I first made note of this passage of Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum in 2005. The narrator is Casaubon.
I believe that what we become depends on what our fathers teach us at odd moments, when they aren’t trying to teach us. We are formed by little scraps of wisdom. When I was ten, I asked my parents to subscribe to a weekly magazine that was publishing comic-strip versions of the great classics of literature. My father, not because he was stingy, but because he was suspicious of comic strips, tried to beg off. “The purpose of this magazine,” I pontificated, quoting the ad, “is to educate the reader in an entertaining way.” “The purpose of your magazine,” my father replied without looking up from his paper, “is the purpose of every magazine: to sell as many copies as it can.”
That day, I began to be incredulous.
Or, rather, I regretted having been credulous. I regretted having allowed myself to be borne away by a passion of the mind. Such is credulity.
Not that the incredulous person doesn’t believe in anything. It’s just that he doesn’t believe in everything. Or he believes in one thing at a time. He believes a second thing only if it somehow follows from the first thing. He is nearsighted and methodical, avoiding wide horizons. If two things don’t fit, but you believe both of them, thinking that somewhere, hidden, there must be a third thing that connects them, that’s credulity.
Incredulity doesn’t kill curiosity; it encourages it. Though distrustful of logical chains of ideas, I loved the polyphony of ideas. As long as you don’t believe in them, the collision of two ideas— both false—can create a pleasing interval, a kind of diabolus in musica. I had no respect for some ideas people were willing to stake their lives on, but two or three ideas that I did not respect might still make a nice melody. Or have a good beat, and if it was jazz, all the better.
“You live on the surface,” Lia told me years later. “You sometimes seem profound, but it’s only because you piece a lot of surfaces together to create the impression of depth, solidity. That solidity would collapse if you tried to stand it up.”
Thirteen years later, these excerpts from Matthew Zapruder’s Why Poetry caught my attention.
It was intensely liberating as a writer to realize that the poem is not a place to be categorically convinced of anything. It is a good place to be serially convinced, convinced for a moment, in a line or a stanza or a phrase or even a word. But then to change one’s mind. Again and again.
This is what negative capability means in poetry, to be in the state where you can accept a succession of things, especially if they contradict each other, in order to allow within yourself an experience that you will not have elsewhere in life.