One day, more than a decade ago now, I was on my commute fretting about how a boundary I wanted to establish would make me An Asshole in everyone’s eyes including my own. And as I was driving along, for the first time ever I thought, “Well then, I’ll just be an asshole.” Like Huck Finn saying, “Well, then, I’ll go to hell,” when he committed to help his friend escape slavery, except I didn’t think about that at the time.
I also didn’t expect the curious sensation that followed, as if my soul had been trailing out 10 feet in front of me and was suddenly sucked back in my body. And just as suddenly, I had more power to take care of my daily business, like I’d been trying to do calligraphy with a selfie stick before. The sensation was short-lived; but also, I never forgot it.
Occasionally I’m reminded just how much of the business of living I’ve conducted at this kind of remove from myself. I was reminded again this morning while reading Morning Prayer; on Wednesdays there’s always a section of Psalm 119, and today it was in the morning psalm slot. More often than not I find reading this psalm tedious, though I know it rewards deep study, but this morning I did a thing I often do and read she/her pronouns for the Psalmist. And I read: “How shall a young woman cleanse her way?/ By keeping to your words.”
It gave me a pang on two levels. One was a memory, of cycles and years of weeks in which my friend V and I would pray Psalm 91 at Compline (also on Wednesday, now I think about it) with she/her pronouns for the Psalmist.
“She who dwells in the shelter of the Most High/ abides under the shadow of the Almighty./ She shall say to the LORD, “You are my refuge and my stronghold,/ my God in whom I put my trust.”…”Because she is bound to me in love, therefore will I deliver her;/ I will protect her, because she knows my Name./ She shall call upon me, and I will answer her;/ I am with her in trouble; I will rescue her and bring her to honor.”
I miss Virginia all the more when I remember these things. But the other reason I felt a pang was that I was all the more aware of how much of my worship through the years has been done with my soul trailing out 10 feet in front of me. Like I have to animate a ghost out there who can pretend that any of this is about them. The ghost can feel any feelings required in the moment, can say of male POVs in the Bible, “This is a story of me,” can be included round the fire with Jesus’s disciples, can witness, can tell good news.
But if there’s anything I’ve learned from this plague year, it’s that there are things going on back at the ranch. With a few pronouns I reel my soul back in to survey the scene, and there are things going on; there always have been. Not just angry victimy things, but rich things; wondering things; measuring things; delighting things. This is, after all, the place where I write from, where I craft verisimilitude with a loupe and tiny chisel. This is my workshop of making, making life and the image of it.
I can’t say it’s not been useful to me, sending my soul out on regular EVAs to read books that aren’t about me, sing songs that aren’t about me, pray prayers that aren’t about me. The structure of scientific revolutions needs data. Empathy needs data too. Keats dignified this practice and process with the term “negative capability,” which was never a set of words I thought very accurate, but I knew what he meant. I don’t think it’s negative, because when you do it you’re reaching for something, for belonging, for affirmation, for acquaintanceship. And can it be a capability if you have to do it to survive?
Keats came fairly close to having to; he wasn’t rich, he was riddled with tuberculosis, and he was on the wrong side of a few too many mean tweets. He also spoke meditatively in a letter to a friend about the “gordian knot of complications” involved in his own misogyny that he wasn’t sure what to do about. So it just goes to show how useful “negative capability” can be.
(Why the hell am I talking so much about Keats these days? He wasn’t even my favorite Romantic.)
Writers such as Seanan McGuire and N.K. Jemisin have talked more pithily about the backlash that often results when we write from our own POVs, about how truly resentful some people are that they might have to exert some negative capability to read a good book, as if negative capability is a towering virtue and stooping condescension for them and an inherent moral obligation for everyone else. And it’s clear that they perceive the obtrusive POVs of others as such a threat that they are willing to commit sedition, conspiracy, and treason against their own country. I mean, none of this is surprising, though it is shocking and angering. It’s just…really? It’s that hard? It’s that painful? It’s that insulting?
I mean, you’re dealing with people who, if they know anything, know how to project their soul outward to understand things that aren’t about them. If you’d asked for imagination and compassion and fellow-feeling, you’d have got it. But what you want is to be hermetically sealed away from any sign that those other people have souls, like it burns you to know that. And you hope to kill their bodies by not wearing a mask, too. Or by quicker methods, if you’re impatient enough.
It’s an impossible thing for you to have, even if we wanted to give it to you. Which we don’t. You’re an asshole and you haven’t figured out how to choose otherwise.
But negative capability is for everyone. Positive capability is for everyone too.
Here endeth the lesson.