The argument is usually put forward as being: “what if…?”
What if those men who fought at Troy, or Thermopylae, or Actium, or Hastings or Agincourt, had lost to the Trojans, The Persians, to Mark Antony, to Harold, to the French – how might things be now today had just one of these formative battles gone the other way and the losing side had in fact won?
Rowan Atkinson and his people take part in a one-off TV episode of “Blackadder” in which Edmund and Baldrick go into the past in a Time Machine, and they interfere with the Battle of Waterloo and come back to a future in which we British are speaking French and using ‘foreign’ money.
Besides this fun ‘what if..?’ there are books written on how history might have turned out ‘only if…’ – some books being more serious of intent than others – some written as it were by ‘historians’. And there is also in the realm of fiction Philip Roth’s ‘what if’ novel “The Plot Against America” which considers an America which has seen Lindbergh oust Roosevedlt in the race for The White House in the late nineteen thirties.
What does such a writer or speculator do when s/he decides to do a ‘what if..?’ item? Normally it is to pick an important historic event, one which with our present hindsight is seen and agreed by a general consensus to have been pivotal in its turn of events as these followed it. The chosen important historic event becomes a baseline; a milestone for history upon which is hung, for better or worse, and with or without due discretion, an enormous quantity of weight of significance. So much so that the momentous historic event which has been chosen becomes, for the purposes of speculation, an event upon which all our chickens are to be counted and hatched, an event upon which all our present day situation hangs; it becomes a straight either/or outcome upon which hinges the fate of everything subsequent.
Now is this not mere cheating? Can anyone who is claiming to be writing history in this way claim also to be writing serious and academic work? Can they say that by serious and discerning people they are worth reading for edification’s sake?
Philip Roth’s fiction is a very different kettle of fish to the historic, would-be non-fiction, ‘what if…?” book. His is self-confessedly an imaginative piece of fiction and it was written with him having in mind several aims. It carries themes which are able to be discussed legitimately in fiction, and under such a ‘what if’..?’ scenario. Philip Roth in this way was doing exploring, and from his explorations he was bringing out viable and pertinent points of interest about the condition of and the attitudes towards, the Jewish peoples who have dwelt since the nineteen thirties in the USA. This approach to serious fiction appears to me to be perfectly sound and integral.
The stumbling block which hampers the writing of ‘history’ as ‘what if..’, whether it be intended as a serious contribution to thought or otherwise, rests in this very fact of it being presented as non-fiction history; when in fact it can only be nothing but fiction, since its foundational premise is rested wholly on that pivotal but unrealised ‘what if..?’ scenario it postulates.
A couple of questions arise:
- This ‘what if..?’ as history, and especially when it is presented as intended to be a serious contribution, is it legitimate as a form of history in any way? And
- Concerning less consequential books of this kind which demand little claim on our seriousness; is there any harm in ‘having fun’ with them in this way?
The first question is the more important one to be looked into and to work out an answer to, because there appears there may be harm done whenever such ‘serious histories’ of this kind can be shown to be inherently misleading and even presenting some fatally flawed reasoning at their inmost hearts.
Here is what I mean.
In the first place arises a question whether events, as they are happening in the present and so passing into the past; are such events at all in any way able to be anything other than what they are? Certainly there’s that existential moment in the present which is ever-present, again flowing in a continuum, and in which a person faces continual choices which are able to make or to mar his life – say for the foreseeable future.
The same existential moment in continuum which we call the present offers the same conditions for decision-making and action to all societies and at all places and for any organisms where choice is a reality, actual or possible.
Thus at any hypothetical point on this existential continuum, the present, ‘things and events are, always and ever, nothing else but up for grabs’ for any of us. They are ‘up for grabs’ as the marriage service says, ‘for better or for worse’.
But if we miss the appropriate time or that window of time in which we are able to act and choose to make a difference, Omar Khayyam tells us truly that
“The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.”
There is the single person’s action, say posting a Twitter Tweet, which gets mobbed by Trolls and the kerfuffle raised by the Trolls gets to the mainstream, and as a result things act to destroy the career of the person who posted the Tweet. This is a scenario seen to happen often – such a series of events could have been averted by the person who posted having foregone posting it. It’s as simple as that.
For a huge event like say The Battle of Plataea or The Battle of Waterloo, think how many main actions, choices, plans, sub-actions, sub-plans, and then there are myriad contingent dependencies on these main items. Then think of the accidentals like, weather, ground, health, distractions on the day, or else beforehand, and think as well on the many, many other contingencies. All these conditions and events, decisions and accidentals, run perhaps into millions of items, small, larger, and largest. How did they all, or enough of them, actually come together and so happen felicitously so as to give the historical outcome that happened and which actually occurred?
I am not saying that all things that happen or that don’t happen are down to sheer luck. I am saying chance is always an element impinging on events happening and being done in the existential continuum of the present, and cannot be utterly ruled out in any event. The greater the complexity of an event the more, and more intertangled are its outcomes, then the less easily is the element of luck or chance able to be held in check by, say, good planning and so on.
“There’s many a slip – between the cup and the lip”
So we have in fact our living consciousnesses caught up in everlasting combat within the existential continuum of the present, and doing battle with that great hubbub and melee of ‘things and happenings’ going on around us; both in and as a part of, that same flow of continuum. We are called upon then to be making choices continually; some of these being of no consequence some others of massive consequence. But very often we don’t know which ones are consequential and which are not, because we cannot see into the future clearly to see our choices play out into larger or smaller consequences for our lives. So every moment in the continuum with each of us is in fact a mesh of bigger and smaller sized gambles we are taking.
Maybe this is why politicians just cannot govern and get it right?
The question arises whether these sets of chances, choices and planning and so on, which we find comprise our actions and our choices, when put together with those sundry things which interfere with our actions and choices; are they then wholly inevitable? Can the events and actions that happen in the world be only those which actually occur and which go down in history as having happened – so that they are all set in stone?
It’s a question no-one in the world can answer. It could be so – it may not be so?
We only know that once things are done, have happened, they are indelible, cannot be undone. They are set irrevocably in the past.
At best we can say that we have exercised our wills in making our choices and doing our actions and so have contributed; but we cannot know whether those contributions, either a single person’s input or a groups, or the inputs of the whole shebang, have had any effect or have been decisive of and in outcomes.
I have said that Time is a continuum. By this I mean that there is no such thing as a ‘still photograph’ of the past or of the present; nor even, we can reliable project, is there any for any future we might have. Time may drag for us sometimes, or else fly when good times are being had; but we all accept, as a sound and almost certain generalisation, given the conditions we are used to living in, that time runs along all the time and at the same rate of flow – and in despite of our subjective perceptions of it.
We have even made atomic clocks which we have developed and built so as to measure time passing most accurately. We could not have done this, develop, build, and use atomic clocks in this way were time ‘all over the place’ and so running shorter now and long later, or before, and so on.
I argue here now that any author who picks a single historic event and makes it ‘the debacle of debacles’, the absolute lynchpin of the future and of what the future brings or might bring; s/he is succumbing to that fallacy of the ‘photographic still snapshot of time’ to which time flowing in continuum does not, cannot, adhere.
Let’s look at any historic event having been taken as a subject to be an ultimate snapshot in this way, and analyse the consequences of us assuming this ‘everything or nothing’ status for that event and its outcomes. Making it absolutely decisively significant.
The Battle at Hastings in 1066 saw the Norman Lord, William the Conqueror, defeat decisively the English King, Harold, and thereafter William subduing England and being its monarch.
Immediately beforehand Harold had made a forced march southwards to Hastings, which is on the south coast of England. He had come straight from another battle at Stamford Bridge in the north in which he had defeated and quelled an enemy army.
So if we are tasking the battle at Hastings as our absolutely decisive event, it having been in fact victory for William; and then postulating in a ‘what if..?’ scenario of history that it was Harold who had won at Hastings; then would we not have to put some considerable weight on the adverse effects from The Battle of Stamford Bridge having tired Harold and his armies, and on the forced march having also been very wearing for them?
Since we can argue very strongly that Harold would have been more likely to have defeated William and so retained the English crown for himself, had he not needed to rush with his armies down from the north, and after having just fought a battle there?
Everyone reasonable has to admit that us placing this weight is acceptable. But by us giving due weight to Stamford Bridge and the forced march to Hastings afterwards, we are detracting, and it cannot be otherwise, from the absoluteness of the event of The Battle of Hastings. We cannot say now that it was an absolutely decisive event for a Norman King to have grabbed the English crown by. The Battle at Hastings cannot continue to bear that absolute weight of being the definitive decisive event when we bring in (as we are forced to and reasonably so) Stamford Bridge as the precursor to it.
Had Stamford Bridge never happened, or had it gone the other way, surely things would have been different regarding Hastings?
Further, we might now go on to discuss how the armies which were massed against Harold at Stamford Bridge had come to be there, and to have been raised against him? We might ask next what were the events which triggered these things, and so we can go ever further back into historical antecedent, and pile on it further historical antecedent, so that there appears to be no end to antecedents we might cite from an ever deeper past.
This is just like those mirrors in the long gallery at Versailles which face one another and present to a viewer into one an ever-receding infinity of reflections of himself.
This then is the fallacy of ‘what if…?’ histories. It is one which tells against them being serious as histories per se. They are a curious genre of writing, since they try to lay claim to an element of non-fiction but they rest utterly on a huge fiction for their foundations. They belong better alongside Philip Roth’s ‘what if..?’ novel, but ever and always the fact that they are dealing with their special ‘what if..?’ scenarios as them being, as it were, ‘hypothetical historical non-fiction”. Usually they are not openly declared by their authors to be fiction, they are not even perhaps bought as being fiction by their readers.
It’s a matter then, of what the police call ‘false pretences’. It’s a matter of donning a disguise to hide the true nature of the works which fall under this ‘what if..?’ umbrella.
Of course everyone knows their scenarios are ‘what if..?’. It is only by way of a sort of Orwellian doublethink that most readers also enjoy that frisson of the possibility of Londoners and Liverpudlians speaking French, and using foreign currencies in their pockets, as per the TV show ‘Blackadder’.
It’s a bit of a cheat then, a trick which is willingly fallen into and accepted and enjoyed by many readers, and such books can be discussed even as if the were serious fact. Their stories get embellished and recommended on as being good historical materials to friends.
Does it matter? Is there any harm in it? The answer to that question is found perhaps by asking yourself whether you are content to acquiesce in giving credence to a fiction, your acquiescence being your deliberate, but yet not fully realised, act of self-deception?