Getting to Know You: Babies and the Origin of Negative Capability

At a gathering of fellow writers in my local community I shared ideas for my forthcoming book about what I name “playing in the uncertainty” as central both to healthy development and healing from adversity. My friend’s face lit up. As a scholar of the poet John Keats, she immediately recognized what I was talking about. A quick google search when I got home led me to discover Keats’s notion of “negative capability” — the capacity to experience “uncertainty, mysteries and doubts, without any irritable reaching after facts or reason.” Psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion —most famous for the notion that “the purest form of listening is to listen without memory or desire”— incorporated Keats concept into his psychoanalytic theory. He wrote “Every session attended by the analyst must have no history and no future. The only point of importance in any session is the unknown. Nothing must be allowed to distract from intuiting that. In any session, evolution takes place. Out of the darkness and formlessness something evolves.”

Why do I find this concept of the not-knowing stance so compelling? The answer in part lies in my years working as a general pediatrician on the front lines in a rural community. Practicing in the time before hospitalists, my on-call duties included examining all babies shortly after birth. In the room with parents and their newborn time melted away: all the outside routine pressures of my life disappeared. The inconvenience of sleep disruption when called to a middle-of-the night c-section paled in comparison to the power of riding the elevator from the first floor OR of our small hospital to the third-floor nursery with a new father gazing in wonder at his baby in the isolette. I saw again and again how a newborn baby brings us into the present moment like nothing else. For them there is only “now.” They call on us to meet them “without memory or desire.” I understand negative capability as originally an interpersonal experience which has its roots in the uncertain process of infant and caregiver getting to know each other.

As a scholar with the Berkshire Psychoanalytic Institute, I was not exposed to Bion’s writings. Curious to learn about the origins of his wisdom I found a colleague who generously offered to point me in the right direction. I asked him if Bion had ever worked with babies- as had D.W. Winnicott, another psychoanalyst with a major influence on my thinking. “No” was the response. I was fascinated to discover in the opening pages of the  review article he recommended Bion’s description of being a single parent while in analysis with Melanie Klein. His first wife died in childbirth leaving him to raise his infant daughter on his own.

‘My analysis pursued what I am inclined to think was a normal course; I retailed a variety of preoccupations; worries about the child, the household, financial anxieties—particularly how I was to find money for such psycho-analytic fees and provide a home and care for the baby. Mrs. Klein remained unmoved and unmoving … I was assiduous in my psycho-analytic sessions. When I was given an interpretation I used very occasionally to feel it was correct; more usually I thought it was nonsense but hardly worth arguing about since I did not regard the interpretation as much more than an expression of Mrs. Klein’s opinion that was unsupported by evidence.”

While of course I do not know, I wonder if the stark contrast of the messy moment-by-moment interaction of parent and infant finding their way into each other’s experience—by definition a bodily pre-verbal experience—with the language-based interpretation of his analyst opened his mind to a completely different way of understanding the process of growth and change in the face of emotional suffering.

The glorious front row seat to infant and caregivers meeting that I now have as a new grandparent only reinforces the idea that the capacity for “negative capability” -our capacity to listen from a stance of “not-knowing” -exists in its purest form at the meeting of newborn and parent. (My presence at the birth of my own children with its intoxicating combination of joy, overwhelm, and sleep deprivation did not afford the same space for noticing offered by the privileged grandparent view.) While Covid restrictions prevented us from being present at the birth, photos of my stepdaughter and daughter-in-law at those first moments of meeting capture the magical energy of three people embarking on the journey of getting to know each other. In one, the baby’s quizzical gaze at the parent holding her just hours after birth communicates with a remarkably complex facial expression, “I don’t know what’s going on but I trust that you will help me to make sense of myself and this bright new world of people and things.” In another parent and baby look at the parent taking the photo, their faces communicating in parallel a similar combination of love, trust, and uncertainty.

In a beautiful essay The Infant as a Reflection of the Soul infant mental health specialist William Schafer explores what he calls the “spiritual elements of infantile experience.” He names “presence” “joy” and “awareness of other’s awareness” as capacities that come naturally to infants but that tend to dissipate as we mature into adulthood. He advises us to learn from babies, writing:

“If we let them, babies can teach us a lot about capacities we lost during childhood. If we are willing to receive it, they can give us the incentive we need to go about the difficult task of recovering these capacities and making them conscious, deliberate, and enduring elements in our adult lives.”  

To these three I would add a fourth and perhaps most important lesson given our world today, where certainty about people both alike and different from ourselves has led to dangerous levels of polarization and disconnection. Newborns show us an open space within which caregiver and baby in their very “not-knowing” may discover both intimacy and sense of self that emerge in the process of getting to know each other. Taking that lesson into all relationships might be an important step towards healing both as individuals and for our society as a whole.

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