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Friday, February 06, 2009

Not everything can be resolved

I'm on the eighth day of that audio retreat I mentioned and the speaker, Larry Gillick SJ, mentioned something that I looked up later - Keats' idea of negative capability. Though it's probably known to most, I hadn't heard of it before. Here's a bit about it from Wikipedia ....

Keats' theory of "negative capability" was expressed in his letter to George and Thomas Keats dated Sunday, 22 December 1817 ..... Keats believed that great people (especially poets) have the ability to accept that not everything can be resolved ..... Negative capability is a state of intentional open-mindedness paralleled in the literary and philosophic stances of other writers. Much has been written about this ..... In the 1930s, the American philosopher John Dewey cited Keatsian negative capability as having influenced his own philosophical pragmatism, and said of Keats' letter that it "contains more of the psychology of productive thought than many treatises." Additionally, Nathan Scott (author of a book titled Negative Capability), notes that negative capability has been compared to philosopher Martin Heidegger’s concept of Gelassenheit, “the spirit of disponibilité before What-Is which permits us simply to let things be in whatever may be their uncertainty and their mystery." Author Philip Pullman excerpts from Keats's letter and prominently incorporates the concept in his fantasy novel The Subtle Knife.

Here's the letter ......

Sunday [21 Dec. 1817]
Hampstead Sunday


I must crave your pardon for not having written ere this. ***

I saw Kean return to the public in 'Richard III.', and finely he did it, and, at the request of Reynolds, I went to criticize his Luke in Riches. The critique is in to-day's 'Champion', which I send you, with the Examiner, in which you will find very proper lamentation on the obsoletion of Christmas Gambols and pastimes: but it was mixed up with so much egotism of that drivelling nature that pleasure is entirely lost. Hone, the publisher's trial, you must find very amusing; and, as Englishmen, very encouraging-his Not Guilty is a thing, which not to have been, would have dulled still more Liberty's Emblazoning-Lord Ellenborough has been paid in his own coin-Wooler and Hone have done us an essential service-I have had two very pleasant evenings with Dilke, yesterday and to-day, and am at this moment just come from him, and feel in the humour to go on with this, began in the morning, and from which he came to fetch me. I spent Friday evening with Wells, and went next morning to see Death on the Pale Horse. It is a wonderful picture, when West's age is considered; But there is nothing to be intense upon; no woman one feels mad to kiss, no face swelling into reality-The excellence of every art is its intensity, capable of making all disagreeables evaporate, from their being in close relationship with Beauty and Truth. Examine 'King Lear', and you will find this exemplified throughout; but in this picture we have unpleasantness without any momentous depth of speculation excited, in which to bury its repulsiveness-The picture is larger than 'Christ rejected'.

I dined with Haydon the Sunday after you left, and bad a very pleasant day, I dined too (for I have been out too much lately) with Horace Smith, and met his two Brothers, with Hill and King ston, and one Du Bois. They only served to convince me, how superior humour is to wit in respect to enjoyment-These men say things which make one start, without making one feel; they are all alike; their manners are alike; they all know fashionables; they have a mannerism in their eating and drinking, in their mere handling a Decanter-They talked of Kean and his low company -Would I were with that Company instead of yours, said I to mvself! I know such like acquaintance will never do for me and yet I am going to Reynolds on Wednesday. Brown and Dilke walked with me and back from the Christmas pantomime. I had not a dispute but a disquisition, with Dilke on various subjects; several things dove-tailed in my mind, and 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 a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and 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.

Sbelley's poem is out, and there are words about its being obiected to as much as "Queen Mab" was. Poor Shelley, I think he has his Quota of good qualities, in sooth la!! Write soon to your most sincere friend and affectionate Brother

John [Keats]



Blogger victor said...

>Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge.<

Crystal, I've always wanted to thank you for having indirectly introduced me to Wikipedia and I was really shocked when I heard some so called knowledgeable people really making fun in a diplomatic criticizing way about it. They were literally laughing at Wikipedia and never ever came close to any indirect apology for it.

Why would anyone of class do something like that?

The next thing you know some will even try making fun of The Bible.

Go Figure people nowadays!

God Bless


P.S. Am I still in your prayers Crystal?

3:29 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Yep, you're still in my prayers :)

Lots of people think Wikipedia is a bad reference, but I'm not afraid of the possible inaccuracies - I think they are opportunities to do research. It's not just me - Professor Mark Goodacre, who teaches at Duke, has written about the value of Wikipedia. Here's one of his posts - In Defence of Wikipedia

4:29 PM  
Blogger Liam said...

Wikipedia has improved a great deal. Now, depending on the subject (and that's a big one) it's as dependable as any encyclopedia and covers more ground. When you're a specialist in a subject, any encyclopedia entry is frustrating because it simplifies things a bit too much and makes it seem like the knowledge about any given topic is set in stone. That said, I love it and use it all the time.

5:14 PM  
Blogger victor said...

Thank You for your prayer and I'm sure that Wikipedia won't hurt my vast knowledge. :)

5:20 PM  
Blogger crystal said...


Thanks for mentioning that Into Great Silence movie - I just signed up for it at the library.

Yeah, what I like about Wikipedia is that it has references to most populat culture stuff, and also that if it's wrong, it has the capacity to be changed. If I was a teacher, I'd hope my students realized its pitfalls and used them to dig deeper research-wise.

6:25 PM  
Blogger cowboyangel said...

Intellectually, I accept that "not everything can be resolved," but I don't really live that way. I'm always trying to resolve things in my head. It leads to much stress and internal turmoil.

Wikipedia is great, but I do think it has some negative aspects. While it can lead people to do additional research, I think those are people who would naturally do more research anyway, and they are a minority, I would even say a tiny minority. Most people, I fear, never go beyond Wikipedia. And because it's so easy to use, I think we will have more and more people who have limited and irregular knowledge about the world. As if we all grew up only reading World Book Encyclopedia and never learned anything else. It may increase people's knowledge, but it may also keep it at a rudimentary level because of it's ease of use.

Really, the question iws greater than Wikipedia. It's about the digitization of many things, and the ease of access to a small fraction of the world of knowledge on the internet. I know more and more students and even faculty who think that "everything is online" now. And it's just not true. I would say that what's online makes up a tiny percentage of human knowledge. Our library has 2 million books/items and 4 millions more on microforms. Very little, really, is available online. For one thing, anything after 1922 is governed by copyright laws and rarely appears online in a full form. But even the amount of pre-1922 material online is small in comparison to what's in libraries and archives around the world. Yet researchers think they'll find it online anyway. It's a real problem, if you ask me. We as a race are settling for ease of access over doing the wotk of real research. Reading the Wikipedia entry about Yves Montand, for example, will tell you almost nothing about Yves Montand. You could 10,000 times more reading his autobiography or reading a book about French music or cinema.

Having said that, I think Wikipedia is a wonderful tool in the overall tool kit of knowledge. Unfortunately, it's having some through trouble right now.

7:33 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

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11:34 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

11:36 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi William,

Sorry - I keep having trouble posting this comment.

Interesting article - The Boss in Japanese :)

I think we will have more and more people who have limited and irregular knowledge about the useworld. As if we all grew up only reading World Book Encyclopedia and never learned anything else.

But before the internet, many people just never read stuff at all. I know - I was married to one of them :) Now, they are at least reading a little bit. When I was in college, I was interested in medieval Scandinavian history, but there was almost nothing about it in regular books and even in my college library. There'd be like one article in an obscure journal that I'd have to send away for and which never came :) Now I can find all that stuff online - it's amazing and wonderful.

11:38 AM  
Blogger cowboyangel said...

It is wonderful. I love it. But it's frightening dealing with people at a research university who seem to think that everything's online. That's my point. As much as there is online, there's so much that's NOT online. I'm afraid that people are starting to forget that. How much knowledge are we leaving behind because it's not online and won't be online for a long time? A student goes online to look for newspaper articles from the 1930s and finds very little, so they give up. When there are so many newspapers on microfilm at their disposal. Clunky technology, but it still works.

8:31 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Well I'm thinking that the students who need the information will look elsewhere if they can't find it online, but there are so many people, probably not students, who would never even bother at all, but now at least have some info at their fingertips.

9:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

But what of the pentralium? A quick turn on this very internet reveals:

What fun! What an important notion! Does everybody know this stuff? In what other time would I even consider pursuing the meaning and the origin of that word. I'm not a poet, I'm an engineer and a lazy one to-boot. Yes, thank you Crystal.

11:50 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Oh, nice bog! - he has a recent post on the science fiction writer Joanna Russ :) Thanks, Richard.

12:52 AM  

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