I read an opinion piece in the Washington Post that lamented the absolutism, black and white, us vs. them mentality that is so visible in society today. As an example, Nabokov's Lolita being banned and dissed by many suggests that nuance, ambiguity, uncertainty, complexity, and a desire to understand people different from one's self, particularly people of whom one disapproves, is a dead or largely diminished art.
It got me thinking about negative capability, the concept so named by John Keats in a letter to his brothers. There is a good deal of ambiguity about what Keats meant by negative capability. His baldest statement describes it as the ability to remain in uncertainty without grasping after a firm explanation. He berated Samuel Taylor Coleridge for always running magical or mystical ideas into a corner, and he suggested that there was greater merit in enjoying the tentative or unresolved.
My initial thought in response is, I think, interesting but not necessarily, in the end, compatible with Keats's own idea. I think that grasping after resolution or firm answers or even absolute explanation has two driving forces, antithetical to each other. One is the drive for understanding the truth of an event or issue, rather like the indefatigable detective or researcher unhappy with easy, pat or obvious answers, constantly pushing for more evidence or better arguments, but always believing that getting an answer is what it is all about. The other is the flabby insistence on grasping the first, one hopes, plausible explanation and treating as if it were true, posting it, more than likely, on Facebook without bothering to check sources or examine evidence. In either case, the thing to be abhorred is not knowing. There seems to be no sense of enjoyment of, or contentment in, ambiguity. Graspers after resolution, whether easy or hard, frequently want something to list as a reason for doing something, for stirring something up, or for ignoring the warnings and conclusions of folk with whom they disagree, justly or not. Seekers after firm truths want a reason for action or for blaming someone, finding the culprit, or fixing the situation. No resting content in ambiguity. No curiosity about, or tolerance for, difference from self. No effort to see the world through the eyes of others.
But on reflection, I think that first reaction, while I like it, is not really relevant to Keats. Begin with two other ideas or, as he called them, speculations. First, is Keats's statements about feeling or empathy or imagination as having a better chance of recognizing and appreciating beauty and truth than does logical argument and reasoning. Not that he opposed logic, but that he found it limiting and inadequate to what he considered more important in life, which he frequently associated with the words beauty and truth. And second that one's own sense of self, of a being who understands issues or other people, is constantly limiting one's ability to enter into beings other than self, to see as others see, to feel as others feel, and, thus, to experience what one's self tends to avoid or ignore. Hence, negative capability involves the ability to negate or to set aside one's self, one's preconceptions, one goals, desires, or preferences or values in order to enter imaginatively into the being of another person or thing without judgment. That is to say, to empathized with the being of the other without trying to understand or appropriate that being in terms of one's own values.
Keats's said Shakespeare had negative capability, evidenced in his ability to portray with sympathy, or at least fairly, such a vast array of different characters, none of whom seemed to be clones of or representatives of the author. It is also a truism of historiography that a historian who cannot enter into the mindset of a historical figure, cannot do justice to that person's actions. A prime example is the historian attempting to tell the story of the Salem Witch Trials without being able to see why Cotton Mather, among other very well educated, widely read, intelligent persons believed that witchcraft was the only plausible explanation for the events of the day. If we tell the story from our own point of view, we fail to understand theirs.
Thinking in these terms about the rancor and self righteousness and delight in extreme statements and outrageous behavior that currently seems to dominate social media and, indeed, politics one could just lament the loss of civil discourse, remaining isolated, or just enter the fray, leaving the devil to take the hindmost, so to speak. For me, Keats is a reminder that life is essentially more about something other than wining arguments, surrounding one's self with people with whom we agree, preaching to the choir, or in obvious or subtle ways looking down our noses at others. Nor is life about the loose thinking and touchy feely that goes with claiming that everyone has his or her own truth or that what one holds sacred exempts one from considering with curiosity and appreciation views different from their own. Garbage is garbage and false claims are false. But nuance is easy to overlook and jumping to conclusions is tempting. I'm not sure I can imagine Vice President Mike Pence contemplating the possibility that a man and a woman could be just friends, but I do not know anything about Mike Pence except what is reported in the media, none of which seems to rise to the level of curiosity and self-negation, and postponement of judgment that Keats captures in the phrase Negative Capability.
Of course, Keats was a poet. Poets can afford to revel in ambiguity. They do not necessarily issue marching orders or point the way to great or even small actions. Beauty and Truth, for the poet, can be just objects of contemplation, of the joy of insight, of the horror of insight. Samuel Johnson, in a short paper first published in the Twentieth Century, admitted that in most walks of life, the practical exigencies of daily life require people, such as businessmen and politicians, to act on insufficient evidence because of time constraints. Similarly, in law, the concept of "beyond reasonable doubt" is a practical necessity to encourage a firm conclusion even when there is no positive proof--the hurdle is high but not perfect. By contrast, Johnson said that scholars, maintained at the public expense to do research, did not have an excuse to act before reaching a thoroughly researched conclusion. They must, at the end of the day, find the truth they seek and reveal what they have found without regard to time or consequences. Poets have that same liberty to disregard the consequences, but perhaps lack Johnson's insistence on public duty. One very important truth that affects us all but is infrequently acknowledged or spoken is the fact that we do not know all the evidence relevant to understanding another person or event.
In America, the concept of citizenship has always entailed a sense of duty. There is a reason Americans are citizens and not subjects. It is our government, by the people, for the people. Hence, one's duty is to engage and support the right and oppose the wrong. The word "fight" is one of the most common words in political rhetoric. I will fight for you. We must fight for the right. It seems that the whole country is one giant military zone, with opposing parties on all sides, using, one hopes, words rather than cudgels or guns, as weapons in the struggle to win. It just seems like a harsh environment, when it could be that we are all Americans, all on the same side--if sides there must be--trying to make the country and the world a better place for all of us. We subscribe to founding documents, imperfect though they no doubt are, that support the idea that we are in this together for the mutual good of all, not just the few.
That brings us to the importance of uncertainty. Of recognizing the paucity of our evidence and of our understanding--uncertainty that should make us hesitate to condemn or judge. No person who admits he or she might be wrong can kill or punish another for disagreeing. It is the case that there are wrongs, but for the most part, we rush to judgment, because resolving an issue and fighting for the right is more important than acknowledging the existence of uncertainty, acknowledging that we do not know all. Community, consensus, compromise, and cooperation have a better chance than fighting and winning to make this a better country and the planet a better place for humans and other creatures.
Take the time to make sure of your facts. Take that time to consider and criticize your own arguments. Take the time to understand the viewpoint of your so-called opponents. Take the time to understand that human needs are not defined by your own needs alone or the needs of the people you live with in your real or metaphorical gated community.
Man up: admit it when you are not sure; admit that it is not all about you and yours; admit that in a society, no one gets his or her own way all the time and perhaps not ever. Live with it. Enjoy the complexity, ambiguity, and uncertainty of a rich life. And don't forget to vote.