Updated: Sep 16, 2019
“…Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason…”
—Keats, Letter of 21 December 1817 to George and Thomas Keats (Keats 1948, p. 72)
“The capacity for doubt, the condition in which doubt can be entertained, has become central. The ‘analytic situation’ must be one in which two people can have a relationship in which neither is compelled to search ‘irritably’ for certainty as a method of stifling doubts, uncertainties, half-truths and neither is compelled to assert anything as a means by which doubt and uncertainties are evaded.”
—W.R. Bion, 7 September 1968 (Bion 2014, vol. 15, p. 70)
“Why am I telling you this?” The patient is asking about his motivation for speaking about something, which for the moment he doesn’t understand. He wonders if what he is saying is relevant, though why shouldn’t it be? He is reaching for something unconscious while feeling that it should be conscious.
I hear what he’s saying as what Bion might call one of many “destructive attacks on all links” (Bion, 2014, vol. 11, p. 192).
My patient’s search for understanding, when faced with an other, his analyst, prompts him to ask, “Why am I telling you this?” In turn I ask him: “Do you feel you need to justify what you’re saying?” All the while, I’m wondering, beyond me, to whom he feels it necessary to explain himself. Perhaps I’ll get around to asking him this question, too.
“I can’t say how I feel.” I’m sensing further fragmenting of the self as a gap appears between feeling and saying. The “I,” that part of the psyche that is addressing itself to me, lacks the words to convey what is being felt inside, in another, less visible part of the psyche. Less visible, and less accessible to consciousness. But there nonetheless; somewhere.
“I don’t know what I mean.” The patient finds that what he means is elusive, that his meaning is beyond knowing. The lack of clarity concerning knowing pains him, the gap between meaning and knowing vexes him; if only the two were continuous, he seems to wish. He is assuming that knowing should correspond to meaning and insofar, at present, there is a dissociation between the two, he struggles to bring them together, to find the link between them. The dissociation is a source of anxiety and what I tell him is, “When you sense a break in continuity, it makes you feel anxious.” He understands this as a piece of knowledge, though perhaps not one he was looking for in relation to what he means.
After the session I tell myself that instead of speaking of his anxiousness, I might have said “irritability.”
Freud mentions “irritability” as a sign of anxiety neurosis, singling out among the symptomatology auditory hyperaesthesia or “an oversensitiveness to noise” (Freud 1895, p.92). And it occurs to me that this patient is regularly disturbed by too much noise emanating less from the outside world than from his unconscious, a kind of unheard background noise—unheard, because he’s not yet able to listen to himself, or to observe himself listening—that perturbs his thought processes and, in the session, impedes free association. One way he tries to defend himself against the unheard background noise—but what in fact makes it “noise”?—is by evoking excessive detail, which makes me, and perhaps him, too, feel irritable.
This leads me to consider Keats’s notion of negative capability and what both Keats and Bion suggest about it, namely, that it may yield to an urge to fill the gap in with some kind of knowledge in order to provide some certainty about a doubt. Each qualifies this urge, or compulsion, as “irritable” because it forestalls creativity. I might note in passing that Bion doesn’t mention “irritability” in Attention and Interpretation (1970), in which negative capability is first discussed; he talks about it only in his much lesser read diary entry, quoted above, and so reflections on his work miss this point, which may affect both the patient and the analyst.
Getting back to psychoanalytic listening, that which lets me hear indices of what is unknown in my understanding of the patient’s unconscious, relieves me—but only somewhat—of an irritating feeling of irritation. But as I let my mind drift around what my patient says, even while he is resisting free association, it might very well help his own mind to drift with greater freedom of thought as well.
Bion, W.R. (2014a). Cogitations. The Complete Works of W.R. Bion, volume 11. Edited by Chris Mawson. London: Karnac, 2014.
Bion, W.R. (2014b). Further Cogitations. The Complete Works of W.R. Bion, volume 15. Edited by Chris Mawson. London: Karnac, 2014.
Freud, Sigmund (1895). “On the Grounds for Detaching a Particular Syndrome from Neurasthenia under the Description ‘Anxiety Neurosis.’” Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Freud, volume 3. London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psychoanalysis.
Keats, John (1948). The Letters of John Keats. Edited by Maurice Buxton Forman. London: Oxford University Press.
Image: Joseph Severn, “John Keats,” 1819. National Portrait Gallery, London.