Tuesday, July 13, 2010

negative capability

Wow. If I had a nickel for every time someone said "negative capability" in grad school, I might not be working a day job. And yet, it's a phrase that I would have a perversely difficult time defining if a random stranger were to ask me what it meant. I absolutely have to sit and mull over it for a few minutes, and parse jargon, before I remember. Then I usually laugh, because it's pretty funny for my brain to be continually in doubt about a concept that revolves around....continuing in doubt.

When I wrote my last post on unicorns, the subtext seems to have been my struggle with negative capability. More Wordsworth and Coleridge than Keats, I suppose, my usual process with a poem is to start with some sort of image, event or idea that makes me want to know more. KNOWING is, or has been, immensely important in my life. If I'm depressed, I want to dig around and try to find the "cause," or "problem." If a poem isn't working, my old instinct was to always analyze sound, meter or image to find what didn't "click" into place. In other words, the "problem."

Last month I was following a series of articles on the New York Time's Opinionator blog by Errol Morris entitled "The Anosognosic's Dilemma: Something's Wrong, and You'll Never Know What It Is." The series loosely, but fascinatingly, explored the idea of the human mind's ability to know unknowns, or to seem to not know (or unknow) phenomenon considered by other sources to be knowns. One of Morris' dominant metaphors is that of anosognosia, an affliction where a person with paralysis does not appear to know he or she is paralyzed. Another riveting anecdotal example involves a man who is told wiping lemon juice on his face will make him invisible to cameras. He then tries to rob a bank, and is shocked when he is arrested after being identified from footage taken by a security camera.

I mention these articles because they touch on the issue of the perceived "problem" of not knowing something. Morris briefly discusses Surrealism, and automatic writing, as well as the hysterics documented in Salpétrière, as examples of allowing the brain to show the self something that self doesn't "know" it knows. I imagine Keats would have said to Morris, "yes, my dear sir, you have described states of negative capability quite nicely, except for the part where you keep pursuing knowns!"

A problem wants a solution, in the same way that a question wants an answer...at least, according to our habitual practice of syntax in conversation and composition (I'm thinking here of essay more than poetry). When habitual syntax goes out out the window, what are we left with? Some might say a truth or knowledge that we don't even know we don't know yet.

If in a cluster of grapes there are no two alike, why do you want me to describe this grape by the other, by all the others . . . ? Our brains are dulled by the incurable mania of wanting to make the unknown known, classifiable . . . It is pointless to add that experience itself has found itself increasingly circumscribed. It paces back and forth in a cage from which it is more and more difficult to make it emerge . . . Forbidden is any kind of search for truth that is not in conformance with accepted practices . . .
I quote Morris' excerpt of André Breton, because it is an excellent way to tie together the idea of creative "problems" and negative capability. A teacher of mine used to get VERY annoyed when I referred to poems or groups of poems as "projects." I think she felt that "project" implied that the poem—the flashes of the previously unknown or unseen that appear in poetry, appearing to surprise even the poet herself—already existed, leaving the poet's task to one of excavating and arranging....not unlike the way academic scholars or thinkers like Morris excavate and arrange information in order to reveal something previously unknown to their audiences.

And yet, I believe that scholarly pursuits are just as much guided by negative capability—an example Morris' series makes quite nicely. At no point reading his essays did I get the sense that we started with a clear map of his "project," then proceeded down the outline to the conclusion he had identified from the outset. Rather, there is a creative meandering in the essays that takes us from cultural artifact to cultural artifact—mirroring, I imagine, the process by which his thoughts on anosognosia and knowing unknowns were stimulated. (He makes a point in his notes to mention that the whole idea started when he Twittered a definition of a stupid person.) In other words, accepting that the end of the fifth installment of the essay might even end without any solution to the "problems" of "self-deception" and anosognosia...but rather an acknowledgment of a few of the mysteries surrounding us.

It is, of course, at times, deflating to be faced with so many unknowables when one has spent thirty-plus years being goaded to "know." Believing that the pursuit of knowledge was the good fight, and that knowing is the half of the battle that prepares you to win the war. (Sorry, G.I. Joe. You are indeed an American hero.) How many years were spent trying to know the wrong thing—trying to know what I never knew I didn't—and perhaps couldn't!—know?

With this in mind, I am grateful for John Keats' poems and letters in a way I never suspected I would be—grateful to finally begin to understand (and next time someone asks me about negative capability, I think I'll know how to respond!) that understanding isn't the point of a poem. A poem can teach you things you didn't know, and it can share facts. It can be knowledgeable, in the way that we understand that word, and it can inspire one to gain more knowledge (I'm thinking in particular of Pound here). But at the end, if there isn't a relinquishment of intellectual knowing (i.e. mastery) in favor of imagining or intuiting our way to spheres of experience greater than our "accepted practices" have deigned show us (a state Fanny Howe might call bewilderment)....I'm just not sure it's the kind of poem I want to write.

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