look well into it, it is that very pressure of the present moment, of which I have just spoken.

That is the other, and less oppressive, way of looking at what is going on all round us. We are assailed… hammered and clamoured on all hands… by ever-multiplying sense-impressions and popgun impacts on our nervous systems. Thought perceptions, brief memories light up in us and as quickly vanish again. They are dependent on our brains and nerves and senses; and we are aware of this dependence as perhaps never before in the history of humanity. But it is just because of this fleeting nature of our thoughts and perceptions that, although our personalities may seem to consist of them, we are not determined by them – that we ourselves are free. But this freedom is rapidly becoming useless, and even menacing, to us; because, overtly or covertly, we draw from the fleeting nature of our conscious experience the conclusion that we have, as individuals, no real being. But real being is precisely what is secured to us by our having already existed as units in the past. It is because of this that we are, whether we like it or not, not merely Spirit (as most, though not I believe quite all, of the Buddhist sects, for instance, maintain), but individual spirits. The sense of not-being from which we suffer in our present selves… and which gives rise to the anxious question: Do I exist?… is the indispensible foundation of our freedom. That this is so was first fully realised by an appreciable number of people only comparatively recently, and the discovery was called Existentialism.

But this freedom gives us no reassurance of reality. That is because we should in fact have no reality – we should be mere bundles of stimulated behaviour – if the self had to rely on its present experience for its being. But it does not have to. It experiences its freedom in the fleeting present. It is a real Being because it has an immemorial past and has slowly evolved to be what it is. The moment we recognise and realise this, the rudderless and helplessly drifting ‘Do I exist?’ is converted into the very guarantee of our freedom and of our obligation to steer; we become, not the free Nothings of Sartrian Existentialism, but free spirits deep-rooted in the past, and responsible to it, growing thence towards the future and responsible for it. It was Rudolf Steiner’s conviction, and it has long been mine, that much, if not everything, may depend on how soon the generality of mankind comes to a realisation of this fact. Much that has happened since his death and much that is happening today has contributed to reinforce that conviction.

Owen Barfield

1 From a public lecture given in Toronto and Montreal in May 1968 through the kind offices of the Anthroposophical Society in Canada; and in May 1969 at the University of Missouri (Columbia under the auspices of the Department of English. Return.

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