A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Reasons to Walk The Camino: (2) Negative Capability And The Via Negativa

If a man wishes to be sure of the road he treads on, he must close his eyes and walk in the dark. ST JOHN OF THE CROSS

The term 'negative capability' was first coined by the Romantic poet John Keats as a description of a state in which man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason. Keats turned a seemingly 'negative' state of mind into a 'positive' force, and realised that too much reliance on intellectual logic could imperil another kind of knowledge, which clothed itself itself more mysteriously, more obliquely: mystical knowledge, spiritual knowledge, artistic knowledge, a direct and unfiltered awareness of beauty, the revelations of the heart and the emotions.

Keats was not alone in recognising the potentiality and necessity of doubt. Several centuries before, the Spanish mystic St John of the Cross described a semi-comparable state in his poem, The Dark Night of The Soul. In this poem, Christian union with God comes about only through difficulty and darkness, pain and suffering, doubt and conflict. One also thinks of John Bunyan and his Pilgrim's Progress, and of many Christian saints, mystics and thinkers: Thérèse of Lisieux, Mother Teresa and Simone Weil, for example.

The via negativa (or negative theology or apophatic theology) is a theological approach — common to many religions — which attempts to describe God by negation, by describing what God is not rather than what God is. The Middle English poem, The Cloud of Unknowing, advocates the abandonment of all preconceived notions and beliefs about God; it's only from a state of 'unknowingness' that we can ever hope to glimpse the transcendent.

This belief in unbelief, this embracing of doubt and denial, this surrendering to mystery and uncertainty, this discovery of the positive in the negative — is an attitude to life which appeals to me very much. Plato quotes Socrates as saying that the only thing he knows is the fact of his ignorance. Tolstoy writes in War and Peace that the only thing we can know is that we know nothing.

But how does all this relate to the Camino? Surely we follow the Camino in order to learn, to achieve a goal, to put our lives in order? Well, perhaps. But the truth is rather less obvious, less clearly structured than this. In fact I've come to realise that the Camino — like life itself — is a via negativa, a path unwinding as much in darkness as it is in the intense light of the Spanish sun. (My poem Camino Fever contains the line How dark the soul in the dead of night! But how bright the morning sun!) There are bandits as well as angels along the way. There's bitter loneliness as well as unexpected, sweet companionship. And some days it feels as if you're taking one step forward, then two steps back. The Camino's lessons, answers and revelations — if lessons, answers and revelations there are — leak out slowly, if at all, and often only many years or decades after the Camino is done (though, of course, the Camino is never finished; it goes on for ever).

I have walked several Caminos through France and Spain — the route from Geneva, the route from Le Puy, the Arles route, the Vía de la Plata, the French Way — and I've walked some sections twice. I've also trekked round the south-west coast of England, and followed many other short and long-distance paths in Britain and Europe, which may be considered pilgrimages of sorts. (Though 'pilgrimage' is a loose term, like many terms. 'Pilgrimage' can mean different things to different people, as can the terms 'path', 'destination', 'illumination', 'revelation', 'transcendence' and 'Camino' itself. These notions are open to differing meanings, emphases and interpretations, and we can colour them with our own personal subtleties, and that's good, because words and ideas are fluid and malleable, and the truth seeps out through the cracks within them and the spaces between them, and in their combinations and juxtapositions, and in their poetry.)

These long walks and pilgrimages have become lodged in my being for ever. They define part of who I am, and I ponder them often, and their significance. But their significance is far from clear, and their meaning reveals itself only sporadically, like occasional pinpricks of light in a darkened sky. The following are just a few of the thoughts and questions I ponder.

Recently I began a pilgrimage to Rome, but returned home after a few days suffering from fatigue, aches and pains, deafness and a punishingly heavy backpack. Did I learn nothing from my other Caminos? Or will I perhaps learn more than I've ever done before from this abortive Camino?

Why did I feel such an overwhelming sense of anticlimax when I reached Santiago for the first time? 

How can I reconcile these two conflicting images in my mind: the happy pilgrim approaching Santiago and the recent tragic train crash near Santiago? 

Why do I embrace those Camino micro-friendships when they offer themselves, but soon tire of the proximity (often a much-too-close proximity in dormitories!) of other pilgrims, and long for my own company again, despite the omnipresent threat of loneliness and isolation? 

Why do journeys turn into exaggerated epics when recalling them to oneself afterwards, or recounting them to others? Why does one forget about the long stretches of boredom, of depression, of suffering? Do our memories ever recall anything accurately? (I suspect not.)

Why did I decide to walk the Camino, and why am I always compelled to go back? (Most people think I am crazy. You've walked across Spain three times? Why?)

Questions, questions . . . and there are more, many more, because questions like these are endless and eternal, and probably unanswerable, and asking them is part of what makes us human. I don't really know why I've walked the Camino, or why I go back, nor will I ever be able to grasp the Camino's full significance, nor will I ever be able grasp the full significance of anything (for only God can do that, only God in his or her or its ineffability and 'unknowingness').

Let us be content to remain, if we can, in a state of uncertainty, mystery and doubt, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason. For perhaps only in this negative-positive way can we attain an inkling, a brief flash of the truth.


The Weaver of Grass said...

All we can hope to do in this life, Robert, is to find our way through it in the best possible way. For some this passage is relative easy as their way is marked out. I would suggest to you that the farmer has had his way marked out from birth - has followed a path and has complete satisfaction from it. In others there is a constant search for 'the truth' - and it is these people that struggle to come to terms with things. I think, on the whole, I lie somewhere in the middle.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Robert. A very helpful post. Useful for me to have the Keats put alongside the mystical theologians (am spending quite a bit of time reading Teresa of Avila deeply at present). And the questions at the end are - as always - honest and truthful and life giving.

Buen Camino!


George said...

As you might expect, Robert, these words — all of them — resonate deeply with me. Throughout my entire life, I have labored under the belief, even when I might have denied it, that I would ultimately reach a satisfying and rewarding state of knowledge about the nature of things, even this idea of God that is batted around like a badminton shuttlecock. Only recently, however, have I come to the conclusion that the knowledge that has long been my lodestar is unattainable. At one level, it's rather disappointing. At another, however, it's liberating. Standing in awe and celebrating the ineffable mystery of it all may bring us more peace — and, indeed, more intimacy with God — than a million years of reason, logic, and experience. Perhaps we are made to simply walk and love in wonder, nothing less, nothing more.

Ruth said...

Simply wonderful writing, full and satisfying, about this mysterious capability, and about one person's desire for more of it. More mystery, you cry, more mystery. And so you take up your stick and walk again. May the questions and the path never end.

The Solitary Walker said...

I think I belong in the constantly struggling and searching camp, Pat!

I think the correspondences between 'negative capability' and the 'via negativa' are quite striking, Andy. I've been reading 'Dark Night of the Soul' (the Mirabai Starr translation), and it's interesting how John of the Cross writes so much about silencing the 'discursive mind' during the purification process. I take this to mean the chattering and/or intellectual mind — the kind of mindset which Keats also describes.

Thanks for your great comment, George. I thought you might like the piece. And I agree so much that if one can only learn to be at ease with not-knowing, then this can lead to a great peace and feeling of liberation.

And thanks for this, Ruth. If we can be sure of anything in this world, we can be sure of the fact that the questions and the path never end.

dritanje said...

It's such an uplifting post solitary walker. I like all of your questions and the honesty in asking them. 'Answers' in my experience, tend not to come in words but in shifts of feeling and perception. I suspect that walking any camino intensifies our awareness of our shifting moods, feelings and thoughts. Brings us closer to ourselves. As well as to the land, and nature. And whatever we understand by God.

The Solitary Walker said...

"'Answers' in my experience, tend not to come in words but in shifts of feeling and perception."

I like this, and instinctively feel it's true, and have experienced this myself. I think we all commonly experience it. Your observation is subtle, and quite beautiful, I think, Dritanje. I like all that you write here.