Saturday, July 16, 2011

Negative Capability

Taking a little breather from talking, strictly speaking, about painting - this week I read South African novelist J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace. I have read Coetzee before. Years ago, I read Waiting for the Barbarians. I found it so repellent I've been avoiding him ever since. But my friend R C Speck recommended Disgrace, and finding that I was between novels, and owned a copy, I took his advice.

Disgrace is significantly less violent than Waiting for the Barbarians, but no less intensely depressing. Spoilers follow for the rest of this paragraph. A mediocre literature professor and idle womanizer in contemporary South Africa seduces one of his students. He winds up dragged before the university's administration, scorns to defend himself, and is forced to resign. He spends some time on his hippie daughter's farm in the country, feeling old and unloved. He volunteers at an animal shelter, helping to kill dogs. His daughter is raped by a trio of black South Africans, an attack during which he himself is set on fire and suffers minor burns. The daughter refuses to report the crime. He argues with her about it. He goes back to his city for a while, and begins writing an opera about Byron. He returns to his daughter. She is pregnant. They continue to quarrel. The opera flags. He resumes killing dogs.

Coetzee, in my limited experience of his work, seems to be a poet of the unprotected outlands, of the place where the hopes of civilization go to be defeated, and die. The defeat he describes is not a matter of a conflict fought and lost, but rather a murky overwhelming of frames of reference, ending with the exemplars of civilization abandoning whatever principles they thought they subscribed to, and colluding in their own destruction.

Overlying this political dimension of his work is a kind of physical-ontological dimension, a sense of decay, of dissolution, of an unfeeling wilderness rich in entropy gradually encroaching on the withered remains of humanity. He describes age in such a way as to make one hope to die young.

Let me be frank with you. I hate J. M. Coetzee and I object to every single thing he stands for.

Now, ordinarily, that's enough for me. But this week, during my correspondence with Steve Wright, he made this remark:

Freud's work ... [is] physically fierce and churning like life ... while still representing life in an illustration way. That's why it's so much more powerful than just a rendering and hits you so hard as great art (I mean to me, art is about expressing the pathos of Life on all wavelengths as strongly to the viewer as you can).

I am generally diplomatic about dislikes I have for living artists, but I think you may have figured out by now that I hate Lucien Freud. How I hate that man's work! And in fact, I hate Lucien Freud in a way very similar to the way I hate J. M. Coetzee. Like Coetzee, Freud's emotional spectrum runs all the way from revulsion to despair. Freud's people, like Coetzee's people, are overrun by age, by slackness, by the degeneration of the organism into a mass of uncoordinated, rampaging, short-lived impulses (on the spiritual plane) and globules of fat (on the physical plane).

Freud and Coetzee seem to me to represent a civilization - European civilization - already well into its senility, its intellectual impoverishment, its final collapse and disappearance from the face of the Earth. They indulge in the perversities, the voluptuous fantasies, of a dying culture. They fetishize their enemies, they abase themselves, they scrounge around for any scrap of aspiration remaining and, when they find it, they shit on it. I once saw a wildcat in the zoo. The cat had lost its mind, and paced a circuit round its cage with unvarying fidelity, so that the circuit was worn bare of grass. Freud and Coetzee are like this cat; they have refined the madness of this cat into art.

As I say, ordinarily this is enough for me. You know my work by now; you know how I think. I do not feel the pressure of time and decay any less than you, but when I look outward, I see things that are not yet corrupted. When I look inward, I see things that are not only uncorrupted, but incorruptible. My eye goes to these things - to beauty of form, to love, to clarity. I think these are worthwhile things; I think they are real things. If, like Coetzee's people, the day comes that I am no longer graced to behold or express these things, the failure will be mine, not theirs; they will still inhere in the nature of being, even if they do not reside in me.

I am warlike by nature. When Freud sees decay, he embraces it. When Coetzee sees injustice, he submits to it. For my part, I think that there is much in the world that deserves a strong beating on the head with a stick; and if I, and what I am for, are to go down, I should prefer to go down doing grievous damage to whatever is against me, and what I am for.

But this is who I am personally. Now we are at the doorstep of a concept I raised once before, my friend R C Speck's idiosyncratic description of negative capability:

The capability of the person partaking of a work of art to suspend ordinary ethical judgments in contemplation of the characters, actions, and ideas depicted therein.

I thought I was very good at negative capability. But finishing Disgrace over a bagel this morning, and recalling Steve's comment about Freud, I realized that really, what I'm good at is berating other people to show negative capability. Ordinarily this happens in the context of these other people objecting to some bit of artwork that I like - Sargent's Madame X, in the case of the original post on the subject.

When the topic is work that I personally object to, my negative-capability-fu is actually very weak. For instance, I have never liked early Scorsese. I dismiss him and his disgusting characters as the "cinema of bad people doing bad things to each other" - and this has been enough for me to not have to think about them. Who really gives a damn about Travis Bickle?

The same issue applies to Freud and Coetzee. I have systematically substituted one scale of judgment - the scale of ethics - for the appropriate scale of judgment - the scale of quality. You ask me, "Do you agree with Freud and Coetzee?" I shout, "Hell no!" But then you ask me, as Steve and Speck ask me, "Do Freud and Coetzee make work that is good - that, in passages, is great?" Then I mumble, "Uh, yeah, yeah, sure." You say, "I can't hear you." I say, "Yes, dammit, they really are quite good, sometimes great."

Disgrace is a dazzling performance, packing a stunning amount of resonance into an absolute minimum of narrative, of language. Freud's paintings are incredible achievements - those built-up surfaces which are, actually, excavations, zones of finite breadth but unbounded depth of information.

I do not like their work; I do not accept their work. Their work is not even recognizable to me, except in the faintest echoes - it does not correspond with points in my own territory, as the work I like corresponds. But if I'm to be serious about this negative capability business - and I think I must be, if I am to be serious about art itself - then I must reluctantly expand myself to make room for them as well. The work matches, point for point, the demands of art, and worse, it has the bloody mark of the truth on its lintel.


  1. Hmmmm....well I believe that art should be given a wide berth, but one doesn't have to be a great artist, or even a great, or very intelligent person to find the mark of truth, or even almost truth, or partial truth or half truth. And great artists spread their half truths across every medium they can find. But they did not create these mediums. Though they stumble onto even the less obvious truths, well they deserve the kind of thoughtful appraisal you are giving them here, because that is where they lack imagination. Their skill not withstanding....give 'em both barrels, I say.

  2. Thanks Jim! And what a pleasure to see you over here! I hope you have a plan to enjoy a good cigar today; and thank you for the comment. I try to bring both barrels to bear in every consideration - good advice, I think.

    Fred, if you're reading this, I'm not ignoring your previous comment, I'm just still mulling it over.

  3. It's funny how we as a society view truth. You hear phrases like "ugly truth", "sordid truth", "naked truth", "shocking truth", but less commonly "amazing truth", and never "beautiful" or "lovely truth".

    Characters like those you describe in Coetzee and Freud have the mark of truth, exaggerated perhaps. But so does, say, Cinderella - essentially good, overworked and underappreciated, who through a stroke of good fortune finally makes good. I mean, that happens: people like that exist, and quite a lot of them. Yet if I were to claim that a fairy tale had the mark of truth, I'd be laughed out of the building. Go ahead, laugh! Cause I'm claiming it.

    Truth isn't ugly, or beautiful, or anything. Truth is truth. Some people choose to focus on the ugly parts of truth, and others on the beautiful parts, but those who focus on the ugly don't have any better claim to "truthfulness" and are no more deserving of attention or consideration than those who focus on the beautiful.

    In my opinion, therefore, you are in the right place. You are able, perhaps with reluctance, to judge these artists fairly as great craftsmen, and to place their work correctly in the realm of good or even great art. But I do not agree that you need to make any more room for their body of work within your field of acceptance. Why should you?

  4. "finding that I was between novels" now that is a phrase to strike fear into my heart!

    And Oi! to us europeans being senile. Really do not think I can agree with you there. Oddly enough, most of the Freud-love I have come across has been american - although he commands high prices (generally from his uber-rich friends) I have yet to actually meet a working artist in Britain who whole-heartedly admires him. Although there is a kind of stunning repulsiveness and presence to them, which is even more apparent in the oil. Whereas, strangely, I find Jenny Saville's work breathtakingly beautiful, in the main.Where-in lies the difference? For me, I feel it is because Jenny feels her way into the skin of what she is painting, whereas Freud seems to be looking at a bug under a stone.

    Odd you should mention wildcats when I'm trying to figure out how to meet one. (I hope yours wasn't Scottish - they are getting pretty rare). The nearest in captivity is on the way to Aberdeen (about 3-4 hours away) and I'm not sure about the whole caged up thing. Hoping to see one in the wild is pretty unlikely . . .

  5. A young person shouldn't criticize an older one for what the elder has to say of decay or despair.

    I haven't read Coetzee so won't comment on that, but I think you are completely missing Freud's work. Only abstractions are incorruptible. Freud is depicting a kind of beauty that is much deeper and more complex than pretty people and pretty ideals, a beauty that survives in a hard and complicated world.

  6. Wow - this post seems to be more controversial than I anticipated. So -

    Synamore - your approach is entirely in character, and I will take your Cinderella truth claim at face value, because certainly this is true. As you know, I am working on a story which is neither a tragedy nor a comedy, and which I am calling an anti-tragedy.

    It is worth figuring out, I think, why the sad truths tend to produce more of a claim on our memories and emotions than the happy truths, which all too easily float away when we stop looking at them; at least in the realm of art - not in life, I am finding.

    I think I need to make room for them in my field of acceptance because their quality demands it. Do you see? What is the criterion for my acceptance? That I should agree? I don't agree with Raskolnikov, or with Hamlet - I don't even agree with Proust's Marcel. What distinguishes Marcel, whom I adore, from Coetzee's David Lurie, whom I abhor? Perhaps it is in my degree of sympathy with their outlooks and their vices. My sympathy with Lurie's vices is very low. But how is this a better criterion than that if the work cries out its legitimacy in every page, one must open the door to it? I think this truthfulness to the writing is the best criterion, because it will consistently challenge me the most to make myself larger. Coetzee contests my values more strongly than does Marcel, or even Raskolnikov (I'd sooner take an axe to an old lady than just let myself go like Lurie...). If my values come through intact, then my understand at least will have deepened, and moreover, if my values carry a price, then I'll know the price better. Sound reasoning, que non?

    Jane - oh dear! I forgot the internet didn't stop at Nantucket Sound! I'm sorry, and I didn't mean you Europeans are senile. I meant your civilization, tragically, is. From my perspective (separated by a pond), it took 4 years to machine gun it to death in a French field, and another 6, some decades later, to cremate it in a German bakery. The rest is inertial motion, gradually slowing under the force of friction.

    Although... I have been to Glasgow, and absolutely loved it, and I would be the first to hail another Adam Smith should Scotland produce one, and I very much hope it does. I would even settle for a David Hume.

    That is interesting that we Americans fall for Freud more than you do over there. I think it is the collectors, and not the artists, who primarily decide who gets taken seriously, so part of your objection seems a little beside the point.

    I don't much like Saville either! I think of her as Freud-lite. Maybe I should take another look.

    And my use of the term "wildcat" is very sloppy - it might have been any cat larger and more dangerous than a housecat. It was a very unhappy animal though. I hope you find yours, and that it is in better shape than mine. And I can't wait to see your paintings of it. The rest of you - Jane has some lovely paintings of cats up at:

    I am fortunate enough to have one of her cat paintings myself.


  7. [continued]

    And Fred - I'm still getting to your rock and roll comment! In the meantime: really? I might have said the same thing about Coetzee, a week ago, based only on "Waiting for the Barbarians." He published that when he was 40, so he was writing it in his late thirties. I am 35. Is it legitimate for a 35-year-old to criticize a 38-year-old's work on decay and despair? Eliot composed Prufrock in his early to mid twenties. Can I call bullshit on Eliot, with his rolled trousers, thinning hair, and bad digestion? I think that decay and despair are a point of view, which animates a writer regardless of age. Coetzee has always been an old man, even when he was a young man. What he says is true for him, but not for me. Not yet, anyway. And I hope my record will demonstrate that I will be the first to point out my errors when they become clear.

    Working my way around to Freud - Coetzee was famous for his anti-apartheid activism. This activism, I suspect, should be taken as a thing distinct from the novels. You would not finish a Coetzee novel and say, "I must go dismantle apartheid." They are too sophisticated for that - rather, you might come away inclined to curse the blacks and the whites alike. The books are too sophisticated to satisfy you with a villain who does wrong and is punished.

    The sophistication of Coetzee substitutes a profound and complex "justice" for the obvious and plain justice of doing good to those who have done good and bad to those who have done bad. His books are not actually recipes for justice. Justice has no place in them, in any recognizable form.

    Similarly, Freud's "beauty" is so sophisticated, from my perspective, that it is not beautiful at all. In fact, it is ugly. The hard and complicated world that you posit, I would counter-posit, doesn't actually exist. As we misplace the pencil in the water by back-tracing its light rays, so we imagine a hard world based on Freud's figures. This is the heart of what, to me, is Freud's propaganda, and one with which I vigorously disagree.

    I wouldn't have so much trouble with Freud's own take on people, if it weren't dressed up in this evangelism of the hideous. As I see his paintings, he is not finding beauty in the ugly, he is finding ugly in the beautiful and in the ugly alike. They all look like wobbly meat once they go through the Freud meat-grinder. And as I say, this would be alright - but Freud's overall manner seems to insist that this is The Truth. And I agree that it is A Truth, but I don't think it is The Truth. I think it is Freud's Truth, and that's as far as it goes.

    So we might just have to remain at loggerheads on this one! But if I come around to your point of view, I will be the first to admit it, and as ever, I am grateful for being forced to test my ideas against yours.

  8. I think I just don't see Freud's work the way you do at all. I don't see anything ugly or anything promoting an ugly world-view in them. There is no cynicism, no celebration of cruelty or dehumanization. I do find an ugly world-view in some other artists, including Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst.

    It seems to me that Freud loves looking at all sorts of people (and dogs), works at the act of perception with great intensity, and works at the craft of painting with rare passion. He often chooses subjects that are not conventionally beautiful, because he's interested in a beauty you have to look harder to see.

  9. We seriously see him differently, Fred! I would prefer to see him as you do, and obviously I'm working on making myself open to that - but so far, no dice.

    I was actually checking in here because I wanted to apologize to Jane - Jane, whatever my pessimism about Europe, I think I was very rude. Europe is also full of wonderful people, and is still producing marvelous things - like your work - and I'm very sorry I was such a jerk.

  10. Ah, pet. Actually, I was going to say that I wasn't sure that the Scottish people have ever become civilised enough (notwithstanding the Scottish Enlightenment) to become decadent - although there has been farming in the Orkneys for at least 5,000yrs.
    But there is something very brutish about talking about national characteristics - we are all different, and there is great variety in all cultures . . .

  11. I think we more or less agree on Disgrace in that it shows the tragedy of civilization being swallowed up not so much by incivility but by a vast population that does not respect civilization. You seem to focus on your revulsion for the characters in that novel, whereas I see the literature professor at least realizing his downward spiral too late and at least trying to stop it. That's where the tragedy comes in.

    He moves from being weak in a protected environment to being weak in an unprotected environment to making a last ditched effort to gain strengh and preserve notions of civilization. It is this third bit that makes the book worthwhile for me. That he gives up in the end is sad, made sadder by the little spark that appeared in the protagonist before it happens.

    Compare this novel with the film The Constant Gardener, which I hated perhaps as much as you hate Coetzee's characters. In this film, the main character never struggles against his fate. He just accepts it meekly, as if he deserves to be murdered in the desert. He is effete through and through.

    Defeatism is the moral of the Constant Gardener, where Disgrace, in my mind, serves as a warning against defeatism. That is a huge difference.

    I don't want to end up like that professor. So when I see elements of this world that disrespect civilization, I speak out about it. I fight. Disgrace, in part, inspires me to do this.


  12. Daniel, I stumbled upon this post a bit ago. Reading up on 'Negative Capability' I found that the definition offered herein is indeed idiosyncratic, but far more interesting than the Keats &co version of the concept.

    A friend and I were considering Steely Dan songs, and one question that comes up is whether or not the singer identifies with his ballad. There tends to be an assumption among commentators that this is always the truth (and for modern artists ballads seem to be completely auto-biographical) and this causes them to miss what the ballad is actually about. Especially if you consider 'Kid Charlemagne' and 'Deacon Blues'.

    But this is just to bring me to my question for you, asked quite late for the vintage of this post: Do you think negative capability as described herein requires, supposes or is merely aided by detachment?

    If we consider the song 'Deacon Blues' - the lyrics at a gloss suggest a man who has given up life in some kind of high-moneyed situation - maybe gambling or wall street - for jazz culture. The primary voice is of the man describing his escapades somewhat approvingly, but I detected very quickly a level of sarcasm that indicates irony. In this case, irony leads me to a conclusion of detachment, and of negative capability - the singer is able to adopt the voice of this man who has taken on a destructive lifestyle or is going to and idolizes it while being able to make it clear enough how ridiculous this position is.

    Does setting aside the ethical concerns mean (do you think) 1: ability to detach one's self from morality/ethics (the primary presupposition) or 2: ability to set aside morality and ethics in a depiction by detaching from the immoral/unethical actions of the character? Or are both possible?

    And I guess, can this then demonstrate the maxim 'hate (disdain) the sin, not the sinner' in action by sympathizing with the character while not condoning his actions?

  13. I actually don't believe in detachment at all, but rather that the serious artist should engage in doublethink, at different phases of the project if necessary - total empathy with the character, and total detachment/narratorial perspective. Where the actual balance or overlay lies in the finished work depends on the needs of the work and the character of the artist, but without the empathy, I think the work leaves crucial material unexplored. This is why I find it particularly difficult to read things like "Lolita," because as a reader, I also believe in a high degree of identification.

  14. Hm, well I suppose there is a reason that the word 'hypocrite' has history as being a word for actors, and not merely 'pretenders' in the pejorative.

    Still, the ability to use one's own admitted doublemindedness to extend compassion, seems somewhat of a good turn.

    Perhaps it is this dichotomy of identification/detachment which is neither consistently simultaneous nor mutually exclusive that makes biographical ballads so hard to parse. You try to read the artist into the ambiguities, but the map is incomplete.

    I am told that old 'perfect' cyphers were those that had errors, or noise, in the encryption. This noise could only be removed by someone who had additional knowledge - like a secondary key, if you will. So even if you tried to decode it by matching key decodings against real words, your match would always be incomplete. The key needn't be something complex, deep or esoteric; it might just be a kind of turing test.

    Caught myself in a ramble. Thanks for the response!