Updated: Jun 20, 2020
Turning to "Negative Capability" with fifty years of major challenges to the notions of The Enlightenment
Father Burman opened the lid on Paul's desk to reveal two Bob Dylan albums: "Blonde on Blonde" and one other I don't remember. Father Burman nodded with a cynical smile as if to say he knew what was going on here. Father Burman was no Mr Jones who "Don't know what it is" ... He KNEW. Paul was obviously in league with a subversive element or worse!
"Ah ... the animal", was all he said and he closed back the lid.
A guy walking on the moon was not the only significant feature of 1969. There was considerable political turmoil. Brisbane was becoming a hotbed of ideas as student power was placed on the cultural and social agenda; demonstrations were held in the streets to call for an end to the Vietnam war; civil liberties were being demanded; a counter culture inspired by New Left thinking and a libertarian sensibility was in the offing. Jim Cairns, later to be Deputy Prime Minister, had been inspiring people to think along very different lines and the works of Herbert Marcuse and other philosophers for the Frankfurt School were finding their way into pamphlets and the general discourse ... especially among students.
Past students from my school would stand outside the school gates handing out radical pamphlets as we left at the end of the day. Folk clubs featuring discussion groups on revolutionary change and libertarian socialist ideas sprung up encouraging students to identify with a growing counter-cultural belief system.
Coupled with all of this was a growing commercialised hype. For instance, commercial radio presented the Bob Dylan Show at 8.00pm during the week. It was through this program that I first heard Dylan's "With God On Our Side" and "Masters of War". The general tone of anti-authoritarian rule and dynamics within schools and institutions was having its effect. No wonder Father Burman with his pre-Enlightenment resentment should have felt threatened by Paul's records being inside his school desk.
For students like me, there was more of a questioning and a nagging attraction rather than any real sense of commitment. My focus was on running a 1500 metre race in 4 min 20 sec and making the First 15. Yet it was through the discovery of poetry and historical / philosophical movements introduced to me by my History teacher, Mr Murphy, that provided the necessary questioning and tools for personal change.
Over half a century since 1969
and the truce between humanism and religion
and all the in-between aspects of the Enlightenment has come undone.
Joe Woodward as a school prefect in 1969
Father Burman was a pessimist who certainly never shared in the positive attributes of the Enlightment. In fact, he suggested it was since the Enlightenment that human kind began to go down hill. He seemed to posit that Enlightenment values caused the disruption to all our culture, value systems and relationship between the people and god. And all in a negative way! He was the Year 12 English teacher and school Principal. I certainly had a few run-ins with Father Burman. But the one that stung was over the poet John Keats.
John Keats and the Enlightenment
Keats was taught in schools as a regular and significant part of the English curriculum back in 1969. While his poems, such as "To Autumn" are regarded as among the finest in English literature, Keats was seen as vulgar and radical in his own time. His scepticism about religion and his attitude of challenge and openness to new ways of seeing made him an expressive product of the Enlightenment ... even though much of his impetus was a direct reaction to its more reductionist elements.
The notions of human rights and the individual as the prime consideration for all social activity were paralleled with "reason" and "science" held as the essential mode for all exploration. The sceptical attitude of the Enlightenment period also suggested that human kind was progressing from a state of ignorance and superstition to a state of refined rational development.
Keats challenged this growing rationality with his focus on a positive intuition and sense of the beautiful that extended beyond research and reduction to its deconstructed parts. He saw imagination as the prime ingredient in all development and progress. This was evident in his poetry and his letters.
His poetry seemed soft on first reading and it didn't really fulfil a more vibrant or energetic aspiration of youth in 1969.
The first line of John Keats’ poem, Endymion, reads:
"A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing."
John Keats, the poet
In the world of 1969, such sentiments seemed completely out of date and at odds with the reality that we saw all around us. But as I read more of Keats, including his letters, I found a strange affinity with him and I wanted to re-read and be infected with his intuitive insights. And then on a Sunday afternoon in the city library on North Quay Street I came across "Negative Capability" in my research on Keats
It was a simple phrase that seemed to respond to his seeing a pantomime in an afternoon. Yet it provided the link to all the underlying themes of his work: his struggle with his own ego and trying to accept the notion of impermanence and the ephemeral reality of all existence.
It undermined all dogma; all belief; all imposition of frameworks around experience. It was a kind of Zen that required the integration of the personal with its own obliteration resulting in acceptance of the sensuous, sounds, shape, colour and an ill-defined being. It exposed an empty mind open for the travel of experience through it rather than a mind that traps and ossifies experience into some concrete and fixed item. The result is a sceptical mind that cannot accept dogmas and the word of limited explanations for existence, morality and action.
Now while Father Burman could easily extol the virtues of Keats' sentiments on nature and beauty in a superficial sense, going deeper seemed too much to accept. I remember his comment on my discussion of "negative capability" in my resultant essay. While the essay probably lacked coherency due to being written in haste, it was the term "negative capability" that seemed to draw the ire of my teacher.
"What is this rubbish Woodward?" He then went to admonish me for being slack and not taking my studies seriously ... on that, he probably had a point. But the reference to "negative capability" as "rubbish" stung me. I don't even know if he had heard the term before; or whether he had but dismissed its relevance.
That singular afternoon at the North Quay Street Library probably gave me the greatest discovery and epiphany of my whole school career. Certainly it opened the door to liminality and a questioning attitude to all that was ahead of me. While not always to my benefit, it certainly set up the emotional and mental channels that I still follow on a daily basis. If nothing else, I am left with a general creative dissatisfaction; a great term to describe the ill-at-ease one feels about attempting some creative work!
Negative Capability and Today
Just how much one can attribute the concept of "negative capability", as I have described it, to the Enlightenment influence is open to debate. The Enlightenment had its own dogmas and its followers varied from pacifists to fascists. However, it certainly made a break in thinking from previously held belief systems that suggested a static universe with god at the helm. Or did it?
Today academic dogmas and certainties are on the rise with activists from the Left constantly preventing speakers and proponents of different viewpoints from speaking on campuses throughout the US, Canada and even Australia. Even challenging those with different views in live discourse can earn the wrath of opponents on the basis such discourse amounting to “platforming”. No-Platforming becomes the mantra for deriding “free speech”. Why give an evil bastard, a fascist, a racist or a bigot an audience for pitiful and false ideas! In the US, the right to carry their guns into the streets to make their point about their own power and determination. It seems only a matter of time before mass explosiveness is going to occur!
The lid to Paul’s desk is repeatedly opened with a head-shaking teacher admonishing the contents of the desk while knowing (ie. KNOWING) that the contents are evil and the source of further evil action. Today, Paul has learnt to ensure the lid is kept tight on any dissenting views; knowing that discussion, unless in complete agreement with the statement of certainty, such discussion could lead to banishment from the intellectual order. The devil hides in the details.
Our theatres have learnt that the lid can be partially opened but only in so far as the dogmas of truth belonging to the chattering classes permit. The right from the political spectrum speak in ways that simply defy logic. Their claims are religious in tone and ideological in sentiment. It is impossible to argue with them when no appeal to facts is going to hold any weight. The world is still flat. The truce between the more progressive aspects of the Enlightenment and Religion has been clearly broken. Tribal myths can now be treated on the same level as science. Alternative facts have found their way into the vernacular.
To mock a belief is elevated above murder in the eyes of some. The 2015 murder of the employees of Charlie Hebdo in Paris saw hypocritical right wing politicians marching for free speech while some leftist academics and some artists seemed to justify the murders in quite subtle ways. It seems that the Enlightenment attack on religion and its aftermath being generally taken up by leftist philosophers and activists came to a sudden end with the Charlie Hebdo murders.
For some people in the 1960s, Bob Dylan was as subversive as Charlie Hebdo was and still is in today's confused and fragmented world. The threat to the established order was evident in my English teacher's response to the record albums in my friend Paul's desk. For Charlie Hebdo, for more than fifty years, the world has been an illusion filled with deluded visions of dogmatic grandeur that has a downside in the wielding of power over others for the enslaving of whole populations and sections of those populations. It is an absurd universe that needs poking fun at and laughing at its response. It needs a constant scepticism to prod the soft underbelly of dogmatic adherence to beliefs and irrational traditions.
Dylan has long traded the subversive persona of the sixties. The lid has firmly been closed on that era. Now the problem of whiteness casts doubt on the very notion of "enlightenment"; rather seeing it as an adjunct to colonial aspiration and justification.
Every age defines itself with some description and explanation. The protagonists of the age shape the modes of expression and thinking. The injustice will be exposed; the contradictions revealed; the vision of the future written up in academic papers, poetry, literature and around camp fires of ordinary people. Yet it is all illusory. The imperative to kill, control and influence is just as much a fabrication as the entertainments created for escapism. The idealist passion to better the world involves the sculpting of a universe to give form to some ideal vision. It might be through politics, religion, philosophy or some other means of sculpting realities.
And it is here that we come back to Negative Capability ... the ability to live with uncertainties and ultimately without the need to impose the sculpture of some semantic or visionary form on to oneself or others. Imagine the ability to let go ... experience rather than shape or contort everything into fixed modules of life! Perhaps this is the "liberty" that Enlightenment scholars proposed. Perhaps enlightenment might also mean seeing. Perhaps it is about finding that process of discovering what really is in the world beyond us and within us. But it starts with adopting a position of Negative Capability ... thank you Mr Keats ...
LISTEN TO "POSERS" BY TOM WOODWARD
FROM THE ALBUM "MUSIC FOR CLOWNS".
Click on the link to listen: