Le contresens n° 13
Literary History and Counterfactuals
I start with a known hypothesis, recently resurrected in a special issue of Yale French Studies. It concerns an aborted project of Walter Benjamin’s which he described in a letter to Hugo von Hofmannsthal: “I sometimes think about writing a book on French tragedy as a counterpart to my Trauerspiel book. My plan for the latter had originally been to elucidate both the German and the French Trauerspiel in terms of their contrastive nature. But something must be added”. The something to be added never was, and thus, although we can guess – hypothesise about Benjamin’s hypothesis – we can never know. The project remains in the sphere of the might-have-been, or in the more technical term that defines the parameters of my topic, the Counterfactual and literary history.
Although of course he does not actually use the term, Benjamin was deeply interested in counterfactuals, most notably, from a philosophical and political point of view, in the Theses on the Philosophy of History. Since I’ve had my say on this in print elsewhere, I will not be talking about this here. Nor for that matter, will I be exploring the might-have-been of the unfinished Trauerspiel inquiry. I mention it for two reasons. The first is because the example I have chosen to illustrate my main concern is that of a might-have-been history of French tragedy post-Racine, thus opening onto a double counterfactual – the might-have-been of Benjamin’s reflection on 17th century French tragedy and the – or rather a – might-have-been of French tragedy itself. However, I stress my selected example as just that, its purely illustrative status (there are many other possible cases I could take if I had time). And that in turn connects with the second of my two reasons for starting with Benjamin, namely as a cue into a far more general topic, namely, various attempts to re-think the conceptual armature of literary history, where what I want to do is, very, very tentatively, to open a place for the counterfactual in the face of what I call the new determinisms, most notably the fascinating but in my view seriously flawed attempt by Franco Moretti to redesign the foundations of literary history on the basis of an extended analogy with Darwinian theories of biological evolution. So a thought-experiment that has an adversarial context, but also a debt, as a much delayed response to an argument sketched by Raymond Williams in what seems now like another life time, where, in his late book, Writing in Society, he spoke of the imperative necessity of thinking in multiple tenses of the imagination. Here I address the possibilities of just one of those tenses, the conditional perfect, albeit within the framework of a thought-experiment where one cannot be sure whether the perspective in question itself has, so to speak, a future tense.
Counterfactuals are often, and rightly, viewed with suspicion (which is why I begin by emphasising that the thought- experiment comes with a health warning attached). The historian E. H. Carr called them “parlour games with the might-have-beens”. E. P. Thompson was even less polite in designating counterfactual speculation as mere Geschichtwissenschlopf. And there is indeed some justification for seeing a concern with the might-have-beens of the past as threatening the integrity of the discipline, especially when, under the heading of so-called Virtual History, the concern is merely an expression of preferences, or what recently the historian Richard Evans terms “wishful thinking”. And I’ll be coming back to that in connection with the second of my case studies. On the other hand, the health warning needs to be displayed on both sides of the debate: if counterfactual thinking can all too easily be wishful thinking, the critique of the counterfactual can also all too easily involve the construction of straw men based on a serious mis-characterisation of the nature and objectives of c-factuals properly speaking. Although they are all members of the same conjectural family, counterfactuals are not the same as the unconstrained “what if?” or the nostalgia-laden “if only”.
One generally encouraging background development is the growing importance of counterfactual thinking in a range of disciplines, beyond its controversial place in the discipline of history. For example, in philosophy (“possible worlds” theory, originating in David Lewis’s work on modal logic); in economics (where counterfactuals are often bound up with game-theoretical accounts of the behaviour of economic agents); in anthropological linguistics (Alfred Bloom’s remarkable work on the fact that Chinese has no properties for marking a counterfactual thought). Finally, I note that it has also found its way into art history, for example in T. J. Clark’s recent book on Picasso which frames its entire argument around the interesting notion of what he calls a “modernism that might have been”. Counterfactuals have also found a place in literary studies, as the study of fiction that itself uses counterfactuals for the purpose of constructing a particular kind of narrative, for example Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, with the intriguing double counterfactual, one nesting inside the other, staged in the opening sentences: “I wonder if I would have been a less frightened boy if Lindbergh hadn’t been president or if I hadn’t been the offspring of Jews”.
But what of literary history, by which I mean both the object of literary history (the literary past) and the discipline of literary history, the way the past is written as a history. Recent attempts to re-think the conceptual foundations of literary history have tended to go in an entirely different direction, in the form of new versions of determinism. Perhaps the best-known instance is the one I have already alluded to, what Franco Moretti calls “the great theory of how forms change in time”, elaborated on the basis of a grand analogy with evolutionary biology. Since I’ve already had my say on what I think is flawed in this way of reconfiguring the paradigms of literary history, I won't say any more here, other than that Moretti’s evolutionary dialectic of survival and extinction tells a literary-historical story that, while allowing for contingencies and freak events (random mutations, as it were, with pretty well every single question begged in that “as it were”), is broadly inevitabilist and triumphalist in character; it is, as I claimed in my published remarks, a version of winner’s history.
What in counterpoint I am concerned with here is not winners but losers, or to be more precise, the spectres or the virtualities of literary history, a variety of Nelson Goodman’s “ghost of the possible”, the phantom of what once was (as unrealised possibility) but which can also return to speak to us, and even under certain conditions take up abode, if in a new form. This of course necessarily invokes a very different relation between explanation and change. The logic of explanation, claims Geoffrey Hawthorn in his important study of counter-to-fact thinking, Plausible Worlds, requires and produces not merely the linear, one-dimensional relation of cause a to effect b (a relation which, like the survival of the fittest, simply trashes all competitor outcomes), but also the shadow – what I term the “spectre” – of the alternative. To say that x happened is also to say that y did not. But for this to be meaningful, or at least analytically useful, a further proposition is required: not only that y did not happen but that it might have. Y represents what was a real possibility, if of varying strength.
Strictly speaking, two necessary conditions have to be satisfied for being a counterfactual we might want take seriously (as distinct from an idle and useless fantasy). Call them the optional and the consequential. A counterfactual has to rest on an option that was actually available at time point T, even though it was a road not taken. That limiting condition rules out all manner of speculative what-ifs (the sphere of the what-if is of course limitless). Secondly, the might-have-been also has to pass the consequentiality test. The path not taken has to have significant consequences that, if not, for obvious reasons, precisely mappable, are at least coherently and plausibly imaginable.
How then, under this very general description, might we put the counterfactual to work in actual literary-historical cases? Here I take two of the four main types of literary-historical counterfactual I’m currently interested in. The two cases are represented by two figures, namely Racine, and Sainte-Beuve. The two are connected for my purposes by virtue of a convergence on the genre of Tragedy and the particular issue of the post-Racinian fortunes of the genre in the history of modern French literature. On the other hand, if the question of tragedy is common to both cases, they also represent two very different kinds of counterfactual, and, as will become clear, that difference is part of the point of my taking and juxtaposing the two cases.
So, first Racine. This is a highly specialised scholarly area, in which I do not have any particular expertise. The point of the inquiry, however, is less to add to the scholarly specialism, than is to give an empirical focus to a more general set of theoretically grounded interest in modes of historical thought. I started thinking about a counterfactual in relation to Racine after coming across a passage in a work now little read, Lytton Strachey’s Landmarks in French Literature. It concerns the notorious failure of Phèdre in 1677 (largely as the result of a Court intrigue mounted to promote a rival Phedre by the now completely forgotten Pradon, supported by the duchesse de Bouillon) and its principal consequence: Racine’s immediate and permanent withdrawal from the public theatre (the two late plays, Esther and Athalie were written of course for private performance at the Saint-Cyr girls school, the project of the pious Mme de Maintenon). Here is what Lytton Strachey said of that 22-year silence:
It is difficult to imagine the loss sustained by literature during those 20 years of silence. They might have given us a dozen tragedies, approaching, or even surpassing, the merit of Phèdre. And Racine must have known this (p. 99).
It will be no surprise that the moment that most caught my eye in this passage turns on the verb forms “might have” and “must have” (the might-have supposition of more tragedies after Phèdre deepening the formula of Phèdre, and the must-have supposition of Racine’s own awareness of that possibility). While Lytton Strachey is not of course the only one to have speculated along these lines (it is a standard move of Racinian biography), his conjunction of the might-have and the must-have is what catches the eye, at least mine. What interests me about this case is the crossing and interlacing of two categories, that of the literary “career” (specifically the career that is cut short, generally by conscious decision; another very famous example would be Rimbaud), and that of the fate of a literary genre (here tragedy). There are many explanations for Racine’s withdrawal and silence. Lytton Strachey’s echoes Louis Racine’s biography of his father in emphasising disgust at the things of this world and retreat into the spiritual world of Port-Royal. Others have stressed less the theme of the spiritual pilgrimage and more that of the “career” (recall the title of Raymond Picard’s scholarly book, La Carrière de Jean Racine), but in the worldly, even opportunist sense of the term (Racine’s abandons the theatre because seduced by the prospect of becoming the Historiographer Royal). There is also the view, favoured, for example by George Steiner, that Racine stopped after Phèdre because he knew he could never improve on its perfection (a view for which he invokes “contemporary” testimony but without telling us what it is). Finally, there is the beautiful fiction of Pierre Bayards’ book, where it turns out that the true author of Racine’s tragedies was La Fontaine, who, dismayed by the failure of Phèdre, could see no point in continuing the game!
There is now a rough and ready consensus around the second explanation. Indeed in his lively book, La stratégie du cameléon, Alain Viala claims that being offered the job of Historiographer Royal was quite simply the offer Racine couldn’t refuse, not just because it came from the King, but because by seventeenth-century standards the offer was so spectacular for an arriviste such as Racine as to make acceptance a no brainer; leaving theatre behind was a mere bagatelle. For Viala this proves conclusively why devoting any time at all to the counterfactual is a total waste of time (196); the “mystery” of the silence is only a mystery from the point of view of a much later, quasi-sacerdotal, post-romantic conception of the “writer”. That is, on Viala’s assumptions, there simply is no counterfactual; the case doesn’t satisfy the “optional” condition for the reason that it never was an option because Racine never had either the inclination or the intention to consider it; thus, while it might count as a theoretical option in some possible world, empirically it was not an option for him.
I admire Viala’s realism, just as I admire so much else in his book. Yet even while floundering in the mud of Flanders recording his master’s military campaigns, it is not inconceivable that Racine might have at times wondered about the post-Phèdre might-have-beens. The challenge of course is how to get from wondering about wondering (Racine’s) to something with greater historical heft. So where, in that connection, might we turn? We know of Racine’s continuing interest and involvement in the theatre, most notably the casting for and performance of his own plays. As one of his biographers puts it, the theatre was (I quote) “still a living issue for him”, and the notion that he simply walked away because seduced by the office of Historiographer Royal (I quote again) “cannot be accepted even as a caricature of the facts”. But how to take that further down the counterfactual road in question? The obvious candidates for the go-to sources will include the correspondence (especially the correspondence with Boileau); contemporary testimony (for example, his son Louis’s biography, although this is to be treated with great care given its Jansenist slant); Racine’s corrections to the later editions of 1687 and 1697; the hand-written annotations to his reading copy of Euripides’s tragedies in the Greek original (scholarly sleuthing in overdrive perhaps, but usefully aided by Susanna Phillippo’s study of this topic); the role in Racine’s later years of the curious figure of La Grange-Chancel (of whom more in a moment).
I have of course no time here for the detail of the trawl (and in any case am far from having myself completed it). It is not in fact that impressive, let alone conclusive. I nevertheless find myself detained by the intriguing tale of La Grange-Chancel, best known as the author of Philippiques directed at the regent, Philippe duc d’Orléans, for which he was arrested, sent to the Ile Sainte-Marguerite, from where he escaped to Sardinia, and later to Spain and Holland. He was also the young protégé of Racine and wannabe tragedian who, so some have thought, was also a potential proxy, Racine’s contemplation of the continuation of Racine by other means so to speak. He is also known as the author of several tragedies, but now only to a small band of specialists, and remembered essentially for being so memorably forgettable. Racine attended the first night of Jugurtha but we have no record of his thoughts and opinions (it’s hard to believe he saw himself living on in the work of the so-called protégé).
La Grange-Chancel is nevertheless the source for a tantalising claim, namely that Racine not only resumed the discarded earlier project of an Alceste, but that he completed it, only to burn the manuscript shortly before his death. La Grange-Chancel’s weaker yet still interesting claim is that Racine never stopped thinking about Euripides and in a very specific set of terms. Although Euripides belongs in the archaic world of the gods and the fates, he is also often seen (most notably by Nietzsche, although Nietzsche’s point was not intended as a compliment) as the father of psychological tragedy, the tragedian who sacrifices the antique mythic force of Aeschylus and Sophocles to a new focus on individuation. In the preface to Iphigénie (1674) Racine, talking of the Alcestis, describes Euripides as above all the tragedian of the “passions”. Thus while he first adopted Seneca’s title of Phaedra and Hyppolitus (rather than Euripides’ Hyppolitus, by which according to Bayle he was initially tempted) and then in the 1687 edition simplified it to Phèdre, there seems little doubt that he saw a relation between the Euripidean drama of the passions and the dark, claustrophobic world of Phèdre. Reference to the inscrutable designs of archaic Minoan gods and fates remain, which some have seen as a metaphor for Racine’s adherence to the Jansenist doctrine of the hidden god. But in terms of literary history, Phèdre, it is generally agreed, is Racine’s most concerted re-fashioning of tragedy for a modern, more secular audience. Roland Barthes deplored the ways in which what he called “bourgeois theatre” robbed Racinian tragedy of its mythic-archaic aura by domesticating its strangeness and reducing its distance from us through making his characters like us. But he also saw it as also containing the “germs” of “future bourgeois theatre”, as – a view echoed by Viala – a hybrid and transitional form, with a distinctive place in the longer haul history of modern dramatic forms.
However where the future of modern secular tragedy is concerned, this was to flower elsewhere, in Germany, Scandinavia, Russia etc, but not in France. From the inert formalism of 18c neoclassical tragedy to the pseudo-Shakespeareanised box of boulevard tricks that on the whole was Romantic tragedy, the literary-historical pattern in question consists essentially of various stages in the dying and the “death” of tragedy. Might things have been otherwise if Racine had continued developing and deepening the formula he had hit on with Phedre? You will see therefore that there is potentially a very big consequentialist question buried here, with implications not just for Racine’s own career (the minimalist version, but some minimalism!), but also for the fate of a genre in French literature. That is, and going back to the logical structure of the true counterfactual, the Racine case theoretically involves both an option (more Racine) and a long range consequence (what the history of modern tragedy in France might have been).
I of course anticipate all manner of objections, and three fundamental ones. The first centres on the explanatory, the terms of causal explanation (the causes of the so-called “death of tragedy” in France are far more complex); secondly, the empirical objection: the evidence is too thin to support the might have been of Racine breaking his silence); the third is the most devastating: to the question of what might have been comes the crisp reply “we can never know”, and, since we can never know, what’s the point of it? My own responses to those three objections would run as follows. First, I’m not suggesting a simple one-track linear causality anchored in a singular counterfactual (the death of tragedy, and not only in post-17th century France, is obviously over-determined); secondly, on the empirical test, yes, the evidence is slender, but not so insignificant as to inhibit all rational conjecture; this in turn leads to my reply to the third objection. The third objection, remember, has the effect of demolishing the entire scaffolding of all counterfactual thinking. So to the we-can-never-know response, I say yes that’s right. You can never prove or disprove a counterfactual. All you can do is run a more or less reasonable hypothesis. Most of the action will take place in the space between the more and the less, and that in turn will depend on the quantity and quality of the empirical evidence available. In connection with Racine, there isn’t enough to underpin a strong counterfactual but there is enough to anchor a more tentative one, around which it is interesting to speculate. How it might work with other cases remains to be seen (one case that I myself am interested in is that of Rimbaud). But let me conclude the case of Racine – this part of my talk – with an analogy, somewhat strained, I have to concede, with Racine’s great contemporary, Blaise Pascal. Pascal the mathematician, father of probability theory, and then famous example of the interrupted coin-spinning game: how to calculate what the outcomes might have been had the game gone to term. It’s another we-can-never-know-for-sure, in the grammar of the conditional perfect, but only a fanatical obsession with certainty would describe the exercise as pointless.
You may, legitimately, feel that the analogy is not just strained, but very strained, perhaps even more intellectually disreputable than Moretti’s bravura analogies with the evolutionary histories of biological organisms, and the warning lights will doubtless be flashing in your minds. They will flash even more brightly, and are meant to, with my second example, which I intend as an instance of a contaminated counterfactual, a parable of the misuses of this kind of thinking. The example also engages the question of tragedy and its fortunes in France, specifically a text of Sainte-Beuve’s on the fate of tragedy in his own time. The counterfactual is his, explicitly so, and different in kind from the one we have just been considering. It is essentially an ideological construct in the pursuit of an agenda, with implications for how certain schools of thought in the 19th century re-imagined literary history in relation to certain ends. I will cite the specific counterfactual first, before going on to embed it in the wider context to which it belongs.
In 1844 Sainte-Beuve, already in a state of some anxiety verging on perturbation about the literary culture of the 19th century, elected to the Académie française, takes the seat of the deceased playwright Casimir Delavigne; and, as is the custom, makes his maiden speech as an éloge to his predecessor. It was entirely obvious how such an encomium might be developed. Delavigne was little more than an amiably polished entertainer, who wrote patriotic poems (“Waterloo” is the one that made him famous) and historical plays such as Les Vêpres siciliennes and Louis XI, conservative in form (he voted against the elections of both Hugo and Vigny) and yet virtually impossible to stage. His singular achievement was to have had Les Vêpres, after a second reading, admitted to the repertoire of Théâtre Français but on condition that it never be performed, not because it was subversive but because it was awful (a version of it was however subsequently performed at the Odeon). “Casimir Delavigne corners tragedy”, remarks the hero in Balzac’s Illusions perdues. It is a brutally cynical comment on a brutally cynical time. SB of course knows all this, and, while paying due respects to both his predecessor and the conventions of the Académie éloge, finds a way of changing the subject. It is here that we encounter SB’s remarkable counterfactual, remarkable not only for its content (a reflection on a might-have-been of tragedy) but also for its form, its syntax which swells like a wave and which thus requires that the relevant passage be quoted in extenso: I do so in English translation, though it is but a pale reflection of the splendour, the wasted splendour, of Sainte-Beuve’s orotund French:
Gentlemen, I have sometimes asked myself : what would have happened if an eminent dramatist of the school that you will allow me not to define but which I will call frankly the classical school, if, at the moment of the strongest assault by the opposed camp, along with the headlong excesses that will be judged as one sees fit, but which have certainly occurred, if, as I say, this dramatic poet, buoyed by the public, had resisted rather than yielded, if he had availed himself of this support in order to return with greater determination to his own sources and to accentuate clarity in colour, simplicity of means, unity of action, intent on fathoming more deeply, in order to transmit them to us in a form that was grandiose, ennobled, held in the austerely tragic posture, the true passions of human nature ; if this poet had exploited a changing environment only with a view to modifying his dispositions in the requisite direction, this uniquely more and more classical direction (in the candid meaning of the term), I have often wondered: what would have happened ? To be sure, there would have been some difficult things to negotiate, some hard struggles to mount against the tide. But it seems to me, and does it not equally seem to you, gentlemen, that after some storms far easier to tolerate than those encountered by the valiant adversaries, and in the course of which that slow ideal expurgation would have been accomplished in the terms in which i conceive it, the perfected and persistent tragic poet would have had a grateful and loyal public, an enlarged public, and something far better than a merely peaceful niche, I mean to say a rising tide that would have taken hold of him and raised him higher.
Well, what does one make of these majestic sentences placed in the service in the service of such a preposterous fantasy? The importance of Sainte-Beuve as a literary-historical phenomenon in his own right, as at once France’s leading nineteenth-century critic as well as one of the central figures in the formation of the discipline of modern literary history, is no longer in doubt. In both guises Sainte-Beuve was many things (and I tried to write about some of them several years ago). One incarnation of him is that of the liberal modernist (the author of The Liberal Imagination, Lionel Trilling wrote about him in The Nation). He was also a strenuous historical realist, who fully understood that, whatever one’s personal allegiances, the clock cannot turned back: “the field of what has not been or what could have been is too vast”, he wrote, and presumably should therefore not detain us. And yet for all the robustness of his sense of historical relativities, and corresponding mistrust of historical particulars projected as universals (what he memorably called the “transcendental chauvinism” of the ultra-conservative Désiré Nisard), he too could be tempted by restorative counterfactuals, especially in those moods which were to become more frequent when he gazed with unalloyed dismay on the landscape of the nineteenth cenrtury as a scene of literary and cultural ruin, the age of Charlatanism.
The basic story Sainte-Beuve has to tell about the nineteenth century is that of a promise of renewal (located in the roughly fifteen-year period from the Consulate to the end of the First Empire, but a promise betrayed or rather a promise that could never have been honoured in the first place, bearing within it from the word go the seeds of decline and dissolution. He told it in various places, but most notably in the first of the Liege lectures that were to become Chateaubriand et son groupe littéraire. In the first of the lectures Sainte-Beuve invited his audience into the space of a thought-experiment: imagine the time of the Consulate and First Empire as “une époque ancienne”. Sainte-Beuve insists that this is not intended as an exercise in what he calls “mummified history”. His purpose is to invoke a once living connection between a past and a present, mirrored in the grammar of his own writing, which shifts as he speaks from past tense to present tense. But it soon becomes clear that Sainte-Beuve is also, if tacitly, inserting a conditional perfect between the two other tenses. From the vantage point at which Sainte-Beuve speaks (post 1848, in voluntary exile), the living connection becomes a forlorn might-have-been. The apparent springtime in fact concealed an autumn (these are Sainte-Beuve’s own metaphors) which has in turn yielded to the wastes of the mid-nineteenth-century winter: “It can be stated with certainty that the literary movement inaugurated in 1800 by Chateaubriand and Mme de Stael, and continued since by less illustrious names, is today wholly exhausted… in 1800 we are not at the dawn of a great century, but merely at the beginning of the most glittering of periods of decline”. Whatever possibilities it seemed to announce, the re-birth was doomed in advance to the abortive by the array of historical forces not only ranged against it but installed within it, as a kind of primordial and incurable genetic defect before which the ministrations of the doctor-critic were of no avail.
The name of that defect was Chateaubriand. For Sainte-Beuve Chateaubriand presented a permanent puzzle of judgment, at once the greatest of France’s modern writers but in relation to whom Sainte-Beuve could never shake off the suspicion of hollowness at the core. “M. de Chateaubriand is and will remain perceived as the first, the greatest of the French men of letters of his age”, was one of the claims made by SB, a claim moreover tested by means of a counterfactual: suppose Chateaubriand had died in 1792 (Chateaubriand himself informs us in the Mémoires d’outre-tombe that he came close), what would the consequences have been for the history of modern French literature: “Which direction, which powerful current would have been wanting and…would have changed the sequence and direction of the literary tradition as it comes to us today!”.
The mark that ends this statement isn’t in fact a question mark, it’s an exclamation mark, so more a self-answering rhetorical assertion than a genuine counterfactual. And yet Chateaubriand was a question, the nineteenth-century writer about whom Sainte-Beuve could never quite make up his mind, returning to him time and again, as an open question held in a series of ever hesitant and shifting valuations. Here was the person Sainte-Beuve defined as the greatest of the modern French writers and yet whose greatness he could never bring clearly into focus, his adulation undermined at almost every turn by the gnawing suspicion that behind the éclat lay a conjuring trick. He is thus effectively inscribed in a double counterfactual: had he died in 1792 ninetenth-century French literature might have suffered a mortal blow; had he died in 1792 nineteenth-century French literature might have taken a less fatefully decadent path.
My point in bringing before you these oscillations and manoeuverings of literary-critical judgment over the qualities of Chateaubriand is that behind them there lies a larger literary-historical narrative, a narrative issuing from a form of the conservative cultural imagination, told in the register of a lament, and articulated across a web woven explicitly and implicitly from three grammatical tenses (past, present, conditional perfect). The narrative also provides a context for the strange rolling period carrying the fantasy Sainte-Beuve produced at the moment of entering the Académie française. In this context we can see that the extended counterfactual at the heart of his speech was no mere piece of whimsy; it was a counterfactual with a lot riding on it. But it was of course also pure whimsy, or more exactly an absurd figment of the imagination.
I’m not going to try and draw any large and stable conclusions. As I said, this has been intended as a thought-experiment, where it would be unwisely reckless to start reaching for conclusions. I’m sure that much of it will have struck you as whimsical, a strange and in places even childish collection of hypotheses and conjectures. La Fontaine as Racine (but that of course is part of a fictional game played just for fun), but also La Grange-Chancel, whose baubles are not even read by specialists anymore, as nevertheless a sort of disciple-proxy for Racine; Sainte-Beuve flailing around in his own orotund syntax, via the truly forgettable Delavigne. But, from this bizarre cast of characters, I do want to draw two provisional conclusions. First to distinguish the two counterfactuals. The one about Racine is centred, however inconclusively and even, in the final analysis, unpersuasively, on a prima facie plausible might-have-been in respect of Racine’s career and the subsequent history of tragedy in France. Sainte-Beuve’s on the other hand is a reactionary fantasy, the expression of someone reacting to his own sense of utter dismay at what he thought the nineteenth century had been in process of becoming for the best part of half a century.
There are two points about this to stress in conclusion. The first is itself historical, to do with what earlier I spoke of - counterfactuals in as well as of literary history, one of the ideological forms that literary-historical thinking can assume as part of the history of literary history. Sainte-Beuve’s ruminations on the fate of tragedy are a case in point, broadly consistent, as a late reprise, with that whole strain of conservative literary history from the Directory onwards, in which, as Stéphane Zékian has shown in L’invention des classiques, counterfactuals had a part in reclaiming the seventeenth and parts of the eighteenth centuries for a discredited or endangered nineteenth century. The second point is substantive, to do with the model of the counterfactual in general. Sainte-Beuve’s way of imagining it otherwise is the expression of a set of preferences, the might-have-been as the projection of a what-I-would-like-to-have-seen. Along with that other false friend of the counterfactual (the unconstrained “what-if?”, pointless because limitless), this is the other false friend, the “if only”, a regret-saturated futility). This is the trap that shadows nearly all counterfactuals, including perhaps my own too (is my thought about the tragedies Racine could or might have written basically my wish for a different history for French tragedy or simply the wish for more great Racine?). This is very hard to escape. But provided we remain alert to the trap, while ensuring that our intellectual ambitions here are modest rather than extravagant, there is here a form of historical thinking that is worth taking seriously.
I began with Benjamin, and end with him, with two statements: first, of his aim in the Arcades Project as wanting to “liberate the enormous energies of history that are bound up in the ‘once upon a time’ of classical historiography”; second, the remark in the Trauerspiel book proclaiming his resistance to “a dictatorship whose utopian goal will always be to replace the unpredictability of historical accident with the iron constitution of the laws of nature”. What I have tried to sketch here is to be understood as belonging to the repertoire of registers these statements by Benjamin evoke as part of the business of imagining things otherwise. The repertoire includes the possible, the multiple, the provisional, the hypothetical, and their close neighbour, the counterfactual, as so many of the “blank spaces” of historical picture-making in which an alternative can be thought.