Charles Handy on the value of intuition and creativity…
Capability is a long and ugly word, particularly when it’s attached to your name, like our great landscape gardener Capability Brown. Apparently he would look at the scene before him of pastures and untidy meadows and so on and he would say, “Ah, it’s got great capability” – by which he meant potential.
It’s the same feeling I think that a teacher must have when she walks into a class room in a primary school and looks at all these potential geniuses. She must think to herself, “Wow, this place is full of capability.” Even if the pupils weren’t capable at that particular moment of even writing their names, it is all about potential.
So what on earth was Keats talking about when he wrote a letter to his friend advocating “negative capability”? That sounds like a contradiction. But he didn’t mean it that way; he meant to be able to carry on even when you are in a state of uncertainty.
“When a man is capable,” he said, “of being in uncertainty, mystery, doubts, without an irritable reaching of fact and reason”. In other words, facts get in the way of your imagination.
When I was about to take my final exam at Oxford, I asked my tutor if he had any hints about revision. And he said, basically, don’t. He told me you don’t need memory for this. They’re not testing your memory. Surprise the examiners, don’t tell them what they already know, tell them something they hadn’t thought about. So you need to go into the hall with an empty mind. The best thing you can do is go and lie on your back and listen to a cricket match. It’s a very boring game but you know, the click of ball on bat, the ripples of applause after a boundary or a maiden over are the soothing music of an English summer’s afternoon and they will effectively clear your mind of anything else. And when you’ve got a clear mind your imagination goes at full pelt. If you require a fact, it will stream into your head just when you need it, believe me, because it’s part of your deeper memory.
So I did as he suggested and I lay on my back and listened to the cricketers and as he said, my mind became empty. And so the next day, I walked into the examinations hall feeling I knew nothing but that that was all right and yes indeed, I got a first-class honours degree, thanks to my vivid reinterpretations of history and philosophy. I’ve been very grateful to cricket ever since, although I never played the thing.
But it is true, Keats found he couldn’t write poetry at all until he’d emptied his mind of any kind of fact or certainty. And I find the same. Keats also said that “truth is beauty and beauty truth, that is all you need to know on earth and all you know”.
So can you reconcile his two thoughts, “negative capability” and “truth is beauty”? I think you can.
Certainly it was that way with my late wife, bless her. Liz always said her brain was in her gut; she knew by intuition. She said, “I’m just as clever as you but in a different way.”
So if we came to a fork in the road, she would say, “Go left” and I would say, “Why?” and she’d reply, “I just feel it’s right.”
After a bit I learnt to respect her instinct. And to make it acceptable to me, I used to, as a kind of game, work out some reasons why her instinct might possibly be right. As long as I could justify it to myself, I would go with it. And she was always right even if she couldn’t explain why.
Then once I gave her facts and so on, it mucked up her instinct, she didn’t want to know, she didn’t want to know any fact. She was a photographer and a very creative, imaginative one. And to her, truth was actually seeing the real person, capturing that in some way. To do that she had to focus intensely on the person and not to concentrate too much on the particulars of the camera or the little focusing devices and so on, just to rely on her instincts.
And it worked for her, and it worked for us. I gave free reign to her gut, whether buying houses or choosing a restaurant. The number of restaurants we walked out of because she said, “It’s not good, I don’t want to eat here, it doesn’t feel right.”
Trying to choose a school for our children, hopeless! I’d look up all the facts from their records, the grades and so on, sports records; she’d walk into a class room and say, “No, I don’t want my daughter sitting here, we won’t go to this school.” And I could not convince her with facts.
So yes, negative capability, it applies well to our Prime Minister, and to the President of the USA, if that’s any consolation. Except that their imagination doesn’t seem to be equal to that of Keats, or of my Liz. Still you have to understand what they’re trying to say – that having creativity and intuition is better than bothering with facts and trying to find certainty in knowledge.
So my idler friends, idle away, don’t do any research, just trust your instincts and you know, it did happen as my teacher predicted, when I needed a fact it sort of swam into my brain and there it was. No, I didn’t invent it, it was a real fact, it was lodged somewhere in the deeper part of my brain, deeper memory and when I needed it, it came out.
So, negative capability! Don’t let facts get in the way of your imagination. And just remember – truth is beauty, beauty truth. It doesn’t have to look nice: mathematicians and physicists tell me that equations with a set of numbers and letters can be very beautiful if they encapsulate the universe in just a short phrase. Similarly if I could find a story or a metaphor that encapsulates the idea I am trying to promote then I think it is beautiful as well as true. True in the sense of a carpenter saying a joint is true, that it fits, it works. And then it is beautiful. So truth is beautiful – but not if it gets in the way of imagination.
So, don’t do research. Just sit down and paint, write, write poetry, draw, whatever, let your imagination have free flow. Oh, and if you have got an examination coming up, don’t revise, just make sure your mind is empty and you have got a lot of energy. It works for me, I hope it works for you.
Have a great weekend, watch some cricket, empty your mind, don’t look for research.