I was adding some of the magazines I like to read to the sidebar, when I found an interesting article about conversational dynamics in The Vocabula Review. There’s something odd about it, really. It’s written by Tim Buck, another guy in Arkansas, who works in a hardware store and is trying to get his novel published. Keats and Coleridge are mentioned, and while it’s not inaccurate, it seems somehow off to me.
John Keats spoke of “negative capability” — an imaginative sympathy — and it gave him a profound insight into the nature of his subject. With the semantic tension quivering between the two poles, “negative” and “capability,” I will borrow Keats’s phrase and blend it into my suggestion for dialogical humility.
An imaginative sympathy? Keats often speaks of humility and submission to beauty and truth, but Negative Capability is something else really, to me anyway. Keats own explanation, in a letter to his brothers, is described in the context of a conversation, oddly enough.
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 an 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 being content with half knowledge.
Semantic tension quivering between the two poles? I don’t think so. Keats describes a zen-like state of just letting go of questioning. He was hung up on the beauty thing; personally, I’m glad that Coleridge wasn’t content with half-knowledge. Neither was Shelley. They both pushed the extreme, trying to find out the relationships between things. Both of them are filled with tension, in a way that Keats just isn’t. Keats poetry has tensions that are different, more subtle I suppose. I think he really wanted to just disappear, and was horribly disappointed that he couldn’t.
I could have understood it if Buck would have referenced Keats more directly and explicitly: Negative Capability is a big part of being a successful conversationalist. You have to accept that you don’t always know what the other person is trying to say. It is a mystery you have to live with, but if you don’t reach to try to understand it, that doesn’t make for a very interesting conversation either. It would be hardly sympathetic to just let everything go.