"Literal" customarily refers to "words examined
for what they say in their first or ordinary sense, without consideration
of their metaphorical, suggestive sense. Literal language is opposed to
figurative language" (HHL). It is a recurring theme of Barfield's
work that the distinction between figurative and literal is not as simple
as we are usually lead to believe.
"We call a sentence 'literal,'" he writes in
"The Meaning of Literal," "when it means what it affirms on the face of
it, and nothing else. If some sentences are not literal, that is because
it is possible, by recognized linguistic usage, to affirm or express one
thing and to mean another thing, either instead of or as well as the first"
(RM 32). But the question remains:
In fact, "the presumed history of . . . literal
words of immaterial import has gone through four stages, in the first and
last of which their meanings were exclusively literal, while in the two
intermediate stages they functioned as vehicles having a
To what, precisely does, each one
of them refer--the tens of thousands of abstract nouns which daily fill
the columns of our newspapers, the debating chambers of our legislatures,
the consulting rooms of our psychiatrists? Progress, tendency, culture,
democracy, liberality, inhibition, motivation, responsibility--there was
a time when each one of them, either itself or its progenitor in another
tongue, was a vehicle referring to the concrete world of sensuous experience
with a tenor of some sort peeing, or breathing, or bursting through. But
now they are just "literal" words--the sort of words we have to use, when
we are admonished not to speak in metaphors. (RM 38)
"Literalness," we must conclude, is thus "a quality
which some words have achieved in the course of their history; it is not
a quality with which the first words were born . . ." (RM 41).1
Indeed, it would be too much to say that "There is . . . no such thing
as literalness. The most we can safely say, therefore, is that the literal
and discursive use of language is the way in which it is used by a speaker,
who is either unaware of, or is deliberately ignoring, that real and figurative
relation between man and his environment, out of which the words he is
using were born and without which they could never have been born" (RM
We may call the first stage--at which
they are presumed to have referred solely to material objects--the "born"
literal, and the last stage--at which they are presumed to refer to immaterial
entities, real or fictitious--the "achieved" literal. Now I believe it
will be found that our whole way of thinking about the achieved literal
is based on a tacitly assumed analogy with the born literal. We assume
that it is not the natural, simple nature of a noun to be a vehicle with
a tenor, because nouns did not begin that way. They began life as plain
labels for plain objects and that is their true nature. It was only later,
as a result of the operation of human fancy in metaphor-making, that they
came to be used for a time as vehicles with a tenor; and when that stage
is over and they have once more achieved literalness, we feel that they
have reverted to their pristine innocence and become once more labels for
objects, even if we are firmly convinced that the new objects do no exist.
Better a fictitious entity than none at all--for a noun to be the name
of! (RM 38-39)
Under the reign of modern idolatry
all this becomes obscured, but our confusion about literal and figurative
is by no means universal.
Needless to say, Barfield is very impatient with
the simplistic thinking of modern literalists.
When the "things" of the physical
world have become idols, then indeed the literal interpretation excludes
the symbolical and vice versa. But where everything is a representation
at least half-consciously experienced as such, there is as yet no contradiction.
For a representation experienced as such is neither literal nor symbolical;
or, alternatively, it is both at the same time. Nothing is easier for us,
than to grasp a purely literal meaning; and if we are capable at all of
grasping, in addition, a symbolical or "fancy" meaning, as we do in poetry,
we are in no danger of confusing the one with the other. Before the scientific
revolution, on the other hand, it was the concept of the "merely literal"
that was difficult. (SA 75)
Listen attentively to the response
of a dull or literal mind to what insistently presents itself as allegory
or symbol, and you may detect a certain irritation, a faint, incipient
aggressiveness in its refusal. Here I think is a deep-down moral gesture.
You may, for instance, hear the literal man object suspiciously that he
is being "got at." And this is quite correct. He is. Just as he is by being
"got at" by his unconscious through the symbolism of his dreams. An attempt
is being made, of which he is dimly aware, to undermine his idols, and
his feet are being invited on to the beginning of the long road, which
in the end must lead him to self-knowledge, with all the unacceptable humiliation
which that involves. Instinctively he does not like it. He prefers to remain
"literal." But of course he hardly knows that he prefers it, since self-knowledge
is the very thing which he is avoiding. (SA 163)
|See in particular "The Meaning of Literal"
(RM 32-43), "Modern Idolatry: The Sin of Literalness" (HGH
36-64), Saving the Appearances, passim.
goes on to explain,
Just as our immaterial language has acquired its literal meanings
by dropping the vehicular reference, so our material language has acquired
its literalness by dropping the tenorial reference. That which the physiologist
takes to be the literal meaning of the word heart, for example, is no less
'achieved' than that which the theologian takes to be the literal meaning
of the word spirit. Whatever else the word 'literal' means, then, it normally
means something which is the end-product a long historical process. (RM