Jillian Schroeder, Contributing Writer
“The Imagination may be compared to Adam’s dream – he awoke and found it truth … I have never yet been able to perceive how any thing can be known for truth by consequitive reasoning.”
This quotation from the letters of the Romantic poet John Keats is a succinct summary of his poetic theory of Negative Capability. As Keats perceives it, the imagination does not create a false reality. Instead, it dreams of a different reality and then discovers that reality to be true.
Keats places imagination in strong contrast to “consequitive reasoning,” a rigorously sequential and logical approach to life. The imagination beholds something whole and finds it to be true, but consecutive reasoning must sever that synthesis in order for someone to understand it.
The danger, as I see it, lies not with deconstructing things to understand their parts. Rather, it is when we make such a habit of considering parts that we can no longer see the whole, when we can no longer appreciate the beauty and wonder of a thing on its own, that consecutive reasoning has exceeded its place.
The writer Vladimir Nabokov describes the man who is “always on his guard and devote[s] every minute and module of life to the decoding of the undulation of things” in his short story “Signs and Symbols”: “The very air he breathes is indexed and filed away.” This is consecutive reasoning taken to the extreme. The natural flow of life must be decoded before we understand it. The air we breathe must be broken down to its smallest intelligible parts before it has a place in our perception of the world.
This is a particular temptation in the modern world, which runs on facts and figures. We find our identity in Social Security cards, driver’s licenses and credit card numbers. We amuse ourselves by playing Trivial Pursuit and watching Jeopardy, lauding the man who knows the most facts. These piles of facts and numbers aren’t meaningless, certainly, but they aren’t truly meaningful either.
And it’s not just the mere compilation of facts and the itemizing of what we see that is a problem. In the world of the university, we analyze texts and the whole world around us to their smallest fragments of craft. Call it deconstructive philosophy. We break things down before we will let them into our minds.
There are appropriate places for analysis, of course. Processing information and accumulating knowledge are noble enterprises. But when it becomes our automatic response and main focus, we lose sight of the wholeness of creation, the wondrous beauty which can never be truly explained.
“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.”
This excerpt from Keats’ letters defining the theory of Negative Capability is oft quoted to the point of tedium, I know. But it has a truth that bears repetition. The greatest achievement is to be still and watch the pageant around us. It takes courage to admit that there is something greater than our attempts to reason out all things. But the Man of Achievement does not flinch. He is captivated by the mystery, first and foremost.
This is an uncomfortable modus operandi. There is no guarantee of understanding or safety. We are programmed to analyze, so solely wondering is a mammoth task. But the beauty will remain unsullied by our neglect, or worse, flawed analyses. And for that, it is worth the discomfort.
Some may call it faith, or innocence or mere simplicity. But perhaps for us, like for children, wonder is the highest attribute of all.