One of the most famous terms in literature is negative capability, coined by the poet John Keats. It’s so important that it even gets its own Wikipedia entry—not bad for a term that Keats mentioned once, and only once, and not in a poem or essay but in a letter to his brothers. So, if it’s such a big deal, then we probably ought to know what it means and how to use it or make it happen in our writing.
A recent essay that uses negative capability in a dramatic way is Joni Tevis’ “Fairy Tales of the Atomic Age (Rock City).” It is included in her new collection The World Is On Fire and was originally published in Orion, where you can read it now.
How the Essay Works
Probably no term has been more analyzed than negative capability, so let’s just start from the beginning, with Keats’ own words:
“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”
Here’s an even shorter version, as restated by F. Scott Fitzgerald:
“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”
So, the short answer to the question, “What is negative capability?” is that it’s the ability to give equal consideration to (or even believe) two contradictory ideas. So, what’s this have to do with writing great prose? Take a look at this passage from “Fairy Tales of the Atomic Age (Rock City)”:
I loved the world, believed its every inch paved with treasure, but knew it could be ripped away at any moment. Death was real; the preaching we heard every Sunday underscored that. A farm accident instantly killed my grandfather. A girl my own age, eight or nine, lost her mother one Friday night when her car was forced off a bridge. You’re no different, the preachers said, and I had to admit their logic. They’d start in on the scary parts of the Bible: Ezekiel, Daniel, Revelation, the moon turning red on that great and fearsome day. The Battle of Armageddon could start at any moment, the preachers would say, even now, while we’re sitting here in this big beautiful sanctuary, and are you right with God? Well, who could be? There will be a blast of wind, the rivers will turn to blood, the preachers said. Matthew 24:29, The stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken. What a relief when we could all file out of the barnlike church, shaking the preacher’s hand on the way into the bright sun, past the blooming crepe myrtles and the old crabapple tree. How could we go out for fried chicken after that? How could I lie on the living room floor and read the funnies or look at the paper’s boring pictures of boring debutantes? I asked my parents about the end of the world, and they said, Try not to worry about it too much.
Tevis has set up contradictory ideas, a contradiction that is set up in the first sentence: 1) the world is beautiful and amazing, and 2) all of that beauty can be taken away. In other words, as the next sentence states, we’re all going to die. This might not seem contradictory. After all, both things are true. The world can be pretty great (though it’s not always), and everyone now living will die. Put that way, most of us will likely say, “Sure. Of course.” But what the paragraph does is make us feel the contradiction. It’s the same feeling that we often get at funerals or after hearing about some tragedy or horrible act in the world. We’re going to die, and it might be really terrible. That’s the message the preacher has, and when Tevis walks out of the church, she blinks at the light and delivers a line that I absolutely adore: “How could we go out for fried chicken after that?”
We know the passage has worked because there’s no good answer to the question. Her parents say, “Try not to worry about it too much,” which is no kind of answer. Or, it’s almost exactly the definition of negative capability, a term that is often considered a goal for good writing. In “Fairy Tales of the Atomic Age (Rock City),” Tevis suggests that believing in contradictory things is an inevitable and natural part of the human experience and that drama, the stuff of good writing, comes from a character’s inability to tie together those contradictory elements. The goal shouldn’t be, as Keats puts it, to avoid “irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Instead, it should be to reach for that fact and reason and find it missing. As with all writing, you want the reader to ask, in some form, the question, “Now what?”
The Writing Exercise
Let’s create tension with negative capability, using “Fairy Tales of the Atomic Age (Rock City)” by Joni Tevis as a model:
- Set up the conflicting ideas. Tevis uses “life is beautiful” and “we’re all going to die.” This isn’t so different from what Stuart Dybek does in his famous story, “We Didn’t.” He pairs sex and death. If you wish, you can stick to religion: “Jesus loves me” and “sinners in the hands of an angry god.” Or, you can move toward a personal conflict with others: “I’m a good person” and “everyone hates me” or “I’m horrible” and “everyone loves me.” Or, you can create an internal conflict: “I want to do good” and “I love doing bad” or “I love my children” and “I want to be free.” The goal is to put two incompatible ideas or beliefs in the same place, at the same time. It doesn’t really matter how small or large, personal or cosmic those ideas are. The important thing is that they should resist being held together.
- Make the reader believe one of those ideas. Tevis does this beautifully with the sentences about deadly accidents and the quotes from the preacher. The deadly accidents give us visceral proof of the idea. How can we argue that we all die when it’s happening in front of us? The preacher creates a philosophical framework around that proof; he’s telling his congregation how to think about the proof that they witness. This two-part structure is important. If anything that happens to a character/person/narrator is worthwhile, then that person has given it significant thought and has formulated a story to tell about it or mental approach to it. How we think about something is just as important as the reason we believe it.
- Introduce, quickly, the other idea. This is what happens when Tevis brings us out of the church, into the beautiful world and asks how we can bear to eat fried chicken. She’s juxtaposing the beliefs. She sets beauty (sunlight and crepe myrtles) against the preacher’s version of the world, with its real proof (untimely accidents). If the juxtaposition is sharp or harsh enough, the reader will understand, on a visceral level, the impossibility of both things being true. We will question (or understand the characters when they question) how both can be true at the same time.
- Answer the question with negative capability. Have someone say, as Tevis’ parents did, “Try not to worry about it too much.” If you have any experience with Christianity, you may be attaching a word to this dilemma: faith. We accept, on faith, things that we cannot understand or that seem not to be possible. But faith cannot exist without a crisis of faith (otherwise, it wouldn’t be a matter of faith; it’d just be obvious). What you’re setting up is a moment where the narrator or character understands that two ideas cannot be held together, but there they are, together, and they must deal with the mental trauma of trying to make congruous this incongruous pairing. In other words, someone must say, “Don’t think about it too much,” and that mental avoidance must come to seem impossible or undesirable. When that happens, the reader will automatically want to know, “Then what?”