The Power of Not Knowing

“I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the heart’s affections, and the truth of imagination.”

-John Keats

In my life, my writing, and my appreciation of literature, I strive for awareness and understanding. I have done so in my life through the disciplines of theology and philosophy, in my writing through the tutelage of other writers, and in my appreciation of literature through the study of literary criticism. I have engaged each discipline, formally and informally, throughout my life. And so, I am myself one common denominator among these fields.

That said, I also recognize a dynamic interrelationship: my life influences my writing, and my writing influences my appreciation of the written word; conversely, my appreciation of the written word influences my writing, and my writing influences my life. With this interconnection in mind, I am also beginning to discover, and attempt to articulate, an important principle held in common among the three.

It stems from a phrase coined by an eighteenth-century English poet named John Keats, who said:

…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 was referring to the act of writing. I have found that my own ability to remain in the uncomfortable company of “uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts” while writing poems puts me in contact with the creative power of the unconscious mind. Poets have been practicing this art of creative contact, and explaining the process, in various ways for quite some time.

A recent modern example is the American poet William Stafford, who said:

…receptive, careless of failure, I spin out things on the page. And a wonderful freedom comes. If something occurs to me, it is all right to accept it. It has one justification: it occurs to me. No one else can guide me. I must follow my own weak, wandering, diffident impulses.

He goes on, in the brief essay “A Way of Writing” from his collection of essays Writing the Australian Crawl, to describe in simple, colloquial terms, his own cultivation of Negative Capability in the writing process.

I discovered, too, that resisting “irritable reaching after fact & reason” also opened up a deeper understanding of literature to me. On the first day of my junior seminar in poetry with Stephen Booth, we read William Blake’s “The Tiger”. Professor Booth asked if there were any questions. I raised my hand timidly, and said that while the lines, “When the stars threw down their spears,/ And watered heaven with their tears” were my favorite part of the poem, I did not feel that I fully understood their literal meaning.

He proceeded, rather than chastening me for my lack of knowledge, to expand upon the significance of my statement–that one can find profound aesthetic enjoyment in something one does not totally literally understand. He then asked me if I understood why I did not understand. When I said no, he proceeded to demonstrate his theory of “precious nonsense” using these lines–showing that often what attract us aesthetically to a literary work are the ways in which its elements simultaneously do and do not make sense.

The highest aim of a literary critic, he pointed out, is to simply explain why a poem affects us as it does. In this way he taught me to become a participant-observer in the process of reading, basing my criticism on experience rather than simply layering on abstract theories. There is a particular quality of attention, that requires both abiding and actively observing the “uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts” within oneself as prompted by the piece, that I have found essential to my relationship to literature on both sides of the pen.

But it is applying the principles of “negative capability” and embracing the “precious nonsense” of everyday living that has proved my greatest challenge. And here the stakes are not a term-paper grade or poetry prize, but my very happiness. In a world fraught with contradiction, my mind wants to compartmentalize its elements, to avoid the cognitive dissonance that comes from, for example, perceiving so-called “good” people doing so-called “bad” things (and the other way around). Yet it is by cultivating an ability to abide uncertainty, to admit, as I did to Prof. Booth, that I so often simply do not know–that I have been able to free myself, moment-to-moment, from the intellectual anguish of trying to parse the world, like a chess board, into squares of black and white.

This fundamental capability–to embrace seeming paradox, cultivate subtlety, and dwell more comfortably in the vast unknown–seems to me one of the greatest gifts art can bestow. Because for me art makes life liveable, I have often referred to poetry as a survival skill. Now I am beginning to understand that it is a transferable skill in that it cultivates negative capability. It has helped me to come to terms with, and even synthesize, seemingly disparate elements in business, relationships, and life. Perhaps most counter-intuitively, this power begins in the humble act of embracing that I do not know.