Diagrammatically, Barfield says, the process of evolution appears not as a straight line sloping always upward but more as a capital “U.”
If you move down the left-hand side, or limb, of a letter u, round the curve at the bottom, and up the right-hand limb, you will keep on reaching points on the right side, which are at the same level as corresponding points on the left, and these levels you certainly did pass on the way down. The journey will by its nature—to that extent—involve a journey or a return.
Reilly also quotes the following from Barfield, “a descent, an involution of the Spirit into the Material, which it, the Spirit, organizes and transforms, and through which it acquires a new intensity, a new level of self-awareness.”
This new level of self-awareness should eventually include a reascent to the Spirit, which Barfield describes in the following way,
. . . the metaphysical conception of the human being which sees him as a “microcosm” evolving from a “macrocosm” and finally returning, in a sense, to the great whole from which he took his birth: which sees him reposing at first unconscious in the bosom of the Father, then like she seed, separating himself from this unity and finally regaining in some remote future his “at-one-ment” with the Father principle, only now in full self-consciousness, as a self-poised, self-contained “Ego.”
I won’t delve into any minutiae regarding Barfield’s terms. What interests me here is his “U” shape conceptualization of the evolution of consciousness and the nagging feeling that the “U” shape movement has been rendered invalid.
Though this is pure speculation on my part, I sense that the U-shaped evolutionary movement is broken and has been replaced by a “W”—optimistic scenario—or will form into something resembling either an “L” with a perpetual horizontal flatline—a pessimistic scenario— or devolve into a descending lightning bolt “ϟ”—an extremely pessimistic scenario.
My conjecture is based on the belief that an upward turn occurred during the Romantic Period (or Romanticism as a movement), but the ascent was brief and was subsequently followed by a dramatic plunge back down to the bottom point of the original descent. This consciousness nosedive could eventually turn back up, resume the ascent, and form that “W” shape (with the middle peak of the W being far lower than the tips of the left and right sides).
At the same time, the upward turn during the Romantic Period may also have been a mere blip, too insignificant to graph. In this case, consciousness appears stuck at the bottom of the “U” with no apparent ascent up the “right side” of the “U” in sight. Without the ascent, consciousness flatlines and forms the “L” shape signifying permanent stagnancy.
The most pessimistic outlook involves the degeneration of the L-shaped torpor and inertia, initiated by a further drop in consciousness, which would resemble a descending lightning bolt (ϟ). Unlike the original descent, any further potential “sinking” of consciousness would signify a negative rather than a positive movement.
The cut-off-ed-ness would presumably coagulate and solidify into the intense virtual or pseudo-self-awareness and self-consciousness of a consciousness that had rejected Spirit outright and whose faux upward movement sought only the purely material and external, which it regarded as the only true “at-one-ment.”
Such a development would have no upward movement because it would signify the abandonment of freedom, agency, love, creativity, and responsibility – in a word, the complete surrender of Spirit. It would instead be a massive, perpetual plummet, presumably into bottomless depths.
Being optimistic, I believe in the “W” pattern, at least at the level of individuals; however, the way things appear to be going, I don’t rule out the “L” or the descending lighting bolt as possibilities.
Note added: Of course, Barfield places Romanticism into the U-shaped pattern, implying the U is still in play. I struggle to see it that way. I don't see any potential curving up occurring on the horizon. At best, we have flatlined. At worst, we are descending again, this time negatively. If (when) the ascent happens, it will be relatively sudden and jarring, which is more akin to the sharp edges of a W - if we count the initial burst of Romanticism as a brief and temporary ascent.