N is for Negative Capability

| March 22, 2014

Clarke, Henry. Illustration for Edgar Allan Poe’s story “Descent into the Maelstrom”. 1919.  Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination. Print.

Finding comfort in tangibility thematically recurs in my life: Knowing that which affects me fosters this self-aware consolation onto which I hold.The unknown, intangibility, emotionally taxes me somewhat but, over the last few months, I have learned to embrace it—to revel in it almost.

I discovered John Keats’s notion of “Negative Capability” sometime last year, a time of graduate school applications, part-time tutoring jobs, and constant hope (mainly for responses from the first). Quite apropos of the period in hindsight. But I did not value this notion yet. Anxiety pervaded instead. Threads of hope consoled though.

In a letter to his brothers, George and Thomas, Keats explains an encounter with his friend, Dilke:

I had not a dispute, but a disquisition, with Dilke upon various subjects; several things dove-tailed in my mind, and at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason. Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge. This pursued through volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration. (1)

This mindset teeters upon the cusp of  total complacency and comfort, both of which are rather unnerving. In reality, avoiding ambiguity cannot occur; embracing the future, the unknown, and not knowing where it will lead us whatsoever. Surely we as humans strive for some form of tangibility—to ‘label’ something so we can understand what is it is, to find tranquility therein. Many struggle with this anxiety, and the struggle itself becomes our reality—a world wherein we punch the clock, marry someone, explain our occupation, discuss our interests: how we’re interested in what we do. The unknown endures. Though understanding that some ‘things’ may neither be totally obtainable nor transparent evinces bravery against the anxiety of the unknown, something strangely enthralling. We can discover the beauty in the mystery.

While embodying negative capability nearly fosters complacency, viewing life in black and white binaries is as harmful as resigning to complacency.

Perhaps reveling in ambiguity should be the real solace that we all desire to obtain—where we have to find ourselves, where we are vulnerable, where we, possibly, are most human. It takes a lot of strength to wholeheartedly and self-acceptably assert, “I don’t know.”

Servern, Joseph. Keats Listening to a Nightingale on Hampstead Heath. 1845. Oil on Canvas. Guildhall Art Gallery, London.