Positive Thinking and Negative Capability

Image Source: Thee Online.

Yesterday's post notwithstanding, this post highlights a Millennial search for positives. In his 2009 book, Pronoia, Californian astrologer and Baby Boomer New Age thinker Rob Brezsny asserts that negative reporting (like this story) and toxic entertainment are rampant in the new Millennium's global society. Brezsny suggests an antidote in the opposing coined term, "pronoia ... [which] John Perry Barlow defined as 'the suspicion the Universe is a conspiracy on your behalf':
[P]ronoia is ... utterly at odds with conventional wisdom. The 19th-century poet John Keats [1795-1821] said that if something is not beautiful, it is probably not true. But the vast majority of modern storytellers - journalists, filmmakers, novelists, talk-show hosts, and poets - assert the opposite: If something is not ugly, it is probably not true.

In a world that equates pessimism with acumen and regards stories about things falling apart as having the highest entertainment value, pronoia is deviant. It is a taboo so taboo that it's not even recognized as a taboo.

The average American child sees 20,000 simulated murders before reaching age 18. This is considered normal. There are thousands of films, television shows, and electronic games that depict people doing terrible things to each other. If you read newspapers and news sites on the Internet, you have every right to believe that Bad Nasty Things compose 90 percent of the human experience. The authors of thousands of books published this year will hope to lure you in through the glamour of killing, addiction, self-hatred, sexual pathology, shame, betrayal, extortion, robbery, cancer, arson, and torture.

But you will be hard-pressed to find more than a few novels, films, news stories, and TV shows that dare to depict life as a gift whose purpose is to enrich the human soul.

If you cultivate an affinity for pronoia, people you respect may wonder if you have not lost your way. You might appear to them as naive, eccentric, unrealistic, misguided, or even stupid. Your reputation could suffer and your social status could decline.

But that may be relatively easy to deal with compared to your struggle to create a new relationship with yourself. For starters, you will have to acknowledge that what you previously considered a strong-willed faculty - the ability to discern the weakness in everything - might actually be a mark of cowardice and laziness. Far from being evidence of your power and uniqueness, your drive to produce hard-edged opinions stoked by hostility is likely a sign that you've been brainwashed by the pedestrian influences of pop nihilism.
Does Keats's assertion that 'if something is not beautiful, it is probably not true' imply that widespread Millennial nihilism and negativity are lies? - Or do they initiate searches for a new baseline, for new values and new truths? Is negativity symptomatic of larger, positive growth? In some ways, we can view the push and pull between negativity and positivity in our time as a conflict between surviving strains of Enlightenment and Romanticism; in the Millennium, these strains trend between externally-imposed, alienating, hyper-rationalized mechanization and inward-looking, self-involved hyper-naturalism.

When Brezsny positively invokes Keats, he also points to Keats's famous idea of negative capability, a primal Romantic reaction against Enlightenment rationality (see comments here and here). Negative capability involves a Romantic immersion in imagination, the anti-rational, the legendary. It concerns an intuitive jump in the apprehension of the natural world at its most mysterious, which treats nature as something transcendent, not as series of secrets unlocked by science. Keats's 1819 poem Ode to a Nightingale (hear it here) expressed a Romantic search for natural beauty transformed by imagination into a healing, immortal myth; this imaginative process eases the daily sufferings and ultimately mortal troubles upon which reason fixates. But negative capability also embraces uncertainty and strife; it refers to the self-doubt one experiences when one is pushed past one's limits and beyond one's expectations by extreme experiences or emotions. In the negative realm, one must exist beyond the conventional, the labeled, beyond the boundaries of settled norms. Negative capability enables survival through a period of unknowing.

Out of the same Romantic movement to which Keats adhered came the Byronic hero. The Byronic hero is a predecessor of the Postmodern, broken anti-hero. Whether he is a criminal acting as hero, or a flawed, fallen hero, the anti-hero is the standard protagonist in Millennial fiction and entertainment. In today's stories, the drama hinges on whether the broken hero can become heroic. In other words, our epics explore how we may transform our negative world into a positive one. Our favoured tropes imply that only alienated people have moved past moribund limitations to attain the broader view necessary to achieve that transformation.

Often, broken norms or normlessness are taken today as signs of cultural collapse, political failure and societal doom. But Keats suggested that the ability to cope in a realm of social and cultural uncertainty is a negative art, which ultimately rewards with positive beauty and regeneration.

Source: Citation is © Brezsny, Rob (2009). Pronoia Is the Antidote for Paranoia, Revised and Expanded: How the Whole World Is Conspiring to Shower You with Blessings. North Atlantic Books and Televisionary Publishing. ISBN 1-55643-818-4, pp. 61-62.

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