Today (Feb. 23) is the 200th anniversary of the death of John Keats who was twenty-five when he died, an astoundingly young age for such a great poet and sage. The legacy of his that has affected me most profoundly is his idea of Negative Capability, which he saw as an essential concept for every writer to embrace. He coined the phrase in a letter to a friend:
“…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 man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”
This advice, this recommendation that one must accept living with uncertainty, could not be more pertinent to the uncertain project of writing a poem, a story, a novel, a play. The choices are myriad, the outcomes always unforeseeable. We do what we can to create the illusion that we are in control of the process, but rarely are we. Kurt Vonnegut once said: “When I write I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth.”
In short, there is a significant amount of flailing throughout the writing process. I often write pages and pages of a novel that take me wildly off course and have to be cut. Sometimes I stare woodenly at what I’ve written without the slightest idea of where the story is going next. And yet, in the end, when I have completed a novel and have survived all that flailing and not-knowing, the satisfaction is like none other.
In this way writing is exactly like the uncertain project of living a life. So little about our lives is known for sure, except the certainty of eventual death. These days, more than ever, the world is fraught with unanswerable questions as they pertain to both our personal lives and the culture at large. When will we be able to invite friends to dinner? When can we stop wearing masks? Will this pandemic ever end, and will there be another one? Can we ever overcome white supremacy? Will democracy collapse? Will we be able to act significantly enough to combat climate change? These are big existential questions and, speculate as we may, they are mostly unanswerable. The only choice we have is to move forward while not having answers.
Keats does not prescribe ways to make the uncertainty more palatable, but I think merely acknowledging the uncertainty functions as a balm. The idea that we have ever known any outcome for certain has always been an illusion. Now, in this age of mega-uncertainty, we have an opportunity to peel back that illusion and see our lives as they are: full of surprises and unexpected turns; full of news, good and bad. In my view, it is in this very uncertainty where life’s rewards reside. Kudos to Keats for seeing this at such a young age.