Negative Capability

Negative Capability

Aye on the shores of darkness there is light,

And precipices show untrodden green,

There is a budding morrow in midnight,

There is a triple sight in blindness keen.

—John Keats, “To Homer” (1818)

This week I want to respond to an insightful and provocative post by one of our readers, “grabloid”, who brought up a concept of Negative Capability first coined by poet John Keats that is especially applicable to creative work. To reproduce Keats’ own definition (from an 1817 letter to his brother):

…[A]t 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…

Grabloid elaborates:

This speaks to the idea from this conversation about experiencing music as something beyond personal taste, and more as a matter of personal/social development and growth. Ever since I came across this idea it resonated with me on a deep level and I feel that it has contributed greatly to my own self discovery and growth. It is about being able to accept one’s own comforts and tastes (which are valid) as a kind of limitation that can be transcended

Speaking as a creative artist rather than an expert on Keats or Romanticism in general, I too find this idea compelling and useful; in fact, it’s difficult to imagine how some variation of this mental attitude would fail to be anything but a healthy and consciousness-expanding pursuit for all people, not just for poets or composers.

In my understanding, this is not an anti-intellectual attitude but rather an attitude about the limitations of the intellect—specifically, limitations that result from an overreaching, from the attempt to impose order and patterns and explanations even when there is no good basis for doing so—in short, from misapplied reason clouding our direct perception of the mystery that might catalyze a moment of gnosis. Or to put it another way: our obsessions with categorizing and rational evaluation make it difficult to see (or hear) things in a different way.

My wife recently sat through a showing of the film Inception with a friend who had a hard time settling down and enjoying the movie, out of a desire to immediately understand and classify initial scenes. There is a certain kind of mind that cannot tolerate ambiguity even for a moment, or maybe this is a state of mind common to us all. But when we permit ourselves to stop grasping and just let the experience happen, accepting it, then therein lies the greatest possibility for eventual understanding, albeit on a level we may not have expected to engage. This ability to tolerate ambiguities seems to have been tolerated in many other philosophical traditions, and to me it seems closely related to the Eastern tradition of monism—a way of seeing and interacting the world that is less concerned with classifying things as either this or that. When we ask questions of the world we can’t really expect profound insight when the questions are administered in the form of multiple-choice prompts, when we try to engage new experiences from our same old viewpoint instead of allowing the new experience a chance to develop its own “logic” and validity.

Obviously this idea is very applicable to the search for new sounds, both as a composer and as a listener. When we attempt to listen to new music (or attempt to share some with others), do we approach the experience through the lenses of our conventional perspectives? Perhaps a certain amount of this is entirely unavoidable, but how much more enriching is either endeavor—discovering music for oneself or sharing it—when one opens up to the possibility of new perspectives. In practice this means cultivating a certain amount of neutrality, of perceiving rather than evaluating, of listening rather than speaking. Perhaps even more importantly, it means being at ease enough with one’s self that one doesn’t require “correcting” new experiences to shoehorn them into one’s current comfort zone. Accepting ambiguity and mystery is the first step towards discovering new feelings of “rightness” and cultivating a comfort zone that is spacious and populated rather than tiny and barren.

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3 thoughts on “Negative Capability

  1. dB

    Not long ago, I tried to make a very similar argument on these pages, and was met with vigorous refusal, an almost prideful disdain for the kind of openness described here. Admittedly, I didn’t present the ideas as clearly as Dan (and grabloid) have, so that friction may have just been a result of miscommunication, but it still surprised me to find attitudes rejecting new experiences in a forum populated almost exclusively by composers. If we can’t be receptive to new, different art, how can we expect an audience to be any different?

    I suspect a lot of the vitriol (they really were some nasty reactions) came from the perception that the argument was inherently anti-intellectual, which Dan was smart to quell here. I also suspect that there are a few who take offense at the idea of taste as a limitation, who instead see it as an asset they’ve spent years cultivating. I think this post does a great job of explaining why even that attitude is closed-minded, and does a good job of restoring my confidence in finding an open-minded audience that was shaken in that argument.

  2. grabloid

    I whole-heartedly agree that this is not an anti-intellectual stance or approach. In fact, one could even argue that it begins as a self-aware and intellectual exercise in letting go of the urge to “shoehorn” (as Mr. Visconti gracefully stated in the post) our experiences, immediately gripping for the ability to define and categorize new experiences by relating and comparing them to our old experiences. Personally, the immediate deferral to or reliance on the established categories is a way of stunting the growth, adaptability, evolution, strength and usefulness of creating categories in the first place. What is the old saying…what can’t bend always breaks…? In practice, this can actually be quite difficult and requires a lot of mental and physical attention. It is tempting, and in some ways easy, to revert to what we already know. Mr. Visconti’s reference to some Eastern philosophical practices is certainly in the same league here…it is in some ways a sort of meditative discipline. I think that part of the reaction against this way of thinking is that it can be disquieting, or even disturbing. Calling into question our most dearly held and deeply trusted beliefs about the world can be a dissonant experience…potentially creating a sense of vertigo or even meaninglessness. What Keats is suggesting though, is that it is worth it, and that it leads to greater strength and achievement.

    Now, this approach or method of “Negative Capability” all may be in service of subverting the kind of intellectuality that we’ve become accustomed to or comfortable with, but, it is never meant to be permanent or definite in its subversion of the intellect. And it never denies the intellectual analysis or response. I see it as a fluid conversation which informs and expands our intellect and allows us to revise and renew the categories and borders which have been created. After all, if the old categories, borders and definitions end up suiting us well in the end…well then, doesn’t that speak to and further prove their strength? So then, why not test them, question them, or be open to reshaping them and reapplying them in light of a new discovery or as a result of a newfound connection? It’s almost akin to a scientific method in this way…the approach of trying to prove the current theory wrong, so as to strengthen it with new experimental evidence, data, experience, etc.

    I’m now reminded of Nietzsche’s general philosophical approach, which he addresses specifically in the reface “Twilight of the Idols, or, How to Philosophize with a Hammer”. (Especially the preface to the work, which is short and sweet, can be found online with a simple search.) This also is nice because of the sound related, musical references and metaphors. To philosophize with a hammer is to take a metaphorical hammer to our “idols” (broadly interpreted) and hit them, “as with a tuning fork” to see if they resonate deeply, or if they sound hollow, or if they simply break down. It is not philosophizing with a sledge hammer…it is not destructive unless the idols/ideas/concepts are weak, or if they are no longer applicable…no longer serve us well. It is more of a tuning fork, a way that we can take measure of our “idols,” to re-evaluate them and reshape them to serve us better and more effectively. This is part of Nietzsche’s broader goal with “the revaluation of all values.” Not simply for the sake of revaluation, and this is important, because it isn’t simply about questioning our categories and definitions, and it is far from trying to rid ourselves of such things. It is in service of allowing ourselves to be able construct (and reconstruct) a more resonant and life-affirming philosophy…to allow for this evolution and adaptability in our thinking and in our feeling. I feel that this harmonizes nicely with the concept of “Negative Capability” – in fact, negative capability can be though of as a practical method for getting into a state where revaluation is possible…part of the physical motion of philosophizing with a hammer/tuning fork.

    (DISCLAIMER: Just to be clear, and this is in reference to the conversation which happened in part of the responses to Mr. Visconti’s previous post – I also dislike the way the a lot of metal bands have co-opted Nietzsche’s philosophy. Much in the way that the Nazis co-opted him and misunderstood him, many modern metal bands are preoccupied with various excerpts about power, self-determination, the undermining morals and values, etc. They typically abuse Nietzsche this way by taking quotes out of context from his larger works that they quote from, and completely out of context from his philosophy in general. They never bring attention to the fact that Nietzsche is explicitly and constantly striving for a philosophy which is “life-affirming.” Nietzsche is no nihilist…far from it really. And, he spoke directly against the anti-semitism of his time, as well as the Nazis co-opting (and misunderstanding) of his concept of the übermensch. His sister and her husband/lover were Nazi sympathizers and had a great deal to do with this unfortunate interpretation… Having said that, Nietzsche has a number of quotes, ideas, passages, entire sections and concepts which I find to be almost completely indefensible…but these are typically pretty obvious, and are not the ones that some metal bands or fascistic thinkers tend to gravitate toward.)

  3. grabloid


    I apologize if I’ve gotten too long-winded, or off-track. I do believe that this applies deeply to this conversation on music though. And, to return to Mr. Visconti’s previous post “Listen in a Different Way,” he mentioned an interesting new book called “Lexicon of Musical Invective” by Nicolas Slominsky, wherein the author documents a number of critical resistances to new and changing sounds and forms in music. I’m very interested in checking this book out now, and plan to do so. One obvious example quickly comes to mind, which I’m willing to bet is mentioned in this book…the oft-cited and talked about reactions to Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring”. It, of course, freaked everybody out at first. Depending on which narrative you believe about the evening, the was certainly a large amount of consternation and disquiet in reaction to the symphony’s dissonance, discordance and rhythmic complexity…hatred spilled from the audience, to the point of interruption and rioting. I’m sure there is a pile of nasty written criticism as well… Of course, it was only a year or so later that Stravinsky became a hero of the same crowd. The very same symphony was performed in the very same space, and it was accepted with open arms, applause, and wild rumors state that Stravinsky was even carried out on the back’s of the audience. And now we know that Stravinsky was at the forefront of reinventing modern music as we know it, a precursor and leader of the avant-garde in music, ushering in atonality and various other new and revolutionary approaches and comprehensions of music which are still being explored and opened up in our own time. This is one clear case where the audience benefitted greatly in adapting to an uncommon and unpopular new idea and vision…accepting Stravinsky’s sound as a gateway for numerous new possibilities and ranges in expression. There are many other examples in the world of painting, literature and film that illustrate similar points and similar kinds of evolution in the respective arts.


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