Friday, January 05, 2007


I had thought about writing a review of a Unmaking the West, yet another book on counterfactual history; but I find it hard to take the practice seriously enough to make the exercise worthwhile. Historians sometimes use the literary conceit of alternative histories to illustrate worthwhile ideas about what actually happened; but when they imagine that their scenarios have probative as opposed to rhetorical or illustrative value, they lose me.

Counterfactual methods are usually deployed in an attempt to underline the role of contingency in history and to discredit thereby the grand theories that claim that history has an overall logic and destiny—over the last 150 years, for example, counterfactual arguments have been a reliable bludgeon in the interminable scholarly war on Marxism. Unfortunately, counterfactual history itself depends upon the presumption of a certain level of predictability in history; for once some plausible variation is postulated—William of Orange gets shot at the Battle of the Boyne or the wind blows the wrong way in 1588—the consequences of the surprise get worked out on the assumption that nothing else surprising takes place and that the predictable consequences of events play out as scheduled. A history made out of non-stop surprises is just as useless to counterfactual history as a history that runs on rails.

In fact, if history really were an incredibly detailed geology of the surface of the earth, a natural science that treated men as mobile rock formations, I expect that we would conclude that the predictions of historical events would be no more trustworthy than weather reports, especially when the forecasts ventured to tell us what happens after next week. Which is why, by the way, the practitioners of counterfactual history routinely sneak the notion of fate back into their tales—a careful sociological analysis of the economic consequences of a lasting French superiority in Europe will not fail to include the bit about a young Corsican who becomes a successful general in Louis XVI’s triumphant armies as if Napoleon would even be born in an alternative future. They really don’t come to terms with the contingencies of the world at all as anybody who really took seriously the physics or even the biology of the issue would have to do.

If individual human beings and their particular talents and foibles are critical to the outcome of history, as many a counterfactual historian has insisted, it doesn’t much matter what historical event you imagine altering in your imaginary parallel world. The non-linearity built into human reproduction guarantees that a total different cast of characters will soon begin to appear in the sequel even if we imagine that nothing much else takes place. Natural selection has decreed that the genetic cards will be very thoroughly shuffled before and, indeed, during each deal. It may take a cannonball to take off William’s head, but it takes the distant reverberation of a gnat’s fart to result in an Albertine instead of an Albert or to turn a hero into a weakling or nothing at all. Absent some mystic law of destiny, mere mechanics pretty much guarantees that any macroscopic or even microscopic perturbation will suffice to alter the outcome of every future conception in utterly unpredictable ways and, if the premise that individuals matter is correct, result in a drastically different history. Counterfactual history proves too much.

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