Henry Miller’s Certitude in Black Spring

(Page numbers refer to the edition of Henry Miller’s Black Spring published by Alma Classics in 2012)

In the chapter of Black Spring called “The Angel is my Watermark”, we get to watch Henry Miller as he creates a work of art, a painting. Towards the end of the chapter, he stands back and admires his “masterpiece”:

“What appears now before my eyes is the result of innumerable mistakes, withdrawals, erasures, hesitations; it is also the result of a certitude.” (48)

Miller’s “certitude”: it’s the name he gives to the something of himself that he puts into the work. “You would like to give the nail brush credit, and the water credit. Do so – by all means. Give everybody and everything credit.” (48-49) You can add up all the things that go into the work: the materials, the influences . . . But you’ll always fall short. “Out by a penny, eh? If you could take a penny from your pocket and balance the books you would do so. But you are no longer dealing with actual pennies. There is no machine clever enough to devise, to counterfeit, this penny which does not exist.” (49)

The penny which does not exist is this certitude that comes from Miller himself. It doesn’t exist because it’s something negative: “I have never been able to draw a balance. I am always minus something. I have a reason therefore to go on.” (49) It’s what we lack that makes us go on. It’s the same with all meaningful human activity:

“We are that which is never concluded, never shaped to be recognised.” (17)

Strange to give the name “certitude” to this “minus”. When I hear the word “certitude” I usually think of something positive: a self-belief, something you can stand for. But Miller isn’t sure of anything positive. He’s only sure that he lacks something and so has to go on.

Miller’s certitude takes his work in a certain direction, but never to any conclusion. Even when the work is finished, it is never concluded. “It has nothing to do with clarity, precision, et cetera. (The et cetera is important!)” (17) He ends with an “et cetera” because there is always more that he could say.

Certitude means choosing a direction and sticking to it, because what else is there to do? In a strange way it does mean being certain of yourself. It means being certain that this activity is good enough, as long as you’re expressing yourself in some way.

Certitude seems to be opposed to precision (and clarity, et cetera). “Precision” means trying to make everything fit into a predetermined form, whereas certitude means taking a direction on the basis of nothing – a minus – and seeing where it takes you. Experiment.

When you write with certitude, the work may be messy and full of mistakes. “Don’t worry about errors when you’re writing. The biographers will explain all errors.” (23) Certitude does not guarantee precision, far from it. Certitude guarantees imprecision, because the brain is constantly whirring and changing and throwing up new ideas as you proceed. “The mind blunders because it is too precise an instrument; the threads break against the mahogany knots . . .” (17) Contradiction is an essential part of what it means to think. (“Do I contradict myself? Very well, then . . .”)

So how to proceed? Choose a direction and just go: “When each thing is lived through to the end there is no death and no regrets . . .” (16)

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4 Responses to Henry Miller’s Certitude in Black Spring

  1. Therese says:

    That’s an interesting take on “certitude.” Not sure if I got it right: it’s knowing/believing one is inadequate (or minus something) that one should proceed even though one is bound to make mistakes?

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    • leewatkins says:

      I don’t like the word “inadequate”, but I think I agree with what you’ve said. I think Miller is saying we’re always in a state of confusion, and we have to go on anyway. You express yourself, mistakes and all, and see where you end up. The definition of neurosis is demanding certainty, when certainty is impossible.

      I wouldn’t say “inadequate” because I think Miller would say that an individual is always adequate to the task, if only she’s brave enough to carry it out. At least in the case of making art, since art is about self-expression.

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