What do John Keats, Roberto Unger, Steve Jobs, JRR Tolkien and Occupy Wall Street have in common? Heck if I know but I’m going to guess it is something close to a concept that Keats came up with called “negative capability”. Here is how he describes the concept with respect to the works of Shakespeare:
‘The concept of Negative Capability is the ability to contemplate the world without the desire to try and reconcile contradictory aspects or fit it into closed and rational systems.’
‘At once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in literature, and 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 and reason.’
I don’t think he meant to throw away reason because that would make the world incomprehensible. We have too many instances of the religious right in this country dispensing with any kind of rational thought to the point where they believe anything they’re told.
What I think Keats meant is that negative capability exists beyond the structures and institutions we live in. Maybe Robert Kennedy had a good sense of it when he said:
“There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why… I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?”
Negative capability is linked to creativity. It is an openness to experience without conventional limitations. It has also been linked to conflict because it relies on uncertainty. I wouldn’t call it conflict so much as a high energy state. When we are confined by rules, convention, expectations, we are in a low energy state. Our world is constructed for us and we merely live in it. Don’t push the envelope, don’t rock the boat.
Roberto Unger made a glancing reference to negative capability in that short video I posted yesterday. His idea is that by defeating Obama, we push ourselves into a high energy state and force ourselves into uncertainty where we must confront conflict and resolve it by looking for opportunities that exist beyond our current framework. I think this is very exciting as well as scary as all hell. It’s a bit like doing a hard reset on your computer when it goes all wonky on you. You’re pretty sure it will work after it comes up again but you don’t know how much stuff will be erased in the meantime.
The others that I mentioned also show the power of negative capability. Steve Jobs had a couple of outstanding quotes that demonstrate this:
“The best way to predict the future is to invent it” and “People who are serious about software should make their own hardware.”
“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.”
Of course, Steve was all about execution as well. Make sure the insides are as beautiful as the outsides.
I think JRR Tolkien was onto negative capability as well. He gives his characters goals but he also gives them advice about being open to the people you might meet along the way and to not to allow others to shape your future but to be receptive to opportunities. He invented the concept called the “eucatastrophe”. That is the idea that germs of something good can be found in what initially looks like a fiasco. Openness and receptivity are essential for making your way out of a catastrophe.
And then there is Occupy Wall Street which has a freer form. It is coming into existence without much of a framework. And while it is going to hit a lot more bumps in the road, it has already made a significant impact on our national dialogue by being able to shift, change, evolve and take advantage of opportunities. A year ago, we didn’t even know what the 99% were and now we are one.
Anyway, I just thought I’d leave you all with that at the beginning of the week. “Not all those who wander are lost.” The world isn’t going to end no matter how bad things get.
And it is OK to not go along with the program in 2012.
Some scenes from the 2009 movie Bright Star about John Keats’ short life and relationship with Fanny Brawne. Highly recommended.
Most people know J.R.R. Tolkien as the Oxford expert on Anglo-Saxon literature who broke all of the rules when he wrote The Lord of the Rings. If you have never read Tolkien, you may be under the impression that LOTR was a dungeons and dragons fantasy written for adolescent boys. That’s how many of us were introduced to it in middle school. But there’s a reason why some of us gravitate to Tolkien that goes beyond the very rich world he created. He was a very wise man with deep spiritual convictions who lived through the early loss of both parents, the rejection of his extended family over religious differences, the battle of the Somme in World War I, the Depression and the rise of Hitler and the bombing of Britain in WWII. It would be incorrect to assume that his books were thinly disguised references to these events, even if he did incorporate a some of his own personal history into his tales. But he did seem to have an uncanny insight into how the powerful operate. He knew things.
For example, it’s not wise to look into a crystal ball especially when someone else has control over it. Some of the most tragic figures in the LOTR looked into what they thought was the future and saw only what someone else wanted them to see. Those images were full of despair and the triumph of evil. Without a moderating influence, the viewer gave up and gave in. It takes an almost inhuman strength to overcome the power of relentlessly negative visions of the future.
Some of the most recent commentary in the left blogosphere makes me think of Denethor and Saruman and their palantiris. The Denethors look into the future and despair, the Sarumans start off with good intentions but think that their intellectual gifts will allow them to control the lesser of two evils. But the truth is, none of us know what’s going to happen. The election is still more than a year away. A lot can happen between now and then. There could be a twist of fate, an unforeseen event, or what Tolkien calls, a eucatastrophe. A eucatastrophe is like a shock doctrine event turns a story around and leads to a good ending.
If we give into despair, then surely the propaganda of the palantir will win. We will give into the temptation to do nothing. We do not leave ourselves open to the possibilities that may come our way. We may miss potential allies or fail to take advantage of opportunities. Palantiris can scare us into inertia. Don’t let it happen to you.
In the next year, we may see an acceleration of the business cycle, a convergence of events that destroys the foundations of the finance industry, the emergence of a third party, the rise of a new independent labor unit, an unexpected potential candidate. There may be people working behind the scenes or little nobodies whose tiny positive acts have unexpected consequences. We just don’t know. The best we can do is not let other people crush our spirits, to believe in fairness and justice, and to keep on going for as long as we can.
Oh, and stay away from David Brooks’ columns.