How much do you know about the poet John Keats? Well, for one, he lived a brief life that flashed out in short and brilliant splendor. While he had been writing for a mere six years and his poorly received poems were only in print for four years before his death at the age of 25, he is widely considered to be one of the greatest and most influential English poets of his or any age.
In 1820 he got tuberculosis and moved to Rome. There he pleaded with his doctor to give him a fatal dose of morphine but the doctor refused and he spent his final months in nightmarish agony. He raged at his doctor, demanding “How long is this posthumous life of mine to last!?”
He asked that he be buried under an unnamed tombstone with the epitaph, in parenthesis, “(Here lies One/ Whose name was writ in Water).” How perfect. The incomparable Jorge Luis Borges once said that his first reading of Keats was the most significant literary experience of his life. What a firework was the brief life of John Keats!
But for the moment, let’s turn away from his cruel passing, his splendid epitaph, the timeless eulogies written by his pals Lord Byron and Percy Shelly. Let’s harken back to when he still had colour in his cheeks and a quill in his fingers and a dancing light in his eyes. Let’s remember when he started describing the concept of “Negative Capability.”
You see, part of what made Keats so special was that he was a radically romantic writer in the midst of a highly didactic, Victorian and prudish artistic climate. By didactic, I mean that the art of the time was totally moralistic and poets might end a poem by saying “And so the moral of the story is that if you’re bad, bad things will totally happen to you.” And then cartoon music would be played on xylophone. By Victorian, I mean that showing a bit of ankle, or even blushing, was on the verge of pornographic. By prudish, I mean there was no talk of erotic sex or transcendent love or anything that might elicit the anti-puritanical fervors of human flesh and mortal senses. Basically, what I’m saying is that things were BORING. The Victorians made the 1880’s look like the 1960’s!
So along comes Keats with his vision of Negative Capability. Writing to his brother George in 1819, John described this as the state in which we are “capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason … [Being] content with half knowledge.” He was saying that Negative Capability was a potent and poetically pregnant state of not-knowing all the answers. It wasn’t something to be fought against with didacticism but something to be embraced wholeheartedly in a state of wonder, curiosity and joy.
Here’s the sort of advice that he might give to a young (or an old) poet: Don’t say everything, not quite. Paint a perfect picture, write a complete poem, sing an entire song but leave out THE MOST IMPORTANT THING. Don’t ruin your work by spilling the beans, by telling your audience the moral of the story. Don’t deprive them of their uncertainties, their doubts, their Mysteries! The most important thing is the Mystery!
While Keats was certainly a princely lightning-rod of the human heart, he was not the first dude to ever conjure up the idea of Negative Capability. In fact, the Hebrew priests who wrote out most Old-Testament scripture (the Tanakh, Torah, etc.), seemed to be completely on this same tip. Kierkegaard, the impressive thinker, for one, would wholeheartedly have my back on this point. His spectacular philosophical book, Fear and Trembling, takes on the mind bending story of Abraham and Isaac.
Do you know it? Oh, it’s amazing. It goes (very simply) like this.
Abraham and his wife Sarah want a child so bad but can’t have one. After 80 years (!?), God sees fit to give him a son named Isaac. Thirty years after that (!), God decides to tell Abraham that he must take Isaac up on a mountain and kill him as a sacrifice. But at the last second, right as Abraham is about to do the deed, God tells him that he can sacrifice a ram instead.
… So Abraham, who only ever wanted a son, is leading his only beloved son up a mountainside because God told him to sacrifice Isaac. The son goes with him. Abraham has the knife with him, and right about the time when he’s going to stab him in the heart, God says “Stop!” Well, what you’ve got here is one of the most poignant scenes in the whole Bible. The only thing: ALL of the most important details are left out!
What is Abraham thinking as he’s leading his kid up the mountain to murder/sacrifice him!? What’s it feel like to have the knife in his hand? What’s he thinking about God? Shoot! What’s Isaac thinking about his dad when Abraham pulls out the knife? No, no! MOST IMPORTANTLY! Why in the world would God give Abraham a son and say, go kill him? AND THEN, why would God, at the last second, tell him not to? Did God change his mind? What in the world is this story about!?
Not knowing is why this story is so incredible. Midrash is the Jewish tradition of “filling in the blanks,” in which enormous amounts of incredible theological and ethical intellect is spent trying to figure out the answers to all of those riveting questions. Kierkegaard wrote a book describing four possible interpretations of this one story. The priests who wrote this tight, explicit and darkly narrative scripture knew exactly what they were doing. They were either genius or divinely inspired or both. They left the Negative Capability on purpose.
One purpose is that they considered it would be blasphemy to try to put words into God’s mouth by explaining “what he was thinking.” They don’t even write “God” and instead write “G-D” because it’s blasphemy even to give him a name. But there’s another reason. If you leave a blank in a really good story, you give the reader a chance to think, to ponder, to question, to interact, to superimpose their own experiences, to be inspired by the mystery.
In fact, there’s so many “blanks” in the Bible that, at least it seems to me, it’s not a didactic text at all but more like a kids’ workbook. The reason that we give little kids a workbook, rather than a dictionary and an encyclopedia, is that the effort of trying to fill in the blanks makes them work hard to figure out how best to fill in that _____________. That struggle makes them better, makes them smarter. It is the same for well-read, intelligent adults like us. It’s just that it takes more artistic skill to make an everlasting workbook for the soul.
Wouldn’t it be boring if we could read Hamlet and “actually figure it out?” Wouldn’t it be awful if, at the end of the Illiad, Homer straight up told us what it all means? It would suck to look at a Pollock or a Picasso or a Vilazquez or a Goya or a Kahlo or a Bacon or a Bosch and say… “Oh. Well. There’s the answer. I got it figured out. That’s that, I guess. No need to look again.”
No, the best thing is not knowing! The best works lead you ever deeper toward the center of things. The works that last for many ages only do so because they are full of eloquently and elaborately and delicately constructed “holes.” No matter how the times change, no matter how social values change, no matter how tastes change, if the “workbook” is solid, curious humans will always return to the empty frame and wrestle with the question in an attempt to fill it in as they see fit. It overwhelms me to try to think how many times Keats’ poems have been reinterpreted and argued about and struggled with, let alone Shakespeare’s plays, let alone each and every verse of scripture in the Bible. According to Negative Capability, the way to make a work that lasts is to create an empty frame, a compelling structural hole, which will always be a playground and a workplace and a challenge for that which animates our lives, our morality, our imaginations.
In my reckoning, there is an ultimate example of Negative Capability, which has been, is and always will be built into us as rational, self-aware human beings. That ultimate “hole,” that perfectly polished looking-glass, is death. It happens to everyone. It is going to happen to you. There are as many amazing and riveting stories about it as there are visible stars in the sky. We are born and we live a very real multitude of lives. And then, at the heart of our tale, we die.
Why!? For what reason!? Does it give us meaning? Does anything come afterward? Is it meaningless? Is it a release? Is it damnation? A salvation? Should we be sad? Happy? Where have our beloved dead gone? Will we know ourselves afterward or are our names written in water? What is the answer!?
When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain,
Before high-pile’d books, in charact’ry
Hold like rich garners the full-ripen’d grain;
When I behold, upon the night’s starr’d face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of a n hour!
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the fairy power
Of unreflecting love—then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till Love and Fame to nothingness sink.