Spedo, Giampaolo (2009) The Plot Against the Past: An Exploration of Alternate History in British and American Fiction. [Ph.D. thesis]
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Alternate history [AH] is generally considered a subgenre within science fiction [SF]. However, while SF proper explores one of the possible alternatives to actuality set either in a distant world or at a future time, AH posits a counterfactual version of history which is presented as actual in the narrative, but is contradicted by the records. For this reason, texts describing future history or other, parallel worlds should be kept distinct from AH, as they can —theoretically — coexist with history as we know it and describe either the independent reality of another world or dimension, or one of the many, possible futures.
The analysis of AH involves the question of the referential content of the text. Traditional literary theory assumes a willing suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader of fiction, whereas philosophers have often tended to deny any referential value to literary texts. More recently, however, there has been fruitful cross-disciplinary fertilization, and fictionality is now seen as a pragmatically decided feature of texts, which can be fruitfully analyzed in terms of Possible Worlds theory.
Possible worlds describe alternative states of affairs, analyzed in terms of their modal relationship to the actual world, which is usually taken as the world of reference and whose states of affairs are described by true propositions. However, fictional worlds exist only on the authority of the texts describing them, whose incomplete descriptions cannot be validated or supplemented by access to alternative sources or to reality itself. The worlds created by AH are not as autonomous from reality as are other fictional worlds, as the historical alternative they posit is inevitably compared to the actual timeline so that its plausibility may be tested.
AH is written as if it were historical fiction, containing characters and events partly or totally invented, set against a real historical background, but it is read as absolutely fictional, as it describes events that never happened. In contrast, historical fiction [HF] is written and read as essentially realistic, if not necessarily real in all its parts. The delusion of a clearcut distinction between facts and fiction has been exposed, most famously, by Hayden White, who has pointed to the common discursive practices adopted by both historians and novelists, and analyzed the emplotment of historiographic discourse according to narrative forms borrowed from fiction. The ramifications are also momentous for counterhistorical discourse such as AH. If the form of emplotment encodes the narrative of past events so as to predetermine, to a large extent, its reception and interpretation, the same events may be understood to tell each time a different history. Indeed, the next logical step is the modification of the content itself, which is already, to some extent, an interpretation, an artificial representation of an object — the past — that cannot be experienced directly.
The writing of AH operates through the double selection that is common to all narratives: of the object of the text, and of a meaningful order in which its parts will be subsequently arranged. However, it requires another, intermediate process of selection: from the actuality of history one possible alternative will be extrapolated and developed. In this respect, AH or allo-history inherently recovers one of those forms of otherness that official historiography, in its rationalizing furore, tends to obliterate. AH is thus a challenging form: rhetorically, all but indistinguishable from other historical fictions; referentially, more fundamentally fictional than any realistic fiction, which does not contradict the received version of history.
AH is also different from historical counterfactuals [HC], speculative texts written by professional historians that usually present the alternative timeline as merely hypothetical. This argumentative form has been practiced unobtrusively by great historians of the past such as Livy and Gibbon, but only recently has it acquired some respectability as a powerful analytical tool overcoming the limitations of deterministic historiography and correcting the hindsight bias that prevents one from examining possible alternative outcomes for the events analyzed.
HC are subject to stricter plausibility constraints than is allohistorical fiction [AF] in the concoction of a nexus event, the turning point in history on which the alternative timeline is based; professional historians will confine themselves to those alternatives which could have obtained, given the same initial conditions that produced actual history. Favourite turning points are wars, revolutions, and events affecting key historical figures, in accordance with Carlyle’s Great Man theory, which holds that history is shaped by exceptional personalities.
Even when the hypothesis is not pursued and developed until the present day, both HC and AF often reflect presentist concerns, for example in the exploration of possible alternatives to the rise of the West to world dominance. In rejecting the received version of history, both forms of AH recognize the play of necessity and contingency in human events, as does Chaos theory in science: we do live in a universe governed by laws, but lack the instruments to measure and predict their workings adequately. Generally speaking, the longer the temporal span considered, the harder it is to make inferences with a reasonable degree of reliability, as too many factors come into play.
After defining the boundaries inscribing AH within the general field of discourse — whether referential or fictional — about history, some attention has been devoted to the distinction between AH and conspiracy theory: the latter is a type of discourse claiming that an alteration to past records (rather than events) did take place and some crucial information has been kept secret as a consequence. Consideration has also been given to the space allotted to AH as distinguished from non-fictional extrapolation about future history or more or less static descriptions of alternatives to contemporaneous society, as in utopia/dystopia. There follows a discussion of the relationship between AH and the more general postmodernist play with a past no longer taken for granted. Whereas conspiracy theory is preoccupied with the knowability of events, AH is definitely postmodern in that it reflects a general shift in fiction from epistemological to ontological concerns (McHale), but it is usually more rigorous than escapist parallel worlds stories or postmodernist pastiche mingling elements from disparate ages.
In its exploration of the hazy border zone between history and fiction — neither what has happened nor what may still happen, but rather what could have happened — AH might constitute a pragmatic form of metahistory, no less precious and insightful than are theoretical elaborations on the form and object of historiography on the one hand, and on the nature of fiction on the other hand.
The first fully fledged counterhistorical narratives did not appear until the post-Napoleonic era. Geoffroy-Château's Napoléon et la conquête du monde (1836) is generally considered the first modern fictional AH, while the title of Renouvier’s Uchronie (1876) has become a synonym for AH. Whereas John Collings Squire’s collection of HC If It Had Happened Otherwise (1931) contributed to the acceptance of such speculative exercises as intellectual divertissements — if not yet as serious academic hypotheses — fictional AH came of age after WWII.
WWII is one of the favourite subjects of AH, for its undisputable importance, for the moral alternatives it presents, and, more simply, because it is generally known. This study has selected for analysis a triptych of narratives devoted to alternative developments and outcomes of the war. The selection has not the ambition of being representative of the diachronic development of AH as a whole, not even of the thematic cluster chosen for analysis. Rather, the works analyzed can be considered specimens of a general, progressive tendency of AH to go mainstream.
A fundamental contribution to the establishment of AH was given by Philip Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (MHC, 1962), set in a counterhistorical US, defeated in WWII and split up in three by the victorious Axis powers of Germany and Japan, leaving a powerless buffer zone in the middle. The situation is complicated by the unstable reality of the novel, challenged by the subversive counternarrative of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy but also by glimpses of yet another timeline, recognizable as our own. Ontological displacement is a recurrent theme in Dick’s novels. No ultimate truth is available for the characters, each corresponding to a separate centre of consciousness and trying to make sense of a dangerous and chaotic world. But far from certain are also the respective roles and allegiances — even the identities — of the various characters, including the Americans, oscillating between collaboration and individual, perhaps pointless resistance.
The disturbing suggestion of the rather inconclusive ending is that man in the real world is also groping in the dark, proceeding by trial and error, with no cognitive and moral compass to show the way. Even the authorial attitude toward the fictional world is uncertain: neither the rather hellish world of the novel nor the eutopian alternative of Grasshopper correspond to our world, although both can be said to hint at it to some extent. In the final analysis, readers could feel authorized to choose for several, contrasting interpretations, including the multiverse option of each reality coexisting with the others, on separate or even communicating levels.
In Robert Harris’ Fatherland (FL, 1992) the presentist aspect is more evident, as the victorious Reich of the narrative is polemically compared to the European Union of our timeline, starting from the cover image. The novel reached a wider, general readership, beyond the more specialized readership of AH and SF fans. Unsurprisingly, the reception of the book in Germany has been far less unanimously positive than abroad.
Borrowing many a cliché from detective stories — including the maverick protagonist — the narrative describes an inquiry into the crime of the century, the Holocaust. The unearthing of the embarrassing secrets of an aging regime, eerily similar to the actual USSR and the totalitarian society of 1984, threatens to undo the diplomatic moves towards détente with the US. Analogous to Orwell’s dystopia is also the rewriting of history to suit the needs of a totalitarian regime and cover up its crimes, thus creating an endless series of alternate histories, each suppressing its antecedent. What is not in the record did not exist, and, if narratives are the way humanity makes sense of the past, what cannot be told never happened in the first place. Highly popular narratives of the Holocaust such as FL can therefore serve the cause of memory as well as does the indispensable work of historians.
The analysis of Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America (TPAA, 2004) starts — literally — from the cover, which is as evocative of the contents as were those of MHC and FL (and of AH in general). The image refers to the Nazi threat incumbent on the American landscape and to the stamp-collecting hobby of the protagonist, a younger alter ego for the author, one of many in Roth’s work, which is largely autobiographic and had already featured passing reference to an anti-Semitic threat that becomes paramount in this narrative. Generally speaking Roth appears more at ease with the personal lives of himself and his immediate circle — however fictionalized — than with the larger historical picture.
There follows an analysis of the agential constellation of the novel, in which the fate of the Great Men, mundane gods who make history, is intertwined with that of the Roth family. Roth’s imagination appears to have been haunted for sometime by the controversial figure of Charles Lindbergh, who finds a more positive counterpart in the Swede, the failed model father and husband and protagonist of American Pastoral (AP, 1997). However, there are both analogies and differences, even ontological, between the respective protagonists, as the Swede ‘was fettered to history, an instrument of history’, whereas Lindbergh, who defeats Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election of the narrative, is an active agent of history. Thus, Doležel’s Modern Myth model can be applied to TPAA as to other narratives in which different sets of characters enjoy different status and power.
The main focus is therefore on the nexus event, the turning point which alters the course of history. Presidential elections lend themselves particularly well to being treated as decisive moments in American history, although it is arguable whether a maverick candidate like Lindbergh, for all his heroic aura and the way it could have been enhanced by the media, could have turned the tables so dramatically as to beat Roosevelt. At all events, what is least convincing is not the concoction of an alternative America but its sudden disappearance, leaving no discernible trace in subsequent events.
The way the descent of a country into fascist hell is exorcised, with the exposure of a plot against America that is as intricate as it is improbable and the ensuing, all-too-convenient disappearance of Lindbergh, is a deus ex machina solution that constitutes perhaps the weakest point in a narrative otherwise rigorous and convincing, in its treatment of historical sources and figures — for example, that of the highly influential and controversial columnist Walter Winchell, who in TPAA becomes a generous if chanceless antagonist for Lindbergh.
It is as if Roth had wanted to offer readers just a glimpse of a danger that did threaten a whole country, not only the Jewish portion of its population. A similar message was conveyed in Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here (1935), which, retrospectively, could be read as an AH of sorts. In fact, presentist interpretations of TPAA, however rejected by the author, have been offered, some of them highly unlikely or controversial. The point both Lewis and Roth try to illustrate is that, although it did not ‘happen here’, it could have, and the Anglo-Saxon democracies where spared by the dictatorial wave that swept much of the world in the interbellum through a fortunate accident rather than their manifest destiny or intrinsic resilience to such a fate.
MHC contributed at once to the establishment of Dick as author, to the acceptance of SF within literature at large, and to the coming into its own of AH as a subgenre within SF proper. FL came in a later phase, and reached beyond the niche of specialized AH readers thanks to its contamination of realistic (counter)historical fiction with a protagonist and plot borrowed from the well-established, even formulaic conventions of the detective story. Finally, TPAA marks the somewhat awkward and idiosyncratic adoption of AH by a mainstream, by now canonical author. To sum up: MHC established — or helped to establish — AH within SF; FL did so outside SF; TPAA, above or beyond SF.
To the definitive acceptability in mainstream fiction of AH as a literary device will certainly contribute its adoption in recent novels by important authors. For example Doris Lessing, the Nobel laureate, uses in Alfred & Emily (2008) a counterhistorical backdrop for the development of an alternative family history. In the dreary alternate England of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (2005), society is organized according to biological engineering, with the creation of clones and the establishment of a system of compulsory ‘donations’ of organs. The huge injustice goes unchallenged, the wrongs are generally accepted as fair in comparison to the advantages. Thus, the novel is mainly an exercise in emotional restraint — both on the part of the narrator and of the protagonists — and raises more moral questions than it answers. But perhaps the most controversial among recent AH novels by mainstream authors is Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (2007), set in a counterfactual postwar Jewish Alaska settlement enjoying large autonomy, whereas the foundation of the State of Israel has failed. The novel starts as a detective investigation on the murder of a purported Messiah, later to discover a plot to blow up the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, hatched by extremist Hasidic Jews. Their disparaging descriptions have sparked controversy, as they lack the human sympathy that emerges not only in TPAA but even in the earlier prose by Roth.
With this last example, the counterfactual investigation of WWII and of the crime of the Holocaust has come full circle, back to the heart of darkness of that historical tragedy; if the War itself no longer appears to elicit, in Anglo-American narrative, the same strong emotional responses as before, the Shoah and the ensuing foundation of the State of Israel still stimulate both narrative and speculative exercises that are either polemical or met with polemical reactions — and will probably continue to, in an age where the shattered illusion about the End of History has rekindled interest for the past, including the paths it has not taken.
La storia alternativa o Alternate History è un sottogenere della Science Fiction che postula l’alterazione della Storia e gode di una crescente popolarità, in particolare nella letteratura anglosassone. Nell’ambito dell’analisi teorica, che tiene conto del rapporto tra testi finzionali e mondi possibili, si è proceduto al confronto con altri generi e con la storia in quanto memoria individuale e collettiva, nonché all’individuazione dei precedenti storici del genere.
In seguito, è stata svolta un’analisi dettagliata di tre romanzi basati su alternative alla storia della Seconda Guerra Mondiale: Philip Dick, The Man in the High Castle (1962), tra Science Fiction e Alternate History, giocato sulla messa in discussione di diversi piani di realtà; Robert Harris, Fatherland (1992), una detective story applicata alla ricostruzione della Shoah; Philip Roth, The Plot against America (2004), una rivisitazione della storia in chiave maggiormente personale che nei romanzi precedenti.
Infine, i testi in esame sono stati collegati a una tendenza più generale dell’Alternate History verso la letteratura mainstream, attraverso la recente adozione di postulati contrafattuali nelle opere di altri autori di lingua inglese, non più confinati nell’ambito popolare della Science Fiction.
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Simple MetadataFull MetadataEndNote Format
|EPrint type:||Ph.D. thesis|
|Ph.D. course:||Ciclo 21 > Scuole per il 21simo ciclo > SCIENZE LINGUISTICHE, FILOLOGICHE E LETTERARIE > LINGUISTICA, FILOLOGIA E LETTERATURE ANGLO-GERMANICHE|
|Data di deposito della tesi:||27 January 2009|
|Anno di Pubblicazione:||2009|
|Key Words:||Alternate History, Philip Roth, The Plot Against America, Philip Dick, The Man in the High Castle, Robert Harris, Fatherland|
|Settori scientifico-disciplinari MIUR:||Area 10 - Scienze dell'antichità, filologico-letterarie e storico-artistiche > L-LIN/11 Lingue e letterature anglo-americane|
|Struttura di riferimento:||Dipartimenti > pre 2012 - Dipartimento di Lingue e Letterature Anglo-Germaniche e Slave|
|Depositato il:||27 Jan 2009|
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