restricted access Foregone Conclusions: Against Apocalyptic History (review)
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Reviewed by
Michael André Bernstein. Foregone Conclusions: Against Apocalyptic History. Berkeley: U of California P, 1994. iii + 181 pp.

In this intense, deeply engaged book, Michael André Bernstein uses narratives of the Holocaust (or Shoah) to develop a theory of narrative. He builds this theory around three major terms—foreshadowing, backshadowing, and sideshadowing—although only the first of these is commonly used by narratologists. We understand that first term as conveying a sense—predictive or ominous—of events that are to come. Foreshadowing has long been present in all forms of fiction, from The Odyssey to Ulysses, and it is exemplified in the old conundrum that if you place a gun in the opening scene of a story it needs to be fired sometime before the final one. Bernstein has coined the term “backshadowing” in response to Gary Saul Morson’s creation of “sideshadowing,” intending it to serve as this book’s critical bête noire, particularly in relation to a narrative based on historical occurrence. “Backshadowing is a kind of retroactive foreshadowing in which the shared knowledge of the outcome of a series of events by narrator and [End Page 929] listener is used to judge the participants in those events as though they too should have known what was to come.” In many fictional and non-fictional accounts of the Shoah, the contemporary voice functions to pass judgment on the insufficiently vigilant actions of individuals who should have known that the Third Reich was preparing to put all European Jews to death. “Why didn’t they know?” is the implication behind that voice, which speaks with impeccable backshadowing, even though what “they” are now asked to have known was unthinkable at the time they were supposed to have known it. Bernstein cites several examples of such backshadowing. One comes from Ernst Pawel’s biography of Franz Kafka, in which Pawel mentions that earlier in the same year of Kafka’s birth (1889) Adolph Hitler was also born, “a sickly infant whose survival seemed doubtful. He survived.” Bernstein calls this gratuitous concatenation “a kind of tawdry frisson.” Turning to a prominent novelist, Bernstein discovers the same “art of intimation” in Aharon Appelfeld’s otherwise admirable novels about Austro-German Jewry, such as Badenheim 1939. Bernstein considers it an unethical manipulation of one’s characters to judge them even implicitly from behind the moral purity of hindsight.

Bernstein, through Morson, develops the concept of “sideshadowing” from his immersion in the work of Bakhtin, and his use of the term reminds one of the concept of polyphony or multi-voicedness. Bernstein defines sideshadowing at the beginning of the book as “a gesturing to the side, to a present dense with multiple, and mutually exclusive, possibilities for what is to come.” He later refines the definition by discussing it in the context of a Bakhtinian prosaics: “Sideshadowing is defined by its attention to the pressures of randomness and contingency, to a view of the self as an aggregate of everchanging habits, memories, and experiences, shaped in part by unforeseen and unforeseeable circumstances, and to a notion of truth as precisely what is not a puzzle to be solved or a revelation to be authenticated in a unique climactic struggle.” It is this emphasis on narrative that reflects life as a series of rich experiences, defined more by their differences than their absolute contents, that Bernstein values most highly. In this sense, sideshadowing removes the temptation to see history as utterly determined before the fact and as therefore allowing the narrator to pass negative judgments on characters caught in the web of contingency that constitutes life as we experience lt. [End Page 930]

The writers Bernstein mentions most favorably include Kafka, Primo Levi, and Proust, all of whom express a sense of life’s contingent nature. He is especially hard on critics who have come to see Kafka as prophesying the Holocaust, as if someone writing twenty years before the fact could possibly have foreseen the death camps. Bernstein is also critical of post-war critics and Israeli militants who have condemned the European Jews for going so quietly to their deaths—as if they could have foreseen what was...