A phrase coined by Keats
, the 19th century poet
, to describe the power of sympathy
and a freedom from self-consciousness
that tend to be a special (or at least a heightened) characteristic of artists
. The source is a letter of 22 December 1817: there is a quality that goes "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." The quality has to do as well with a capability "of remaining content with half knowledge." Elsewhere, speaking of the "poetical Character
" in general, Keats observes that "it has no character—it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated—It has as much delight in conceiving an Iago
as an Imogen
. What shocks the virtuous philosopher
delights the camelion Poet
"Keats found a clue for many of these speculations in the writings of Hazlitt—particularly the essays "On Gusto" and "On Imitation" and the lecture "On Shakespeare and Milton." The character of the artist is there said to be so absorbed in the act of creation that it subsists only inside the act. In the process of imagining, all the self-regarding data of ordinary life seem to vanish. Thus the artist's curious attentiveness to other persons and things, like that of the chameleon or the ventriloquist, may outwardly resemble the selflessness of one who has no character. The work of art, in turn, elicits our attention in a way that requires the giving up of ordinary selfish and social concerns. It leaves in suspense our usual interest in moral judgment for the sake of a new interest in beauty and truth."
The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, p 825.
The concept of negative capability
is one that has been further developed in both the romantic
literary traditions, contributing both to the rival doctrines of sincerity
and "the truth of masks"
One wonders whether the issues and debates that have surrounding negative capability within the sphere of literary criticism have not now achieved a wider and more general significance in online communities, where essentially literary production is now a commonplace, though not always appreciated as such. In essense, it seems to me a far greater proportion of the population have become (loosely speaking) "artists," due to the commonplace availability of the internet and Web as a means of distribution and presentation, and thus are faced with the issues of identity, self and selflessness about which Keats' notions have prompted speculation and debate. One can see virtually the same conflict in play between those who prefer (or demand) that online personae be "real" and sincere and those who glory in their seeming freedom to assume and discard various masks and disguises at will, sometimes for criminal purposes, but probably more often for sheer play value and to explore one's own psyche or to probe the responses of others.