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13 July 2004

Negative capability

I keep encountering Keats' theory of negative capability in my reading, so it's time for me to record it here:

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.

(Expressed in his letter to George and Thomas Keats, dated Sunday 21 December 1817. Emphasis mine.)

Negative capability was referenced in relation to Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy and then again in Boys and Girls Forever: Children's Classics from Cinderella to Harry Potter to explain Walter De la Mare's sense of time:

Hours, days, and seasons seem to go on forever, or telescope suddenly. Many of his characters appear to live in an eternal present, where they are shown staring so intently at some landscape, person, or creature that they are unaware of time passing. What their elders might call "daydreaming," De la Mare suggests, is in fact an intense, self-forgetful absorption in something outside the self: a condition of mind made famous by Keats, who called it "negative capability." In one story, for instance, the child Maria looks so intently at a fly that she in effect merges with it. "She seemed almost to have become the fly--Maria-Fly... When [she] came to, it seemed she had been away for at least three centuries."

Keats' theory of negative capability can also be related to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's Flow. In an interview with Wired, Csikszentmihalyi defined flow as:

Being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost.

Matt recommended Flow to me a year or so ago but I became cross with the book when its purchase turned all of my Amazon recommendations very self help. Time for a close read.

Update: Stewart has posted his review of Flow. A taste:

Csikszentmihalyi has a rare ability to describe what an experience is like, and I think he is right about what states of consciousness constitute happiness and enjoyment: achievable challenge, feedback, being completely absorbed, etc. (though the implied hydraulic model of the mind where certain amounts of "psychic energy" must be used up by positive activities or will tend to increase "psychic entropy" and cause unpleasant thoughts, is decidedly 19th century.)

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Great quotes! Seems synonymous with being "in the zone", probably best described on the web by Joel Spolsky. In fact, when I look up Joel's article, I see he uses "flow" too:

"Here's the trouble. We all know that knowledge workers work best by getting into "flow", also known as being "in the zone", where they are fully concentrated on their work and fully tuned out of their environment. They lose track of time and produce great stuff through absolute concentration. This is when they get all of their productive work done. Writers, programmers, scientists, and even basketball players will tell you about being in the zone."

Posted by: Tom Carden at 13 Jul 2004 12:42:10

Thanks Tom, that's really interesting. I think it takes me longer than Joel's 15 minutes to get in the zone, though...

Posted by: Foe at 14 Jul 2004 08:50:20

Actually, I think that Keats' negative capability is more like an anti-'zone'; that's to say, it's not the kind of composed focus that allows programmatical productivity, but more like a hard-fought-after 'rigidly defined area of doubt and uncertainty', a capability to resist systematisation and process rather than to embrace logical progression. Particle and anti-particle.

The two have points of contact, but from personal experience, the self-composition (or dislocation) that contributes towards academic writing is a different one from that which enables creative writing. Both are also forms of distraction. Left-brain Zen vs right-brain Zen? I'm not certain.

But I think it's the difference between programming with music piped into your ears, and thinking creatively while playing Tetris.

Posted by: nick at 27 Jul 2004 20:32:24

What I love is that you demonstrate a self-awareness while engaging in those two different processes of deep thought - as though, even though engaged in programming or thinking, another part of the brain is somehow keeping tabs. Whereas I would come out of those states and, at most, acknowledge that I thought about a lot of stuff, but not distinguish between the two. Does staying, somehow, a bit aware of the process while undergoing it belie to some extent the entire ‘negative capability’ in-the-zone-edness?

Posted by: Dom at 29 Jul 2004 22:20:42

I would like to know more about negative capability

Posted by: dhiraj at 29 Nov 2004 05:29:33