On the art of remaining in doubt “without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”
Romantic poet John Keats (1795-1821) was born 217 years ago this week. In a letter to his brothers, George and Thomas, found in
[S]everal 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 all consideration.
In the introduction to Selected Letters, Jon Mee writes of the letters themselves as a meta-embodiment of “Negative Capability”:
The provisionality of the correspondence might be taken as a triumphant demonstration of negative capability, recording Keats’s ability to project himself into different roles and live in a state of creative uncertainty, but these letters also seem to express a deep sense of insecurity, which frequently took the form of a desire to escape the fever and the fret of the life around him.
Perhaps Christoph Niemann was right, after all, in asserting that insecurity is essential to creativity.