Time, art, and negative capability

I found my summers yesterday, in the fall, the whole of them blue-sky bound and strewn with wind. The oak and maple leaves weaved paths like a wandering needle as they settled to the ground, sun-curled and scattered. Meanwhile, the afternoon light shimmered in the shaking leaves like a mirage or a whispered poem.railway-autumn

Legs folded, I sat on a red Adirondack chair, looking at the backyard where I grew up. A few things were different. The white picket fence wasn’t there anymore. My brother and his friends had taken sledge hammers to it some hot day years ago, celebrated with beer, and piled up the boards like felled trees. A wire fence replaced it, rattling in the wind and squaring off the yard like the lines on a chess board.

My grandfather’s old table was gone too. It was old when I was a kid, gray like the weather had bleached the life out of it, while lichen and moss filled the cracks. I used to poke my finger through knotholes and wiggle it, like a worm, legs swinging too high to touch the flagstone patio where the table rested. I don’t know where that went. Maybe firewood. Maybe the soil behind the stand of hemlocks in the back.

There, on that old table, my neighbor and I built planes with computer paper from my dad’s old Macintosh. That’s gone too, or maybe buried somewhere in a dim corner of the basement, beneath rusted wrenches and coffee cans of old nails. Those days, before the wire fences went up, my neighbor would cut through our backyards and knock on our back door. We rarely called. I’d see him on our back step, his hair like a pile of feathers cemented under a baseball cap, and I’d steal the paper.

For the whole summer day, we’d sit out at that table, folding, and cutting, and throwing our planes when the wind blew. Sometimes they weaved, crashed, and tumbled on the ground like drunk pigeons. And other times, the wind caught the frail wings of our creations and carried them up into the blue, blue sky like birds chasing the sun, and we forgot that there were boundaries, forgot that there were fences and time limits.

Yesterday, sitting on that red chair, I found that joy again. I could see the table, the paper, and my neighbor folding planes beside me. Memories pooled in a puddle that never dried up. The images had a deep resonance, like the memory had bounced back from some distant place, bringing echoes as it returned. Time dissolved.

Then, the moment passed, as a gust brought a branch full of yellow leaves sailing down like a dozen paper planes, all weaving, and diving, and settling. I locked back into time again, like a wanderer suddenly brought back to the path.

Our linear timeline doesn’t fully capture what it means to remember and grow. But it’s the way we tend to look at things. A beginning, a middle, and an end. Somehow, A leads to B, and C follows after. From this linear path, we get views like progress and age. And our clock hands etch out schedules and precision points to meet for tea.

I once read that certain physicists consider time an illusion. Others agree. It’s a social construction imposed on the world. Meanwhile, some physicists see time as the measure of entropy, the tendency for everything to move towards “thermodynamic equilibrium.” This equilibrium is the theoretical inevitability imposed by the reality that every effort creates waste heat that builds up in the system. One day, all our helpful, focused energy will turn into lumpy, unprofitable warmth that will fill the universe and equalize the temperature.

Fortunately, that’s a long way off–if time is real, I mean.

Many psychologists also measure the elasticity of time–the way it seems to stretch or contract depending on the moment. One theory suggests that the “slow motion” effect people mention in tense moments occur because adrenalin causes neurons to fire faster, letting us take in more of the world. This makes time feel slower because we have to process more.

The way we measure time can shift our perspective as well. During most school years, between tutoring, working, and taking classes, time to me feels like an Excel spreadsheet. It’s a grid that girdles the hours and marks them off.

But when I camp, the days become a series of miles and colors on the horizon, the angle of the sun as it cuts through the trees, or the way it warms the back of my neck. Sometimes the feeling of the air as well. Time is more organic, loose, and gradually the hours lose their grips.

Martin Heidegger thought that time often works backward, at least the way we experience it. We project plans into the future and look back to our past to define and clarify those plans. Meanwhile, we adhere our presence to those plans, not really aware of the moment we live except by how it relates to this shuffling between future and past.

Then, those rare moments occur when we seem to lose time utterly. Indeed, we lose ourselves. One particularly beautiful monologue from Edmund in Eugene O’Neil’s Long Days Journey into Night puts it best I think:

I lay on the bowsprit, facing astern, with the water foaming into spume under me. Every mast with sail white in the moonlight – towering high above me. I became drunk with the beauty and singing rhythm of it – and for a second I lost myself, actually lost my life. I was set free! I dissolved into the sea, became white sails and flying spray – became beauty and rhythm, became moonlight and the ship and the high dim-starred sky. I belonged, without past or future, within peace and unity and a wild joy, within something greater than my own life, or the life of man, to Life itself! To God if you want to put it that way…

He goes on to describe the fall, too, the moment that locks us back into rhythm with the world:

Like a saint’s vision of beatitude. Like the veil of things as they seem drawn back by an unseen hand. For a second you see – and seeing the secret, are the secret. For a second there is meaning! Then the hand lets the veil fall and you are alone, lost in the fog again, stumbling on toward no where, for no good reason!

Eugene O'Neill at Cape Cod in 1922 (image courtesy of Wikipedia)
Eugene O’Neill (1888-1953) at Cape Cod in 1922 (Image courtesy of Wikipedia)

I suppose this is why we read literature: our lives turn over mysteries like old stones in an abandoned field, revealing the very ground of our being, naked, beautiful, and ugly all at once. And we need words to clarify this ground. We need images to echo how we feel. We need something to connect us to something deeper, like the human condition, so we feel less alone or less lost. We need something to explain things.

Moreover, this longing for explanation leads to a divided line. On one side lies science and philosophy, clarifying and categorizing reality as it probes the dusky expanse of our many-layered world. On the other side lies literature, music, and art, trying to capture those muted moments that seem halfway between the world and our own self, in some mirage-like middle ground.

Time is just one example. Physicists, psychologists, mathematicians, and philosophers try to discover what time means, how it works, why it effects us–if it even exists or not. Their language is clear, and their method is precise and analytical.

Meanwhile, O’Neill describes how it feels. O’Neill connects time to the human condition, to the poetry of life, straining language to construct something more eternal and universal that can capture our own fleeting experiences. As Faulkner once said in an interview, “The aim of every artist is to arrest motion, which is life, by artificial means and hold it fixed so that a hundred years later, when a stranger looks at it, it moves again, since it is life.”

These two realities can bleed together. Science can be just as beautiful and elegant as poetry. Art, too, can be philosophical. Nor do I think a hierarchy exists; one is not more important or “real” than the other. They are just different. But the very same critique Aristotle leveled against Pythagorus for tying to map the world in numbers holds true: you can’t quantify qualities. Something about the experience of a symphony refuses to be pinned down with precision.

Romantic poet John Keats noticed a similar duality.

John Keats (1975-1821), day dreaming as usual (Image courtesy of nndb)
John Keats (1975-1821), day dreaming as usual (Image courtesy of nndb)

One of the critiques that Keats leveled against poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge was that Coleridge placed knowledge and reason above beauty. For Keats, humans had a special capacity that he called “negative capability,” which allowed them to witness the world without understanding it, marveling at its beauty, transcending the limits usually imposed on us and reality. As he put it in a letter to his brothers, “Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”

In the backyard yesterday, I suppose I found that negative capability. The past and present entwined, held together with a profound beauty, and I transcended both. As I like to put it, the very pulse of life became audible, or as O’Neill described it, the veil of things as they seem drew back. Or, as William Wordsworth puts it in Tintern Abby, I saw “into the life of things.” And I didn’t reach after “fact and reason.” Instead, I reveled in the beauty.

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9 thoughts on “Time, art, and negative capability

  1. Ajaytao2010

    Nice reading about you

    Thanks for visiting my blog. Be in touch. Browse through the category sections, I feel you may find something of your interest.

  2. Excellent post, and I enjoy your writing very much…it is like a favorite book/lesson that I get to join in on…and the introduction to negative capability in your example of time was perfect. Thank you!

    1. You’re welcome!

      I appreciate the compliment. One of my greatest joys in life is telling other people about things that I find fascinating, so I’m glad they you enjoy it, too.

      -Brett

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