As imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name. (from The Tempest)
The idea, John Keats' invention, has fascinating me since I first learned of it a century ago in grad school.
Here's what Keats (pictured) had to say about it--and its great exemplar Shakespeare--in letters written in 1817-1818:
Men of Genius are great as certain etherial Chemicals operating on the Mass of neutral intellect—but they have not any individuality, any determined Character. . . . I am certain of the Heart’s affections and the truth of Imagination. What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth . . . The Imagination may be compared to Adam’s dream—he awoke and found it truth. . . . Several things dove-tailed in my mind, and at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainty, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason. . . . What shocks the virtuous philosopher, delights the camelion Poet. . . . A Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no identity—he is continually inform[ing[ and filling some other body. . . . It is a wretched thing to confess; but is a very fact that not one word I ever utter can be taken for granted as an opinion growing out of my identical nature—how can it, when I have no nature? When I am in a room with People if I ever am free from speculating on creations of my own brain, then not myself goes home to myself: but the identity of every one in the room begins to press upon me [so] that I am in a very little annihilated—not only among Men; it would be the same in a Nursery of children.
But the most brilliant rendering of the idea--indeed one of the most astonishing things I have ever read--comes from the genius of Jorge Luis Borges (pictured) in a piece called "Everything and Nothing" (this translation is from A Personal Anthology--Anthony Kerigan's version)
There was no one in him: behind his face (even the poor paintings of the epoch show it to be unlike any other) and behind his words (which were copious, fantastic, and agitated) there was nothing but a bit of cold, a dream not dreamed by anyone. At first he thought that everyone was like himself. But the dismay shown by a comrade to whom he mentioned the vacuity revealed his error to him and made him realize forever than an individual should not differ from the species. At one time it occurred to him that he might find a remedy for his difficulty in books, and so he learned the “small Latin and less Greek,” of which a contemporary spoke. Later, he considered he might find what he sought in carrying out one of the elemental rites of humanity, and so he let himself be initiated by Anne Hathaway in the long siesta hour of an afternoon in June. In his twenties he went to London. Instinctively, he had already trained himself in the habit of pretending he was someone, so it would not be discovered that he was no one. In London, he found the profession to which he had been predestined, that of actor: someone who, on a stage, plays at being someone else, before a concourse of people who pretend to take him for that other one. His histrionic work taught him a singular satisfaction, perhaps the first he had ever known. And yet, once the last line of verse had been acclaimed and the last dead man dragged off stage, he tasted the hateful taste of unreality. He would leave off being Ferrex or Tamburlaine and become no one again. Thus beset, he took to imagining other heroes and other tragic tales. And so, while his body complied with its bodily destiny in London bawdyhouses and taverns, the soul inhabiting that body was Caesar unheeding the augur’s warnings, and Juliet detesting the lark, and Macbeth talking on the heath with the witches who are also the Fates. No one was ever so many men as that man: like the Egyptian Proteus he was able to exhaust all the possibilities of being. From time to time he left, in some obscure corner of his work, a confession he was sure would never be deciphered: Richard states that in his one person he plays many parts, and Iago curiously says “I am not what I am.” The fundamental oneness of existing, dreaming, and acting inspired in him several famous passages.
He persisted in this directed hallucination for twenty years. But one morning he was overcome by a surfeit and horror of being all those kings who die by the sword and all those unfortunate lovers who converge, diverge, and melodiously expire. That same day he settled on the sale of his theater. Before a week was out he had gone back to his native village, where he recuperated the trees and the river of his boyhood, without relating them at all to trees and rivers--illustrious with mythological allusion and Latin phrase--which his Muse had celebrated. He had to be someone; he became a retired impresario who has made his fortune and who is interested in making loans, in lawsuits, and in petty usury. It was in character, then, in this character that he dictated the arid last will and testament we know, from which he deliberately excluded any note of pathos or trace of literature. Friends from London used to visit him in his retreat, and for them he would once more play the part of the poet.
History adds that before or after his death he found himself facing God and said: I, who have been so man men in vain, want to be one man, myself alone. From out of a whirlwind the voice of God replied: I dreamed the world the way you dreamed your work my Shakespeare; one of the forms of my dream was you, who, like me, are many and no one.
In "Major Man: Fellini as an Autobiographer" I looked at Fellini through the lens Keats/Borges provided.