Negative Capability- Keats and the Mystery of Creativity

Keats allows the Image to stand as a mystery and accepts that unknowing part of himself in perfect freedom. The force of the imagination finds fertile ground to reveal its depth when an aspect of the image remains unfathomable.

River Foliage, a landscape painting by Judith Reeve

So much of our being resides in the rational and linear development of ideas rather than an associative logic or a “logic of metaphor” as expressed by Hart Crane. The imagination itself does not follow such reasoning. It cannot be compartmentalized or ordered as such. It is an independent force that goes beyond our reasoning faculty. Keats states in a letter to Benjamin Bailey in 1817, “I am the more zealous in this affair because I have never yet been able to perceive how anything can be known for truth by consecutive reasoning.” Keats favored a “drifting imaginative logic” in his poems that relied on a fluid consciousness not entirely understood through rational means. (Hirsch, The Demon and the Angel, p.6) Our desire to explain everything from the origin of the universe to the state of our health or why something was created in such a way, leads one down a path that is not open to an alternate experience of being.

I find, when I begin a piece, I attempt to seek out all the variables to allow the image to unfold. But Keats comes at it with a pure freedom of spirit as expressed in his statement on Negative Capability- “that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Keats allows an image to stand as it is-a mystery and accepts it as such without fully understanding it. He refuses to allow that rational part of himself to destroy the inherent depth and mystery of an image. He remains satisfied in his unknowing state allowing the emotional tenor of a piece to guide him.

One inherently desires to eliminate mystery, instead of nurturing the independent force that mystery is- a reflection of one’s ignorance and consequently, the vastness of being and existence. Allowing a mystery to stand opens up opportunities to receive something from the other side. This openness creates a place for that inner voice to speak not as one hopes but as it desires. The will or ego part of oneself needs to step aside.

In ancient Greece, there was a Cult to Asklepios. This cult resided at shrines of healing like Epidauros. The priests of Asklepios performed a rite over the worshiper who then slept in the temple until they received a dream. The priests of Asklepios would then interpret the dream in order to bring the healing message to the ill person. These priests acted as conduits to a greater mystery, being open to a healing that they did not necessarily understand. They allowed the dream to shape the action necessary for a cure to take place.

Alternately, Ahab is another figure that faces the great mystery- the mystery of the white whale. The white whale emerges from the depths of the sea, powerful, allusive. Ahab, instead of honoring the mystery in all its magnitude, seeks the whale out only to find that it is he himself that he has destroyed. His desire to conquer, to rationalize and impose his will upon the beast, leads to his demise. The whale remains free and aloof- independent, eloquent and charged with a force without limit. The depth emerging forth and at the same time remaining an unfathomable mystery.