Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Limbo, Pluto, Soprano: Negative Capability in Three Underworlds

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Limbo, Pluto, Soprano: Negative Capability in Three Underworlds

Article excerpt

John Keats defines his paradoxical virtue of "Negative Capability" as a willingness to remain in doubt. Three recent interpretive controversies offer test cases: debates about Limbo, Pluto, and the finale of The Sopranos. In all three cases, traditional authority engages with some version of vox populi that both threatens and enriches the production of knowledge.

John Keats defined "Negative Capability" as a crucial but rather peculiar attribute of a "Man of Achievement." "Several things dovetailed in my mind," he wrote to his brothers, "& at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature--which Shakespeare possessed so enormously--I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason" ("George" 193). In its primary definition, then, Negative Capability amounts to a willingness to remain in doubt. Negative Capability is evidently a rare sort of quality and, on the face of it, not something to brag about: what Keats appreciates as achievement must strike others as a lazy abdication of intellectual (or moral) responsibilities. For Keats, though, this noble resistance to conclusion and conviction allows access to a richer, more mysterious world. Keats's definition of Negative Capability does not restrict its relevance to literature. The quality may be "especially" evident in poets, but Keats implies that it might improve achievement in any field.

This essay uses Keats's suggestion as a framework for analyzing three recent interpretive controversies, spread across the curriculum. All three were triggered by the loss of a familiar cultural object: an eternal state (Limbo), a planet (Pluto), and a television narrative (The Sopranos). Of the three discursive environments, it is the strictly governed Roman Catholic magisterium, surprisingly, that best accommodates unresolvable doubt. Astronomers eventually resign themselves to something like Negative Capability, but only grudgingly and provisionally. In the literary world, author and readers find themselves torn between Negative Capability and a contrary impulse to achieve narrative closure. In all three cases, traditional authority engages with some version of vox populi that both threatens and enriches the production of knowledge. No revelation from the Holy Spirit, presence of natural fact, or intention of an author can rescue these debates from their intersubjective complexity. For Catholics, the magisterium must acknowledge but restrain popular opinion, termed sensus fidelium; astronomers suspect that their conclusions have as much to do with politics as with science; and David Chase finds himself entangled with the viewing public in the process of unpacking the meanings of his show.

Three questions stirred these debates. What happens to unbaptized infants who die? Is Pluto a planet? Did Tony get killed at the end of The Sopranos? All three questions came to a boil at roughly the same time. The Catholic Church undermined the idea of Limbo in 2007, when Pope Benedict approved the report of a theological commission. The International Astronomical Union (IAU) demoted Pluto at its 2006 conference in Prague. And in 2007, David Chase cut off The Sopranos mid-narrative. The near-simultaneity of these three events should be considered more a coincidence than some effect of zeitgeist or synchronicity; and the fact that all three involve underworlds adds an appropriate, if accidental, tropological coherence. As to the last coincidence--an empty circle at the end of Limbo, Pluto, and Soprano--what better logo for Negative Capability?

The finale of The Sopranos, "Made in America," sparked an interpretive crisis. Its startlingly inconclusive ending impressed some viewers but angered many others. Inconclusive endings are not uncommon, of course, in elite literature. Keats's own "The Eve of St. Agnes" leaves uncertain the fate of his protagonists: Madeline runs off with a young man who may bring her bliss or misery. …

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