Skinwalkers and Shapeshifters: Wabash and the Nurturing
of "Negative Capability"
by Dan Simmons '70
As a writer-especially as a writer who works across genres such as horror and science fiction as well as in "mainstream" fiction-I'm often invited to be a guest at unusual conventions or conferences. Yesterday (as I write this) I was invited by e-mail to be the guest of honor at Bohemiacon (?), the Czech national SF convention held in the North Bohemian town of Usti nad Labem. Unfortunately, the fact that I am a writer, putting out an average of one large novel a year, means that I rarely have time to attend even the most interesting of these conferences.
Last year, however, I accepted the invitation to be guest of honor at the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, held every year in Ft. Lauderdale. My major luncheon speech at the conference was titled "Shapeshifters and Skinwalkers: the Writer's Curse of Negative Capability." I was speaking, of course, about John Keats' notion of Negative Capability-that combination of walking in someone else's skin and mind, of Keats becoming the sparrow pecking at the gravel outside his window, and even more importantly, of F. Scott Fitzgerald's interpretation of Keats's concept. As Fitzgerald wrote in his autobiographical essay, The Crack Up: ". . .the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function."
Well, here's where the poolpah hit the fan. I had the unmitigated temerity to suggest to these hundreds of gathered academics that since we are what we read, writers-and the students at their respective colleges and universities-had to be exposed to quality fiction in order ever to have a chance at the Negative Capability necessary for any writer. I used Andre Gide's quote, "the only true education comes from what goes contrary to you" and went further to suggest that in this day and age of low educational standards, what goes counter to the majority of first-year college students encountering literature is a rigorous study of what used to be called the canon.
I might as well have thrown a stink bomb into their banquet. As the editor of the Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts later delicately put it when they published my speech-"In a broad and provocative discussion, Simmons showed himself to be a stalwart defender of traditional literary values. Ironically, his views seem to lend themselves to the maintenance of conventional distinctions between `high' and `low' cultures, a distinction much of the work at the Conference has sought over the years to question or erase."
Well, I can attest to the latter part of that sentence. During my free time at the conference I listened to many readings of papers on the epistemological underpinnings of "The X-Files" and deconstructive, post-Marxist interpretations of the hidden feminist meaning in recent vampire books and movies. Okay. These instructors teach popular courses back at their respective institutions-Feminism, Vampires, Menstrual Blood, and You!-but I pity the students who emerge from four years of this sort of smorgasbord of popular culture and deconstructive, new- historicist, psychoanalytic pseudo-close reading analysis, and who have never been "forced" to suffer the work of such Dead White Males as Shakespeare, Chaucer, Dostoyevsky, and Homer. I quoted the late John Gardner to them:
"No ignoramus-no writer who has kept himself innocent of education-has ever produced great art."
Furthermore, I suggested that self-education rarely works for a writer. All too often while self-educating through reading, one ends up with an ignoramus as both teacher and student. When I entered Wabash in 1966, I had been a disinterested, mediocre high school student who just happened to be much more widely read than any of my high-school teachers. But Wabash immediately cut me down to size, introducing me to the great, interlacing dialogues of literature, philosophy, science, art, and history that I could never have appreciated half as well in a lifetime of my own reading. Instructors at Wabash such as Walter Fertig, David Britt, Bert Stern, Don Baker, and many others, as well as brilliant fellow students, such as Bill Placher and Keith Nightenhelser, helped hone the dull blade of my brain into an instrument at least sharp enough to keep up with the demands of writing novel after novel where the characters have to be smarter, better educated, and more specialized-in physics, mathematics, biogenetics, espionage, literature, whatever-than the author.
I ran into no academic at the conference who thought that the Iliad, for instance, should be "force fed" to students. It was explained to me that Homer's epic reeks of Euorocentric elitism and male-centered exclusionism (their word), while being an "ideological spearhead" (no idea if pun was intended) for inculcating Western values, militarism, outright glorification of war and sexism, while simultaneously paving the way for later "so-called canonical works" which tout Western-style individualism, market capitalism, and cultural imperialism in the disguise of "classical" works.
Wow. As a radical student in the '60s, I had no idea that my mind was being programmed so insidiously as I listened, learned, and devoured every line of the Iliad. All I knew then was that it was beyond my ken and I was pathetically grateful for the professor and smarter fellow students who helped me understand some of what lay beneath the gory surface of the tale.
I quoted from David Denby's book Great Books to the academics. In 1991, Denby, then in his late forties and a successful writer and film reviewer, returned to his alma mater of Columbia University to take the same Literature Humanities (Lit Hum) and Contemporary Civilization (CC) courses he had taken 30 years earlier. The revelation to Denby was that the Iliad was so alien to him as a card-carrying member of the White Male Hegemony, much less as a 20th century humanist, an American, and a New Yorker. I quoted one of my favorite passages-
"When the Greek and Trojan warriors in the Iliad fall, they go down heavily, slowly, like great trees, with all their lineage, stories, lands, and animals crashing down with them. The slaughter is huge but never impersonal. You feel each death freshly as a blow; you never go numb. Everything in the poem has a remarkable weight and consequence, even the warriors' boasts. . . Feasting and acts of sacrifice to the gods can be performed properly in only one way-superbly, with utmost effort and lavish skill and maximum exposure to failure. The act must risk, in the outward trajectory of its effort, the clear possibility of shame. When performed supremely well, it may be painful but never meaningless."
This last part, I truly believe is what makes fine liberal arts colleges like Wabash not only necessary and unique in a society that celebrates mediocrity and "relevance," but makes them the perfect training ground for people who end up in "odd" professions like writing, art, science, theater, and teaching.
Every writer knows this need for a solid background in the dialogue of ideas, because in Hemingway's words-"For he does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day."
In other words, whatever our weird, self-selected jobs, we are performing on the high wire without a net and our daily efforts must be-"performed properly in only one way-superbly, with utmost effort and lavish skill and maximum exposure to failure. The act must risk, in the outward trajectory of its effort, the clear possibility of shame. When performed supremely well, it may be painful but never meaningless."
Thank you, Wabash, for that lifelong perspective and challenge.