In preparation for Friday’s spelling test my 8-year-old had to write “certain” (among other words) three times and use it in a sentence. He could have written “I’m certain I will have pizza for dinner tonight” or “I’m certain I’ll get 300 pounds of Pokémon cards for my birthday next month.” They would have reflected ardent but incorrect usage, for neither of those things happened or will happen. Instead he wrote “I’m certain that 12 x 5 = 60,” and that pleases me. It suggests a more-than-superficial understanding of certainty and a budding sense of humility and proportion. Wishing offers no leverage on the world; unchecked, it become quietism or truly obnoxious behavior.
Etymology helps us here. “Certainty” is rooted in the Latin certus, “sure, fixed,” a variant of cernere, “to distinguish, decide,” originally “to sift, separate.” This implies certainty is not a received truth but the product of an act. Discernment and judgment precede certainty. We sift evidence – hard facts but also experience, knowledge, intuition.
While Michael was doing his homework I was in the next room reading an interview with Marilynne Robinson in The Guardian. Asked about the origins of her novels, she says: “If I know where an idea’s from, I don't use it. It means it has a synthetic quality, rather than something organic to my thinking.” This is lovely, and runs counter to notions of thesis-driven art. Trust in one’s tested instincts, and distrust of ready-made formulas, reflects the sifting and separating that go into a mature arrival at certainty. It’s a credo of use only to great artists.
What we know and how we know it, the gulf between desire and certainty, and the sadness and regret that result, are themes explored by Deborah Warren in Zero Meridian, her 2004 poetry collection. These are some of the best recent poems I’ve read. Here’s the title poem:
“It’s here beneath us, as invisible
as zero; but although there’s nothing there,
although it’s an abstraction – purely notion –
nonetheless, they drew a line in air
and based the world on it.
And you could say
in the grand scheme of things it matters more
than my October maples, or the ocean
throwing the waves like sapphires at the shore,
or even your mouth and eyes –
and I’d reply:
maybe you’re right. To take the measure of
anything that matters, we rely
on nothing – things like longitude and love.”
Another of my son’s spelling words this week is “flexible,” and here’s his sentence using it: “Baskets are woven out of flexible twigs.” I’m not certain where he learned that but he certainly sounds certain.