UNDER THE INFLUENCE #6, NEGATIVE CAPABILITY
written by Kurt Baumeister November 9, 2018
Wherein Thaisa Frank discusses Laurence Sterne, Samuel Johnson, and the Throne of Bolivia; Bill Lessard muses on Charles Baudelaire, pin-up; Hank Cherry lauds the realism and self-promotion of Denis Johnson; Jennifer Spiegel declares her love for Elena Ferrante; Jessie Janeshek praises Djuna Barnes’s vast stylistic range; and Seb Doubinsky lauds demigod of letters Michael Moorcock for showing him how to channel anger into literature. I will return at the end with some thoughts on negative capability in its various forms. For now, read, please…
by Seb Doubinsky
Paris, 1983. I was twenty years old and full of rage. The West was stuck in a cold war against the Communist bloc, and Reagan and Thatcher had declared an economic civil war on their own citizens. I was desperately seeking in literature what punk gave us in music: relevance. When a friend gave me his used copy of Michael Moorcock’s The Lives and Times of Jerry Cornelius, it was exactly the amphetamine shock I needed to inspire me to write not about or for, but against. Against comfortable literature, comfortable politics, and the comfortable image of the writer him/herself.
Seb Doubinsky is a bilingual French writer, born in Paris in 1963. His novels are dystopias which revolve around a City States parallel universe. His new novel, Missing Signal, was released this summer through Meerkat Press.
by Jessie Janeshek
At 19, I bought a hot pink copy of Nightwood and a used copy of The Book of Repulsive Women that, complete with Barnes’ black and white fin de siècle-esque illustrations, replicated the 1915, 15-cent original release. Years later, it’s hard to decide which book has had a more profound effect on my writing. Nightwood still fills my mind, a vast maze of language cast in neon fuchsia; yet the crisp rhythms of Repulsive Women are there, too, depicting femininities both stark and decadent. As someone always writing about odd women at odds with their worlds, I love Barnes’ succinct and tender “Suicide[s]”: “Corpse A,” “a little bruised body like/A startled moon” and “Corpse B” who “lay…like some small mug/Of beer gone flat.”
Jessie Janeshek’s second full-length book of poetry is The Shaky Phase (Stalking Horse Press, 2017). Her chapbooks are Spanish Donkey/Pear of Anguish (Grey Book Press, 2016), Rah-Rah Nostalgia (dancing girl press, 2016), Supernoir (Grey Book Press, 2017), Auto-Harlow (Shirt Pocket Press, 2018), and Hardscape (Reality Beach, forthcoming). Invisible Mink (Iris Press, 2010) is her first full-length collection. Read more at jessiejaneshek.net.
by Jennifer Spiegel
I have Ferrante Fever. First, the intimacy. I want my writing to be crazy candid. To get inside minds. To be revealing, ugly, beautiful, human. Ferrante does it! The Neapolitan Quartet is breathtakingly intimate. There’s something rollicking, frenetic, and true about its progression. It’s also addictive. Second, I’m intrigued by her separation of Art from Artist, her rejection of celebrity. Frantumaglia, interviews granted through writing, explores the idea that books live apart from their writers—and that’s so alluring to me, especially on the verge of Book Promo Season. I agree, but I’m, like, I can’t! She’s my brilliant friend. (I mean, she’s not, but we could be. Call me, Elena!)
Jennifer Spiegel is the author of Love Slave (a novel) and The Freak Chronicles (stories). She is also part of Snotty Literati, a book-reviewing team, with Lara Smith. And So We Die, Having First Slept, a novel, will be published in December 2018 by Five Oaks Press. For more information, visit www.jenniferspiegel.com.
by Hank Cherry
A photojournalist friend once told me how he discovered Denis Johnson. He’d met a man on a bench in Iowa and asked for reading suggestions. The man told him to read all the Denis Johnson he could because Johnson outlined our corrupt universe with spectacular, poetic honesty. The best part of the story, though, is that the man on the bench, the man promoting Denis Johnson, was Johnson himself.
My own internal struggles led me to Johnson’s collection Jesus’ Son, where even his most ravaged characters displayed absolute humanity. “Talk into my bullet hole,” he wrote in the story “Steady Hands at Seattle General,” “tell me I’m fine.”
Hank Cherry is now a fiction writer, photographer, journalist, and documentarian. He has been a cook, a bike messenger, a ranch hand, unemployed, and a bar owner. His work has been nominated for the Best of the West Journalism awards, a Pushcart, and as a notable story for the Best American Mystery Stories. His poetry has been published internationally.
by William Lessard
Charles Baudelaire’s picture used to be taped to the wall facing my bed. That postcard with several generations of yellowed tape at the corners was the last thing I saw at night and the first that greeted me each morning. Today, the postcard is gone, but I feel those eyes on me every night I sit down to work.
Was there ever a better summation of what is at stake for a writer than the closing lines of “At One O’clock in the Morning” from Paris Spleen – “And you, my Dear Lord, give me the grace to produce a few beautiful verses so I may prove to myself that I am not the worst of men, that I am not inferior to those whom I despise”?
William Lessard is a writer and critic based in New York. His work has appeared in McSweeney’s, Brooklyn Rail,Hyperallergic, Prelude, and PANK. It has also been featured at MoMA PS 1. With Mary Boo Anderson, he is editing the Brooklyn edition of the Cities project for Dostoyevsky Wannabe. He is poetry and hybrids editor at Heavy Feather Review.
by Thaisa Frank
Laurence Sterne wrote Tristram Shandy, which Dr. Johnson called “the greatest shaggy-dog story in the English language,” when he was heavily in debt and his wife was convinced she was the Queen of Bolivia. The wit and sense of absurdity it took Sterne to survive unify a book that might otherwise have become pure entropy: the title character, Tristram Shandy, isn’t born until halfway through the book; one chapter is a big black square; at another point, Sterne stops the story explaining he’s lost his voice. I was mesmerized by the wit and inventiveness of Sterne’s self-referential narrator. Much like Rabelais, who believed his patients were cured by laughter, Sterne believed the purpose of art was purely to entertain. The ecstasy of his voice freed me from the burden of delivering a message.
Thaisa Frank’s fifth book of fiction, Enchantment (Counterpoint Press, 2012) was selected for Best Books by theSan Francisco Chronicle. Her novel, Heidegger’s Glasses (Counterpoint Press 2010, 2011) was translated into 10 languages. New work appears in New Micro (Norton 2018) and Short-Form (Bloomsbury2018). She is a member of the San Francisco Writers Grotto.
The term negative capability seems like it could mean many things. Vaguely provocative, its literary use comes to us from Keats, referencing Shakespeare and dissing Coleridge in turn:
…I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason…
Keats was alluding to Shakespeare’s dramatically unmatched (and prototypically novelistic) ability to pose questions without answering them. In this, in Keats’s estimation, Coleridge’s inability to stop short of perfect resolution left him wanting.
But there are many other things negative capability could mean, some of them suggested by this month’s contributions:
Negative capability: The ability to draw a positive result from that which angers us or that which we hate. (See Doubinsky and Lessard above.)
Negative capability: The ability to shamelessly promote oneself without seeming like a total a-hole. (See Cherry above.)
Negative capability: The ability to do the opposite of what one did in the first place and do it equally well. (See Janeshek above.)
Then, for me, there’s an additional meaning relating back to Seb Doubinsky’s praise of Michael Moorcock.
Negative capability: The ability to come to the same conclusion as Seb Doubinsky, that Michael Moorcock is a great writer, for entirely different reasons…
The last ruler of a dying empire, Moorcock’s character, Elric of Melnibone, is a physically weak, sickly albino. Also a dope fiend of sorts (albeit from an alternate reality/sword and sorcery context), Elric kills and/or betrays just about everyone he ever loves. He doesn’t simply kill them, though. Rather, Elric’s vampiric, black broadsword Stormbringer sucks out the souls of his victims (friends and enemies alike) and feeds them back to Elric as temporary physical prowess, which is the only way he can even temporarily kick his addictions. Not only a swordsman, Elric is a powerful sorcerer with a patron demon, the Chaos Lord, Arioch.
Most important, or perhaps most shocking from a traditional literary standpoint, Elric, even though he is and does all these rather unsavory things, even though he often does the bidding of powerful, evil beings such as Arioch, is also undoubtedly a hero. Do I mean antihero? Sure, maybe, why not, who cares?
Point being the word “hero” is in there somewhere. Point also being that terms like antihero and antivillain are fun to play with, to consider as a sort of philosophical parlor game, but they fail to get at the motivations of real people and, for that matter, even the sort of well-constructed doppelgangers we find in fiction.
Among other things, reading Moorcock taught me that at least in fiction, evil can be good. Or, perhaps better put, that evil and good aren’t real strictly speaking, that we each contain an admixture that changes in potency and tone as we live our lives. Even if we’re dispossessed, sorcerous, albino kings armed with vampiric broadswords we’re never all bad. Nor, no matter how noble we might seem from the outside or think ourselves, are we ever all good.