Indolence as Productivity: Deconstruction, Foucault and Paradox in Keats’s Negative Capability

May 21, 2019 by Essay Writer

Michel Foucault, in his seminal essay, What Is An Author?, considers the relationship between author, text, and reader: “…the quibbling and confrontations that a writer generates between himself and his text cancel out the signs of his particular individuality.”(Foucault, 1477) Forms of discourse, and the “author function’s” impact on these established forms, are theoretically questioned, while simultaneously speculating the absence of author in a text. Keats’s poetic character and temperament, as evidenced from his letters and exercised in his odes, can be characterized by his ideal of negative capability, which he defines as a state of mind in which “man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”(Cox, 109) Keats is describing the capacity that human beings possess to transcend and revise their contexts; it is an inherent rejection of the attempt to formulate theories or categorical knowledge, particularly in poetic practice. In the narrative that Keats’s letters cast, the concept arises only once, formally, however, Keats’s development of an aesthetic theory unique to him is ever present. In order to contextualize this development, various passages from the letters must be contemplated alongside biographical information, which places a contrast on modes of thinking between Charles Wentworth Dilke and Keats’s “exemplary” model, Shakespeare. Negative Capability, for Keats, is born out of the dichotomy that these figures posited as methods for “true poetry”; to attain the standard of “true poetry”, Keats demanded that the poet be receptive rather than searching for fact or reason. Though Keats’s condensed body of work does not include a prescribed text for his conception of aesthetic theory, which was a trend amongst his Romantic contemporaries, Keats’s thoughts on poetic character and the “non-identity” is affirmed throughout a series of letters. Keats fundamentally believes that aestheticism requires a removal of one’s identity during the creative process; writing poetry must be approached by an individual who has nothing of himself to impart while possessing the capacity to subdue his own personality. This notion can also be extracted from one Keats’s more inferior odes, “Ode on Indolence”, an 1819 poem which explicates the writing process and the necessity for authorial removal. The content is relatively mundane, as it follows the speaker’s, presumably a poet’s, contemplation of a morning spent in idleness. Three figures approach the poet as he enters a state of “indolence”: Ambition, Love and Poesy. During the speaker’s interactions with the figures, there dawns a realization that Poesy, or “poetry”, cannot be entirely banished; indolence is a necessary state for productive poetry, combined with the dissociation of identity and the self, or, in Foucauldian terms, the “subject”. Foucault’s theory on interpreting texts while conscious of the author’s absence or “death” is compatible with the ode. Keats’s other odes tend to thematicize ideas, rather than enact them, as “Ode on Indolence” demonstrates; just as exponents of Foucault’s essay and poststructuralist thought deny any identity to a text, Keats inherently denies any temperament and identity to the poet. Keats confronts the lived reality of the poetic spectacle, not just as an aesthetic space for displaying expression, but also as a coercive agent for invading and structuring modes of thinking and human consciousness.The origin of “negative capability” is easily traceable to the perpetually revisited letter written by Keats to his brothers George and Tom on December 21, 1817; the term, in a formal sense, occurs only once in all of Keats’ writings. In terms of theory, however, Keats was persistently concerned with elucidating a process for writing “true poetry”. Keats’s contemporary and personal companion, Charles Dilke, proposed facets of aesthetic theory that relied on categorization and didactics. In his letter of 17-27 September 1819, addressed to George Keats, Keats describes Dilke’s character, calling him “a Man who cannot feel he has a personal identity unless he has made up his Mind about every thing”(Cox, 326) Li Ou, in her biographical exposition, “Keats and Negative Capability”, contextualizes the relationship between Dilke and Keats, as well as the influence Dilke held over him: “…Dilke, like Coleridge who reaches after fact and reason irritably, an example of something opposite to negative capability in his ‘consequitive’ and dogmatic approach to experience.”(Ou, 5) The influence, according to Ou, occurs in the form of a contradiction; Dilke’s logic, which dictates a “dogmatic approach”, is not compatible with Keats’s perspective. In a letter to John Reynolds, Keats details his admiration of Shakespeare:”One of the three books I have with me is Shakespeare’s Poems: I neer(never) found so many beauties in the sonnets – they seem to be full of fine things said unintentionally – in the intensity of working out conceits. Is this to be borne? Hark ye!”(Cox, 126)Though Keats’s influences are often owned to John Milton and Edmund Spenser based on stylistic structure, thematic nature and diction, in terms of theory, Shakespeare is at the epicenter of Keats’s aesthetic thought. To regard Shakespeare as a poet who produces works while simultaneously “working out conceits”, he is participating in an early formation of what Keats will label as a capability of “being in uncertainties”. Shakespeare, Ou argues, is responsible for an early cognition of what Keats’s later coins “negative capability”. She states:“A Man of Achievement with negative capability is a camelion poet with no proper self but metamorphic identities…No wonder Shakespeare is again indicated as the exemplary camelion poet, while Wordsworth, like Coleridge formerly, is set on the opposite side,”(Ou, 6)“Camelion poet” refers to the quality of identity displacement, which Shakespeare, according to Ou, applied to himself consistently. Keats adopts this quality habitually in his formation of poetic character and “non-identity”. Ou’s mentioning of William Wordsworth is also significant to consider; he, similarly to Dilke, influenced Keats through incompatible ideals.Keats possesses an awareness of the theoretical thought that was contemporary to his writing career. Though he regards Shakespeare highly, he does not share this respect with Wordsworth for two reasons: firstly, Wordsworthian influence was assigned to Keats within the poetic circle, and Keats was conscious to assure his independence from that influence, and secondly, Wordsworth’s contribution to aesthetic theory essentially disagreed with Keats’s ideas. In a letter to Reynolds, Keats demonstrates his disdain of “egotist” logic:“But for the sake of a few fine imaginative or domestic passages, are we to be bullied into a certain Philosophy engendered in the whims of an egotist. Every man has his speculations, but every man does not brood and peacock over them till he makes a false coinage and deceives himself… We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us”(Cox, 121)It is this “palpability” that causes the incompatibility between the poets; Keats valued sensibility and humility as qualities in the poetic figure, as Wordsworth advocates his own “speculations” as an objective mode of thought. Jacob Wigod, author of “Negative Capability and Wise Passiveness”, attempts to reconcile the inherent differences between Wordsworth and Keats by comparing the two concepts, as the title suggests. He claims that,“Far from looking at the world in the Shakespearean or negative-capability way, Wordsworth had developed a strictly bound set of didactic and moral principles from which he would not deviate.”(Wigod, 385)Wordsworth, whose poetic career precedes Keats’s considerably, entered a status of canonicity while that career was still active. Contemporarily, Wordsworth was nationally praised and through his writings in the preface to Lyrical Ballads, established a universal form of poetic speech. Keats does not accept the “set of didactic and moral principles” that Wordsworth promotes, as negative capability is based in opposition. Wigod comments on the connecting factor between the poets:“The whole measure of Wordsworth’s influence on Keats is almost untraceable. Whereas Keats gladly of wise passiveness, Wordsworth’s individualistic poetic strength precluded his assuming a Shakespearean role of negative capability.”(Wigod, 390)As Wigod demonstrates, a reconciliation is possible, however, negative capability relies on the contradiction between Dilke, Wordsworth and Shakespeare to exist. The concept is born out of the inability to balance the opposing views, and with the context that both Ou and Wigod provide, it becomes possible to conceive of it concretely and trace it within Keats’s poetic writing.Negative Capability and Keat’s corresponding aesthetic theory is composed of the poet’s “no-self”, “non-identity” and the act of accepting binary oppositions, or rather, the contentment associated with “inbetweeness”. In a letter to J.A. Hessey Keats provides a stable definition for the poetic character that conforms to negative capability:”As to the poetical character itself….it is not itself – it has no self – it is everything and nothing – It has no character- it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated – It has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen. What shocks the virtuous philosopher, delights the camelion poet”(Cox, 287) The “Poetical Character” as enunciated by Keats in the passage is that which has no identity of its own that can surpass its imaginative faculty and leave an impression of its identity on what the imagination conceives. Keats claims that the “true poet” is one who has nothing to impart but is gifted with the capacity to subdue his own personality. He must maintain the ability to project himself into other’s identities and actively participate in all types of experiences of life, both moral and immoral. Walter Jackson Bate, a notable figure in Keats scholarship, authored a seminal doctoral dissertation simply entitled, “Negative Capability”. In the publication, he authenticates an interpretation and definition of negative capability and the “poetical character”; he defines this character as follows: “This self-annihilation of the poet through a sympathetic identification of himself with his subject—whether a creature or a phenomenon—will be accomplished through the Imagination, immediately and intuitively”(Bate, 32) Essentially, the “imagination” is treated as a conscious mental exercise; Keats demonstrates this consciousness in the letters, and will also be examined and extracted from “Ode on Indolence”. Keats asserts that a poet who has no identity is certainly,”the most unpoetical of anything in existence; because he has no Identity – He is continually in for – and filling some other body – The Sun, the Moon, the Sea and Men and Women who are creatures of impulse are poetical and have about them an unchangeable attribute – The poet has none; no identity”(Cox, 295) The paradox that Keats presents in the excerpt becomes tangible within his poems, particularly those that exhibit a grand narrative, such as Lamia or the existing versions of Hyperion. The theory itself, when understood as a tool for writing is most apparent within the odes, especially “Ode on Indolence”, which can be viewed as an exposition of the writing function.To further authorize Keats’ conception of “poetical character”, he wrote to Richard Woodhouse on 27 October 1818, “When I am in a room with People if I ever am free from speculating on creations of my own brain, then not myself goes home to myself: but the identity of every one in the room begins to (for so) press upon me that, I am in a very little time annihilated”(Cox, 295). The poetical gift of self- annihilation, which, enables an artist to accept the opposites—the paradoxes and contradictions—of life, does not allow the poet to remain egocentric. Bate’s argument encompasses Keats’ previously disputed influences and assigns the states of being “characterless” to negative capability:“Such a manifestation of the poetic gift will be permitted only to the poet who possesses the quality of Negative Capability, who is himself characterless and without identity, who will not only tolerate but unhesitatingly welcome the obliteration of himself…This is the philosophy, not of Wordsworth or Milton, but of Shakespeare, and of Keats himself.”(Bate, 29)Bate supports Keats’s independence as both a poet and theoretical critic; negative capability, thus, provokes an individual to approach a text, both as reader and writer, with a suspension of identity and preconceived notions of self.In examining negative capability and poetic “non-identity” and its relation to writing, it is plausible to make a connection to poststructuralist thought, particularly that mandated by Michel Foucault. Keats’s theoretical conceptions lend themselves readily to a Foucauldian lens; What Is An Author? questions the precedence of the authorial identity in texts, just as Keats warrants the removal of “poetical identity” in the act of writing texts. Though Foucault places allegiance in structuralism as a more appropriate method for deconstructing text, the notion of “nothingness” that structures his essay is inherently poststructuralist. Jo-Anne Cappeluti’s publication, “For the Love of Nothing: Auden, Keats, and Deconstruction”, connects Keats’s ideals to those that belong to poststructuralist thought. She argues that,“Deconstruction by definition is an exercise of the intellect’s predilection to disprove and deny aesthetic experience. Deconstruction is in love with denying this “nothing,” but is seemingly unaware of how attempting demystification entangles the intellect all the more with the imagination.”(Cappeluti, 345)The “entanglement” between “intellect and imagination” can be interpreted as a supposition that regulates Romantic thought. Negative Capability is concerned with displacing intellect and personal speculations and substituting “non-identity” in its place. Indolence, as enacted in “Ode on Indolence”, requires the denial of “aesthetic experience”; to be in a state of indolence is to reject aesthetic thought and personal identity in order to experience “true poetry”. Keats, again in a letter to Reynolds, states that,“The Genius of Poetry must work out its own salvation in a man: It cannot be matured by law and precept, but by sensation and watchfulness in itself – That which is creative must create itself.”(Cox, 287)Just as negative capability does not endorse “law and precept”, neither can “The Genius of Poetry”. Text, particularly that which is creative, relies on itself for signification; absence of identity, absence of author are necessary in compiling a discourse or mode of thinking.Foucault, in his essay, explores the consequences of interpreting a text and dispossessing the author credited with that text. Similarly, “Ode on Indolence” is essentially a plea for authors to consciously enter a state of “indolence” to produce work; there must be an absence primarily, to initiate a presence. Foucault defines the function of writing as such:“The essential basis of this writing is not the exalted emotions related to the act of composition or the insertion of a subject into language. Rather, it is primarily concerned with creating an opening where the writing subject endlessly disappears.”(Foucault, 1477)Keats’s ode is nearly void of emotion; rather, the speaker abandons emotion, represented by the figures of Ambition and Love. “O folly! What is Love? And where is it?/ And for that poor ambition—it springs/ From a man’s little heart’s short fever-fit…”(lines 42-44) exclaims the speaker when he undergoes the realization that he unable to join them when experiencing indolence. Contrarily, the “demon Poesy” cannot be dismissed as easily. Keats is perhaps alluding to the necessary removal of self that grants access to “true poetic” thought; because the speaker cannot abandon Poesy, he is paradoxically inclined to desire and reject her. Keats found a mind associated with indolence, which was a narrow private path, not a “thoroughfare for all thoughts.”(Wigod, 390) Cappeluti also comments on the connection between poetry and a method of deconstruction:“Poetry invites this process, and deconstruction thrives on making nothing of it, but the answer lies in the power of language…Poets see language as a powerful means of engaging people in the aesthetic nature of being human.”(Cappeluti, 356)Cappeluti stresses the importance of human agency in the language of poetry. To conceive of indolence linguistically is to view it as not only a state that provides access to “Poesy”, but a space in which a poet can gain agency and a sense of humanism. It requires the removal and stripping of identity in order to enter indolence, and consequently experience aesthetic movement. Foucault, also emphasizes the primary need for “identity sacrifice”:“Writing is now linked to sacrifice and to the sacrifice of life itself; it is an obliteration of the self that does not require representation in books because it takes place in the everyday existence of the writer.”(Foucault, 1477)The “obliteration of the self” corresponds to the “self-annihilation” discussed earlier. Foucault is conscious of authorial sacrifice a wrier must make in order to produce a text; Keats’s negative capability can be perceived as an early method of deconstruction in this context, as it a facet that is manifest in the poet, rather than his work.Deconstruction envisions a state of mind in which inherently opposed and irreconcilable ideas exist simultaneously with no possibility of a synthesis, which can lead to certainties. Although Keats does not talk about irreconcilable ideas in the letters, uncertainties presume such a situation, while reason removes uncertainties to arrive at certitudes. In “Ode on Indolence”, the relationship between the speaker and Poesy can be defined as a relation among “irreconcilable ideas”. The idea of existing “inbetween” is characteristic of Keats in his letters, poems and theoretical discussions; this contradictory nature aims to alleviate any concrete regulations or conventions that categorize or organize poetry. Foucault’s argument encompasses the author, and his/her affiliation with “contradictions”:“The author serves to neutralize the contradictions that are found in a series of texts. Governing this function is the belief that there must be—at a particular level of an author’s thought, of his conscious or unconscious desire—a point where contradictions are resolved, where the incompatible elements can be shown to relate to one another or to cohere around a fundamental and originating contradiction.”(Foucault, 1484)Keats’ theory and its evidence in the ode is contradictory in itself, since it abstains from categorization, yet “coheres around a fundamental contradiction”; the poem tends to be declarative rather than dramatic, and narratively veracious rather than densely reflexive. The conclusion of the poem, whether influenced by biographical or more purely critical discourse, reveals its mission as Keats’s incapacity for or disillusionment with the exercise of the poetic imagination. Keats’s idea of the “chameleon poet” and application of negative capability is palpable in the ode. It is an attempt to expose that in “true poetry”, being invested in a suitable object obliterates the identity of the poet.Though poststructuralist and Foucauldian thought occur in literary criticism as a facet of the postmodern movement much later that Keats’s involvement in the Romantic movement, it is plausible to accept that Keats and his concept of negative capability aided in paving the way for such modes of thinking. Keats’s theory attempts to negotiate the turbulent relationship between intellect and imagination, “poetical character” and “non-identity”; as demonstrated, it is readily applicable to his poetic practice, in the form of “Ode on Indolence”. Keats’s other odes tend to thematicize ideas, rather than enact them, as “Ode on Indolence” demonstrates; just as exponents of Foucault’s essay and poststructuralist thought deny any identity to a text, Keats inherently denies any temperament and identity to the poet. Keats confronts the lived reality of the poetic spectacle, not just as an aesthetic space for displaying expression, but also as a coercive agent for invading and structuring modes of thinking and human consciousness.Works CitedBate, Walter J. Negative Capability. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1939. Print. Cappeluti, Jo-Anne. “For the Love of Nothing: Auden, Keats, and Deconstruction.” Philosophy and Literature 33.2 (2009): 345-57. Project MUSE. Web. 7 Dec. 2012.Cox, Jeffrey N. Keats’s Poetry and Prose: Authoritative Texts, Criticism. New York:W.W. Norton, 2009. Print.Foucault, Michel. “What Is An Author?” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. 2nd ed. New York: W. W. Norton &, 2010. 1475-490. Print.Ou, Li. “Chapter 1: Genealogy of Negative Capability.” Keats and Negative Capability. London: Continuum, 2009. 23-61. Wigod, Jacob D. “Negative Capability and Wise Passiveness.” Modern LanguageAssociation 67.4 (1952): 383-90. Print.

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