The Concept of Revelation

Seven: An Anglo-American Review 1 (1980): 117-125

Sixty or so years ago, when I was engaged in the awkward operation of turning from a boy into a man, the world of weekly, monthly and quarterly journalism was a much richer one in England than it is today. The peculiar literary form called the ‘essay’ was still in full flower, and the periodical literature of the day was begetting them in regular profusion. It was a characteristic of the essay as such that, while it certainly might be an essay on some particular topic, it need not necessarily be so. To secure a public it might just be a good essay. In practice it tended very often, because the writers were themselves literary men, to be concerned, whether topically or allusively, with literature past or present, but it need not necessarily be so. I think of such names as J. C. Squire, Robert Lynd, Desmond McCarthy, J. B. Priestley in his younger days before he became a novelist. It was the climate in which Hilaire Belloc could publish from time to time little collected volumes of his own essays with such titles as On EverythingOn Nothing, and finally just On.

I suppose Charles Lamb was the father of the genre. He was still being read with appreciation by the literary-minded in my generation, when their contemporaries over here were perhaps still pasturing on James Russell Lowell and Oliver Wendell Holmes. Belles-Lettres, the weekly or monthly Causerie—it was this phenomenon the compilers of the Oxford Dictionary must surely have had very much in mind when they included in their definition of the term literature the words: ‘now applied to writing which has claim to consideration on the ground of beauty of form or emotional effect.’

Of course one can trace its origin farther back. What are Addison’s Spectator and Johnson’s Rambler but collections of essays? But on closer inspection there turns out to be a difference, almost of kind, between the typical eighteenth-century essay and the kind of essay that characterized the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The former were avowedly aimed not simply at entertainment or emotional effect, but also at improvement. Jane Austen’s characters, for instance, take this requirement for granted. And parallel with this difference there was another. The eighteenth-century essay was allowed, although not obliged, to ‘bring in’ religion. Whatever the causes (and the rapid growth of doubt, or in eighteenth-century language ‘infidelity,’ during the nineteenth century is an obvious one), it is just a fact that this is exactly what the twentieth century was not allowed to do. Not on any account. Not only was all overt reference to religion, and particularly any that assumed the possibility of religious faith in the reader, ruled out by contemporary canons of taste, but the veto also applied to anything on which religious belief might have a bearing, whether positive or negative. First principles of any sort in fact were in bad taste. If you saw them looming uncomfortably ahead in the direction your argument was taking, the red light came on, and you veered off into some vague remark about the subject being ‘touched to finer issues,’ or something of that sort.

The genre had many merits. A genial and well-informed mind could do much with it. I at least owe a heavy debt to a long line of belletristic essays, from Charles Lamb onwards, for the development in myself of an affectionate taste for literature in general. Yet I cannot see much of a public today for essays of the sort I have been trying to describe. For the next thing that happened, if my historical survey is correct, was a rather swift falling-out-of-love with the whole image of literature that underlay them, and of which they were symptomatic. Nonconformists began to appear on the literary scene. Little magazines with aggressive titles were printed and talked of. Two of them, I remember, were entitled respectively Wheels and Blast. It was the time when, on a soberer level, T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound were busily undermining the ascendancy of the Georgian poets, who had continued to rely for nourishment on what remained of the Romantic tradition. What the nonconformists had come to feel, though they did not always succeed in preaching it very clearly, was that this whole literary tradition was somehow sterile. There was too much inbreeding. And here I think they were confronting a fundamental problem that is inherent in the very concept of ‘literature’ as a thing in itself. It is this. When people write, they have to be writing about something. Yet, as soon as we become really interested in the something they are writing about, literature has ceased to be a thing in itself—unless of course they confine themselves to writing about—literature! Hence no doubt the swelling spate of books about books, and books about books about books.

Literature as such is felt to be an important category. Yet literature, almost by definition, must refer outside itself. But what could it legitimately refer to without ceasing to be literature as such? It was a problem which a little earlier had confronted Matthew Arnold, and his solution was to say that serious literature is a ‘criticism of life’ (‘criticism’ having a convenient literary connotation). Now, I think it is true to say that, by the time I am speaking of, this notion ‘criticism of life’ had developed in two different directions. On the one hand there was the ‘commitment’ school—much in evidence in the Thirties during and after the Spanish Civil War. Literature must have a practical aim. It must, broadly speaking, be directed to bringing about social reform. On the other hand, and by a very different class of writers, criticism, rather than participation, did indeed become accepted as the true function of literature, provided always that the criticism was implied rather than argued, provided it was limited to irony.

Irony for many was the perfect answer. Nearly perfect for I. A. Richards; quite perfect for Cleanth Brooks. Not only was the unavoidable element of reference to life outside literature disinfected, so to speak, by a simultaneous detachment from it, but a pervasive tone of irony—unrelated, unparticularized irony rather than irony about anything—had the protective advantage of making no claims. It was almost synonymous with literature’s awareness of its own limitations.

But I do not think these two developments of a ‘criticism of life’ approach exhaust between them what was happening to the concept of literature. The early twentieth century was marked by another phenomenon, not less symptomatic and, I would say, a good deal more significant for the future than either of them. I am thinking of the discovery of the Russian writers, notably Dostoievsky, and the enthusiastic acclaim with which they had just been welcomed by the literary élite in the West. I suspect that the warmth of that welcome sprang from an uneasy feeling that there must be rather more to humanity than was dreamed of by the good-natured ‘humanism’ which characterised not only essay writing but Western literature as a whole at the time of their appearance. The Russian writers went deeper. Their literary aim seemed to be not so much observation or criticism or detached valuation, as the disclosure of hitherto unsuspected sources, sources of valuation, sources of behaviour, sources of human consciousness itself. Insofar as it had any practical aim, it aimed at altering that consciousness by increasing its knowledge of itself, rather than at any persuaded improvement either of the individual or of society. I cannot attempt to trace its influence in any detail, but without it I doubt if there could ever have been a D. H. Lawrence or even an F. R. Leavis; perhaps not a Thomas Mann, perhaps not even (in spite of his avowed distaste for the Russians) a Joseph Conrad.

My suggestion is that the startling warmth of that response betokened a groping endeavour towards a concept of literature, not as a means of improvement, not as a vehicle of criticism of any sort, and not simply as entertainment, but as a revelation of hitherto unsuspected depths in the inner being of humanity. Revelation is related to criticism as discovery is to observation and judgment. It may be an unfamiliar term in the vocabulary of literary criticism, but it is not an entirely new thing in literature. Poetry, for instance, as a revelation of nature had already been well developed by the Romantics, notably Wordsworth. But I do not know that it has ever been explicitly characterised as such; and anyone who seeks to employ an old word in a new sense is under some obligation to justify his audacity.

In an English court of law, whenever the proper definition of a word comes up for discussion, reference is sure to be made at some stage of the argument to the Oxford Dictionary. I will go back to it myself then and mention that the first definition it gives for revelation is: ‘The disclosure or communication of knowledge to man by a divine or supernatural agency.’ I think it is a good definition and it accords with the historical fact that the word has in the past been used mainly in the context of religious thought. It is in that context then that we had better begin by looking at it. When we do so, we find that already in that context its proper meaning has been widely, even bitterly, disputed. If we look for instance at the controversy in the early nineteenth century over what was called the doctrine of ‘Verbal Inspiration’ of the Scriptures, we soon notice how judicious was our lexicographer’s choice of words. ‘Disclosure’ or ‘Communication’? Which? And are they the same, or are they different things? That was the issue that lay, usually unperceived, at the heart of the controversy—as Coleridge so clearly divined in his Letters on the Inspiration of the Scriptures. The main error of the Bibliolaters (or, as we should probably now call them, Fundamentalists) lay, he said, ‘in the confounding of two distinct conceptions, revelation by the Eternal Word, and actuation by the Holy Spirit.’ It was in consequence of this that the term ‘Inspiration’ had acquired a double sense. ‘First, the term is used in the sense of Information miraculously communicated by voice or vision; and secondly, where without any sensible addition or infusion, the writer or speaker uses and applies his existing gifts of power and knowledge under the predisposing, aiding, and directing actuation of God’s Holy Spirit.’ Between these two concepts—information communicated through the medium of the senses, and disclosure through non-verbal, or pre-verbal, inspiration—there was, he said, ‘a positive difference of kind—a chasm.’ Or, in the terminology of our definition, two different kinds of disclosure are possible, one by communication and the other by inspiration, and we have no right to assume that only the former is made a divine or supernatural agency. Coleridge himself held that the former kind was only to be found in comparatively few places in the Bible, notably certain Dominical utterances, and certain passages in the Pentateuch. For the rest, though he did not put it in precisely that way, the Bible should properly be read as a special case (in view of its sublimity, a very special case) of literature. The inspiration, which is its overall substance, is not readily distinguishable in fact from Imagination, from Imagination in the sense which he himself was instrumental in imparting to that word, and which it has since become customary to signalise as ‘creative.’ The epithet has become almost a conventional one, really adding nothing to its noun. Coleridge himself, rarely, if ever, joined the two together. What he did call Imagination was ‘a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM.’

Let me try to summarise by putting it in a slightly different way. Either we accept the real presence of a divine or supernatural agency, or we do not. If we do not, there is not much point in talking about religion, and therefore not much point in talking about the relation between religion and literature. If we do accept such an agency, and further the possibility of that agency disclosing any knowledge of itself, then there appear to be two conceivable kinds of disclosure. The one from without, that is through the senses, and the other from within. My suggestion, with support from Coleridge, is that this second kind, not less than the first, may properly be called ‘revelation,’ whether it is found in sacred or profane literature.

The terms ‘within’ and ‘without’ make a neat antithesis. The distinction between them is surely sharp enough. But it is very important to be absolutely clear about the point where the one limb of that antithesis is divided from the other. It is not primarily a spatial antithesis. It does not contrast a source located inside the cuticle of a human organism with a source physically outside it. No. The contrast is between the immaterial and the material—between what is or could be an object for the senses, and what is not and could not be so. It is very important, because to be incapable of discriminating between these two different sorts of relation between ‘within’ and ‘without’ is, in my view, to be incapable of forming a satisfactory concept of revelation in any sense, and whether occurring in the present or in the past. One recalls how the failure to do just that has bedevilled anthropology, psychology, and through them theology, with the purely spatial concept of a ‘projection’ of the within upon the without; a concept which rapidly became the basic hypothesis for all interpretation of ancient traditions and records coming under the head of myth or religion, including of course the Jewish and Christian Bible.

The effect of this has been to exclude, if not all avowed belief, certainly all confidence, in the divine or supernatural origin of such traditions and records. We today are familiar with the kind of utterance, the kind of communication from one human being to another, that springs from imagination and therefore, we agree, from within. It may for instance take the form of poetry, and it may even contain an element of disclosure. We are quite unfamiliar with the phenomenon of the same kind of communication coming from a transpersonal source. Accordingly, when we are confronted with it, in past tradition, we assume that, however it purported to come from without, it must in fact have come from within. And since we have already preempted the meaning of within and without to a merely spatial parameter, we assume (again more often implicitly than explicitly) that it must have been a product, or figment, of the brain.

As I see it, this tacit assumption is the biggest lion in the path of any attempt to present literature as being, at least ideally (which is not at all the same as saying metaphorically), a form of revelation. To overcome it, we must become able to accept that the older kind of revelation could be no less actual than the new, instead of regarding it, as Freud and Jung for instance have done, as having been merely the new kind misunderstood. I know of only one way in which this can be done. And since I have already referred to Coleridge, I will add that it is a way towards which he was undoubtedly feeling his way towards the end of his life. I am thinking particularly of his late lecture on the Prometheus of Aeschylus, though there are many other indications. The apostle of creative imagination was indicating, before he died, that the old traditions and records, and in particular the myths, demand for their proper interpretation a perception that human consciousness itself—not merely human ideas and beliefs, where the changes are obvious enough—but consciousness itself—has been evolving in a direction that entailed transformation of the old kind of revelation into the new. Only on this premise is it possible for us to acknowledge that, while we must look within today for the source of revelation, the older kind of revelation was, in fact and not merely supposedly, from without, that is through the medium of the senses; and further that these two sources are nevertheless not two different sources, but one and the same source.

As to the validity of such a premise, I have obviously no time to contend for it here and now. For most people, the principal stumbling block in the way of accepting it is that it entails abandoning the received view of evolution as a biological process, whereby merely physical events resulted later on in mental ones. Elsewhere, and in more than one book, I have tried to dig away at that stumbling block and some others. Very briefly: The element of attention and intention in contemporary sense perceptions makes hay of any hypothesis, for example, of natural selection as the only, or even the predominant, agent of evolutionary process in its early stages. Further, in its later stages (namely pre-history and history of humanity), there is ample evidence, for example in the development of language, of a continuing evolution of perception itself away from a pre-intentional towards an increasingly intentional experience and activity. I must confine myself to that bald synopsis. Here I am concerned only with its consequences for the concept of revelation.

It means that, looking back into the past, we look into a state of affairs where the distinction I have stressed between disclosure and communication was much less marked, that there was a time when mere perception itself contained an element of disclosure, and when the whole relation between sensation, intention, and thought, which is embodied in language, was very differently adjusted. And my suggestion is that such a perspective, clearly focused, must have important consequences in the domain of literature, whether for the historical and critical study of it—all that used to be called (and which I will continue to call) ‘philology’—or for the actual production of literature in the present and future.

I must endeavour, in the time left to me, to illustrate with a few sketchy examples the sort of consequences I have in mind. I begin then with a philological one. In the study of literature the word ‘source’ is today extensively employed. In the domain of criticism we carefully, and rightly, distinguish ‘primary’ from ‘secondary’ sources: the text itself from books and essays about the text or in some way based on it. Now this principle is of course easily applied to modern or recent literature, where an author’s identity and the genuine productions of his pen are rarely in doubt. In the case of much ancient literature, where the element of tradition is apparent, and where therefore criticism tends to merge with historical research, it has long been customary to endeavour to apply the same principle and to make the same sharp distinction. But in order to do so, it is first necessary to identify ‘the’ text; this entails specifying some particular manuscript, whether extant or validly inferred, in which the concatenation of ideas that afterwards became traditional made its first appearance, and of which later manuscripts or books embodying the same tradition must (we assume) have been, in effect, copies. In this way philology becomes, sometimes almost exclusively, a hunt for ‘sources’ in that personal sense of the word. And, whether the hunt is disciplined and responsible, or feverish and over-ingenious, it generally seems to exclude any sympathetic entry into the substance of the tradition itself. The notion that that substance may have been antecedent to the birth of even the first individual who strove to articulate it in writing is rarely so much as entertained. The only question for the modern scholar is: Who started it all?

This, I think is where the modern hunt for sources differs so sharply from the medieval reverence for ‘olde bokes’ and, in general, what they called ‘auctorities.’ The oldest book that could be referred to was the most valuable to them, not because it was itself the source of what they were retailing, but because it was the nearest to the ultimate, transpersonal source, nearest in fact to the truth revealing itself. That point of view entailed a totally different attitude from our own to such issues as plagiarism, forgery, inaccurate attribution of authorship—a point of view which is, I believe, very generally overlooked by contemporary philologists. Themselves living in an age when the person of the individual author is felt to be more important, not to say more interesting, than the thought he is transmitting, they understand the concept of copyright very clearly and the concept of revelation not at all. Otherwise they would not, to give a single instance, take such immense care to go on showing that they have not been taken in, by never on any account simply referring to Dionysius the Areopagite, but always to ‘pseudo-Dionysius;’ this practice subtly undermines the actual substance of the Celestial Hierarchies and the Divine Names, and any value those works may have as revelation. For who would think of paying any serious attention to a ‘pseudo’ anybody?

I spoke just now of truth revealing itself. If we accept the reality of a ‘divine or supernatural agency,’ I think we must accept that this does occur, either from without or from within or in both ways. And if I was right in what I said about the true moment of division between without or within, then it follows that the source of that revelation may be, indeed must be, noumenal, that is, spiritual, whether or not it comes through a phenomenal medium. Furthermore, if we do not allow ourselves to be hoodwinked by the crudely extrapolating hypothesis of animistic ‘projection,’ all the evidence there is proclaims aloud that the older modes of revelation did in fact occur from without, that is, through the phenomenal medium. And what is all important, in my view, for a fruitful study of all but comparatively recent literature, is that this should come to be fully accepted, not just admitted in the abstract, but accepted by the imagination as well as by the judgment, so that it is not forgotten as soon as the mind has left the general principle behind and is applying itself to particulars—accepted in fact by whatever part of us it is that takes certain things for granted, or as matter of course.

That would mean our apprehending it through the mind’s eye, not as an interesting fancy that was started by somebody at some time or other, but rather as a truth that is basic to our very existence, a truth which was temporarily obscured by the Age of Enlightenment, rather as the sun during an eclipse is obscured by a more solid body, which is itself undoubtedly capable, when in opposition, of shedding a light of its own, though even that pale illumination was borrowed by reflection from the ultimate source of light.

C.S. Lewis, in his little book The Discarded Image (1964), tried hard to put students of medieval and Renaissance literature in a position to understand and enjoy that literature by expounding and depicting in some detail the very different world in which its writers lived. And the one great difference that underlies and pervades all the rest is that they experienced the relation between the within and the without not as simply a spatial traffic between eyes and world, or brain and world, but in terms of macrocosm and microcosm, of humanity as a whole (but also of each human being) as a little world within the greater world surrounding it, which was both its source and its goal. Dig into almost any serious book written much earlier than the eighteenth century, and you will find that cosmology assumed and underlying it. What I am suggesting is that, if it is impossible really to understand such literature at all without being alert to this, it is no less impossible to study it intensively, to research it, or to speculate intelligently about its so-called ‘sources’ without at the same time taking that cosmology seriously. That is, without having realised that, whatever extravagances it led to here and there, it was substantially nearer the truth than our own, if indeed we can now be said to have one at all. Moreover, unless we do take it seriously, I do not really think we can take any concept of revelation seriously. For what is revelation if it is not the macrocosm, in one way or another, imparting knowledge of itself to the microcosm? Either it is theophany, or there neither is nor ever was any such thing as revelation—and it is merely an archaic metaphor for barking a little more loudly than usual at the moon.

I could adduce plenty of examples of the kind of source-hunting research and criticism I have in mind, and one or two of a different and better kind, but for that I should need a great deal more time than I have left to me. I must go on instead to say a word or two on that other aspect of literature, the actual production of it in the present and future. I really see no other avenue of salvation from the rising tide of triviality, often tending towards bestiality, than some such change as I have been trying to adumbrate in the prevailing notion of what constitutes ‘creativity;’ a general recognition of the fact that it is much nearer to revelation than it is to inventiveness or stripping. By all means call it ‘self expression,’ if you will, provided you know something at least of the history of selfhood and something of where the true self of everyman resides. By all means go on speaking of man’s ‘creative imagination,’ provided you are aware that imagination is the true successor of inspiration and not merely the parading and parading of superficial idiosyncrasy and fleeting impulse. But then you will also be aware that both of them are in fact modes of revelation, pre-personal in the first case and metapersonal in the second. To speak of ‘metapersonal revelation’ is perhaps coming rather near—as near, I hope, as I have yet come—to jargon. St Paul put it better in the Epistle to the Romans when he spoke of ‘the Spirit itself bearing witness with our spirit.’

You would be mistaken if you took this concept of literature as revelation as implying that all literature must henceforth be deadly serious and aimed straight at Heaven, that there shall be no more cakes and ale. I am thinking of great literature. But I am also persuaded that the prevalent idea of what constitutes great literature is effective in some measure at all levels, influencing its texture and determining its tone. Here, as elsewhere, the fact that the idea, or ideal, may be only realised by a few does not mean that its presence or absence is of no importance for the many. It is something the same in the domain of sexual behaviour. Very few perhaps actually realise the man/woman relation as a sacrament or even marriage as a socially responsible act, but the presence or absence of such a few and of the idea in their minds may well determine in the end whether a given society is to be civilised or Gadarene. It is a mystery no doubt, but it is also a fact, that the taste and the quality of cakes and ale themselves are very different according to whether there is, or is not, an Olivia, an Orsino, a Viola hovering in the background behind them.

No, I see plenty of room for light literature of all kinds, as also for critical discrimination and painstaking critical research, including research into historical sources. It is the ultimate Idea underlying it all, or, if you like, the soul in its complex body, that I have been trying to address myself to.

So also with religion and theology. There is no question of ruling out exegesis or the niceties of textual criticism. But here there is, I imagine, no need to argue for the importance of a right concept of revelation as their underlying Idea. The only question is: What is that right concept? It seems to me almost self-evident that normally religion begins as revelation and gradually becomes tradition. I shall only suggest in conclusion that the essential difference between the Christian and all other religions, including Judaism, is that the former did not begin with a revelation but with an historical event; the event namely by which the potential source of all revelation was passed from macrocosm to microcosm, and thus from without to within. That, as I see it, is why the Incarnation has also been correctly described as the Word becoming flesh. If it be objected that that event was itself a revelation, inasmuch as it was certainly a theophany, I shall, to say the least of it, raise no objection. I shall only ask leave to distinguish that particular revelation from revelation in the sense in which I have been using the word, a sense which is already wide enough in all conscience. Beyond that I cannot attempt to expatiate. After all, the principal concern of this paper has been with literature, though its object has been to suggest that a healthy future for both literature and religion depends on what I would call the Idea of literature coalescing, as it were, with the Idea of religion in an evolutionary concept of revelation.

Owen Barfield