Negative Capability: Semester Mantra, Spring 2016

M. C. Escher's "Drawing Hands"

M. C. Escher’s “Drawing Hands”

John Keats defines negative capability as the moment when one “is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”

Difficult to do, but this semester, more than any other, I hope students linger in this space.

I am teaching a course on Emily Dickinson. Her titleless universe invites readers into negative capability, but it is difficult to sustain. Readers often want to pin the poem down, to get traction somehow, to map, to give it a title, to find an explanation, to “solve” the riddle, to get at what “it means,” to “figure out what she *really* meant”—and so forth.

I am also teaching a course on Native American literature, staying close to the trickster. Trickster figures, of course, upset order and power structures. They, too, invite us into this space of negative capability. Most of the works we read in the course can’t be pinned down to one genre. Language, genre, and identity are all unstable, and it is difficult, too, to be in a space of instability without any irritable imposition of order.

How do we get traction when the ground keeps shifting? How do we navigate a borderless terrain with no map? How does one construct a map that is not irritable?

A couple of weeks ago, Roger Whitson, a professor at WSU, posted an insight on Facebook that points toward another iteration of negative capability:

One of the hardest lessons for students in an English class: that there could be multiple approaches to a problem (or a story) that are equally valid yet also open to critique.

Posted by Roger Whitson on Saturday, December 5, 2015


I agree. It’s not that a reader can make the text mean anything they want; rather, the text substantiates multiple readings, that, as he says, are open to critique.

It is extremely difficult to write an essay that’s focused, but open; that’s marked by clarity, but not simplicity; that’s confident, but also circumspect; that’s grounded, but tending toward groundlessness; that explores, but does not explain away; that discovers, but recognizes one discovery eclipses others; that’s riddled with doubts, uncertainties, and mystery but still deepens understanding, broadens knowledge, and expands consciousness.

Perhaps folks from other disciplines may scoff at Keats’ negative capability, but I wager that the significant breakthroughs in most fields, most ventures, regardless of discipline, came about because thinkers had the freedom to dwell in a space of uncertainty, mystery, and doubt long enough for something magical to happen.

A first step towards negative capability is recognizing that dictionaries, at first glance, epitomize the “irritable reaching after fact & reason.” Pinning all those words down. Making language seem stable, ordered, contained. But then we have the etymology, and the word histories provided by the OED, and here, within the ordered system, is an invitation to reclaim uncertainty, doubt, and mystery. To echo Ishmael, a “nameless yeast” silently seethes at the center of all dictionaries, but since it is nameless, the center cannot be pinned down.

I want my students to have the chance to linger in this space before rushing prematurely into a reading or interpretation or “solution” that shortchanges the expansion of consciousness that can occur.

Here’s to Spring Semester, 2016!


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