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On the Necessity of Negative Capability

ISSUE:  Fall 2005

In the winter of 1945, New Yorker managing editor William Shawn pitched an idea to staff writer John Hersey: an in-depth, on-the-ground description of Hiroshima on the day the atomic bomb was dropped. Shawn wanted the article in time for the first anniversary. In May, Hersey traveled to Japan for three weeks, then returned home and wrote feverishly. By August, he had a complete manuscript—of 150 pages. Hersey lobbied to have the entire piece published in four successive issues, rather than having it edited down into a single installment. But Shawn had a better idea. He talked Harold Ross, editor of the New Yorker, into publishing the entire piece as the full editorial content of the issue. It was a daring suggestion, but Ross eventually went for it. When the August 31, 1946, issue of the New Yorker appeared, it created an instant sensation—and, just as importantly, it opened the door to long-form investigative journalism, including Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, both of which were first serialized in the New Yorker after Shawn became editor.

While we hardly have the resources of the New Yorker, we at VQR have committed ourselves to publishing long-form editorial and investigative pieces. Stephen Boykewich’s article on Beslan in our Winter 2005 issue ran over 12,000 words, Joseph Margulies’s piece on Guantánamo in our Fall 2004 issue came in at just over 7,000 words, and Roger Wilkins’s essay on affirmative action in our Winter 2004 issue was more than 8,000 words. By commissioning these writers and affording them as much room as they required to explore their subjects, we feel that we received articles that remain among the very best published on these important topics.

In this issue, we seek to continue that trend—by returning to the roots of contemporary long-form journalism. As the sixtieth anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki approached, we sent writer Lindsley Cameron and her partner Masao Miyoshi to Japan to document the mood. The wounds, not surprisingly, are still fresh, especially for those survivors who remember those fateful days in August. More importantly, however, Cameron and Miyoshi found support for Japan’s American-authored peace constitution eroding and a movement afoot for the country to rearm. As debates over Iraq’s constitution continue, our leaders would be well-advised to consider what has transpired in Japan as they plan for a peaceful future in Iraq.

The arrival of the sixtieth anniversary of the atomic bombings reminded us, too, that we are only half as far along on the cycle of remembrance and recovery from our own lost war in Vietnam. We sent Tom Bissell, Morgan Meis, and Joe Pacheco to document the anniversary, but they got more than they expected—and nearly more than they could handle. Their harrowing runin with Vietnamese authorities—and the subsequent ouster of Meis and Pacheco— will likely remind readers more of Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, and Michael Herr’s Dispatches, than anything by John Hersey. Yet their misadventures seem a strangely appropriate way of commemorating the mistakes and missteps made by our government thirty years ago.

In the spirit of such circumspection, we have prefaced these on-the-spot reports with a short play by Tony Kushner and an excerpt from a new graphic novel by Art Spiegelman. These are unusual forms to find in a literary quarterly, but they show our continued commitment to publishing the best work available regardless of genre. We were struck by the palpable emotion in both pieces and how their authors continue to grapple with great loss—the deaths of 9/11 in Kushner’s “Prayer for New York”; the suicide of Spiegelman’s mother, a Holocaust survivor, in his “Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@?*!.” Perhaps what these pieces show best is the near rhyme of suffering—that people the world over feel the same bitterness and bereavement in the face of incomprehensible loss, that we are only alone when we withdraw from the world and insist on the priority and singularity of our own pain.

And nothing can remind us of our shared commonality better than art. We are proud and fortunate to welcome former New Yorker staff writer Lawrence Weschler to our staff and stable of authors, beginning with this issue. Weschler’s eerily omnivorous mind is constantly hearing echoes and seeing ghosts. Indeed, he could easily feel haunted by what went before, but instead Weschler finds an unexpected solace in these resonances—what he calls “convergences”— for they affirm our experience and speak back to us across time. If we cannot find comfort exactly from these convergences, surely we can at least be reassured that we are not alone. For it is isolation that fosters the double demons of resentment and hubris.

We must continue to find ways to follow the example of John Keats—the brilliant poet who died too young and is so beautifully elegized in this issue in Stanley Plumly’s essay, “Cold Pastoral.” Keats insisted that great art arose from what he termed “negative capability,” defined as the ability to reside within “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” At first, this may seem to advocate anti-intellectualism, a turning away from reason, but F. Scott Fitzgerald elucidated the notion expertly, when he concluded that: “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.” It seems to me that this spirit of rigorous open-mindedness, this willingness to view any issue critically but from all sides, is more sorely needed in this country than any other virtue.

Nowhere has this been more readily apparent than in the recent, hotly contested case of Terri Schiavo. Senator Bill Frist, a medical doctor who had only reviewed a prepared videotape, declared in a speech on the floor of the Senate that Schiavo responded to her brother, and “that is not somebody in [a] persistent vegetative state.” After an autopsy revealed that half of Schiavo’s brain had deteriorated away, demonstrating that she had clearly been in a persistent vegetative state, Frist insisted on ABC’s “Good Morning America”: “Looking at the court-appointed tapes, I raised the question ‘Is she in a persistent vegetative state or not?’ I never made the diagnosis, never said that she was not.” Clearly, Frist was motivated by politics more than medicine—and is now attempting to make up for this public error by backing stem cell research. Nevertheless, those who opposed government intervention into this case were strangely reluctant to admit the difficulty any family faces under these circumstances.

In this issue, Pauline W. Chen, a transplant surgeon and recipient of the UCLA Physician of the Year Award, movingly explores the ambiguities of death created by modern medicine. As Chen writes about Schiavo’s parents, “The intensity of [their] hope, as irrational as it might have seemed, was awe-inspiring. And, even among the most medically reductionist among us, that kind of hope is not that far from what we might find ourselves feeling when faced with a loved one who is definitively brain-dead.” To allow for such difficult and often contradictory emotions, to grapple as Keats did with “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts,” requires a large and patient intellect. To express such emotions in writing requires attention to quality, rather than concern about length.

As the news industry moves increasingly toward short sound bites and rapidfire group interviews in an effort to cover all issues and all perspectives in a kaleidoscopic blur, we prefer to choose a few important topic and give our authors time to examine them thoroughly and thoughtfully. As we watch our readership slowly but steadily grow, we’re encouraged to think that there is a groundswell of interest in such writing. If you are searching for such coverage, we hope you will be rewarded in this issue, but we also hope you will find something here that challenges or confounds you. Something else to hold in your mind.


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