Saturday, March 12, 2016

Negative Capability and Donald Trump

They're opposites, obviously. It's just that if you don't know the meaning of the first, it appears to describe the latter. 
"Negative Capability" sounds like a diagnosis for whatever ails Donald Trump. But the poet John Keats was describing the state of mind that allowed him to write: "when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason."
 In other words, you don't judge whatever pours into your mind, you don't mind the contradictions and you don't wince at things that normally make you cringe or feel guilty. You don't try not to think those things. Uncertainty becomes a pleasure instead of a torment. You're in a state a layman might call Zen or even the Zone:  you just are. Then you write. Later, much later, your thoughts float back to earth and you start to edit. That's where Coleridge's notion of poetry as "emotion recollected in tranquility enters," the part where you say to yourself, "Oh, that line really sounds bad," or "I should maybe put this line at the beginning of the poem." But if you'd been doing the Coleridgeian thing while you were trying to do the Keatsian thing, you'd have impeded your intention to write that poem. 
Let's pretend we've never heard of Negative Capability. It does sound so The Donald. He's great at nixing any positive statement; he's wonderful at being negative. He so enjoys stirring up hatred. What would it take to make Donald Trump look and feel uncertain? Anyone capable of doing so might have a chance to deflate him. Have a wind machine blow out Trump's comb-over? He'd probably laugh that off. But there must be a way. Pundits, pundits, think: think as you have never thought before! Find a way to make The Donald doubt himself. Slip him a mickey? I suppose that's the only way, but such a move would come back to haunt the decent person who did it, and in the long run would probably not be enough to topple Trump
I suppose you've heard about the boy who fell through the ice and got rescued by a slightly older boy? The four year old who almost drowned grew up to be Adolf Hitler. The kid who rescued him grew up to be a Catholic priest. If I'd been standing on the icy banks of the river Passau armed with my knowledge of the flailing four-year-old's future, would I have let the kid drown? What if that kid had grown up to be Donald Trump?
Only the decent feel uncertainty. Poor Obama with his "uh . . .uh . . . ." laced through every CNN moment, poor CNN interviewers--I've never seen Amanpour tackle Trump in person, but maybe he's wise enough not to let her stare him down, because she's the only journalist who seems to me capable of doing so. The others turn to goo, or if they don't, their faces betray their disgust and shock. Their questions stumble, the "uh, ah," or the inability to speak distinctly damns them: the juggernaut force of his personality crushes them before they can ignite a spark of their own confidence.
The secret of Trump, that he never doubts himself, is an open one. He doesn't give a damn about anything--he is capable of ultimate negation, and if suicide became part of his game, he'd play that with panache, the way Hitler did, destroying himself as part of his grand finale. At the moment, the desire for pleasurable sensations keeps Trump alive as it kills what's left of American democracy. A philosopher might feel sorry for a guy like Trump, never experiencing the moment of uncertainty that makes you human. But as Dumbledore says to Harry, when Harry is thinking about Voldemort's childhood: "Harry, are  you actually feeling sorry for Lord Voldemort?"

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