What is Negative Capability?When I first started my zine, I was obsessed with picking a good name for it. I came up with a lot of names that I loved but none that I felt really expressed what I was trying to do. While watching the move Alien3, I noticed the phrase as a chyron on the screen. In the context of the movie, it was meant to describe the fact that the robot (Bishop) was no longer functioning, he had "negative capability." The contrast of those two words and the complex idea of a robot who serves no purpose really spoke to me and once I chose that as the name, I was very happy. It wasn't until my second issue that I discovered that the expression was way older and deeper than I thought. Here's how Wikipedia describes it, "Negative capability is a phrase first used by Romantic poet John Keats in 1817 to explain the capacity of the greatest writers (particularly Shakespeare) to pursue a vision of artistic beauty even when it leads them into intellectual confusion and uncertainty, as opposed to a preference for philosophical certainty over artistic beauty. The term has been used by poets and philosophers to describe the ability to perceive and recognise truths beyond the reach of consecutive reasoning."
I read a section of a PhD paper on the subject that said, ”The expression, coined in 1812 by English poet John Keats, is best explained by this quote from a Ph.D. paper on the subject: “The modus operandi should begin by instilling in the student the positive quality of negative capability. This demands the student to hold contradictory ideas in equilibrium until he can intelligently sort and categorize them. It will teach the individual to reach beyond his preconceived prejudices and to discover that opinions are not all facts of life.”
It was just the right mix of contradiction, pretension and literary aspiration that I needed to describe what I do.
Here is how another eloquent man described it… "As part of our shared journey through the realm of fiction writing, let’s explore a few rooms within a stately mansion belonging to the English romantic poet, John Keats. In particular, what did he mean by the term negative capability, and how does it relate to creative writing?
More than two centuries ago, on December 21, 1817, Keats wrote a letter to his brothers where he mentioned negative capability:
'…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.’
That may be confusing, but here’s what I think he means—If you want to be a great writer, be willing to:
• delve into the essence of your characters (or objects, like a Grecian Urn), shed your preconceived world-view,
• abandon any search for meaning or the urge to fit things into a logical structure
• accept any mysteries and ambiguities you find without trying to resolve them."
- Steven R. Southard's, "Be Positive About Negative Capability"
That's not enough? But wait, there's more.