Negative Capability Defined: Walking in Mysteries—and the Shoes of Others—with Keats, Shakespeare, Whitman—and Barack Obama!

In a letter dated 22 December, 1817, the poet John Keats coined the term “negative capability” and defined it this way:

I had not a dispute but a disquisition with Dilke, on various subjects; several 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.

Keats thought, in other words, that one of the things that made Shakespeare so powerful was his ability to sublimate his own individual assumptions and persona—that is, make himself a negative—and thereby sympathetically enter into “uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts”—presumably both metaphysical ones AND those of his psychologically bottomless and complex characters (like Hamlet)—without running to any premature and oversimplifying “rational” closures upon any of them.

In other words, Shakespeare was the ultimate good listener; a man with an exquisitely receptive ear for the fathomless and paradoxical depths of BEING—metaphysical and material, as well as human.

In the Virginia Quarterly Review (April 1, 2005), the poet Galway Kinnell offers a similar expansive spin on Keats’s notion of negative capability, suggesting that negative capability includes not just a metaphysical suspension of judgment—allowing mysteries to be mysteries—but the Shakespearean power to “obliterate” oneself and walk, as it were, in the shoes of other beings (human and non-human!):

Walt Whitman had Keatsian “negative capability”—a certain shapelessness of personality, a peculiar power to obliterate himself and flow into some other being and speak it from within—and speak himself in the process. “I am the man—,” he wrote, “I suffered—I was there.” A transaction seems to occur: Whitman gives whatever he flows into a presence in human consciousness, and in return, this other thing or creature gives Whitman a situation and vocabulary which enable him to see and articulate his own being in a new way.

With this expansive definition, we might thus say that some—even a considerable portion—of President Barack Obama’s success can be attributed to his gift for Shakespearean, Keatsian, and Whitmanian negative capability. It’s what makes him a good writer, a soaring orator, an attentive listener, and an empathetic politician.

And in this sense, it seems fair to say that literature not only supports the moral and rational faculties, but has the capacity to actually train them to greater attentiveness, sympathy, and intellectual openness.

It may not be a coincidence that Barack Obama has been a lifelong and intense reader of literary fiction—including the plays of Shakespeare.

Below is a wonderful example of negative capability, in which Whitman is asked by a child, “What is the grass?” Whitman proceeds to imaginitively “inhabit” the grass, all the while refusing to bring the grass’s “meaning” to a closure. Also notice here that Whitman, in his quick-minded and rapid-fire shift of perspective—as if turning round a diamond—definitely recalls Shakespeare, and so captures the method of imaginitive energy and openness that no doubt drew Keats to his originial insight:

A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full
hands;
How could I answer the child?. . . .I do not know what it
is any more than he.

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful
green stuff woven.

Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropped,
Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we
may see and remark, and say Whose?

Or I guess the grass is itself a child. . . .the produced babe
of the vegetation.

Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,
And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow
zones,
Growing among black folks as among white,
Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the
same, I receive them the same.

And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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31 Responses to Negative Capability Defined: Walking in Mysteries—and the Shoes of Others—with Keats, Shakespeare, Whitman—and Barack Obama!

  1. Greg says:

    very interesting .. until reading your post I’d never encountered the concept of “negative capability” .. this is perhaps where the best actors ..politicians and writers ..even perhaps ‘non state actors’ share synonomous qualities

  2. santitafarella says:

    Greg,

    I think you are right—that negative capability can be a valuable idea for thinking about things outside the arts.

    I believe, for example, that agnosticism functions as a form of negative capability. If you are an agnostic you tend to be quite displeasing to both theists and atheists—for you seem to both of them “irrational”—and you won’t climb into a category that can be pinned down. In short, you resist the ready reduction of the ontological mystery (the mystery of being) to an easily described problem capable of a ready “solution.”

    Keats once spoke of reductionism as “unweaving the rainbow”—another way of saying: Resist the singular answer, and keep your negative capability in play.

    —Santi

  3. Susan D. says:

    I also just learned about this concept at an arts conference I attended this week. It was described as “being comfortable with uncertainty.” However, after reading more here and other places, I am tending toward the idea that it describes a deep place within the psyche that allows room for possibility, beauty and mystery to swirl. The more negative the capability, the richer the ability to consider and imagine without specific results.

    What do you think?

  4. santitafarella says:

    Susan,

    I suppose that you could say that negative capability has the quality of keeping the imagination OPEN without running to “specific results.”

    With Shakespeare, this is certainly the case with HAMLET. But here’s the “negative” aspect (if you want to regard it as such) of negative capability: inaction or inconclusiveness. Hamlet, as it were, has the “to do or not to do” syndrome. He sees everything with such capacious intelligence and sympathy, and swirls around things from so many perspectives, that he can’t decide on a course of action.

    Negative capability is also akin to the spectral—the HAUNTED, as in Herman Melville’s short story, “Bartleby the Scrivener.”

    Here we have a famous character in literature who, like Hamlet, cannot be fully fathomed psychologically, and who haunts those around him (and the reader).

    Literature that has negative capability leads us to an APORIA—an impasse—that taxes our abilities to make sense of it—and yet does not let us go, but haunts us long after we have put the book or poem down (like Oedipus or Antigone in Greek tragedy).

    Great literature and art resists closure, and urges rereading, and this, too, is an aspect of negative capability.

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  8. Ben Singh says:

    Hi,
    This is Ben again. I had a question on Negative Capability. Is it the ability to change one’s assumptions of conflict? Or of what? Also, it is the ability to enter into uncertainties about?
    Lastly, in Negative Capability, one should not take any action or not find the causes or facts of the problem. is this correct? Thanks.

  9. Ben Singh says:

    One more thing, did the poet Galway Kinnell discover that Whitman had made an addition to the definition of Negative Capability? How did he do so?

  10. santitafarella says:

    Ben,

    Rather than thinking of Keats’s original definition as “fixed”, you might think of it as evolving over time (as different writers and poets tease out the implications that they detect from Keats’s first insight). In other words, Galway Kinnell’s definition may be going a bit beyond Keats’s narrow definition. Likewise, in teasing out implications, I might have exceeded Keats’s definition by suggesting that it can entail “walking in the shoes of others.” But one element of literary criticism and creative writing that you might want to consider thinking about is the role of misreading in the build up of ideas around a literary term. A critic who has talked about creative misreading is Harold Bloom (in his book, The Anxiety of Influence).

    It may well be that Keats would not have liked my expanded reflection on his original idea, nor might he have liked Kinnell’s. It may also be that he would agree. But what we have is simply an insight—negative capability—and subsequent people (you and me and Kinnell) thinking about its implications. For me, negative capability implies the ability to absent your personal biography and biases from an imaginitive scene, and enter into the complexities and contradictions of it without rushing to tidy them up with rash judgments and conclusions. It’s letting things speak in all their myriad complexities, and with imaginitive sympathy.

    I would also ask you to think of literary people reading Keats in a way akin to religious people reading the Bible. The moment you talk about what the Bible means, you have strayed from the exact words of the Bible, and expanded on them, and teased out implications. Likewise, reading Keats. Kinnell doesn’t need Keats’s permission to expand on Keats’s definition. You, as a reader, must simply decide whether Kinnell’s expanded reading is a plausible and valuable contribution to the implications surrounding Keats’s original idea. That goes for what I say about it as well. What do you think are the implications that derive from Keats’s first observation?

    —Santi

  11. Ben Singh says:

    Thanks for all the information and question. Great Post!

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  20. Ivan X says:

    Hey,

    Negative Capability. I have to speak the word and allow it to sit, while I ponder the meaning. My biggest issue with negative capability is Keats’ use of the word only once. I feel myself being stubborn and not allowing myself to fully engulf in the intense multi-perspective, metaphysical, abstract idea that is negative capability. I want to so badly shout out, like a little impulsive 5th grader, that if there is a negative capability, then surely there is a positive capability. With that being said, the ridiculous jargon of the literary world pushing this idea further somewhat irritates me. Scholars have pushed and “evolved” this thoery so far that the actual meaning must be lost. We can assume all we want, but in the end we are doing exactly what you mentioned in your last response; that we are like religious followers merely expanding ideas from religious text. I feel like negative capability is the literary word for bullshit. No disrespect to Keats, Whitman, or you Santitafarella, or to any scholar expanding upon this notion. I guess in my own lack of coplete understanding, I’m excreting disdain.

    -Ivan X

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  22. Polly says:

    It is an extremely naive statement to compare the use of “negatvie capability” by artistic geniuses to athetically present the extential and psychological mysteries and paradoxes that exist in the world, to an ideologically driven politician who intentionally uses evasiveness and inconclusiveness as propaganda to draw in wide swaths of voters. I suppose you fell into the psychological trap like so many others (certainly at the beginning, before B.O.’s true ideological motives became obvious. Perhaps a revisit to “Animal Farm” and “1984″ would help you sort out the difference. I would strongly recommend it for all our sakes..

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  24. Trilochan says:

    Just waiting for the real meaning of Negative Capability but still………

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  28. Stuart Hepworth says:

    how the fuck can you lump Obama in with some of the greatest writers of all time. the guy is a joke he got a nobel prize just because he was the first black president. i have now lost all hope for the human race there is no point in staying with you losers any more. that tears it i am moving to the moon.

  29. Jasmine says:

    Hi. I just wanted to say thank you for this. I’m writing an English paper on keeping an open mind and my teacher referred me to negative capability. So far in my research this article the these conversations below it have been the most helpful (and the most understandable). So, thank you. :)

  30. Acumen1 says:

    Any comments on the tangible effects of negative capability on our every day lives? Such as the ability to will the manifestation of certain events in our lives. That is, to impose our subjective will on a supposedly objective, external reality. Napoleon Hill writes about this in his “Think and Grow Rich”.

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