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Negative Capability.

March 30, 2011

I had not a dispute but a disquisition with Dilke, on various subjects; several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & 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 every other consideration.

–      John Keats

Negative Capability.

This is a term coined by John Keats in the above quote, referring to the ability to accept that not everything can be resolved. It refers to the ambiguous; which, if you ask me, is everywhere.

Last week in my songwriting class, we had a special guest, Michael Zapruder come visit and talk to us about song writing. He is a critically claimed “indie/folk” singer-songwriter, so it was a great privilege to be able to visit with him.

One of the things that he talked about was negative capability, and how he tries to implement it into his work as a songwriter.

This got me thinking.

As a songwriter and writer in general, one of my goals is to do the same.

To have negative capability.

Not only in my work, but in my life.

And I think that Jesus encourages this.

According to Keats, by accepting that not everything can be resolved, it leaves room for imagination and creativity.

Two things that I do not think can be understated.

Everywhere you look there is ambiguity.

The best art is ambiguous.

The Bible is extremely ambiguous.

Jesus was often times ambiguous.

We, as humans, do not have all of the answers.

Not even close.

The thing that I love about this, and of negative capability, is that it causes people to think.

And to use their imaginations.

This is why I love the written word; through poetry, story, etc. Because twenty people can read the exact same poem, story, novel, or what have you, and get twenty different reasonable interpretations out of it. It does not tell the reader how to feel, but leaves it up to the reader to find his or her own interpretation. It forces people think, which, I believe, is something that is becoming a lost art.

In our culture, people don’t seem to want to think and would much rather be entertained. In my opinion, this is the difference between art and entertainment.

Art leaves room for negative capability while entertainment does not. Instead, it tells you how to feel. And there is so much entertainment out there swallowing our culture that ambiguity is looked on in disgust by many.

“Wait, you mean I have to think about it in order to interpret it? No thanks.”

If you read through the Bible –which I am currently doing; my goal is to read straight through it, without jumping around (which will take quite a while) – you will find plenty of room for negative capability.

Just look at the first several chapters. They are a conglomeration of stories; many of them very, very strange. What I have noticed while going through these, is that none of the stories are followed by what is called catharsis. Which is a the ending scene in movies, where there is some kind of “emotional cleansing.”

There is nothing at the end that says, “This is what you should get out of this.”

Each story just ends and moves on to the next story, which leaves room for ambiguity and interpretation.

Just look at how the Bible ends.

With Revelations. The most ambiguous, confusing, and frustrating book I’ve ever read in my life.

Which is why the Bible is so powerful. Because it so freaking ambiguous that each time you read something, you can get something totally new from it.

By interpreting it differently.

Jesus, I think, understood negative capability.

That’s why he hardly ever gave straight answers.

And why he spoke in parables.

To leave room for negative capability.

To get us to use our imaginations.

So we can think about them.

Because thinking is highly endorsed.

By Jesus.

John Keats thought that the most interesting people and the greatest people, understood and possessed negative capability.

And I agree with Keats. Which is why I love art and literature, and Jesus.

We will never have all of the answers, so there is no use pretending like we do. There is no use in bullet pointing the five ways to become or be a Christian.

Because Jesus didn’t do that. He left room for negative capability.

So, all we can do is think about things, and write and draw and do things that cause others to think about things. And to use our imaginations.

And I don’t care if you agree with me on any of this.

But I do care if you think about it.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 31, 2011 10:20 pm

    woa dude. fabulous post. now i have to do one that’s better than this haha. but for real that was a really well-explained concise explanation of the bible and why it’s ambiguity is misunderstood. I think Jesus would agree with me when I say, “extremely professional.”


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