Negative Capability and the Mystery of Hope in Malamud's 'The First Seven Years.'

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Author: Peter C. Brown
Editor: Janet Witalec
Date: 2003
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 14,328 words

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[(essay date spring 1997) In the following essay, Brown explores Malamud's "radical dissent from contemporary despair" in "The First Seven Years."]

"Negative capability" is the capacity to register a faithful incongruity or vital mystery. John Keats, who first identified this quality of literary sensibility for us, associated it with a kind of incongruous verisimilitude or self-effacing willingness to let be. In this, he seems to have assumed that "uncertainties, mysteries, doubts" are our native condition--to be preserved by the true poet (and betrayed by the philosopher). However, the post-Romantic temper of our technological age leaves little enough in the shadow, including those shadings of human possibility or hope long associated with the humanism of the West. In particular, the black sun over Auschwitz has cast in sharp relief the bitter fact that within the modern bureaucratic state everything human--everything--can be taken away. Human hope has perhaps never seemed less real or more contingent. Yet, Bernard Malamud's forty-year writing career embodies a profound exception to this conclusion. All of Malamud's work testifies to his belief in inextinguishable human possibility, possibility inextinguishable in spite of everything that devalues the human. As Malamud explained in his last interview, speaking of his apocalyptic novel, God's Grace, his work is an attempt to "find a way for man to have a possible future" ("Interview" 142). In his fictions, this unlikely hope depends on a robust negative capability or calculated capacity to register mystery. Malamud believed that in the present age, when to the sophisticated eye everything--especially human being--seems less than it is, the poet's job is "the exemplification of mystery" (Kegan 131). Thus, hope becomes more than a conventional theme in Malamud's fiction; in a sense, it becomes an incongruous effect of his texts: "exemplification of mystery is the creation of mystery" (Kegan 139).

Malamud's radical dissent from contemporary despair of the human has not been fully appreciated, however, because his writing explores hope on two very different, but not clearly distinguished, rhetorical levels: hope as theme and hope as mystery. When his humanistic faith takes conventional literary moral forms in his fiction (as it very often does), it not only falls short of the mystery of hope but also has led readers and critics to misjudge or ignore the more subtle effects of his writing, to miss his sensible and symbolic capacity for mystery. Conventionally, Malamud concludes most of his novels and many of his stories with arresting images of qualified promise. His protagonists are fixed in the reader's mind in the act of creating unlikely futures for themselves by deepening their sufferings--choosing in spite of themselves to be human. In The Assistant (1957), for example, Frank Alpine in the end chooses--to his own chagrin--to accept suffering (as a "Jew") rather than to cause it (as a goyish holdupnik). In A New Life (1961), S. Levin sacrifices romantic desires in favor of taking on quotidian responsibility for another man's family. In The Fixer (1966), Yakov Bok remains a prisoner but nevertheless can embrace his identity as...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420047452