essay by Brian Charles Clark
A secret war has been raging for millennia. The battle lines can be roughly drawn between those who insist that empiricism can answer all our epistemological questions, and those who insist that knowing is fundamentally an imaginative act, one that is forever becoming and shrouded in mystery. Plato is typical of just how “rough” those battle lines are. In the Republic, Plato wrote of the dangers of the imagination, especially as displayed in the poetic consciousness or “divine madness” of inspiration. This is the same Plato whose beautifully erotic love poems grace the pages of the Greek Anthology.
Two thousand years later, in 1817, John Keats would jump into the fray with his eyes wide open. In fact, it was Keats’s viewing of a painting that led him to write a famous letter. (Keats’s letter of December 21, 1817 is quoted in full in, among other places, Rodriguez, Book of the Heart (Hudson, New York: 1993), pages 39-40.) After looking at a painting by the landscape artist West, Keats wrote his brothers that there were “no women one is mad to kiss” in the picture. Nothing in the painting inspired his passion, “there is nothing to be intense upon,” nothing provoked his sense of the marvelous. The hic et nunc flatness of West’s painting admitted no otherness, no “Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without an irritable reaching after fact & reason.”
“Negative capability” is a phrase full of contradiction, and it has been the subject of interpretation and debate since Keats coined it. The phrase suggests the very “half knowledge” that Keats insists one must be “content” with in order to live imaginatively. In the secret war between imagination and its detractors, Keats even established a territory for those who live in inspiration. The place where one “is capable of being in uncertainties” he calls “the Penetralium of mystery.”
Keats appears to have coined this word. Penetralium doesn’t appear in the AHD, the OED, or Partridge’s Origins, though all give penetralia. Penetralia means “the innermost part,” the “sanctum sanctorum.” The OED gives the first attestation as 1668, in Howe’s The Blessedness of the Righteous: “From the penetralia—the secret chambers of the soul.” The words has also had medical (1779: the innermost recesses of the lungs), geographical (1849: the center of a city), and architectural (1876: an office) uses. In 1779, Alexander, in The history of women, used the word in a sexually suggestive way: “So little do… [they] know of what passes in all the penetralia of the harams of the East.”
If Alexander was playing “nudge-nudge wink-wink” (whether motivated by a desire to titillate or to moralize), Keats coins a word, on analogy with, for example, coliseum, that is hermaphroditic. What else could a word be when it is both the innermost recess and the building that is that “mysterium” but hermaphroditic? In his letter, Keats makes an illative word that plays AC/DC with the Latin root pen, “inside.” The Penetralium is both that which is penetrated, and the thing that penetrates.
In The Book of the Heart, Andres Rodriguez, a poet and independent scholar, creates a soulful world of the imagination based on the poetics he finds in Keats’s letters. In the chapter “The Penetralium of Mystery,” Rodriguez argues that the Penetralium is “the temple of delight” of which Keats wrote in his poem “Ode to Psyche.” Keats wrote the Ode a few months before writing the Penetralium letter (though typically referred to as “the Negative Capability letter”). While I agree with Rodriguez, I don’t think he takes the image far enough.
Keats was a ravenous reader who had long suspected his life would be short. John died at 25, but not before devotedly nursing Tom, the first of the brothers to die of TB. It’s entirely possible Keats came across the word penetralia while reading about the lungs in a medical book, such as Fuller’s 1702 Pharmacopia Extemporanea [OED]. Or the word penetral, a near synonym of penetralia, but with the specific additional connotation of “inner temple,” he might well have read in similar contexts. (Penetral[e] is attested by the OED as early as 1589.) Keats had public school Latin and Greek, and his studies were fired with desire to be a poet and ambition to rise above his Cockney birthright.
Yet when Rodriguez gives a partial etymology of penetralia, he misses something. “The term ‘Penetralium’ has the strong suggestion of an innermost room with the prominent position of center. The Latin plural, penetralia means ‘innermost parts,’ especially of a building, such as the sanctuary of a temple. Other forms of this word (penetrare, penitus, and penes) all contain the related meanings of ‘to enter within,’ ‘deeply, into the inmost recesses,’ and ‘within, in the power of’” [65-6]. What Rodriguez never directly addresses is the fact that Keats has coined a new word.
Rodriguez grasps the breadth of “the Penetralium of Mystery,” but not quite its full depth. To show what I mean will require a bit of contextualizing. Rodriguez relies heavily on Henry Corbin’s brilliant analysis of Avicenna. A Persian metaphysician of the late 10th and early 11th centuries, Avicenna engaged in what Corbin calls “visionary recitals” that gave his listeners (or his readers) direct experience of the “Imago Templi,” the image of the temple that is the living heart of the Anima Mundi, the soul of the world. The idea that states of poetic consciousness (experiences of a “spiritual” or “inspirational” nature) are induced through listening and reading (at least to those who are available to such experiences) is nothing new. Rodriguez is on the right track, though, when he says that Keats was trying to invoke the Imago Templi with the phrase “the Penetralium of the Mystery.” What Rodriguez suggests, though, is that Keats is personifying the Templi, in a conflation common in Western literature, in an anima form. The equation is “Imago Templi = Sophia = Penetralium.”
Why then, did Keats make a new word, when penetralia, as shown above, has the same potential use? The clue is in the comment that spurred the Negative Capability sentence, where in West’s painting Keats finds “no women one is mad to kiss.” To juxtapose “mad to kiss” with a “man [who] is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without an irritable reaching after fact & reason,” is to expose an image of the interpenetration of bodies. That is, the Penetralium is neither anima personified as Sophia, nor a temple. “The Penetralium of Mystery” is organic: it is the body, not just of Sophia, but of Sophia and her lover. When mouths meet in a kiss, there is both entering and being entered.
The Penetralium is the place of being joined. As such, it is not (only) epistemological, but rather ontological. Based on this idea, let me offer a new etymology to show Keats’s meaning.
Rather than penetralia, as is usually supposed, suppose Keats had in mind the older English word penetral. If for no other reason, there is grounds for this assumption based on the Romantics’ penchant for archaizing. As noted above, the two are nearly synonyms, but penetral has the additional specific sense of “temple.” One enters the temple to experience the sacred knowledge, Sophia. Keats suffixes penetral, not on analogy to architecture, but to anatomy, as in peridontium (the gum tissue, or “skin of the teeth”) or corium, the outer layer of skin, the temple of the body.
The Penetralium is perhaps a connective tissue, but more likely, considering the templum, a skin that embodies more than one consciousness simultaneously. The “innermostness” of this Penetralium is not the spectral form of a psychologized Sophia, with whom Keats engages in polite conversation. The Penetralium is a syzygy of consciousnesses, a skin within which a “noisy, savage, rude genius” (W. S. Di Piero, Memory and Enthusiasm, 168; quoted in Rodriguez, 20) conjoins with his gods and goddesses “without any irritable reaching.” The Penates, as Partridge points out in Origins, were “gods of the Roman household.” Apollo, Hyperion, Saturn, Homer, Plato, Sophia, anima complex, the woman who broke their engagement, all those Keats was “mad to kiss,” they’re all in the same house together. This house, this templum, this Penetralium, is a mysterious ontological organ, enveloping and enveloped, composed of hermaphroditic “uncertainties,” fluid, and “capable of being.”
Follow up, July 31, 2007: Emily Bronte’s use of the word “penetralium.”
Bronte’s only novel was published 30 years after Keats’ letter. I’m uncertain as to the publishing history of Keats’ letter, but I suspect she hadn’t read it. (My hunch is about 51 to 49, on that one; please correct me if I’m wrong.) Suggesting that Bronte, too, coined the word on association with “penetralia.”
There seems to be some confusion here (in the comments) about the precise wording of the sentence in which Bronte used “penetralium,” but the available online editions of Wuthering Heights I’ve inspected give this:
As Catherine approaches Wuthering Heights, that pile, for the first time, she stands in the threshold implicitly blocked by Heathcliff.
I would have… requested a short history of the place from the surly owner; but his attitude at the door appeared to demand my speedy entrance, or complete departure, and I had no desire to aggravate his impatience previous to inspecting the penetralium.
There’s clearly a double entendre at work here, but Bronte dives away from the sexual connotation–or Catherine does–in the next paragraph:
One stop brought us into the family sitting-room, without any introductory lobby or passage: they call it here ‘the house’ pre-eminently. It includes kitchen and parlour, generally; but I believe at Wuthering Heights the kitchen is forced to retreat altogether into another quarter: at least I distinguished a chatter of tongues, and a clatter of culinary utensils, deep within….
Catherine hears the penetralium “deep within,” in the sense derived by formation of the singular of “penetralia,” the temple-hearth of the gods of the household. Or goddesses, as the case may be. Bronte (or her sister editor; this passage is from the first page or two of the novel) clearly means us to hear the inner gods of the household at work around the hearth. So Bronte moves from a sexual connotation to a Latin-derived denotation.
Keats’ Negative Capability letter, meanwhile still kicks ass and takes the word into original philosophical territory.