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Poetics Today 22.4 (2001) 863-864
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Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals
Niall Ferguson, ed.,Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals. London: Picador, 1997. x + 548 pp.
This collection of essays aims to present not ordinary historical writing but a history of the subjunctive and contrary-to-fact conditional: "What would have happened if . . . ?" The essays, written by nine English and American historians, thus explore nine such roads not taken in actual history. What if no English Civil War or no American War of Independence had occurred? What if Ireland had never been divided? What if Britain had stayed out of the First World War? What if Hitler had invaded Britain or had defeated the Soviet Union? What if the Soviets had won the Cold War? What if Kennedy had lived longer? And, finally, what if there had been no Gorbachev and Soviet Communism had not collapsed?
This kind of "counterfactual" history should prove interesting not only to historians but also to literary theorists, especially those who study the dividing line between history and fiction. Counterfactual history is a kind of writing whose status may raise interesting questions in this regard. For instance, to what extent does it rest on truth claims that are supposed to characterize historical writing, and what--if anything--distinguishes it from fictional narratives whose plots are based on the assumption that, at certain branchings in history's garden of forking paths, some path other than the one that produced our world had been chosen? Examples of the latter are Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle (What if Germany had won the Second World War?) or Kingsley Amis's The Alteration (What if the Reformation had not taken place in England?).
In a long introductory essay Niall Ferguson endeavors to lend historical "respectability" to the essays in the book, distinguishing them both from fictional writing and from earlier attempts to write counterfactual history on a wide scale. He condemns these attempts for their wishful thinking, lack [End Page 863] of seriousness, and reliance on anachronistic assumptions. He claims that in order to avoid such pitfalls, the essays in this book deal only with likely alternative possibilities: "The counterfactual scenarios we therefore need to construct are not mere fantasy: they are simulations based on calculations about the relative probability of plausible outcomes" (85). To insure that the exploration of unrealized alternatives will not slip into improbability, Ferguson suggests the methodological constraint of focusing on such alternatives as can be shown, on the basis of contemporary evidence, to be those that people at the time actually considered (and in many cases seemed to them more probable than those which have actually materialized). He argues that paradoxically only by adopting the perspective of contemporaries, for whom our "closed" past was still an "open" future, can we be faithful to the past as it actually was. In this context, Ferguson engages in a polemic with deterministic conceptions of history that, he believes, fail to appreciate fully the role of contingency. They succumb to the illusion of inevitability created by the hindsight that derives from our present knowledge of how things have eventually turned out.
Considering the expectations that arise from the book's introduction and the titles of its essays, the counterfactual pieces themselves may appear somewhat disappointing, at least from a theoretical viewpoint. Most of the essays concentrate not so much on developing the counterfactual scenarios promised in their titles but rather on an analysis of the events that actually occurred, presenting an antideterministic interpretation of them by arguing that things could indeed have turned out differently. The counterfactual alternatives themselves, however, seldom run beyond vague generalizations. (Somewhat exceptional in this regard is the witty afterword "A Virtual History, 1646-1996" also written by Ferguson, in which he adds up all the alternative scenarios outlined in the preceding essays into one continuous narrative.) On the whole, therefore, the counterfactual does not achieve an autonomous status in this book but remains one of many methodological aids to a better understanding of the factual.
Eyal Segal, Tel Aviv