Printer Friendly

Subjunctive time: Henry James's possible wars.

"Whatever we see could be other than it is," and "whatever we can describe at all could be other than it is," Wittgenstein writes in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (58). Wittgenstein is speaking here of a world that he refers to as a "limited whole." It is the world that we call "empirical"--the one that is manifest to us, that can be documented or demonstrated, and that appears to be the only world there is. This apparent totality is deceptive, Wittgenstein says, for the empirical world is actually no more than a fraction, a subset, however self-contained, of a much larger universe. That larger universe includes not only phenomena that have taken visible form but also phenomena that have not: a world resting just below the threshold of actualization, made up of could-have-beens and could-still-bes. These counterfactuals are, by our common parlance, non-events. They are not considered part of history. Yet not only are they real alternatives--cousins or even siblings to the real events--they are often comparable to the latter in their degree of likelihood, their probability of occurrence. There is no logical reason why they should not have happened and, had they done so, what is now called "otherwise" would have been no more and no less than the real thing. The stark antithesis between the two is a semantic distinction, indeed a fluke. It is a happenstance, a tightening of the causal net in one direction rather than another, one that, often for no good reason, drastically thins out the range of available options, reducing a multitudinous world to a few hard facts.

Wittgenstein highlights just this random narrowing of a once-populous field. He reminds us that what prevails as reality often does so haphazardly, at the expense of a much larger pool that has no compelling reason for not staying large. "All that hap pens and is the case is accidental," he writes (71). Materialization is chancy, shaky, a toss-up until the last moment. It is often a matter of luck, rather than a matter of logic, that a volatile field should congeal at just this point, precipitating this outcome rather than that. Any event that solidifies is haunted by many others, not so fortunate, that once were and that might still be eligible candidates. Since this is the case, an empirical description of the world is not only fractional, but arbitrary in what it leaves out--arbitrary, down to the sentences that it allows us to think or say. Wittgenstein writes: "Empirical reality is limited by the totality of objects. The limit also makes itself manifest in the totality of elementary propositions" (56).

By "elementary propositions," Wittgenstein seems to have in mind only indicative sentences. To the extent that these sentences are the propositional forms of the empirical world, they are indeed "elementary"--in the sense of being barebones, skeletal, a thin outline rather than a thick description, not unlike (as Wittgenstein might also say) a "square mesh" (67) imposed upon irregular shapes, blocking out crucial features even as it produces regularity. Indicative sentences are powerful filters, so powerful that the world they describe would seem to be an effect of that descriptive procedure, one that licenses some events and debars others, consigning these to a premature and perhaps unjustified oblivion. Fortunately, they are not the only sentences in circulation. The English grammar (like the German grammar) has a much richer repertoire.

The subjunctive, for instance, is only loosely, or perhaps even nominally, bound by empirical reality. Its allegiance is to a ghostly region, a kind of syntactic underground, hovering just below the threshold of actualization, casting its shadow on the known world, turning sharp bright lines into a dense thicket, at once insubstantial and impenetrable, a vectorial field not yet hardened or pruned. A still-undecided past and a still-hypothetical future are housed by this syntactic form: counterfactual, not often accredited, but available all the same as virtual sites, thinkable versions of the world. The very presence of this grammatical mood suggests that pre-histories and post-histories are more varied, more fluid, and more open-ended than the eventual outcome would reveal. It suggests that the morphology of time is anything but a single, unified clock.

Wittgenstein is surprisingly silent about these phantom sites, as he is silent about verb tenses that range beyond the empirical present. And yet, in calling attention to the limits of the latter, his work would seem not only to gesture toward the teeming world of the unpurged, unsorted, and unrealized, but to inhabit it by logical necessity: as corollary and obverse to the empiricism he sees as fractional. Alfred Nordmann has gone so far as to argue that, "despite first appearances, the entire Tractatus is written in the subjunctive mood" (133). Whether or not this is the case, it seems possible, at the very least, to claim Wittgenstein as an ally in the exhuming and repopulating of time, allowing the submerged to come up for air. These below-the-threshold events cannot be mapped onto the hardware of indicative sentences. Their probability ranges as a continuum rather than as a sharp divide, not solely pivoted on actualization, and not elevating it into an absolute cut-off line. This unresolved spectrum is probably closer to the truth, at any given moment, than can be conveyed by the simple past, present, or future of the indicative mood.

What the subjunctive offers would seem to be an alternative grammar of time, a pre-processed latitude, not granted by empirical reality but honored by the morphology of syntax. We can think of this alternative grammar as a "counterfactual realism," stretching the empirical to its limits and describing the world beyond those limits. Admission here is not restricted by the criterion of certainty. Quite the reverse. For the point is to leave things in a state of flux, robustly chaotic, with Brownian motion percolating not only at any given moment but even over the long haul. As a description of the world, this is as significant as any. It is comparable in vigor and scope to the empirical method in historical scholarship, even though it currently has no disciplinary name, and no departmental home. (1) It is worth exploring for just that reason: as a rich ecology to be found nowhere else, a time-warping and world-multiplying fictiveness peculiar to the constitution of literature. For not only do counterfactual histories flourish here, in regular novels no less than in science fiction--one thinks of Philip Roth's The Plot Against America as well as Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle--but this might turn out to be one of the largest claims that can be made on behalf of the field, allowing it to be a cognitive and expressive domain different from others, dedicated not to the maintenance of clean lines of descent, but to the restoration of a fullness of time.

And, if works of fiction are always subjunctive to some extent, dwellers in some counterfactual universe, literary scholarship can also afford to go some length in that direction. Indeed, taking our cue from the texts we study, our methods can be part empirical and part conjectural, starting out with some hard facts, but stretching these into airy vehicles, tentative on purpose, carriers for ghostly trajectories half-formed, half-glimpsed, and half-intuited. Even as these ghosts take flight, they also give a lift to the "elementary propositions" of the empirical present. The "square mesh" of indicative sentences now become longitudinal arcs: paths not carved in stone, adjustable and even reversible to some extent, with many way stations, and many plausible offshoots. These arcs lengthen the virtual durations of authors, granting them beginnings and endings beyond their biological lifespan, and feeding their words into a continuum of eventualities, distributed across different scales of time, across events both large and small.

In what follows, I offer one example of this subjunctive continuum by way of Henry James, reading his words as an arc extending from the nineteenth century to the twentieth, and (with help from some other authors) speaking to three events unfolding on the largest scale: the American Civil War, World War I, and World War II. James's participation in the last event can only be counterfactual. I would like to map him against this virtual duration, and to do so by way of a familiar Jamesian practice, the practice of the micro, a layer of evidence that disappears into the woodwork whenever the scale of measurement is above a certain magnitude. The small is James's chosen platform--the platform for close reading, and also the platform, I would argue, for multiplying possible pasts and possible futures, planting seeds of time across an unfenced, unconsolidated landscape. These small details--precisely because they are not legible above a certain scale raise the possibility that there might be legions like them, a phenomenal register at once minuscule and ubiquitous, not empirically measurable or traceable. The micro and the macro, in this way, are not antithetical but complementary, the below-the-threshold abundance of one feeding into the large-scale incipience of the other. Together, they make up the contours of subjunctive time, making it both ample and spectral.

I begin with Ezra Pound, who enlarges, particularizes, and spectralizes James in just this way. A longtime admirer, Pound brought out a special issue of the Little Review two years after the novelist's death--paying tribute to a figure that might strike some as a phantom of sorts. Pound writes: "There was emotional greatness in Henry James's hatred of tyranny," a greatness emerging out of "the momentum of his art, the sheer bulk of his processes, the size of his fly-wheel" (296). We are seriously mistaken, Pound says, if we think of James only as a miniature craftsman, a connoisseur of the small gesture. Instead, we should "rest our claim for his greatness in the magnitude of his protagonists, in the magnitude of the forces he analyzed and portrayed" (297).

Writing in 1918, Pound was no doubt thinking of World War I, an event indeed characterized by the magnitude of the protagonists and the magnitude of the forces unleashed. James's relation to this event was, in fact, quite intense, in such a way as to cast a retroactive spell over some of his previous writings. As Leon Edel has documented in some detail, when the war broke out James agreed to serve as Chairman of the American Volunteer Motor Ambulance Corps and, in that capacity, acted very much like a lobbyist, paying frequent visits to the American Embassy to pressure the U.S. government to do more for the Allies. Also in that capacity, he launched into a highly unusual genre: he granted a newspaper interview with Preston Lockwood for the New York Times, published on March 21, 1915.

This interview ended with a straightforward, plainly-stated request for money, for checks made out to the Ambulance Corps and sent to Brown Brothers, 59 Wall Street, New York City. But of course James is never only straightforward. And so, in this interview (which, as Edel tells us, was actually written by him, rather than by Lockwood), there are some odd tangents, with the "fly-wheel" almost flying off the handle (Edel 527). Given that this is an attempt to drum up American support, it is odd that James should also have this to say about war, about what it can do to the English language: "The war has used up words; they have weakened, they have deteriorated like motor car tires; they have, like millions of other things, been more overstrained and knocked about and voided of the happy semblance during the last six months than in all the long ages before, and we are now confronted with a depreciation of all our terms, or, otherwise speaking, with a loss of expression through increase of limpness, that may well make us wonder what ghosts will be left to walk" ("Henry James's First Interview").

These sentiments will, of course, be reworked by Hemingway, in A Farewell to Arms, into a famous paragraph about "abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow" becoming "obscene" under conditions of war (185). But James's emphasis is actually a little different. His worry is not that words have lost their purity, have become pornographic, as Hemingway suggests, but rather that they have been exercised too strenuously, that they have become "overstrained" and are "limping" as a result. Because of this loss of mobility, James fears that an entire phantom population would go into retirement, that there would no longer be ghosts footloose in the world.

James is fond of ghosts: the ghost story is an important genre for him. Still, it is not entirely clear which ambulatory ones he has in mind, and what kind of "walking" he expects them to do. I would like to linger over this odd detail, this strange linguistic apparition suddenly showing up on the screen, and take a walk around it in my turn. Specifically, I would like to go back to an earlier point in the interview, where James is already talking about the conduct of words--the uncanny motions they seem capable of--though, at least initially, in a jocular vein. In response to Lockwood's question: "Are you not famous, Mr. James, for the use of dashes?" James's first response is: "Dash my fame!" But then he launches into a serious discussion of dashes, and of punctuation in general, a trivial-looking mark that is nonetheless crucial to the mood and tempo of his sentences: "Dashes, it seems almost platitudinous to say, have their particular representative virtue, their quickening force, and, to put it roughly, strike both the familiar and the emphatic note, when those are the notes required, with a felicity beyond either the comma or the semicolon; though indeed a fine sense for the semicolon, like any sort of sense at all for the pluperfect tense and the subjunctive mood, on which the whole perspective in a sentence may depend, seems anything but common" (ibid.).

Punctuation marks are "traffic signals," Adorno has written (91). (2) The traffic is not directed outward, toward an audience, but internal to the pacing and parsing of the text itself. And the traffic signals are crucial for these minute alternations. "They serve, hieroglyphically" to map the movement "of language along its own pathways" (ibid.). These small graphic signs mediate between the page and the voice; they reinsert and rearticulate otherwise obscured forks, pauses, and stumbles. And they ring those changes that make a sentence not smooth, not seamless, not bound by a single purpose or timed by a single clock. Dashes are "mute lines into the past," Adorno says, hovering somewhere in "the span of time they insert between two sentences" (94). As for the semi-colon, without it, "prose is reduced to the 'protocol sentence,' the 'darling of the logical positivists,' a flat declarative that settles for no more than "a mere recording of facts ... capitulating to what merely exists" (95).

The dash has a secure place in James. Mark Edelman Boren has discussed the ways this mark "allows connotation to bleed throughout the sentence and soak the text with significance" (333). Still, the novelist knows, as we also do, that the dash belongs, with greater efficacy, to another author: a woman, a poet. It is the other form of punctuation, the semi-colon, that James comes back to, and that ends up being the modulating mechanism for him. This is the graphic mark that is on exhibit here, its temporizing effect highlighted by a practical demonstration. In this case, not only does it pull away from the dash--it also seems to realign several operating axes, setting up cross-references, going back and forth between a notational system and a temporal site, alternating from a shift in the syntax to a shift in a much larger structure. For not only does the semi-colon introduce a time signature into any given sentence, creating a break, a change in emphasis or momentum, it also has the same effect on the overall narrative itself, allowing it to go forward, to stand still, or even to reverse itself, going back to a prior point or a contrary position. And, out of these rhythmic variations, a set of vectors are released, directional arrows that send time looping along different pathways. It is because the semicolon can multiply time that James links it to a verb tense and a grammatical mood that do much the same: the pluperfect and the subjunctive. "The whole perspective in a sentence" depends on these two, he says ("Interview"). Both are truants, leaving behind the unified clock, paying visits to many virtual addresses. The pluperfect is the verb tense that moves the action to a more remote antecedent, conjuring up a duration that cannot be encompassed by the simple past, while the subjunctive goes even further afield, conjuring up itineraries still less substantial. Together, these two verb forms turn the known world into a wavering shadow, a spectral "what if" fading in and out of what might have been and what might still be. There are many back stories here, at various removes from what did happen, and all outside the purview of the indicative sentence.

Ghosts are still afoot in the world. Here, they seem to have made their way into the morphology of the English syntax, creating itineraries that, not having materialized, can be revisited in any number of ways. It is these phantom pathways that give the novels an order of magnitude not reducible to whatever is already manifest. The macro in James, in other words, has less to do with geographical vastness than with a dimension of the world that has yet to be fathomed, or that has yet to emerge. It comes into being through those moods and tenses that reside in just this subterranean region, taking long walks, back and forth, across the fine line between what is and what is not, a process stretching indefinitely. Punctuation, syntax, and narrative are compounded matrixes for James, ghostly matrixes. Together they generate a push and pull on the rope of time, roping in events that are not actual, but also not discountable. These events are held in abeyance; and because they are, they also have an unending shelf life, a non-indicative world that will always be there.

I would like to construct one such phantom pathway for James, mediated by a verb tense and a grammatical mood, granting him time signatures beyond his biological life, This form of elongation is something he would have understood, something that he practices himself, in fact, in response to the apparently small compass of his work. On March 5, 1915, six months into the war, he wrote to Edith Wharton and commented on what she was doing on the French front: "I unutterably envy you these sights and suffered assaults of the maxima--condemned as I am by doddering age and 'mean' infirmity to the poor mesquin's minima" (Letters of Henry James 452; emphasis original). On March 24, he wrote again, coming back to the question of the maxima and the minima, but putting a twist on it this time: "I put forth not the slightest pretension to measure. In fact, I think I am not measuring anything whatever just now, and not pretending to--I find myself, much more, quite consentingly dumb in the presence of the boundless enormity" (Henry James Letters 741).

That's what World War I is, a boundless enormity, and the only way James can minimize it, the only way he can shield himself against its magnitude, is by finding refuge in the pluperfect and the subjunctive, narrativizing this war against a virtual antecedent, as if it were merely second in line, a repeat performance rather than a first-order catastrophe. When he goes to St. Bartholomew's Hospital to visit the wounded soldiers, he speaks again and again of a previous visit, some forty years ago, in another country, another century. In an essay entitled "The Long Wards," written for The Book of the Homeless, a volume edited by Edith Wharton, he enlarges on this prior event: "There comes back to me out of the distant past an impression of the citizen soldier at once in his collective grouping and in his impaired, his more or less war-worn state, which was to serve me for long years as the most intimate vision of him that my span of life was likely to disclose. This was a limited affair indeed, I recognize as I try to recover it, but I mention it because I was to find at the end of time that I had it in reserve, left it lurking it deep down in my sense of things, however shyly and dimly, however confusedly even, as a term of comparison, a glimpse of something by the loss of which I should have been the poorer" (97).

The "limited affair" that James refers to was something that he did during the American Civil War, a visit that he paid, in August 1861, to the convalescing soldiers at a hospital camp called Portsmouth Grove. In Notes of a Son and Brother he talks about this visit at some length. But, even then, the retroactive staging was already in place, so that this too was not a first, not an inaugural event, but already the reenactment of a prior visit by another author, another genre of writing:
   Discriminations of the prosaic order had little to do with my first
   and all but sole vision of the American soldier in his multitude,
   and above all for that was markedly the colour of the whole
   thing--in his depression, his wasted melancholy almost; an effect
   that somehow corresponds for memory, I bethink myself, with the
   tender elegiac tone in which Walt Whitman was later on so admirably
   to commemorate him.... In my queer cluster, at any rate, that
   flower of the connection which answers to the name of Portsmouth
   Grove will overtop other members of its class, so that to finger it
   again for a moment is to make it perceptibly exhale its very
   principle of life. (310-11, 313)

There is indeed nothing "prosaic" about the sudden appearance of Whitman. What summons the poet, what makes him a crucial time signature in James's narrative, is something like the push and pull of elegy, a genre that, in trying to reach back to the distant past, might be said to be the generic equivalent of the pluperfect tense. And elegy, as we can see here, is not only a poetic but also a prose genre. In prose, no less than in poetry, it takes the form of a backward glance that lingers, that minimizes the present through a relation of "as if" to an always active and always looming past.

Whitman is of course the prime example of this backward glance: in fact, this is the title of his autobiography, A Backward Glance Over Many Travel'd Road. And, even though James can be snide and condescending toward the poet, he also finds his own glance lingering, much like Whitman's. Edith Wharton, in her autobiography, which also happens to be called A Backward Glance, recalls an evening at the Mount, with James reading Whitman to the assembled group:
   Another day some one spoke of Whitman, and it was a joy to me to
   discover that James thought him, as I did, the greatest of American
   poets. "Leaves of Grass" was put into his hands, and all that
   evening we sat rapt while he wandered from "The Song of Myself" to
   "when the lilacs last in the door-yard bloomed" (when he read
   "Lovely and soothing Death" his voice filled the hushed room like
   an organ adagio), and thence let himself be lured on to the
   mysterious music of "Out of the Cradle," reading, or rather
   crooning it in a mood of subdued ecstasy till the fivefold
   invocation to Death tolled out like the knocks in the opening bars
   of the Fifth Symphony. (186)

The Whitman that James recites, the Whitman that he impersonates and narrativizes, is the poet of Drum Taps and The Wound-Dresser. It is the Whitman who mourned the death of Lincoln, who went to Washington in the midst of the Civil War and spent two years there, paying daily visits to the wounded in the area hospitals--and therefore a poet who is always elegiac in some sense, attached to something that is gesturing to him from some place he can never get to. In "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking," the fivefold invocation to Death comes at the end of the poem. Wharton associates it with Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, but Whitman would probably have called it an aria, since opera was his favorite music. In any case, it is a rhythmic form, endless repetition and endless punctuation, both supplied by the sea:
   Hissing melodious, neither like the bird nor like my arous'd
   child's heart, But edging near as privately for me rustling at my
   feet, Creeping thence steadily up to my ears and laving me softly
   all over, Death, death, death, death, death. (170-73)

"Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" would seem to be a quintessential poem of the Civil War, a poem that sings a praise-song to death, affirming its finality, its absolute dominion. And yet, what is odd is that, when Whitman wrote the poem, the Civil War was only a looming prospect, not yet a reality. Whitman had finished the poem in the fall of 1859, and had shown it to his friends, Arnold and Abby Price, telling them that it was about a mockingbird and a child. The poem was later published in the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass. when the Civil War broke out a year and a half later and the casualties started mounting, adding up to 650,000 in four years, it seems as if that had always been the reference frame for the poem, as if it had always been looking ahead to that eventuality. Whitman could not have known about the magnitude of the war, but it was as if he did.

"As if"--these two words are important for Whitman. And the grammatical form they underwrite--the subjunctive is not only a hallmark of his syntax but also (as must be clear) a vital modality in literary history itself, one that keeps open all those virtual forms that the indicative sentence would like to eliminate. Like the pluperfect, the subjunctive walks a zigzagging path, doing a literal double-take on some clusters of words, amplifying a small-scale textual event into a large-scale historical commentary. In this case, it turns a poem initially about a mockingbird and a child into a collective elegy, raising its voice to the primacy of death even before that primacy has become an everyday occurrence. It is as if Whitman were already at some point in time that he could not possibly be, as if the future were a book that he were already reading and writing.

I don't think we have a literary history yet based on this kind of as if, based on a time-line that makes a subsequent event an important context for a text written prior to it. We need this kind of literary history, I think, not only to take account of the ways poetry can relocate, can take up residence in a new and counterfactual home, but also of the ways prose can sometimes do the same thing. Prose, I'm arguing, can be "unprosaic," as James suggests, which is to say, it too can have a relation of "as if" to its own chronology. It too can be carried forward--by readers, by other authors--lifted out of its original context and given a second life, undating and redating the past, and projecting an archaeology of the future. We can call this process any number of things: "subjunctive" seems to me as good a name as any. To see another example, we need go no further than back to James's outrage in his New York Times interview of 1915: "The pretension to smashing world rule by a single people, in virtue of a monopoly of every rifle, every gift and every right, ought perhaps to confound us more by its grotesqueness than to alarm us by its energy." These were scathing words in 1915, when the grotesqueness of this pretension to world rule was in full force. And it would have been clear to everyone which country James had in mind, even if he had not mentioned Germany by name. Almost a hundred years later, these words would still be scathing, and the identity of the country would also be clear to much of the world, even though it is no longer Germany. There is something downright spooky about the ability of these words to shift their target and to retain a precision of aim, to be still accurate when they could not have known what to be accurate about. Perhaps this is the ghost that James is talking about, a quirk in time that erases the line between "before" and "after," making these two commutable and reversible. The effect, in any case, is a phantom walk that language can take--a virtual prospecting--one that visits the macro upon the micro, giving small clusters of words the run of a massive playing field.

Let me offer one other prose passage that also takes this kind of walk, with its radius of meaning counterfactually lengthened, becoming unprosaic in the process. This is from a letter to Lilla Cabot Perry. Here, James speaks of "a most illuminating Germanic psychology--they really believe that it's a sweet privilege for the British and Belgian and other civilian to be variously massacred by them, and that they do us an honour thereby that it's in shocking taste of us not to appreciate. It's the sublimity of their bloody fatuity that leaves one staring" (Henry James Letters 758). "Sublimity of bloody fatuity": once again, those four words have a long career ahead of them, many more chances for subsequent visitations to happen. I could make these words go all the way, up to the present moment. Restraining myself, I would let them stop at an earlier point, in the midst of another war, World War II, a war that, as many historians have argued, can be seen on the same continuum as World War I. James, of course, had been in the grave for twenty-five years by the time that war broke out. But he does have a direct link to it, by way of one person, an important player in World War I who would then go on to become a presiding genius over World War II. Leon Edel has a vivid account of the meeting of these two: the aged author, and the rising military genius. In January 1915 James was invited to Walmer Castle by Herbert Asquith, the British Prime Minister. Among those present was Winston Churchill, only forty years old, but already the first Lord of the Admiralty. James had met him a month earlier, but this second meeting was not a happy one. Churchill had never read James; he was impatient with the slow and convoluted speech of this old man; he interrupted those long sentences before they had a chance to finish. As for James, when he took leave, he said to Violet Asquith, daughter of the Prime Minister, that it was a "very encouraging experience to meet that young man. It has brought home to me very forcibly--very vividly--the limitations by which men of genius obtain their ascendancy over mankind" (Edel 526).

What were the limitations of Churchill that allowed him to obtain his ascendancy over mankind? I want to pursue this question through subjunctive time, seeing James through a series of time signatures outside his biological lifespan, and always by way of a micro entry, a small detail that unfolds in time. The author I propose to extend James in this way--to visit him upon the future is Nicholson Baker. Known as an author of small books on small things, Baker would devote a whole chapter of his book, The Size of Thought, to the history of punctuation. But, recently, Baker has also written a book that is something of a surprise, a big book, 566 pages, entitled Human Smoke, on World War II. (3) What is even more surprising is that, even though the book is about World War II, it actually ends well before the war ends, on December 31, 1941. And it ends with these words: "I dedicate this book to the memory of Clarence Pickett and other American and British pacifists.... They failed, but they were right" (566). The point of the book, it seems, is to be a counterfactual mediation, to give voice to those who wanted the war not to have happened, and to chronicle the actions of those who made that impossible. Churchill is foremost among that group. And, to see how this impossibility crystallized into a hard fact, Baker goes back to World War I, to Churchill's decision, as the First Lord of the Admiralty, to run a blockade of Germany. He had justified that action with these words: "The British blockade treated the whole of Germany as if it were a beleaguered fortress, and avowedly sought to starve the whole population--men, women, and children, old and young, wounded and sound--into submission" (4).

Churchill's philosophy of war is very much a macro philosophy: it takes a bird's eye view, it treats the whole of the Germany as a single, actionable unit, making no distinction, as he says, between civilian populations and military personnel, between those who are sick and wounded and those doing the actual fighting. This was a winning strategy for him. So it is not surprising that, going into World War II, he would want to have a replay of this, another exercise in this macro rule of engagement. Just as he had once been a staunch proponent of the naval blockade, he would now be a staunch proponent of aerial bombardment. Aerial bombardment is the literal enactment of the bird's eye view, From that distance, and on that scale, of course it was impossible to tell apart civilians from the military, and indeed the point was not to. In World War II, the norm of combat for Great Britain no less than for Germany--was to raise indiscrimination to an art, destroying whole cities, whole populations, as tiny dots that could be wiped out on a large canvas.

What would James, aficionado of tiny dots, have said about this strategy? In World War I, as we have seen, he had been appalled by the civilian casualties inflicted by Germany. what would his outrage have looked like, transported across time? I would like to offer one carrier, one vehicle for this ghostly locomotion: Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five. Slaughterhouse Five is most famous, of course, for being anti-war; but, perhaps not incidentally, it is also a science fiction novel, a counterfactual fantasy about visitations from the past as well as visits to the future, with its protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, sometimes being catapulted (through a time warp) to a place called Tralfamadore, three hundred million miles from earth, and sometimes being hurtled back twenty years and finding himself once again a POW, in Dresden, just when that city was firebombed by the British Bomber Command under the orders of Winston Churchill. Because the POWs were held in an underground locker at the slaughterhouse, they survived, but they were the only ones. Otherwise, Vonnegut says, "absolutely everybody in the city was supposed to be dead, regardless of what they were, and anybody that moved in it represented a flaw in the design" (180). Vonnegut gives us the big picture, tells us the number of casualties in Dresden-"135,000 people died"--and also gives us a point of comparison: "the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima killed 71,379 people" (188). These numbers are compelling on their own, but the most memorable point in this novel, for me, is actually a small incident, after the destruction of the city, when Billy Pilgrim is left alone in a horse-drawn wagon, sunning himself while the other POWs go in search of souvenirs among the charred bodies. There is nothing like this moment in Billy's entire life, and if he had been later asked about this, Vonnegut subjunctively adds, "he might have chosen as his happiest moment his sundrenched snooze in the back of the wagon" (195).

But of course the snooze comes to an end, and, as signaled by that grammatical shift, the narrative also takes a different turn, with a different time signature emerging:
   Now his snooze became shallower as he heard a man a woman speaking
   German in pitying tones. The speakers were commiserating with
   somebody lyrically.... Billy opened his eyes. A middle-aged man and
   wife were crooning to the horses. They were noticing what the
   Americans had not noticed--that the horses' mouths were bleeding,
   gashed by the bits, that the horses' hooves were broken, so that
   every step meant agony, that the horses were insane with thirst.
   The Americans had treated their form of transportation as though it
   were no more sensitive than a six-cylinder Chevrolet. (196)

The Americans, like their British allies, were seeing things from a distance, from the elevation of the clouds, and luxuriating in the big picture of military success. It is left to the German couple, on the ground, and alive through a flaw in the design, to notice all the details the Americans are programmed not to see.

Henry James, of course, did not write this, and the vocabulary in fact does not sound at all like him. But the subjunctive is there, and so too is a freakish recurrence of one word, "crooning," first used by Edith Wharton to describe James's reciting of Whitman, and now used by Vonnegut to describe the "lyrically" pitying tones of the German couple, a sonic continuum as nontrivial as it is accidental. In that small detail, in the switch from the best moment in Billy's life to the worst moment in the life of the horses, a contrapuntal rhythm is hard at work. Kurt Vonnegut is not Henry James; but he is writing as if he were. The bleeding mouths of the horses, their broken hooves, their insane thirst--these details would never have made their way into any military report, or into any historical scholarship about World War II. It is left to this science fiction novel, departing flagrantly from empirical reality, to capture those truths that would otherwise have vanished without a trace.

Counterfactual realism is most eloquent on just this point. Even as it visits a phantom duration on James, extending his micro platform onto a world stage, it also shows us an alterative layer of evidence, complexly threaded and complexly modulating: a genealogy of grief beyond the lifespan of any single author. Literary study is not standard history because it is a great deal more. Through the prism of subjunctive time, we see some of that vital difference.


Adorno, Thcador. "Punctuation Marks." In Notes on Literature. Translated by Shierry Weber Nicholsen. Edited by Rolf Tiedemann. New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1991.91-97.

Baker, Nicholson. Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War 11, the End of Civilization. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2008.

Boren, Mark Edelman. "More than a Line?' Philological Quarterly 77 (1998): 329-47.

Brody, Jennifer DeVere. Punctuation: Art, Politics, and Play. Durham, NC: Duke Univ. Press, 2008.

Cesarini, David. Review of Human Smoke, by Nicholson Baker. The Independent, 25 Apt 2008, < books/reviews/human-smoke-by-nicholsonbaker-814963.html?r=RSS>.

Dick, Philip K. The Man in the High Castle. New York: G. P. Putnam's, 1962.

Edel, Leon. The Master, 1901-1916. New York: Avon Books, 1972. 518-27. Hemingway, Ernest. A Farewell to Arms. New York: Scribner, 1929.

James, Henry. "Henry James's First Interview," interview by Preston Lockwood, New York Times, 21 Mar 1915. < archivefree/pdf?_r=1&res=9FO6E3D61439EF32A25752C2A9659C946496D6CF>.

--. "The Long Wards" In Within the Rim and Other Essays. London: W. Collins, 1918.

--. Notes of a Son and Brother. New York: Scribner, 1914.

James to Edith Wharton, 5 Mar 1915. The Letters of Henry James. Vol. 2. Edited by Percy Lubbock. New York: Octagon Books, 1970.

James to Edith Wharton, 24 Mar 1915. Henry James Letters. Vol. 4. Edited by Leon Edel. Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1984.

James to Lilla Cabot Perry, 17 Jun 1915. Henry James Letters. Vol. 4. Edited by Leon Edel. Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1984.

Link, Perry. "He Would Have Saved China." New York Review of Books (3 Apr 2008), 40-43.

Nordmann, Alfred. Wittgenstein's Tractatus: An Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2005.

Pound, Ezra. "Henry James." In Literary Essays of Ezra Pound. New York: New Directions, 1968. 296-302.

Roth, Philip. The Plot Against America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004.

Toibin, Colin. "Their Vilest Hour." New York Times Book Review, 23 Mar 2008, <>.

Vonnegut, Kurt, Slaughterhouse Five. New York: Delacorte Press, 1991.

Wharton, Edith. A Backward Glance. New York: Scribner's, 1933.

Whitman, "Walt. "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking." Leaves of Grass. Edited by Harold W. Blodgett and Sculley Bradley. New York: New York Univ. Press, 1965. 252-53.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Translated by D. F. Pears and B. F. McGuinness. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1974.


This essay was initially given as an address to the Henry James Society. I am grateful to the Henry James Review for allowing me to publish this longer version.

(1.) There are interesting exceptions, however. See, for instance, Perry Link.

(2.) For an inspired extension of Adorno into performance studies, see Brady.

(3.) The reception has been mixed. For an admiring review, see Toibin; for a critical review, see Cesarini.

Wai Chee Dimock is William Lampson Professor of English and American Studies at Yale University. Among her recent publications are Through Other Continents: American Literature Across Deep Time; a collaborative volume, Shades of the Planet: American Literature as World Literature; and a coedited special issue of PMLA, "Remapping Genre."
COPYRIGHT 2009 Ohio State University Press
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2009 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Dimock, Wai Chee
Date:Oct 1, 2009
Previous Article:Time passes.
Next Article:Romance to novel: a secret history.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2022 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |