Negative capability

Stephen Hebron writes that, in December 1817, John Keats was walking home from the pantomime with friends. In an extended discussion with Charles Wentworth Dilke, Keats later told his brothers,

” “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 a 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.”

Clearly, he is using the word “negative” not in a pejorative sense, but to convey the idea that a person’s potential can be defined by what he or she does not possess – in this case a need to be clever, a determination to work everything out. Essential to literary achievement, Keats argues, is a certain passivity, a willingness to let what is mysterious or doubtful remain just that. His fellow poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, he suggests, would do well to break off from his relentless search for knowledge, and instead contemplate something beautiful and true (“a fine verisimilitude”) caught, as if by accident, from the most secret part (“Penetralium”) of mystery.”.

Wilfred Bion elaborated on Keats’s term to illustrate an attitude of openness of mind which he considered of central importance in the psychoanalytic session as in life. For Bion, the concept defines the ability to tolerate the pain and confusion of “not knowing”, rather than imposing ready made or omnipotent certainties upon an ambiguous situation or emotional challenge.

Paul Tritschler writes:

“In a series of lectures given in New York City and São Paulo in the mid 1970s, Bion tackled the problem head on. Following Keats’s lead, the psychoanalyst suggested that true psychic growth required the capacity to feel and immerse in uncertainties, to be open to the prospect of thoughts in search of a thinker:

“Discard your memory; discard the future tense of your desire; forget them both, both what you know and what you want, to leave space for a new idea. A thought, an idea unclaimed, may be floating around the room searching for a home.”.

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