I first met Yeats’s immortal lines from ‘The Second Coming’ on Lou Reed’s ugly, vitriolic and thoroughly entertaining Take No Prisoners 1978 live album. Speeding off his face, Lou says ‘The best lack all conviction and the worst are filled with a passionate intensity. Now you figure out where I am.’
Ever since I heard those lines, they’ve bothered me. Because most of the time I lack conviction and when I’m filled with a passionate intensity, I embarrass myself. Today, when we spend so much time in Screenworld, promoting ‘Brand Me’, pumping out gloatagraphs of our supposedly rosy-wosy lives, it seems that passionate intensity is electric oxygen. Which leaves me lacking even more conviction.
I've never been able to figure out which one I am.
It’s no coinkydinky, I’m sure, that the word ‘passion’ is flung around with such gay abandon in Screenworld. If we’re passionate about sandwiches, let’s say, we believe we have a better chance of registering our presence in Babble-on. The fact that being passionate about absolutely everything makes nothing especially important doesn’t seem to matter.
‘Tell me, are you more passionate about balsamic chicken and avocado or vaccinating every child in the Yemen?’
To have a chance of making yourself heard in Screenworld means appearing to be 100% certain you’re right in whatever opinion you’re expressing. But it leaves you with nowhere to go, which is why so many Facebook threads and comments areas on blogs are filled with such strident declarations – before they descend into abuse.
So why don’t we exercise our power of ‘negative capability’?
Romantic poet John Keats first used this phrase in 1817 to describe the capacity shared by Shakespeare and other great writers of ‘being in uncertainties. Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.’
Incidentally, ‘Negative capability’ inspired Walt Whitman’s most wonderful ‘Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself; (I am large, I contain multitudes.)’
F Scott Fitzgerald, himself a devotee of Keats, said ‘The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.' But Keats and Whitman weren't referring to intelligence. They were talking about empathy.
Because when we empathise with other people it’s much harder to judge them. Which means it's not so easy to cling to our own ossified certainties. Exercising negative capability opens the way to changing things for the better.
And the good thing is that empathy can be learned.