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Reflections of a working writer and reader



Your Ambiguities are Impeccable, Young Man

“Several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went 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.”
John Keats, from a letter to his brothers, George and Thomas, dated Sunday, 21 December 1817.

Negative Capability is the capacity to live with ambiguity and paradox, and to ‘remain content with half knowledge’. It describes an ability to accept anxiety and fear, to remain in a place of uncertainty and so encourage new thoughts or perceptions. Ultimately it implies the ability to tolerate a suspension of self, a loss of self so as to enable a recreation of self in another character or environment.

A writer who cannot tolerate the companionship of ambiguity, failure, and self-doubt is unlikely to emerge from the prison of conditioned and traditional thought:

One perverse pleasure of art is the pleasure of being lost, in the sense of being confused or in the dark. Kathryn Schulz

“Teach me how to write, give me the theory, the underlying secrets of the craft; if I can get them absolutely rigid, or nearly so, then I can concentrate on working and shall be able to avoid more thinking. Isn’t that so: I can make a conscious and deliberate attempt to further my development by becoming mentally fossilized? It is true, isn’t it?”

There is that sort of feeling that people don’t know what to do with gaps in their lives. It’s a scary notion, but actually, if you can stand in space just for a little while, a new door will open, or you’ll be able to see in the dark after a while. You’ll adjust. Jane Campion

In Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Vladimir and Estragon await the arrival of a mysterious visitor, Godot. Throughout the play Godot’s arrival is anticipated, wished for, and repeatedly heralded, but it never happens. It makes no difference how many times you see the play, Godot never appears.

If you can begin to bring yourself to acknowledge the non-arrival of Godot you step closer to a deeper understanding. He will never arrive. Acknowledging and understanding the ambiguities will not remove them, but it will make them more acute and palpable.

Our world and experience is filled with contradiction and paradox, but through a toleration and understanding of ambiguity we can grow and deepen our inner life, that place where the spark of creation is originated.

10 Responses to “Your Ambiguities are Impeccable, Young Man”

  1. Great post, John.
    Especially for those of us who are impractical to a fault.


  2. Lily says:

    Thank you for this John–there are few things more difficult than knowing which blanks you should not try to fill in, I think. xo

  3. john baker says:

    O fret not after knowledge — I have none,
    And yet the Evening listens . . .

  4. Jarvis says:

    I’m down with accepting fear and anxiety, but I’ll never be content with half-knowledge. Might as well roll over and die.

  5. Harry says:

    Nice post John. I really appreciate it! Thanks for sharing with us. Keep it up!

  6. Jim Murdoch says:

    As you might imagine, John, this rings bells with me. In my novel Milligan and Murphy the two protagonists come across a man who is never named but may or may not be Estragon, the ghost of Estragon or a pooka pretending to be Estragon; we never find out. He says he’s given up waiting and has set out to search for an unnamed person. Milligan wonders what he’ll do if he finds him to which the man responds:

    “When I find him? Oh, I don’t expect to find him. Finding him has never been the issue. Looking has, looking rather than waiting. It’s more… proactive, looking for what you know you’ll never find rather than waiting for what will never arrive. Don’t you think?”

  7. john baker says:

    Oh, yes, Jim, nail on the head. I do think exactly that.

  8. angelle torrejas says:

    I’m losing if I tolerant my fear and nervousness,
    But I’ll never be satisfied with the name of “half-knowledge”.
    That was a crazy things for me..

  9. Laurie Hutzler says:

    Lovely post John. I just stumbled on to your site. I’d love quote you in a book I am writing about thrillers (The Power of Truth).

  10. Jenny says:

    Exactly so…. the great psychoanalyst Bion said that the answer is the death of the question; as a writer, once you put something down, and move on, you have cut off other possibilities.