Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Negative Capability

Carolyn Arends thinks her fans are pretty smart. An implied compliment to herself? She posted a provocative quote on her blog last December and urged discussion.  Well, it took me until April to formulate my thoughts coherently enough to reply.  Here is her original post:

December 18, 2009 - 12:52pm

Thought for The Day: Yancey on "Negative Capability"
I'm reading a brilliant Philip Yancey article from FIRST THINGS Magazine entitled "What Art Can and Can't Do". (Thanks to Spencer Capier for sending me the link.)

These lines in particular struck me:
Keats said that literature sometimes demands of us Negative Capability: the ability to accept multiplicity, mystery and doubt without reaching out for the illusory comforts of certainty and fact. Faith, too, demands a kind of Negative Capability, and that does not always sit well with many of the folk who distribute Christian art and many of the folk who consume it.

What do you think of the idea of "Negative Capability"? Do you believe faith demands it? Do you seek it out or avoid it in books, music and visual arts?

Let's Discuss!


My response:

Ambitious of you to post such provocation right before Christmas! I've been thinking upon this idea of Negative Capability ever since.

First thought:

I once heard Dinesh D'Souza debating Christopher Hitchens on a talk radio show. A caller, who self-identified as atheist, offered up a general observation that Christians of his acquaintance were far more open to discussing theological and philosophical issues with him and had more of an open attitude toward hearing his point of view than his atheistic friends seemed to have for Christians. Dinesh gave a very interesting commentary to that, which I immediately recalled upon reading your post. He said that religious believers in general, and Christians especially, possess that sort of openness to entertaining the doubts and disbelief of others, because to be a believer is to live constantly with the shadow of doubt. Ah, I thought, very Chestertonian of him! He went on to say that an atheist can live a life untouched by the burden of faith, but no Christian has ever lived without the burden of doubt -- of varying degrees. Therefore, while an atheist may think that someone is a moonbat for finding faith, the believer will never think someone out of his senses for not finding it. To that extent, a foundation for even getting to the point of faith must be Keats's Negative Capability.

Second thought:

When it comes to the realm of faith, is Keats's Negative Capability really a Positive Capability? That is, with faith, "the ability to accept multiplicity, mystery and doubt" leads to "comforts of certainty and fact" that are hardly illusory. In the Christian tradition, believers say life is a big, crazy mess, we cannot understand why some things happen, we are caught up in mysteries we cannot begin to fathom, and yet, we have a peace that passes all understanding and treasure stored up where moth and rust will not destroy it, nor thieves steal it away. I think that in Philip Yancey's summation is a wee bit of intellectual snobbery -- that "folk" who enjoy reveling in the certainties of Christ are somehow missing the deeper journey. Tell the mother at our church watching her 5-year-old daughter battle a brain tumor the mother knows will take a miracle for her to survive that she is not in touch with "multiplicity, mystery and doubt" of the Christian journey just because she chooses to lean upon something greater still -- the promises of a God who did not spare His own Son. Tell her her comfort is illusory; tell her the facts are imagined. I think that the opposite of Yancey's statement is more often true -- Christian artists get the most approving reviews from critics when they examine the darkness; but, the light is just as real and maybe harder to exploit for art's sake. Like P.J. O'Rourke wrote so long ago: "Being gloomy is easier than being cheerful. Anybody can say 'I've got cancer' and get a rise out of a crowd. But how many of us can do five minutes of good stand-up comedy?"

Third thought:

Do I seek out art that rests upon my "ability to accept multiplicity, mystery and doubt without reaching out for the illusory comforts of certainty and fact"? An interesting question. Overall, yes, of course! But, one thing that I do not like in art is gratuitous obscurity -- creators who throw in red herrings or strange symbolism that do not add to the piece of work as a whole. That is just intellectual masturbation, and it produces the same effect as the physical kind. In visual art, I think about my favorite artist, Manet -- his paintings of women in particular have narratives that are open to interpretation; however, there is nothing superfluous in their execution. Jane Austen, in a different way, also leaves much of the internal workings of her characters undisclosed; yet, in her economy of words there is no essential point left out. I've noticed that the less an artist can convey his meaning in the work of art itself, the more he talks and talks and talks about the meaning. That is why modern painters talk endlessly about their canvases -- they cannot stand on their own. If I walk away from a piece of art -- whether book, movie, painting, song -- shaking my head and wondering what the point was, then that to me is bad art. True art -- that is good art -- should have some sort of apparent meaning. It need not answer every question it asks, but it should at least inspire some consistent questions.

OK, there's more, but I've written enough. This was such a great and probing post, Carolyn! Thank you! I'm sure I'll keep thinking about this the rest of my life and tweaking my conclusions.

And now, what do you think?

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