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I find Keats’ term still useful — more useful since theory has taken over the academy. Negative Capability is not really a theory; in fact I call it an anti-theory. Keats created a space for thinking about what is essential to poetry, an invitation to let the poem in rather than displace it with whatever ideas are fashionable. For those of you who need a refresher, Negative Capability is “…when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” Keats was inspired to say this from reading Shakespeare who he argued was an excellent example. For me, the term describes the poetry in poetry, the thing that cannot be paraphrased or theorized or even described but which is most essential to the poem. It is the result of a poet’s talent as it affects the way the poem is made. A work of art is greater than the sum of its parts because of the intuitive arrangement of its parts. That ability to intuitively arrange is the poet’s talent and vision, his/her ability to instinctively touch the human mind and body in such a way that people are changed, without knowing exactly why. Not all poems have NC; poems which are witty or argumentative often do not have it, although they may be enjoyable. Some academics have scoffed at NC; claimed it was a bit of romantic twaddle, an excuse for not applying the intellect to a work of art. The Marxist Terry Eagleton, who I admire in other ways, scoffed at it. It is because he didn’t get it. This is demonstrated in the terrible play he wrote. One cannot help people who don’t get it, and we let them scoff. Eagleton needs to stay in his lane. The playwright Frederic Dürrenmatt described critics as eunuchs lecturing on baby-making, a phrase which also describes a lot of academics.
Negative Capability exists in all art forms. If you walk into a gallery and are stopped in your tracks by a painting and you don’t know why, cannot say why, cannot put your finger on it, you are experiencing what the artist intended, but even they may not know why. If you are moved over and over again by say, The Moonlight Sonata, if it comes alive for you each time you hear it, you are experiencing NC. The piece astonishes: it succeeds by simplicity but what simplicity. The arrangement of its parts is sublime. Beethoven has instinctively invited you to experience something he probably would not have wanted to “explain.” Art comes from not-knowing. If it comes from an idea first, and the poet is unable to illuminate it, it is just an idea. I have heard very sincere and well-intentioned political poems that have no poetry in them, although I may agree with the politics. Its author would have been better served to write an essay.
THIS IS JUST TO SAY
By William Carlos Williams
I have eaten
that were in
you were probably
they were delicious
and so cold
Williams wrote one of the most instructive follow ups to Negative Capability by saying “No ideas but in things.” He understood that physical things, say, plums in a refrigerator, carry more emotion than ideas. The plums in his poem are erotic. They are forbidden. They are stolen. I can say that a plum is vaginal in its shape, but that is not quite it either; they are also cold, which makes no logical sense in a poem of intense heat–but they are no less desirable. If he had written a poem of ideas expressing his desire for transgression it would have been boring.
Federico Garcia Lorca called it duende, which means, literally, “demon.” By that he means that which not quite definable but absolutely essential. It is “supernatural.” It is irrational, but it is real. It can be found in Flamenco, and in all true music. Bertolt Brecht, in his war on kitsch and sentimentality in fascist Germany, argued that his theater was about “the essential strangeness of things.” He was a Marxist, certainly, but his Lehrstücke plays, which were very didactic, were nevertheless capable of carrying a poetic charge.
Harold Bloom, whose book on Shakespeare is both intriguing and maddening, argues that there is something strange about great literature. This strangeness is what undercuts all preconceived ideas or theories and returns the experiencer to the condition of not-knowing, and thus a place of creative possibility.
My problem with contemporary literary theory is that it short-circuits Negative Capability by always entering a poem, play or novel with an intellectual strategy prior to having a holistic experience of it. This is not the fault of the originators of the theories so much as the academics who’ve understood the theories superficially and who seem to take pleasure in invalidating a text. I met a graduate student who was ready to dismiss Moby Dick because one of the members of Ahab’s private whaleboat could be construed as a racial stereotype. This hallucinatory whaleboat is a miniscule part of a novel that is as generous as a white writer of the time could possibly be to racial diversity. Her desire to invalidate the whole novel because of one tiny passage I found astonishing. She clearly had not experienced the novel as the great, inclusive prose poem it is.
The painting at the top of this essay is by a queer, Cree Indian who is also a master painter in the tradition of the Renaissance. This huge painting, one of two of his commissioned for the grand entrance room of the Metropolitan Museum, is initially overwhelming. We feel we are in the presence of something like Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa, only bigger. Then we begin to look closely. We see both its acute political wit and its pathos. We see a powerful looking native man wearing women’s high heels. Monkman claims this is his alter-ego, whom he calls Miss Chief Eagle Testikle. This character is helping people out of the water after they’ve been shipwrecked. The people are white, black and brown, two wearing Conquistadore helmets, and are in deep trouble. It says, unequivocally, this is what we’ve come to. That native people are coming to their aid is something I’ve heard before, from native people who say that white people need their help getting back to something basic about being human. Here the comedy is subsumed by pathos. We travel back and forth between the two. This complex orchestration of race, gender and class is held together by a stunning vision. What we pick out later is subsumed by extreme visual power. The wholeness of the painting, the way it is larger than the sum of its parts, is its driving power, without which the political elements would be so much mental patter.
Negative Capability will not go away. It is what people want when they view a painting, listen to music, or look at art. They are hungry for it, although they may not know what it is. They want to be taken out of themselves to a place where they can view life differently. In this way, art is “spiritual;” it quite often offers something that religion claims for itself but doesn’t deliver. It is a reminder that life is extraordinary and there are things beyond our conventional apprehension of it.
I’m arguing for a way to talk about art that honors the art and artist as well as its content, and apprehends it as more than its socio-political reality. Art is hard to do and not everybody can do it. It is not merely a pretext for theory. I’m a believer in Keats’ enduring term that is a door into all art, a way of opening ourselves to it, a way of setting aside conventional thinking, including the conventionally unconventional thinking of the day, in favor of the whole experience of it, after which we cannot see life quite the same way ever again.
Copyright 2021 Doug Anderson.
Doug Anderson’s collections of poetry include Horse Medicine (Barrow Street, 2015).