1. Tempered Definition

What is an “artistic temperament”? How do artists who seem as though they are very nice people (if known on a personal level) sometimes create horrific and dark works of art? To answer, we must define negative capability. 

John Keats’ explanation of negative capability is one of the clearest. When writing about the “poetical character,” he explains that there is no such thing as a “poetical character”: 

“As to the poetical Character itself … it is not itself—it has no self—it is every thing and nothing—It has no character—it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated—It has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen.”

He then goes on to speak of the poet as a “chameleon.” The poet imitates the truth that he sees. He does not have to like or dislike the truth. In order to ring true with other persons, the artist must depict what is “there” (either literally “there” or “there” in the human imagination): 

 What shocks the virtuous philosop[h]er, delights the camelion Poet…. A Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no Identity—he is continually in for—and filling some other Body—The Sun, the Moon, The Sea and Men and Women who are creatures of impulse are poetical and have about them an unchangeable attribute—the poet has none; no identity….”

The poet has no identity of his own (as a poet). When Keats says that “a Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence,” he means that the artist is the least artificial. He does not impose his personal virtue or personal judgements on his subject in terms of writing prescriptions to the world. To the extent that the artist depicts something which he believes to be “wrong” (such as rape, for example), his depiction of the act or thing as “wrong” will only resonate as long as other people also believe that it is “wrong.” To the extent that the artist depicts his own aspirations for the world or for humanity (or society or any other collective), those aspirations will only resonate if they are vaguely shared by many other people. 

The artist who writes about himself will face a conundrum that will hinder his development; he will only be able to proceed with his career as an artist if he is able to overcome it. 

The conundrum is, roughly: “when I am done writing about myself, what else will I write about? I cannot write about myself and myself alone for ever.” The distinction then has to be made between: “am I writing about myself and my own identity” on the one hand and “ am I writing about common subjects and objects which I sees from the perspective of my individual point of view?” on the other. If I choose the former then I consign myself to irrelevance very quickly. If I choose the latter, then I stand a chance at contributing an individual point of view to the anthology of human experience. 

Choosing the latter is not enough. It is simply a prerequisite attitude of being an artist which has been demonstrated to be prerequisite by the example of the great artists who have come before us. Once one chooses this attitude, one also has to learn the craft and means of imitation and, most importantly, one has to develop a sensitivity for sifting through the madness in order to find a line or a way to the objects and subjects which should be presented or illuminated. 

How, then, are artists different from certain animals who excel at mimicry?

Take the example of The raven. Ravens imitate the speech of human beings and also the tone of their speech with great fidelity and accuracy. These birds also mimic other noises, like car engines, toilets flushing, and animal and the birdcalls of other birds. Ravens have been observed to imitate wolves or foxes in order to attract them to a carcass of an animal that the raven finds but isn’t capable of breaking open on it’s own. When the wolf is fed, the raven swoops in and feasts on the leftover meat. The fact that this bird is able to imitate animals such as wolves and other birds is a testament to the accuracy of it’s mimicry. The wolves and other birds are not reasoning creatures. Like the raven, they are driven only by natural instinct and not by anything which is not found in nature or learned by instinct. There is no “convincing” a wolf of anything. The imitation is either “believable” (ie recognized as part of it’s nature) or not. Ravens quickly learn the sounds that exists in their environment in order to scavenge. The raven (just like every other animal) cannot reasonably be regarded as “evil” or “deceitful.” Any characterization which human beings place on animals is a characterization of attributes which are human. 

The examples of cycles that consist of jealously, deceit and murder which we will explore in this chapter are human cycles within the human world and the behaviors which we will cite are human behaviors. The raven is true to it’s nature when it mimics in order to hunt. The words that the raven imitates are meaningless to the raven. They are sounds. The car engine, too, is not a “car engine” to the raven. It is a sound. The raven does not know what the “wolf” (as we have termed it) is a wolf. The raven does not know that it is a “raven.”

The meaning that results from study and definition are the sole province of human beings. In terms of this meaning, the raven is a vacuum. It is a void which might be terrifying to human beings but it is not terrifying to itself. It is as natural as the motion of an avalanche or a volcano erupting. Nature has a meaning which is it’s own and which is not answerable to human definition. Humanity is, in fact, a small part of that self-sufficient “meaning.” 

The difference between the poet and the raven is simple. The raven’s imitation is practical. The poet’s imitation is playful. Shigeru Miyamoto put it in the following terms. 

“Anything that is impractical,” says Miyamoto, “can be play. It’s doing something other than what is necessary to continue living as an animal.”

These are absolutely basic terms. It is necessary to eat and drink. It is not necessary to make a cup for drinking or learn about the elements that make up the water or juice which we drink. Science is not necessary. Art is not necessary. Learning, in general, is not necessary. Learning is, however, vital to our nature as human beings. 

In that sense, learning is both essential and necessary. It is not essential and necessary to our survival as animals. It is essential and necessary to our humanity. “When it comes to other animals, they play to prepare themselves for hunting,” says Miyamoto. He continues: 

“If you ask me why human beings play, well, I just don’t know. It must be just for pleasure. We generate chemicals in our brain so that we can have some pleasure, and by now we’ve come to understand that pleasure makes you happier, and being happier makes you healthier.” 

Miyamoto is correct but let us take a step back in order to add something to his reasoning. What must happen in order for us to have that pleasure that Miyamoto refers to? The pleasure is the effect. What is the cause of this effect? What is the cause of our pleasure? 

“Poetry in general seems to have sprung from two causes,” says Aristotle in the Poetics, “each of them lying deep in our nature.” These causes which lie deep in our nature are: 

“First, the instinct of imitation is implanted in man from childhood, one difference between him and other animals being that he is the most imitative of living creatures, and through imitation learns his earliest lessons; and no less universal is the pleasure felt in things imitated. We have evidence of this in the facts of experience…”

Aristotle says the same about an instinct for harmony: 

“Next, there is the instinct for ‘harmony’ and rhythm, metres being manifestly sections of rhythm. Persons, therefore, starting with this natural gift developed by degrees their special aptitudes, till their improvisations gave birth to Poetry.”

We can view this instinct for harmony as being the imitation of “unseen shapes.” We “hear” and sense these shapes through the harmonic vibrations all around us on earth (they are present throughout the known universe). In any case, the cause is the same or, to use Aristotle’s words: “The cause of this again is, that to learn gives the liveliest pleasure” 

In both cases, the same is true: we learn. Learning is the cause of our pleasure.

Miyamoto is also right when he concludes that “by now we’ve come to understand that pleasure makes you happier, and being happier makes you healthier.” We do not need to understand the physiological aspects of the endocrine system and study the effects of stress on the body in order to understand that this statement is true. It is human nature to learn and to play (to recreate the mind). An animal that resists it’s nature (of which humans are the only example) is fighting it’s nature. That is a surefire strategy. What results is not simply unhappiness but self-destruction. 

The raven imitates to hunt. The human being imitates to play. There is utility and inherent natural function  to the raven’s imitation; it is practical. The human being imitates for impractical reasons. Curiosity never really did kill a cat. Human beings ascribed a character to the cat. Curiosity has, however, killed or damaged many human beings. That’s why the expression is so handy to us. The expression, of course, means nothing to cats who could simply “not care less.”

Here is the basic definition of Science:


      1. Knowledge.
      2. Certainty grounded on demonstration.
      3. Art attained by precepts, or built on principles.
      4. Any art or species of knowledge.
      5. One of the seven liberal arts, grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, music, geometry, astronomy. is well as  of learning 

Here is the basic definition of Philosophy (literally “love of knowledge”): 


      1. Knowledge natural or moral.
      2. Hypothesis of system upon which natural effects are explained.
      3. Reasoning; argumentation.
      4. The course of sciences read in the schools.

The basic definition of art involves the making of things:  


  1. The power of doing something not taught by nature and instinct; as, to walk is natural, to dance is an art. 

    Or the study of things which are made (which is a science): 

  1. A science; as, the liberal arts.

The first case involves learning (by doing something which is not taught by nature or instinct). The second case involves learning (by learning about what is made through art). 

The purpose of these disciplines are the same and can be expressed as follows:

Discipline: Science

Purpose: to learn; to know; to seek out the truth

Discipline: Art
To learn; to know; to seek truth

Discipline: Religion/Theology/ Free Thought 

To learn; to know; to seek truth. 

In a strict sense, Philosophy is common to all of these things. Knowledge is sought by those who love knowledge. The demonstration of their love for knowledge is that they seek it out and produce results that demonstrate their accomplishments or, at the very least. their attempts. No true lover of knowledge obscures knowledge by spreading lies or confusion. 

Knowing this is essential to making real connections and inquiries within art and into art. The fundamental difference between knowledge obtained from art and knowledge attained through other disciplines is that artistic knowledge is attained through making; through invention. But one must still study and know and think critically. The notion that art is a natural event and that artists who engage in criticism and speculation about their own work or the work of others (or the universe) are “didactic” or “philosophers” is wrong. Artists as diverse as Ai Wei Wei, Bernstein, Rand, Auden DaVinci and Coleridge (and many others) have been defined as “philosophers” or “social thinkers” or “activists” (among a host of many other things. Their research, contemplation and critical thought is not a by-product. It is essential to the making of art. 

Realizing this is also useful to audiences or users of works of art. This knowledge is the difference between falling for superficial connections and understanding the real human knowledge contained in the art. 

Picasso illustrates both points clearly: 

“Futhermore, it is the realization alone that counts. From this point of view it is true that cubism is Spanish in origin and that it was I who invented cubism. We should look for Spanish influence in Cézanne. He was well on the way; observe El Greco’s influence on him, a Venetian painter. But he is cubist in his construction.

“But all this is a matter of outer garb and you cannot invent something you don’t know!

The artist must realize something (or see something) in order to expresses anything. There is no simpler way to put this: “you cannot invent something you don’t know.”

One knows something. One then expresses that thing. This is what is meant (or should be meant) when we hear that that an artist “has something to say.” If you see something, say something. 

It’s that simple (in principle). What, then, makes the study of history a science while artworks (even those which depict historical events) are works of art? The words history and story (or tale) are similar and, if one looks at the French word for tale (as used, for example, in Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du soldat or The Soldier’s Tale), the proximaty is clear. Here is the definition of “history”:

HISTORY  (HI’STORY)   n.s.[   historia, Latin; histoire, French.]

  1. A narration of events and facts delivered with dignity.
  2. Narration; relation.
  3. The knowledge of facts and events. 

Here are Shakespeare’s Histories. They were categorized as such in the first folio of his works: 

King John

Edward III

Richard II

Henry IV, Part 1

Henry IV, Part 2

Henry V

Henry VI, Part 1

Henry VI, Part 2

Henry VI, Part 3

Richard III

Henry VIII

These categories of the first folio have been set and accepted (with good reason) for centuries). “Contributors” on Wikipedia have nevertheless added six of the Tragedies to two new categories: “Roman Histories” and “Other Histories.”   

Of particular note is the line about Titus Andronicus:

“Set in ancient Rome, Titus Andronicus dramatizes a fictional story and is therefore excluded as a Roman history.” 

The category of “Roman History” was created and then immediately contradicted leading to further subdivision (Titus Andronicus does not actually receive a “category” as a result thus I assume that it reverts to being a “Tragedy” as the folio says; this means that the circular exercise is pointless).

But it is understood that Titus Andronicus is a play. Plays do not “dramatize” anything. They are drama. This is understood about all of Shakespeare’s plays and all of every play that we attend to in a theater.

In any case, setting doesn’t matter. Setting does not affect whether something is a drama or not. The USS Starship Voyager encounters the Videans, a race that suffers from a deadly virus (the Phage) on stardate 48532.4. Star Wars is set “a long time ago in a Galaxy Far, Far Away.” Johann Herman Wessel’s 1781 play called Anno 7603 is set in the year 7603. In Mark Twain’s 1889 novel called A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, a man from Twain’s own time (the 19th Century) travels back to 528 AD. And in an episode called Times Arrow, (Star Trek The Next Generation) the crew of the Star Ship Enterprise is transported from their own present time (2369) to San Francisco in the year 1893 where they run into Mark Twain. 

Henry IV by Shakespeare is a play and a poetical work. The second edition (1587) of Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles, and Edward Hall’s The Union of the Two Illustrious Families of Lancaster and York are two acknowledged chronicles of history (The knowledge of facts and events) that Shakespeare turned to as sources for his play. Holinshed was a Chronicler and Hall was a lawyer, Member of Parliament and Historian while Shakespeare was a bard. The 1997 film Titanic (James Cameron) may be regarded as a history in the first two meanings of the word (1. A narration of events and facts delivered with dignity and 2. Narration; relation) but it is known to be a poetic work ( something which is made) and not a history or chronicle (concerned with relaying knowledge of the facts and events).

How do we know these things? How do we sift through these subtle differences with ease? The answer to both questions has to do with meaning, reason and common sense. These senses are the reason why, when we  say that we are going to the theater to see Henry the II, we are not understood to be saying that we are going attend the play in an operating theater. 

This (and many things which would otherwise require long-winded explications) is understood. It is understood implicitly without us having to explain the details. 

What can we know from art that we cannot know from science? The answer is to be found as follows (I have built upon inquiry by W. H. Auden which I will return to in the final lesson). 

I go in to see my physician. After a skin test, an x-ray and a blood test my doctor ells me that I have  been infected with Tuberculosis. The doctor can make this diagnosis because of the fact that he knows the bacteria in question (Mycobacterium tuberculosis bacteria), can recognize it. As it turns out, he can  also prescribe a treatment. 

The doctor can know and study the mycobacterium tuberculosis. The mycobacterium, cannot and does not know the doctor. 

Any subject which is studied scientifically cannot also study the scientist. The historian can study the Battle of Hastings. The Battle of Hastings cannot know the historian. The Astronomer can know about the rings of Saturn. The rings of Saturn do not know about the astronomer. 

On the other hand, there is the kind of knowledge which is meant by the following verse (from the bible):“AND Adam knew Eve his wife.” 

This is the sort of knowledge which I describe when I say that “I know Brian Smith” very well. In order for me to know Brian Smith very well, Brian Smith must also know me (and he must know me well if not very well). I have to be a part of a human beings’ life if I am to know that person. In order to know a human being, one must also be known to that person. This is the basis of the relationship between the artist who makes a work of art and the audience interacting with the artwork in question. 

On the most basic level, this also means that the artist must reveal himself (his personal vision of reality) in creating the work of art. This level is not a personal level and a personal vision of reality should not be confused with the personal life of the artist. 

The raven can be studied and known while the student cannot be studied and known by the bird. In Edgar Allen Poe’s poem, there exists a student and The Raven. Only the student knows that The Raven is a raven (because he defines it as such). Only the student knows the meaning of the word “nevermore.” Only the student can ascribe meaning to the reality which the poem communicates. To The Raven, the word “Nevermore” and all words ever made by human beings are mere sounds; sounds without meanings. The Raven contains within it ever human sound of every human language that has ever existed and will ever exist. It will be able to imitate the words of all languages that have been, are and will be spoken by human beings. Within the void of The Raven, all human expression is rendered meaningless by a natural order which human beings exert power over through the application of definition and meaning. The Raven is a repository of all things which should mean something rendered meaningless. 

It is a vacuum. With all these thoughts in mind, I would now like to look at The Raven with a view to meaning.