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…
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.