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Literature, History, Choice

Literature, History, Choice: The Principle of Alternative History in Literature (S.Y. Agnon, The City with All That is Therein)


Roman Katsman

Literature, History, Choice: The Principle of Alternative History in Literature (S.Y. Agnon, The City with All That is Therein), by Roman Katsman This book first published 2013 Cambridge Scholars Publishing 12 Back Chapman Street, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE6 2XX, UK British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library Copyright © 2013 by Roman Katsman All rights for this book reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the copyright owner. ISBN (10): 1-4438-5251-1, ISBN (13): 978-1-4438-5251-7

To my dear parents Sofia and Vladimir Katsman

The servant said, “Those who think that the evildoers who die are sent down into hell do not know that there is a punishment that is harsher than being in hell. What is it? It is the hollow of the sling. It is not the one mentioned in books, that is the name of a place, but it is agonizing, named after the action, because one perishes there in the agony of torture of the sins. And the sinner seeks shelter from the tortures of agony in hell. When he arrives at the opening of hell, they shoot him to the place where he sinned and to places where he thought of committing sins. He goes and does not find these places, since they were transformed by the sins, and those places that did not change are spread under his legs and are filled with pitfalls.” —S.Y. Agnon, “The Parable and the Moral,” The City with All That Is Therein

CONTENTS Preface ....................................................................................................... ix Acknowledgements ................................................................................... xi Introduction ............................................................................................... 1 Chapter One ............................................................................................. 20 Defining Alternative History: From Genre to Principle a. Mythological Roots of Historical Alternativeness Thinking ............ 20 b. Motivation of Historical-Alternative Writing .................................. 28 c. Alternative History on the Map of Modern Fantasy Literature ........ 34 d. Alternative History as Rhetoric Act ................................................. 40 e. Mistakes and Missed Opportunities ................................................. 49 Chapter Two ............................................................................................ 58 Several Questions in Theory of Alternative History a. Is Alternative History Based on Historical Relativism? ................... 58 b. Is Alternative History a Model? ....................................................... 67 c. Is Alternative History Normalization of Historical Memory? .......... 74 d. Is Alternative History Based on a Binary Model of ExtrapolationAnalogy? ........................................................................................ 78 Chapter Three .......................................................................................... 83 Alternativeness Principle in Literature a. Time, Narrative, and Reading .......................................................... 83 b. “Alternative Reading” as Methodology ........................................... 87 c. Levels of Historical Alternativeness: Myth, Personality, Choice, and Mode of Choice ....................................................................... 93 Chapter Four ......................................................................................... 104 Alternativeness of Myth a. Possibilistic Theory of Myth and Mythopoesis .............................. 104 b. Ethical and Chaotic Models of Mythopoesis ................................. 110 c. Counterfactual History and Determinism....................................... 114 d. Time and the Other. Retrospection and Anticipation ..................... 119 e. Difference and Repetition. Origination of Time and Origination of Alternativeness ......................................................................... 127



Chapter Five .......................................................................................... 143 Rhetoric as an Indeterministic Mechanism of Alternativeness a. Rhetoric .......................................................................................... 143 b. From Rhetoric as Untranslatability to Rhetoric as Alternativeness .. 145 c. Rhetoric and Incompleteness of Mythopoetic Realization ............. 156 d. Miracle as Alternativeness and Alternativeness as Miracle ........... 159 Chapter Six ............................................................................................ 167 Alternativeness of Personality a. Personality, Identity, and Character ............................................... 167 b. Alternativeness vs. Substitutivity ................................................... 170 c. Alternativeness vs. Psychological Syndromes of Dissociation ...... 173 d. The problem of Personality’s Uniqueness and Multiplicity ........... 181 e. Identity and Re-identification......................................................... 191 Chapter Seven ........................................................................................ 198 Alternativeness of Choice and of Modes of Choice a. From Semiotic Square to a Dynamic Square of Choice ................. 198 b. Algorithm of Choice. How to Choose? .......................................... 207 c. From Historical to Historiographical Alternativeness .................... 212 d. Theoretical Conclusions and an Introduction to the Discussion of Agnon’s Work ............. 222 Chapter Eight......................................................................................... 225 Historical Alternativeness in the Work of Agnon: The City with All That Is Therein (Ir u-mloa), Book Two a. The City with All That Is Therein as Alternative History. Holocaust and Miracle ................................................................. 225 b. Book Two. “The First Rabbis of Our City” ................................... 231 c. Fish and Salt: “In Search of a Rabbi, or The Spirit of the Ruler” ..... 236 d. The Hollow of a Sling: “The Parable and the Moral” .................... 291 Conclusions ............................................................................................ 311 Works Cited ........................................................................................... 314 Index of Names ...................................................................................... 325


What if Hitler had won World War II? What if Hamlet had killed Claudius as the latter prayed? Although the first question is related to history and the second to literature, both create alternative histories, historiographical and literary. Books, essays, and movies in the genre of alternative history represent a course of events that could have happened had certain historical developments turned out differently. The questions about Hitler and Hamlet differ not only in their subject but also in one even more fundamental respect, as the first ignores the problem of a personality’s possibility to choose, while for the second question this possibility is the heart of the matter. In this study I shall argue that choice is the essence of alternative history and of literature in general. The idea and intuition of historical alternative guide writing and reading the literature. The back-and-forth movement of thought, from the impossible in the present to the possible in the past or future and back, creates historical alternativeness. Here past and future are nothing but narrative concepts of possibilities that have not been realized in perceptible reality. However, an alternative arises not as a concept but as a story, a myth of a purpose’s realization. In this way, philosophical, historical, and literary thinking creates alternative history as a significant mode of theorization in the midst of a crisis, which is permanent because no possibility is fully realized, or even realizable, in the present. Alternative history thus appears as a task for thought and discourse, for writing and reading, for memory and vision, and, in general, for any creative act. In literature, the “possible” world represented in the text, be it even most fantastic, utopian, and supernatural, is already a realized experience, and therefore is not a true possibility. A true alternative history is never already written, but is always occurring anew in the reading, against the background of the actually written story. True historical alternativeness has to be sought not in the genre of alternative history but beyond it, in the process of literary experience itself, which consists of searching for new myths and identities, for new hesitations, choices, and decisions. All these can be found in the moments of crisis represented in the realized, written story. The purpose of the theory and practice of alternative history is thus to identify those moments as historical junctions, bifurcation points, and to



intensify the oscillation of choosing in them, in order to make the possibilities true and the choices free. In this manner the dialectical nature of literature can be justified as unconstrained-ethical, traditionalrevolutionary, memory-visionary power. Consequently, alternative history as a principle resists both deterministic and relativistic worldviews, and remains a truly non-dogmatic and non-ideological metaphysical historiography. Shmuel Yosef Agnon (1887-1970) was a true author of such historiography in all his works, early and late, surrealistic and pious, fairytale and novelistic. The most exciting and provocative feature of his writing is the implied creation of historical alternatives in what is written in his stories and to what is written in other stories and in the books of history. The core of Agnon’s poetical historiography is not the dichotomy of the overt and covert, realistic and fantastic, or realistic and metarealistic, but the dialectics of historical alternativeness as unrealized possibility of the written. Agnon’s alternative history must be read, and this can be done after understanding that historical alternativeness is a metaphysical way of thinking, writing, and reading in the midst of crisis. This is the purpose of the following study, one that cannot be accomplished better than by a reading of Agnon’s most historiographical book – The City with All That Is Therein (Ir u-mloa). The stories collected in the book were written by a mature Agnon over a period of 1950s-1960s, but they all have one objective in common: to create a possible, though unrealized and perhaps unrealizable, alternative to the realized but impossible history – the history of the city of his birth Buchach burning in the flames of the Holocaust.


I am grateful to all my colleagues and students, who have been my friendly listeners and critics for many years. Many thanks go to the participants of the “Literature and History” colloquium for their illuminating insights and comments: Avidov Lipsker-Albeck, Tamar Wolf-Monzon, and Claudia Rosenzweig. I am deeply thankful to Nitza Ben-Dov, Yigal Schwartz, Hillel Weiss, Ziva Shamir, Ken Frieden, Alan Mintz, Michael Kramer, Hillel Barzel, and Michal Arbel. I highly appreciate the assistance of all the editors and translators who worked on the manuscript, and first of all of my friends Yan Mazor and Michael Guggenheimer. And, last but not least, I would like to express my love and deep gratefulness to my dear wife Tatyana and to my children Anna and Eli for their love, patience, tireless assistance, and absolute support.


The essence of literature may lie in presenting history as a problem, but this is not necessarily and exclusively connected to either postmodernism or to postmodernist irony.1 We would rather say that literature empathically creates an alternative to history, be it the history of an individual, or of a community or nation. Except for a few figures, such as Lubomír Doležel in his recent book, and Fredric Jameson in some of his essays,2 neither sociological nor psychological or narratological research, dominant in modern criticism, has succeeded to adequately describe this essence, which is also the main content of literature. The equation of historiography and narrative or literature, as in Arthur Danto’s analytical philosophy of history,3 or in Hayden White and Frank Ankersmit’s school, could not obviously represent the literary problematization of history and historical knowledge (which was excluded from the discussion) but only of historiography, and, moreover, only of its positive and objective nature. And of course, the result of this highly sophisticated intellectual tendency has been the vulgar and extreme relativism of history itself (with or without quotation marks).4 On the other hand, the failure of Marxist readings teaches us one thing: a disregard for the history of a unique personality leads to scientific and ethical barrenness, due to the overwhelming determinism, whether overt or covert, that is characteristic of such readings. Karl Popper called this weakness “the poverty of 1 Linda Hutcheon, A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction, New York and London, Routledge, 1988, pp. 87-103. 2 Lubomír Doležel, Possible Worlds of Fiction and History: The Postmodern Stage, Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010; Fredric Jameson, “History and Salvation in Philip K. Dick,” in Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions, London, Verso, 2005, pp. 363383. 3 Arthur Danto, “Analytical Philosophy of History,” in Narration and Knowledge, New York, Columbia University Press, 1985, pp. 27-33. 4 The storm of the “narrative turn” triggered by Hayden White’s Metahistory has not abated until today. See numerous collections, such as: Kuisma Korhonen, ed., Tropes for the Past: Hayden White and the History/Literature Debate, Amsterdam, Rodopi, 2006; Frank Ankersmit, Ewa Domanska, Hans Kellner, eds., Re-Figuring Hayden White, Stanford CA, Stanford University Press, 2009.



historicism.”5 Neo-Marxist cultural criticism completed this development by depriving the individual personality of what remained of its freedom of choice within history, and its freedom to choose its history. Yet it is precisely freedom, in the sense of historical indeterminism, that was and remains an existential foundation for the survival and evolution of every society, and especially of every cultural enterprise. Even today the theory has not yet been freed from the pathological suspicion that arose in the 1920s, and later in 1950s and 1960s, when scientific problematization was replaced by political mistrust. Although we have passed a long way, to this day we still use the tools that were honed in that period. Following Roland Barthes, we still suspect myth of ideological fraud, and following Gilles Deleuze, we still accuse the language of conspiring against the people and attribute revolutionary or anti-revolutionary aspirations to literature. As though we never descended from the barricades of 1968, we confuse ethics with politics, and emancipation with terror. These are not the only confusions from which we suffer. In theory of history, open-ended learned hermeneutics has been replaced by “radical open-ended democracy,” “free-play,” “radical otherness”; even Hayden White’s “successful representation” has been reduced to “always failed representations.”6 We also confuse nation-community with nation-state. It is not enough to distinguish between nationalism and modernity, and between nationhood and the nation-state, as Adrian Hastings did in his polemics against Eric Hobsbawm.7 One should remember, too, that the study of nationalism, be it of Ernest Gelner’s or of Benedict Anderson’s kind, deals with only a few aspects of community life. Quite exceptionally, Liah Greenfeld proposes a multifaceted vision of the “nationalism-andculture” problem, while emphasizing a personality’s mental activity, art, 5

David N. Myers observes that radical and “revolutionary” historicism, viewed as a combination of fragmentation, relativism, and naturalism which distorts our perception of the human condition, was detected and criticized already in the 1920s by Ernst Troeltsch and other Protestant thinkers (David N. Myers, Resisting History: Historicism and Its Discontents in German-Jewish Thought, Princeton NJ, Princeton University Press, 2003, pp. 1-3). Karl Popper himself set against the historicist determinism (and relativism) his theory of “propensities” – the inclination of possibilities (inherent in generating conditions) to be realized (Karl Popper, A World of Propensities, Bristol, Thoemmes, 1990). The concept of propensity presents an occurrence of any event as the realization of one of a number of alternatives. 6 Keith Jenkins, Refiguring History: New Thoughts on an Old Discipline, London and New York, Routledge, 2003, p. 5. 7 Adrian Hastings, The Construction of Nationhood: Ethnicity, Religion and Nationalism, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1997.

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and creative imagination.8 Indeed, in addition to nationalistic imagination, somehow always suspect and accused of aggressiveness, there are also the imaginations of sanctity and righteousness, love and beauty, motherhood and childhood, pedagogy and leisure, and above all – the imagination of a free individual’s creative historical deed. But when nationalism is reduced, in Edward Said’s manner, to colonialism, and when the nation is reduced, in Homi Bhabha’s manner, to narration, everything becomes politically determined, and no room remains for a history of a personality. However, the “age of suspicion”9 reaches its limit in the age of trust. This implies, first of all, trust in the existence of a unique individual personality and faith in its desire and ability to freely choose its history. At the theoretical level this means that we must overcome the belief in historicist determinism. It has become clear by now that approaches such as hermeneutics, phenomenology, and deconstruction agree on at least one thing: a literary text is never considered written; it is in a continual state of being written. This, in turn, means that history is always being created anew, not in institutions and ideologies, but by unique living people, who choose and learn how to choose. These people err, learn again, and choose again. History’s openness, its “never-yet-written” character guarantees the freedom of the personality (not the freedom of indoctrinating reasoning). Such freedom is not total chaos, since at least one history is always already written and given. Without this metaphysical givenness, without the belief in truth and proof,10 no new writing can be possible or is even needed. The personality is thus meant to search for itself and to choose itself by way of creating an alternative to the already written history. The search for alternatives constitutes the essence of a text’s creation as the origination of history and of the personality. This is the search for “possible worlds,”11 8

See especially: Liah Greenfeld, Nationalism and the Mind: Essays on Modern Culture, Oxford, Oneworld, 2006. 9 Nathalie Sarraute, The Age of Suspicion, New York, Braziller, 1990. 10 See: Carlo Ginzburg, History, Rhetoric, and Proof, Hanover NH, Brandeis University Press, 1999. Geoffrey R. Elton, Return to Essentials: Some Reflections on the Present State of Historical Study, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1991. 11 Doležel, Possible Worlds of Fiction and History: The Postmodern Stage; Ruth Ronen, Possible Worlds in Literary Theory, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1994. For the philosophical discussion of “possible worlds” issue see: Raymond Bradley and Norman Swartz, Possible Worlds: An Introduction to Logic and Its Philosophy, Oxford, Hackett Pub., 1979. The exceptionally useful collection that includes works of the prominent American philosophers of the possible is: Michael J. Loux, ed., The Possible and the Actual: Readings in the Metaphysics of Modality, New York, Cornell University Press, 1979.



which is inherent not only in “the postmodern condition.” On the contrary, as Fredric Jameson writes, in reference to Philip Dick’s oeuvre, postmodernism may even “occlude” the thinking of alternative history.12 Overcoming determinism is not free of risk: in negating determinism there is always the danger of falling into negativism or even nihilism. We must understand that negating determinism in and of itself means a negation of negation, as it were, and should be expected to take the form of an affirmative procedure. For this reason the main concept in this study will be that of alternativeness – a special type of the modal logic, philosophy and pragmatics,13 as a positive antithesis to determinism or, more precisely, to its vulgar superficiality and one-sidedness. Mikhail Epstein, a preeminent student of postmodern culture and literature, created a philosophy of the possible as a “category of humanistic thought (covering metaphysics, ethics, aesthetics, and psychology)” that is in no way negativistic, nor postmodern in the narrow meaning of the word. Epstein places his “possibilism” at an equal distance from both the philosophy of realism and the philosophy of nominalism: The “possible” for me is not a certain reality possessing its physical extension or spatiotemporal continuum [as in realism]. However, the “possible” is not also a provisional fiction symbolically reflecting characteristics of our real world [as in nominalism]. The possible is a special mode of “being able” that takes us beyond the boundaries of this reality, but not necessarily belongs to another reality. Peculiarity of the


“Dick’s historico-temporal perspective here constitutes a whole new way of thinking about time and history and a kind of method or organon for approaching these phenomena, which the atmospheric conditions of postmodernity seem increasingly to occlude and to render intangible and unutilizable”; [driven by “nostalgia for the present,” Dick’s hero escapes] into the alternate dreamtime of another History and another present” (Jameson, “History and Salvation in Philip K. Dick,” pp. 380-383). 13 See: David Lewis, Counterfactuals, Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press, 1973; Alan R. White, Modal Thinking, Ithaca NY, Cornell University Press, 1975; Robert Stalnaker, Ways a World Might Be: Metaphysical and Anti-Metaphysical Essays, Oxford, Clarendon, 2003. In this context, see also the philosophy and rhetoric of contingency, such as in Richard Rorty’s Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1989). A special case of modal thinking is Algirdas Greimas’ modal semantics-semiotics (On Meaning: Selected Writings in Semiotic Theory, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1987), to which we will turn in Chapter 7.

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possible consists in none other but its irreducibility to the real, whether it be the reality of our world or of other ones.14

Later on, we will return to this book by Epstein; however, let us point out that we consider the alternativeness as a certain manifestation of that very “mode of being able” that cannot be reduced to the real, of which Epstein speaks (a manifestation that is ethical in its essence – the ability to choose anew). On the other hand, however, from the viewpoint of the alternativeness, this “irreducibility” does not mean “unrelatedness”: no alternative history could exist without a realized alternative – whether it be a realized history, literary plot or character. Epstein differentiates between “universalia” – “inclusive possibility that materializes in multiple real objects,” and “alternatives” – “exclusive possibilities, of which only one can be materialized. […] Universalias and alternatives constitute two principal axes of the Universe: the world of essences and the world of events.”15 We will view the both. The positive facet of historical alternativeness in literature can be seen in the genre of alternative history, which belongs to fantasy literature and cinematography. It is a non-canonical genre, singularly fertile in recent decades, not sufficiently appreciated by the academic world, yet, as scholars note, “even” great writers have occasionally created works in it. While the present study is not about the genre of alternative history itself, but rather about the principle of alternativeness which can be extracted from it, we will begin with a short introduction into it, outlining the course of our argumentation, and then gradually proceed to formulating of the main issue of this work. * Over the last twenty years, the research into alternative history literature – a sub-genre of fantasy literature based on an unreal hypothetical historical premise – has grown significantly. Alternative or counterfactual history16 envisages how history could have unfolded had events developed 14

Mikhail Epstein, Filosofiia vozmozhnogo. Modal’nosti v myshlenii i kul’ture (The Philosophy of the Possible: Modalities in Thinking and Cultrure), SPetersburg, Aleteia, 2001, pp. 27-32. 15 Ibid., p. 66. 16 “Counterfactual thinking” may be presented as a method introduced by Max Weber for the needs of “singular causal analysis” of historical events: in order to assess whether one event really caused the other, we should modify or remove the first one and ask whether under the new conditions the second event would be still expected (“Objective Possibility and Adequate Causation in Historical



in different directions at certain key points in time: if, for instance, the Nazis had won World War II (Philip Dick’s The Man in the High Castle); if, as a result of the civil war following the Russian Bolshevik revolution, an independent Crimean republic had emerged (Vasily Aksyonov’s The Island of Crimea); or if the Roman Empire had not disintegrated (Harry Turtledove’s Agent of Byzantium).17 However, the research into alternative history literature, most of which is of a historiographical or poeticdescriptive nature, is still not a sufficiently comprehensive or established Explanation” (1905), in The Methodology of the Social Sciences, trans. by Edward Shils and Henry Finch, Brunswick NJ, Transaction Publishers, 2011, pp. 164-188). Raymond Aron claimed that the question of the reasonable possibilities of historical events is the basis of an historical methodology (Introduction to the Philosophy of History: An Essay on the Limits of Historical Objectivity, London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1948). However, this method is rather controversial among historians. For the defense of it see: Martin Bunzl, “Counterfactual History: A User’s Guide,” The American Historical Review 109.3 (2004), pp. 845-858. For the opposite opinion see: Aviezer Tucker, Our Knowledge of the Past: A Philosophy of Historiography, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2004, pp. 227-239. The most comprehensive pro-et-contra discussion of the subject is presented in: Alexander Demandt, History That Never Happened: A Treatise on the Question, What Would Have Happened If…?, trans. by Colin D. Thomson, 3d ed., Jefferson NC, McFarland, 1993. See also the collections of counterfactual histories: Niall Ferguson, ed., Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals, New York, Basic Books, 1997; Robert Cowley, ed., What If? The World’s Most Foremost Military Historians Imagine What Might Have Been, New York, Putnam, 1999; More What If? Eminent Historians Imagine What Might Have Been, New York, Putnam, 2001. 17 One should not confuse counterfactual history with what David Biale, referring to Gershom Sholem, calls “counter-history”: “I mean by this term the belief that the true history lies in a subterranean tradition that must be brought to light, much as the apocalyptic thinker decodes an ancient prophecy or as Walter Benjamin spoke of brushing history ‘against the grain.’ Counter-history is a type of revisionist historiography, but where the revisionist proposes a new theory or finds new facts, the counter-historian transvalues old ones. He does not deny that his predecessors’ interpretation of history is correct, as does the revisionist, but he rejects the completeness of that interpretation; he affirms the existence of a ‘mainstream’ or ‘establishment’ history, but believes that the vital force lies in a secret tradition” (David Biale, Gershom Sholem: Kabbalah and Counter-History, Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press, 1979, p. 7). Amos Funkenstein uses this term in more radical sense as “distortion of the adversary’s self-image, of his identity, through the deconstruction of his memory,” as turning history and memory “on its head,” as a lie, arbitrariness and denial of facts in the purpose of propaganda (such as the anti-Semitic one) (Amos Funkenstein, Perceptions of Jewish History, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1993, pp. 36-48).

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discipline. Moreover, its theoretical potential has not been properly assessed or even recognized by the wider scholar community. Exception from this can be found in the “possible worlds” theory, represented by such scholars as Ruth Ronen and Marie-Laure Ryane, and first of all – by Lubomír Doležel. He has elaborated his theory of the Leibnizian kind for years, and in his recently published book he devoted a special chapter to the “counterfactual narratives of the past.”18 On the other side, Nicolas Rescher, one of the leading philosophers of the “possible,” rejects the necessity of the “possible worlds” for historical counterfactual thinking and for creating “fictional worlds,” and warns of the “collision of the two worlds of fact and fiction” as “one of the dangers of our age.”19 Thus, Chapter 1 of our book is devoted to sketching a preliminary outline defining alternative history. The origins of alternative history and of the principle of alternativeness can be discovered in plant mythology20 which is mediated by classic rhetorical tradition. The elements of alternative history are discernible both in the literature of antiquity and in modern literature. The necessary and sufficient condition of alternative history can be formulated as follows: open realization of a possible unrealized purpose of historical personality. This definition is the first step in moving from a perception of the genre of alternative history to the principle of historical alternativeness. At the next step, alternative history is defined as a rhetorical figure that develops from a symbol. The strongest motivation of alternative history lies in the realm of cultural rhetoric, and this motivation is the will to change culture in order to reform, strengthen, and invigorate it. The analysis will show that alternative history has a paradoxical rhetorical and logical structure with a “genetic” internal contradiction.21 Alternative history is not a true chaotic system, but rather a strategic mental game which is an imitation, simulation of chaos. Two models are proposed here – logical and rhetorical – which define alternative 18 Doležel, Possible Worlds of Fiction and History, pp. 101-126. See also: MarieLaure Ryane, Possible Worlds, Artificial Intelligence and Narrative Theory, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1991. 19 Nicolas Rescher, Imagining Irreality: A Study of Unreal Possibilities, Peru IL, Open Court – Carus, 2003, pp. 270-271. 20 To this day, the most comprehensive insights on plant mythology remain Jacob Grimm’s Teutonic Mythology (1883) (trans. by James Steven Stallybrass, Mineola NY, Dover Publications, 2004, pp. 1190-1222), and James Frazer’s The Golden Bough (1890) (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1998, pp. 82-98, 794-808). 21 Nicolas Rescher already showed that counterfactual conditionals as such are drawn from belief-inconsistent hypotheses, thus engendering “aporetic conflicts” (Imagining Reality, p. 211).



history, on the one hand, as a general principle of literary reading, and on the other, as a distinct and unique element. The chapter concludes with a differentiation of this element from others such as mistake and missed opportunity, and from related genres such as parallel history. At the same time, the principle discussed here is distinct in well-known literary genres, such as the picaresque novel and the baroque play. The preliminary theoretical discussion in Chapter 1 evinces the need to re-evaluate the theoretical basis of the study of alternative history. Chapter 2 is devoted to a discussion of the state of the research in the field, or more precisely, the theoretical part of the research. In this chapter, the claims or inferred theoretical suppositions of the scholars who have written exhaustively on the discipline over the last decade will be reviewed and examined.22 These are, first of all, Karen Hellekson, William Hardesty, and Gavriel Rosenfeld,23 who establish their theories mostly on post-structuralist and post-modernist ideas, such as Hayden White’s “metahistory” and Linda Hutcheon’s “historiographic metafiction.”24 Our aim is to formulate anew a theoretical foundation for this field of research. The significance of this project extends far beyond the specific objectives of research into the genre of alternative history. Through a critical discussion of the works of scholars mentioned above, we argue that alternative history is not based on historical relativism and cannot be attributed to postmodernism; it is certainly not based on a single historiographical model of any kind and of itself does not constitute a closed, predefined historical or historiographical model. 22

I will focus here on literary theory. To the problem of alternativeness in the theory of history, it is useful to refer to the Theme Issue no. 41 of History and Theory “Unconventional History” (December 2002). Alexei Bocharov accomplished a systematic research of the problem of alternativeness from the viewpoint of the theory of history, when he stressed the constitutive role of the free will of a personality on the pragmatic and existential levels (Alexei Bocharov, “Problema alternativnosti istoricheskogo razvitiia: istoriograficheskie i metodologicheskie aspekty” (“The Problem of Alternativeness of the Historical Development: Historiographical and Methodological Aspects”), MA Dissertation, Tomsk, 2002). 23 Karen Hellekson, The Alternate History: Refiguring Historical Time, Ohio, The Kent State University Press, 2001; William Hardesty, “Toward a Theory of Alternate History: Some Versions of Alternative Nazis,” in Edgar L. Chapman and Carl B. Yoke, eds., Classic and Iconoclastic Alternate History Science Fiction, Lewiston and New York, The Edwin Mellen Press, 2003; Gavriel Rosenfeld, The World Hitler Never Made: Alternate History and the Memory of Nazism, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2005. 24 Hutcheon, A Poetics of Postmodernism, pp. 105-123.

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The work of alternative history cannot be reduced to what Rosenfeld terms the “normalization of memory.” Alternative history is not merely a genre of fantasy; it constitutes a world-view, a method of thinking, and a poetic principle that transcends genre boundaries, schools of thought, and historical periods. This issue will be the subject for the present research, beginning with the discussion of the reading-and-time problem from the personalistic point of view, in the terms of Paul Ricoeur and David Carr,25 that opens the Chapter 3. Assuming that the principle of historical alternativeness is immanent in literary work in general, it can be defined and used as a narrative-poetic model.26 This model presents the principle of alternativeness at the levels of myth (plot), identity (character), choice (history), and modes of choice (historiography). The essence of the alternativeness principle is the creation of multiple, parallel possibilities on all these levels and the creation of mechanisms to control this diversity. A genre which is a poetic realization of the principle of alternativeness is primarily intended to mend and rehabilitate the metaphysical conception of historical truth that, over various periods, had been damaged by excessive historical relativism. Alternative history, as we will argue, acts “in defense of history,” as Richard J. Evans put it,27 in face of the “postmodern challenge.”28 Alternativeness is not relativity; similarly, contingency is not arbitrariness; and constructedness is not falsity, as Moshe Rosman wrote in his study on Jewish historiography.29 The truth of alternativeness in this sense is neither being (reality) nor necessity (utopy), 25

Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative, trans. Kathleen McLaughlin and David Pellauer, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1984-1988. David Carr, Time, Narrative, and History, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1986. 26 Mikhail Epstein justifies the use of the “possible” as a universal (and primary) philosophical and cultural category, while surveying the line of “possibilism” in philosophy from Nicholas Cusanus, through Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, to Jean Baudrillard. One of the most prominent though neglected figures in this line is Hans Vaihinger, the author of The Philosophy of As If (London, Routledge and Paul, 1949). According to Vaihinger’s “principle of factionalism,” we act “as if” our ideas of the world were correct. It is so, writes Epstein arguing with Aristotle and affirming Husserl, because the possible precedes the actual, and therefore should be viewed as its constitutive principle (Epstein, The Philosophy of the Possible, p. 41). 27 Richard J. Evans, In Defense of History, New York, W.W. Norton, 1999. 28 See: Georg G. Iggers, Historiography in the Twentieth Century, Middletown, CT, Wesleyan University Press, 1997, p. 152. 29 Moshe Rosman, How Jewish Is Jewish History?, Oxford, The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2007, p. 182.



but rather a “springy” “thought-hypothesis,” in the terms of Mikhail Epstein: “This is a resilience, as a special state of thought-hypothesis, that does not permit its conversion to arbitraryness of any ridiculous assumptions. Possibilistic mode of thinking involves the greatest strain of thought, and not a weak-willed relaxation. The hypothesis is not the first possible opinion, but such an assumption that includes both the actual and necessary, but not reduced to them. To reveal pure possibility, the hypothesis needs a contrasting background, consisting of indisputable facts and irrevocable imperatives.”30 This nature of alternative history, then, hints at the significance of research into alternativeness in literature, through which the scholar reveals mechanisms that, at the first level, control the creation of myths in a text; at the second level, control the creation of identities; at the third level, control the choices in a text (the alternativeness of conceptions of history); and at the fourth level, control the philosophical-historical foundation of the work, namely, the modes of choice (the alternativeness of conceptions of historiography). While analyzing alternativeness in literature, we are simultaneously discovering both the mythological roots of poetic alternativeness in a given work and analyzing the prevailing realization of the principle of alternativeness in a certain cultural context. The analysis of alternativeness is likely to reveal the narrative-based, ethical, historical, and historiographical premises at the core of the work. It is rhetoric, the mechanism for establishing multiple possibilities, oscillation and the choice between them, that underlies the work of alternativeness. This links to the problem of contingency, which must not be understood in Rorty’s terms, but can remain basicly Aristotelian. As Roman Jacobson already noted, and Group ȝ and Reuven Tsur following him, rhetoric is used to split reality, discourse, and identity, and therefore to create alternatives at all the above-mentioned levels.31 Through historical alternativeness, a literary work realizes its ethical potential. This was envisioned by Martha Nussbaum, Wayne C. Booth and other promoters of the “ethical turn,”32 but trully comprehended by personalist


Epstein, Filosofiia vozmozhnogo, p. 83. Roman Jacobson, “Closing Statements: Linguistics and Poetics,” in Thomas A. Sebeok, Style In Language, Cambridge Massachusetts, MIT Press, 1960, pp. 350– 377. Jacques Dubois, et al., A General Rhetoric, trans. Paul B. Burrell and Edgar M. Slotkin, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981. Reuven Tsur, Toward a Theory of Cognitive Poetics, Amsterdam, North-Holland, 1992. 32 Wayne C. Booth, The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction, Berkeley CA, University of California Press, 1988. 31

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narratologists such as Adam Z. Newton and James Phelan.33 In historical alternativeness, as in rhetoric in general, the ethical aspect is indivisible from the pragmatic one. In other words, the work realizes its potential of multiplicity, as opposed to the Deleuzian and other post-structuralist conceptions, without losing the unifying origin of truth, sign, and meaning. The root of this unity is associated with the transcendental essence of the creation of myth, identity, choice, and modes of choice. Chapters 4-7 are devoted to a theoretical discussion of the principle of historical alternativeness at these four levels. In Chapter 4, our objective is to show that reading is mythopoesis, not in the sense of the development of a single myth but as oscillation between alternative myths. Following Aleksei Losev, myth is defined as a miraculous personalistic history that is conveyed in words, when miracle is a realization of the transcendental purpose of the personality in the empirical history.34 In order to reestablish the mythopoesis theory, we add to the theory of mythopoesis, as it has been developed elsewhere,35 the category of the possibility, or more precisely, of multiple possibilities. We formulate a “possibilistic” theory of myth. Myth can be seen from this perspective as the history of a possible realization of personality, where the miracle is seen as one of the possibilities of personality’s historical realization. The multiplicity of possibilities may appear both at the level of purpose and at the level of realization – in the multiplicity of empirical histories, that is in the multiplicity of attempts to comprehend the purpose and meaning of history. In this light, alternative history appears as an attempt to overcome historical and ethical determinism. Thereafter the theoretical basis for the principle of alternativeness in myth is constructed by a critical reading of several texts from Emmanuel Lévinas’ Time and the Other and from Gilles Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition. The discussion shifts to the issue of time, particularly the well-


Adam Z. Newton, Narrative Ethics, Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press, 1995. James Phelan, Narrative as Rhetoric: Technique, Audiences, Ethics, Ideology, Columbus OH, Ohio State University Press, 1996. 34 Aleksei Losev, The Dialectics of Myth (1930), trans. by Vladimir Marchenkov, New York, Routledge, 2003, pp. 185-186. 35 See: Roman Katsman, The Time of Cruel Miracles: Mythopoesis in Dostoevsky and Agnon, Heidelberg University Publications in Slavistics, Frankfurt am Main, Peter Lang GmbH, 2002, pp. 65-89; Poetics of Becoming: Dynamic Processes of Mythopoesis in Modern and Postmodern Hebrew and Slavic Literature, Heidelberg University Publications in Slavistics, Frankfurt am Main, Peter Lang GmbH, 2005, pp. 99-152.



known dilemma of retrospection and anticipation.36 Genuine alternative history requires a true oscillation and true free choice at the point of bifurcation, and, accordingly, demands the capability of a true return to the origin and the true creation of a new, unknown future. On the other hand, this future is not the “other,” for it must be a realistic, revealed possibility of self-realization, as explained in the first chapter. That is the reason that it is impossible to overcome determinism and build a model of alternative history and historical alternativeness solely on the basis of a philosophy of time like that of Deleuze or Levinas. The course of the discussion will lead us to the need to speak of historical alternativeness in the nondeterministic terms of the theory of rhetoric, presented in the next chapter. Chapter 5 begins with a discussion of rhetoric: it is presented as the practice of creating multiple possibilities and of oscillating between them, as this leads to choosing one particular possibility and ruling out the others. Rhetoric creates multiple narratives, multiple interpretations of reality, multiple aims of persuasion, and multiple values. Through a critical reading of a text by Juri Lotman on rhetoric,37 the profound link between alternativeness and the essence of rhetoric becomes clear. A rhetorical act brings about the axis of time: it creates the past as a return to the point of bifurcation, the present as the point of the new choice; on top of that, it creates the involvement, identification and the absence of possibilities that were not chosen – as the future. The discussion of alternativeness of myth concludes with an argument on the connection (and the isomorphism) between the discourse of historical alternativeness and the discourse on miracle in mythopoetic literature. In Chapter 6, the next, and the most important, step is taken: if myth is the history of personality, it must be posited that choosing a myth is also choosing a personality. Accordingly, the next level of alternativeness is the alternativeness of personality. The phenomenon of personalistic alternativeness in alternative history is now distinguished from other, similar phenomena. We will first see that personalistic alternativeness is not substitutability. Moreover, personalistic alternativeness is not a psychological problem. For personality, alternativeness presumes both 36

Mark Currie, who has worked on the problem of narrative time in all his books, introduces the term “about time” or “backwards time” and emphasizes, partly agreeing with and partly disputing Ricoeur, that the backward movement in time is inherent in any reading and any novel (Mark Currie, About Time: Narrative, Fiction, and the Philosophy of Time, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 2007, pp. 87-106). 37 Juri Lotman, “Rhetoric as a Mechanism of Meaning-Generation,” in Universe of the Mind, New York, Tauris, 2001, pp. 36-53.

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multiplicity and exchange of personality with another or others. It will be shown that this multiplicity and exchange are different from the multiplicity and interchangeability of personality in mental disorders of the dissociative type, such as multiple personality, schizophrenia, de-personalization, and de-realization. Alternative history is closer to the “healthy” consciousness than to the pathological one. Although historical alternativeness, too, involves a difficult effort of remembrance, it is a successful effort, as opposed to mental disorders, where it fails. Alternative history establishes a “happy” memory, as opposed to a “miserable” memory of pathology. This dynamic of splitting and re-uniting reality is embodied in the textuallinguistic dynamic of splitting language and re-uniting it, which is, in effect, a rhetorical dynamic. At the center of the work of historical alternativeness lies what is called in Paul Ricoeur’s later books “the effort of remembering,” which is the opposite of the work of contingent or unfounded narration, and of causing something to be forgotten.38 After a discussion of Ricoeur’s theory of remembering and of Carr’s theory of narrative as “the organizing principle […] of the self,”39 the question is raised: how can a personality in alternative history be both unique and unified, yet also multiple and alternative? We will argue that the unique nature of the personality in alternative history is not its singularity, identicalness, authenticity, or non-repetitiveness. A unique personality is a personality in the process of becoming, and becoming is a unique quality par excellence at every single moment. It then emerges that in splitting a given, “existing” history into the multiplicity of possible histories which have “not yet” existed, alternativeness instills history with a transcendent dimension, turns existent reality into becoming, and the historical personality – into a becoming personality, unique in this sense. If so, when alternative history presents historical personalities in the process of becoming, it does not undermine their uniqueness but on the contrary, preserves and strengthens it. Moreover, alternativeness stems from the “becoming nature” of the myth and of the personality. On the other hand, the unity of the personality stems from the rhetorical nature of alternativeness, that is from the free will to speak and persuade others in “fearless speech” with confidence in the existence of truth and a concern for self, to borrow the concepts in the later work by Michel Foucault.40 Without the unity and transcendent uniqueness of 38 Paul Ricoeur, Memory, History, Forgetting, trans. by Kathleen Blamey and David Pellauer, Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 2004, pp. 56-92. 39 Carr, Time, Narrative and History, p. 73. 40 Indeed, Foucault opposes (quite unjustly, to my mind) frankness with persuasion. However, his personalistic tendency, with the concepts of truth and self



personality, the multiplicity of personality could not exist either, and consequently, nor could personalistic alternativeness. However, multiplicity on its own does not assume the oscillation between its different units. The connection of oscillation between two possibilities is defined in terms of identification, rhetorical in nature, as Kenneth Burke understood it.41 We therefore argue that the becoming of personality, while it is noncontiguous, transcendent, and rhetorical, is the essentially renewed identification. Chapter 7 completes the theoretical discussion of the principle of historical alternativeness, after it has been elucidated that personalistic alternativeness is its nucleus. Without a discussion of the choice itself that is the basis of identification, it is impossible to explain the alternativeness of personality. The chapter consists of two sections: alternativeness of choice and alternativeness of modes of choice. In order to discuss the question of what is choice, we will construct – on the basis of the Semiotic Square developed by Algirdas Greimas – a dynamic vector square of choice (on the continuum of identification-alienation), so that the movement between its angles is caused by free will. The vector square replicates itself, gives rise to new squares insofar as the personality moves along its sides, and so the chain of squares assembles a “becoming-based” algorithm of choice. The two basic characteristics of the algorithm correspond to the two principles of becoming: the hierarchical structure of the algorithm corresponds to the transcendental principle of becoming, while its dynamic temporal continuity corresponds to the historical principle. The claim is made that only by exposing the transcendental structure of choice (embodied in the algorithm) can one truly be conscious at its center, prevails in his last works, particularly in his discussion of the Greek “parrhesia”: “parrhesia is a verbal activity in which a speaker expresses his personal relationship to truth and risks his life because he recognizes truth-telling as a duty to improve or help other people (as well as himself)” (Michel Foucault, Fearless Speech, Los Angeles, Semiotext(e), 2001, p. 20). 41 In his well-known analysis of Milton’s “Samson Agonistes,” Burke writes that identification allows “a ritualistic kind of historiography in which the poet could, by allusion to a Biblical story, ‘substantially’ foretell the triumph of his vanquished faction;” by identification, “the poet presents a motive in an essentially magnified or perfected form, in some way tragically purified or transcended;” it is “dramatic equivalent for an ‘entelechial’ pattern of thought whereby a thing’s nature would be classed according to the fruition, maturing, or ideal fulfillment, proper to its kind;” “That is: the filling of something is the changing of it, and the statement of the thing’s nature before and after the change is an identifying of it” (Kenneth Burke, A Rhetoric of Motives, Berkeley CA, University of California Press, 1969, pp. 19-20).

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and free in what one chooses and does. The main argument here is, then, that alternative history allows the reader to face a choice in a way that enables him/her to think of the mode of choice. Therefore, the second section of the chapter deals with alternativeness in modes of choice. Choosing between the various modes of choice depends on the person’s perception of the relationship and the distance between his/her self-image as a living personality and self-image as a machine. This insight serves as the starting point in examining the taxonomy of modes of choice. It may be said that each of the motives of choice defines in a different way the relationship between man and machine, between freedom and necessity. This, of course, is not an a priori unequivocal scale; it is not absolute but rather relative, yet it is still the most relevant scale for evaluating the relationship between different motives for choice. It is the perception of history that ultimately determines the mode of choice. Oscillation, on which alternative history is based, is not just wavering between different histories but essentially, between different historiographies, so that literature of this type is depicted as alternative historiography. Chapter 8, the longest in the book, devoted to an analysis of the principle of historical alternativeness, including its four levels, in S. Y. Agnon’s The City with All That Is Therein (Ir u-mloa), Book Two. Important articles have been written on the stories in the book,42 yet only one book has dealt with it in full – City, Law, Story by Shulamit Almog. It focuses on one issue, the issue of justice, and relates to selected stories in the book.43 Many studies are being written on Agnon, but The City with All That Is Therein is an area that has been relatively neglected by the scholarly community.44 It was scarcely discussed in recently published 42

To mention just a few: Shmuel Werses, “Ha-tzadik be-gehenom” (“The Tzadik in the Hell”), in Tzvia Ben-Yosef Ginor, ed., Mekhkarim be-sifrut Yisrael mugashim le-Avraham Holtz (Studies in Jewish Literature in the Honor of Abraham Holtz), New York, JTS, 2003, pp. 109-124; Hillel Weiss, “Sippurei hakhazanim le-Agnon” (“The Cantors Stories by Agnon”), Amudim 614 (1998), pp. 21-25; Dan Laor, “Haim katav Agnon al ha-Shoah?” (“Did Agnon Write on the Holocaust?”), Yad va-Shem 22 (1993), pp. 15-47. Yehuda Friedlander, “Ha-maarag ha-satiri be-sipurim ‘Ha-tzfardeim’ ve-‘Mazal dagim’” (“The Satirical Fabric in the Stories ‘The Frogs’ and ‘Pisces’”), Bein halakha le-haskala (Hebrew Satire and Polemics in Europe during the 18th-20th Centuries), Ramat Gan, Bar-Ilan University Press, 2004, pp. 336-351. 43 Shulamit Almog, Ir, Mishpat, Sippur (City, Law, Story), Jerusalem and TelAviv, Schocken, 2002. 44 Recently, we are apparently witnessing an awakening of the interest in the book. See in Ayin Gimel: A Journal of Agnon Studies, vol. 2 (2012): Avidov Lipsker,



books on Agnon, except of sporadic references to particular separate stories, which were published separately or included in earlier volumes of Agnon’s stories, such as Korot Bateynu (The Chronicles of Our Houses).45 We suggest that The City with All That Is Therein can be presented as the alternative history of a community, which is created in lieu of a community that was wiped out in the Holocaust – the community of Buchach, where Agnon had been born. That is the first meaning of the concept of alternative history with regard to this book. The second meaning, no less important, is that a new community created in the book is, metaphysically speaking, the true community, at least more true than the historical one. The third meaning of the principle of alternativeness in Agnon’s work is connected to the fantastic or miraculous element. We argue that Agnon’s discourse of the miraculous may be defined as alternative history. This concept both defines the relationship between the miracle narrative and other narratives in the text, and makes it possible to understand beyond the external level of narrative (the level of the alternativeness of myth) the following levels: alternativeness of personality, choice, and modes of choice. Furthermore, the concept of alternative history in relation to Agnon’s work is of special importance because it sheds light on the problematic relationship between miracle and history. And finally, the fourth meaning of the principle of alternativeness in The City with All That Is Therein (as in other of Agnon’s works) is expressed in the well-known phenomenon of factual uncertainty. Almost “Hashgakha be-me’ey ha-daga” (“Providence in the Belly of the Fish. Book of Jonah, the Midrash, and Jacob Steinhardt’s Edition. ‘Pisces’ by S.Y. Agnon and Yosl Bergner’s Edition”), pp. 46-92; Alan Minz, “Reading Hahazanim,” pp. 93107; Michal Arbel, “Ha-khazanit ha-atzuva Miriam Dvora ve-khazanim akherim be-sipurei Agnon ‘Ha-khazanim,’ ‘Lefi ha-tzaar ha-sakhar’” (“Miriam Dvora, the Melancholic Cantor: On ‘Ha’hazanim’ and ‘Lefi ha’tsa’ar ha’sachar’ by S.Y. Agnon”), pp. 108-130. See also: Roman Katsman, Nevua ktana: kenut ve-retorika be-Ir u-mloa le-S.Y. Agnon (‘A Small Prophecy’: Sincerity and Rhetoric in Ir umloa by S.Y. Agnon), Ramat-Gan, Bar-Ilan University Press, 2013. 45 See: Nitza Ben-Dov, Khayim ktuvim: al otobiografiiot sifrutiiot israeliiot (Written Lives: On Israeli Literary Autobiographies), Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv, Schocken, 2011, Chapter 1; Elkhanan Shiloh’s book Ha-kabbala be-yetzirat S.Y. Agnon (The Cabbala in the Work of S. Y. Agnon), Ramat-Gan, Bar-Ilan University Press, 2011, pp. 278, 368; Ziva Shamir, Shai olamot (The Multifaceted Agnon), Tel-Aviv, Ha-Kibbutz Hameuhad, 2010; Hans-Jurgen Becker and Hillel Weiss (eds.), Agnon and Germany, Ramat-Gan, Bar-Ilan University Press, 2010; Yaniv Hagbi, Language, Absence, Play, New York, Syracuse University Press, 2009; Tzahi Weiss, ‘Mot ha-Shekhina’ be-yetzirat Agnon (‘The Death of the Shekhina’ in Agnon’s Work), Ramat-Gan, Bar-Ilan University Press, 2009.

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every representation or image in Agnon can unfold and develop as alternative history, and that is what the reading of the stories demonstrates in this chapter. In an analysis of the stories “Rabbotenu ha-rishonim be-Buchach” (“Our First Rabbis in Buchach”) and “Arie de-Bei ilai” (“The Lion of Bei Ilai”), Agnon’s main alternative history is revealed, that is the rabbinical or Jewish-pedagogical history. Its essence is the passing on Torah teachings as personal knowledge, to use the terminology of Michael Polanyi,46 or as it is emphasized in an analysis of the following stories, the process of initiation and education of the Torah scholar, with dialogue, crisis, and innovation at its center.47 At the heart of Agnon’s poetics of alternativeness lies the conflict between various historiographic views – deterministic and non-deterministic – and this conflict, as a kind of genetic code, can be discerned in almost every character, image and narrative in the text. After this discussion, the analysis focuses on two longer stories that make up the main part of Book Two of The City with All That Is Therein: “Ha-mevakshim lahem rav, o be-ruakh ha-moshel” (“In Search of a Rabbi, or The Spirit of the Ruler”), and “Ha-mashal ve-ha-nimshal” (“The Parable and the Moral”). Both stories present two central symbols of historical alternativeness for Agnon: the first – the fish and the salt, and the second – the hollow of a sling. The concept of historical alternativeness describes the uniqueness of Agnon’s philosophical poetics and the relationship between the various layers of meaning much more effectively than concepts such as allegory or meta-realism. From a theoretical viewpoint, it is demonstrated that historical alternativeness is justified here by means of a metaphysical perception, moreover – by means of religious faith. This conclusion is in accord with the stance formulated in the theoretical section, according to which alternative history (as a genre and as a principle) develops from the metaphysical view of history and truth. At the level of alternativeness of modes of choice, the symbols of alternativeness discerned here embody the historiographic and discursive-philosophical question, Hamlet’s dilemma: To write or not to write history, to speak or not to speak of the past, to remember or to forget? This question is connected to another historiographic question: is it possible and necessary to justify history, and if so, how? These questions are connected to the essence of Jewish


Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy, Chicago, Chicago University Press, 1958. 47 Cf. also: Susan Handelman, Make Yourself a Teacher, Washington, University of Washington Press, 2011.



hermeneutics as a part of Jewish pedagogy:48 interpretation is an attempt to realize possibilities of meaning that are not yet realized but could be, were, or will be realized. Interpretation is, we would thus suggest, an alternative history. It turns out then that innovation in the study of Torah is a symbol and realization of the principle of the historical alternativeness. Later in the analysis, Agnon’s writing will be defined as ethical historiography and historical intuition.49 These features are fully realized in the main part of the story – the story of the initiation of the protagonist, Rabbi Mordechai, as a Talmudic scholar. The last part of Chapter 8 is devoted to a discussion of the story “The Parable and the Moral,” which describes the tour of Gehenna by Rabbi Moshe and the servant of the synagogue. At the center of the story is the community’s memory of the Khmelnitsky pogroms, and the character of Rabbi Moshe signifies the historical crisis, the breakdown of the continuity of genealogy and history, and therefore he desperately seeks a way to release the “princess” (bat ha-melekh) – his relatives’ daughter who survived the pogroms, from aginut50 (both actual and symbolic). Aginut, one of the central themes throughout Agnon’s writing, is presented as a symbol of alternative history. It is joined by the next symbol, which is the central symbol of alternativeness in the story – the hollow of a sling (the parallel in Jewish mysticism to the purgatory in Christianity). Man’s suffering in the hollow of the sling is caused by his seeing the consequences of his sins. Before his eyes another world is revealed, a world that he does not identify as his own. It is as though man can view an 48

It apparently may be, though, that pedagogy of a certain kind is a part of hermeneutics. This is the view of such experts in hermeneutical philosophy as Paul Fairfield and Jean Grondin, who establish a theory of dialogical education on Hans-Georg Gadamer’s Truth and Method and his notions, such as fusion of horizons (Jean Grondin, “Gadamer’s Experience and Theory of Education,” in Paul Fairfield, ed., Education, Dialogue, Hermeneutics, London and New York, Continuum, 2011, p.14). For the extensive discussion of the subject see: Shaun Gallagher, Hermeneutics and Education, Albany NY, State University of New York Press, 1992. 49 We can accept here only the personalistic and becoming elements of Benedetto Croce’s conception of historiography, but not his negation of the metaphysics of history (Benedetto Croce, Theory and History of Historiography (1917), trans. by Douglas Ainslie, Nabu Press, 2010). Nevertheless, his equation between history and philosophy (spirit) may be transformed into Agnon’s supposed equation between (Jewish) history and (personalistic) pedagogy. 50 Aginut is a halakhic term: a state of a woman being “bound by marriage” and not allowed to remarry because her husband’s death has not been conclusively verified.

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alternative history that either was created in the wake of his deeds or that could have been created, had he done the things “he had reckoned to do.” The lack of possibility to change, to choose anew, to rectify, to regret and receive a second chance – in other words, the lack of possibility to create an alternative history – is the true Gehenna.


a. Mythological Roots of Historical Alternativeness Thinking The roots of alternative history and of the alternativeness principle lie in an ancient mythological tradition, mediated by the classical rhetorical tradition. We refer here to plant mythology, especially its two mythemes: the growth out of the trunk or branch, and the renewal of this growth through a return to the beginning (the return of the seed to the soil). These two mythemes together constitute a complex theme, of life’s renewal in the miracle of returning to the branch or point of bifurcation, of receiving a second chance. The vegetative icons of branching, of a forked sprouting of two buds from a single seed, are the basic symbols of alternative history, and may be found at the core of many cultural icons. Alternative history embodies the image of history itself as Borges’ “garden of forking paths.” The idea of alternative history owes its birth to the preservation and processing of this archaic mythological tradition in the culture of the Greek city-state, through the theory and practice of rhetoric on the one hand, and through the science of history (in its emerging stages, of course) on the other. Rhetoric sanctified the principle of splitting meanings in the deconstruction and reconstruction of language, while the science of history exposed the historical nature of these splitting and dismantlingreconstruction processes. However, the idea of alternative history appears, in either embryonic or more developed form, wherever plant symbolism plays a constitutive role, as for example the tree of knowledge and the tree of life in the Bible. Let us name this mythological genome of thinking and language the plant code.1 Its main function is to impose a hierarchic 1 The term “plant code” is derived from Vladimir Toporov: “Zametki o rastitelnom kode osnovnogo mifa” (“Notes on the Plant Code of the Principal Myth”), in

Defining Alternative History: From Genre to Principle


structure on fragments of experience (including dreams, anxieties, delusions, visions) in the form of dynamic, contiguous or branching temporal sequences. From its origins in ancient mythologies and through the mediation of rhetoric and historical thought, alternative history became the foundation of certain philosophical and cultural practices in antiquity and in modern times: these include philosophical conceptions and methods, such as Socratic dialectics and irony, public debate, political and educational speech, and ethical-religious conceptions and practices associated with the concepts of sin, punishment and atonement, that is, the possibility of starting (personal or collective) history anew, for example by offering a sacrifice or in the metaphor of the deluge. The connections between alternative history and plant mythology thus gradually disintegrate, and either are replaced by other types of connections, or are reduced to formal philosophical concepts, such as Gilles Deleuze’s “rhizome” (grass-root), which remembers its origin in the world of plants but loses both its hierarchical purpose and the miraculous, happy, and celebratory vitality of renewal and revival, of a second chance. Alternative history, together with its symbols, establishes a special kind of relationship between origin and image, between realization and hope, between the given and the new. This relationship, as implied by the name itself, is neither imitation (mimesis) nor replication, but rather alternativeness, which casts doubt on the simplicity of the image and the triviality of the givenness, but does not assume equal value or the destruction of the hierarchic relation. In a sense, one can reverse the opinion shared by many scholars, that the unusual proliferation of alternative histories in recent years can be explained by the vigor of conceptions deemed postmodernist; one can say that some of the postmodernist philosophical and poetic approaches constitute a formalist manifestation of the ancient, mythological tradition of alternative history. In a rather radical yet still quite predictable move, this latter development commits “patricide,” perhaps as sublimation and release, perhaps out of paranoia and schizophrenia, by destroying the hierarchy of realization and alternation. The most extreme example of this radicalism is the belief that the other, as an alternative to the self, replaces it completely in every ethical, communicative, or intellectual setting. However, while there can be no doubt that in modern culture this radical development does take place, and is occasionally taken to absurd lengths, even to erasing the Tatyana Tzivian, ed., Balkansky lingvistichesky sbornik (The Balkan Linguistic Collection), Moscow, Nauka, 1977.



alternativeness relations between the alternatives or erasing the alternatives themselves, still the vital ancient roots of the tradition of alternative history never disappear from these practices, conceptions and genres. These roots make it possible to integrate the alternativeness conceptions intellectually and emotionally in creative cultural activity despite absurdity and schizophrenia, as for example in the genre of the roman nouveau, specifically in Nathalie Sarraute’s concept of “tropism” (a plant’s turning in response to an external stimulus), yet another plant code in the modern intellectual discourse. In alternativeness, the branching out of existence and being does not lead to their collapse, thanks to the unique character of alternativeness, discussed in the present work, as it grows out of its ancient mythological and rhetorical roots. The principle of alternativeness is no less actively at work in classical novels of the nineteenth century than it is in the roman nouveau. What makes the latter “new,” surprising and provocative is that in it the workings of alternativeness are completely exposed at the foundation of writing itself. In philosophies like those of Deleuze or Derrida, alternativeness is reduced to differentiation-rejection (différance). This reduction rejects the historicity of history (as a sequence, a narrative, a story), and so invalidates the principle of alternativeness itself. But this principle has both a very long past and a very long memory, and therefore its existence is never in danger. In ancient plant mythologies the return to the point where growth begins is needed in order to recreate life. Alternative history is based on powerful, occasionally grotesque, themes, whose strength and significance Mikhail Bakhtin described in his work on Rabelais: fertility, a death that signifies renewal and rebirth, a journey to the underworld and back, reversing the direction of time’s arrow, birth and reproduction.2 However, the most basic mytheme, which underlies all themes and motifs, as well as the conception of alternativeness itself, is probably the event of a god splitting into multiple separate beings.3 This event may be due to the god’s will (on the god’s own initiative, or in response to a request by people or other gods) or to violence, and is usually deemed to be the source of reproduction and fertility in the world, either of the world itself and life in it, or of certain natural phenomena and objects in the world. Possibly it is totemism, and the polytheism derived from it, that constitute the first 2 Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, trans. by Helene Iswolsky, Cambridge. MIT Press, 1968. 3 The antecedence of this mytheme is due to the generic and historical antecedence of totem mythology to the later and more complex plant mythology characteristic of the agricultural civilization that succeeded that of the hunters.

Defining Alternative History: From Genre to Principle


presence of an alternative history in human consciousness and culture. The belief in god’s ability to split and reproduce, represented by means of the plant code in many myths, mediated by the rationalization force of rhetoric (and, wherever necessary, also by philosophical and poetic reduction), is thus the earliest manifestation of the concept of an alternative history, and an inexhaustible source of its vitality. The basic symbol that represents this god is, as previously pointed out, a seed that returns to the soil and dies in order to grant new life (this is the source of the myth of death and resurrection). The important point is that despite the fact that new life springs grotesquely from the rotting seed, from a broader perspective this new life does not negate the life that has given it birth, so that a new tree can grow next to the one from which the seed fell. The concurrence of the two does not invalidate the hierarchy; on the contrary, it is what makes it possible, since a hierarchy is a structure, and as such requires synchrony as its predicate, but is not limited to it. The old and the new construct a generational hierarchy of different times, of different histories in the present. Generational mythology is also constructed on the basis of the plant code and shapes a primary social model of alternativeness, in which the ascendant-descendant relationship appears as a hierarchic system of competing alternative histories. The presence of sons next to their fathers would have appeared to the ancients, as Freud pointed out in Totem and Taboo, to be a serious problem, and the competition between them – an insoluble conflict. This conflict gave rise to social practices by which we still live to this day. One of these is rhetoric: it sublimated and adapted the conflict into an oscillation between alternative myths/narratives/ideas, the choice between which is never final, just as every new generation and every new bud is not the last from the perspective of future expectation as an extrapolation of past memory, in other words, in historical perspective. Fathers and sons can “tolerate” each other as long as they “understand” that the relation of alternativeness between them is unavoidable and historical, that is, that it originates a generational sequence, a historical narrative, a story that constitutes a mechanism whereby the inheritance, in the sense of seed, the source of life and growth, can be passed down into the right hands. Myths about a second chance are, in effect, a transformation of the same generational model: the children are perceived as their fathers’ second chance, or a second chance is given in order to remedy a state of infertility, to compensate for a lack of progeny (as in the example of Abraham and Sarah). Sometimes the model of the second chance is realized as a temporary removal or disappearance of the source or means



of fertility and its subsequent restoration (for example, the binding of Isaac, Persepone’s abduction by Hades). An interesting myth in this connection is that of Orpheus and Eurydice. Although Eurydice dies before she bears Orpheus any children, and although their second chance also fails as Orpheus turns and gazes at his wife on the way back from the netherworld, the plant code that demands the realization of reproduction is still apparent: Dionysus is angry at Orpheus for refusing to worship him and sends Bacchae who tear him to pieces, which they scatter all over the world. The dismemberment and scattering of the body are clearly a reflection of the ancient plant theme of renewed growth proceeding from the death of the old and sowing its parts in the soil (just as a single spike of grain provides a great number of seeds that return to the soil; the scattering of body fluids and excretions is also a well-known grotesque motif, a low, degenerate version of a powerful mythological plant code). Let us not forget that the Bacchae, as well as Bacchus-Dionysus himself, are identified with wine rites and agricultural civilization in general. Dionysus’ revenge is a reminder of the power of vegetative growth, but it also testifies to its irrelevance and inadequacy in the new culture, perhaps even an expression of the god’s scorn at Orpheus’ attempt to redeem his wife and his potential future progeny from obliteration, since the pieces of his body do not give rise to sons. Orpheus’ compensation for the loss of future progeny comes from a different place: his head arrives at the island of Lesbos, where he foretells the future; prophecy replaces progeny. The generational “father-son” pattern is occasionally realized as a rebellion by the sons against their fathers (among gods or heroes). This theme, too, is derived from the principle of historical alternativeness: the rebelling sons constitute an alternative to the fathers and so bring historical time into existence, as in the paradigm case of Zeus’ rebellion against Chronos, or Jacob’s against Isaac. In this form the plant code of alternativeness is recognizable in modern literature and culture as well. Not only a modernist like Yosef Haim Brenner or a postmodernist like Etgar Keret can be seen in this light, but also works of pop culture such as movies, comics, graffiti, rock music, and so on. Despite all the reductions that have occurred in modern culture, alternativeness demonstrates the ancient vital force of the myth of revival. This is a vital element which is not always necessarily preserved in the alternative history genre of literature, whose works usually express either depression, tragic desperation, and cultural and historical fatigue, or escapist utopian fantasy, but certainly not the simple sublime (and not at all romantic or naïve) happiness at the triumph of life over death in the form of the emergence of a new bud on a branch. Contemporary serious alternative history literature

Defining Alternative History: From Genre to Principle


is a dirge rather than a panegyric, a groan of disappointment with life rather than a love song to life (a representative example of this is Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union). Certainly twentieth-century history provides ample reason for such an attitude, but the vital root of the genre and of the principle of alternativeness in general, is still intact. It is rhetoric that preserves and fosters this root, turning it into an originating principle; rhetoric makes alternativeness a method and a principle, and thus enables it to survive and take on new forms in intellectual, political, and everyday social and cultural practices. In summary, in the inexhaustible corpus of plant mythology we perceive a number of themes that appear most relevant to the theory of alternativeness: 1) Branching off, or bifurcation, is of course the central theme for our purposes; its main symbol is the tree. 2) Reproduction and proliferation, derived from the previous theme of bifurcation. 3) Oscillation and choice, derived from the previous theme of proliferation (typical examples of this theme’s association with the plant code is Aaron’s budding rod4 and the apple of discord in Greek mythology). 4) The second chance, a theme related to the one above, since its possibility derives from the possibility and need to choose, so that choice is never final, as for example in the oscillations of the Children of Israel in the desert between loyalty to Moses and Aaron and rebellion, God’s desire to destroy the people, Moses’ and Aaron’s pleas with Him not to do so, giving a second chance and using the rod in order to try and stop the oscillation by means of a determined and concrete choice (the budding of Aaron’s rod). The plant code indicates bifurcation and alternativeness, including oscillation and choice, competition between different historical directions, etc. Take, for example, Agnon’s story “Under the Tree,” with its description of oscillation and choice between religions. The plant code in the story is embodied, first and foremost, in the metaphor of the tree itself. Only a detailed analysis can bring to light the alternative history framework of the story in its entirety. Another example of the tremendous importance of the plant code is provided by ritual plants, such as the Four Species used on the holiday of Sukkot, which may be integrated into a 4

Numbers 17:23 (Jewish Bible), Numbers 17:8 (English Bible).



story’s metaphorical and conceptual fabric or even become the focus of narration, as in Agnon’s citron stories such as “The Citron of That Tzadik” and “The Citron.” Agnon’s writings provide ample examples of plant imagery, as in his story “Nights,” centered on the protagonist’s oscillation between Salsabilla and Ruhama; Ruhama is frequently compared to a rose while Hemdat uses flowers (and Ruhama) for his own personal rite for the sake of Salsabilla, and even carries out a virtual competition between the two girls’ flowers (“now is not the time to water your flowers, Ruhama”). Clearly, the source of the plant code – in this case, the Song of Songs and its interpretation in the Zohar – is a realization and a non-realization of possibility, oscillation, and choice, in particular the choice of a bride by the groom (the people of Israel as bride and God as groom), a nation’s chosenness that is tested time and again. Another interesting detail is the metaphor used for describing Ruhama’s tender age: “It is doubtful whether the tree for her wedding bed has already grown yet.”5 The comparison of a woman’s hair to plants goes back to a very ancient mythological figure, Mother Earth, whose main characteristic is of course reproduction and fertility (terra genetrix).6 Here this figure is imbued with yet another characteristic, derived from the tree’s symbolic meaning (not only in Jewish tradition), to wit, the knowledge of good and evil, reason in general, an ability to distinguish, separate, split values and meanings. Ruhama is presented as someone who does not yet know, that is, she does not separate, does not proliferate; she is not a tree, or in other words, is not fertility and bifurcation. A direct analogy between women and trees is also a well-known mythological motif: there are ancient myths in which animals and men are even said to copulate with trees, giving rise to the image of a Mother Tree. This image embodies the unified trinity of “fertility-reproduction-bifurcation.” The concept of mythological alternativeness is based on this significant construct. Certainly in complex texts such as Agnon’s, the theme of bifurcation and alternativeness is associated not only with the plant code. In most cases this code does express the theme. Other codes may also sometimes express bifurcation, for example architecture: bifurcation may be embodied in the forms of buildings, as in Agnon’s descriptions of synagogue and council buildings in Buchach, as described in the opening stories of The City with All That Is Therein. However in such cases it can be shown that the architectural code is secondary to the plant code; it is 5

S.Y. Agnon, “Nights,” At the Handles of the Lock, Schocken, 1998, p. 307. See: Mircea Eliade, Myths, Dreams and Mysteries, Harper & Row, 1975, Chapter 7. 6

Defining Alternative History: From Genre to Principle


based on the latter, derived from it, and occasionally also returns and merges into it. An interesting example can be found in the story “On the Slaughter” from Of Such and of Such, in which the house of a family that survived a pogrom eventually becomes one with the vegetation, which grows up through the walls and the roof. This union is perceived as positive rather than negative, because the plants nourish the goats – the probable descendants of the goat that sacrificed its own life to save the family. The image of disintegration and forlornness thus turns out to symbolize the renewal of life. This is a typical myth based on the plant code: the house, a token of civilization, returns as it were to its plant roots. This myth alludes to the originating event in the past, which served as an (abstract and concrete) cornerstone in the community’s history and shaped its collective memory. This event was a point of bifurcation, when the fate of the family, and the community with it, hung in the balance in the few moments during which the rioters turned their gaze at the threshold: will they see the blood or not, will they pass by the door or go in? Of course there is another, much more complex code above the plant code: the sacrifice. But it is the plants that join and unify all of the story’s structural elements, the soil, the home, goats, fertility, and continuation (of the dynasty and the community). The sacrifice of the goat7 is thus to be perceived as part of its relationship with the family, especially with the children (who represent fertility, reproduction, renewal, and continuity), who fed it those plants, for which the Land of Israel is praised (another link between the plant code and the sanctity as God’s presence). And finally, we must not forget Agnon’s vegetarianism, as described in Rena Lee’s book, not in the negative sense of not eating meat, but in the affirmative sense of viewing the plant world as the source of life. Animals in Agnon’s writings symbolize closure, finality, and absolute realization, as, for example, the rooster that symbolizes madness (in A Simple Story) or redemption (in The Bridal Canopy), and the dog as fate and curse (in Only Yesterday). At any rate, all these meanings derive from a conception of a uniform and deterministically closed fate. The plant code, on the other hand, symbolizes multiplicity, uncertainty, dynamism, and openness, mainly toward the future; openness and uncertainty as to events and their implications, a bifurcation and branching out of possibilities. In short, while animals symbolize necessity, plants are more closely related to freedom. However, while the animals in Agnon’s writings have been the subject of numerous studies, the plant code, arguably much more 7

Quite obviously, it reminiscent of the slaughter of a lamb by the Jews in Egypt and placing the blood on the door posts so that the Lord will pass over the houses of the Jews on the night He smites the land of Egypt (Exodus 12).



constitutive and profound than Agnon’s animal figures, has been almost completely ignored.8 In Rena Lee’s book Agnon and Vegetarianism, plants are represented through positive, not anti-meat or apologetic concepts only in the last chapter, where three themes are discussed: health (healthy food), medicine (medicinal plants) and redemption (in association with the teachings of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook).9 We do not propose here to delve into the plant motifs in Agnon’s writings. However, no discussion of historical alternativeness can ignore the ancient plant code, since all alternative history writing grows out of this primeval anthropological-mythical root. In the following chapters, we will resume our discussion of the motivations of alternative history and its ancient and modern expressions.

b. Motivation of Historical-Alternative Writing What is alternative history? What is the motivation for writing it? It is very tempting to define the motivation in negative terms, that is, to argue that alternative history derives from dissatisfaction with existing history or from an inability to explain existing historical phenomena. But let us begin with the affirmative motivations, the first of which is the extremely strong myth-creation drive; more precisely, a drive not just to create myths, but to create a real history. Perhaps the genre of alternative history expresses in the clearest way the creative drive that motivates literary writing, namely the desire to create a world – a possible world, in the sense of Lubomír Doležel and Ruth Ronen. This creative drive possesses a mythopoetic component, but also another, that complements it, namely the scientific component. Alternative history is also a kind of study in “objective,” conventional history. Alternative history is a kind of anthropologicalhistorical laboratory in which unrealized possibilities of historical evolution by nations, communities and personalities are realized. Doležel writes: “The idea of the contingency of history and the idea of the need to construct historical worlds as multidimensional models are the two most significant theoretical achievements of counterfactual thinking in historiography. […] In their cognitive function counterfactual events or 8 For a recent example of reference to the plant symbolism in Agnon, see Ziva Shamir’s discussion on seaweed in “Oath of Allegiance” (“Shvuat emunim”): “Bein ohalei Shem le-yafyefuto shel Yefet” (Between the Tents of Shem and the Beauty of Japheth: New Aspects in Agnon’s “Oath of Allegiance”), Ayin Gimel: A Journal of Agnon Studies, vol. 1 (2011), pp. 123-137. 9 Rena Lee, Agnon ve-ha-tsimkhonut (Agnon and Vegetarianism), Tel-Aviv, Reshafim, 1993.

Defining Alternative History: From Genre to Principle


episodes are, to use Daniel Kahneman’s formulation, ‘mental simulations’.”10 This genre is located at a crossroads, where historical, mythopoeic, intellectual and science fiction literatures meet. Alternative history as a genre may be examined from a number of different perspectives, each suitable to a different discipline that can provide us with research concepts and tools. The genre belongs first and foremost to the domain of literary anthropology, which includes the study of mythopoesis, narratology and cultural criticism. The composition of an alternative history is motivated by certain needs – ideological, social-cultural, philosophical, and historiosophical. It is a world view that is realized in the form of “fictional correction.” And speaking of correction, there is another relevant perspective, that of religion: an alternative history may be motivated by messianic or mystical ideas, in which the desire for correction may be explicit or implicit and derive from an awareness of the world’s imperfection rather than dissatisfaction with creation, even when such awareness is not expressed emotionally as a lack. For example, in Hassidism joy and awareness of imperfection go hand in hand, giving rise to a desire to correct what went wrong, since in this metaphysical system dissatisfaction from Creation is not an option; there is no alternative to Creation: ours is the best of the possible worlds, as Leibniz said. Alternative history may be motivated by different philosophies. Thus, for example, the philosophy underlying cultural criticism of the Frankfurt School is the complete opposite of the religious view, since it says, as it were, that what exists is not perfect and that it can be replaced, that there are alternative historical developments, so that the one possibility which did become reality is not only imperfect, but could never have been perfect, that it is always possible, and necessary, to search for another “Creation.” In alternative history a myth’s creative power is expressed in its purest form; it is not a myth that explains what is, but that invents what did not come to be, that creates a different world, a different man and a different story. On the other hand, it must be remembered that alternative history is not what is sometimes called “other history” or “counterhistory”, to use Amos Funkenstein’s term,11 which today usually denotes marginal, restricted, non-canonical and non-hegemonic historiography, written from the perspective of the social margins and not that of the center of authority and political power. It is a subversive and deconstructive history of 10 11

Doležel, Possible Worlds of Fiction and History, p. 119. Funkenstein, Perceptions of Jewish History, pp. 32-49.



repressed non-legitimate narratives, but it is not alternative history, because it claims that it is the only true realized history while canonical history is a lie, or at best a partial truth. Examples of such “counterhistories” are feminist and post-Zionist histories. Alternative history is a literary genre and not a trend in the science of history. But it is often more convincing than its scientific counterpart, despite the fact that it never claims to be true. To the contrary, its rhetorical power is based on understatement for the purpose of overstatement (litotes as hyperbola): the a priori assumption of non-truth serves to prepare the ground for the counterblow of persuasion and illumination. Scholars usually point to passages from the writings of Roman historians such as Livy and Tacitus12 as the earliest examples of alternative history. However, these are nothing but fragmentary attempts. On the other hand, almost contemporaneously with them or a little later, the entire Jewish rhetorical-homiletic and exegetical tradition adopted alternative history thinking as one of its constitutive principles. This is the Midrash and aggadah literature. In the Midrash, alternative history appears in one of its most important, though implicit, roles or manifestations, that of filling in lacunae in existing history. For the Midrash, existing conventional history consists of the biblical narrative. However, this narrative is neither consistent nor complete, nor is it always clear and comprehensible. The Midrash often explains, but by the way it also completes and “corrects” the Bible. This is where its inventive powers come to the fore: the sages occasionally create an alternative history, in the sense that it replaces the history presented by the biblical narrative. This happens in cases in which the sages are dissatisfied with that narrative, which contains events that are not only difficult to explain, but also difficult to accept. The solution is to invent them anew; this may look like historical exegesis, like an attempt to explain what happened, but the explanation is such that the events are changed so as to become unrecognizable, and an alternative history is created.13 12

Ellen O’Gorman, “Alternative Empires: Tacitus’s Virtual History of the Pisonian Principate,” Arethusa 39.2 (2006), pp. 281-301. 13 Some would even argue that the Bible itself contains passages of alternative history, for example in cases where an event is depicted in different versions and in different places (the main source of such versions is the Books of Chronicles). This issue deserves a separate discussion, but it is more likely that different versions of a story, whether in the Bible or in Talmud, do not constitute alternative histories, since they do not derive from historical bifurcations and do not change the overall course of history.

Defining Alternative History: From Genre to Principle


Sometimes Midrash resembles the contingency or probabilistic theories of historians and philosophers, when it shows, in a somewhat Leibnizian manner, that the existing world could have been different, but that it is the best of those that are possible. Many Midrashim of this type can be found, for example, in Bereshit Raba (Midrash to the Book of Genesis), such as a tale on how sun and moon were initially created equal in size, or that trees were first created so that not only their fruits but also their trunks and branches were edible. Another motive for creating alternative history is to explain and justify miraculous or incomprehensible events, as, for example, in numerous stories in Bereshit Raba and other sources on the birth and sacrifice of Isaac. Some of these describe dramatic discussions in Heaven between God and the angels on what history, the world and faith would be like if Isaac died. Of course, this is not alternative history in the proper sense, but only its crucial foundation: the “what if?” mental experiment that serves to approve intelligible history, to justify “the religion of reason,” in Hermann Cohen’s terms. In the sages’ polemics in the Mishnah and Talmud, alternative history is used as a rhetorical device for argumentation, exemplification, comparison, etc. The legend or aggadah in this case serves as an experimental script that could have happened, as a mental experiment. The question is, what is it that gives alternative history its rhetorical power of persuasion? This is a question in the domain of rhetoric, which we can add as yet another field in which the genre of alternative history can be examined. What is the rhetorical and argumentative power of an ancient statement, rediscovered by postmodern thinking, such as “everything could have happened otherwise”?14 What did the sages intend to say with an aggadah that described a “historical” event that never happened? Beyond its symbolic, poetic and mythopoetic power, there are also always rhetorical and cultural motives. The composer of an alternative history does not merely want to describe and narrate, but also to persuade and convince regarding some idea, usually one that is associated with human nature, the essence of history, the interpretation of certain historical events or history as such, a man’s moral state, the way a civilization evolved in the past or will evolve in the future, and so on. Yet alternative history as a genre is intellectual but not subversive, polemical but not confrontational, problematizing but not revisionist. Not only the Midrash and the Talmudic aggadah but also folk and literary legends often serve as alternative history, by presenting a scenario 14

As one can see, this question was raised a long time before Rorty’s contingent rhetoric and without the need for relativist suppositions, but, on the contrary, in an authentically metaphysical context.



of a historical event that was never realized, in the form of a fable. In this respect, legends function as psycho-cultural compensation for those who have been harmed by actual history. This is the case with literary legends. Thus, for example, many of Agnon’s legends compensate for the weakness victim-like character of Polish Jewry. But there is an important difference as well: aggadah mends what exists, whereas alternative history provides a different version of historical reality. Alternative history does not just patch up here and there, but rather weaves a new fabric, to continue this textile metaphor, and sews new clothes. It is free: this is the great attraction of this genre, perhaps also the secret of its popularity. On one hand it is closely linked to history and does not allow the historical and cultural memory to be lost, but on the other hand it makes it possible to engage in breathtaking flights of intellectual fancy. That is the reason why this genre reaches its greatest heights only in intellectual literature: in philosophical, historiosophical, religious and political fantasy, as in the stories of Borges, Agnon or Paviü. And yet a clear boundary exists between alternative history and utopia or anti-utopia. In a utopia, the political component is so dominant that the genre acquires an ethical, judgmental status. A utopia is a rigid ideological model that does not make an anthropological experiment possible, but rather presents an anthropological ideal or anti-ideal, as in Orwell’s 1984. A utopia proposes an alternative that is not the result of a true historical bifurcation but is based on the creation of specific imaginary conditions. It is more like a greenhouse (or anti-greenhouse) than a laboratory, and therefore its value and its objective are moralistic and didactic rather than intellectual. Alternative history does not always contain an evaluation and judgment of actual history, nor is it usually itself depicted in black and white. Vasily Aksyonov’s The Island of Crimea is a good example of this. In contrast to a utopia, an alternative history does not necessarily derive from dissatisfaction from real history, as noted above. Furthermore, it will often attempt to justify it, although by doing so it glides into the domain of a related genre, that of secret history, an unseen history that is structured into actual history, since if the secret history did take place as proposed, actual history as a whole is also justified. Secret history can also operate in the opposite direction, towards delegitimization, as in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. The Midrash is the classical and perhaps the oldest form of alternative history, which shows a profound connection with exegesis and hermeneutics. In a sense, alternative history can serve, if not as an explanation, at least as an interpretation of actual history. It does so by exposing certain historical moments retrospectively as bifurcation points,

Defining Alternative History: From Genre to Principle


as points of uncertainty or choice, random and accidental at times, between equally plausible possibilities. As noted above, alternative history can aspire to justify a choice or its opposite, but what basically counts is that one cannot really justify or refute the bifurcation itself. The essence of the bifurcation is that in it all choices are equally plausible and justified, thus creating a closed circle of impossible justification: as the alternative history exposes the decision points in the past in order to justify (or accuse), it also exposes the bifurcation that cannot be justified (or accused). The Middle Ages and the Renaissance provide another instructive example of an “early” alternative literature – the genre of travel literature: Crusader literature (such as Gesta Francorum), Jewish stories on journeys to the Land of Israel and in search for the ten lost Tribes of Israel (such as The Travels of Benjamin by Benjamin of Tudela), travel to the netherworld or in search of a wonderland (such as Voyage of St. Brendan the Navigator), and, lastly, secular travel literature (such as The Travels of Marco Polo). In a sense, all this literature stems from the idea that some kind of alternative history is possible, or should be made possible, or should be discovered and written. What if history has indeed already been realized otherwise and we just cannot see it properly? This is the motive for travel in search of the real alternative history, a motive that is paradoxical to the same extent that it is metaphysical. The period of Enlightenment and Romanticism created a literature of alternative histories of its own; the Enlightenment rediscovered historical research and Romanticism discovered the greatly tempting power of playing with reality and history. The Enlightenment wanted to expose, study and examine, while Romanticism wanted to let the power of the creative imagination burst out. The Enlightenment excavated what was given while Romanticism treated what existed with contempt. The Enlightenment favored scientific experiment while Romanticism preferred imaginary games. When the two were joined, an imaginary scientific experiment was created, where history was played with as in a game of chess. These two trends, the Enlightenment and Romanticism, are the two main pillars, the two motive forces of alternative history: research and creativity. There, at the beginning of the modern age, is where modern alternative history was born. It is related to the emergence of modern science on one hand, and to the rise of modern art and esthetics on the other. The Enlightenment-Romantic period in literature brought to the fore one of the most representative manifestations of alternative history – the genre of autobiography, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions,



memoirs such as those of Madame Roland, or William Wordsworth’s The Prelude. What is autobiography if not an attempt to live the decisive events of one’s life anew, whether one makes the same decisions or creates another, alternative biography? And what is the so called “autobiographical pact” between reader and author15 if not a convention of the counterfactual conditional, the right to a contingency of the self, if not to a fantasy of another life? Autobiography can be viewed as “selfinvention,”16 or as “resurrection,”17 or as “de-facement;”18 it is just a matter of theory, but in any case its essence is the creation of a possibly alternative but deeply authentic history of a personality’s realization. Here scientific, emancipatory, and creative interests merge in an “autobiographical science” of a kind.19

c. Alternative History on the Map of Modern Fantasy Literature We come now to modern literature and its two main passions: to adhere to history and to become free of it. The genre of alternative history has flourished immensely in literature as well as in cinematography, which we do not intend to discuss here. Several detailed studies have been carried out on this subject, some of which will be noted later. In Modern Hebrew literature, alternative history as a genre is represented by relatively few works, such as Amos Kenan’s The Road to Ein Harod (1984), Yitzhak Laor’s The People, Food Fit for a King (1993), Refael Ruppin’s The Jewish War II (1994), and Yoram Kaniuk’s The Last Jew (2006). Most of them are no more than political placards. At present the author who does not only write alternative history but is also in a sense its “theorist” is Etgar Keret. He has written a number of stories that actually discuss the possibility of historical bifurcation and which present models of alternative history. “Fatso,” “Second Chance,” and “Dirt” from The Nimrod Flipout (2006 [2002]), “Closed,” “Pudding,” and “The Health Breakfast” from Suddenly, a Knock on the Door (2002) – none of these 15

Philippe Lejeune, Le pacte autobiographique, Paris, Seuil, 1975, p. 20. Paul John Eakin, Fictions in Autobiography: Studies in the Art of Self-Invention, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1985. 17 Eugene L. Stelzig, The Romantic Subject in Autobiography: Rousseau and Goethe, The University Press of Virginia, 2000, p. 113-125. 18 Paul de Man, “Autobiography as De-Facement,” in The Rhetoric of Romanticism, New York, Columbia University Press, 1984, pp. 67-81. 19 Bernard Kuhn, Autobiography and Natural Science in the Age of Romanticism: Rousseau, Goethe, Thoreau, Surrey, Ashgate, 2009, pp. 89-96. 16

Defining Alternative History: From Genre to Principle


stories is a proper alternative history, but all of them challenge the limits of personal historical alternativeness. The history of the twentieth century has supplied Hebrew literature with many opportunities for writing alternative histories, the most important being of course the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel. This was a century in which the Jewish nation’s most terrible nightmare and most sublime dream both came true. Both are connected to national psychological-cultural complexes that have given rise to numerous overt and covert alternative histories, and still do to this day. Alternative history is a kind of therapy for trauma through the use of directed narrative imagination. The conception on which alternative history is based also considers actual history to be a case of alternative history. Often what actually happened is perceived as an impossible or highly unlikely accident, as a distortion of “the laws of history.” The topos of “reality that exceeds the imagination” is typical of sensational realistic literature. It occasionally serves as justification for an extreme naturalism, for example in Holocaust literature. Both the Holocaust and the birth of the State of Israel seem to lie beyond even the wildest historical imagination, as actual alternative histories. There have been several well-known attempts to classify the genres of fantasy literature, for example by Tzvetan Todorov,20 and to define alternative history’s position therein, as in the now classical work by Darko Suvin.21 And of course scholars of alternative history suggest various methods of internal division and classification. William J. Collins presents taxonomy of four major types of alternative history: pure uchronia (existing reality is replaced by another), plural uchronia (the other reality follows the existing one), infinite presents (parallel worlds), and time-travel alteration (travels to the past that change the course of events).22 Karen Hellekson does not accept this subject-centered taxonomy and suggests her own, which relates to the moment of historical “break” – 20 Todorov establishes his classification in terms of uncanny, fantastic-uncanny, fantastic-marvelous, and marvelous, as well as on the principle of hesitation and ambiguity (Tzvetan Todorov, The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, trans. by Richard Howard, New York, Cornell University Press, 1975, p. 44). 21 Darko Suvin, Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1979, pp. 14-15. 22 William J. Collins, “Paths Not Taken: The Development, Structure and Aesthetics of the Alternative History,” Ph.D. Dissertation, University of California – Davis, 1990, pp. 85-86.



“nexus”: the nexus story (occurs at the moment of the break), “the true alternate history” (occurs after the brake), and the parallel worlds story (there was no break).23 Hellekson does not address the weaknesses of Collins’ taxonomy, but both suffer from serious drawbacks: Collins does not go up to the level of the plot (although the plot is usually the weakest part of this unusually popular genre), and Hellekson, while stressing the importance of the historical “break” and the “historical inquiry” that the genre undertakes, fails to reflect this in her classification, since there cannot be alternative history without a break, and if it has not actually occurred, it is necessarily imagined by the reader. Hellekson writes extensively on history in her book, but her taxonomy remains essentially a-historical, indifferent to the non-fictional historical discourse. For our purposes, however, it is useful to present alternative history in relation to the normative historiography narration. In the table below various genres are shown as intersections of two Aristotelian categories, possibility (potentiality) and realization. Complementary and Alternative Realization of the Possible and the Impossible Overt complementary realization Covert complementary realization Overt alternative realization Covert alternative realization

Possible Historical interpretation Secret history

Impossible Science fiction

Alternative history

Super heroes, ghosts, demons Fantasy

“Other” history

Utopia, Uchronia

Potentiality can be affirmative/present or negative/absent, giving rise to the binary pair possible/impossible. The materialization of a certain historical possibility or impossibility can complement or replace existing history, and either of these two ways of realization can take place overtly or covertly. The need for and the possibility of presenting historical realization as a continuity or as a replacement derive from history’s semiotic-narrative nature and the psychological nature of its writing/reading.

23 Karen Hellekson, The Alternate History: Refiguring Historical Time, Kent OH, The Kent State University Press, 2001, p. 5.

Defining Alternative History: From Genre to Principle


For our purposes we shall make use of Patrice Pavis’ semiotic model of drama as dream, which combines two approaches: (1) classical semiotics and vector theory; (2) Lyotard’s energetic theory of figurativeness vs. discursiveness.24 The model intersects two sets of concepts: (1) four types of vector signs (connector, accumulator, secator and shifter); (2) basic concepts of Freudian psychoanalysis, mainly two associated with the dream itself, condensation (forming a relation among signs) and replacement (of one element by another, that is related to space or time), as well as two others associated with understanding the dream, image examination (as a “verbal” expression of the energy of passion) and secondary processing (translation from the dream’s figurative language to the rational language of discourse). The model connects the operation of replacement to connector and secator signs, and the operation of condensation to accumulator and shifter signs.25 The two types of sign, connectors and accumulators, match the psychological category of condensation, and all three together constitute psycho-semiotic elements of complementary realization. The signs of the two other types, secators and shifters, match the category of replacement and are the basis of alternative historical realization. On the other hand, the need for and the possibility of dividing each of the two types of realization into two sub-types, overt and covert, stem from history’s hermeneutical character: it is a sign, but one with multiple meanings (symbol); it is a narrative, but one that is hermetic and is revealed only in the process of being interpreted. Therefore it can exist in two modes, overt and covert, interpreted and encoded. The nature of history thus makes it possible to create a network of categories that cover all genres of para-historical literature. Here we are interested in the cell that contains “alternative history,” which we define as follows: the overt alternative realization of the possible. It is important to point out that in order for this intellectual exercise to have any real validity, in order for it to be efficient and persuasive, it should assume the possible, not only with respect to the validity of the laws of nature but also with respect to its cultural plausibility. In other words, the author chooses a real historical (or personal) bifurcation point, at which events really could have proceeded in different ways, not just in his imagination. Due to certain circumstances, perhaps even accidentally, one specific possibility was realized and the others were lost. But at the point itself all the possibilities were plausible, 24

Jean-François Lyotard, Discourse, Figure, Paris, Klincksieck, 1971. Patrice Pavis, “Acting: Explication of Gesture, or Vectorization of Desire?” Assaph C, No. 8 (1992), 87-111. 25



and a small change in the circumstances could have led to a dramatically different development, just as small differences in the initial input of nonlinear equations and chaotic systems can lead to disproportionately large effects. This phenomenon is known in modern science as the butterfly effect, which has also become a popular motif in contemporary literature and cinema. If a work of literature describes the butterfly effect on real historical or fictional events it belongs to the domain of alternative history. We are now in a position to enumerate the conditions whose fulfillment can bring about an alternative history: (a) the theme is an event that occurred in the past (real or fictional); (b) the event is a bifurcation point; (c) the narrative assumes the realization of a real possibility; (d) the realization of a possibility that did not materialize in the past would bring about a considerable and tangible change in the course of history (collective as well as personal). Since alternative history constitutes the realization of a real possibility, it is in principle bereft of any element of fantasy. It may, however, be part of a fantasy story, just as it may be part of any fictional plot or any speech or rhetorical act whatsoever. Still, an alternative history often serves as motive and drive for a fantasy plot that takes the reader beyond the bounds of the known world. However, there is no necessary connection between the two. As a single element, alternative history appears as a rhetorical figure, a metalogism in the terminology of the Liège Group (Group ȝ), that is, a deviation from level zero of discourse in dimensions of the sentence and up, a deviation that requires reduction in order to acquire meaning.26 In the case of alternative history, reduction means comparing the realization of an alternative historical possibility to existing history, which in this case is the discursive level zero. In this sense alternative history belongs to the same group of rhetorical figures as, for example, allegory and fable. The figure of alternative history, like other figures of its type, has been given considerable attention from intellectuals, because it makes it possible to undertake a serious and profound examination of actual history. Since such an examination is neither formal nor objective, it can be of benefit to intellectuals, because it makes a more experimental, open and free kind of thinking possible. Historians will only rarely dedicate a separate study to alternative historical thought; more often they will use the figure of alternative history as a means of expression, persuasion and argumentation, that is, as a rhetorical device that has an affinity to well26 Jacques Dubois, et al., A General Rhetoric, trans. Paul B. Burrell and Edgar M. Slotkin, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981.

Defining Alternative History: From Genre to Principle


known means such as hypothesis, exemplum, and argumentation from negation. At any rate alternative history, despite its fictional nature, enables the historian to carry out a bold, free intellectual experiment while at the same time remaining within the framework of the scientific paradigm. This means that discursive literary and cultural cases of multiple versions, such as different versions of stories, studied by thematology, in folklore or the Bible, do not in themselves constitute alternative histories. There are two reasons for this: they are not connected by a relationship of realized and possible; and, as already noted above, the differences between the versions do not as a rule lead to dramatic differences in the course of events. For example, in one biblical passage Uzza died after he grasped the Ark of the Covenant (2 Sam. 6:6), while in another he died after he merely reached out to touch it (1 Chron. 13:9); in both cases he died. As an element of a rhetorical act, alternative history can also be considered an element of a reading act, understood in the phenomenological and literary-anthropological terms of Wolfgang Iser. In this case, we should examine the relationship between alternative history and mythopoesis – myth creation in the process of reading literature, in which myth is an empirical realization of the transcendental purpose of a narrative personality (such as a character or narrator).27 In terms of the theory of mythopoesis, alternative history works as follows: A historical figure is claimed to be the bearer of a different (than in reality) transcendental purpose, and the empirical realization of this personality with its new purpose is tested. The emergence of this personality is related in a new myth. Alternative history can thus be viewed as a kind of mythopoesis, as will be discussed at length in Chapter 4. Here we should once again stress an important point: A personality can only be associated with a purpose that could be realized in empirical history in accordance with the beliefs of the intended audience of the alternative history. In ancient myths the realization of a personality took on fantastic forms, because the fantastic was part of the audience’s episteme. Today, in contrast, the distinction between fantasy and alternative history is usually quite clear. But the exceptions are very significant. For example, a supernatural or mystic alternative realization of historical and fictional figures is an integral element in the writing of Milorad Paviü. At any rate, the possibility of an alternative realization of history derives from the multiple possibilities for a personality to take shape, whether this personality is historical or not. A secret history, on the other hand, does 27

Katsman, The Time of Cruel Miracles, pp. 39-52.



not have to change the personality; it may just add another. But even when it does change the nature of the personality, this does not affect the course of overt history. For example, Dan Brown in his The Da Vinci Code changes the figure of Christ and creates a secret history, but this does not bring about any change in history itself. The question of whether it is desirable to reveal this difference and whether it can really affect history is the main concern of this book. To summarize, a necessary and sufficient criterion for alternative history may be formulated as follows: The overt alternative realization of a possible unrealized purpose of a personality, viewed as historical par excellence.

d. Alternative History as Rhetoric Act How is an alternative history formed? In every civilization’s past there are events that are mysterious, there are riddles and secrets. Any event that is not known in its entirety, and such are all historical events by their very nature, can in hindsight turn into a bifurcation point, a point of uncertainty and instability. Popular alternative history can turn any event into a bifurcation point, while intellectual alternative history focuses on events that actually where or that could have been bifurcation points. That is the reason for the fictional nature of popular history and the scientific nature of intellectual history. The knowledge structure is not complete in any civilization, and therefore any event can be made into a bifurcation point if the author succeeds in constructing a persuasive narrative. In any culturalhistorical knowledge structure there are many more mysteries than real bifurcation points. Take symbols, for example. Symbols are secrets, and therefore any cultural symbol can be transformed into a place of lack of knowledge, into a trace of the missing historical knowledge. The lack of knowledge in a specific cultural niche can easily be turned into a bifurcation point in the mind of an author by way of a well-designed narrative. Furthermore, an author can turn any cultural item into a symbol or a secret, and thus also exploit the lack of knowledge to create an uncertain historical event in its stead, one that can thus appear as a bifurcation point. The mechanism of how an alternative history comes to be can thus be summarized as follows: Symbol ĺ Historical Event ĺ Missing Knowledge ĺ Bifurcation Point ĺ Alternative History

Defining Alternative History: From Genre to Principle


The persuasiveness of an alternative history will thus depend on the author’s ability to identify a true bifurcation point or to turn a cultural symbol into such a point. This process is very delicate and fragile; it can easily go wrong at any step and turn off into another direction. A symbol initiates hermeneutics, an interpretation, but this interpretation is not necessarily historical; in other words, a symbol is not always interpreted as symbolizing a historical event. Clearly a symbol can have various interpretations, and therefore it may give rise to different ways of writing. But whenever an author turns a symbol into a historical event that is based on missing knowledge he or she is on the way to writing an alternative history. It is not the case that every symbol that is interpreted as a historical event is also ascribed the feature of missing knowledge. A narrative that starts out from a historical event may proceed in a number of ways; it can, for example, lead to a routine historical story. At the next stage of the scheme above, too, an event that is presented as a secret will not necessarily turn into a bifurcation point. Such a point is characterized not only by uncertainty but also by a set of possibilities with equal probabilities. The interpretation of the mysterious event can also take a deterministic turn: For the moment we lack enough information, but if we study it enough we will have all the answers. The author may try to reconstruct the linear chain of events. But alternative history takes another path. We lack enough information because it is in principle impossible to have it all, and even if we did find everything we wanted to know, we would still not observe a linear development and would not be able to give a completely sequential causal explanation of why this particular possibility was realized rather than another. The literary genre of alternative history views history as a chaotic system, not because we lack historical knowledge but because that is its very nature. But even at the last stage, the transition from chaotic to alternative history is not necessary. Here, too, there is a crossroads that may also lead to other genres. After all, if a given event was a bifurcation point it may be described in different languages, for example the language of sociology. One possible language is the discourse of unrealized possibilities or “possible worlds.” Historical literature would describe such an event in all its complexity, would perhaps speak about the multiple possibilities that did exist and the one that was eventually realized, but would not attempt to examine the hypothetical realization of another possibility, except perhaps as part of a chain of argumentation or another rhetorical act, in order to intensify its persuasive force. Presenting the complexities of an event comes of course at the expense of the narrative’s readability and takes it far away from the domain of popular literature. Alternative history, even



of the intellectual type, insists on being communicatively appealing, and therefore does not present the entire complex of possibilities but in general chooses only one, which it realizes to the end. Alternative history thus has the structure of a rhetorical act, of an enthymeme. The main motivation behind alternative history is to be found in the domain of cultural rhetoric; it is the desire to change something in a culture in order to strengthen and fortify it. In other words, alternative history is a rhetorical-cultural game whose objective is to enhance a society’s ability to survive. Since alternative history is a rhetorical-cultural act, it is necessary to analyze its underlying rhetorical-logical structure. This is based on an implicit, simple and well-known syllogism, the modus ponens, with a counterfactual assumption: If P then Q. Assume (counter to fact) that P. Then Q. For an alternative history to succeed, an appropriate symbol/event must be chosen, one that is an actual bifurcation point, and does not only look like one. The other necessary condition is the successful use of a rhetorical act, with respect to its logos, ethos and pathos. Logos is the realization of this pattern; ethos is choosing the figure of identification and defining the narrator’s (and the audience’s) place in the alternative history; pathos is not only the emotional tone that the narrator imposes on the story but also his judgment and evaluation: whether and to what extent this alternative history arouses attraction or rejection, identification or alienation, remorse, feelings of guilt, passion, frustration, etc. In other words, pathos is choosing the psycho-cultural complex of the audience on which this history applies pressure. The author’s choices at these three levels determine the story’s rhetorical success and power of persuasion. The structure of an alternative history’s enthymeme is as follows: 1. If P then Q (the realization of possibility P led to result Q; the implicit assumption is that we know which is the possibility that was realized, that we already know the historical facts). 2. If not P then not Q (if possibility P did not materialize, Q does not result). 3. If X then Y (materialization of possibility X leads to result Y; it is implicitly assumed that we can predict the result based on the initial data). 4. X (Possibility X is realized [counterfactually]).

Defining Alternative History: From Genre to Principle


5. Y (The result Y materialized). So in order to assume that a certain possibility did not materialize we must assume as a certainty that another possibility did. Perhaps “paradoxically,” we cannot doubt what happened if we do not know what happened. Alternative history, although it appears skeptical and subversive, is thus quite conservative, deriving as it does from the author’s complete confidence in his knowledge of what happened. Without this knowledge alternative knowledge cannot be created. Furthermore, the pseudo-subversive course of alternative history does not undermine this certainty. After all, the implicit initial assumption concerning the possibility that did materialize is itself already a historical interpretation. Of the two opposing opinions in modern historical research, that historical facts can or cannot be proven, alternative history definitely adheres to the former. The complex scheme described above can be reduced to a simpler one, with only three stages, presented in table form below, including (in line with Stephen Toulmin’s theory of argumentation)28 the warrant for the claims, and backing for the warrant. Stages of enthymeme 1. We know that P happened since Q resulted. 2. Let us assume that X happened. 3. Therefore the result Y can be predicted, since X happened.

Warrant What happened can be known from the result.

Backing History is predictable, linear, “reversible.”

What happened was not necessary, but only one of a number of possibilities. Results can be predicted from what has happened.

History is unpredictable, nonlinear, “irreversible.” History is predictable, linear, “reversible.”

Alternative history is thus seen to possess a paradoxical rhetorical structure, with an internal genetic contradiction.29 Only the enthymeme’s 28

Stephen E. Toulmin, The Uses of Argument (1958), Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2003, pp. 89-100. 29 It is not, however, a case of what is called a “double bind” by Gregory Bateson: Alternative history lacks a correspondence to at least four of the six criteria of the double bind situation, such as “negative injunction,” and prohibiting “escaping from the field” (Gregory Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1972), Chicago,



second stage, which indeed constitutes its main element, is based on the chaotic approach to history, on the perception of a historical event as a bifurcation point. According to this view the timeline is not reversible, to use Ilya Prigogine’s terms of chaos theory,30 that is, the present state of affairs does not make it possible to reconstruct a past state of affairs with certainty, nor does it make it possible to predict its future development. The enthymeme’s first and third stages, on the other hand, are based on the classical, deterministic (in a sense) approach to time. From this structure we learn that alternative history as a whole is based on the approach of deterministic chaos: What happens is neither necessary nor predictable, but still follows a certain regularity of pattern that takes shape and disintegrates within the randomness, as a dissipative structure.31 That is the order that rises from chaos. In a sense alternative history’s rhetorical structure has a dialectical character: It is a synthesis of two opposing conceptions, one deterministic and the other chaotic. Alternative history is based on a clear distinction between what happens and what does not, on certainty in the knowledge of history, and at the same time it exposes our insecurity concerning the necessity of events: If past events could have happened otherwise, then what is happening now can also be otherwise. This destroys and simultaneously restores the solid foundation of historical knowledge. Instead of imposing a uniform historical order we create a number of lines of order, a multiplicity which itself is chaos. Together they create a solid conceptual pattern: Through this multiplicity we recognize (that is we narrate) history. But we make a transition to an alternative conception of history. The lines that diverge from the bifurcation point are numerous, but each one is uniform and traditional, to use Walter Benjamin’s terms,32 that is, each carries with it its entire cultural baggage. Each line remains linear, or appears linear, until it arrives at a new bifurcation point. However, after history in its course passes the bifurcation point one cannot return to it, that is, it cannot be reconstructed by any rational, discursive effort. This means that the system itself cannot The University of Chicago Press, 2000, pp. 206-208). We should remember, too, that Bateson discusses the double bind issue in the context of his theory of schizophrenia. As we will see in Chapter 6, alternative history can certainly be distinguished from schizophrenia and dissociation syndromes. 30 Ilya Prigogine, “From Probability to Irreversibility,” The End of Certainty: Time, Chaos, and the New Laws of Nature, New York, The Free Press, 1997, pp. 73-89. 31 Ibid. 32 Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media, Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press, 2008, pp. 22-24.

Defining Alternative History: From Genre to Principle


be made to choose anew, as it were, the same possibility that would materialize. This choice, instead of being made by history, is made by the author or reader, after he has created or revealed a multiplicity of alternative possibilities. Alternative history is therefore not a truly chaotic system, but rather a strategic game that imitates or simulates chaos. At this point it may be worth asking whether it is not the case that all fictional literature can be considered alternative history. After all, does not any literary text with protagonists and a plot constitute a realization of some possibility that has not materialized? Fictional characters do not exist in reality, but, according to Aristotle’s definition, they could have existed (modern fantasy literature is, of course, an exception); literature imitates the possible. This is the basis for the definition of art and aesthetic value as the realization of a possibility that has not materialized, but could have. In order to distinguish between alternative history and fictional literature in general, we shall take a course that will lead us directly into the paradox of alternative history described above: What sets off alternative history is that it provides a realization of an alternative possibility of what is accepted by a reader as an actual specific historical event (be it public or private). The problem is that delimiting and defining an “actual historical event” are themselves discursive acts, which assume that the identity of the event is already known, that historical “space” is already divided into meaningful sequences. This assumption neutralizes any historical interpretation and causes the event to be represented as a fact, as knowledge. But this feature does not distinguish alternative history from other types of fictional literature. In the most elementary case a literary figure, Raskolnikov for example, has a historical prototype, of which Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment is an alternative history. But even if we do not know anything about the prototype of a literary figure there is nothing to prevent us from assuming that we could always find people (many or a few) for whom this figure realizes a possibility that they did not realize, but could have. This assumption derives solely from the mimetic nature of art, and turns any art into an alternative history. In both of the schemes of alternative history given above, the logical and the rhetorical, the important element in the structure of alternative history is certain knowledge about the specific historical event that realizes one of the possibilities and its known implications, namely the world in which the reader lives, or which he imagines by reading a text. The text presents an alternative to the world in which it grows. To use the terms in Ricoeur’s Time and Narrative, re-figuration seems to be an alternative of pre-figuration. An alternative history assumes that the reader possesses the needed historical knowledge or empirical experience, whose existence it



can thus take for granted. If the source is not known, no alternative is possible. If we consider the literary character’s coming into being as mythopoesis, then the figure is its own origin, and its transcendental purpose is that one that materializes in its personal history. In a mythopoetic, in contrast to a mimetic paradigm, the unique nature of alternative history is more readily observable. In any literature a character’s history is not and cannot be an alternative to any other history; it always realizes only its sole objective, and refers only to it. Only in an alternative history do the character and its story refer to other possibilities for its realization. Only here do cracks appear in the metaphysical wall of mythopoesis, but only in order to turn into a more complex metaphysics, that of deterministic chaos, which does not differ fundamentally, with respect to knowledge of the source. We must thus stress once again that alternative history is based on a metaphysical belief in historical truth. It is therefore a conservative genre, neither modernist nor postmodernist, neither subversive nor deconstructive. But fiction is not naïve, nor is it indifferent to elements of alternative history outside the narrow boundaries of the genre itself; it occasionally uses these elements in one way or another. One interesting case is the following: A work of literature may allude to the very historical possibility that did materialize and that provides the background for the story that serves as its own alternative. The stories by Borges, Márquez, Paviü, and Saramago are typical examples of such literature. The historical possibility that materialized (and that is of necessity known in alternative history but may not be known in other genres) can be represented in the text in an indirect manner, through hints, symbols, allusions, and so on. This is a kind of intermediate case: the “real” history exists, but it is invisible, hermetically closed. In such a case the act of reading and interpretation includes not only a comparison between the realized and the alternative history but also, and mainly, the decipherment and reconstruction of a realized history. Occasionally the text so focuses on this decipherment that the comparison between the two histories becomes less relevant and the text loses or blurs the element of alternative history in it. What is of particular interest is the fact that the decipherment or reconstruction of the actual history is not possible without the alternative history, which in this case serves as a kind of code with the help of which the reader is expected to obtain reliable information about the source, the historical possibility that did materialize. This code can be relatively complex or simple, open or esoteric. It can be such that any reasonable person can decipher it, or it can be so complex that only very well-educated and sharp-minded readers

Defining Alternative History: From Genre to Principle


can unearth the hidden meaning. The decipherment may also depend on the strength of the reader’s imagination and his or her desire to invest the necessary intellectual and creative effort to make an allegory or a historical fable out of a text that at first seemed very far removed from such a possible interpretation. This type of writing is typical of authors with a tendency to encode, such as Agnon. The decipherment of the real history behind his stories can often become an intellectual adventure and has occasionally constituted the main occupation of his interpreters. Such manipulation is characteristic of intellectual literature, where the comparison between the two histories and the inference of insights take place not in the text but in the interpretation, which often requires great proficiency and sometimes also tireless research. What should be emphasized is that in order to maintain the pattern of the alternative history it is not enough for a story to allude to a historical event, but it must itself constitute an alternative to that event. Many of Agnon’s stories, for example, allude to historical events, but only a few also present historical alternatives. Let us take as examples two stories that symbolize exile. The story “Water Hole” (The City with All That Is Therein) only hints at a missed opportunity (schoolchildren dug into the soil and found water, but it disappeared), while the story “The Great Synagogue” (Of Such and of Such) also proposes an alternative (schoolchildren dug in the soil and uncovered a magnificent synagogue or temple). Here we find a special pattern of alternative history, in which the literary work itself cannot be said to belong to the genre of alternative history itself, but which makes it possible to speak about the poetics and rhetoric of alternative history outside the generic boundaries. Yet it must always be remembered that we must remain watchful lest we fall into the error of over-interpretation: How can we be certain that we are really deciphering what has been encoded and do not “read” the historical materials into the text? From now on we can speak of alternative history as a rhetorical figure, one that can be represented overtly or implicitly. Let us take as an example the famous words from Agnon’s Nobel speech: “As a result of the historic catastrophe in which Titus of Rome destroyed Jerusalem and Israel was exiled from its land, I was born in one of the cities of the Exile. But always I regarded myself as one who was born in Jerusalem. In a dream, in a vision of the night, I saw myself standing with my brotherLevites in the Holy Temple, singing with them the songs of David, King of Israel.” This passage implies another statement: Had Titus not destroyed Jerusalem and had the Jews not gone into exile, I would have been born in Jerusalem. One can point to linguistic and rhetorical patterns



that comprise a figure of alternative history, or such that can be transformed into typical sentences of alternative history. It is possible to examine an alternative history as a linguistic pattern. A simple causal sentence may be revealed as a cover for the figure of alternative history. For this to be, a number of contextual conditions must be met. It must be clear from the context that the speaker is interested in creating the effect of an alternative history, that he is interested in the alternative history itself (or in its negation). The conditions involved are linguistic, para-linguistic, communicative and rhetorical; most of them derive from the figure of the speaker and the speech context, that is, from the rhetorical ethos. Another important factor is pathos, the emotion with which speech is charged. These conditions should necessarily imply a clearly charged attitude, negative or positive, towards the given as well as the new information (to use the terminology of pragmatics), the new information in any case being identified with the alternative history. An emotional attitude by the speaker towards a cause or an effect can be expressed by means of various linguistic and rhetorical, including syntactic and lexical, devices. These devices can be quite simple and everyday elements, for example causal prepositions, which can be semantically neutral (“because”, “due to”), with a negative connotation (“despite”), or neutral-to-positive (“thanks to”). On the other hand, they can also be quite complex and operate at the super-sentential level, such as irony or hyperbole. Among the important para-linguistic devices that can also be expressed in writing we may count intonation, pause and rhythm. Others, like gesticulation and facial expressions, cannot be expressed in writing, but can be represented in the text as characterizing the characters’ behavior. And yet the most important condition remains the figure of the speaker/narrator himself. Thus, in the preceding example, what gives Agnon’s causal sentence its valence of emotional attitude is mainly the speaker’s/narrator’s identity. Of course, the vocabulary also plays an important role: Agnon’s use of the word “catastrophe” is quite significant. But even if he had not used this word, his listeners could have divined his attitude towards the destruction of Jerusalem. The expression of an attitude per se is quite obvious, but what is important to stress here is that expressing this attitude in a causal sentence turns it into a miniature alternative history. A simple non-neutral characterization of the character that operates in the sentence can turn it by implication into an implicit conditional sentence. The covert assumption on which this mechanism is based is that the emotional characterization of the cause projects unto the effect: If the cause is, say, bad, then the effect will also be bad. Such a projection again reflects the linear side of alternative history. The non-

Defining Alternative History: From Genre to Principle


linear version of the connection between cause and effect, in which a bad cause can have a good effect and vice versa, is not impossible, but does not constitute necessarily an alternative history because of its ethical opacity. In many of Agnon’s stories this version can be found, but his Nobel speech is very clear, in light of its Jewish and Zionist ethos and pathos. It is quite likely that had Titus not destroyed Jerusalem we would not have had a writer like Agnon, but this is not a possibility that bothers the speaker, who wants to say that in some alternative, perhaps even parallel history, he was indeed born in Jerusalem and did sing with the Levites in the Temple. He wants to say that this alternative consciousness is the source of his inspiration and his powerful writing which, so it seemed to him according to many witnesses, was like the actual songs of the Temple. Even at a higher level, that of a story as a whole, as in The City with All That Is Therein, the literary analysis of the causes of an event, first and foremost – of the Holocaust, can be interpreted as an alternative history. An analysis of causes is but a linguistic-rhetorical expression of causeand-effect. If the afore-mentioned conditions are met, the story turns into an alternative history. The story points directly or implicitly to a historical possibility that did not but could have materialized. It often happens that a critical, analytical, intellectual narrative that analyzes the causes of events implies an alternative history. This happens of course when the alternative possibility itself possesses a special value, whether good or bad. But the realization of the alternative possibility is not necessarily clear and well-developed; rather, it may also remain at the level of negating the possibility that has been realized. This is this case with the Holocaust: Were it not for such and such causes, the Holocaust would not have occurred, period. What would have happened does not interest the author of The City with All That Is Therein. Indeed, in the alternative history genre itself the reader is provided with the positive, living and breathing presence of a historical reality that never materialized. The logic of alternative history as a rhetorical figure or a mode of strategic-creative thought does not make it possible, however, to negate the existence of the dimension of alternative history even in works that do not belong to this genre.

e. Mistakes and Missed Opportunities If alternative history can appear in the guise of an analysis of the causes of events, then one very clear case is the presentation of the originating event, the bifurcation event with its multiple possibilities, as a



mistake. To present the event as a mistake means to argue that the possibility that should have materialized did not, and that now it can appear as an alternative history that is perceived as more real than the one that did materialize. Such a version of alternative history can occasionally take the form of a “inverse history,” in which the real and the alternative trade places in the generic hierarchy. It may happen that the cause of some historical disaster is presented as an error, historical, cultural or national, committed by leaders, groups or entire nations. In such a case the alternative history’s objective is not to justify the past but, to the contrary, to accuse and mend. The alternative possibility is presented as more valid and true than what actually happened, based on a metaphysical confidence in linear historical knowledge. So here we have the same paradox once more, although with the roles reversed: Alternativeness appears as the agent of determinism. Furthermore, this case can be said to constitute the “orthodox” version of alternative history, since here it is assumed not only that we know with certainty what did happen, but also what should by rights have happened and what the results of such a “correct” event would have been. We put ourselves, with no rational historical justification, in the place of past leaders who “erred” and describe the possible actions they could have taken as if such a thing were actually possible. The main reason why this attempt is doomed to failure lies not in insufficient knowledge, nor in the fact that we already know the outcome. Rather, it is because we ourselves, our beliefs and our culture, our mentality and habits of thought, have largely been shaped under the influence of the very same errors, real or pretended, that we see fit to judge now. Let us take the following claim as an example: “Menahem Begin erred when he gave Sinai back to Egypt.” Here we make two implicit assumptions. One is the basic assumption of alternative history: We know what happened, namely that Begin gave Sinai to the Egyptians using his authority exercised of his own free will, and we therefore reject any one of numerous possible historical interpretations that might explain this event in terms of contextual, societal, political, and psychological circumstances of one kind or another. The second assumption is the “orthodox” one: The act in question, which is ascribed with such certainty to Menahem Begin himself, was a mistake; in other words, we know what this leader’s decision should have been because we can predict the outcome of any possibility with certainty. We make the completely irrational and ahistorical assumption that if a certain historical decision turned out to have been erroneous in the sense that it had unwanted consequences, we today from our present perspective are able to point out the correct possibility that did not materialize, for example not to give Sinai back.

Defining Alternative History: From Genre to Principle


And we also assume that we are able to predict with certainty what the outcome of such a choice would have been, and that this outcome would have been better than that of the choice that was actually made. This point deserves to be elaborated, because the model of “historical error” is not just one of many patterns in alternative history, but rather the basic and most common theme in popular fantasy literature, intellectual literature and professional historical literature. The conception of error has driven countless interpretive and fictional compositions. Why is that? Let us go back once more to Agnon’s The City with All That Is Therein, especially the stories in which the author criticizes the Jewish community and indirectly makes it responsible for historical catastrophes, including the Holocaust. An especially prominent issue in this respect is the cooperation of Jews with Gentiles. The criticism here is based on a metaphysical conception of history: Every event has causes which can be reconstructed and effects that can be predicted; historical knowledge is absolute and ahistorical, so it can be brought to life again anytime and anywhere. If the causal connections are invisible, if the information is not perceptible, as in the stories of “The Book of Deeds” (“Sefer haMa’asim”), the difficulty is only temporary. Yaniv Hagbi wrote that Agnon’s approach is based on an existential, insoluble “primary absence,” a desperate search for the absent deity.33 One can say, however, that God is always present in Agnon’s writings. This can be seen already in Agnon’s tendency to present alternative historical possibilities, regardless of the fact that he often does not explicitly choose a preferred possibility or explicitly presents its implications. It is enough that he presents himself as being aware of the different possibilities (in “The Book of Deeds”), not to speak of The City with All That Is Therein, in which the possibilities are presented for judgment and renewed realization. The “error” approach is based on a very strong psycho-cultural need to explain, justify, accuse, etc. Finding the error implies finding the guilty party. The “error” model reveals the complex that possibly drives every alternative history – the victim complex. Alternative history stages the rite of sacrifice, atonement, purification. A rite demands and justifies certainty of knowledge, of the causes, of the one who is responsible or guilty. An alternative history imagines the correction that follows discovery and knowledge. These comments shed some light on the anthropological underpinnings of alternative history. Clearly a sacrifice is only possible in 33

Yaniv Hagbi, Language, Absence,Play, New York, Syracuse University Press, 2009, p. 78-90. See also: Shamir, Ba-derekh le-veit aba for “presenting” quasibiographical interpretation of “The Book of Deeds.”



a metaphysical, religious, magical consciousness. Alternative history is thus, let us repeat, a quite conservative genre. Furthermore, the drive to create an alternative history, to find the guilty party, has its source in repressed guilt feelings. This kind of writing is driven by a historical conscience, a feeling of responsibility for the fate of the group. The author sees himself as the representative of the public, or even as a prophet, who bears a collective responsibility and guilt for the existing situation. But an alternative history finds an alternative victim; it projects present feelings of guilt onto historical figures, father figures of the past. The writing of alternative history, as pointed out above, is a kind of soul-searching and correction whose source lies in “settling accounts” with the patriarchs. Through his art of a renovating and correcting simulation of the past, the author corrects the present. At any rate, alternative history serves as a collective cultural psychoanalysis that arises from a profound Oedipus complex. Whether the author justifies or accuses his forefathers, in his writing he in any case erases their decisions and deeds and replaces them with staged phantasms; he replaces the traumatic memory with an imagined one. It is thus apparently nothing more than reverse psychoanalysis, which preserves and even strengthens the complex. This may perhaps at least partly explain the great popularity and addictive power of alternative history, perceived as a kind of modern literary shamanism.

A Dialectic of Missed Opportunity Some authors, Agnon for example, focus obsessively on situations of missed opportunities. In Agnon’s case these themes cannot be considered as just another motif, but something much deeper, even deeper than a worldview or an idea – perhaps a constitutive existential feeling. This has led a number of scholars to argue that Agnon was immersed in the existential consciousness of the crisis of modern man,34 a transfiguration of Hegelian “unhappy consciousness.” However, we may well ask whether the feeling of missed opportunity does reflect a consciousness of crisis, or any other kind of “unhappiness” for that matter. When the author describes a missed opportunity he divides reality or, more precisely, he divides the timeline or the historical continuum into two or more lines, which are not only distinct but also proceed in different directions and diverge from each 34

See, for example: Dan Laor, S. Y. Agnon, Jerusalem, The Zalman Shazar Center for Jewish History, 2008, p. 87; Abraham Holtz, “Ha-mashal ha-patuah ke-mafteah le-Sefer ha-Ma’asim shel S. Y. Agnon” (An Open Proverb as a Key to ‘The Book of Deeds’ by S. Y. Agnon), Ha-Sifrut 4 (1973), pp. 298-333.

Defining Alternative History: From Genre to Principle


other. In other words, the author turns the character’s origination into a chaotic dynamic system:

In this new reality the moments of life are revealed as small or large bangs that give rise to bundles of equally plausible possibilities and enrich life with a tremendous wealth of (significant) information, energy and liberty. All these possibilities could have materialized; they were true alternatives, and as a result the non-realization of one of them can be perceived as an error after the fact, and give rise to a sense of missed opportunity and feelings of guilt. In the absence of free choice among true alternatives one cannot speak of taking responsibility for making the only choice that could give non-realization the status of a true error. Even if the sense of missed opportunity derives from knowledge of the error, it is based on the powerful recognition of the alternativeness of history and faith in free choice. In other words, the anger and depression that accompany the state of missed opportunity have their ultimate origin in the recognition of the power and fullness of life, since the other opportunity was indeed within reach. The sense of missed opportunity testifies to an awareness that multiple possibilities exist, to a mature willingness to admit the error and to take responsibility for it. This is a more sober and adult consciousness, at least relatively to the determinist consciousness that hides from responsibility behind the broad back of a historical or psychological law, or of fate. To conclude, the story of the missed opportunity is in essence an alternative history that judges the materialized possibility to be wrong and grants preference, usually lacking any rational basis, to the possibility that did not materialize. Yaniv Hagbi discusses a well-known feature in Agnon’s writing, especially in “The Book of Deeds”: Many events have no cause, or their cause is unknown. Hagbi writes that the search for a cause is a search for



God. Following Patrick Fuery,35 he distinguishes between primary and secondary absence. Secondary absence is a concrete historical crisis, while primary absence is absolute chaos. At any rate, the absence of a cause is perceived by Hagbi, as well as by the scholars against whom he argues, as characterizing the consciousness of crisis. Hagbi’s intention is seemingly to discover another aspect of absence, one that does not manifest itself only in catastrophic events; when he speaks about “the Holocaust of discourse” one gets the impression that he intends to present absence as the source of being. But he appears to miss this possibility and returns the primary to the secondary absence.36 What is noteworthy is that the mechanism of hiding the cause really does create a chaotic world, but this is chaos in the scientific sense of the word, as used by Ilya Prigogine, to denote an irreversible timeline, in which causes cannot be reconstructed nor can effects be predicted. True, it does happen that events occur accidentally or in a way that leaves their causes unknown, but this is a state of affairs that is typical of complex cultural systems no less than of natural systems. The cultural systems are more complex, since in them the system’s complexity is enhanced by the complexity of human intentions. This has nothing to do with a consciousness of crisis or catastrophe. It is a picture of a real, living human system, and not of system collapse. Agnon, like many other writers, strives to create life in his literary test-tube. He therefore creates narrative time as a chain of bifurcation points (previous scholars have already pointed out the significance of hesitation and choice in Agnon’s writing).37 He often uses one of two basic patterns: (a) An event happened, but it is not clear why (the problem of source or foundation); (b) it may have happened, or it may not have happened, or something else may have happened (the problem of contingency). The two patterns represent two types of uncertainty: of the cause and of the effect. But this uncertainty is neither absence nor crisis, but rather the essence of life itself. Agnon presents a world in which every event is the realization of one of many possibilities, while the unrealized possibilities remain in the background. The sense of “embarrassment” arises because the unrealized possibilities are not negated, silenced or made to disappear; to the contrary, they are forcefully stressed and illuminated. It arises from the intolerable freedom to choose between equally plausible possibilities. When an event has no 35 Patrick Fuery, The Theory of Absence: Subjectivity, Signification and Desire, Connecticut and London, Greenwood Press, 1995. 36 Hagbi, Language, Absence,Play, pp. 84-86. 37 See, for example: Hillel Barzel, Ha-me’a ha-khatzuia (The Split Century), Tel Aviv, Sifriiat Poalim, 2011, pp. 255-257.

Defining Alternative History: From Genre to Principle


cause, it means that many causes are possible. After all, a cause is just another event that preceded the event in question, and since time is irreversible it is impossible to move linearly from this moment in the present to any other moment, in the past or in the future. Possibilities as well as realizations are numerous, and an author whose objective is to represent, that is to create, the world, cannot afford to reduce this multiplicity to uniformity. Every possibility and every realization are but one alternative among many, and one can never know with certainty which possibility caused a given realization, or how a given possibility will materialize. There is an interesting sub-genre that also deserves consideration. It combines elements of alternative and of parallel history. In such a case the composition describes a historical bifurcation point that creates a closed geographical space that is isolated from the course of known history. Inside this closed space it creates an alternative history, a hidden branch of history that grows out of the same bifurcation point and that differs from the history that we know only, or almost only, due to the isolation of the geographical space. The Jewish tales of the ten lost tribes provide a good example of this. Here two historical possibilities are realized at one and the same time. This situation is a clear explication of the principle of alternativeness in history. When a connection exists between the two worlds, for example when there are people in our world who are aware of the other world’s existence but keep this information to themselves, we may speak of the inclusion of elements of another sub-genre, namely secret history. If no connection exists between the two worlds, the composition will usually describe how the other world came to be discovered. If this happens then we are no longer speaking of a secret history, of course, but rather of an alternativeparallel one. The comparison between the two worlds may be optimistic or pessimistic, depending on the author’s intentions, but the bifurcation point at which the other historical branch comes to be is usually a catastrophe, either natural, such as an earthquake, or historical, such as war or exile. A catastrophe is needed in order to create isolation. Thus the destruction of the First Temple could have brought about the Ten Tribes’ exile to an isolated place, beyond the mythological Sambatyon River. There, far away from the vicissitudes of history, they preserved and developed the brilliant ancient Jewish civilization. This can give rise to a sub-genre of journeys to that alternative and parallel geographical area, or of a search for it. These themes can occasionally be found in works that are not just alternative history, after having been given a realistic or pseudo-realistic adaptation



and refinement, as in Agnon’s “Iddo and Einam.” This is understandable, in light of the fact that such a development, namely an alternative evolution of a cultural branch in a state of geopolitical isolation, is not so very rare even in real history. This is the case of Yemenite Jewry (whose isolation was relatively mild, and its past cultural unity with other Jewish groups is a certain fact), or of Native American culture (with relatively severe isolation, and a former cultural unity that is either nonexistent, or merely hypothesized by scholars). Interestingly enough, elements of this genre are often introduced as a pattern into family stories. Apparently both genres, alternative-parallel history of nations and of families, have common roots in the most ancient mythologies, in which no distinction existed between nation and family, nor even between universe and (divine) family. It is therefore quite possible that the kernel of this genre is the myth of Creation, which is transformed into the myth of the emergence of civilization through the separation of members of the family. The separation of Gaia and Uranus (earth and heaven), the isolated upbringing of Zeus and Hercules, Jacob and Esau, the Children of Israel in Egypt, are only a few of the available examples. A well-known theme in Western literature is a family that is torn asunder by some catastrophe. For example, one or more family member is missing after a ship has sunk in a storm, or was abducted by pirates. As the story proceeds the members of the family meet again by accident, gradually identify each other and their reunification leads to resolution in the epilogue. An important point is that the two parts of the family realize two different social possibilities, such as rich and poor, commoner and aristocrat, caused by one branch of the family having been torn from the main line. Molière’s “The Miser” and Beaumarchais’ “The Marriage of Figaro” are well-known examples. The life of the “lost” branch serves as a kind of alternative-parallel history of the family and may serve to sublimate the fear of loss: loss of status, of identity, of life itself. This motive is identical to that of pure or fantasy alternative history. A very interesting and special case of this pattern is the creation of a fabricated alternative-parallel history by way of deceit and disguise. For example, in Lope de Vega’s “Dog in the Manger,” the protagonist’s cunning servant introduces his master as the lost son of an important nobleman from Naples, in order to enable him to marry the noble woman he loves. At the other end of the spectrum of historical realism we find that the division and reunification of countries in real political history can also appear as a kind of alternative-parallel history. A country may be divided following a catastrophic event such as a war, or in the wake of another

Defining Alternative History: From Genre to Principle


bifurcation event, such as a political union or agreement. After the division the two parts take their different historical courses and realize two different political and socio-economic possibilities. Some recent examples are East and West Germany and North and South Korea. The histories of entire nations originate as anthropological experiments, as the geopolitical materialization of the alternativeness principle: Human history appears as one big fantasy story. Our initial theoretical discussion in this chapter has shown the need for a renewed examination of the theoretical underpinnings of the study of alternative history. Not only its origins and its definition should be revised, but also its place in modern literature. The next chapter will therefore be devoted to a discussion of the state of a theoretical research in this domain.


In this chapter the claims or inferred theoretical suppositions of four scholars – Karen Hellekson, William Hardesty, Gavriel Rosenfeld, and Edgar McKnight who have written exhaustively on alternative history, will be reviewed and examined.1 We will relate a few crucial questions especially relevant to the course of our research, while excluding from our discussion works about marking the genre’s boundaries and its internal taxonomy.2

a. Is Alternative History Based on Historical Relativism? Karen Hellekson’s research, according to scholars, constitutes “a good start” in elaborating the theory of the alternative history literature.3 We will focus on The Alternate History: Refiguring Historical Time, her most important work. Hellekson’s main theoretical contention, which is sometimes visible and at other times obscured by her poetic-historical 1

See also: William Joseph Collins, “Paths Not Taken: The Development, Structure, and Aesthetics of Alternative History,” PhD diss., University of California at Davis, 1990. 2 The first critics of alternative history in the end of 19th century were Charles Rénouvier and Maurice Baring. In the more recent research of the genre, the role of constitutors belongs to Darko Suvin and Gordon C. Chamberlain. See also few additional works and collections from 1990s: Nicholas Gevers, “Mirrors of the Past: Versions of History in Science Fiction and Fantasy,” PhD diss., University of Cape Town, 1997; Jörg Helbig, Der Parahistorische Roman, Frankfurt am Main, Peter Lang, 1988; Barbara Edlmair, Rewriting History: Alternative Versions of the Carribean Past in Michelle Cliff, Rosario Ferr, Jamaica Kincaid, and Daniel Maximin, West Lafayette, IN, Purdue University Press, 1999. 3 Edgar L. Chapman, “Introduction: Three Stages of Alternate History Fiction and the ‘Metaphisical If’,” in Edgar L. Chapman and Carl B. Yoke, eds., Classic and Iconoclastic Alternate History Science Fiction, Lewiston, The Edwin Mellen Press, 2003, p. 3.

Several Questions in Theory of Alternative History


analyses, is that the theory of alternative history should borrow concepts from the theory of history. The reason for this is that the writing of alternative history is driven by the desire to understand history and is thus based on counterfactual writing in historiography itself, and the very idea of the invention of a different history is based on the fact that history “itself” or history as “science” is, to a large extent, an invented story. Since history is the invention of stories, imaginary histories may be invented in stories. Hellekson bases her research on the works of several other scholars, particularly, on the theoretical level, of Paul Ricoeur’s Time and Narrative and Hayden White’s Metahistory. Taking White’s narrative-historical taxonomy as a foundation, she constructs a taxonomy of alternative histories according to four models of history: eschatological (the history of the end of the world), genetic (the history of the beginning), entropic (the history of chaos and coincidence), and teleological (history as a purposeful movement).4 According to White’s well known theory, historical research is no more than poetic writing organized according to structural models taught in narratology and rhetoric. Historical research, therefore, cannot be regarded as objective, as representing the truth, or as revealing historical events and laws, but rather as inventing that truth and those historical events and laws. Our aim is to demonstrate that Karen Hellekson’s approach is, at least, problematic. We will start with the more general aspects and then focus on the details. The first, most obvious problem is the uncritical use of Hayden White’s theory as presented in his early book. In principle, it appears compatible with the description of alternative history, but this does not mean that it should be accepted unconditionally. Thus the first problem is Hellekson’s use at one and the same time of White and Ricoeur’s historiographical conceptions. Although concerned with similar issues, their departure points and objectives, and their philosophical and ideological worlds, are miles apart. They cannot be placed side by side as if they shared the same philosophical orientation. Even so, her reference to Paul Ricoeur’s thinking in relation to alternative history is certainly accurate. The difference between Ricoeur and White’s hypotheses will be explained hereinafter. In all his work, but particularly in Metahistory, Hayden White’s tendency is to explain writing, specifically historical writing, through the prism of ideological and political interests, especially power struggles in

4 Karen Hellekson, The Alternate History: Refiguring Historical Time, Kent OH, The Kent State University Press, 2001, p. 2.


Chapter Two

society.5 From a methodological perspective, his area of concern is the examination of structures, narrative functions, rhetorical figures, and tropes (White terms his method “tropology”) in order to reveal the historians’ inferred ideological orientation, of which they are either aware or unaware. Once historians are defined as writers like any other literary writers, White proclaims, one can say, the “death of the historian.” Finally, the personality of the historian is shunted aside by patterns, tropes, models, and ideologies. The historian’s personality, with its entire ideologicalscientific and cultural world, is therefore reduced to a writing style. White’s main argument is that as historical research is writing, verbal form, and stylized text, history is the invention of the historian and there is therefore no objective historical truth; since history is not a science, historians’ evidence is not real evidence, but an attempt to convince through rhetoric. There is no history, there are merely historical stories written by historians. White rejects hermeneutics as an obsolete discipline, as an attempt to speak metaphysically in the knowledge that metaphysics is dead; he regards Ricoeur as an old-fashioned philosopher whose place is in the nineteenth century as “someone who summarizes rather than someone who offers new insights.”6 5

“Radicalizing his humanism into a more activist stance, while simultaneously adopting a Marxist-inspired concern for the social conditions of human freedom, White became a Camusian rebel who challenged his colleagues and students to rethink their discipline from a politically progressive point of view. His task, as he had come to see it, was to challenge conservative metahistories – realisms that confirm the social status quo – by developing resources for a more progressive, more liberating concept of historical realism” (Herman Paul, Hayden White: The Historical Imagination, Cambridge, Polity Press, 2011, p. 55). 6 Domanska, “Interview with Hayden White,” p. 34. White criticized Ricoeur on many opportunities, mainly because of his metaphysical, in White’s view, not materialistic enough approach. See: Hayden White, “The Metaphysics of Narrativity: Time and Symbol in Ricoeur’s Philosophy of History,” in The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation, Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987, pp. 169-184. In his review on Ricoeur’s Memory, History, Forgetting, while acknowledging that this is “great book,” White rejects the relevance of the entire decades-long move of Ricoeur: “‘A properly dialectical conception of history…’ It has been Ricoeur’s purpose over the last three decades, since his ‘conversion’ from existentialist phenomenology to ontological hermeneutics, to provide such a conception of history. But for whom? Is it for proper historians? Most historians feel that such macro-historical visions of ‘the origins and goals of history’ provide no help either in identifying or executing realistic research projects. […] They have no use for theories about history” (“Guilty of History? The longue durée of Paul Ricoeur” (2007), in The Fiction of

Several Questions in Theory of Alternative History


Paul Ricoeur is indeed a hermeneutic; his purpose, as he states in one of his interviews, was always – unlike White’s – to return a personality to philosophical discourse and to find a balance between structuralism, existentialism, and the philosophy of the subject. He analyzes the interaction between history and narrative, that is, between historical research and narrative construction, like a philosopher attempting to rethink the mediating procedures that allow historical discourse to adopt narrative construction, while White uses existing narratological and rhetorical methods to research historical writing. Ricoeur and White have different objectives, different outlooks, and different approaches and methods. It is quite clear that in every historiographical text that constitutes “verbal form” different methods of researching verbal forms may be realized. However, such a realization does not contradict the status of historical truth, and the scientific objectivity of history. Ricoeur addresses a problem of the ability and the necessity of history to take on a form and adopt the mechanisms of a narrative (Time and Narrative), as well as the ability and the necessity of history to remember and forget, rightly or wrongly (Memory, History, Forgetting). Unlike White, Ricoeur examines what constitutes narrative in relation to history and vice versa. Hellekson is not quite right in her claim that both Ricoeur and White “blur the boundaries between fiction and history, between creative artist and historian.”7 With respect to White, her claim is accurate, but it is completely erroneous in relation to Ricoeur. On the contrary, Ricoeur confirms the boundary and therefore he constructs such a complex conceptual mechanism in order to mediate between the two. Ricoeur’s empathetic analysis of White’s conception should not lead us astray: Ricoeur uses what he terms White’s “historiographical style theory” merely in order to slot it into an appropriate place in the philosophy of history. He notes that the modes of plot construction are based on a writing tradition that imbues them with the same configuration used by the historian. This aspect – the traditional aspect – is the most important: since the historian is a writer he addresses an audience that can identify traditional forms of the art of the narrative. Structures are not archaic rules; they are not of a kind that is defined in taxonomy a priori. They are forms of cultural heritage.8 While for White the historian’s use of a narrative cancels out the true, objective representation of history, Ricouer’s Narrative: Essays on History, Literature, and Theory, Baltimore, John Hopkins University Press, 2010, pp. 333-334). 7 Hellekson, The Alternate History, p. 2. 8 Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative, v. 1, trans. by Kathleen McLaughlin and David Pellauer, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1984, pp. 161-168.


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meticulous philosophical analysis points out the true use of a narrative among the tools of cultural rhetoric.9 Karen Hellekson’s second difficulty derives from her first. If Hayden White’s approach is problematical and incompatible with Ricoeur’s one, and from the narrative nature of historiography its fictitiousness cannot be deduced, then alternative history cannot be based on blurring the boundary between the fictional narrative (literary) and the historical narrative (scientific) that occurs, as it were, in modern “historical consciousness.”10 It must be assumed that alternative history has deep cultural roots and its creation is not related to what White terms in his title “the historical imagination of the nineteenth-century Europe.” Alternative history does not reject the objectivity of historical truth, but actually strengthens it and is based conceptually on an a priori bestowal and knowledge of this truth. Alternative history is anchored in the metaphysical, Cartesian or even Gnostic world-view.11 This being so, it must be assumed that even if White’s theory was correct, it would be impossible to build the alternative history theory upon it. As proof, Hellekson herself is inconsistent in her use of White’s discourse. When discussing alternative history in relation to history and historical literature, she refers to the dichotomy between “real history” and “invention” and the inherent tension within it, while placing the word “true” in quotation marks in the phrase “‘true’ version of history.” She also refers to “what is known – reality,” “the world as it is or was,” and “a historical base accurate in our world” without quotation marks.12 In practice, then, in order to explain what alternative history is, she cannot avoid assuming as implicit the existence of historical reality and historical knowledge as a necessary background to the invention of all alternative history fantasy. Thus, the theoretical foundation, which maintains that if history can be invented then so can alternative history, is invalid and is not even based on 9

Cultural rhetoric is a complex of rhetorical practices that operate in the capacity of cultural practices. For further reading see: Ivo Strecker and Stephen Tyler, eds., Culture and Rhetoric, New York, Berghahn Books, 2009. 10 Hayden White, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973, pp. 1, 43, 97, 267. 11 Howard Canaan points to the Gnostic foundations of “metaphysical vision” of the prominent alternative history writer Philip Dick. Canaan emphasizes that this vision is indivisible from Dick’s “aesthetic and political vision” (Howard Canaan, “Metafiction and the Gnostic Quest in The Man in the High Castle,” in Edgar L. Chapman and Carl B. Yoke, eds., Classic and Iconoclastic Alternate History Science Fiction, Lewiston, The Edwin Mellen Press, 2003, p. 98). 12 Hellekson, The Alternate History, p. 28-30.

Several Questions in Theory of Alternative History


consistency by Hellekson herself. However, there is here another implicit difficulty. The argument, that if historians invent histories then so can writers, assumes as self-evident a direct, linear, and unequivocal affinity between the “justification of history” and the “justification of literature.” Such an affinity not only contradicts that same “historical imagination” that Hellekson herself, echoing White, Ricoeur, and others, attributes to modern consciousness and the alternative history that develops from it, as it were, but is itself controversial. In the first place, it should be borne in mind that White himself points out that he is not referring to historians’ conscious perception, but to the deep-seated patterns of their texts that they themselves are unaware of, and unconcerned with. Indeed, Ricoeur has already clarified, as noted, that historiographical style constitutes part of a cultural legacy, in other words, a complex cultural-social-rhetorical configuration. Hellekson knows this and she therefore looks to a system of counterfactual history that has no connection to White’s approach. Max Weber has already used the probabilistic counterfactual method to construct his historiography; Carl Gustav Hempel in his “The Function of General Laws in History”13 and in subsequent works formulated the inductive-probabilistic model of historical explanation beside the deductive-nomological one.14 The assumption was that historiography, precisely because it is a science that strives to discover truth, must recognize its epistemological boundaries, which are also boundaries of uncertainty and are defined through the relative probability of the influence of several events on others, that is, through the relative probability of a particular plot or narrative. Either way, the counterfactual 13

Carl Gustav Hempel, “The Function of General Laws in History,” The Journal of Philosophy, 39(2), 1942, pp. 35-48. 14 Georg von Wright discusses the two Hempel’s models: “The two models are much more different than is often thought. It is a primary function of the deductive-nomological model to explain why certain things happened. Therefore it also tells us, secondarily, why these things were to be expected. They could have been expected, since they had to happen. With the inductive-probabilistic model the roles are reversed. It explains in the first place why things which happened were to be expected (or not to be expected). Only in a secondary sense does it explain why things happened, viz. ‘because’ they were highly probable. It seems to me better, however, not to say that the inductive-probabilistic model explains what happens, but to say only that it justifies certain expectations and predictions. This is not to deny the existence of (genuine) explanation patterns in which probability plays a characteristic role. […] One could call it probabilistic causal analysis. It occupies an important place in the methodology of explanation” (Georg Henrik von Wright, Explanation and Understanding, New York, Cornell University Press, 1971, p. 14-15).


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method is based on an absolute certainty of knowledge of the events themselves. The counterfactual explanation may be in line with all of White’s three models of explanation (formal, fictional, and ideological), but to the same extent may also contradict them.15 Moreover, assuming for a moment that alternative history is based on a certain historiographical consciousness, does literature require such justification? Is a historiographical model a prerequisite for a writer to work in any genre, including historical and pseudo-historical genres? And can or should cultural-historical models in literature be based upon historiographical models? Hellekson reconstructs the conception of Hayden White who sees the “scientific” style in nineteenth-century historiography in relation to the conception of realism in literature, ideology, and in the sciences of the same period.16 Unlike the poststructuralists,17 Hayden White does not renounce the hierarchy of origin and repetition, and argues, in the spirit of classical Marxism, that the ideology of science-realism is the bedrock of narrative style, both in historiography and in literature. Even if this claim is correct, neither the “literariness” nor the relativism of historical truth stem from it. And even if historical writing is a discursive configuration or a narrative pattern, this is what is at the historian’s disposal to commune in and with his culture; it is through this that he can and should to prove his claims to be valid, to persuade us of their truth in the given rhetorical, cultural framework. Truth 15

For example, is Weber’s most well-known claim, according to which capitalism originates from the spirit of Protestantism, a formal, fictional, or ideological explanation? It is formal, since it is based on a particular formal-historiographical model (apparently contextual) of the relationship between economics and culture. But it is also not formal, since Weber does not argue the universalism of this relationship. It is fictional, since it creates a story, a diachronic plot, according to a famous historiographical style (perhaps we should define it, using White’s concepts borrowed from Northrop Frye, romantic comedy?). But it is also not fictional, since the affinity between capitalism and Protestantism is not a simple, causal storyline, and perhaps is not a causal affinity at all. It is ideological, since it justifies capitalism and thereby strengthens one of what White maintains are the four pillars of ideology (probably liberalism, but it might also be conservatism). But it is also not ideological, since the foundation of the economic regime on religious-cultural values is liable to weaken no less than strengthen the position of this regime. 16 White, Metahistory, pp. 26-27. 17 Although White admires Michel Foucault, he is also critical of his approach and do not traverse the border that divides them. See his “Foucault Decoded” in Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism, Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986.

Several Questions in Theory of Alternative History


can change as a result of new research, likewise, the perception of truth can change as a result of philosophical developments, but these changes do not imbue truth with a relative status. In natural sciences and exact sciences this state of affairs is completely recognized and self-evident. Scientists know that truth discovered today may be refuted tomorrow. They know through experience: after all, they themselves constructed their own truths by refuting prior truths. This order, this ethos, may be rational or irrational in a scientific paradigm, but it has remained constant for thousands of years because it permits knowledge and thought, the creation of culture, and social-cultural dialogue. The source of this ethos is not abstract, metaphysical assumptions, but the replacing of one generation by another that involves love-hate relations with parents and the cultural psychology of breaking taboos. Truth “obeys” not the principle of relativity, but a principle we call here the principle of alternativeness. Thus, every scientist knows that scientific truth is truth for now. If scientific truths were not open for refutation, they would not be scientific truths, as Karl Popper demonstrated. It is of no consequence that the means available to physicists are laboratories and instruments, and those available to historians are discursive configurations; it does not matter that the historian, as White states, cannot repeat an experiment or an observation like a physicist. What is important is that in order to prove their arguments, both physicists and historians can only use the possible means at their disposal and therefore the “stories” through which they understand and explain nature or history are possible stories, that is alternatives. But returning to the question of whether literature needs justification from historiography, whether it is nurtured from historiographical models, it is easily discernible that whatever the answer – positive or negative – this question is prohibited in (post-)structuralist discourse itself. Literature’s development from historiography is, in White’s terms, an oldfashioned conception from the nineteenth century. But if the issue of justification is nevertheless legitimate and topical even today, how can it be addressed after hundreds of years of stormy discussions from Aristotle’s Poetics to Auerbach’s Mimesis?18 At the very least, this question has no clear-cut response. It may be that the distinction between a writer and a historian is an illusion, but at least this is not a nineteenthcentury illusion. Philology, however – particularly rhetoric, stylistics, and 18

The courageous Aristotelian struggle for the autonomy of art runs into difficulties whenever neo-Platonic totalitarianism like Marxism is in the ascendancy.


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narratology – have no need of such a justification. It is therefore completely unnecessary for Hellekson to follow in White’s footsteps; in addition, alternative history literature, despite the historical subject, needs neither historiographical grounding, nor justification. As is well known, some writers are motivated by historiographical perceptions and even try to imitate historiographical style, whereas others draw on different sources for their inspiration and the boundary between the two does not coincide with the boundaries of historical genres.19 If there is no essential connection between genre and historiography, every work should be examined on its own merits. Even if on the most abstract-formal theoretical level there may be a connection between, for instance, realism in literature and realism in historiography, on a practical level it is easily revealed that every writer and every work is much more complex than any such connection. And then we realize what we have always known, namely that even among realistic writers no writer is entirely realistic or just realistic, that every realistic writer, such as Dostoevsky, for example, is also both romantic and psychological. Did not Bakhtin himself, so admired by Western intellectuals on all sides of the ideological spectrum, present Dostoevsky’s work as polyphony of clashing voices (ethnic, philosophical, ideological)? Whether this theory is accurate or not, it first of all casts doubt on every unequivocal affiliation between literature and what lies outside literature and on every abstract or formal premise that fails to take into account the complexity of culture and those who create culture.20


The clearest examples, of course, are to be found in works of naturalism (such as those of Emile Zola), only some of which have historical themes but most of which have a historical agenda (this, of course, marks the boundary between historical and pseudo-historical literature, on one side, and historicist literature, on the other). Another obvious example is the notorious socialist realism literature of the Soviet Union. The Communist Party required every writer to demonstrate “historical consciousness” in every work in every genre and on every subject (I assume that Hellekson was not referring to this in her reference to the “historical sensitivity” that motivates alternative history authors). The result was both aesthetic and philosophical atrophy. 20 White himself does not omit to point out each time that he positions a new formal taxonomy or borrows one from others, that concrete writers and historians are not necessarily suitable for these taxonomies (White, Metahistory, pp. 8, 13).

Several Questions in Theory of Alternative History


b. Is Alternative History a Model? William Hardesty takes as his starting point the juncture where Karen Hellekson began and ended her theory: the assumption that alternative history is, in essence, postmodern literature that answers the postmodern questions of how we perceive the past and whether this is actually possible.21 Firstly, Hardesty’s reasoning resembles that of Hellekson: the desire of writers and readers to understand the past and to tie it to the present is obvious. There is no reason to attribute this desire or such questions to postmodernism, apart from the need to explain at any cost the contemporary flourishing of the genre while grounding it on inferred (and perhaps unconscious in Hardesty’s case) Marxist premises. The desire and the above-mentioned questions exist no less time than human selfconsciousness exists. But this is not the crux of the matter. Hardesty’s departure point – the development of the genre from a certain conception of history, postmodern in his opinion – is similar to that of Hellekson. We will not repeat the criticism of this procedure itself, but will first focus on one small incongruity that may shed light on the problem of this entire perception. Hardesty limits himself to some of Linda Hutcheon’s quotes in order to present the postmodern perception of history, and he expresses this perception in his own words on several occasions throughout the article. At the beginning we read: “Since history is not really an access to the past but rather a manipulation of texts as models, [one] can perhaps begin to explain how we use history (as text) as a model for understanding the present – at least to the extent that we abstract the present and thereby textualize it.”22 However, at a later point he states: “If the past is inaccessible, except through texts, it must therefore be recreated in ‘models’ in order to have tangibility.”23 Both excerpts describe a given situation: we cannot access the past. But the actions and their objectives that are a consequence of this situation differ in both excerpts. The second excerpt opens with an exact paraphrase from Hutcheon: history is only accessible through texts. However, the first excerpt is saying something else: history is a manipulation of texts. While in the second excerpt access to history is an objective in itself, in the first, 21

William H. Hardesty, “Toward a Theory of Alternate History: Some Versions of Alternative Nazis”, in Edgar L. Chapman and Carl B. Yoke, eds., Classic and Iconoclastic Alternate History Science Fiction, Lewiston, The Edwin Mellen Press, 2003, p. 73. 22 Ibid. 23 Ibid., p. 79.


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the manipulation of texts is a means to achieve an objective that is not connected to history (for example, in Hardesty’s terms, the “abstractization” and “textualization” of the present).24 While the second excerpt describes a recreation of the past, the first excerpt refers to understanding the present. This confusion is not coincidental but is an implicit pattern (not necessarily conscious) of switching concepts and perceptions around. The first and most important example of this is of the historical concept itself: the “research of history by means of texts” is replaced by “the invention of history by texts.” This leads to the second switch: “history as a scientific objective” is replaced by “history as a means of practical use (pragmatic, ideological, philosophical).” We assume that this replacement of one concept with another is, on the one hand, one of the most prevalent misunderstandings in relation to postmodernism, but on the other hand, it is part of the postmodern spirit itself (if it exists at all). In Hardesty’s article, this misunderstanding leads to two difficulties: the artificial linking of alternative history to postmodernism, and a distortion of the perception of alternative history itself. It is appropriate at this stage to focus on the second difficulty. William Hardesty bases his research on Philip Johnson-Laird’s work on cognitive psychology in order to claim that alternative history serves as a model to explain reality. Again, Hardesty switches the content of the concepts around. Johnson-Laird merely argues that mental models play a central and unifying role in representing objects, states of affairs, sequences of events, the way the world is, and the social and psychological actions of daily life. They enable individuals to make inferences and predictions, to understand phenomena, to decide what action to take and to control its execution, and above all to experience events by proxy. They allow language to be used to create representations comparable to those deriving from direct acquaintance with the world; and they relate words to the world by way of conception and perception.25 As we know, JohnsonLaird is a theoretician of the Cartesian kind, an experimental psychologist of the classic cognitive school that believes the human brain to be a network that is complex but given to scientific research. How can William Hardesty construct upon this basis the conclusion that alternative history 24 “Textualization” and “abstractization” seem to contradict one another, if textualization is the creation of a story, because a story is always tangible. If what is meant is a model constructed by a story, the concept of textualization is inappropriate and superfluous. 25 Philip N. Johnson-Laird, Mental Models, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1983, cited from Hardesty, “Toward a Theory of Alternate History,” p. 8081.

Several Questions in Theory of Alternative History


uses its art – by forcing the reader to seize a non-existent past – to problematize the received truth about the past?26 No perception of history and truth emanates from Johnson-Laird’s theory. A mental model is a representation of the world, of life experience. Therefore alternative history reading, which is part of this experience, is not a model in itself, but what must be modeled in order to be understandable. Hardesty is right when he describes alternative history as a mechanism of the problematization of history and of the present, but the explanation of this mechanism’s work does not appear to be grounded: “Ultimately, then, the use of alternate histories may be this: mental models of what is known to be imaginary can by their differences illuminate our model of the real. They force the alert reader to consider the past as both sequence of events and as construct. This, in turn, problematizes the present, insofar as it is seen to be related to or determined by the past. The reader is impelled to deal through inference and analogy with the ways in which the present could have been different, given a different past.”27 There can be no “model of the imaginary,” it is impossible to “illuminate the model,” a problematization of the past does not necessarily lead to a problematization of the present, at least not automatically; and if so, how does this occur? If it is true that alternative history helps us realize that our real world is richer, if we know what it might have been,28 what is the exact significance of this “richness”? Is the knowledge referred to historical, scientific, or imaginary knowledge? Is it knowledge at all? Unquestionably, alternative history is a particular relationship between two comparable elements, different and similar, but what is the nature of this relationship? Hardesty’s article also reflects even more fundamental problems. Let us put aside the incompatibility of Johnson-Laird’s concept of the mental model and the use Hardesty makes of it, and accept the concept of the model in its general sense, as a kind of nomological scheme of a part of reality. The argument goes that if we have no access to the past (apart from in texts), we can create a fictitious past (in texts) and use it as a model, through which at least we can better understand the present. The strength of this argument is the unequivocal (if not new) premise that a literary work models reality (not history). Without a doubt, this is one role of alternative history as a literary work, but it cannot constitute the essence of alternative history that will distinguish it from any other literary work, or even from any cultural practice, since any such practice may be 26

Hardesty, “Toward a Theory of Alternate History,” p. 81. Ibid., p. 87. 28 Ibid., p. 88. 27


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understood as a model, through which the culture can be (better) understood. And still a question remains: Is there any basis to a perception according to which a text is a model? There is nothing new then about this perception. In the past its expression took different forms: a story, a myth, or a biblical tale were sometimes presented as models, and in all these forms the object of the modeling was the present (ethics, ideology, economics) or the past as a tool to construct/understand the present (within the interests of groups, powers, classes, governments, or rulers). This refers to an anti-mythic (iconoclastic) orientation, starting with Plato and concluding with Roland Barthes and Slavoj Žižek. It may even appear positive, and indeed Hardesty refers to the “recreation” or the “illumination” of history, but this philosophical tradition destroyed the authentic perception of myth in Western thought. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries represented both the nadir (in the humanities and in Judaic studies) and pinnacle (in romanticism and neo-romanticism) of the perception of myth. The discrediting of myth (after Fascism and Stalinism) by the cultural criticism of the Frankfurt School and by post-structuralism was seen, until lately, as a cope-stone. However, today indications of myth’s rehabilitation are not a mirage; myth is once more recognized as an authentic experience.29 Perhaps, the translation and distribution of Aleksei Losev’s work in the West is likely to contribute to this rehabilitation. At this stage what concerns us is the point in The Dialectics of Myth where Losev proves that myth is not a model or scheme.30 Myth is a tangible story related to personality; it is unique and therefore cannot be reduced to a model of reality, of an idea, of a Weltanschauung, and of a psyche. Although at the beginning of modern anthropology, ethnography, and psychology myth was represented as a model of the society or (sub-)consciousness where it was created and preserved, it seems that today neo-Marxism, sometimes


One reason – what scholars refer to as the “ethical turn” of the 1980s – is that the word is not only recognized as a representation, but also as a genuine act of responsibility (inspired by the philosophy of the act of Mikhail Bakhtin and the metaphysical ethics of Emmanuel Lévinas). Scholars such as Martha Nussbaum, Wayne Booth and Adam Z. Newton share in this movement. It is not a coincidence that the rehabilitation of myth has occurred at the same time as the rehabilitation of rhetoric and the ethical turn in rhetoric in the work of Chaïm Perelman. 30 Losev, The Dialectics of Myth, pp. 34-54.

Several Questions in Theory of Alternative History


combined with neo-Lacanian psychoanalysis (like in the case of Slavoj Žižek), remains the last outpost of this perception.31 So it is one thing when literary anthropology reveals anthropological and cultural models in a story,32 and quite another to represent the story itself or, to be more precise, the myth created in a story as a model. In the first case, a model is only a methodological procedure, in the second it is a world view. Occasionally, scholars construct plot models like, for example, Vladimir Propp in Morphology of the Folktale, but in this case the model is not accorded an existential status and does not replace the story itself. In addition, modeling the plot of a story or a system of motifs within the story differs from modeling the story: it recognizes its limitations and knows how to distinguish between what can be modeled and what will always remain outside the frame of modeling. But once we say that a story is a model of reality, we are replacing the meaning of the story (that is, the myth created in the story) with the meaning of the model. The main problem is not even that in order to justify modeling we are prepared to relinquish an infinite number of unique details in a story that are not compatible with the model. The main problem is something entirely different and takes two forms. The first part is more straightforward and concerns the fact that a model defines our behavior, our reading, in a deterministic way. This is a familiar cycle: modeling turns the text into its tool, we use text in order to model reality, and once the model exists it defines the reality a priori and deterministically. Instead of demonstrating how alternative history leads the reader to freedom (in keeping, by the way, with the spirit of postmodernism), the theory under discussion shows how alternative history confines the reader by historical determinism. The second part of the problem is even graver. It may be that the perception of modeling is compatible with cognitive psychology, which is concerned with everyday life, part of which is natural language and the use of texts in this language. However, not everything appropriate to cognitive psychology is also appropriate to research into culture (and literature), 31 See, for example, Fredric Jameson’s critique of myth criticism and Frye’s theory in The Political Unconsciousness: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act, New York, Cornell University Press, 1981, pp. 67-74. 32 Literary anthropology is the research in the anthropological motives and conditions of literary practices (see: Wolfgang Iser, Prospecting: From Reader Response to Literary Anthropology, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989), application of anthropological models to literary study, and research in literature as an object of anthropology (see: Fernando Poyatos, ed., Literary Anthropology: A New Interdisciplinary Approach to People, Signs, and Literature, Amsterdam, J. Benjamins Pub., 1988).


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since, as is well known, it constitutes a second-degree sign-system. Literary text functions differently, as rhetoricians have always insisted, from the “natural” text created in everyday communication. Did not the pioneers of structuralism, like Victor Shklovsky and Boris Eikhenbaum, invest their whole being in studying this difference, which had been continued in Roman Jacobson’s linguistic poetics, by way of Gérard Genette’s Figures and Juri Lotman’s semiotics, to the latest studies of narratology by scholars such as Wolf Schmidt?33 How do the models created in the second-degree sign-system relate to models created in the first-degree sign-system? Have they been developed, updated, repaired, or replaced? Have they been verified, approved, refuted, or dismantled? All these suggestions could be correct. While structuralism regarded its modeling system as a means to subvert the naturalness of natural language, the post-structuralism and deconstructivism regarded the language of culture (the second-degree) as a (pseudo-)natural language and tried to erode its “naturalness.”34 The issue of the relationship between models of varying degrees leads us to discuss the phenomenon of the ascent of complexity. Hardesty does not discern this issue, but it is possible that his reference to the “richness” of world-view is an allusion to complexity. As soon as we understand that modeling is not a linear, one-layered process, but is what occurs between different levels and is also dependent on relations between different levels of different models, we understand a model as dynamic, complex, non-linear, and, therefore, paradoxically uncertain and chaotic. Once the functioning of a model is uncertain, unknown beforehand, and becomes even more complex, once the structures of the models change and develop, we leave the deterministic paradigm of the model, because a model cannot be described as unexpected. Exceptions to the rule are models of the chaos theory, but in any case this “new science” does not belong to the classic scientific paradigm, deterministic in essence. To an extent, the conception of deterministic chaos, which is central to the chaos theory, provides a solution to the problem of modeling a reality that is not given to modeling. This being the case, it is particularly important to discern the model’s paradigm boundaries. The certain theory of modeling may be valid in cognitive psychology, but may be inappropriate for literary research, and 33

See Wolf Schmidt’s survey and discussion of the controversies in this realm: Narratology: An Introduction, Berlin and New York, Walter de Gruyter GmbH, 2010, pp. 21-32. 34 Of course, Roland Barthes’ Mythologies (1957) can be viewed as a Rubicon. See his famous discussion of “naturalization” of the culture in the chapter “Myth Today” (trans. by Annette Lavers, London, J. Cape, 1972).

Several Questions in Theory of Alternative History


particularly inappropriate for the research of alternative history, which, as we assume, is in conflict with determinism. Many of the “models” created in alternative history are actually myths. Therefore, it may be said that through these myths we understand reality, but in order to do so we must live them. The mythopoetic paradigm facilitates the understanding of how alternative history works, its understanding as a unique ethical-aesthetic, complex experience of oscillation and choice between multiple myths. In Hardesty’s theory, this problem connected to the issue, with which we opened the discussion: the attitude to history itself. The first difficulty, from which his second fundamental difficulty emanates, is the representation of history as non-existent, as manipulation, as a game of texts. This perception is one-dimensional: only the history that I create exists. However, it is Hardesty himself who notes that alternative history is dioptric: it simultaneously looks at the history that has been realized and at alternative history. Is not this the essence of alternativeness? Apparently, Hardesty does not deny this, but he places “real history” between quotation marks and terms it the “history of the consensus.” Therefore, as soon as we assume that what is perceived as history is not history, realized history can no longer serve as that backdrop, that differentness whose presence creates the alternative. The dual, dioptric nature of viewpoint is thus negated and the only viewpoint that remains is that of whoever is playing with – manipulating – the texts. This perception thus holds in check the possibility of multiplicity that is so necessary for the functioning of alternative history. If we make the assumption that postmodernism is multiplicity, then this perception is not even postmodern. In contrast to what is surmised, in Hardesty’s theory, alternative history cannot be a true oscillation between two histories: realized and unrealized. At best, it will be an oscillation between two imaginary, artificial histories that were not realized and it is also doubtful whether they can or should be realized, something that completely contradicts the essence of alternative history. In this case, there can be no talk about any relation to reality and certainly not about any modeling of this reality. When there is no real hierarchy between the models, any comparison of the models is meaningless. If only my game with texts exists, it is impossible to talk about any “richness” in Weltanschauung. If the “history of the consensus” carries no weight, then the alternative history that I create in order to understand this “consensus” in reality carries no weight either. If a model explains nothing, then why do I need it, how can it respond to my desire to understand history and the present that Hardesty himself points to at the beginning of his article? The work of alternative history is not the work of models, but the work of myths and myths are not models of reality. Alternative history does create


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multiplicity – not of models but of myths, and true oscillation is not oscillation between models, but oscillation between myths, identities, and true ethically responsible choices.

c. Is Alternative History Normalization of Historical Memory? Gavriel Rosenfeld views works of alternative history on Nazism, which have been published in different countries and at different times since the end of World War II, as an attempt at normalization, partially identified with forgetting.35 However, the scholar does not draw a sufficient distinction between the normalization of the forms of historical memory (how to remember?) and the normalization of the history itself represented in it (what to remember?). Unquestionably, he is speaking about the normalization of the memory, because the creation of alternative histories cannot normalize the course of events of the realized history, which is accepted as given. An alternative history can be “normal” or normalized, but this characteristic of it will always be secondary to its substantive characteristic – the fact that it is a different, unrealized history. The unrealized normality of an alternative history not only does not normalize the realized history but also actually underscores and preserves the memory of the non-normality of the latter. It is this contradiction that gives alternative history its attraction. The contradiction can also act in the opposite direction: an alternative history can be abnormal, and can therefore aspire to affirm the existing reality. We can use Rosenfeld’s concept of normalization only in order to raise a question that has relevance in alternative history and in the principle of alternativeness itself: How to remember? An alternative history, then, proposes a different memory, but in doing so marks the boundaries of the actual memory. The imagined memory created in an alternative history has some influence on the community’s cultural memory, but that influence cannot be described by such a problematic, vague term as normalization. Instead, it can be described as “structuralization” or “discursivization,” which is close to a psychoanalytic verbalization. In a sense, alternative history teaches the community to organize its memories in a system of intelligible stories, the kind that can be told. It teaches the community to talk without stuttering, but by no means does it teach it to forget. Learning to speak means gaining 35 Gavriel D. Rosenfeld, The World Hitler Never Made. Alternate History and the Memory of Nazism, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Several Questions in Theory of Alternative History


a command of grammar – a set of laws and norms that organizes signs and the possibilities of joining them together. The community learns to express itself, namely, to communicate with the communities surrounding it based on norms that are accepted in this communication. In this precise sense, and only in it, can one talk about alternative history as normalization – as the acquisition of normative skills of discursive expression. In Rosenfeld’s case, on the other hand, the boundaries of the concept are blurred, and it is used in an entirely different way. By normalization, Rosenfeld does not mean adaptation to norms but rather the elimination of the traumatic and the problematic, which is almost always wrongly identified with forgetting. For Rosenfeld, normalization means divesting the dramatic nature of historical memory, but history inevitably takes the form of a plot. No historical memory can exist without drama, or even without tragedy. The processes of relieving pain, of repressing or curing neurosis can work in certain models of alternative histories, but they have no connection to the concepts of normality or abnormality, as they ought to be perceived. Every community lives within hundreds of other communities, cultures and sub-cultures, and each of them has its own norms of normality. Among other things, every community has its own norms of remembering and commemorating. However, both cultural-communal remembering and commemoration are modes of inner-community and extra-community communication, and hence their norms are integrated into the community’s discursive systems. In this sense, normalization means the work of mechanisms of processing, refining, and formalizing memory, which are not identical with forgetting but are its total opposite. Some of these mechanisms may be (and generally are) dramatization and “traumatization,” exaggeration and underscoring, not to speak of the sadistic-masochistic complex characteristic of many cultures. They may deliberately create deviations from the “normal” within the normative framework, for example in the case of heroization, or of victimization, or in the instance when these two modes are combined, as in the discourse of martyrdom, for example. These norms are very dynamic and sometimes totally change within a few years, usually in the wake of actual dramatic historical events. There are communities that preserve and nurture their psycho-cultural neuroses; they see that as their norm. Often around these neuroses, whole ideology and rhetoric develop that are identified with the culture itself and play a key role in preserving and developing the culture. Rhetoric, all rhetoric, is always a deviation from the (discursive) norm. And even if as a result of the deviation, a reduction occurs, and the rhetoric affirms the boundaries of normalcy, the latter is certainly no longer perceived as being


Chapter Two

self-evident, as obvious and transparent. On the contrary, what rhetoric does, implicitly or explicitly, is to render the norm problematic; it reconstructs the discourse only after having first destroyed it. In brief, what Rosenfeld calls “normalization” is merely trivialization. The mechanisms, about which he speaks, such as the rationalization, relativization, and universalization of history, do not belong to the sphere of the communal memory, but to the sphere of models of explanation – to the nomological sphere. Every explanation is necessarily a rationalization, relativization, and universalization. But an explanation does not mean forgetting. On the contrary, it is meant to offset the diminishment of the direct memory and experience of the participants in the events. The concept of “organic forgetting,” which Rosenfeld uses to describe the distancing of the events in time, is quite limited and problematic. Communities develop very complex mechanisms of remembering in order to cope with forgetting, and the development of models of explanation fill an important role in this process. Moreover, at times, with the distancing in time, certain historical events can actually take on a mythological status, one that is memory-constitutive and values/norms-constitutive. These events can rise up, subside and rise up again in the historical consciousness of the community, in its perception of its identity. Every explanation, a mythic explanation as well, is a discursive structure of remembering. This “structuralization” is the shared work of many cultural-communal mechanisms and bodies, not the least of which is the discourse of alternative history. On the level of an even more abstract discussion one can say that the creation of meaning in itself, the establishment of the sign as such, derives from turning the singular into the general. Every semiotic system, and memory is a semiotic system, necessarily turns the one-time event/personality into a duplicable and unchanging object. Hence there is no need to attribute to alternative histories a special status of rationalization. From this standpoint, they are no different at all from other histories, even the most scientific and most popular. There is no other way to write history. Nonetheless, Rosenfeld mixes a nomological model with an empathetic model of history. He discovers that alternative histories aspire to relate with understanding to demonic figures from the past like Hitler. In other words, he presents alternative history as based on the historiographical model of understanding. But the model of understanding is contrary to the model of explanation; it does not create structures and in this sense it does nor “iron out” or normalize; it does not require universalization but rather retains the singularity of the events. Besides,

Several Questions in Theory of Alternative History


empathy is only a way of remembering and not one of determining a judgmental position. Moreover, empathy is the easiest and most accepted way of imbuing historical figures with a status of personality, but this status entails assigning responsibility to them no less than justifying them. Empathy is a two-edged sword. Hence the use of an empathetic alternative history for one or another ideological or political purpose (for example, forgetting Nazism, as in several examples Rosenfeld writes about) says nothing about the nature of alternative history in general. For Rosenfeld, then, the question “How to remember?” is not sufficiently distinguished from the question “What to remember?” In the following chapters we distinguish between four levels of discussion of alternative history: alternatives of myth, alternatives of personalityidentity, alternatives of choice and alternatives of modes of choice. The question “What to remember?” corresponds to the first level, in which there is oscillation or uncertainty about the question “What could have happened?” The question “How to remember?” corresponds to the fourth level – the oscillation between modes of choice. To remember the trauma or not – that is one question. To remember traumatically, dramatically, fatally or in “normal” modes, such as pragmatically, rationally, politically – that is already a different question. These two planes of discussion, which correspond to the two questions we noted, stand together against the historical-scientific plane that is focused on the question “What happened?” Of course, this mode underpins the others, since in order to ask the question “What could have happened?” one needs to know and remember “what did happen.” Every game with memory is possible only on condition that this memory exists, and is sufficiently strong and enduring, but also sufficiently open and free to cause people to participate in it. The question “How to remember?” mediates between the question “What to remember?” on the one side, and the question “What could have happened?” on the other side. In other words, a discussion on the relationship between a cultural memory and an alternative history must establish a mediating procedure – a discussion on the modes of choice, which constitutes a substantive core of the issue of modes of remembering. The question of modes of remembering is a question of attitude, evaluation and judgment, a methodological-epistemological question. Rosenfeld is right in his fundamental assumption: an alternative history, which examines the possibility that everything could have happened differently, stems from the question “How to remember?” However, this question itself already assumes that a person has a choice between different modes of remembering, between single-image and multi-image remembering. The possibility of choice is expressed in expansion of the memory and an


Chapter Two

increase in its complexity, its heterogeneity. On the basis of a correct assumption Rosenfeld constructs not completely convincing reasoning: in actual fact, an alternative history, since it is a mechanism of increasing complexity by expanding the possibilities (modes) of choice, lowers the entropy of the memory, namely, struggles against obviousness, indifference and forgetting.

d. Is Alternative History Based on a Binary Model of Extrapolation-Analogy? Edgar McKnight’s mainly descriptive study ends with a number of conclusions and perceptive insights, some of which may also prove useful in a theoretical discussion. However, we shall begin our survey at the weak point shared by all the afore-mentioned studies. Using Linda Hutcheon’s too convenient definitions, McKnight relates alternative history to postmodernism: “There are obvious links between postmodernism and alternative history, including intertextuality, metafiction, and a deliberate intermingling of the aesthetic and the political.”36 Certainly it is legitimate to use the concept of intertextuality in such a broad sense, but it is doubtful if in such a case it can have any special theoreticalmethodological, genre or poetic implications: “Because it rewrites known history it is also inherently intertextual, drawing upon the reader’s textually-derived knowledge of actual history as well as other allohistorical texts for its own contextual significance, a factor that further identifies alternative history as a postmodern genre.”37 It is indeed highly unlikely that any literary work is not “intertextual” in this sense. Another hypothesis, that the aesthetic and the social are separate in modernism and coalesce in postmodernism, appears to lack any historiographical or theoretical-cultural validity: “The modernist separation of the aesthetic and social realms is subverted by the postmodern recognition of literature’s embeddedness in an historical context.”38 But the main problem is one that stems from the above-mentioned assumptions, and has already been discussed above: the presentation of alternative history as the erasure of the boundary between literature and

36 Edgar Vernon McKnight, Jr., ”Alternative History: The Development of a Literary Genre,” PhD diss., The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1994, p. 4. 37 Ibid., p. 211. 38 Ibid., p. 210.

Several Questions in Theory of Alternative History


history.39 Here we once more find a contradiction in the scholar’s argument, one that cannot be ascribed to the paradoxical nature of alternative history itself. On the next page, McKnight argues that alternative history, as metafiction (in Hutcheon’s sense) prevents the use of historical figures to make the fictional world seem more authentic: “By changing the present as well as the past, alternative history isolates itself from historical reality, emphasizing its fictional nature as openly as does the self-reflexivity of other postmodernist texts.”40 The boundary between literature and history can be blurred or highlighted, but it cannot be both at one-and-the-same time. At any rate, McKnight explains both blurring and highlighting the boundary quite well by the ascribing them to postmodernism, as is to be expected. Even such an ancient, mythical and deeply entrenched cultural phenomenon as ontological oscillation between two worlds is defined as the essence of postmodernism and as a distinctly postmodernist feature of alternative history.41 This desire to explain everything by means of postmodernist features can be understood only in light of the need to explain the flowering of the alternative history genre in the last few decades. We shall return to this topic below, and also to McKnight’s views on the genre itself. But now let us turn to those of McKnight’s distinctions that appear to be correct and valid. Following Darko Suvin’s distinction between two models of science fiction, extrapolation and analogy, McKnight argues that all alternative histories are based on both, and that the best works of this genre attain a balance between them:42 “Alternative history is extrapolative in the sense that it surveys the future consequences of a specific historical change, but its ironic awareness of actual history is characteristic of the analogical model.”43 McKnight succeeds in mapping the genre, or at least the works with which he deals in his study, using the coordinate system of these two elements.44 However, extrapolation and analogy are not symmetric, in the sense that they do not exclude each other but, to the contrary, contain and condition each other, and are therefore not independent elements. They are connected by a close genetic and functional relationship: on the one hand analogy is always preceded by extrapolation, since it is the latter that creates the sequence (series) that is a candidate for analogy; on the other 39

Ibid., p. 211. Ibid., p. 212. 41 Ibid., p. 213. 42 Ibid., p. 220. 43 Ibid., p. 213. 44 Ibid., Appendix A. 40


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hand, extrapolation always leads to analogy, since the former creates a new sequence only in relation to the old one. We thus see that the extrapolation not only precedes analogy, but that it is itself based on analogy as its mechanism. Analogy, too, does not only succeed extrapolation but also contains it, as its mechanism: If A-B-C… then A’B’-C’. In other words, just as analogy is an analogous synchronic extrapolation, so is extrapolation a successive diachronic analogy. The essence of this mechanism is the creation of new, similar-different sequences, an operation of repetition and differentiation (below we shall come back to a discussion of these concepts in Deleuze’s philosophy). The distinction between extrapolation and analogy thus originates in the way memory is organized, that is, in the structure of the psycho-cultural algorithm of “re-membering” and re-identification. If extrapolation and analogy are the ways of remembering, they cannot take place without the third operation or third element, the one that is most basic, that conditions the other two, namely repetition. After all, remembering is a character’s creating-repetition. Extrapolation is thus a repetition-differentiation that composes the sequence of characters, while analogy is a repetition-differentiation that composes the multiplicity of sequences. In both cases this act of composition has two facets or functions, which are familiar from formalistic poetics: choice from a paradigm and combination into a syntagm. Every step in this act involves the creation of characters, choosing among them and organizing their sequences. Perhaps extrapolation is more akin to narrative creation while analogy is more akin to icon creation, but both, as McKnight notes quite correctly, are needed in any case for the purpose of creating an alternative history and perhaps also, we may add, for the purpose of creating any history. Ultimately, if there is repetition at the basis of (alternative) history, then its deepest foundation is choice, that is, an ethical element. Now the last words in McKnight’s study appear somewhat detached from the course of his entire discussion, but they do point in the right direction: Alternative history reminds us of the historical meaning of our own actions. By stressing the implications of individual moral choice on the stage of history, an alternative history enables us to see our own responsibility more clearly.45 We should also note that McKnight proposes a taxonomy of five types of structure of alternative history, “inversion, regression, advancement, divergence, and parallelism.”46 This taxonomy is not perfect, since the first 45 46

Ibid., p. 222. Ibid., p. 218.

Several Questions in Theory of Alternative History


three types relate to the way alternative history is created or, to be more precise, to defining its nature in comparison to actual history, while the other two relate to the way the two histories are organized. However, it can be useful if its boundaries are recognized, as McKnight showed. Yet neither McKnight’s taxonomic concepts nor the use he makes of the concepts of extrapolation and analogy make it possible to overcome the implicit determinism. Edgar McKnight makes a number of comments on the genre characteristics of alternative history: While the novels in this study use the device of allohistorical speculation in different ways, and toward different ends, they share more than an accidental relationship based solely on thematic content. Recurring imagery (air-ships, railways, steam engines), common forms of humor (“commedia del arte,” “repertory theater”), and shared narrative techniques (disorienting openings, copious descriptions of allohistorical artifacts, and the familiar novel-within-a-novel) bind these sometimes disparate works into a cohesive whole.47

However, among the works that are usually deemed to belong to the genre of alternative history there are quite a few which are connected to the genre by only one notable feature – their topic. Thus, for example, Harry Turtledove is considered the most popular writer of alternative history today (even if researchers do not rave about the quality of his writing).48 But his novels, such as Agent of Byzantium, have no unique features at all except for their starting point, namely a counterfactual historical hypothesis; this is the one thing that connects this work to what can be called the genre of alternative history. At the same time, scholars who are attempting to develop a theory of alternative history stress a Weltanschauung, a conception of time and history, and mention works in which these conceptions are discussed, in other words, are thematized, as for example the writings of Paul Anderson.49 Is the genre of alternative history defined solely through its thematization? Those who derive alternative history from postmodernism assume that at the very least it is not merely the topic, but also a problematization of the topic in the form of casting doubt on the absoluteness of historical truth, as they claim. But this 47

McKnight, p. 207. Edgar L. Chapman, “Introduction: Three Stages of Alternate History Fiction and the ‘Metaphisical If’,” in Edgar L. Chapman and Carl B. Yoke, eds., Classic and Iconoclastic Alternate History Science Fiction, Lewiston, The Edwin Mellen Press, 2003, pp. 1-28. 49 Hellekson, The Alternate History, pp. 97-107. 48


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argument, too, does not go beyond the bounds of thematization (by presenting alternative history as a kind of subversive thematization). How can alternative history be described as a genre anchored in complex cultural systems, and at the same time include unsophisticated works whose only connection with the genre is thematic and which, nevertheless, are considered by readers to be quiet representative? The solution to be proposed in the following chapters is an elaboration of the theory of the principle of historical alternativeness, a principle that by definition crosses the bounds of genres and themes.


a. Time, Narrative, and Reading While criticizing Hayden White, Louis Mink and Paul Ricoeur for their conceptions of historical inquiry, David Carr writes: The most general point we want to make is that, insofar as such inquiry results in narrative accounts, these must be regarded not as a departure from the structure of the reality they purport to depict, much less a distortion or radical transformation of its character, but as an extension of its very nature. By arguing for the narrative character of human experience, both individual and social, we have been concerned from the start to counter the view of certain theorists, mentioned at the outset, that a narrative account is so utterly different in form from the events it portrays that by virtue of this form alone it is constitutionally condemned to misrepresentation. […] Narrative is not in any way adventitious or external to the actions and experiences of real life but is part of its fabric. Narrative is not only constitutive of the temporal structure of communal events, which take the form of configured sequences with beginnings, middles, and ends, turning points and reversals, departures and returns, suspensions and resolutions, etc. It is also found in the reflective, prospective-retrospective grasp of these sequences which assigns them these configurations by telling about them as they are going on.1

This fundamental inherent isomorphism of life experience, narration, and history writing serves as the point of departure for our discussion of history reading, and the reading process in general, too. Despite his criticism, Carr’s theory is much closer to Ricoeur’s than to White’s. According to Ricoeur’s fundamental view on time and the story in his Time and Narrative, the story is the timeline along which the reader goes back in order to understand and interpret. When the reader reaches a 1

Carr, Time, Narrative, and History, pp. 169, 168.


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certain point, the story’s meaning at this point is created by the reader’s going back and perceiving the story as a time sequence, which makes it possible to proceed ahead. But this move back in time from a given point in the story does not occur randomly or sporadically; rather, the move itself is driven by the attraction of certain moments in the narrative past. The reader returns to the points at which a protagonist’s fate is sealed, to points of decision and choice, in short, to bifurcation points. These points attract the reader’s attention and create this backward movement in time. Narrative and chronology are created by the existence of bifurcation points in the story and in time. They are points of gravity to which the reader wants to return again and again. He wants to do so, and can do so, because a bifurcation point has been engraved in his mind. The question is, why is it so heavy that it draws the reader’s attention so much that he is prepared to deviate from his linear reading and go backwards?2 It is not enough to say that he needs to return in order to understand the story. The motivating link is the reverse of this: the reader wants to understand because he wants to return to the bifurcation point. In other words, the motivating factor is a desire to return to the bifurcation point, and one of the results of this return is understanding. The reader wants to experience repeatedly the situation of bifurcation, of an explosion of possibilities, in Juri Lotman’s terms,3 of alternativeness. Understanding is only one of many consequences of this situation, the one which refers to the realization of this or that possibility, to choice. However, as Mikhail Epstein shows, possibility involves what he calls, following Robert Musil, “a sense of the possible” (Möglichkeitssinn), and cannot be reduced to choice: “The possible is not a rejection of one reality and adopting of another. Possible cannot be reduced to a choice between possibilities, because this choice already belongs to the mode of the real, ontologically poor layer, in which the possibilities are filtered, decimated, and from them only one is selected that becomes a reality.”4 At the same time, the 2

Obviously the compositional reiterations, flashbacks, remembrances, as well as various “games with time,” which are the object of scrupulous research of narratology and rhetoric, such as in the works of Gérard Genette (on Marcel Proust, for example), are beyond the scope of the present study (Gérard Genette, Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method, trans. by Jane E. Lewin, New York, Cornell University Press, 1980, pp. 113-130, 155-160). A composition or a character by themselves cannot be seen as the cause of a return to the bifurcation point, because this return is the cause of creating the composition or character. 3 Juri Lotman, Culture and Explosion (1992), trans. by Wilma Clark, Berlin and New York, Mouton de Gruyter, 2009. 4 Epstein, The Philosophy of the Possible, pp. 148-151.

Alternativeness Principle in Literature


possible should not be completely detached from choice, because even in order “to sense the possible” one needs to choose possibilities one by one or altogether, if not for their realization, at least for their sensation and contemplation. In narrative alternativeness, which is already detached from realization, the choice is an inherent and necessary element of bifurcation and oscillation, of a “sense of the possible,” which accompanies the reader’s contemplation of different possibilities of stories, characters, and histories. This return to the bifurcation point has yet another aspect that deserves to be stressed: The reader wants to, and may, return to as many different bifurcation points as possible. Throughout his reading, the reader is at liberty to go back to at least one point, and he will strive to return to different points from different points. This constitutes second-degree alternativeness: not only are there multiple possibilities at each bifurcation point, all of which the reader wants to experience, but also, at the second degree, there is also a multiplicity of bifurcation points themselves, and the reader wants to experience this multiplicity, too. He does not want only to choose between possibilities, but also between different junctions, situations, and modes of choices. The bifurcation experience gives one a feeling of freedom and vitality, but also of trepidation and danger, since any situation of choice involves hesitation or, in a broader sense, an essentially neurotic oscillation, which promises pleasurable satisfaction or tormented frustration. The alternativeness of the bifurcation points themselves gives the reader pleasure due to the many human-like characters he encounters.5 At each one of these points along the story another character comes into being. At different bifurcation points there 5

Many readers and scholars would agree that the human-like vitality of literary characters is the main source of pleasure in the reading of literature. Although classical (since Aristotle’s Poetics), this perception is by no means self-evident (and cannot be completed by mimesis-related discussions). The structuralistnarratologist-rhetoric line constitutes the mainstream approach to this complex problem (Bakhtin (quite coincidently), Genette, Greimas, and Booth acquired almost canonical status). Today it is James Phelan who represents what can be called ethical-narrative character theory (Living to Tell about It, New York, Cornell University Press, 2005). At the other end of the theoretical map we find what may be called the chaotic-personalistic paradigm (for a survey and discussion see: Katsman, Poetics of Becoming, pp. 99-116, 135-152). One should not confuse this approach with either “de-humanist” (in the terms of Ortega y Gasset) or “posthumanist” tendencies (as in Peter Sloterdijk’s and perhaps in Slavoj Žižek’s thought. See: Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1999).


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are always different characters at different stages of becoming, even if they appear to have the same identity. The principle of alternativeness thus brings the problem of the literary character’s (and any subject’s) uniformity and identity into sharper focus. The reader is attracted to both experiences: the multiple choice of the same character, and the multiple characters that choose. The number of alternatives is thus multiplied by the number of characters, which is equal, ideally, to the number of bifurcation points. The need and the ability to return to multiple bifurcation points and to experience their multiple possibilities constitute the alternativeness principle. What historical consciousness is reflected in this principle? It is a consciousness of historical alternativeness, whose core consists in the possibility and the will to begin anew, to choose anew, to write history anew, and to come to new decisions in a “present of the past.” It is a consciousness of the reader. If he moves backwards in the temporalnarrative sequence, he does so in order to choose anew time and again. Only a narrative imagination can make such a consciousness materialize. Even if the reader is incapable of bringing the alternative history to life in his mind, and even if he cannot even (re)choose and walks in the same path as that chosen by the character, he can still go through the experience of oscillation, for good or bad. The refreshing and invigoration moment of the explosion of chaos, the energetic bang that creates a new world at a single point – that is what seduces and threatens the reader. This psychocultural and poetic mechanism is active in every literary work, because of the very fact that it is a narrative or a temporal sequence, a history in other words. But occasionally it is exposed and is thus spread out at levels of contents and plots, and whenever it organizes the work’s plot and main themes we get the genre of alternative history. At the moment of bifurcation in which anything can happen, nothing happens; it is the moment of sacred time, of timeless time, a moment of revelation. At this moment history comes to a stop, and from this same moment it flows. It is the time of play, symbol, and festival, to use Gadamer’s terms: play as a free act of return that drives itself, symbol as a new encounter with the other self, and festival as a partnership in the experience of “real time,” the sacred time outside the flow of secular time.6 The experience of the repeated oscillation at the bifurcation point is thus the moment of the “relevance of the beautiful” in reading, the aesthetic moment in its most intensive embodiment, the source of aesthetic 6

Hans-Georg Gadamer, “The Relevance of the Beautiful,” in The Relevance of the Beautiful and Other Essays, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1986, pp. 156.

Alternativeness Principle in Literature


pleasure. On the other hand, as pointed out above, this return is also the source of understanding. This return transforms every work of literature, or at least every narrative composition, into an alternative history or even, to be more precise, into many alternative histories.

b. “Alternative Reading” as Methodology If the alternativeness principle is indeed so central to the reading experience, we may ask whether we can use it as a research method. Would this have methodological implications? Students of literature are too easily swayed to follow in the footsteps of historians, who claim that history cannot abide the use of conditional constructions; in other words, the formula “what would have happened if a character had made another choice” seems to be inappropriate for literary research. But, as we noted in Chapter 1, there is an entire school of historical research that violates this rule and studies historical alternativeness, turning alternative thinking into a research method. We shall consider the possibility of doing so in literary research as well, especially in light of the fact that we unearthed, namely that the alternativeness principle has an originating role in the process of reading and understanding. In literary research we usually do not ask what would have happened had a certain character behaved otherwise than it did at certain crucial points in its life. We do not ask this because we assume that all writing, literary as well as historical, is completely deterministic. We say: If this is what happened, then this is what should have happened. In literature there is yet another reason why this is legitimate: the author’s own will or intention. We assume that such a question cannot contribute to research into poetics or the interpretation of the story, but such an assumption is not based on immediate experience, but on an a priori philosophical-historical paradigm, which is deterministic. If, as Mikhail Epstein writes, the purpose of the philosophy is to multiply possible worlds, the purpose of reading and interpreting is to multiply possible characters, plots, and choices.7 Interestingly enough, unskilled naïve readers, children and even freshmen students often ask this question. It arises immediately and spontaneously in readers who are curious and sensitive but not well7

Epstein, The Philosophy of the Possible, p. 54. See also: “The meaning of that fact or another is defined by its comparison to the same situation but lacking this fact. […] The forking of the real and possible creates the category of meaning. The same applies to the historical events: Although they belong to the past, their meaning is defined precisely by this ‘lost’ possibility to be different, this openness to the future” (ibid., p. 67).


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trained in the subject. The question “What would have happened if…” is an inseparable part of their reading pleasure: the natural drive to act like a buffoon, to act like the author and create a new history, but to make it otherwise, in reverse, like a mirror reflection.8 As we grow up we learn, we forget to ask this question and restrain our natural buffoonery.9 But it is enough to ask only what would have happened had Raskolnikov not killed the old women – for the deterministic interpretation of the character and of the novel as a whole to lose all relevance. We may distinguish between two motives for the question “What if?” The first is the pure motive, so to say: a question driven by curiosity, an intellectual experiment. The second motive is closing gaps: The reader does not understand what is happening and tries to explain and interpret it to himself by way of counterfactual hypotheses. In either case it may happen that the reader who poses this question guesses or knows intuitively that the answer is supposed to help him understand the story, or perhaps understand his own self and his experience. But then the teachers and critics come and reject this approach. They say: One should only study the findings that are actually present in the text and not fantasize or play with hypothetical assumptions of “what if.” The latter kind of thinking, they say, creates unreliable and irrelevant knowledge. They say this with overbearing confidence, even though they themselves do this unceasingly: They, too, create knowledge that is not in the text, only they see to it that 8

Here we find a deep connection between the joy of alternativeness (as an oscillation and renewed choice) and laughter. However, we would accept not Bakhtin’s perception of carnival in Rabelais and His World, but rather that of his critics, such as Aleksei Losev, Aron Gurevich, and Sergei Averintsev, since alternativeness is not a loss of self but its highest realization, as will be demonstrated in the following chapters. Alexander Kozintsev defines laughter as “failure of signification,” “playful self-repudiation,” and “anti-sign,” while insisting on its fundamentally peaceful nature (The Mirror of Laughter, trans. by Richard Martin, New Brunswick and London, Transaction Publishers, 2010, pp. 195-198). Formally, he defends Bakhtin’s view, but he writes: “Rather than being an alternative image of the object caused by the shift of the subject’s attitude, the pure comic image results from the subject’s temporary and feigned psychic regression, viewed from his actual mental level” (ibid., p. 195). This may refer to the very moment of explosive bifurcation, when the split occurs in the subject’s self-attitude (expressed in the oscillation), but surely not its “self-repudiation,” because the very essence of choice lies in the ethics of self-awareness. However, this ability of the subject to “view” its own “temporary and feigned” regression and to enjoy it, as Kozintsev writes, can be related with alternativeness and partly explain its joyful nature. 9 Kozintsev calls it “decarnivalization” (ibid., pp. 189-191).

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the existing and the new knowledge are connected by a continuum of explanation/understanding. But a student who asks the alternative questions can also build such a continuous connection. If he succeeds, his intellectual experiment will be no less legitimate than the conventional research question. To get back to the point in question: What benefit can a researcher gain from adopting alternative history as a methodology? What benefit, for example, would we have from the question “What would have happened had Raskolnikov not entered the old women’s apartment, but had instead turned around, descended the stairs and returned to his home?” In this case the potential evolution of the plot can be modeled in a number of ways. Perhaps he would have returned on the following day and murdered the old woman anyway; or perhaps he would have abandoned this idea, realized he could not carry it out and sunk into a deep depression; perhaps he even would have committed suicide, like Kirilov, in order to demonstrate the idea’s validity. At any rate, the possible developments should be reasonable, meaning in this case that they should derive from Raskolnikov’s personality. That is the criterion by which it is to be measured. For example, we cannot hypothesize that Raskolnikov could have come to terms with himself or with social convention. Choosing appropriate, real possibilities is in itself already an interpretation. In order to distinguish real from unreal possibilities the reader or scholar must be familiar with the author’s oeuvre as a whole, in the specific work’s various contexts, just as a historian must be familiar with all available knowledge about a specific historical event if he is to be able to model alternatives for it, or as a philologist must be familiar with a great deal of historical, linguistic, biographical, and cultural data in order to choose one version of a text and reject the others. And just as alternative history does not always and necessarily explain actual history, so also “alternative reading” does not always and necessarily illuminate the meanings that arise in the course of conventional reading. But “alternative reading” does serve as a metamethodological principle, by problematizing the realized choice, creating an oscillation between various ways of choosing, and thus making it possible to expose and explore the motives and decision-making processes that underlie the choice of behavioral traits for the character. The realization of an “alternative reading” has another function as well: It causes the character to turn into a living personality (or shows that it has done so). For example, we treat Raskolnikov as if he were a real human being, with free will and the ability to choose. In this sense the question of alternativeness fits the basic purpose of a work of literature, which is to create a myth, to bring a real personality into being. Reading as


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such, as mythopoesis, is based on the “what if” of a hypothetical assumption: What if the literary character is an actual living personality? What would we feel towards him and think about him if…10 All stories are based on the assumption that the unrealized is realized. It is thus not surprising that in literature, drama and the cinema an entire theme has evolved in which literary characters are turned into living people, who sometimes free themselves from the bonds of their stories and develop histories of their own, of an alternative nature. Perhaps such works can be considered a sub-genre of fantasy, but in any case they are but an absolute thematic exposure and materialization of an “alternative reading” in principle. After all, a literary character is an abstraction, and we can only identify or refuse to identify with actual people, we can only love and hate actual people. All we need, Stanisáaw Lem wrote in his Solaris, is a person. The entire literary experience is thus based on the hypothesis of alternative history. Had Raskolnikov been a man, had he been able to choose his actions and take responsibility for them, what would we have thought or felt about him? From this it is only a small step to the next, very human and completely historical question: What would have happened had Raskolnikov decided otherwise? What restricts alternativeness in reading is the work’s identity and integrity, despite the problematic nature of these concepts, as known already from the writings of Roman Ingarden.11 What this means is that Raskolnikov should remain Raskolnikov and Crime and Punishment should remain Crime and Punishment even in the alternative reading, which therefore must take care that it chooses, just as in the case of alternative history, only true unrealized possibilities. Alternativeness creates a free space in Gadamer’s sense, as a game: It is driven by itself and for itself, but subjected to a rigid set of rules. This game also defines the repeated acts of changing the story (the past), which arouses a sense of freedom, innovation and imagination. But it also defines the possibilities of return and their organization: their location, frequency, order of appearance, motives and objectives. The game rules out steps that destroy identity. For example, if Raskolnikov, instead of killing the old woman, walks down the steps and runs to the church to confess, and then repents and enters a monastery, this would not be an alternative history but just a wild and invalid flight of the imagination, devoid of any intellectual, 10

Narrative ethics (as in Newton, Narrative Ethics) already presented the issue in this way, although of course without resorting to the paradigm of alternative history. 11 Roman Ingarden, The Literary Work of Art, trans. by George G. Grabowicz, Evanston, Northwestern University Press, 1973, pp. 9-19.

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spiritual or scholarly value. The reason is that the probability of such a development is highly unlikely; it is not a choice that actually would have presented itself to Raskolnilkov had he actually been a living personality. On the poetic level the importance of the alternativeness principle was recognized long ago by the structuralists, who maintained that every significant element in a work of art is the result of a choice made by the artist. He chooses the element (word, image) from among the entire group of similar elements (paradigmatic order), and also determines the chosen element’s position in the sequence of adjacent elements in the text (syntagmatic order). A work of literature is a choice, which means the realization of one among a number of reasonable possibilities, none of which ever disappear from the background; in other words, it is a realization of the alternativeness principle. The creative moment itself is one of uncertainty, of oscillation within the bifurcation point that the artist himself creates. Creativity means the construction of sequences – parallel, intersecting, combining – of bifurcation points. In this sense, to understand why a work is constructed the way it is, means to explain and justify the author’s doubts and choices. In other words, this is nothing but the realization of the alternativeness principle in the study of poetics. The protagonists’ deeds, the plots, are also alternatives chosen out of a set of possibilities. The exposure of this set is a research tool whose importance is at least as great as the exposure of the set of poetic possibilities. In short, alternativeness thinking is a hermeneutic and poetic tool; this was implicitly discovered by the “possible worlds” theorists, such as Lubomír Doležel. It is important to understand not only why an author chose to make his protagonist take a certain course in the plot, but also what his other possibilities were. This question is located at a not at all obvious crossroads of poetics and hermeneutics. Furthermore, the other, unrealized, possibilities in the character’s life are often hinted at in the text; an author occasionally places unrealized plot threads in different places throughout his work, thus hinting that the plot could be easily imagined as developing in various other directions. Why do authors do this? Why do they sometimes want to present a character or a course of events as the realization of one out of many possibilities? For the sake of mimetic reliability? The immediate answer, which we already mentioned above, is that it is the probability of its realization that turns a character into a personality and the plot into a life. When we speak of the character’s becoming as mythopoesis we find that a reconstruction of alternatives, of other variants of the character’s becoming, those that did not materialize, not only helps us understand the possibility that did materialize, and not


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only explains why the author chose this possibility instead of another, but has another aspect as well. When we reconstruct unrealized “becomings” we ourselves create alternative stories, alternative histories of this character; we create alternative works, character’s unrealized doubles. We must understand that the moment we reconstruct a character’s alternative becoming we materialize it, we create a story, just like a historian who creates a historiographical story when he reconstructs historical events. This creative process lies at the heart of the reading process; it is what turns the reader into a partner in the act of creation, as hermeneutical philosophy sees it. In a sense, such a “reading of alternatives” is a kind of deconstruction; indeed, perhaps Derrida’s deconstruction had precisely this objective, to turn an interpretation into a work of literature. Positive reconstruction tries to realize all the creative possibilities inherent in the text. On the one hand, this involves a considerable leap outside the work’s bounds, but on the other hand it stays within its bounds: The clear boundary of deconstruction matches the boundary of true possibilities. A scholar may ask what would have happened if a certain character had made a different choice; here the scholar’s imagination has sovereign rule. But he cannot ask what would have happened if instead of this character there had been another. Deconstruction does what the author did not do but could have. It does not demolish anything, but only materializes, that is, builds. The one thing that it breaks up is the determinism of the reading. Derrida himself, as is well known, thought that the source of this determinism lay in Western metaphysics. But this seems more basic than metaphysics: It is a psychocultural, almost entirely technical, habit of perceiving any event as nothing more than the realization of one possibility and the non-realization of others. And so in our interpretation we are also controlled by this habit. It is more a matter of the anthropology of consciousness than of metaphysical thinking. When we project the alternativeness principle from history to literature we rely on the possibility of presenting history as a quasi-plot, in the sense of Paul Ricoeur’s Time and Narrative. We find that in literature, too, there exist two contradictory approaches. According to one, a literary plot possesses its own logic and necessity. This approach has various manifestations; here we find statements such as “the plot leads the author,” as if after the author decides on a theme and the plot’s starting point, the future of both the plot and the character are predetermined. This is a deterministic view of the course of the story, distinctly discernible, for example, in the Marxist approaches. The second approach argues that the author is always choosing, at every point and at every level; at every point

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he chooses one of many available choices concerning the structure of the plot and the character, and the work’s poetic and conceptual fabric. In other words, at every single moment and in every single place the text can be written, and therefore also read, otherwise; this “otherness” never disappears from the text, which was often stressed by, for example, the authors and theorists of le nouveau roman, like Maurice Blanchot, and deconstructionists of the Yale school, like Paul de Man. The author’s choices are truly free, that is they are not dictated by initial conditions, whether psychological, social, compositional, or any other.

c. Levels of Historical Alternativeness: Myth, Personality, Choice, and Mode of Choice Let us now formulate our fundamental assumptions: Historical reality and historical discourse are based on the alternativeness principle. From the viewpoint of the alternativeness principle, literary discourse is isomorphic to the historical discourse. The alternativeness principle is an originating and organizing element of discourse, not only at the epistemological but also at the ontological level. In other words, not only reading and understanding a story are based on alternativeness, but so are story’s very existence and its mode of existence. Literature grows from alternativeness and is nourished by it. Furthermore, the awareness of alternativeness in historical existence and historical consciousness directly and almost necessarily leads to the birth of literature. The genre of alternative history is nothing but the exposure of the general (not only historical) alternativeness principle in both theme and plot. In all genres the alternativeness principle is exposed and realized as narrative and poetic patterns, as rhetorical and poetic characters, as argumentative structures, etc. Our main claim is thus that all literary reading is based on the alternativeness principle and originates alternative histories. As a key for understanding alternativeness we shall use the concept of oscillation, perceived as a mode of becoming. The course of argumentation will proceed in four steps that constitute Chapters 4-7 of this study: 1. Alternativeness of myth. At the first stage, literary reading appears as the creation of myth (mythopoesis), understood as oscillation among different myths created in the text. The reader must choose among them in order to answer the question: What can(not) or what should (not) happen? 2. Alternativeness of personality. At the second stage, mythopoesis is described as the becoming of personality, that is as an oscillation between different identities formed in the rhetoric of myths, between which the


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reader must choose in order to answer the question: Who to be in order that what can(not) or what should (not) happen will indeed (not) happen? 3. Alternativeness of choice. At the third stage, the personality is presented as the occurrence of choice, that is as an oscillation between possibilities constantly created anew by the personality, among which the reader must choose in order to answer the question: What to choose so that what can(not) or what should (not) happen will indeed (not) happen? 4. Alternativeness of modes of choosing. At this stage, personality’s choice is described as the becoming of new, ever more complex possibility spaces, as the personality tries to escape from the automatic model of necessity (determinism) to freedom. The reader oscillates and chooses between different modes of choosing in order to answer the question: How should one or need one choose in order that what can(not) or should (not) happen will indeed (not) happen? In short, the course of the discussion below will show that: literary reading starts the origination of myths, whose kernel is the origination of personality; it consists of origination of choice and of modes of choosing. This is the meaning of our primary hypotheses that literary reading constitutes the origination of alternative histories. Clearly the entire discussion takes place at the level of personality. The first two stages constitute an application and elaboration of the results of my previous publications on mythopoesis and rhetoric, in which I described, on the one hand, the mechanism whereby new myths are created in the text12 and, on the other hand, rhetoric as a choice between myths.13 At the core of both theories we find the concept of personality.14 12

Katsman, The Time of Cruel Miracles, pp. 65-164; Poetics of Becoming, pp. 3398, 195-246. 13 Katsman, Nevua ktana, pp. 137-212. 14 To some extent, all my works correspond to the theory of literary character. After the great narratological-semiological boom of interest in character theory (as in the works of Roland Barthes and Algirdas Greimas) abated, the mainstream in this realm is nowadays the ethical approach, as in Phelan’s and Newton’s works mentioned above. See also: John Knapp, ed., Literary Character, University Press of America, 1993. Another important plane of discussion is system theory, in the general sense (Alex Woloch, The One Vs. the Many: Minor Characters and the Space of the Protagonist in the Novel, Princeton NJ, Princeton University Press, 2003) or in the psychological sense (John V. Knapp and Kenneth Womack, eds., Reading the Family Dance: Family Systems Therapy and Literary Study, Newark DE, University of Delaware Press, 2003). In my opinion, however, these are not basically distinct approaches, and are actually united in personalistic thinking.

Alternativeness Principle in Literature


The present study elaborates this concept in a new direction: personality is taken to be an oscillation between possibilities of choice that has been transformed into an oscillation between modes of choice. A personality oscillates between the possibilities of action. Possibility means a transition from potential to actual that is open-ended, free, and non-deterministic. It means that defining the initial conditions does not determine the outcome. In order to ensure this open-endedness, that is, for the possibility to actually be possible, the personality aspires to avoid the mechanical, deterministic model of behavior and to make its choices in a way that a machine cannot. This is an escape from necessity to freedom, but one that is never-ending, since it can never completely succeed. At every stage an oscillation can be modeled by a machine, whether the oscillation is among possibilities or among modes of choice, since the latter are nothing but actions, the transition between which can be modeled as random or rational, or as the one which replaces the modeling modes randomly or rationally, and so on, in an infinite, recursive symmetry. The personality then ascends to a higher level in its modes of choosing, in order to invent new possibilities of choice and new modes of choosing in order to escape from being modeled or programmed. However, the new mode of action is also contained within the personality’s possibility space, for otherwise it would have been a different personality already. The personality thus begins to change. Its origination is similar to a worm’s movement: existing possibilities are rematerialized outside the given possibility space and these materializations are immediately transformed into new possibilities that redefine the possibility space, again open to new materializations, and so on. The personality thus responds to the machine’s recursive symmetry with one of its own. Since every choice space and every transition can be modeled, the personality has no other option than to constantly distance itself from the machine at its back; this distancing is a personality’s becoming, and it is endless. In order to escape from the machine the personality thus must constantly apply its rhetorical inventiveness to create or annex new and ever more complex possibility spaces. After the choice has already been made the personality discovers that its choice had not been free after all: what has been left behind is “swallowed” by the mechanical, by necessity, and therefore the personality creates an oscillation at the next level. At every transition to a higher level the personality and its oscillations become more complex, so that it becomes ever harder to model it on a machine. From an infinite perspective one finds an infinitely-complex personality, for the modeling of which an infinitely-complex machine is


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necessary. In other words, it is a personality that, we may say, is impossible to model. The creation of “possibility spaces” is thus the engine of the personality’s becoming. But in order for the space to be such that it may be possible to exist and move within it, it must be continuous. Continuity is created by the personality by means of the story. The personality’s story provides a link between various possibilities at different levels, as well as in the transitions between them. It is a phase of “refiguration,” to use Ricoeur’s term, of reconstructing historical reality by means of the narrative. The personality is thus constantly forced to create new narratives about possibilities of choice and modes of choosing, and so to bring about a refiguration of previous narratives which have, in hindsight, already become actual reality, that is, materialized history. These new refigurations, which become ever more complex and flee from the mechanical model, are nothing but alternative histories, and the continuity of possibility space, already intelligible but not yet mechanical (necessary) is alternativeness itself. To put it another way: The personality must create alternative histories in order to imbue the possibility space in which it moves (originates) with continuity. The personality cannot move in a vacuum; it needs the narrative, which is constantly renewing itself and creates new possibilities through the materialization of so-far unrealized possibilities. Aleksei Losev wrote that personality is a myth, and myth is a symbol, but symbol is not a sign, schema or mechanism, but merely a living organism.15 In Chapter 8 of this study, in our reading of Agnon’s texts, we will analyze a number of symbols of alternativeness. But a symbol is not only a “vehicle” of the idea of alternativeness: It plays a unique role in the origination of the alternativeness itself. The reader’s returns to the bifurcation points are marked by a certain way of reading, a unique mode of the reading experience, one in which the reader meets a place where he has been in the past. There he encounters the personality that he already met in the past, but which he does not recognize because he himself builds it anew in its new story. This unity of the familiar and the unfamiliar, of the given and the new, is what may be called a symbol. However, it does not become a symbol until the reader is seen to create a new world through the specific encounter with that new personality. We can show this with the help of the concept of alternative history. Returns to bifurcation points give rise to alternative histories. In such an alternative history a different world is created, one that comes into 15

Losev, The Dialectics of Myth, pp. 40-42, 162-164.

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being following the encounter with that personality. The innovation has its source, of course, in the choice of a different, alternative, unrealized possibility. The realization of an unrealized possibility gives rise to a symbolic world. Through the renewed encounter with the personality and the realization of another possibility, through the origination of a new world and the refiguration of the personality’s story, through the creation of its new myth, a link is formed between the existing personality and its transcendental unrealized purpose. In short, the personality comes into being as a symbol, in Losev’s terms, since the reader returns to it. The act of returning removes any possibility for the personality arising automatically or deterministically; it blocks any possibility of speaking about mythopoesis as a linear process in which the personality of necessity realizes a predetermined aim without leaving any freedom of choice to the personality itself. In our model the reader returns again and again to different bifurcation points, at each of which he chooses among different possibilities, thus revealing the true, non-deterministic meaning of personality-symbol. In the course of reading different myths of the same personality can be and are created. This clarification intensifies Losev’s concept of symbol – the symbol as an organism – because it stresses the personality’s live character. It also shows that the personality is revealed at its most vital at the bifurcation points. The moments of choice are also moments of restraint, delay and so on. Therefore we must speak of the symbols that mark the bifurcation points and the personality that comes into being through these choices. In this sense we must speak of the symbols of alternativeness. The symbol of alternativeness is identical to the personality at the bifurcation point, as the reader returns to it and examines the real possibilities open to it, in an attempt to realize a so-far unrealized possibility and so create a new, alternative world. The symbols of alternativeness are also symbols of bifurcation, of choice, of personality. But the term “symbol of choice” highlights only the ethical aspect; the concept “symbol of bifurcation” stresses the non-linear aspect of choice, the multiplicity of possibilities; the concept “symbol of personality” highlights the symbolism’s dynamic, living, human aspect. All these aspects are united in the concept “symbol of alternativeness,” in which, most importantly for our purpose, the aspect of alternative history is stressed. It is created on the basis of ethics, non-linearity and dynamic vitality; it constitutes a unique synthesis of all these elements and not merely a mechanical sum, or any one of them alone. These elements unite into a continuous intelligible whole only by means of the narrative, since a narrative that represents or creates a new world through the realization of


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unrealized possibility is nothing but an alternative history. Therefore the concept “symbol of alternativeness” is the most comprehensive and exhaustive, and so the one that is most appropriate for our study. It is also precise enough to rule out any irrelevant applications of its constituent elements. Using Heidegger’s insights in The Origin of the Work of Art, especially viewed through Gadamer’s “Introduction” to this work, we may say, first of all, that a symbol is disclosure, “unconcealment” (Greek “aletheia” – truth); secondly, it is the disclosure of the world; thirdly, it is the disclosure of the world of possibilities or the possible world; and fourthly, it is the becoming of the disclosure of the world of possibilities.16 In other words, a symbol embodies, in an intelligible way, the potential of revelation of the alternative world/story. A symbol is an encounter with a personality as its possibilities are coming into being, that is, at the moment of the explosion/bifurcation. Therefore it is not an object or a sign, but is characterized by temporality, first-and-foremost in the sense that the encounter, as a process of origination, takes place in time, but also in the sense that the encounter with the personality can only materialize in its story. Yet temporality as a symbol is not limited to its procedural and narrative character: Since temporality of the symbol is the temporality of the personality, the encounter with the narrative personality requires that the reader return during the time of reading. To what kind of time does this act of returning belong? To the time of the story? No, this is not necessarily a return to previous events, either chronologically or in the order in which they are presented in the story. To the time of reading? That is impossible, since the time of reading is irreversible and the return is part of the forward course of reading. The point is that this return abolishes the separation, noted by many scholars, such as Ricoeur, Iser and Genette, between the reader’s fictional and real times. It is not narrative time as such but only a certain aspect of it, the more specific time of the narrative personality’s becoming, that is structured here into the specific time of the real reader, which is the time of the origination of the reader’s personality. This kind of return may be defined as a refiguration of the time of the narrative personality’s origination by means of the time of the origination of the reader’s personality – a refiguration which of necessity includes the new configuration of the story, and this is precisely what an alternative history is and does. 16

For an exhaustive discussion on these concepts see: Mark A. Wrathal, Heidegger and Unconcealment: Truth, Language, and History, New York, Cambridge University Press, 2011, pp. 11-34.

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The time of alternative history, that is, the time of return to the bifurcation point, to the place where the possible world discloses itself, is the main aspect of the symbol’s temporality. A symbol is thus neither an object nor an event, but the processing of an event or, to be more precise, a real processing in the present of the potential possibility of a fictional event in the past. However, let us not forget that through this backwards movement a symbol also reconstructs the possibility that did materialize. So it is more accurate to say that a symbol is composed of two movements or two actions: the reconstruction of a realized possibility through a backwards movement towards a bifurcation point, and the origination of the world of the other possibility through a forward movement from a bifurcation point to the past’s-other-future, which is the alternative present. A symbol is nothing but this combination of realized and alternative histories, when this combination is made possible by the personality’s act of choice at the bifurcation point. The work of a symbol is not aimed at achieving an objective in the story, but to the contrary, it aims at erasing narrative teleology. The objective of symbols is to create new worlds; therefore symbols, like an alternative history and its time, are transcendental to the narrative itself and its objectives. A symbol breaks up the personality’s teleological unity. The personality’s transcendental purpose, discussed by Losev in the context of defining myth, relates to the story’s pragmatic objectives at one point only, at the repeated movement of creating the personality’s alternative history, that is, at the creation of a different, always new myth that replaces the previous story. This means that the story has the objective of replacing itself with another story. It is, of course, doubtful whether this can be considered a pragmatic narrative objective. Rather, it is more likely that it is forced onto the narrative by an external authority, namely the reader’s personality that realizes its transcendental nature in relation to the narrative by means of imposing an alternativeness that is expressed by a return to bifurcation points and choosing new possibilities. New possibilities direct the narrative personality towards new pragmatic objectives, and it is therefore meaningless to attempt to define such objectives for a story that would be stable and independent of the alternative reading. The essence and power of the symbols of alternativeness thus reside in the fact that their objectives are not fixed or stable, and can therefore only be known after the fact, after the story has been replaced by another. A symbol is supra-teleological. The symbol of alternativeness is thus composed of two fundamental “narrative sentences” (by this we mean a


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sentence as the basis of history, in the sense of Arthur Danto).17 The first sentence describes what the personality did as it came into being. This is a normal “narrative sentence” as, for example the following sentence in Agnon’s “Until Elijah Comes” (The City with All That Is Therein): “Elijah came but did not blow the Shofar” (this is a logical sentence, not the sentence of the text). The second sentence describes the movement from past to future and creates an alternative history: “Were it not for the sexton’s insistence, Elijah would have blown the Shofar.” These statements, when adjoined, create a symbol of Elijah blowing the Shofar. It is not the Shofar that is the symbol, nor Elijah, nor even Elijah’s blowing the Shofar, but rather the possibility of blowing the Shofar, the unrealized potential of Elijah’s character that could have blown the Shofar. For as soon as Elijah will blow the Shofar, it will no longer be a symbol, since it will have been transformed into an event, a concrete action. In this symbol the element of choice lies in the reader’s return to the sexton’s bifurcation points and choosing in his stead how to behave in the given historical context. The reader refuses to accept the sexton’s choice. He makes a different choice and so creates a different reality; he wants to create a different world, and it is for this that the symbol exists. A symbol is a return to the past for the purpose of realizing an unrealized possibility and to tell a story that awaits its narrator. This conception does not overturn existing definitions of myth, almost all of which treat symbols as links to another world. The disputes arise in connection with the attempts to define the nature of this other world, and especially the nature of the link. When we argue that this other world is an alternative history we at the same time also define the nature of the link between this world and the symbol itself: The other world is history, and it relates to the given world as its alternative. After we reconstruct the alternative history in the symbol (Elijah blowing the Shofar, in our case) we may become fixated on this point. The moment we do this, the symbol ceases to function; it loses its energy because its becoming has been stopped. “Elijah blowing the Shofar” is a frozen character, not a symbol. The symbol was “Elijah is blowing the Shofar instead of leaving this place.” The symbol thus formulates itself through action, as a realization of the alternativeness principle. Schematically put: A does X instead of doing Y; or: A is X rather than being Y. In other words, a symbol connects two histories, two statements. This scheme is just one manifestation of the conditional mode: A would have been (or: would have done) X, were it not for Y. For example: Elijah 17

Danto, “Analytical Philosophy of History,” pp. 143-182.

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would have blown the Shofar had he not left (say, because of his disappointment with the way the sexton, and the entire congregation, behaved). But now the next thing occurs: The conditional mode, by its very nature, is unstable; therefore the alternative history is unstable as well, and so is the symbol. In other words, the transition from the scheme’s first statement to the second is not irreversible. To the contrary, the second statement immediately directs the reader to the starting point, to the beginning of the first statement. The psycholinguistic mechanism of the conditional mode is oscillation; the speaker cannot cease oscillating between the two situations expressed in the two statements, the real one and its alternative. So when the speaker returns to the starting point he cannot refrain from wanting once more to change the outcome, and for this he must return to the cause, that is, to the choice, and so on. In every such cycle a new alternative history can be created; this is what accounts for the symbol’s inexhaustible dynamism and energy. Let us reiterate: The symbol’s multiple meanings do not consist in the fact that “Elijah blowing the Shofar” is an ambiguous character; in fact, it is not. Polysemy is possible in a symbol, but not necessary; this particular symbol has multiple meanings because the statement “Elijah blows the Shofar” is an alternative history that replaces the given world; it is therefore by nature unstable and aspires to return to its source, namely the imaginary choice of one possibility out of many that exist in the background. In short, ambiguity is a multiplicity of possible alternative histories. Furthermore, alternative history can also be unique, as the sole meaning of the created story, but its instability brings about a constant renewal of the story’s meaning, a continuous re-creation of the alternative history as a recursive action. The meaning space of a symbol is defined by the personality’s space of real possibilities. The question “What can one expect from the personality?” determines the symbol’s inexhaustibleness, so to speak, its cultural richness, its multi-alternativeness. The symbol’s meaning is always uncertain and unexpected, because it always involves a constant return to the bifurcation point and a new choice. It is impossible to predict what any given reader will choose, which conditional mode with what “variables” he will create in order to produce a result, and whether he will want to obtain this result at all, or would prefer to create a completely different alternative history. This uncertainty or unpredictability of the symbol gives it an aura of mystery, of secrecy. Thus in our example the secret is embodied in the object, a mysterious box that a poor vagabond, Elijah in disguise, brought with him, and whose contents and purpose are not known; we can only guess that it is meant to hold a Shofar. Therefore,


Chapter Three

blowing the Shofar, which in our previous formulations we assumed as obvious and given, is only one alternative possibility for the personality’s and the symbol’s realization. Another formulation is also possible, one that reinforces the symbol’s mysteriousness: If the sexton had been very pious, he would have identified Elijah and understood the reason for his arrival and the purpose of the box. This alternative belongs to the same symbol of “Elijah blowing the Shofar,” but rather than an additional meaning, it is a manifestation of the oscillation at the symbol’s foundation: Elijah or not, Shofar or not, will he blow or not, will he come or not? The symbol’s ambiguity is thus not due to the polysemy of characters and imagery, but to the fact that its meaning is revealed in many alternative histories. What is inexhaustible in a symbol is not its meaning, but the oscillatory movement. The personality with its ability to choose is what makes alternativeness possible, but it is also what defines the possibility space and bans the creation of improbable alternative histories, such that are inappropriate in light of its given world, for its present form of realization (the changes which personalities undergo in alternative history will be discussed at length below). The oscillation of alternativeness in a symbol is like the movement of a pendulum as described by the founders of chaos theory: It never exactly repeats its previous movement, but also never deviates from a certain, somewhat blurred pattern of a three-dimensional motion graph, the attractor.18 The concept of symbol as presented here is needed in order to solve the old unsolved problem of the subject in literature. As already noted, in the present study we take a personalistic line. After decades in which various types of formalistic narratology were dominant, it is now possible to argue that a literary character is not a function or a role (even if the role in question is ethical, as in narrative ethics), but rather a symbol of alternativeness, a living organism that is created anew when the reader 18

For a popular presentation of chaos theory, see: James Gleick, Chaos: Making a New Science, London, Vintage, 1997. For a discussion of chaos theory and its concepts in the context of the humanities and literature, see: Katherine Hayles, Chaos Bound: Orderly Disorder in Contemporary Literature and Science, New York, Cornell University Press, 1990; Harriett Hawkins, Strange Attractors: Literature, Culture and Chaos Theory, New York, Prentice Hall/Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1995; Kevin A. Boon, Chaos Theory and the Interpretation of Literary Texts: The Case of Kurt Vonnegut, Lewiston, Edwin Mellen Press, 1997. See also: Katsman, Poetics of Becoming (in this work a model was developed of a literary character as chaotic, non-linear persono-dynamic construct, whose complexity is endlessly increasing in the processes of ethical-informational exchange between a reader and a text).

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returns to a character’s bifurcation point and realizes an unchosen and unrealized possibility, thus originating an alternative world with its own alternative history.


a. Possibilistic Theory of Myth and Mythopoesis In this chapter, we shall see that reading is mythopoesis, not in the sense of creating one myth but rather as an oscillation between alternative myths. To the theory of mythopoesis as developed in my previous publications, the category of possibility must be added or, to be more precise, of multiple possibilities. We shall begin the discussion with Losev’s theory of myth, on which all of my researches are based. Myth is a miraculous history of a personality given in words, where miracle is taken as the realization of a personality’s transcendental purpose in empirical history.1 Losev’s theory provides us with the key concept for understanding myth and mythopoesis, namely the concept of “becoming,” which is itself based on the concept of realization. The concept of realization is vital for understanding alternativeness, as is the concept of possibility, which is not limited to that of realization. Mikhail Epstein writes that “the possible is unrealizable not only because it may not be realized, but, in the more radical sense, cannot be realized without losing its special modality.”2 Elsewhere Epstein quotes Bakhtin (The Epos and the Novel), who contrasts epos as the world of a personality’s necessary realization, with novel as a contingent, accidental reality that is always open to other possibilities. For Epstein, this serves as an evidence of “the growth of the possible in culture.”3 But Bakhtin is possibly not quite right (and too involved in a pro-novelistic agenda) in his supposition, since an epic hero is by no means less contingent than a novelistic protagonist, as well as a novel is by no means less mythic than an epos.4 Thus, Epstein 1

Losev, The Dialectics of Myth, pp. 285-286. Epstein, Filosofiia vozmozhnogo, p. 36 3 Ibid., p. 240. 4 See: Katsman, The Time of Cruel Miracles: Mythopoesis in Dostoevsky and Agnon; see inside also the Bibliography for the studies of myth-creation in the modern literature. 2

Alternativeness of Myth


himself notes about the possibilistic character of myth: “This is a possibility that is mythic, it is unrealizable and thus doomed to immortality. Biographies and historical studies are written about people who have been completely realized; myths are composed on people who have not been absolutely realized, who remained a mystery.”5 For this reason, we shall develop a mediating procedure that will enable us to make the transition from the conception of myth as the realization of a personality to its conception as the realization of one possibility of the realization of a personality. The realization of a personality’s transcendental purpose in actual history would seem to require the assumption of a realization vs. non-realization dichotomy. Non-realization is but an alternative possibility of realization. We are unable to think of a personality independently of the concept of realization; however, realization in actual history can take place in at least two ways. What are the epistemological (and mythological) implications of the personality’s non-realization? How can we speak of a personality that has not realized itself? It would seem that the empirical expression of non-realization is the realization of another possibility of the same personality. Therefore, any mythopoesis contains the simultaneous origination of at least two myths, the myth of realization and the myth of non-realization; the latter, too, is a myth of realization, namely the realization of another possibility, the possibility of non-realization. In reading, as in any rhetorical act, the person is given a choice between these two myths. When we say that in a certain text a given myth is created, it means that we choose this myth from a certain stock. Such a choice of one out of at least two myths is the essence of the rhetorical act. Formally, however, the supply is not restricted to just two myths; the moment that the category of possibility is made part of the theory of mythopoesis, it is no longer possible to limit the proliferation of possibilities. The two ends of the continuum, realization and nonrealization, are separated by a broad span of various modes of (non-) realization. The personality may be partially realized, in one of its features; it may deviate from the path of realization and return to it; it may also be realized in different, contrasting or complementary ways, in parallel or in succession, and so on. It may also happen that from a certain perspective a personality will possess a number of transcendental purposes, and even a number of empirical histories. The realization of one of these possibilities rules out the realization of the others, but does not rule out the possibilities themselves. The word “possibility” thus only 5

Epstein, Filosofiia vozmozhnogo, p. 250.


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exists in the plural form, so to speak. Any deviation from perfect realization creates another possibility, another realization, and another myth, which constitutes the basis of alternativeness. The reader may discover the alternative possibilities and revive the potential, dormant alternative myths of that personality. If so, the reader is forced to choose between different myths, his recurring choices taking place at the personality’s bifurcation points. Each bifurcation point is a singularity, and therefore exists outside of every myth, every history. Yet, it is where all myths intersect, collide, and are re-originated. In order to provide a firm foundation for the amended theory of mythopoesis it is necessary to try to formulate a “possibilistic” theory of myth, to use Epstein’s term. From this perspective a myth will appear as the history of a possible realization of a personality, one in which the miracle is conceived as one of the possible realizations of the personality’s transcendental purpose in empirical history. A multiplicity of possibilities can appear both at the level of purpose and at the level of realization, in the multiplicity of empirical histories, that is, in the multiplicity of historical experiences. We should clarify the strange term “multiplicity of empirical histories.” The same purpose may be realized in different ways of historical experience. “Empirical history,” according to this approach, is neither objective nor universal; rather, it is the characteristic way in which a certain group experiences history, as expressed in that group’s ideology, cultural practices, art, language, etc. However, from the perspective of that group, its empirical history is the real history, and all others will be perceived as deviations from it or, if the group accepts the existence of alternative paradigms, as alternatives to it. If the multiplicity of possibilities appears at the level of the transcendental purpose it will in all likelihood be understood as a variety of deviations from the one and only purpose, as delays, postponements and the like unless, again, the latter are perceived as alternatives. In light of the multiplicity of possibilities, the transcendental purpose and the empirical history are to be understood as functions of a subjective perception (the subject being a certain community). The multiplicity of empirical history stems from the multiplicity of experiences of time (historical, but not only historical). Thus, for example, in certain sectors of modern Israeli society the myth of Moses can be perceived from different perspectives, depending on the various mythemes of the myth. One group would understand this myth in the context of Zionist time, a time of yearning and emigration to the Land of Israel; for another group the context would be the time of settlement, of working the land; for a third group, the supra-temporal time of the formation of the Jewish people; for a

Alternativeness of Myth


fourth group, the time of revelation and prophecy; and so on. Each such group has a different version of “empirical history,” and therefore also a different myth of Moses. Different time perceptions, as for example religious and secular, do not only originate different conceptions of empirical history, but also different empirical histories themselves, and different perceptions of empirics. Of course, different groups will choose different mythemes of the “same” myth, that is, they will create different alternative histories, from pragmatic social and ideological motives. Groups and speakers from different ends of the political spectrum may choose, for example, to focus on Moses’ journey towards the Land of Israel, or on the fact that he did not enter the Land. Any such tendency will be based on a certain time perception, for example teleological or process-oriented. Every group experiences and tells a different history, measures and divides history differently, remembers and organizes memory differently. Some will organize their historical memory around Moses’ leadership, others around his sanctity, his wisdom, etc., and each group will anchor Moses in this or that sequence of historical figures and events, according to its own conceptions and objectives. The ability to create many histories or many myths is derived from the ability to organize their elements in many different ways, to disassemble and build narrative sequences, to repeat them or to deviate from them. In other words, multiplicative mythopoesis exhibits grammatical, syntactic features and can be described in the terms of structuralism as system and deviation, except that in this case the system is open, consisting of an uncertain number of continuously bifurcating possibilities. Among the structuralists, the one who came closest to “possibilistic” mythology is Claude Lévi-Strauss. We return to one of his most basic texts, the chapter “The Structural Study of Myth” in Volume 1 of his Structural Anthropology. In order to clarify the linguistic nature of myth, Lévi-Strauss compares it to history itself, no more and no less. He asks: What does a historian do when he mentions the French Revolution? His answer: The historian refers to a whole series of past events, whose remote implications are clearly felt by us as well, despite the fact that they reached us by way of numerous irreversible intermediate events. However, for a politician and his audience the French Revolution is associated with another aspect of reality: This series of past events constitutes a mold that has retained its vitality to this day, and that makes it possible to explain the social order in modern France and its contradictions, and to predict the ways in which it will evolve. Lévi-Strauss quotes Jules Michelet: “That


Chapter Four

day everything was possible… Future became present… that is, no more time, a glimpse of eternity.”6 This double structure, explains Lévi-Strauss, which is historical and extra-historical at one-and-the-same time, can explain how a myth can belong, in the terms of Saussure, both to langue (and as such can be analyzed) and to parole (in which it is communicated). However, beyond this myth possesses a third level as well, in which it appears as something absolute. This third level is also of a linguistic nature, yet it differs from the first two levels. The difference, according to Lévi-Strauss, lies in the fact that the essence of myth does not lie in the style or the form of the narrative, but in the history that it tells. After these preliminary remarks, Lévi-Strauss presents his famous method of listing myths in a table whose columns arrange the mythemes in paradigmatic clusters. If we want to tell the myth, we must read the rows in the syntagmatic order of the myth itself, but if we want to understand the myth, we must read the columns, each one as a complete unit of meaning, one after the other. At the end of the chapter, Lévi-Strauss concludes with the claim that his method saves researchers the great effort of searching for the original, authentic version of the myth, and proposes to define a myth as the totality of all its versions. So according to Lévi-Strauss to understand a myth means to build a model of explanation. To read a myth apparently means to experience a solitary myth as a unique sequence of meaning units as this sequence has been preserved in tradition, in cultural communal memory, that is, in a form that in the community in question is anchored in its system of concrete historical social and ethical values. It thus turns out that according to Lévi-Strauss understanding a myth requires that it be read erroneously, as a normative deviation whose function is to break up the narrative and build a new, “vertical,” paradigmatic order. Understanding builds a model, a system from which every myth deviates or, in other words, it brings about the realization of one of the combinatorial possibilities of the model’s constituents. These constituents, as LéviStrauss shows, are abstract ideas, social values that, however, do not appear as abstract formulations in any myth. Every myth consists of deviations from these ideas, while it also realizes them in some configuration or other. We may thus say that every specific myth is perceived as a partial and relative realization of one of the possibilities of the normative, multifaceted, unrealized, and unrealizable “myth.” Every

6 Claude Lévi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology, trans. Claire Jacobson and Brooke Grundfest Schoepf, New York, Basic Books, 1963-1967, pp. 206-231.

Alternativeness of Myth


myth turns out to be a realization of one of many possibilities; the others were not realized this time, but could have been realized in other myths. After all, it is not for naught that Lévi-Strauss insists that the essence of myth is history, and turns to that powerful statement by Michelet. Myth, like history, takes us back to the point in the past in which the cluster of possibilities was revealed. To perceive and organize these dispersed possibilities into a rational model means to understand; this can only be done, of course, by way of repeated readings in sequences that have been realized, that is in existing myths. The cluster of possibilities makes the cluster of myths possible. Understanding myths thus takes us back to the moment of the explosion of cultural possibilities, to use Juri Lotman’s terms in his Culture and Explosion. However, this repetition does not take place as an imaginary procedure of turning the time continuum around, but as a timeless analytical procedure. This is so because, on the one hand, the multiplicity of myth’s possibilities is always present, always open, but, on the other hand, it is never materialized as an event (Epstein’s principle of the unrealizable character of possibility). In other words, a return to the bifurcation point can be disguised as a return in time, as in history, but it is a repetition of a pattern that takes place at every time, in every reading of every concrete myth. Lévi-Strauss’ theory thus brings us closer to “possibilistic” mythology. However, it also raises some questions. Whoever narrates or reads a myth and lives it within his community does not and cannot know that he is repeating the same mythical pattern that is realized in other myths as well, in his and also in other communities. The question therefore is: Can we speak about a myth as the realization of one possibility out of many, if the person using the myth is unaware of this? It would appear that according to Lévi-Strauss a person who uses a myth does not enter into the world of possibilities, does not experience oscillation and choosing between myths. The latter is a privilege possessed only by the scholars who construct explanatory models (Lévi-Strauss does not bother to distinguish understanding from explanation, but clearly, when he speaks about understanding he means explanation). For the myth’s addresser and addressee, it is not one of many possibilities, but the only one, at least at the time it is narrated or read. Can we speak of mythopoesis in this case? What psycho-cultural, anthropological character is implied by LéviStrauss’ theory? It is the character of a person who has no choice, who is unaware of himself, his discourse, his cultural practices and the “understanding” relations between him and the communal and cultural “other.” This figure has a solipsistic existence; it is isolated, unaware, restricted. Where is such a community to be found? Apparently only in a


Chapter Four

laboratory. Lévi-Strauss conducts a laboratory experiment in the classical scientific style, in which the object of research is isolated from its surroundings. However, in nature or, in our case, in an actual cultural reality, the object of research does not behave as it would in a laboratory. A structuralist would say that, of course, the way it functions in “nature” is a deviation from how it behaves in the laboratory, but in light of chaos theory, we cannot accept this epistemological paradigm. Most living systems, including social ones, are chaotic, in the sense of being dynamic and non-linear, and behave in a way that is fundamentally different from the behavior of systems, be they physical or intellectual, that were artificially constructed in the laboratory. Paradoxically, although LéviStrauss’ theory supposedly describes the system of myths, it assumes that in actual use, in living cultural practice, reading singles out a solitary myth. His theory does reveal relations, but these exist only among the components of his model, which only researchers can know. Therefore, despite the fact that Lévi-Strauss made a significant contribution towards possibilistic understanding of myth, we cannot be satisfied with it in our discussion of mythopoesis. In his approach, “possibility” is part of a structure, not the living experience of actual practice, not an object of real choice, not a generator of oscillation. If we go back to mythopoesis in literature, we see that this theory can neither describe nor explain the reader’s oscillation between different myths in the course of reading, his experience of making a choice. We need another step in order to make the transition from structural to real possibility, one that can be the object of free, aware, responsible choice. We shall take this step later, when we deal with rhetoric as the basis of probability in mythopoesis. In the meantime, let us return to the theory of mythopoesis and look at the possibility problem from the perspective of ethics.

b. Ethical and Chaotic Models of Mythopoesis Elsewhere I have discussed the need to complement Losev’s theory of myth with a theory of ethics. This I did with the help of Emmanuel Lévinas’ theory of revelation,7 and Adam Z. Newton’s narrative ethics.8 7 Lévinas presents revelation as a model of ethics, of the relationship with the other (the absolute Other in the case of revelation) beyond infinite distance. The miracle of revelation and ethics consists in the very possibility of the relationship; Lévinas stresses the inconceivable givenness involved in revelation, the fact that God embodies His presence in the word and so opens the door to understanding and (infinite) interpretation, but at the same time also positions himself at the threshold of atheism (Emmanuel Lévinas, Beyond the Verse: Talmudic Readings

Alternativeness of Myth


As a result, I found a dialogical-ethical mechanism at the roots of mythopoesis; myth creation is the origination of the narrative personality, which realizes its transcendental purpose in empirical history, understood as a face-to-face encounter with the other, namely the reader, in the course of reading.9 How does this move take us forward towards a conception of possibility in mythopoesis? If it is true that personality in myth is realized face-to-face with the other, this means that it realizes itself against the other, in contrast to the other. In other words, it creates its story as an alternative to the other’s (possible) story, since the mythical other, as is well known, is not one of the protagonist’s partners, nor one of the “quasiothers” who mediate between the protagonist and his objective. The real other draws his meaning from the distance that separates him and the protagonist, from the impossibility of perceiving him and including him in any totality, in Lévinas’ terms, not even in the totality of understanding, empathy, and participation. Logically, the differentiation of the mythical personality’s identity is an unambiguous disjunction: either him or me. The reason why a myth appears to us as a miraculous story lies in a temporary and random violation of logic, an unlikely conjunction of the “I” and the “Other” in an encounter that can stop history for one moment of battle, of explosion and choice, and that may then once more make the other disappear, so that only its traces are left in the protagonist’s new story, which will never again be the same as before. The realization of the mythical personality is thus always necessarily the realization of one out of at least two possibilities. The basis for this is the possibilistic nature of otherness as such. In this sense, a miracle is a moment of choice. In the situation of being face-to-face with the other (a situation which itself constitutes the miracle) the mythical personality faces a choice: to identify with the other or to fight and to realize itself. In many cases, any choice, identification with the other and self-realization, leads to the same result: mystical disappearance, spiritual annihilation or just death or, alternatively, spiritual uplifting, sanctification, deification. and Lectures, trans. by Gary D. Mole, London, The Athlon Press, 1994, pp. 129150). 8 Newton belongs to the Narratology School but his theory is based on Lévinas’ philosophy that enables him to translate narratological functional concepts into the language of ethics. Together with other students of the “ethical turn” in philosophy and criticism, Newton strives to define the reader’s active ethical role in relation to literature, to the text, to the character, and to reading. Newton clarifies the processes that enable the reader to build a personal-ethical relationship with the character as if it were a living personality (Newton, Narrative Ethics). 9 Katsman, The Time of Cruel Miracles, pp. 50-52.


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The only visible difference is that self-realization originates a story, a new story, that is, an alternative story. Identification with the other leaves no traces, does not originate memory, culture, or ethics, and does not write history. The protagonist is a hero because he has a real choice between two possibilities – to be or not to be (a hero), and he chooses to be himself, that is, to be a hero. The category of (absolute or real) otherness thus introduces possibility and oscillation into mythopoesis. A mythical hero’s journey is in essence a transition among different realization possibilities (depending on the different others that he encounters on his way), until he realizes himself as a unique personality, unlike any other. Journeys of this kind are those of Gilgamesh and Odysseus, Abraham and Moses, and any other mythical hero. The protagonists in novels are no different from their senior brethren: In Dostoevsky’s The Adolescent, for example, the hero maneuvers among a long line of social others, Raskolnikov – among ideological others, and the Karamazov brothers – among ethical and theological others. The stories of these protagonists consist of sequences of oscillation events and choices between different possibilities of identification. The question that arises refers not to the hero of the myth, but to the reader or storyteller. Does he also oscillate? Does he also have a choice? This is the same question that was raised following our discussion of LéviStrauss’ theory. (As already noted, we shall discuss it again later, in the context of the rhetoric of reading or the rhetoric of mythopoesis). Elsewhere I proposed a solution to the transition from a character’s to a reader’s ethical oscillation, in terms of the concept of “ethical-informational exchange,” based on applying the theory of non-linear dynamic systems to literature.10 The origination of the narrative personality was presented as a sequence of back-and-forth “moves” of “singling out” the relationships between units of meaning, that is, as the reader’s oscillation between noticing a relationship that supposedly exists in the text, and creating a relation towards this relationship and adjoining it to the system of relationships that supposedly exists in the text, and so on, so that the system undergoes a constant and irreversible increase in complexity. This oscillation appears, to use the terms of Lévinas and Newton, as a sequence of repeated appeals-responses between the reader and the character as it comes into being. Already in that study the becoming of the narrative personality was described as an oscillator, where the reader in a sense identifies with the character and approaches it, then draws away from it in a reflex movement, goes back to it, and so on. This movement is not a 10

Katsman, Poetics of Becoming, pp. 114-115.

Alternativeness of Myth


simple repetition, but a non-linear chaotic return, a clearly unexpected motion towards the blurred but more-or-less stable space of the character’s strange attractor, to wit its myth. And now I would like to stress something that I did not see in that study of mine: The concept of “singling out” the relationship from its surroundings and anchoring it in a new, “artificial” but complex, system of relationships, is rooted in choosing one specific possibility (or several possibilities) out of many. This act of choosing which the reader carries out can be compared to the historian’s work of choosing facts and anchoring them in a comprehensible history. In reading, quite like in history, the oscillator of originating the character is the return to the bifurcation point. In other words, the reader must return to the bifurcation points in order to single out other relationships of that same personality (and so to gain a better understanding of it and its story), or of that same configuration of relationships. This must be done in order that the narrative personality ascend the ladder of complexity and so become more alive and human, in order that it become possible once more to maintain an ethical relationship with it. While I based my theory of character on chaos theory already in the past, I did not lay enough stress on bifurcation itself as a cause of “possibilism” in mythopoesis. Then I already presented the personality’s becoming as a “quantum” process, as a sequence of individual back-and-forth moves, but did not connect the act of singling out to any specific locus. Now we are in a position to identify the locus as the point of bifurcation. The reader does not return to any place as the personality comes into being; the ethical exchange takes place not in some arbitrary place, but in certain central locations, crossroads – bifurcation points. In every new move the configuration of relationships increases in complexity, and therefore bifurcation and choice become more complex (as we shall see below, the increase in complexity is gradual but with jumps from choosing among possibilities to choosing among ways of choosing). However, this theory leaves us at the level of the narrative personality, to the process of whose origination the reader’s oscillations refer. How can we move from this level, from a personality-originating oscillation, to one that originates a multiplicity of personalities, of myths? How can we move from understanding that every myth is an oscillation to understanding that reading is an oscillation between myths? We will answer these questions at the next stage, when we turn, as promised, to theories of rhetoric.


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c. Counterfactual History and Determinism Let us now briefly present the problem posed by the paradoxical nature of the concept of alternative history, or, to be more precise, by the intellectual procedure that underlies alternative history. The internal contradiction in this concept can be seen in light of Max Weber’s method. In his discussion of historical causality Weber proposed the following research method: In order to be able to identify the main cause of a given historical event, the historian must go back to that event, in a kind of intellectual experiment, and examine its possible causes using the method of hypothetical negation. That is, he must ask: Would the given event have occurred if a certain factor had not existed? If the event would have happened even without this factor, then it was not the (main) cause; if not, then it is one of the main causes.11 His procedure is based on an assessment of possibilities and their probabilities, and therefore in a less rigid form it looks like this: The historian must inquire, from his own perspective and based on the facts that he found or chose for the purpose of his research, the probability that certain events could have caused certain other events. From that same perspective, the historian also assesses the role played by conditions that aided or interfered with a given occurrence and the relations between them. Weber’s approach is probabilistic, since it is based on an examination of possibilities through their negative realization. We may thus say that it is based on the principle of alternativeness. However, in Weber’s approach the principle of alternativeness is anchored in a deterministic view of the world. We must ask why this is so, and reexamine the philosophical underpinnings of alternative history, since most scholars assume as a matter of course that alternative history is based on the non-deterministic view. How is absolute determinism consistent, in Weber’s conception, with a probabilistic method? First, we must distinguish between a philosophy and a methodology: History itself is driven, according to Weber, by determinism, while the principle of alternativeness is used as a method for doing research on history. However, we must ask, is this methodology also anchored in a deterministic philosophy or, in other words, is the principle of alternativeness itself deterministic? Let us first examine the place of determinism in Weber’s method. We begin by assuming that the historian goes back to the historical bifurcation point where, so he believes, possible factors leading to the event being 11

Max Weber, The Methodology of the Social Sciences, pp. 164-188.

Alternativeness of Myth


studied have not yet been realized, so that any one of them could, according to the historian’s presupposition, serve as the crucial cause. However, this uncertainty exists only in the historian’s mind: Because he does not yet know what the actual factor was, he must assess the probabilities associated with factors that are candidates for being the cause. The need for this method of returning to the bifurcation point arises because the single cause of the event is not known. After the historian examines the probabilities (of the possibilities), he already knows which it is, and all the other candidates no longer interest him.12 At any historical moment in the past only what actually happened could have happened; it could not have been different. Weber’s method of retrospective probability, based on the question “What if things had been different?” tells us that thing could not have been different. That is its deterministic core. The reason it is possible to apply this method is that it is possible to reconstruct historical sequences, since they are deterministic. Alternative history is thus based on determinism: We can hypothesize “What would have happened if…” only because history is deterministic. It is only because of this that we can, after making a counterfactual conditioned assumption, create a whole, reliable, and convincing alternative historical story. This is how the principal of alternativeness appears from Max Weber’s perspective. How does an oscillation appear from that perspective? We oscillate at the bifurcation point only as long as we do not know the probabilities of the factors that caused the event; the moment we know, we cease to oscillate. A historian goes back, as it were, to the moment in history when a certain historical personality, imagined as a protagonist of intellectual narrative experiment, comes to a decision, makes a choice. The historian vacillates together with the character. The closer he comes to a correct assessment of the probability of various possible choices, he vacillates less. The oscillation is thus temporary; it is merely the result of ignorance, and therefore it tends to wane with time, as the gaps in the historian’s knowledge fill in. How are we to evaluate this picture of alternative history? Let us leave aside the hypothesis that our ability to tell a historical story derives from a deterministic approach. Ricoeur has already shown how this difficulty may be overcome: He notes that Weber’s method can be used to discover a probable, not a necessary cause, and shows that the procedure of “singular causal imputation” only has the purpose of creating a plot, as it is found at 12 Ricoeur criticizes this “singular causal imputation” principle in his Time and Narrative, pp. 182-192.


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the root of every historical study. For this Ricoeur reads Weber through the eyeglasses of Raymond Aron. Ricoeur emphasizes that Aron fought against the illusion of fatalism, created in historical retrospection, and defended the accidental nature of the present, needed for political action. Ricoeur quotes Aron’s Introduction to the Philosophy of History: “The investigation of cause by the historian is directed not so much at tracing the broad outlines of the relief of history as at preserving for or restoring to the past the uncertainty of the future. […] Unreal constructions must still remain an integral part of science, even if they do not go beyond an uncertain probability, for they offer the only means of escaping the retrospective illusion of fatality.” Ricoeur then continues: How is this possible? We must understand that the imaginative operation by which the historian assumes in thought that one of the antecedents has disappeared or been modified, and then tries to construct what would have happened in accordance with this hypothesis, has a significance that goes beyond epistemology. The historian acts here as a narrator who redefines the three dimensions of time in relation to a Active present. Dreaming of a different event, he opposes “uchronia” (a timeless time) to the fascination with what once was. The retrospective estimation of probabilities thus contains a moral and a political significance that exceeds its purely epistemological one. It recalls to the readers of history that the “historian’s past has been the future of the characters in history.” Due to its probabilist character, causal explanation incorporates into the past the unpredictability that is the mark of the future and introduces into retrospection the uncertainty of the event.13

Why are such a “singular causal imputation” and its separation from determinism so important for Ricoeur? Because that is how a historical plot is created. In order for it to be possible to tell (and to tell means to understand and to explain), every event must derive from a previous event as its sole outcome. Reality can be very rich and complex, but in retrospect, when history is already in the past, every event has a single cause, however complex. In this sense, and in this sense only, is the sequence of historical writing built up deterministically. However, the historian’s return to the historical bifurcation point is an (intellectual, mental, imaginary) act, closer to reading than to writing; it is a singularity, not a sequence. This return is isomorphic to the reader’s return to the bifurcation point of a literary character at the time of reading. Even if a reader does not always create alternative histories as he reads, he necessarily returns to the bifurcation points in order to vacillate there 13

Time and Narrative, pp. 184, 188.

Alternativeness of Myth


together with the characters. We thus identify two processes that take place in this repetition: an oscillation at the bifurcation point, and the creation of the sequence (the story, the plot). The two processes structure a single synergic system; they compete with, but also nourish each other. The repetition that causes an oscillation is possible because the sequence exists, although the oscillation in essence contradicts the existence of the sequence. The oscillation gives rise to a new sequence, although the transition from the former to the latter is not anchored in any logic, causality, or regularity, whether rational or not. The transition is an act of pure will: it is the choice. In retrospect, the transition will appear to be part of the sequence, but in reality, this is an illusion, the same illusion of fatalism about which Aron wrote. This transition from oscillation to sequence (in other words, from possibility to action, from cognition to being) is the one thing that can only be a pure singularity (as opposed to determinism). If we now move one more step forward we shall see that the sequence by itself is not determinism. The concept of determinism cannot be applied to a sequence, because by its very definition, a sequence implies a connection between its component parts, and any such connection is a singularity. Yet the concept of determinism can apply to the mode of such a connection, that is, to the mode of choosing. A sequence is not deterministic only because it is continuous, but also because it can be explained in a deterministic way. The fact that a certain event results from another event does not mean that the transition from the former to the latter was deterministic and could not have been otherwise. Choice is always a singular event, but the way in which the choice is made can be deterministic. Determinism is thus one of many possibilities of modes of (free) choice. The true test of determinism thus takes place at the bifurcation point, where we find a question: Assuming that a historical character is uncertain which of several possibilities to choose, does he really have a choice? From Weber’s point of view, according to Aron’s interpretation, the answer is “yes”; the answer is always “yes.” This is thus not our question. Rather, we ask what the mode of choosing is in the specific case, since the historical character can choose (freely) in a deterministic mode, that is, based on deterministic considerations, conceptions, paradigms, and epistemes. The theory of alternative history and of alternativeness in general, depends crucially on the following question: How do we choose? However, it is important to understand this question correctly. We do not ask, “Do we choose freely?” but rather “In what mode of choosing do we choose?” In the case of Weber’s historian, the question is, what does he


Chapter Four

not know and what does he want to know? How is his choice made? The intellectual act of returning to the past is needed in order to make the transition from an oscillation between the possible choices (where the historian is already indelibly aware of which choice was realized),14 to an oscillation between possible modes of choosing (which cannot be known beforehand, nor can they probably be known completely). Weber’s historian moves constantly in concentric circles, in the hope approaching historical truth: He evaluates probabilities in order to create new historical knowledge, but his ability to evaluate probabilities is itself based on existing historical information, which has also been created by evaluating probabilities, and so on. It thus turns out that the historian does not come ever closer to the truth, but rather brings existing knowledge ever closer to an evaluation of probabilities. He tries to fit what he knows to what to him appears to be reasonable. Weber emphasizes that the historian always examines only part of the reality, cut to fit his objectives. However, at the moment it looks rather as if the historian does not make a cut from reality, but from the discursive configuration that coordinates his knowledge with his evaluation of the probabilities. In other words, he fits what he can tell to what he needs to explain in history. He needs to explain the story, but the story already exists. Weber’s determinism is thus not determinism of reality, of social and cultural life, but rather that of a story about reality. In this story, as in a work of fiction, there lies a paradox that we have already mentioned: The character in it truly oscillates at the bifurcation points, and the historian/reader truly oscillates together with it, even though the story has already been written in its entirety, as the reader well knows. In many cases, he also knows the outcome. As noted above, it is the procedure of repetition that transforms the oscillation of choosing to an oscillation of modes of choosing, and replaces the question “What to choose?” with “Why choose?” This transformation or replacement makes the impossible possible: to encounter the future or, more precisely, to reencounter the present as the future of the past. Now we shall move on from the question of retrospection to the question of whether an encounter with the future is possible; this is the well-known question of anticipation.


The assumption made by Aron, and by Ricoeur in his wake, that historians “pretend” not to be aware of the historical personality’s choice, appears to me quite weak.

Alternativeness of Myth


d. Time and the Other. Retrospection and Anticipation Both the historian and the reader return to the existing story’s past in order to create/understand a new story, or to create/understand the story anew. Our main question, the most important one with respect to alternative history, is whether in a return to the past (through retrospection) oscillation is possible and whether it is real (not imaginary, not “as if”). This question has two parts: Is the oscillation blocked by determinism, and is it blocked by knowledge of the future? Now that we have answered the first of these in the negative, we can proceed to the second question, which is also composed of a number of sub-questions: Is the future of the past a real future? Whether it is real or not, how does the encounter with it take place? Can we talk about anticipation in such a case, and if so, in what sense? We may surmise that if retrospection makes anticipation possible, it also makes real oscillation at the bifurcation point possible. Emmanuel Lévinas’ conception of time is known for its supposed denial of anticipation. However, it is possible to see how this denial makes the origination of the true future possible. Levinas’ Time and the Other begins with a description of the appearance of awareness inside of “there is”: “Consciousness is a rupture of the anonymous vigilance of the there is; it is already hypostasis; it refers to a situation where an existent is put in touch with its existing. […] In order for there to be an existent in this anonymous existing, it is necessary that a departure from self and a return to self – that is, that the very work of identity – become possible. Through its identification the existent is already closed up upon itself; it is a monad and a solitude.”15 Now it is true that the most difficult and problematic concept here, that of “there is,” is assumed from the very first almost as an axiom through a quasi-phenomenological procedure, and therefore it is doubtful just how justified it can be. However, from our perspective it is another concept, derived from it, that is important, that of hypostasis, which means both entity and personality. Hypostasis is the appearance of the solitary “I”: “As present and ‘I,’ hypostasis is freedom. [...] It is a first freedom – not yet the freedom of free will, but the freedom of beginning.”16 The appearance of this free “existent,” who is the “master of existing,” is the present: “The present is the event of hypostasis. The


Emmanuel Lévinas, Time and the Other, trans. by Richard A. Cohen, Pittsburgh PA, Duquesne University Press, 1987, p. 51-52. 16 Ibid., p. 54.


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present leaves itself – better still, it is the departure from self. It is a rip in the infinite beginningless and endless fabric of existing.”17 Lévinas describes the origination of the “I,” to which he ascribes a freedom that is not the freedom to choose. This opaque distinction only becomes clearer in light of an understanding of the philosopher’s complete conception of the other (and his ethics), but remains indistinct and baseless. Therefore, the “I” in his approach appears as a collection of paradoxes, such as the following: “This is its great paradox: a free being is already no longer free, because it is responsible for itself.”18 The preoccupation with the self is the subject’s materiality, according to Lévinas. By introducing the concept of materiality without any foundation Lévinas apparently tries to bolster his concept of “freedom without freedom of choice.” The conception of such a materialism, which is ignorant of freedom of choice and originates the present (which as yet is not time) prepares the ground for the need for “saving” the subject from solitude through the world and, subsequently, through the other. The entire move depends on the paradox of “freedom without freedom,” so that the subject’s need for the other remains completely unexplained. Be that as it may, “the subject separates from itself. […] Light is that through which something is other than myself, but already as if it came from me.”19 Lévinas speaks of knowledge and use, that is – of reason: “By encompassing everything within its universality, reason finds itself once again in solitude.”20 Nevertheless, he comes up against his limit when arriving at death: “The unknown of death signifies that the very relationship with death cannot take place in the light, that the subject is in relationship with what does not come from itself. […] Absolutely unknowable means foreign to all light, rendering every assumption of possibility impossible, but where we ourselves are seized.”21 Here Lévinas disagrees with Heidegger’s concept of the project: “An event [of death] happens to us without our having absolutely anything ‘a priori,’ without our being able to have the least project, as one says today. Death is the impossibility of having a project. This approach of death indicates that we are in relation with something that is absolutely other […] Right away this means that existence is pluralist. Here the plural is not a multiplicity of existents; it appears in existing itself. […] In death the existing of the


Ibid., p. 52. Ibid., p. 55. 19 Ibid., p. 63-64. 20 Ibid., p. 65. 21 Ibid., pp. 70-71. 18

Alternativeness of Myth


existent is alienated.”22 From this point, the discussion takes a negative turn, since the encounter with death signifies powerlessness. We should point out that not knowing and lack of control do not equal powerlessness. It is not at all clear how the concept of powerlessness can be applied in the realm of the unconscious, or even in contrast or proximity to it. It is not clear how this concept can be absolute when relativity is its very essence. Perhaps this is precisely what Lévinas has in mind: Power belongs to light, and therefore death makes it irrelevant. However, in that case he should speak of death itself, not of “the proximity of death,” “facing death,” and so on. Death cannot “approach.” There are no gray areas here, only light and then nothingness, not even shade. The concepts of death and power cannot therefore take part in the same statement. Nevertheless, Lévinas does compose such statements, with which he then proceeds to construct syllogisms. The concept of power is replaced by that of possibility: In relation to death a relation with the other is possible, but “the relationship with the other will never be the feat of grasping a possibility.”23 Lévinas thus clearly presents the concept of possibility as part of the instrumental world, in order to show its irrelevance to death, and so to the other. However, is a possibility an instrument? Is not the expression “to use opportunity” just an idiom? After all, possibility belongs to the domain of pure ethics, since it is relevant only to the moment of choosing, while the act of choosing itself takes place before the use of any tools and always remains external and transcenden to it. We see how something non-real and paradoxical such as “state of death” is considered valid, while the validity of something real like “possibility” is denied: “But it is possible to infer from this situation of death, where the subject no longer has any possibility of grasping, another characteristic of existence with the other. The future is what is in no way grasped. [...] Anticipation of the future and projection of the future, sanctioned as essential to time by all theories from Bergson to Sartre, are but the present of the future and not the authentic future; the future is what is not grasped, what befalls us and lays hold of us. The other is the future.”24 It appears that in any case the future can only be presented in the future’s present. The difficulty is not that, but absolute negativity, a difficulty that can be overcome with the help of the concept of “possibility” itself, if presented as a precise definition of “the future’s present,” as project and anticipation. The two latter concepts implicitly refer back to Lévinas’ argument, in which he (implicitly) rehabilitates and hides the concept of possibility 22

Ibid., pp. 74-75. Ibid., p. 76. 24 Ibid., pp. 76-77. 23


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within his central concept, that of relation (to the other), a concept which itself appears to be based essentially on that of possibility. Indeed, what is the relation between A and B if not the identification of a certain possibility of A with a certain possibility of B? Nothing in this definition rules out the other, perceives or dominates it; and the concept of identification that appears here is nothing but the act of choosing itself, and therefore does not signify totality but rather ethics. The implicit presence of the concept of possibility within the concept of relation enables Lévinas to proceed towards the concept of history: “Relationship with the future, the presence of the future in the present, seems all the same accomplished in the face-to-face with the Other. The situation of the face-to-face would be the very accomplishment of time; the encroachment of the present on the future is not the feat of the subject alone, but the intersubjective relationship. The condition of time lies in the relationship between humans, or in history.”25 It’s hard to judge whether this conclusion is an innovation and not a tautology. How can a relation to the other create time without the help of anticipation, without a project? Lévinas is forced to turn to the concept of eros, but its connection to temporality remains completely opaque. There is an easier solution within easy reach, but Lévinas does not notice it: After all, anticipation is a subjective feeling that has no essential, generative connection to “knowing,” “perception” or “control,” even if it does at the end of the day try to carry out all these actions. On the other hand, it does have a profound connection to another action, namely to creation. Anticipation is a creative force: it is not “use” of a possibility, but the creation of new/other possibilities. The concept of knowing is not applicable to the future. The future is unknowable, but it is foreseeable and predictable. Therefore, when a historian or a reader returns to the past, the future is created for him anew. The fact that he “knows” the future of the event, to which his retrospection took him, loses its meaning. This is knowledge that is erased, drowned in the secret. This is possible only at a bifurcation point, at which the event of encountering the future is reconstructed. The reader does not forget what he knows, nor does he cease to be himself, but everything he knows about the present loses its validity as knowledge, simply because the present, in the mental procedure of returning, becomes the future. The very fact of marking the present as future puts the present between parentheses, takes it out of the limelight. This marking blocks knowledge and lets the situation


Ibid., p. 79.

Alternativeness of Myth


of returning take control of the person’s consciousness. The person thus finds himself in a situation of anticipating the future. In this situation, knowing turns into anticipation. Lévinas, who rejects even the concept of anticipation, says that in the encounter with the future a person leaves his own self (Heidegger calls this “Ekstatikon” and equates it to temporality). Blocking knowledge of the present is part of this ecstasy, perhaps even a condition for it to arise. The person becomes detached from the totality of his existence, bringing about the creation of the opening needed for the encounter with the other. After all, the encounter with the future means coming face-to-face with the other. The reconstruction of the anticipation reconstructs the “unknowability” of the future. Therefore it is more correct to say that knowing is blocked and replaced not by the negativity and passivity of non-knowing, but by the positive and active awareness of an encounter with otherness. Lévinas writes that this is the moment when multiplicity is born, a statement with which we can agree. Solitary being, closed in upon itself, here comes face-to-face with the other, and so discovers the multiplicity of being. Subsequently this insight will lead us to a description of the multiplicity of possibilities and the origination of alternativeness, because multiplicity is alternativeness. This means, in the context of our discussion, a split in the story: Being-in-the-solitary-story turns to another story and vacates place for it. The story splits and multiplies itself by returning to itself in the past and re-creating its other future. The multiplicity of stories is created within the reading of a single story, just as the multiplicity of “existent” is created within one “existing,” according to Lévinas, since the other cannot be included in the totality of the “I.” To say the multiplicity is formed between the “I” and the other means to apply a total concept to the other, and so to deprive it of its otherness. Therefore, Lévinas speaks of the multiplicity within the “I,” which is created “face to face” with the other. Retrospection thus turns into anticipation thanks to this mechanism of originating multiplicity face-to-face with the other. The future is what in retrospect always remains unknown, unilluminated. The encounter with the other is an encounter with another story, the possibility of creating another story within the same story. The possibility of the other (story) appears as the possibility of another future, giving rise to the reality and authenticity of the other future, and so to a true oscillation that accompanies the choosing of this or that future. Now we must take another step with respect to Lévinas. The other now appears as the possibility of creating another story (in fact, an alternative history) and the reader for the first time has the option of choosing between the two stories. The


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multiplicity is presented to the reader in the form of the problem of choosing. Why does the reader have to choose? Why can he not accept the multiplicity in its entirety? Why can he not retain this pluralism, as Lévinas suggests? The answer is provided with the help of Paul Ricoeur: The reader must create a “singular cause imputation.” This need is also the condition for the plot’s existence and uniformity, the plot, according to Ricoeur, being the condition for the existence of history. This need is also what gives rise to the oscillation: The reader must choose one story; otherwise he would not have hesitated but would have been paralyzed in a static all-embracing pluralism. The oscillation is caused by the stories pointing to each other, referring to each other in order to accept or reject the other, insisting and demanding that a choice be made. This choice between stories is a choice between myths, in the sense that it is in them that a personality is born. In the same sense, the encounter with another story is an encounter with the other. Retrospection is thus revealed as a self-splitting that originates the other and the story about the other, that is, myth. This event enables multiplicity, and as a result – oscillation. A true future is created as the unknown other in this event. According to Lévinas’ argument, the other is born of an encounter with the future (or, more precisely, of an encounter with death, which is the future). We, however, argue that the future is born of an encounter with the other. The other is another possibility. The return to the bifurcation point leads to an encounter with another possibility of personality and its myth. Another face, that is what the reader encounters when he returns to the bifurcation point. The encounter with another possibility reveals the uncertainty an unfamiliarity of what lies behind it. Here is revealed the unfamiliarity of the future of the other possibility. The multiplicity that is created when another possibility appears at a bifurcation point causes an oscillation between different possibilities, each of which is open towards the uncertainty of the future. The oscillation at the bifurcation point is thus a completely true experience of the future’s uncertainty, and is therefore a true oscillation. The return to the bifurcation point is therefore not a “return to the past”: The “past” is past no longer, since the reader, when he is in this past, discovers possibilities that are open to the unknown and unknowable future. The return to the bifurcation point is nothing but opening towards the future (which is unknowable by definition). The reader of course does not need a new or a different past (since he has one of his own already), but he does need a new future. In order to find it, he must oscillate again and choose again. Lévinas himself does not write about choosing in the

Alternativeness of Myth


text discussed here, but he emphasizes that in this subject’s coming out of oneself, in multiplicity, in this turning to death and the future, the relation to the other, namely ethics, is already encoded. This idea appears in elaborated form in his larger works such as Totality and Infinity. The concept of anticipation has undergone considerable evolution from Bergson, through Heidegger to Lévinas: from prescience as emotion and intuition for Bergson, through time perception as being for Heidegger, to the experience of time as the other for Lévinas. From our perspective, we may say in summation that at the level of the experience of historical alternativeness, time is the experience of the other possibility, one that is not materialized yet is close to the one that is. Lévinas insists that “the other possibility” is that of being face-to-face with the other, not with the other, and so distances himself from Heidegger’s concept of “being with the other” (Mit-sein). The very significant question from our perspective is who is right in this debate, Lévinas or Heidegger? In other words, is the future possible as “being with the other,” as a project, to use another one of Heidegger’s terms, which Lévinas rejects as well? According to Lévinas the essence of the future lies in the fact that it cannot be projected upon, because it is the other, because it is death. Lévinas develops the Heideggerian concept of “being toward death” (Sein zum Tode) to the end. “Being with the other” is impossible in the future, or even as the future, because the future is not being at all. Let us assume that the future project is impossible. The question then arises of whether oscillation between the future’s possibilities is possible, when these possibilities do not exist, because of the future’s absolute otherness. If there is no multiplicity of possibilities, there is no oscillation and no choosing, no ethics. Does not Lévinas try to base his ethics on its own impossibility, since any realistic ethics is built on a choice between the possibilities in the project? It would thus seem that Lévinas’ approach is not realistic enough, and therefore it cannot help us to come to a proper understanding of the concepts of alternativeness and alternative history. As far as we are concerned, it is important to understand not only how a different possibility in the future can by hypothesized, but also how oscillation and choosing among different possibilities projected onto the future are possible. Heidegger’s philosophy could have explained this oscillation based on his concept of concern (Fürsorge). In such a case, oscillation would have been understood as a projection unto the world in which I am constantly concerned with realizing a different possibility. Every project, every anticipation, is thus perceived as the creation of an alternative history, as an attempt to realize one’s concern for the other. Alternative history is thus


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seen to be the project of concern for an other possibility. This approach provides a good explanation for the determination with which the reader returns to bifurcation points, this great determination that reminds itself constantly of the experience of alternativeness, of eternal return to the source of multiple possibilities: the person wants to reach it in order to experience the disclosure of his authentic being (being with the other possibility). According to this view, the realization of the unrealized possibility (that is, alternative history) appears as a manifestation of concern. The project for the future, the anticipation, would have thus also been real, and so, too, would the future possibilities and the oscillations. Oscillation would thus be perceived as an authentic mode of the personality’s ontological being. Heidegger’s approach would be useful for us, if only we knew why the personality feels concern and why it is concerned for the other. Why should it come out of itself, out of the solitary possibility that has already been realized? Why does it need the “Ekstatikon” mentioned by Heidegger, why does it need time? Both Heidegger and Lévinas construct a very complex analytic structure in order to explain this, since it is the main problem: Why do I need the other? Heidegger’s and Lévinas’ arguments are more akin to unproven axioms, on which they build and prove their statements. From our point of view, this basic issue takes the form of the following question: Why must the reader return to a bifurcation point? Why does he need an alternative possibility? At this stage our answer is that “the other” is “another possibility,” that this other possibility is needed for the origination of the oscillation, that the oscillation is needed for choosing, that choosing stops the oscillation, and so on. However, why this cycle is needed in the first place we still do not know. Nor can we know, until we clearly realized that oscillation between possibilities is oscillation between myths. In literature the “other future time,” and therefore alternativeness as well, is the new myth. Another possibility is another myth. When we understand this, we shall have to recognize that in our case the explanation that is needed is rather anthropological and psycho-cultural than philosophical. We shall have to understand also that new/alternative myths fulfill a certain discursive function, and that therefore they aim at an audience. In other words, they derive from anthropological and psychocultural motives and they possess discursive-pragmatic objectives, so that we may say that their origination and functioning are part of a cultural

Alternativeness of Myth


rhetoric.26 Perhaps it is only within the framework of a theory of rhetoric that it can be shown with adequate conviction why the other possibility, the alternative, is necessary. We shall discuss this in the next chapter, devoted to rhetoric, where we shall see that an act of choosing that originates in oscillation means to choose between two myths with completely rhetorical objectives. But first we shall present one of the most audacious attempts to solve this problem using a philosophic-psychocultural approach, namely the attempt made by Gilles Deleuze.

e. Difference and Repetition. Origination of Time and Origination of Alternativeness The concept of alternativeness per se is not self-evident; a certain effort is required to explain just what it is. If we do take it as self-evident, we risk losing a very significant aspect, namely the profound, substantive connection between alternativeness and temporality. The origination of alternativeness involves, and is perhaps identical to, the origination of time. This assumption constitutes the basis for the claim that alternativeness is not only an element that characterizes alternative history as a genre, but a fundamental part of the experience of reading, and indeed of any temporal experience. Alternativeness arises wherever time goes. The concepts that mediate between and unite alternativeness and temporality are Deleuze’s repetition and difference. The procedure that we are about to carry out now serves as the basis for transforming the concept of alternative history as the definition of a genre into an important cognitiveaesthetic element in the reading experience, and in any narrative experience as such. The main point here is that alternativeness, in Deleuze’s terms is a difference created from repetition. Deleuze calls this process of the origination of a difference through repetition the “time synthesis” (in fact, three syntheses) or “time origination.” Alternativeness appears to be nothing but temporality itself. Since any narrative experience is temporal, it necessarily involves the origination of alternativeness. We shall be able to see that oscillation between possibilities, between alternatives, is always an oscillation between repetition and difference. Time is created from the repetition. The converse is true as well: Oscillation is possible, even inevitable, because of temporality. Deleuze’s approach, with its concept of time origination, will help us understand the nature of possibility. The 26 On cultural rhetoric, see the paragraph “Alternative History as Rhetoric Act” in the Chapter 1.


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concept of possibility itself seems to consist of dialectic of repetition and difference. In the present study, we speak of duplication of myths, identities, possibilities, etc. We speak of a split of the given, that creates possibility as such. It is important to understand that this split, the appearance of possibility, means the origination of complex relations between repetition and difference, specifically the origination of time. Historical alternativeness appears to be a specific case of the universal phenomenon of alternativeness. The concept of alternative history turns out to be a tautology, because history as consciousness of time is always and necessarily alternativeness, and consciousness of time itself is based on alternativeness in the complexity of repetition and difference. History is alternative in its essence, by definition, and so alternativeness is always historical, that is, temporal-cognitional. Wherever alternativeness appears, so do temporality and history, and wherever history is told, alternativeness appears. According to “paradox of pre-existence,” Each past is contemporaneous with the present it was, the whole past coexist with the present in relation to which it is past, but the pure element of the past in general pre-exists the passing present. There is thus a substantial temporal element (the Past which was never present) playing the role of ground. This is not itself represented. It is always the former or present present which is represented. The transcendental passive synthesis bears upon this pure past from the triple point of view of contemporaneity, coexistence and pre-existence. By contrast, the active synthesis is the representation of the present under the dual aspect of the reproduction of the former and the reflection of the new. […] The succession of present presents is only the manifestation of something more profound – namely, the manner in which each continues the whole life, but at a different level or degree to the preceding since all levels and degrees coexist and present themselves for our choice on the basis of a past which was never present. […] The sign of the present is a passage to the limit, a maximal contraction which comes to sanction the choice of a particular level as such, which is in itself contracted or relaxed among an infinity of other possible levels.”27

The principle of alternativeness thus requires repetition for the purpose of differentiation. The reader returns in order to change history. Deleuze associates his theory of repetition with psychoanalysis and introduces the


Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, p. 104-105.

Alternativeness of Myth


concept of oscillation as a psychoanalytical term of drive, and so links the origination of time with eros and the pleasure principle.28 Can the motive for alternativeness be explained in psychoanalytical terms as a compulsive return and as an attempt to locate the object of the search where it is not to be found, and at the same time not to see it where it is (like Edgar Allan Poe’s famous letter, as interpreted by Lacan)?29 If Deleuze is right and the origination of time does depend on this mechanism to such an extent, how could historical alternativeness, which is also based on the origination of time, not be based on the same mechanism? This theory may well provide a good explanation of alternativeness’ oscillatory nature. However, it is important to understand at what level the oscillation in this theory takes place: Is it the level of possibilities, of choices, of modes of choosing? Is it an oscillation between identities, or myths, or alternatives? This question stems from a certain difficulty: If an oscillation is of a compulsive nature, it cannot be ethical or free, while we have been arguing from the start that oscillation is derived from freedom of choice, from the dialectic of multiplicity and uniformity, that is, from the ability to choose from multiplicity and the need to choose just one. This mechanism, as it is presented here, is of a clearly ethical nature; it is psychologically and deterministically unconditioned. Compulsiveness, on the other hand, defines human behavior in a deterministic way and takes away a person’s freedom of choice. This is true if the choice is between different possibilities. The question is whether there exists a level of choosing, either low or high enough, in which oscillation is of a compulsive nature, in which it is no longer dependent on man’s will; whether there exists a level at which oscillation is still not, or is no more, a manifestation of the freedom of choice; and whether, if such a level exists, it is possible still to speak about alternativeness with respect to it. While it would have been more convenient for us to answer these questions at the end of our study, after having discussed all the aforementioned levels, we shall try to point the way here to a possible answer. In his “Iddo and Einam” Agnon creates a stubborn return to the basic bifurcation point in the relations between Gamzu and Gmula, namely their marriage. Through Gamzu’s story about the past, through the perspective of the narrator, who serves as a kind of first “reader” and a reliable mediator of the story, the reader repeatedly wonders: Was this marriage the right thing? The doubts, the oscillations can be seen in the story’s 28 29

Ibid., pp. 120 ff. Ibid., pp. 126.


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every aspect: Gamzu’s walking back and forth, the narrator’s attention switched on and off, Gmula’s oscillation between existing as a personality and as a metaphor. However, everything begins with absence: Gmula is not there. Her initial presence in the story is in the form of her non-human, artificial, nullifying double in the legend about Shlomo Ibn Gabirol and the girl he “created.” The shadow of this golem pursues Gmula throughout the story and generates an oscillation between two modes of existence, one authentic, and the other not. The inauthentic existence is associated with her marriage to Gamzu. This association activates the return to the bifurcation point in which, due to a desire to compensate for the absence of the personality, an alternative history is repeatedly created: What would have happened had Gmula not married Gamzu? At the very least, she would have had a real, living existence. Gmula’s authentic personality comes into being not in the story itself, but in its alternative (and complementary) history. In Deleuze’s terms, Agnon’s text insistently creates two heterogeneous series of differences30 that together make up the simulacrum:31 The Gmula series (the personality) and the golem series. Tensions arise between the series at various levels, but together these series refer to some delusional identity, Gmula’s possible subject, that originates in the direction of a possible future. In other words, Gmula’s future is expected like her identity, which is created in the system of differentiated differences (the simulacrum) between the two series. The possibility of such an identity in the future is based on return – the return of what Deleuze calls the “dark precursor” of the two series.32 This is an identity that was never actually a part of the story: Gmula’s personality in the past, before her wedding, even before anyone, Gamzu or Ginat, even saw her, Gmula-within-herself, within her tribe, in the distant mountains. It is a time before time, before history, before the choice (marriage) was made and the forked series of (non-)identity were created. The dark precursor in this case is Gmula in the pre-narrative, pre-historical past. This Gmula, as noted above, never existed. She is the pure past, and this past creates the present’s heterogeneous series that in turn lead to the creation of Gmula’s new identity in the future, to the creation of the future itself. It thus turns out that every moment of contact between the two heterogeneous series refers to the pure past, the dark precursor or, in other words, Gmula’s identity at her bifurcation point. The reader, torn between the forking series, is perforce cast into the bifurcation point, whence he 30

Ibid., p. 144. See also “Note on Proustian experiences,” ibid., p. 149. Ibid., p. 154. 32 Ibid., p. 145 ff. 31

Alternativeness of Myth


moves through the difference tensions that constitute the series to the becoming-returning identity, to the future. This movement of renewal finds its actual expression in the reader’s creation of a story of different identity, distinct from the one that has already been narrated. In other words, he creates an alternative, an alternative story that does not intersect the previous one but that does enter into the games of differences and differences-of-differences between the series. The alternative story originates at the bifurcation point, like its predecessor, and is therefore not dependent on it; it is not a copy of an original. Deleuze insists that only difference is real, while identity is an illusion. Even if we assume that Deleuze is right and that identity is an illusion of retrospection or projection, we still have not answered our main question of whether the return to the (within-itself, delusional) past is compulsive, that is, independent of the reader’s will, whether it is automatic, the mechanical outcome of the work of differentiation of heterogeneous series. Even if this compulsion gives rise to a true oscillation, one that is free and ethical, it can be automatic and pre-ethical. It would thus appear that the answer is “yes.” However, we must be careful to examine this mechanism, which points from the present of series to the past of identity. Deleuze himself often notes that the movement of differentiation cannot be the result of a lack, but must almost certainly be ascribed to a redundancy. In other words, it is not the case that Gmula’s presence is lacking in the present, but that it is too extensive. That, according to Deleuze, is the nature of compulsion. He stresses that “we do not repeat [a compulsive act] because we repress, but repress because we repeat”: “It is because repetition is necessarily disguised […] that repression occurs in the form of consequence in regard to the representation of presents.”33 It thus turns out that it is a more primeval repetition, which is at the root of that redundant activity in the present that arouses concern and anxiety, and is repressed. This repetition is of course not free; it is mechanical. Deleuze writes that in conventional psychoanalysis repetition is perceived as completely automatic: “The whole theory of repetition is thereby subordinated to the requirements of simple representation, from the standpoint of its realism, materialism and subjectivism. Repetition is subjected to a principle of identity in the former present and a rule of imagination in the actual present.”34 He considers this conception to be faulty; after all, his whole agenda consists of a struggle against conceptions of representation, in the framework of which he 33 34

Ibid., p. 130. Ibid., pp. 128-129.


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presents his concept of series, in order to create a philosophy of repetition, but not to fall into the “trap” of representation: “Repetition is constituted not from one present to another [the past present and the actual present, in his terms] but between the two coexistent series that these presents form in function of the virtual object. […] The displacement of the virtual object is not, therefore, one disguise among others, but the principle from which, in reality, repetition follows in the form of disguised repetition.”35 Therefore, Gmula would appear to be the virtual object, and her repetition or identity is a system of tensions and movements of her character within the series of personality and the series of the golem, a system of disguises with respect to meanings from both series. Deleuze thus overcomes the material automatism of a simple representative repetition by means of the concept of compulsion. However, is not what he proposes, namely the virtual object’s movement between differentiated series, also material and mechanical? He writes that repetition is spiritual, but what does this mean with respect to the freedom to move and to choose? Deleuze claims that each series by itself is not fundamental or original; if so, then neither of them necessarily pulls the object towards itself. This means that one can freely move between the series, since neither is the source or a representation of the other. The meaning of the sign in a series is not determined by its signified with respect to reality, the referent, etc., but with respect to how it differs from a different but similar sign in the other series. We may thus say that repetition is free in the sense that it is not pre-defined by the origin’s power of attraction. One cannot know ahead of time where, to which sign or past event, the reader will return. The bifurcation point in the past is revealed to be such only in the present, after the fact, after the reader encounters redundancy in the present: a redundant or “superfluous” and inadequate sign, such as Gmula’s voice which is heard from behind the walls and sounds like the voice of a mechanical girl. A sign like this demands to be replaced by another, which is naturally to be found in the opposite series. In order for the signs to be exchanged, the two series must meet; this meeting point, where the possibilities of both signs are equalized for a moment, is perceived as a bifurcation point. Deleuze would quite likely say that it is not bifurcation in the past that causes the repetition, but rather repetition causes bifurcation. The motive of the repetition is the need to give meaning to the sign, to associate signs to each other, to read, create a narrative sequence, to understand and to explain.


Ibid., p. 129.

Alternativeness of Myth


According to Deleuze, if the identity does not exist before repetition and differentiation, then history does not exist before it becomes distinct from alternative history. Therefore, a realized history is an original, and alternative history is neither a double, nor a representation, nor yet a (reversed) imitation of the former. Their differentiation is the “source” of both, of their coexistence. In the subsequent passage Deleuze formulates his credo quite clearly: The essential point is the simultaneity and contemporaneity of all the divergent series, the fact that all coexist. […] If all series coexist – then it is no longer possible to regard one as originary and the other as derived, one as model and the other as copy. […] When two divergent stories unfold simultaneously, it is impossible to privilege one over the other: it is a case in which everything is equal, but ‘everything is equal’ is said of the difference, and is said only of the difference between the two. However small the internal difference between the two series, the one story does not reproduce the other, one does not serve as model for the other: rather, resemblance and identity are only functional effects of that difference which alone is originary within the system.”36

According to Deleuze’s approach, repetition is thus free, free from its source. The originator is neither history nor its alternative, but alternativeness itself. Possibilities do not appear in sequence one after the other, the unrealized one after the realized one or vice versa, but rather exist in simultaneity, coexistence, and equality of value. However, this implies that the reader cannot but participate in this work of differentiation/alternativeness. The entire system is free from the source, but the work of the system is not free, even if it is unpredictable. The work of alternativeness appears to be defined deterministically with respect to both series. The reader creates an alternative history by necessity. Therefore, we shall have to go back and discuss this determinism once more from our perspective. In our terms, the movement between two series is an oscillation between the myths. As we shall see below, the myths are presented to the reader for choosing in reading as in a rhetorical act. The entry into the rhetorical act must be free, for otherwise it would not be a rhetorical act.37 Now it is true that the reader participates in the work of differentiation under compulsion, but this is only a compulsion of method: This is how a painter must hold his brush, dip it in the paint, and raise his arm, if he 36

Ibid., pp. 150-152. This is one of the basic conditions of the rhetorical ethos in classical, Aristotelian rhetoric. 37


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wants to paint. But the essential dimension in this act is what is missing in Deleuze’s approach: The free will, intention, choice and decision to use the given method, and in the course of its use, for the creation of meaning, the creation of history, is a creative act, if the reader will excuse the tautology. Choosing between the two myths must be done freely. At each stage, the reader decides anew which myth he will choose, and so reveals his preference; for without preference there is no choice, without choice there is no rhetorical act, without a rhetorical act there is no reading. The purpose of rhetoric is to help us understand the nature of choosing, which is always free, but not final. The original, most primeval myth does not exist, and therefore the choice is not final; but this only means that in every rhetorical act the myths must be reassessed, one’s preference redetermined, and a new choice made. This does not mean that all myths are of equal value or that one cannot be preferred over the other. The work of differentiation includes preferences and free choices made in accordance with the reader’s values and objectives. In every act of reading, just as in a rhetorical act, two myths are candidates for evaluation and choice; the aim of act of convincing is indeed to convince the reader that they are not equivalent. Equivalence only exists before reading, before history, before culture. Deleuze is right: Equality is characteristic of chaos, of entropy. However, the whole aim of rhetoric, culture, and of meaning creation in general is to battle entropy. The work of differentiation and myth creation is never-ending: The reader is cast from one series to the other, from one myth to the other, and is forced to continue to oscillate. However, every oscillatory move leads him to a moment of choosing, when the reader makes his choice again, and it will once more be free, although not with finality, and so he will once more be forced to oscillate again and choose again. Deleuze’s analysis thus stops at a level that is primary from our perspective: the level of oscillation between myths. This is where the work of identity origination begins, the same work that is rejected by Deleuze, or at least pushed aside to the illusory past or future. For us, on the other hand, what is important is the transition to the higher level at which the oscillation no longer takes place between myths but between personalities (which originate in these myths). At this level, ethics is revealed more powerfully, and therefore additional dimensions of freedom and choice are revealed. Subsequently, at every transition to the next level, the level of complexity will also rise as a result of a rise in the dimensions of freedom. From a system with two series or two myths, behind which there is still the background of entropic chaos, we move

Alternativeness of Myth


towards complex systems in which there are no series at all, but complex multi-dimensional branching algorithms. Repetition thus appears compulsive only because our discussion is still only at the first level, at which we are limited to an oscillation between two myths. That is also the reason for the impression that the only accessible freedom is the freedom from an origin, from a representation. Later we shall see that this freedom is an illusion, and that true freedom is to be found somewhere else entirely. Freedom will be inherently embedded in the system in such a way that it will not negate the origin and the representation. The origin will be understood as part of a system of free oscillation, as a center of gravity that generates and not only limits the oscillation. The center will not cease being a center, nor will the representation cease being a representation, but at the same time, the freedom of oscillation between different centers and representations will be preserved. The battle against determinism we will carry out not in the battlefield against the origin but rather in the field of originating a hierarchy of a kind that promises true positive freedom (i.e. not “freedom from” but “freedom to”), freedom to create in the form of rhetorical invention (of identity), and that thus cancels materialist automatism. Deleuze has not saved us from the mechanicalness of determinism, and we continue to move towards rhetoric. In any discussion of Deleuze’s comments on time, and especially on history and its multiplicity, we must remember the project in which these comments are anchored. His purpose is to combat the conception of representation, of original and copy, of model and imitation, a battle against a metaphysical hierarchy. Deleuze expresses some thoughts that supposedly have to do with a theory of alternative history. At their core is the concept of the simulacra or the phantasms: [They] are not simply copies of copies, degraded icons involving infinitely relaxed relations of resemblance. […] They have externalised resemblance and live on difference instead. If they produce an external effect of resemblance, this takes the form of an illusion, not an internal principle; it is itself constructed on the basis of a disparity, having interiorised the dissimilitude of its constituent series and the divergence of its points of view to the point where it shows several things or tells several stories at once. This is its first characteristic. Does this not mean, however, that if simulacra themselves refer to a model, it is one which is not endowed with the ideal identity of the Same but, on the contrary, is a model of the Other,

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an other model, the model of difference in itself from which flows that interiorised dissimilitude? (Italics mine – R.K.).38 Each series tells a story: not different points of view on the same story, like the different points of view on the town we find in Leibniz, but completely distinct stories that unfold simultaneously. The basic series are divergent: not relatively, in the sense that one could retrace one’s path and find a point of convergence, but absolutely divergent in the sense that the point or horizon of convergence lies in a chaos or is constantly displaced within that chaos. This chaos is itself the most positive, just as the divergence is the object of affirmation. It is indistinguishable from the great work which contains all the complicated series, which affirms and complicates all the series at once.39

Is it possible to consider these thoughts as a theory of alternative history? Is alternative history a simulacrum? What is alternativeness from Deleuze’s perspective? What would we have got had we tried to create a model of alternative history on the basis of Deleuze’s philosophy? Would we have come into possession of an adequate model of (at least) the genre of alternative history? Supposedly, the answer is “yes”: After all, there is the impression that a substantive or generative connection exists between the possibility for the growth of the genre of alternative history and the collapse of the metaphysics of representation. However, the question is not only to what extent Deleuze’s conception is adequate, but also whether it is not superfluous. Is it possible to understand the alternativeness in, say, Agnon’s “Iddo and Einam,” based on a different, simpler and more elegant theory, one that does not reject representation, hierarchy, center, etc.? We cannot of course undertake a systematic critique of Deleuze’s approach here, but we can examine its validity with respect to alternative history, which it is, implicitly, supposed to explain. We shall treat this as a test case: Does alternative history derive from “non-hierarchicality,” decentralization, non-originality, equality of values, etc.? Deleuze thus emphasizes that after having exposed the absolute difference (difference in and for itself) between signs, narratives, etc., we arrive at recognition of their equality of value. Histories are different, but equivalent. To return once more to our example, Agnon’s “Iddo and Einam,” it would seem that the alternative history created in the text as a complement to “realized” history exists contemporaneously with it, is intertwined with it, and the reader oscillates between them together with the characters. It would thus appear that Deleuze’s model has proven its 38 39

Ibid., pp. 155-156. Ibid., p. 150.

Alternativeness of Myth


validity. However, if we examine these histories and the mechanism of mediation between them more closely, we shall discover two major difficulties, one at the material level and the other at the level of personality. At the material level, the level of space-time, we can see that both series, both histories, do not exist simultaneously, and that the Deleuzean simultaneity is only a metaphor. Deleuze himself writes: “From the point of view of the presents which pass in representation, the series are certainly successive, one ‘before’ and the other ‘after’. It is from this point of view that the second is said to resemble the first. However, this no longer applies from the point of view of the chaos which contains them, the object = x which runs through them, the precursor which establishes communication between them or the forced movement which points beyond them: the differentiator always makes them coexist.”40 The problem is that the origination of time, which Deleuze analyses at the beginning of the chapter, turns out at the chapter’s end to be the absolute abolition of time. What does Deleuze offer as a substitute for the metaphysics of “before” and “after,” of origin and copy? He offers metaphysics of co-existence and co-temporality, which is no less illusory than its predecessor is. It is not even synchrony or uchrony, but just absolute achrony, the irrelevance of the time dimension. As physicists know today, even chaos is not lacking a time dimension.41 The “spatial” paradigm of simultaneity that is so typical of modern thought leads to ahistoricism, in which even those series for whose temporality Deleuze argues, cannot exist, since a series shrinks to a closed point, from which no meaning can exit and with which of course no communication is possible; this is not a monad, but a true black hole.


Ibid., 150. The rise of chaos theory is often associated with, or at least compared with, the rise of postmodernist thought (see Katherin Hayles, Chaos Bound). Such a comparison is doubtful, to say the least. One would say that contrast is the only possible relation, if any exists at all. The discoveries of chaos theory are precisely in the opposite direction to postmodernist thought: the latter can, as a broad generalization, be said to reveal the chaos that lies behind order, while chaos theory reveals the order that lies behind chaos. It is unlikely that this difference is due to the epistemological gap between the natural sciences and the humanities. On the contrary, we suppose the unity of these domains, and that in this case the humanities have strayed from the right path. That is why it is so important to have a correct understanding of the amazing discoveries in the natural sciences, to avoid facile parallelisms and transfers, and to construct suitable mediation procedures (see Katsman, Poetics of Becoming, pp. 99-116, 135-152). 41


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Let us return to our example. When, at the beginning of “Iddo and Einam” the protagonists speak about a certain imaginary golem-like Gmula, the real (note that we do not say “the true”) Gmula does not yet exist. Later, when the figure of the real Gmula comes into existence, the imaginary Gmula no longer exists; some elements of the golem are inserted into the new figure, but not as a distinct being, only as personality traits. The personality’s becoming is an irreversible sequence, and it is this irreversibility that creates the timeline. It is indeed ironic that it is chaos theory (of Ilia Prigogine’s type) that provides the scientific foundation for the origination of time from irreversible processes (of the emergence of order from chaos). Of course, the series themselves do not follow each other in time, but their components. The character (Deleuze’s “object = x”) moves, oscillates between different signs in various series, new features are added, existing features are re-dispersed, the character becomes ever more complex. This is precisely the becoming against which Deleuze fights. Contrary to expectation, becoming alone can ensure the simultaneity of the features, becoming and what is inseparable from it – namely the emerging personality’s identity. The emerging personality is the only guarantee for the simultaneity and coexistence of all the series. However, this is almost trivial. After all, in what sense are the series simultaneous? In the quite well known purely metaphysical sense, which does not add much to our understanding of alternative history and the principle of alternativeness. So when Deleuze speaks about the simultaneous existence of many histories, we must keep in mind that these are not real histories, and that the simultaneity is only metaphysical (and thus cannot explain how alternative history functions in a text). Furthermore, even multiplicity cannot be real in this case since the simultaneity of series requires the existence of a single personality, and therefore the series that shrink into themselves as black holes cannot be multiple except, again, in a metaphysical sense. They are not real possibilities of the personality’s becoming, as an alternative history demands, but merely virtual and abstract. If we take this situation to absurdity, it would seem that the personality would turn into the virtual unity of all possibilities of becoming, that is, an accumulation of an infinite number of signs. The problem is not that true multiplicity turns into chaos (in the classical sense), but that in the Deleuzean model there is no way to draw a boundary between chaos and multiplicity, although such a boundary (choice, delimitation, as Max Weber has already shown) is a necessary condition for the creation of history or histories. Thus to argue that Gmula’s history as a golem and her history as a poetess in love are equivalent, coexistent and simultaneous means to argue

Alternativeness of Myth


that they are not historical at all, however much Deleuze insists that it is the difference that is primal, absolute, the originator. Black holes cannot be either different or similar, unless the difference is also a black hole. Perhaps this is what Deleuze has in mind when he speaks about a “difference for itself.” At any rate, this difference cannot give rise to the oscillation needed for alternativeness, or to the choosing needed for history. The course of Deleuze’s entire complex analysis concerning the origination of time thus has the purpose of proving that only simultaneity and coexistence exist, so to speak, while time as a sequence is not real and does not exist. Does coexistence negate sequential memory? Let us assume that in certain moments of reading we oscillate between certain differences in Gmula’s character, between different histories of Gmula. Does this oscillation negate the hierarchy between these histories? Is it indeed the case that in order to enable the oscillation and simultaneous coexistence of two histories in the present we must deny the hierarchy between the histories? In other words, does the system necessarily become a simulacrum? Is the oscillation a simulacrum? Deleuze speaks about a “dark precursor,” but is it really dark? When Gamzu sits at home and tells his story about Gmula, his love and his marriage, he presents the precursor. Is this a “dark precursor” or a true origin? The answer has already been given: Gmula that Gamzu describes never existed; she is the “dark precursor” the past in itself. However, even the “precursor” is only given to us in the form of a story, and in this respect does not differ from any other history of Gmula in the present; it therefore cannot be “dark,” even when it is a “past in itself.” It is thus just a classical mythological past, of the kind that exists overtly or implicitly in every epic and every cultural narrative. This past is the origin of everything. However, this does not yet imply the determinism of the conception of the copy. The original does not predefine all the possible encounters between the divergent series (myths, histories); it remains a past in (and for) itself, a precursor, not dark but shining, not a black hole but a sun that sheds its light on all the signs and the series, yet does not impose any specific predetermined order on them. If this is the case, what brings these different series together in the present and organizes them? Apparently, the narrative course itself. The narrative brings the divergent heterogeneous series together and organizes them. It has a past of its own, a source, a time, and a hierarchy of its own. It has a distinct center or centers, bonds of intrigue, as Ricoeur noted. He also showed quite convincingly that history, being a narrative, is a hierarchical order of sequences. In particular, what brings series together, and what holds them together, in the case of an alternative


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history? We know this with certainty: It is the memory of the bifurcation point. Every oscillation between the series involves a return, not the eternal Nietzschean return discussed by Deleuze but a quite concrete return to a very specific point in the story, the bifurcation point, that points with the arrow of time at the other, slightly shifted point, the point of choosing. This shift of the point of choosing with respect to the bifurcation point is a mark of temporal continuity and the origination of time itself. It is at the bifurcation point, and only there, that simultaneity and coexistence of possibilities exist. After the choice has been made, the possibilities cannot continue to exist in any simultaneity except for one that is metaphysical and a-historical. It is precisely for this that alternative history is created, to compensate for the impossibility of a historical simultaneity of possibilities. Alternative history exists “simultaneously” with realized history only in the conditional mode, in parentheses. At any rate, it is of necessity actually created after realized history. At any moment, at any point of contact between series, it is always one-step late. The very decision to realize an unrealized possibility assumes a distinction between realized and unrealized possibilities, and this is possible only when certain possibilities are already perceived as having been realized. Otherwise, the concept of alternativeness becomes meaningless. This simple, even trivial deduction is meant only to clarify one fact: The simultaneity of series and signs does not lead to simultaneity of histories, and therefore does not abolish their hierarchy. The temporal hierarchy is supported also by the spatial hierarchy. Gmula leaves her homeland, then she leaves her home, she is in a room in the home of the Greifenbachs, then she is not there, then returns, and so on. Thus far, we have analyzed only one difficulty in Deleuze’s conception, and that one is not the main one. The other aspect is the personality’s becoming. It must be remembered that alternative histories are myths, and as such, they appear as realizations of the possibility of the personality’s becoming. In other words, in any such history or, in Deleuze’s terms, in every series, a personality is created. No doubt, the humanity of this personality is a cognitive illusion, but its essence lies in the fact that it becomes the subject of ethical relations from the reader’s perspective. We would not be able to speak of myths at all had we not perceived such a personality as a living human being. If it is true that our relations with the text has a mythopoetic-ethical character, then in an alternative history we always choose the personality as the subject of the relation; we will always search for the human in the story, or a story in which the human comes into being. Even if such a search or such an expectation is not presumed to lie at the foundations of reading and

Alternativeness of Myth


understanding, this expectation, or even demand, would still have appeared in the process of the increasing complexity of our relationship with the text. The more complex it becomes, the more we participate in the characters’ oscillations and choices. This participation, from our perspective, is just alternativeness, and specifically alternative history. In other words, alternative history is our intervention in the character’s oscillation and choosing, and this oscillation and choosing are only possible if the character is a personality, that is, a true subject of oscillation and choosing, that is created or revived thanks to our reading or our imagination. Thus the series from Deleuze’s philosophy cease being just series. A series as in mathematics is completely indifferent to any sign of humanity. In our view, we should stress once more, a myth cannot be reduced to a series. We can speak of series only locally, in short passages of analysis, as we did above in our discussion of “Iddo and Einam,” but for us this would be no more than a preliminary analysis, a single link. We cannot remain at that level and forget that all series are ultimately directed at mythopoesis, that is, at the becoming of the personality and the increase in the complexity of our relations with the personality. The human face has thus been imparted to the conception of series: People create alternative histories in order to find people in them. We must not forget that in one of her histories Gmula is just a golem, a moon, a postcard, a dream, while in another she is a living woman. The primeval nature of the difference as assumed by Deleuze in no way leads to a recognition of the equivalence of these histories. Agnon does all in his power to blur the traces; because of his unique poetic outlook, he perhaps tries to create an illusion of equivalence, of dismantling the hierarchy. However, this is nothing more than a poetic trick, a game that only superficially resembles postmodernist “carnival”: behind it always hides a clear preference for a personality. Everything leads to Gmula’s turning into a living woman, and that is what she is revealed to be. At this moment, the history that originates Gmula as a living personality becomes completely dominant and establishes an uncompromising hegemony. It originates an irreversible time and becomes the center of the system, the source of all signs. Everything else in the story becomes organized in the form of hierarchical concentric circles, which are drawn by centripetal force to Gmula’s personality and retain their unity only thanks to it. It is impossible to say that in this system there exist only “differences of differences,” because at its center there is a living personality that makes a real choice, in which the reader participates. We can only speak of equivalence as long as the myth has not been created: The Greifenbachs’ fantasies, the narrator’s dreams, Gamzu’s stories, hallucinations, and sounds – all these are


Chapter Four

different and equivalent histories. However, after the personality has been revealed we can no longer view the system as a simulacrum. The appearance of the personality polarizes the field, giving rise to at least two poles, Gmula as a woman and as a character. Deleuze rightly disputes the concept of the icon;42 true, the icon does not exist, but not because the original has disappeared, but to the contrary, because the original establishes itself absolutely in the personality’s becoming, in the myth. The personality negates any possibility of simulation, either in the form of an icon or a representation, or in the form of a simulacrum. Furthermore, in the personality’s presence the system of alternative histories discovers a certain objective: the reconstruction of the oscillation. While up to now the “coexistence” of the series was completely chaotic, baseless and purposeless, and therefore non-hierarchical, it becomes all these in the process of the personality’s becoming in one of the histories. If a personality is created in more than one history, we witness (and participate in) an oscillation between different identities, but these identities cannot by equivalent, just as different people, or different stories for that matter, cannot be equivalent. Deleuze’s model thus describes the work of alternativeness only (a) in restricted loci and incomplete passages of text, and (b) in the first stages of the crystallization of alternativeness, pre-mythical, pre-personality, anonymous, chaotic, entropic, in short, pre-ethical-historical. In the genre of alternative history there is no relation of equality between different histories; the author always prefers one of these, and tries to share his preferences with his readers. Furthermore, alternative history is written in order to create this inequality, this hierarchy. This is not a movement from the center, but to the center, a reconstruction of the center. The existing center is replaced by another, more central, or is confirmed by another, less central. If there is no competition between histories over the issue of centrality, the genre of alternative history loses its meaning, its essence.


Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, p. 154-155.


a. Rhetoric In the previous chapter we showed that alternativeness applies firstand-foremost to myths. This hypothesis led us to consider some fundamental questions concerning the relationship between alternative history and mythopoesis: What is the meaning of multiplicity in mythopoesis? How can possibilistic thinking explain the relations between different myths? How can mythological formalism be overcome so that the real mythopoesis in the text can be approached? How can historical and mythopoetic determinism be overcome without repeating the problem of Deleuzian non-hierarchical synchronism? Raymond Aron, who continued and corrected the work of Max Weber, wrote that a return to the past is necessary in order to recognize the uncertainty of the future. Clearly, if this “future of the past” is not identical to the present, then what we get is alternative history. But how is it possible for this non-identity to induce in us a true oscillation between uncertain possibilities when we “know” the “future” in advance? An inversion of a statement by Lévinas (“an encounter with the future is an encounter with the absolute other”) gave us the statement that an encounter with the other is an encounter with the absolute future, that is, a future that is truly unknown, a real future, not “as if.” In this way it is possible to explain the real oscillation, but it is also very easy to lose sight of the foci of oscillation, which disappear in the unknown future. How can one preserve in one theory both a real uncertain future (that makes a real oscillation, and therefore also a real choice, possible) and a real anticipation (the ability to predict, assess and compare future possibilities, the concrete objects of choice)? These questions are too broad and complex to be discussed here as thoroughly as they deserve in every possible context. Nor is such a discussion necessary for the purposes of the present study. Alternative history is a discursive configuration, and if alternativeness itself concerns


Chapter Five

myths, as pointed out above, we can narrow our perspective even more and speak about a narrative configuration. In the domain of the narrative there is only one practice whose theory can provide an answer to the questions posed above: rhetoric. In this chapter, we shall present rhetoric in a double light: (1) as a practice of creation and negation of possibilities, and (2) as a practice of origination/realization and negation of the personality. Uniting these two definitions will lead to understanding rhetoric as the practice of creating possibilities of realizing the personality, of presenting them to be selected or rejected, to identify with them or not. Rhetoric will therefore be presented as a model of (multiple) mythopoesis, which of and by itself constitutes a model of alternative history. In the first part of our discussion we shall thus see that (a) rhetoric is a practice and mechanism for the creation of multiple possibilities and (b) creates an oscillation between different possibilities, (c) leading to choosing one specific possibility, to the exclusion of others. How does rhetoric create possibilities? It does so in a way that is similar to the branching out of a tree trunk: At a certain point, in a certain situation that Lloyd Bitzer has called “the rhetorical situation,”1 reality splits, cracks appear in its unity and a situation of multiplicity arises. This reality that disintegrates in the rhetorical act is first-and-foremost language or, more broadly, discourse. Rhetoric destroys language. As the members of the Liège group have shown, rhetoric is a deviation from the norms of discourse that another language creates within the language.2 There have also been scholars who treated this deviation as the norm, among them linguists who ascribed to language as a whole such a character of internal duality, so that every meaningful linguistic expression is of necessity perceived as rhetorical. Students of culture and discourse, such as Roland Barthes, conceived of this duality of language as an ideological mechanism of deceit and brainwashing by those in power. Subsequently George Lakoff, Mark Johnson and many of their followers argued for the essentially systematic, coherent nature of metaphors as the very basis of everyday conceptual thinking and language.3 However, what all these approaches have in common is that they present the deviation itself as something negative, since it is always accompanied by concepts of reduction (this is the term used by the Liège group as the counterpart of 1

Lloyd F. Bitzer, “The Rhetorical Situation,” Philosophy and Rhetoric, 1 (January, 1968), pp. 1-14. 2 Dubois et al., A General Rhetoric. See also: Lotman, “Rhetoric as a Mechanism of Meaning-Generation,” pp. 36-53. 3 George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 2003.

Rhetoric as an Indeterministic Mechanism of Alternativeness


deviation), such as level zero of writing in Barthes, or system and coherence in Lakoff (undertaking an attempt at reining in the essence of metaphor). It is difficult to resist this seemingly almost self-evident tendency towards negativity. Consider, for example, the following metaphor from Agnon’s story “The Song That Was Sung”: “The voice of an old tallit (prayer shawl) as it swallows its tears.”4 Such an impossible bond between a tallit and a human face appears at first glance as alienating both from their meanings, that is, as a destruction of language. However, it can also be understood in a different way as enhancing meaning. On the other hand, however, this approach ignores rhetoric’s destructive power. How can this difficulty be settled? Elsewhere I showed that the destruction of language in rhetoric is not negative in essence: It does not deny but only creates. The cultural structure can only grow and become richer as it is nourished by the game of imaginary “deviations.”5 To use a spatial metaphor of sorts we may say that rhetoric creates “additional layers” inside language, although clearly language has no “inside”, it just grows, its utterances become stronger and more resilient, signifying the rise of cultural strength, an ability to build more stable sequences of utterances, in other words, more stable, efficient and fertile social configurations. Rhetoric is the expression and means of a society’s willpower.6 Real rhetoric (not the decadence of tropism) is an embodiment of creative thought,7 of the power of life. New buds grow on the branch without destroying it. In the wake of the rhetorical act, language as we knew it before no longer exists, and this creates an impression of destruction.

b. From Rhetoric as Untranslatability to Rhetoric as Alternativeness However, in the wake of this “destruction” we at any rate find ourselves in an almost impossible situation, in which more than one language exists simultaneously. Juri Lotman noticed this feature of rhetoric. In his book Universe of the Mind, in a chapter entitled “Rhetoric as a Mechanism of Meaning-Generation,” he writes: “A pair of mutually 4

Agnon, Samukh ve-nir’e, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, Schocken, p. 154. Katsman, Nevua ktana, p. 137 ff. 6 See: Valery Tjupa, “Foundations of Comparative Rhetoric,” in Russian, Kritika i Semiotika, 7, 2004, pp. 66-87. 7 See: Thomas B. Farrell, Norms of Rhetorical Culture, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1993. 5


Chapter Five

non-comparable signifying elements, between which, thanks to the context they share, a relationship of adequacy is established, form a semantic trope. Tropes are not, therefore, external ornaments, something applied to a thought from the outside – they constitute the essence of creative thinking, and their function extends beyond art. They are inherent in all creativity.”8 Subsequently Lotman explains the nature of these elements and the nature of the adequacy that arises between them: “A trope, therefore, is not an embellishment merely on the level of expression, a decoration on an invariant content, but is a mechanism for constructing a content which could not be constructed by one language alone. A trope is a figure born at the point of contact between two languages, and its structure is therefore identical to that of the creative consciousness itself.”9 Lotman quickly proceeds from the structure of the trope to rhetoric in general and the mechanism, which he had just discovered, closes in on itself: “Rhetorical organization is produced in the field of semantic tension between ‘organic’ and ‘foreign’ structures, and its elements can thus be doubly interpreted. The ‘foreign’ element, even when mechanically introduced into a new structural context, ceases to be equivalent to itself and becomes a sign or an imitation of itself.”10 Lotman defines the relationship between the two languages or the two organizations that structure the trope and rhetoric in general with the concept of “mutual untranslatability,”11 that is, the impossibility of translating, mediating, going over from one to the other and back. A critical discussion of this approach will lead us to a new understanding of the mechanism of rhetoric. 1) Lotman’s approach is too formal and lacking in functional insight. It talks about the untranslatability of different languages but says not a word about the function of this phenomenon. Nothing is said about convincing, and as a result, rhetoric is not distinct from poetics or any other manifestation of heterogeneity, of absurd and paradoxical combinations, and the like, which do not necessarily possess a rhetorical character. Placing untranslatable elements next to each other does not necessarily always instigate a translation, and even if it does, this does not necessarily signify the origination of rhetoric. Now we turn to a second difficulty.


Lotman, Universe of the Mind, p. 37. Ibid., p. 44. 10 Ibid., p. 50. 11 Ibid., pp. 15, 37, 125. 9

Rhetoric as an Indeterministic Mechanism of Alternativeness


2) Mutual untranslatability of and by itself does not imply any specific character possessed by the relation between untranslatable elements. This character may be of different types. At one extreme, there is complete alienation, in which the elements do not even turn towards each other, do not demand translation, remain enclosed in a perfect autonomy. At the other extreme, there are relations of genus and species, part and whole, the particular and the general, in which neither can be perceived without the other, or in which one is only an expression of the other (when one’s means of expression are not translated into those of the other). 3) Lotman removes rhetoric outside the pale of language and transfers it to the level of the text. He assumes that mutual untranslatability exists between different languages, for example verbal and visual. In other words, rhetoric is ostensibly incapable of appearing within the framework of a single language. Lotman argues that even where rhetoric does act within the bounds of a single language, as in metaphor, for example, it is always based on a combination of a verbally translatable image and one that is not verbally translatable. Thus, untranslatability within a single language is just untranslatability between different languages. This argument lacks a functional component, and this leads to confusion between the two: On the one hand, rhetoric is presented as a meaning-creation mechanism in the case of very small semantic elements such as phrases, in which case we cannot speak about the level of the text. This meaning-creation mechanism operates already at a very low level (even at the lowest level, the phoneme, as members of the Liège group have shown). On the other hand, Lotman is forced to move to the textual level, because he must lead the discussion to a level at which it is possible to speak of untranslatable languages. In speaking about language, he must talk about grammar and syntax, and therefore the transition to a higher level is inevitable. However, this higher level, the level of the text, is characterized by a certain functionality that differs from that of the lower levels. This confusion gives rise to the following problem: 4) A confusion in the historical typology of literary genres as presented by Lotman. This typology is rather weak, because Lotman constructs it on the basis of a single formal principle, that of untranslatability. However, it can easily be shown that in every genre, style and movement, in every text, levels of meaning-creation can be isolated in which untranslatability is discernible, and other levels in which it is lacking or not discernible enough. It thus turns out that even at the higher level, that of the text, untranslatability does not serve any


Chapter Five

purpose except for creating the effect of untranslatability; it refers only to itself. As Lotman himself says, signs appear as evidence of their being signs. The function of signs in rhetoric thus does not differ from their function in poetics. Let us now see how we can solve these problems in a positive manner. First, we shall replace the negative concept of “untranslatability” with the positive one of “conflict.” By doing so we immediately define the nature of untranslatability, the nature of the relation between its various components, and also reveal in it a temporal-dynamic dimension of occurrence. To the problem of the level at which the conflict takes place, that of language or that of the text, we give the following solution: Conflict occurs at both levels by establishing a generative relationship between them. In other words, as we shall see below, the conflict’s source, its motive or genome, is the struggle over appropriating the word/name at the level of language, while its actual realization and evolution take place at higher levels, in the form of a struggle between the different actualizations of the word/name, that is, between different myths or narratives. As a result Lotman’s untranslatability, which he deems to be the source of rhetoric, can now be narrowly defined as a narrative conflict. This approach also explains the mutual attraction between the two untranslatable components, explains the need for translation. A conflict by itself already implies partnership. The demand for translation arises because different elements begin to search for a solution to the conflict. Translation appears on the horizon as a resolution of the conflict. Furthermore, the concept of conflict inserts the functional orientation into the game. The conflict has a pragmatic meaning: Each side decides to appropriate the name in order to create a more convincing narrative, one that will cause the audience to believe it and identify with it and not with another, competing narrative. Each side encourages the audience to choose one of the proposed myths. This pragmatic orientation towards a specific choosing is rhetorical persuasion. It is what separates narrative conflict from other kinds of untranslatability, most of all – from poetic untranslatability. Poetics lacks this functional-pragmatic orientation to choosing a narrative. Poetic untranslatability does not derive from the practical need to appropriate the name (at the level of language) or to develop it (at the level of the text). It seems that we can clearly delineate the boundary of the rhetorical way of appropriating language, in contrast with the poetical way. The model we propose overcomes Lotman’s formalism also in that it grants his static model a temporal dimension and dynamism, since

Rhetoric as an Indeterministic Mechanism of Alternativeness


untranslatability itself does not assume temporality. Conflict, on the other hand, does require time for its development, for the transition between different phases of struggle and appropriation, not only because of the physical, or should we say “organic,” duration of the gesture of appropriation (in Eric Gans’ terms), but first-and-foremost because of the temporal character of the “unfolding of the name” – of the myth (in Losev’s terms), which is, after all, the realization of the personality in history. It is the historical essence of narrative, which is not limited only to the organics of consecutively linking one word to another. All narrative activities, and a narrative conflict between them, require time and originate temporality. At the ethical-pragmatic level, too, a rhetorical act requires time, because both the persuasion of the speaker and the decision-making by the audience need time; the presentation of myths for choosing, the oscillation and the choosing itself – all need time. Lotman’s model ignores this requirement completely. But now, after we have gained a more precise understanding of the conflictive underpinnings of rhetoric, we can continue and build an adequate model. Finally, as the last step from negativity to positivity, instead of or complementary to the concept of conflict, we shall define the relation between different languages created in the rhetorical act with the concept of alternativeness, which signifies the nature of the relation, its functionality, and also its pragmatic direction. We thus assume that although alternativeness exists already at the level of the word, single words come together to form entire sequences, in which alternativeness expresses itself in all its strength. These are not paradigmatic but syntagmatic sequences, that is, narratives. In rhetoric, like in classical poetics, these languages or narratives and the relation between them possess a dialogical nature. They always refer to each other, because every narrative always turns to the listener and wants to persuade him to choose it and not some other narrative. Every narrative wants to compete, to succeed, to capture the reader’s heart, against a competing narrative. Why is every discursive configuration in rhetoric of necessity dialogical, why does it want to reach the other, to persuade, to convince? Ruth Amossy’s research on the boundary between the study of argumentation and the study of discourse has led her to argue that every discourse possesses an argumentative dimension; she equates argumentation with persuasion.12 Roselyne Koren, relying on Chaïm Perelman, adds another facet by arguing that every discourse is rhetorical, that is, deals


Ruth Amossy, L’argumentation dans le discourse, Paris, Armand Colin, 2006.


Chapter Five

with persuasion, because it always involves taking an ethical stand, even when it is hidden.13 This makes rhetoric appear to be an ethical practice. Rhetoric thus creates multiple narratives, multiple interpretations of reality, multiple intentions to persuade, multiple values. This multiplicity is offered to the public in the rhetorical act, is presented for evaluation and choosing. Let us see for example the passage in the Agnon story “The Song That Was Sung” in which “the sweet man,” who lives in the Land of Israel, describes his relations with his relatives who live in the United States: “People say in the Baal Shem Tov’s name that the Gemara tells of these two cheerful men and so on, whereas in fact there was only one there, but he laughed at the world and the world laughed at him. In the same way my relatives laugh at me for being here and I laugh at them for being there.”14 This homiletic story, presented in the name of the Baal Shem Tov, is based on a Talmudic text that constitutes a cornerstone of the centuries-old polemic about the justification of joy: Rabbi Beroka of Hoza’ah used to spend time in the market at Bet Lefet, where Elijah often appeared to him. Once he asked him: “Is there anyone in this market who has a share in the world to come?” He replied: “No.” […] While they were talking, two men passed by, and Elijah remarked: “These two have a share in the world to come.” Rabbi Beroka then approached and asked them: “What do you do?” They replied: “We are cheerful people, when we see men depressed we cheer them up; furthermore, when we see two people quarreling we strive hard to make peace between them.”15

The Talmud’s position in the quoted passage is unambiguous. It refers neither to joy nor to laughter, but to a theological-ethical evaluation of the actions of those who bring joy and amusement to others: Their merit is so great that they are deemed to have a share in the world to come already in this life. Let us stress again: Not someone who is merely happy himself, but someone who makes happiness proliferate, someone whose actions are directed towards others, is the hero of this legend. Happiness materializes as an action, as a human interrelationship. However, the Baal Shem Tov’s words as quoted in Agnon’s story deal with laughter, and take the discussion to another plane. The laughter in this case is closer to scorn than to happiness, and in this context, the “sweet man” uses a parable of 13

Roselyne Koren, Les enjeux ethiques de l’ecriture de presse et la mise en mots du terrorisme, Paris, L’Harmattan, 1996. 14 Samukh ve-nir’e, p. 152. 15 Babylonian Talmud, tractate Taanit, page 22a.

Rhetoric as an Indeterministic Mechanism of Alternativeness


his own, in which he compares the relation between the world and that in the story to the relation between himself and his relatives who live outside the Land of Israel. Agnon creates a “fork” of two sources: The first source is pushed aside by the second, but does not leave the stage entirely; rather, it is banished to the margins of the field of vision. This intertextual dioptric creates the oscillation of the character between two states of stability, two poles of identification, two narratives, or myths: Elijah and the Baal Shem Tov, happiness and laughter. The Baal Shem Tov proposes to replace Elijah’s theological ethics by a kind of existentialist cosmology, in which man stands face to face not in front of another man, but in front of the world as a kind of mirror, and neither bring joy to each other, but each laughs at the other. From the perspective of gestural analysis, these two poles reflect two different but not necessarily contradictory gestural mechanisms: An interactive, communicative gesture, on the one hand, and an autistic gesture of the self, on the other. Agnon’s text originates the sweet man’s smile as a bi-stable oscillator of these two gestures: To touch myself with laughter, or to touch the other with it. In short, using a relatively simple intertextual game Agnon creates an oscillation between two myths, one theological-ethical, and the other cosmological-existential. The protagonist himself embodies this oscillation: the sweet man at the beginning of the story is transformed into an angry prophet at the end. And this end returns the reader to the protagonist’s rhetorical act quoted above, in which he put into effect the multiplicity of possibilities (of the materialization of his personality, that is, of his myths) and the oscillation between them, to which every attempt to understand the protagonist and the story returns. It is important to emphasize that the two contradictory narratives created here are an integral part of the same rhetorical act. The split, the multiplicity that is created does not destroy the discursive utterance’s unity, nor what Bitzer calls the rhetorical situation. To the contrary, it is this multiplicity that creates it and opens reality to free choice; it is a multiplicity of possibilities, something that is not self-evident. It is important to show why in rhetoric a multiplicity of (competing, conflicting) narratives-myths is a multiplicity of possibilities, in what sense every myth presented to the audience at the moment of speech constitutes a possibility. A possibility in “pure” form can be gotten by means of a simple linguistic procedure: Possibility = Counterfactual Conditioning Element






Chapter Five

As an example, let us take the following sentence: “If this tree were not green, it would have been yellow.” The first part of the sentence is the conditioning element while the second part is the counterfactual statement. This second part, “the tree would have been yellow,” is the unrealized possibility, the tree’s alternative history. The kernel and main result of this procedure is the predication of the possessive. True, this is a fake predication, since it ascribes a counterfactual feature to the object (namely, the tree’s yellowness), but still it is the essence of the “possible-ness,” as it were. Every multiplicity of possibility is thus ultimately derived from some unity of predication and of the object of predication – the object, subject, or phenomenon to which the possibilities belong; they are its different (hypothetical) realizations. As we shall see below, in the case of rhetoric, possibilities are not those of an idea or an interpretation (since possibility is already an interpretation), but of a personality (or identity) formed in the rhetorical act. At this point, we shall only note that all the myths exhibited in the rhetorical act (two, in the basic case) are the possibilities of the same personality. Choosing one negates the other, but the negation itself is only possible in the simultaneous presence of both in the rhetorical act. The conflict between the myths arises from the need to choose one of them, and that need arises from the fact that myth is possibility, since only one possibility can be materialized at any given historical moment. The narrator thus succeeds in creating such a fertile split of reality that the audience must intervene in the conflict and materialize one of the possibilities, which means to validate one of the myths, to believe in it, to participate in its becoming. The narrator creates a new myth, but this “innovation” only has meaning against the background of the old myth in which the audience believes, at least as far as the narrator assumes. He forces the audience to choose between the two myths. Ostensibly, this is a simple, even trivial situation, but the rhetorical practice is very complex, and recognizes several different modes of action. This complexity is due to the fact that rhetoric itself always vacillates between ethics and pragmatics. Elsewhere I constructed a detailed typology of rhetoric, which consists of a system of two axes: an axis of myths and an axis of identities.16 Here I shall only mention some of the results of my analysis. If it is true that rhetoric is based on a normative deviation (according to the Liège Group), a certain rhetorical act can be thought to be based on deviation from a pragmatic or from an ethical norm. In the former case we get, depending on the dimension of deviation 16

Katsman, Nevua ktana, pp. 160-170.

Rhetoric as an Indeterministic Mechanism of Alternativeness


(myth or identity), two types of rhetoric: (1) A dialectical rhetoric (the hearer accepts the speaker’s position, but does not necessarily identify with him or agree to follow him or act in accordance with his wishes). (2) A pragmatic rhetoric (the hearer does not necessarily accept the speaker’s position [including cases in which such acceptance is not required] but does follow him and act in accordance with his wishes). In case of deviation from an ethical norm, we get two other types: (3) An assertive rhetoric (the practical norm is preserved but the main effort goes into persuading or convincing the listener, even at the risk of endangering one’s good relations with him). (4) A soft rhetoric (the speaker remains too “lukewarm” towards the listener and his positions; he presents his arguments in a soft, even weak, friendly manner. He tries not to hurt the audience’s feelings, wants to maintain good [free and open] relations with it, even if this could adversely affect his persuasiveness). In actual practice, any rhetorical act is based on a certain deviation from both norms, the practical and the ethical. When the types of rhetoric enumerated above are crossed, we arrive at the range of strategies of realistic rhetoric. From this point of view, it is thus neither possible nor necessary to separate the ethical from the pragmatic dimension of rhetoric. From the days of Plato and the Sophists to this day the debate has been raging about which dimension is dominant, whether one can or even should speak about rhetoric in ethical terms, and if so, whether it should be judged as positive or negative. Currently representatives of American neo-Pragmatism are trying to resolve this difficulty in their own way,17 while followers of Chaïm Perelman view themselves as the guardians of the ethical purity of rhetoric.18 In the model proposed here, the two dimensions are inseparable; they condition and feed each other, despite the fact that they also compete with each other. Thus, for example, the sweet man’s above-mentioned rhetorical act in the story “The Song That Was Sung” opens the Talmudic text to different possibilities of novel interpretation and understanding. This openness is a condition for freedom of choice, and therefore for ethics. In addition, openness also serves a concrete pragmatic purpose, to which the speech act is directed. The multiplicity of possibilities gives rise to both ethics and pragmatics in equal measure. Rhetoric is thus the destruction of language and discourse not only in the sense stressed by the Liège group (deviation from the normative literal, grammatical and syntactic meaning), but also in the sense of breaking up 17

Steven Mailloux, Reception Histories: Rhetoric, Pragmatism, and American Cultural Politics, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1998. 18 See, for example, Koren, Les enjeux ethiques.


Chapter Five

the unity-uniformity of the myth created in the speech act, of the creation of multiplicity. This character of rhetoric is expressed most explicitly in well-known manifestations such as polysemy and symbolism. But in fact rhetoric is more than that: It turns discourse into a space of multiple possibilities, and the practice of signification and expression – into a practice of oscillation and choosing. In the case of polysemy, for example, both of the word’s meanings are given beforehand, and so there is no need to choose between them; they are not contradictory and do not necessarily compete with each other, since each is defined independently, with no connection to the other meaning as background. The multiplicity is given a priori as an obvious fact of discourse. Neither meaning is closer to the listener than the other; the choice of this or that meaning is usually made in reference to the utterance’s context and not in reference to the listener’s preferences and objectives, and the choice is therefore not free. Symbolism is more open, but still does not attain to the ethical level of mythopoesis. We can say, for example, that a dove symbolizes the soul and salvation. This multiplicity is given a priori; it is not necessary to create it in a rhetorical act. Every meaning is independent and does not constitute a necessary contrasting background to the existence of the other. They do not contradict each other, nor do they necessarily compete against each other, so that choosing one of them does not imply the rejection of the other; therefore, the act of choosing is not real. The oscillation between the symbolic meanings is not truly crucial; choosing in this case does not involve taking responsibility; in other words, it does not change life in the same way as participation in a rhetorical act does. Polysemy and symbolism are examples that show that a multiplicity of meanings does not necessarily imply an actual multiplicity of possibilities, rhetoric, and ethics; it does not necessarily involve taking a position or, in other words, splitting reality or making a historical-personal turn. In order for this to happen the multiplicity of meanings must be part of another multiplicity, that of myths. From an ethical perspective, the basic unit of a concrete rhetorical act (not in rhetoric in general) is a whole myth, not a word, a sentence or any other linguistic unit. Every rhetorical possibility is already an ethical and pragmatic position, embodied in a specific unique story. This directly implies that the possibilities in rhetoric are possibilities of myth creation, that is, of the realization of the personality. On the other hand, we must reiterate that split and multiplicity in rhetoric are neither always nor necessarily based on ambiguity, on deviation from words’ lexical meanings, and so on. In “The Song That Was Sung,” for example, the sweet man uses words – first, the words of the Talmud, than supposedly those of the Baal Shem Tov, who proposes an interpretation

Rhetoric as an Indeterministic Mechanism of Alternativeness


for what the Talmud says. But the interpretation and the division of the meaning into two real competing possibilities among which one has to be chosen, does not derive from the ambiguity of the words or the utterances, nor does it derive from a deviation from the meanings of words or collocations. Rather, the Baal Shem Tov, as the protagonist of the sweet man’s controversial story, creates another story, another myth. This is the real rhetorical split/multiplicity. Now the listener is forced to oscillate between these two stories or myths, and has two options: to choose one and deny the other, or remain in a state of oscillation. Either choice imposes an ethical responsibility on him, except that in the former case it is a positive responsibility for the act while in the latter it is a negative responsibility for abstaining from any action. Such a choice may be accompanied by the distress of hesitation or the joy of brave determination, remorse over closing the door or confidence that justice will prevail; at any rate, the responsibility and the ethics are real. In our example the fact that no choice was made between the possibilities, theological-ethical or cosmological-existential, does not imply a compromise between the two, nor does it imply that they are dialectically or otherwise unified (we must keep in mind the warnings by philosophers, that dialectic is no substitute for logic). Not choosing is just a continuation of the oscillation in which the ethical tension is no less high than in the act of choosing itself. Of course, from the perspective of hermeneutic strategy it is preferable to choose one possibility, since this would involve choosing a specific personality as the subject of identification, understanding, and empathy (we shall return to the issue of identification later). However, there is another problem associated with an excessive duration of the oscillation, namely the problem of pragmatics which, as we have seen, is no less important for rhetoric than ethics. While ethically not choosing means abstention from taking responsibility (which itself imposes responsibility), pragmatically it means abstention from acting and from the practical implications of choosing, since choosing means taking a position and cooperating or not cooperating with the speaker. But this also implies that in one case an extended oscillation is licensed, shall we say, by the rhetorical act itself: When the speaker himself does not care to cause the listener to make a decision, but rather has the objective of creating a constant oscillation between two myths, and wants the audience to oscillate with him. Agnon creates such an oscillation in order to originate a situation or feeling of apocalypse, of tearing reality into two. He creates his protagonists from the very start with a double face, of jester and angry prophet. What Agnon wanted to achieve by creating such a figure is another question, but the fact is that we as the audience can, and


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probably will, continue to oscillate between the two possibilities. This example is typical in that it reveals the mechanism of rhetorical oscillation. Clearly, however, it is the general rule that in a practical, non-literary, rhetorical act the speaker wants to induce his audience to come to a decision, especially in judicial (with respect to the past) and deliberative (with respect to the future) rhetoric. In the third type, epideictic rhetoric (persuasion in the present), the possibility of continuing to oscillate without coming to a decision is not so rare. To sum up, rhetoric opens discourse to multiple possibilities, and in doing so saves language from determinism. Rhetoric “destroys” language so that it does not rule the person (in which case it does not bear moral, social and cultural responsibility), and so the person rules language and takes full responsibility for its utterances and actions. Furthermore, rhetoric enables a multiplicity of possibilities in discourse, so that the listener can not only choose between proposed possibilities but also create new possibilities through his interpretation of the speaker’s words. Rhetoric thus assumes hermeneutics, since every choice requires consideration, and consideration requires understanding and translation among the various competing untranslatable languages that, in Lotman’s view, compose every rhetorical act, and even every single trope; the translation requirement drives the interpretation. In the general case, the audience is invited to come up with new possibilities for every rhetorical act and to create new myths from the one it previously chose. This is the key to social and cultural construction: Always and everywhere, the possibilities undergo division, the audience accepts this division, chooses, divides again, and creates new myths, presents them for choosing again, and so on. Continuous branching thus makes society and culture progress; this is how it survives and flourishes.

c. Rhetoric and Incompleteness of Mythopoetic Realization And now we can return to the issue of alternativeness. The rhetorical act brings the audience back to the bifurcation point, to the source, to the originating event, and creates the mythical past’s temporal depth. Some would call it an illusion, but this makes no difference: From an ethical and pragmatic perspective, it is completely real. The rhetorical act creates the action line that creates the timeline. The audience is invited to make the choice that will determine the subsequent events. It must be stressed that this is the action line or the line of enabling, but not necessarily the line of causality. Logicians and philosophers, especially philosophers of history,

Rhetoric as an Indeterministic Mechanism of Alternativeness


know very well that it is a mistake to conflate the two lines, in the manner of Karen Hellekson, for example, who takes the line of causality to underlie alternative history.19 Thus, for example, when I push a button to turn on the light in my room, I enable the event through an act of mine, but it is wrong to say that my action is the cause for the light being on. The crucial events in history, the bifurcation points, are a category that is broader than that of causes. Even Karen Hellekson, when speaking of “nexus events,” has enabling events in mind, and only erroneously defines them in terms of causality. A rhetorical act thus creates the timeline: It creates the past as a return to the bifurcation point, the present as the new choosing point (the movement between bifurcation and choosing was discussed above), and the future as cooperation, identification and the absence of the possibilities that were not chosen. Rhetoric creates real time, in the sense that the bifurcation at its foundation is true. The multiplicity of possibilities is discussed in this chapter: The speaker creates multiple myths, and presents them for true and free choosing; it is a real bifurcation. The rhetorical act brings the audience to a place where it can oscillate, at both the pragmatic and the ethical levels. In order for rhetoric to be rhetoric, this oscillation must be real, since it must bring about a true choosing. The situation in which the audience is presented with multiple possibilities is a bifurcation point that creates the horizons of the past and of the future; it creates a return which to an external viewer seems virtual but which is experienced by its doer’s senses as completely real, more real than a remembrance or a dream. It is no phantasm or simulacrum, as Deleuze tried to present it, since it is part of the real pragmatics and ethics of a real rhetorical act, and requires no less real (although not necessarily physical) choices, decisions and identifications. In other words, returning to the past is true because the future is true (as we showed above). The oscillation at the bifurcation point is real because the future is truly unknown (it has not yet occurred and depends on the new choice), and therefore this point is a real past. After the choice has been made and all the other possibilities rejected, the present comes into being and the future is prepared. We may call this the “origination of rhetorical time.” Rhetoric simultaneously enables both to anticipate the future (since the possibilities of choosing come into being and exist through their being candidates for choosing) and to remain ignorant of it, for two reasons: First of all, because it is impossible to predict how the audience will choose, since otherwise the choice is not free; and also because it is impossible to predict whether the audience will 19

Hellekson, The Alternate History, p. 2 ff.


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want to split again the possibility it did choose, to create a new multiplicity of possibilities and so to continue originating the future in unexpected directions. Therefore rhetorical practice is in essence open; no decision is final, as we have already shown; the audience can make a choice, but can also go back and oscillate between new possibilities, or even between the same ones. Rhetoric is a creative practice, with an ever-widening branching of possibilities, and in this sense, the future is open and indeterminate. Without multiple possibilities there is no future, and therefore two components are necessary for the origination of time: the existence of possibilities (the “existence” of the future) and the multiplicity of possibilities (not knowing the future), anticipation and uncertainty, each contradicting and also complementing the other. To summarize, if the past is bifurcation and the present is choosing, then the future is the realization of one possibility and the rejection of others. We should note, though, that the rejected possibilities do not disappear. By definition, they remain as a possibility in the choice that was made, inherent in the possibility that was realized; this enables the audience, as mentioned above, to continue splitting reality, to create new rhetorical acts, new myths. After all, this act is alternative history; this is the way the rhetorical model of alternative history works. The myths created by rhetoric are not erased; they remain in waiting until someone else wants to choose them again and realize them ethically and pragmatically, thus creating an alternative history. What remains for us to show is how alternative histories, realizations of possible myths, exist together, in parallel, or in comparison to other myths. How does the rhetorical model explain the interactions between these myths, the necessary intertextuality between them, as McKnight writes?20 Does this intertextuality, this interactivity, derive from the rhetorical model itself? Why do the two myths created in the rhetorical act refer to each other? In the rhetorical model just presented it can be seen quite clearly that the two myths do not exist without one another, that they are involved in the very act of choosing that is characteristic of and necessary for rhetoric. Oscillation is the mode of interaction between the myths. However, this raises a certain difficulty: This is an open interaction; it is never closed and no choice or decision is final. Why is that? In order to find out we must move on to the next stage of our discussion, where we will have to examine the nature of choosing itself. It seems that in a rhetorical act, choosing a specific myth is the realization of one possibility of one specific personality; it is never a complete realization. Why? Because 20

McKnight, “Alternative History,” p. 211.

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choosing a myth means identifying with the mythical personality, and this identification, as we shall see below, is never and can never be complete. This incompleteness is the reason why the interaction is not closed, why the oscillation continues. In every myth, in every personality or identification, there always remains some trace of non-identification that refers to another myth. This trace is the basis of (the next, the new) alternative history, built on the interaction between the myths. We shall see how mythical identity is associated with the incomplete rhetorical identification, with what Kenneth Burke calls the “eternal plea” for persuasion and cooperation. Since the rhetorical possibility belongs to the personality, it always remains open to a dialogue that never proceeds as expected. If it were otherwise, the personality’s realization would have stopped the origination of time and alternative history would not have been possible. But thanks to the fact that the realization of the possibility is a realization of the personality, the oscillation continues – and time continues and originates – and history is repeatedly split, time and again. .

d. Miracle as Alternativeness and Alternativeness as Miracle To complete the demonstration of the argument that reading is an alternativeness of myths we shall take one more step. We showed that alternativeness is mythopoesis, and as such it is first-and-foremost history; not just any history, but the history of a personality, and not just at any random moment, but at the time of its becoming in the event of the miracle. A myth relates the realization of the personality, the realization of the personality’s transcendental purpose in empirical history, the miracle. We need to show how this miraculous character of myths that are candidates to be chosen in the rhetorical act is related to these myths’ alternativeness. It seems that a miracle is the origination of alternativeness, and that alternativeness is perceived as a miracle, the appearance of alternatives; this appears to be the reason why alternative history as a poetic-thematic element and as a genre is so closely associated with the miraculous. The major theoretical difficulty here is the following: Alternativeness is oscillation and choosing, a multiplicity of possibilities; a miracle, on the other hand, is the realization of a personality, that is, apparently of just a single specific possibility. We previously showed how rhetoric realizes this potential of alternativeness. What is the way to resolve this contradiction and clarify the miracle’s ability to release a multiplicity of possibilities and also to realize, that is, to close possibilities?


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The attraction felt by readers towards alternative history can be explain to a great extent by its miraculous character. The attraction to a miracle is primordial; in all cultures and in all times it has been known to motivate readers, listeners, and narrators of legends, myths, and tales. What is less well-known, and what we are about to show now, is that much about the attraction to miracle can be explained in terms of the principle of alternativeness that is embodied in it. First we shall clarify how we intend to analyze the miracle, which we define using Losev’s concepts: Of course there is nothing theological or metaphysical about our approach, which is based on a narrative perspective, since we take the miracle as the realization of a personality in a narrative, that is, as a myth. More precisely, we ask: What is the discursive configuration in which the origination of the miracle comes together with the origination of alternativeness? How can a discourse about a miracle serve as a rhetorical act that eventually creates the narrative alternatives, the alternative histories? The narrative of the miracle divides and becomes a multiplicity of narratives, giving rise to multiple histories and to oscillations between them. What is most important is to find the cause of oscillation and choosing, since only if we do so, can we speak of a real alternativeness. In other words, discourse about a miracle is intended to originate competing histories, between which oscillation takes place. Our objective is to show that this connection between miracle and alternativeness is not accidental, nor is it functional; rather, it is essential and perhaps even generative. It relies not only, and not mainly, on the fact that the return to the bifurcation point is perceived as a return to a past point of origination, and is therefore super-natural and so is perceived as a miracle.21 This is not an issue of the fantastic; there is no claim here that the creation of alternative worlds is a supernatural phenomenon. As Losev’s definition of miracle clearly shows, the supernatural is only one specific aspect of the miraculous. We can show this by means of analyzing the discursive structure of speech about the miracle which, as we shall discover, makes speech about alternativeness, and alternativeness itself, possible. The key to such an analysis is the identification of the miracle with speech about the miracle. The possibility of speaking about the miracle is indeed the main miracle; it is what stands


Hans Blumenberg already showed, contra the conventional approach as expressed, for example, by Mircea Eliade, that the essence of the miracle does not lie in a return to the past (Hans Blumenberg, Work on Myth, trans. by Robert M. Wallace, Cambridge MA, MIT Press, 1990, p. 21).

Rhetoric as an Indeterministic Mechanism of Alternativeness


behind every representation of a miracle.22 The representation of the miracle represents, first-and-foremost, the “miraculous-ness” of the possibility of representing a miracle. The same goes for alternativeness: Speech about alternativeness is the very embodiment of alternativeness itself; in other words, to speak about alternativeness already involves the creation of alternativeness, just as in the case of the miracle speaking about it means originating the miracle of speaking about the miracle. To create an alternative history thus means to originate a rhetorical act in which, by definition, two myths are created that struggle with each other over appropriating the meaning or, let us say, the name;23 they are caught in a narrative conflict. These myths are realizations of different personality possibilities; they are representations of different miracles. Alternativeness therefore applies to miracles. A miracle is a split of reality into different possibilities, so that in addition to the given reality which has been materialized already, another possibility also comes to be realized. In this way the narrative, which describes the becoming of reality, becomes divided into competing parallel narratives. The miracle brings two possibilities together, the transcendental and the empirical. While Losev speaks about the unification of the two, it would seem that this unification is never complete, since the experience of the miracle preserves the tension, and therefore the difference, between the two. The extended experience of the miracle shows that the realization of the transcendental purpose in empirical history is not complete, for otherwise the miracle would not have been perceived as such but rather as just another common empirical event or as a completely abstract idea (indeed, in anti-religious or anti-mythological approaches miracles are perceived in these two ways, either as disguised historiography or as pure allegory). But the miracle is the differentiation between the two; it is an incomplete identity, an incomplete realization. The tiny imperfection is needed in order for the miracle to remain one. This character of the miracle may be termed an “aspiration for realization.” Because an identity between the two possibilities is very close to completeness yet still remains an endless aspiration, the tension of differentiation created between them causes an oscillation (by the audience that witnesses the miracle) between the possibilities. The miracle is here 22

See Emmanuel Lévinas, Beyond the Verse, trans. by Gary D. Mole, London, The Athlone Press, 1994, pp. 129-150. 23 “The essence is a name [...] The entire world, the Universe is a name and a word, or names and words” (Aleksei Losev, “Filosofiia imeny” (Philosophy of Name), in Bytie, Imia, Kosmos (Being, Name, Universe), Moscow, Mysl, 1993, p. 734); “A name is a reasonable-symbolic and magic nature of myth” (ibid., p. 744).


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revealed to be a bifurcation point and a source of alternative histories. Let us take as an example Agnon’s story “The Dobish Sword” (from Of Such and of Such) The miracle in the story originates two narratives, two alternative histories, one of Dobish the robber and the other of Dobish the pious, one of the murderous Gentile and the other of the good Gentile. The miracle enables the two possibilities to unite, but the unification is not complete; therefore, the tension between the two remains, as does the miracle.24 From now on, the two contradictory, competing narratives are fated to exist together, but they can never unite completely. In this sense, the two alternative histories that emerge from the miracle’s bifurcation point negate each other. Indeed, according to their definition, the one is the other’s alternate; they can never exist simultaneously, but miraculously they can also not exist without each other in Dobish’s sword: During the six weekdays it kills, but in the background there remains the other possibility, realized only on the Sabbath – the possibility of rest and peace. In the genre of alternative history the two possibilities cannot be realized simultaneously, but in the miracle they aspire to unite, and so an illusion of simultaneity is created, an illusion that another reality is revealed within the given reality. However, it is revealed instead of it; it replaces it for a certain period of time, in a certain place or in a certain consciousness. The miracle’s duality is not solvable. The distance between the two possibilities cannot be canceled; it is revealed and experienced in emotional and mental wonderment. A miracle is the very revelation of this distance, the revelation of alternativeness. The only remaining difficulty here is the fact that a miracle is not merely the realization of a possibility, but the realization of the possibilities of the personality. The duality of reality and of the narrative is ultimately embodied in the duality of the personality. How can we speak of the duality of the personality and at the same time argue for its unitary identity? After all, Dobish the murderer and Dobish who observes the Sabbath are the same person. Is his sword, too, the same sword? On the one hand, Dobish received the sword from the Angel of Death, which is a miracle in itself, and on the other hand, he received the Sabbath from Rabbi Arieh. Each of his histories is miraculous and related to personality. So how can this contradiction be resolved? 24

On the complexity of Jews-Gentiles relations in the contexts of crisis, violence and miracle see: Nitza Ben-Dov, “Ha-sipur bi-mzulot ke-paradigma le-yakhasei yehudim-polanim” (S.Y. Agnon's "In the Depth" ("Bimetsulot") as a Paradigm of the Relations between Jews and Poles), Ayin Gimel: A Journal of Agnon Studies, vol. 2 (2012), pp. 40-45,

Rhetoric as an Indeterministic Mechanism of Alternativeness


The answer was prepared already in our previous analysis: This is not a contradiction that must or can be resolved; what we have here is a rhetorical act or, in other words, a mythopoesis, in which two competing alternative, but inseparable, myths are created, and we are destined to oscillate and choose, without ever making a final choice. Here we witness the appearance of a complex rhetorical-mythical system with a complex rhetorical-mythical personality at its center. This system is an alternative history par excellence. What should be our attitude towards this complex personality? How should we define its identity? Is it possible at all to speak of identity in this case? The answer to this is certainly “yes.” Furthermore, without an identity the entire rhetorical act will become meaningless: What makes it possible to speak about the miracle (a speech which is the basis of the story and its rhetoric) is the continuity between Dobish’s identity before and after his meeting with Rabbi Arieh. The miracle consists of this continuity, the near-unity of the two Dobishs. To use Deleuze’s concepts, this is a repetition of Dobish’s identity based on differentiation, very slight but not completely lacking. This repetitiondifferentiation is the miracle and the historical-personalistic alternativeness. Miracle-alternativeness has no necessary connection with the supernatural. After all, alternative history is, as has been pointed out by various scholars, the only sub-genre of fantasy literature that does not require the operation of supernatural forces or the use of fantastic technologies.25 Alternative history, with its mechanism of return to the bifurcation point, is closer to a real myth than any other genre of fantasy literature. We can assume that this is so because of their essential, and not only the generative, proximity. Alternative history does not grow from myth, but rather grows with it and in it, to the same extent that the latter grows in it. As we noted already, this is first-and-foremost the plant mythology, the earliest and most basic paradigm of alternative history. The conception of miracle, and alternativeness, as something supernatural is a misunderstanding derived from a-mythical or anti-mythical (iconoclastic) discourse about miracles. Such discourse, which is characteristic of Plato no less than of the people of the Enlightenment and the post-structuralism, must of necessity miss the mark: The myth slips through the fingers, and many new ones grow instead of every myth that is cut down.26


Hellekson, The Alternate History, pp. 3-4. The best-known “internal” criticism of the iconoclastic pathos of the failed Enlightenment project is Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment (trans. by Edmund Jephcott, Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2002). 26


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As another example, let us consider Etgar Keret’s story “Shoes.” Here, too, two personalities ostensibly arise out of the same protagonist, the child who begins a “miraculous” dialogue with his grandfather who died in the Holocaust. As I showed elsewhere, the story describes a transition from culture as a museum to culture as a playing field, from memory as death to memory as life, from simulacrum to personality.27 Now we can describe this transition in terms of alternative history: The ideological establishment history of the Holocaust gives rise to an alternative history – personal, dialogical, vital – which gradually replaces the former. However, it does not negate it: The two constitute a complex synergic system; they compete with each other but also feed and support each other. This transition thus originates the miracle as well as the continuity of the identity of the story’s child protagonist at the beginning and the end of the story. The myth both signifies the personality’s change and maintains the continuity of the personality. The discourse of miracle is thus the guarantee for the identity’s unity. In other words, discourse of alternativeness, about alternative history, fortifies the unity of the identity, and is itself also based on it. We thus once more see how a widely-held opinion, that alternative history is part of the postmodern move, is refuted: Not only is alternative history based, as we showed above, on the conception of true and certain historical knowledge, but it also implicitly assumes the unity of the identity of the historical subject. The multiplicity itself, which apparently constitutes the essence of alternative history, turns out to be the guarantor of this unity. Going back to the story “Shoes,” the split between reality and personality described there involves no supernatural element whatsoever. And because the reality or the other, mythopoetic history that is revealed in the child’s life is not supernatural, the oscillation between it and the given, ideological reality is more real, free and insoluble. Therefore, the choice between them is also freer, and thus also more ethical. The child’s dialogue with his grandfather “from the shoes” is not fantasy; it is psychologically and culturally well-founded, deriving from the bifurcation point (the visit to the Volyn Jewry Museum on Holocaust Day), and therefore constitutes a true alternative history. This alternative history makes possible the realization of a dialogue between the child and his grandfather that could not have been realized before. The story “Shoes” as a rhetorical act thus creates two myths and forces the reader to oscillate between them, one being the myth of an urban Israeli child from the center of the country, deeply rooted in ideology and social conventions, and the 27

Katsman, Poetics of Becoming, pp. 71-75.

Rhetoric as an Indeterministic Mechanism of Alternativeness


other the myth of a child as cultural hero, who descends into the “Inferno,” so to speak, in order to meet his grandfather and bring him alive through his dialogue with him. The child’s mythical “journey” is the real miracle of the story, and provides the basis for the double narrative in it and for narrative structure in general.28 The child creates an alternative history fed by the living, dialogical memory of the personality, in contrast to given history, in which dead signs, fear, and hatred dominate. We should point out that there is indeed no need to restrict the domain of alternative history just to geo-political history; after all, it is just as possible to have an alternative history of ideas, philosophies, cultural practices, technologies, communications systems, and so on.29 There can be, and there do exist, alternative histories of religions, artistic trends, organizations and institutions. These possibilities have yet not been realized enough. Borges and Paviü30 are the two great authors of alternative histories of religions and philosophies, but there are not many like them. In their writings, alternative history abandons the realm of popular literature and instead 28 Carlo Ginzburg notes that the descent into hell for the purpose of the renewal of life is the kernel and beginning of the narrative structure (‘‘Présomptions sur le sabbat,’’ Annales 39 (1984), pp. 341–354. 29 Usually such alternative histories are conceived as secondary, as derived from geo-political alternatives. Thus, for example, the alternative history of great technological inventions in Harry Turtledove’s Agent of Byzantium is based on a tremendous geo-political alternative: Instead of the Middle Ages and the spread of Islam, the evolution of the Roman and Persian Empires and the rivalry between them continue unabated. 30 Paviü’s Dictionary of the Khazars is of course the best-known example, but there are many other stories of his, almost all, that are based on the principle of historical-philosophical alternativeness. To this I would add a special type of alternativeness that is characteristic of Paviü and very rare among other writers: corporeal alternativeness. It may be said that he gives his figures an alternative human body, one in which streams of sweat can braid themselves into a plait, the tongue can lick the glasses on one’s nose, a smell can speak Hungarian, etc. Elsewhere I have argued that gestures, body language, is the basis of Paviü’s poetics, at least in his two great novels. See: “Anthropoetic Gesture. A Key to Milorad Paviü’s Poetics (Landscape Painted with Tea),” Toronto Slavic Quarterly 12 (2005),; “Poetikat ha-mehevot shel Milorad Pavich (Milon ha-kuzarim)” [Poetics of Gestures in Milorad Paviü (Dictionary of the Khazars)], Dapim le-mekhkar be-sifrut 16-17 (2007-2008), pp. 383-400. Now I can surmise that Paviü’s poetics can be defined by means of the alternativeness principle, of which bodily-gestural alternativeness is just one aspect. Scholarly opinion has been in almost overwhelming agreement as to the postmodernt nature of Paviü’s writing. Now that we have clarified the metaphysical roots of alternative history this assumption must be reconsidered.


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becomes a component of extremely intellectual works. Umberto Eco could have been considered a writer of alternative history if the historicalphilosophical possibilities that he created had actually materialized in his works; for example, had Aristotle’s book on laughter actually been discovered and affected the evolution of culture and Christianity in his The Name of the Rose. However, in the minds of the readers such an alternative history certainly does arise. Furthermore, the oscillation between the possibility that such a book exists and the possibility that it does not, constitute a major conceptual and plot element in the novel, the main motive and objective of writing. We may therefore say that Eco, too, is a writer of alternative histories, although his is a historical-philosophical alternative. The study of types of alternativeness has a potentially tremendous range: There can be alternative histories of superstitions, philosophies, literatures, even of literary criticism. Alternative history that does not necessarily depend on the supernatural thus does not have to belong to fantasy literature. This classification had its roots in the fact that the earliest works of alternative history in modern literature were composed by writers of fantasy, a state of affairs that has not changed to this day. But this is just part of the same genre misunderstanding that we discussed above. Keret’s story can thus be defined as an alternative history of memory types. Therefore, we may extend the limits of the genre of alternative history, since history itself is more extensive than just geo-politics and statesmanship. But then a foundation must be found for such an extended definition. We did indeed find one, in our definition of alternativeness as a split in the possibilities of the personality’s realization, that is, as an alternativeness of myths. We may thus summarize by saying that reading, as a participation in the rhetorical act, comes into being as the alternativeness of myths.


a. Personality, Identity, and Character In the previous chapter we described historical alternativeness as an alternativeness of myths, that is, as an oscillation between the myths that are proposed in the rhetorical act, as a choice of (another) myth.1 Now we take the next step: If a myth is a personality’s history, it may be assumed that choosing the myth means also choosing the personality. We shall therefore now discuss alternativeness as an alternativeness of personality. We shall not speak of choosing among narratives, but rather deal with the originating and most central aspect of the rhetorical act, to wit, identification of/with the personality. This is not the speaker’s personality, but rather the personality created in the rhetorical act in each of the myths presented for choosing. In other words, we are speaking of narrative characters, one of which the speaker is supposed to choose and identify with, that is, to create an alternative identity for himself. We shall thus be using three concepts here: personality, character, and identity; these reflect three levels of discussion, or three perspectives. As for personality, we shall be speaking about it in the Losev terms, as the embodiment of what is most human: the unique, the one-time-only, the unexpected, and 1

Rhetoric’s other-directedness seems obvious; however, in what sense and to what extent is the audience really an other for the speaker, and conversely? Is it at all possible to convince the other or to be convinced by him? Neo-Aristotelians think that the answer is “yes,” and call it ethics. Neo-Platonists think likewise, and call it pragmatics. But both forget that what rhetoric does first of all is to create the other story, even before it addresses the other person. We call this mythopoesis, which we consider to be a union of ethics and pragmatics. While rhetoric does bring people together in a common construction endeavor, it first separates and destroys by creating another, new and unknown myth, which it presents as an alternative to the old, familiar myth. Rhetoric weakens man’s connection with the old myth and originates his connection to the new one; first it estranges a person from himself – only in this way can the choice between the two myths be real, that is, free (ethical) and efficient (pragmatic).


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the uncertain. Personality is a secret and at the same time also the apex of informative intensity (this concept of the personality is identical to that of the individual). Identity will be treated in the sense of Kenneth Burke, as a symbolic expression of ideas that underlie personality and that constitute a common social-ideological foundation for the rhetorical act. Identity is the personality’s pragmatic manifestation. Character will be discussed in Paul Ricoeur’s terms, as an icon of truth, as reflection, embodiment, metaphor, or imitation, as it were, of the truth. This is the truth of the myth in which the personality is created. It becomes known through this myth and through the explication of its conceptual underpinnings. These are thus the three aspects of the discussion: ethical, social, and epistemological. This distinction is of course merely methodological, but it is essential if we are to understand what it means to choose a personality, to identify with it, or to oscillate between one personality and another. Our classification is similar to some extent to John Locke’s wellknown distinction between identity, consciousness, and self, but the difference between the two needs to be stressed as well: For Locke the three elements are different parts or manifestations of the subject. Although they are united and participate in the same mechanism, they are still different “components,” with distinct functions. The self is what thinks itself and creates the consciousness, in which the identity takes shape. There is thus a clear functional distinction between the different “components” of the subject. According to our approach, on the other hand, our three concepts of individual, identity, and character are not distinct elements of the subject with separate functions; rather, they are three different perspectives on the personality. We have no intention here to propound a philosophy of the subject, neither Lockian nor anti-Lockian. This is not a proper palace to discuss the structure of the subject, although its existence is not in doubt. What is important here is the subject’s function in a narrative interaction. We identify three perspectives from which we can isolate three basic functions. What immediately follows from the definitions given above is that the personality is perceived as a representation, or as a realization or mimesis of something else. In the concept of personality, the subject ostensibly represents itself, but since it is uncertain and unperceivable, it constantly evades self-representation. And while it certainly does represent the self, this self itself is undefined, and therefore the personality constantly misses itself in its attempts to represent itself (except at the moment of the miracle) and instead grasps something else and so represents itself as an other. As noted above, the realization of the personality is never complete.

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Identity represents (realizes, imitates, symbolizes) society, and the character represents the truth. If the origination of the personality is the origination of representation (symbolization, imitation), then clearly it must be examined in terms of the return, or similarity-and-difference, that underlie representation. In order for a personality to emerge, a back-andforth move is needed, of return-to-the-past-and-return-to-the-present. This move is the same one that is needed, according to Ricoeur, for creating the story. In his philosophy of history, the return to the past, which in terms of the myth’s alternativeness was a move of story creation, is, with respect to the alternativeness of the personality (origination of the character) a move of recollection. We thus approach the heart of the issue under discussion, the issue of memory. Clearly, memory should be the key concept for understanding alternative history and alternativeness itself. A “historical memory” is not only a collective (that is, ideological, institutionalized) memory of historical events, but also, and most importantly, a back-andforth move by the personality of “recollecting history,” which is needed in order to originate character, identity and personality. Ultimately, the process of originating human uniqueness also involves return. Even at this early point, we can say that this supposed contradiction will be resolved in a distinction at the same time-and-place that is the destination of the return, namely the bifurcation point. The chaotic character of the moment to which one returns, of the chronotope in which we find ourselves during the act of recollection, is what makes uniqueness, the personality’s unperceivable otherness, possible. This complexity of the personality is expressed at the epistemological level as a character, as the embodiment of truth. This takes us back to the issue of myth, and thus the circle is closed, since myth is a story about truth;2 it is always true and sincere. Perceptions of truth and myth can change, but not the connection between them. While the multiplicity of the personality was clarified in the previous discussion (it derives from a multiplicity of myths), the need and possibility of oscillating between personalities are not obvious. The analysis in the current chapter will show that the possibility of and need for oscillation and choosing-identification derive from the same three motives that arise from three levels of discussion about personality: The first is the need for bifurcation, for chaos, for an unperceivable otherness that is also the personality’s uniqueness, its non-identity. The second is the need for identity, for social 2

A myth is a story about the truth both for metaphysicians like Losev (if truth is an eidos that is revealed – aletheia) and for anthropologists like Lévi-Strauss (a cultural truth that is revealed in structure), even for “myth debunkers” like Roland Barthes (if truth is perceived as an ideology).


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existence, for stability and certain knowledge. And the third is the need for approval, for recognition, that is, for the truth, for an epistemological anchor that ratifies an ontological anchor. These are the motives of the need for identification. But a rhetorical act and an alternative history maintain a constant problematization of the personality at all three of these levels. Therefore, identification is not linear, but appears only following and within the oscillation between different identities. At each of these levels, the personality’s justification is shaken and put in doubt. As a result we find an oscillation in alternative history between different unique personalities (at the first level), between different social representations (at the second level), and between different truths (at the third level). Our objective will be to examine this problematization, to discover the source of the oscillation. It is not enough to ensure that multiplicity exists; it is also necessary to discover the cause of the oscillation or, in other words, to examine the cause of identification and the cause of the problematization of identification. As we showed in the introductory chapter, researchers into alternative history followed in the footsteps of various philosophers of history, mainly postmodernists, and proposed answers in just one direction: That the reason lies in the relativity of historical truth and the fictitiousness of historical writing, which derives from its narrative nature, which is fictitious in essence. For reasons that were explained above, we deem these answers unsatisfactory; we shall therefore have to look elsewhere. Now we understand that the problematization of identity and identification is a problematization of a return to the past or, more precisely, to a bifurcation point, that it is just a problematization of recollection. This is an issue with which Paul Ricoeur deals in his book Memory, History, Forgetting. In the present chapter, we discuss his approach in that book, as well as in his earlier work, Time and Narrative.

b. Alternativeness vs. Substitutivity First, however, a few comments are in order on certain directions in the understanding of the personality’s alternativeness that must be rejected. One should distinguish the personality’s alternativeness in alternative history from other, similar phenomena, in particular, from a psychological problem. After all, the personality’s alternativeness assumes both multiplicity and the personality’s replacement by another, or others. This multiplicity and replacement differ from the multiplicity and replacement of a personality in the case of mental disturbances of the dissociative sort, such as multiple personality, schizophrenia, depersonalization, and

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derealization. In addition, it is important to demonstrate that the personality’s alternativeness does not constitute replaceability, substitutivity. Above we distinguished three levels of discussion concerning the personality, which may have aroused the impression that it is only at the level of the personality itself that the personality cannot be replaced, because it is unique. We must therefore add that in the dimensions of identity and character the personality also cannot be replaced. It cannot be replaced in any of its three dimensions, but for different reasons. Even when it forms part of a social system and is perceived as an identity with infinite connections to standard, non-unique traits and behavioral patterns, the personality still cannot be replaced. The same goes for identity, and certainly also for the character: Although it is an icon, a symbol, which may occasionally be perceived as a substitute, it does not lose its own unique existence. Furthermore, even if the personality is not unique, it cannot be replaced. Alternativeness in any case is not replaceability. What is the difference between alternativeness and substitutivity? We can formulate the answer in the following way: Alternativeness means that even if a personality is not perceived as unique, it cannot be replaced, whereas substitutivity means that even if a personality is perceived as unique it can be replaced. Substitution marks a way of thinking that is opposed to the alternativeness principle. Confusing these two principles may result in errors concerning the connection that alternative history has to certain philosophical-historiographical trends. Substitutivity is a trait that is ascribed to a personality within the framework of the totalitarian approach, whether in the purely philosophical sense (Emmanuel Lévinas)3 or in the socio-philosophical and political sense (Hannah Arendt).4 Totalitarianism means a monistic all-inclusive approach that subjugates all other views and every aspect of life, natural as well as cultural, to its own objectives. In political totalitarianism, the totality is a certain political idea, as in Communism or Fascism. In philosophical totalitarianism, the totality is a philosophical idea, as in Hegel’s phenomenology of the spirit (moreover, many of Hegel’s critics have pointed to the service which Hegel’s philosophy rendered the political powers-that-be in his days). Totalitarianism can be teleological (subjugation to a purpose), generative (subjugation to a source), pragmatic (subjugation to an actual necessity), 3

In Lévinas’ case (see his Totality and Infinity) it is more accurate to speak of totality (in opposition to ethics, infinity, respect for the other, love), but the transition to totalitarianism is quite easy, if not obvious. It must be admitted, of course, that elements of totality exist in every society at all times and in any mode of thinking, not only in totalitarian ideologies and regimes. 4 See her The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York, Schocken Books, 2004).


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and so on. However, it is not our purpose here to pursue such a classification; all we need to understand now is that all types of totalitarianism assume the substitutivity of the personality. The principle of substitutivity in its most general form states as follows: If we are given two people, it is always possible to find a perspective, context or practice in which placing one instead of the other will not lead to any change in the result. The principle of substitutivity does not say that there are no differences between the two; rather, it marks the points of blindness to differences and so cancels their relevance in some practice. From a different perspective or in a different context the difference between two people may be important, but one can always find a perspective from which the difference will be void. This general formulation leads to a more specific one, more relevant to conditions of totalitarianism: The most relevant context or practice that encompasses all the people in a certain group and that subjugates all other practices in that group, is one in which the difference between people is irrelevant. Any personality can be replaced by another without affecting the results of the practice, since any distinction will be erased or forgotten through a change in perspective. Since it involves a kind of causality, of influence and result, this definition can be seen to assume the specific a-historical consciousness and timeline. Substitutivity is thus ahistorical, in the sense that it cancels the personality’s historicity. It sends into oblivion the alternative histories that were or could have been created in the wake of the change of personality; it denies the very possibility of the existence of an alternative. Note that the principle of substitutivity does not cancel personal responsibility. Everyone is responsible for what he or she does. But personal responsibility does not imply that a personality cannot be replaced. Totalitarianism does not of course cancel causality, but it does nullify the connection between causality and personality, or what may be called “personal causality.” This leads us to a well-known philosophicalhistorical conception, according to which in any space-time any personality may cause the same effects in the long term, since history is deterministic as a rule. Of course, the connection between substitutivity and determinism is not necessary in its essence, but totalitarianism presents it as such, both in order to justify the principle of substitutivity through determinism, and in order to reinforce the deterministic approach by means of the principle of substitutivity. The principle of substitutivity thus relies on the personality’s alienation from history, on a rupture between freedom of choice and time awareness. In a history based on the principle of substitutivity nothing can change;

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everything has already happened and has been written down, so the only thing left is to read and materialize the given course of events. It is easy to see that this conception is contradictory to that of alternative history, since the latter derives entirely from the possibility of changing history. If the genre of alternative history contains some works that describe a personality’s failure to change a history that resists change, this is likely a manifestation of the genre’s problematization from within, a poetic provocation intended to arouse an opposing interest and thus to reconfirm the genre’s boundaries (as an exception that merely proves the rule). As a rule, if a history cannot be otherwise, then there is no place for an alternative history. The principle of substitutivity denies the need for oscillation and free choice, denies the need for multiplicity of any kind, since every multiplicity is revealed to be uniformity. Substitutivity is an absurdly absolute equality among people; alternativeness is inequality at the personal level. In substitutivity there is no possibility or even need to choose, not because everyone is identical, but because the differences are irrelevant, since everyone is a mechanical copy of everyone else. In this way, substitutivity, together with its inherent totalitarianism, merges with postmodernism with its rule of the copy. Therefore, we once again come to the conclusion that postmodernism, including substitutivity, is inconsistent with alternative history, since the latter is based on the relevance of difference and change. Alternative history may be called the realization and personalization of difference; if so, the substitutivity principle is the depersonalization and de-realization of difference, of history.

c. Alternativeness vs. Psychological Syndromes of Dissociation We can now proceed to discuss the psychological issue, with the help of the two just-mentioned concepts of de-realization and depersonalization, which denote well known in modern psychology mental disturbances. These two syndromes are usually inter-connected. For the moment, we shall leave aside other conditions that may evoke alternative history, such as schizophrenia and multiple personalities. We shall not discuss such general issues as the possibility of basing literary genres or trends on psychological syndromes or theories. Literary manifestations may be connected to psychological conditions through influences or common sources, or they may just seem similar to them, but this makes no difference; at any rate, if a similarity exists, it becomes an important factor in the reading, interpretation and acceptance of a work of literature, and even, as feedback, in a genre’s evolution and acceptance. The connection


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between literature and psychology does not have to be true and real in order to affect readers and writers. We must therefore examine the similarities and differences between alternative history and de-realization and depersonalization. Both of these syndromes belong to the group called dissociative disorders. Formulated in general terms, de-realization involves a sense that the world is unfamiliar, alienated, and not real, while depersonalization means that a person feels alien to himself.5 The syndromes give rise to dissociation in one’s perception of self and perception of the world. In a sense, they give rise to another personality and another world, alien and strange, which exist in parallel to or in place of the real personality and the actual world. Ostensibly, these syndromes are like the split reality of alternative history, in that those who suffer from them in a sense live in a different, unreal history; since they are aware of its alien nature, its duality, they may be said to experience it as an alternative history. This similarity needs to be examined thoroughly, but let us proceed from the simple to the complex and first rule out possible similarities to other disorders. First, it is quite clear that alternative history is not similar to the syndrome of multiple personalities, since in the latter case the victim is not aware that his personality is split or, to be more precise, none of his personalities is aware of the existence of the others. The complete disconnection between the identities makes it impossible to compare them, and therefore this condition bears no similarity to alternative history. In schizophrenia, on the other hand, the victim lives in an imaginary world, but that is the only one he knows; therefore reality is not split in this case and, in the absence of multiplicity, here, too, there is no similarity to alternative history. This comparison has thus put the conditions needed for a similarity to exist with alternative history into sharper relief: The syndrome must include a split in the way the world is experienced, and this split should be conscious. De-realization and depersonalization fulfill these conditions. Here is a sample description of how these disorders are experienced: Sarah, a 29-year-old graduate from Long Island, New York, has dealt with depersonalization for most of her life. She explains the sensations to others in terms to which they can relate. “Most people have played little games with their minds at one time or another,” she says, “like staring in the mirror so long that you no longer recognize your face, or repeating the same word over and over until it no longer sounds familiar – it sounds like 5

Daphne Simeon and Jeffrey Abugel, Feeling Unreal: Depersonalization Disorder and Loss of the Self, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2006, pp. 5-9.

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something you’ve never heard before.” These momentary impressions of strangeness that normal people can induce in themselves are quite similar to what Sarah feels much of the time, but cannot control, she says. Our sense of familiarity with our selves, our sense of past, present, or future, who we are, and how we fit into the world around us enables us to live from day to day in relative stability, with purpose, sanity, and reason. But people with chronic depersonalization are never quite sure who they are in a sense. […] “I sometimes feel like I’m from Mars,” says Cheryl, a 33-year-old fabric designer. “Being human feels strange, bodily functions seem bizarre… My thoughts seem separate from my body. At times, the most common, familiar objects can seem foreign, as if I’m looking at them for the first time. An American flag, for instance. It’s instantly recognizable, and immediately means something to everyone. But if I look at it for more than a moment, I just see colors and shapes on a piece of cloth. It’s as if I’ve forgotten ever seeing the flag before, even though I’m still aware of what my ‘normal’ reaction should be.” This sense of strangeness about familiar objects outside of one’s self is known as derealization, yet another aspect of depersonalization phenomenon.6

As we see, in these disorders the feelings of alienation and dissociation are related to a difficulty in maintaining stable time continuity, the continuity of objects in time (memory), their identity and the identity of the self. This alienation is completely conscious. The feeling that the external and internal worlds are unreal and alien, of the kind that anyone can experience for a fleeting moment in the wake of a sudden catastrophe or loss, is accompanied by profound fear and depression in the case of chronic sufferers. Is this not a psychological configuration of alternative history, with the exception of the fear and the depression, since alternative history can also at times adopt an entertaining and humorous demeanor? The difficulty and effort needed to remember who, where and when you are, the de-automatization or de-naturalization of memory, these are what ostensibly unites the experience of alternative history with that of the disorder of depersonalization and de-realization. However, we must, remember the warning issued by Paul Ricoeur in his Memory, History, Forgetting: Forgetfulness is not necessarily connected to pathology, whether psychological or physiological. After all, already Henri Bergson distinguished between the automatic memory of habit and recollection involving conscious and at times painful effort. Both types 6

Ibid., pp. 7-8.


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always exist in every person. Let us suppose that it is indeed true that a harsh memory, or shall we say a delayed and painful one (in contrast to Ricoeur’s “happy memory”) is not necessarily pathological. Does alternative history represent a memory of this kind? Alternative history does split reality into two, one real and another one, but it does so in such a way that the alternative constantly refers to and reminds one of the original, so that forgetfulness and loss of continuity are not possible. The ominous feeling of alienation only comes to dominate the reader for some passing moments, and these moments are well protected by a strong sense of reality. Unlike de-realization, alternative history moves from a momentary loss of identity to a renewed confirmation of the stable and certain (personal and historical) reality. Moreover, as Mikhail Epstein shows, “potentialization” of the reality lies at the foundation of certain psychotherapies, such as Viktor Frankl’s logotherapy, which is remarkably similar, we should add, to the mechanism of alternative history. Frankl formulates “the categorical imperative of logotherapy, which is: ‘Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!’ It seems to me that there is nothing which would stimulate a man’s sense of responsibility more than this maxim, which invites him to imagine first that the present is past and, second, that the past may yet be changed and amended.”7 And Epstein continues: “This is the healing power of logotherapy as a kind of potentiotherapy: it returns to a person the world of his possibilities, that is, that wholesome universe in which he concise himself as a universal being. The maxim proposed by Frankl suggests that man does not simply accomplish a possible action but retains the possibility of action after it has been committed.”8 Alternative history is thus more akin to a “wholesome” than to a morbid consciousness. True, it also requires a difficult effort of recollection/creation, but one that succeeds, in contrast to the effort involved in the disorders discussed above, which fails. Alternative history can thus be said to originate a “happy” memory, unlike the “miserable” memory of the pathological state. As noted above, the reader of alternative history loses his certain hold on his awareness of reality for only a few solitary moments. Now we must ask: What are these moments? On the one hand, they may appear non-consecutively and come to be anchored in the unique sequence of the reader’s awareness, in his stream of associations. But on the other hand such moments may be created by the text. And now 7 8

Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, Boston, Beacon Press, 1992, p. 114. Epstein, Filosofiia vozmozhnogo, p. 262.

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what remains is for us to explain the mechanism of this textual creation and its poetic function. It is in such moments, and only then, that an immediate feeling of a split reality, of alternativeness, is created in the reader. In these moments he senses that the reality in which he lives has suddenly been replaced by another. For just a tiny moment he does not identify the world, the historical reality around him. For just a moment he does not remember, ostensibly does not identify what he sees. That is the rare moment when the experience of real alternativeness takes complete control of all the reader’s senses. Most of the time alternativeness is not experienced concretely, but only perceived as a thought experiment at the cognitive level. Only rarely does the fiction appear completely real, although it is still perceived as distinct from the surrounding reality. It may thus be said that actual reality and imagination exchange places for a moment, in a process that could have been compared to a daydream or a hallucination, were it not for the compulsive and pathological character of the latter.9 Normally it takes a great deal of effort to split reality and make the reader become immersed even for a moment in the experience of another history. Clearly, the dominant feeling at such a moment is that of the split, an awareness of the duality of reality, when the reader finds it difficult to decide and choose one reality over another, to point with confidence at one reality as probable, in contrast with the improbability of the other. In these moments a true uncertainty is created, and a true oscillation between two realities, so that the reader is forced to choose between different probable possibilities. In other words, these are moments of true oscillation and true choosing. In these moments, the future has yet to be decided and the reader feels that he is participating in a historical decision. In short, as could have been foreseen, these are the moments of bifurcation. The poetic-narrative mechanism that creates this feeling is, of course, the mechanism of return. In other words, the reader goes back to the bifurcation a second time, as it were, although he has always already been there. While this return is “illusory,” it still is what creates the effect of recollection; it turns the split in reality into an effort at recollection. The 9

The distinction between hallucination and recollection is not obvious. Paul Ricoeur discusses it extensively (Ricoeur, Memory, History, Forgetting, pp. 69-80) and denies the pathological character of recollection. The return to the bifurcation point in an alternative history is thus a case of a “wholesome,” non-compulsive recollection. If alternativeness, with the return it involves, is taken to be a clinical phenomenon, the reader would no longer be responsible for his reading, thus eliminating the ethical character of the historical consciousness that originates alternative history as such.


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reader recollects, as it were, that history could have been different, and for a very short moment he really sees this other reality and remembers the other future, the other possibilities of the future, as if they exist and materialize next to each other. This is a mythological experience par excellence, the memory of the future. It is also the experience of alternative history. The return mechanism is “artificial,” one could even say “fake,” to the extent that it is a narrative mechanism, but the oscillation and choosing that it produces are completely real. However, these moments, as noted above, are isolated and short. Most of the time the reader is immersed not in this experience, but in a certain conception that is an intellectualized copy of the experience, in contrast, of course, to the disorders of depersonalization and de-realization, whose victims are immersed in the experience of split reality most of the time. The comparison between alternative history and pathological states of consciousness not only enabled us to understand that the former was not pathological, but also revealed something important about the essence of alternative history. First of all, we realized that if alternative history was a split in conscious reality, it was one that aspired to be mended. This explains the sporadic nature of the oscillation, which is not a permanent process in alternative history; the split is not a permanent state. The bifurcation moments have a pathological character; they are isolated and unstable in the course of reading. In other words, an alternative history aspires to be stabilized, to return to the perception of familiar reality. This psychological mechanism is supported by poetic mechanisms in texts, so that the return does not take place throughout the entire reading, but only in certain places in which the text creates the appropriate conditions for a return to the past. In other words, those isolated moments of oscillation, of uncertainty and of split create an effect of a “return to the past.” In these moments the future is really uncertain, despite the fact that it is actually identical with the known present. This uncertainty derives from the oscillation itself, from the split reality and the uncertainty concerning the awareness of reality in the present. The oscillation thus gives rise both to the feeling of uncertainty with respect to the past and to the feeling of not knowing the future. This is what makes this oscillation real, one that makes a real choice possible and thus turns the situation into a truly ethical one. This dynamic of splitting reality and mending it again is embodied in the textual-linguistic dynamic of splitting the language and mending it again, a dynamic that is rhetorical. As we already noted in the previous chapter, rhetoric is a linguistic, discursive materialization of alternativeness. This comparison has made it even clearer that we can speak of

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alternativeness in terms of deviation and reduction: Deviation is the split and reduction is the mending, in line with the non-pathological character of alternative history. This brings our psycho-pathological discussion of alternative history to an end. We conclude that alternative history, as a non-pathological process, leads to a confirmation of the known reality and history. This conclusion strengthens our claim that alternative history is not a manifestation of postmodern relativism and does not derive from historical, ontological, or epistemological relativism. Rather, alternative history is a product of the classical, metaphysical historiographical approach. The question of the origin of alternative history thus remains open for the time being. However, if we were to hazard a conjecture on this issue, we could say, in light of the comparison we made above, that alternative history arises from the need to undo the harm of the extreme relativism preached by modernism and postmodernism. It tests the limits of relativism or, we may say, the limits of certainty, of historical knowledge; but it necessarily aspires to confirm them repeatedly. This need apparently derives from the need to mend or, to borrow a term from Gavriel Rosenfeld, the need to normalize. What is being normalized is not memory, because the relation between memory and alternative history is much more complex. Rather, what is normalized is the relation to historiography: fixing and mending the pathological psycho-cultural damage of historical relativism. In a way, we continue to speak in terms of psychopathology when we argue that alternative history serves as a kind of psychological, even psychoanalytical, therapy, whose objective is to “return” the patient to the “past,” to the bifurcation point at which the traumatic split of reality and time takes place. The therapist’s purpose is not to leave the patient in the past but to take him back to reality in a state of good health, so he can live his reality in its and his entirety. The purpose is to cure the alienation and to give the patient back his feeling of reality. If we go back now to the concepts of personality, identity, and character, we see that the parallelisms from psychology lead to the conclusion that alternative history aspires to cure the subject and mend its shreds. It strives to attain unity in all three dimensions: of personality (repairing the psychological, private uniqueness), of identity (repairing the relationship between the individual and society, recovering the personality’s place in the social, public and communal fabric), and of the character (repairing the mimetic connection, in the sense of realization and not only of imitation, between the person and the truth). In other words, in an alternative history the subject (and through it, culture) repairs the attitude, or the understanding and communication, between it and itself, between it


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and society, and between it and the truth. When these relations become defective, alternative history flourishes and develops especially as civilization’s auto-psychoanalysis, as a remedy for civilization’s mental illness. This illness has one major aspect and a number of minor ones. The main aspect is that of memory. When an alternative history brings the subject back to the bifurcation point, to the past so to speak, it clearly reoriginates the memory; it reminds the personality of “its own” past that it did not experience. It “cures” the defective recollection mechanism, this defect being the personality’s weak point and the greatest threat to its existence, the main source of its pathology. Ricoeur speaks about the vulnerability of the recollection mechanism and the need to repair it in all his works, especially in the two large books that are the most relevant for our study: Time and Narrative and Memory, History, Forgetting. We shall discuss Ricoeur’s two most important books as a single unit, which we now present in a few sentences. In Time and Narrative it is claimed that history is a plot.10 In the second book, memory, too, appears as a plot, but one of the most important distinctions there is the one between history and memory. Ricoeur emphasizes that history is not memory, nor is memory history, although both are cognitively and linguistically-structurally based on the plot. History cannot be limited to memory; furthermore, memory may interfere with the attempt to write history. Manipulation and misuse of memory are often a means for distorting or rewriting history, and therefore for causing it to be forgotten. We shall focus here on the chapter entitled “Manipulated Memory, Abusively Controlled Memory” in Memory, History, Forgetting, where Ricoeur, following Pierre Nora, describes an obsession for memorial rites and distances himself from the trend expressed in the “tyranny of commemoration”: The perception of history as a “verified memory” (an approach that replaces the work of memory and grief with the duty of memory and commemoration).11 The importance of this analysis lies in the fact that Ricoeur shows what rites are meant to replace: They are substitutes for history as a discipline, as an effort at recollection. Ricoeur’s distinction shows that the issue of memory should be discussed at the level of personality, not at the level of mythopoesis or, in other words, at the level of the character instead of the plot, despite the fact that memory is 10 Of course, it must be remembered that this claim is completely distinct from that of Hayden White (in his well-known Metahistory), for whom the plot is “only” a poetic mold, whereas for Ricoeur it is a mold of thought, understanding and interpretation of reality. 11 Ricoeur, Memory, History, Forgetting, pp. 90-92.

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based on a plot. Perhaps memory does not have to possess a narrative character, but it certainly is not a sufficient condition for history to arise from memory, for the external to arise from the internal. At any rate, it is important to stress that for Ricoeur both inner and outer spaces are built on continuity. What harm exactly does the rite of commemoration do? What link does it break in the chain of real recollection that might lead to the writing of history? The rite fixates, freezes recollection and removes it both from the process of emerging and from the personality’s individual work. A rite puts the story outside time, whereas we already know from Time and Narrative that a story cannot exist outside time. In other words, a rite fixates the myth from which it grows. Furthermore, a rite removes the personality from a valid (true, real) hierarchical sequence. Ritual, against expectation, is not presented as a means for instilling recollection. Ricoeur emphasizes the other facet of rites, namely their power to cause history to be forgotten, to block the work of recollection through the celebration of commemoration. This tells us that a rite need not and cannot be part of a discussion about the origination of history (the story) and the origination of the personality (the character), as long as our objective is to understand the historicalpersonalistic work of recollection, that takes place, in our opinion, in works of alternative history, in the principle of alternativeness, and in literary reading in general. This makes it especially necessary to discuss the processes of the personality’s origination as part of the discussion on writing history. And let us not forget the living, unique personality that emerges and creates/writes/reads the history. The transition from the external to the internal level, from myth to personality, must thus never be seen as a transition from history to memory. The root of the personality’s continuity and internal unity must be sought not in memory itself, nor in its rites, but in something else. This will be the subject of the following pages.

d. The problem of Personality’s Uniqueness and Multiplicity Memory and forgetting are the two categories that define the discourse on the issue of the personality’s completeness and its emerging in history and myth. The situation of multiple myths discussed in the previous chapter leads us directly to the problem of multiple personalities, which ostensibly contradicts the personality’s completeness (uniformity and uniqueness). Our discussion of this issue will lead us towards an understanding of the nature of alternativeness at a new level, the alternativeness of personality.


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The first question we must ask is whether the personality that emerges in mythopoesis is indeed unique, and if so, in what sense. While Losev and other personalists have stressed the uniqueness of the mythical personality, they perceive uniqueness as concreteness, as characteristic of historicity. The theologians (among the personalists) viewed the personality’s uniqueness as a manifestation of the singleness of revelation that creates the timeline. Here once again uniqueness is perceived as historicity, as an irreversible becoming. This approach has been satisfactory so far, but the problem of the multiplicity of myths in alternative history raises the question of how the personality’s uniqueness can be based on historicity, if historicity itself becomes multiple. One direction in which a solution may be sought is to view uniqueness not as singleness but as identity: The personality is then not defined through its direct historical one-time character, but rather through the mediation of unique characteristics that constitute a whole system of differences between one personality and another. But in this case the question will be how the identity’s continuity is preserved in multiple myths of the same personality. Another possible direction is to consider the personality’s uniqueness as authenticity, that is as a revelation of truth, in which case the personality would be understood as a reflection, an image of that truth. But alternative history blocks this direction for a solution, too, since it creates the (albeit momentary and illusory) impression that multiple truths exist, in accordance with the multiple realities. Thus whether the personality’s uniqueness is understood, in the three dimensions mentioned above, as its singular character, as identity (to itself) or as authenticity, we are no closer to solving the problem of its existence in alternative history. Can the concept of return constitute an efficient contrasting background to a definition of uniqueness? It is, after all, contradictory to all three possibilities of defining uniqueness just enumerated, but at the same time it has another aspect as well: Return can be presented as the arrow of historicity, only in reverse, directed towards the past. The concept of return thus possesses the element that is missing in the concepts discussed above, namely the element of movement, of historical dynamism. From this functional viewpoint, the return to the past is a kind of movement in time that is absolutely identical to the movement of “normal” time, only with a minus sign. Furthermore, a return to the past is always perceived as an intermediate stage between the personality in the present and the personality in the future, as a temporary regression, as a reversed arrow. For us, therefore, the question of whether myth represents the “eternal return” as Mircea Eliade, following Nietzsche, wanted to

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present it, or whether return is neither possible nor desirable to the personality in any way and therefore myth represents the aspiration towards the future, for change, as in Hans Blumenberg’s approach, does not pose a serious dilemma. Both of these conceptions are historical in essence, and therefore cannot escape the problematization which historical alternativeness poses them. Even if the personality’s uniqueness is defined as non-returning, it is not clear how it is possible when two histories exist simultaneously, and furthermore, when alternative history is just a return to the beginning. The only possibility that presents itself here is to view non-returning as the differentiation between alternative personality and the given, familiar one. But this possibility is unacceptable, because the very purpose of alternative history is to show that the same historical personality could have created a different historical development; otherwise it is not alternative history, but just a fictional historical novel. Therefore, the personality’s uniqueness in an alternative history is not its singularity, nor is it identity, authenticity, or non-return; but then, what is it? Let us go back to Losev’s concept of myth which underlies our discussion. At the center of the myth is a personality at the moment of its miracle, that is, at the event of its realization. True, this is an empirical historical realization, but we must not forget that, being a miracle, it is also transcendental, and that it remains thus as long as the event of realization has not been completed. This means that the mythical personality is in a process of emergence, of oscillation between the historical and the transcendental, until it reaches complete realization and turns into a historical personality. But complete realization is located outside mythopoesis. In mythopoesis the personality never already exists; it is always in the process of becoming. Therefore, a unique personality is a personality that is emerging. And now to alternative history: by splitting actual “existing” history into a multiplicity of possible histories that have “not yet” existed, alternativeness gives history a transcendental dimension and turns existing reality into an emerging one, and the historical personality into a becoming personality and, in that sense, unique. So when alternative history presents historical characters as coming into being, it does not undermine their uniqueness but, to the contrary, preserves and strengthens it. Furthermore, it is possible to show that alternativeness is derived from the becoming of myth and personality. How so? We shall first see that becoming is a discontinuous process, then that this discontinuity splits the plot, and finally that the split in the plot is the cause of the multiplicity of personalities. In what sense is becoming discontinuous? It is a process of constant change, of transition between idea and being, between non-


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existence and existence, or from existence to non-existence. According to some metaphysical approaches, what really exists is an idea, and the material world is but an illusion. Be that as it may, in any case becoming is perceived as a transition, as movement itself, and therefore any two adjacent moments of becoming are dissimilar. The gap between them is more profound than appears at first sight. It does not arise from a simple distinctness of two states, two moments, or two objects; such a difference, like that between two adjacent trees in a forest, is not becoming. The difference is much deeper: Each moment in becoming is less transcendental and more historical than the one that preceded it, and therefore at any new moment of becoming the previous one is already incapable of being recognized directly; it cannot be perceived. The epistemological gap between two adjacent moments in becoming thus stems from its transcendental nature. It thus transpires that if one looks back at any given moment of becoming, one can no longer perceive or identify the previous moment. However, the act of looking back and the attempt to identify and recognize are the attempt at remembrance and recollection. It is impossible to identify the previous moment of becoming as just differentiation. That is the reason why becoming maintains a problematization of temporal continuity, memory and history; that is the reason why becoming is a miracle. In that sense, it is not part of history, but a tear or a crack in it. In other words, between any two adjacent moments of becoming there exists a relation of otherness. In the extreme case, the otherness is absolute. Take the first and last moment of becoming, the most distant moments possible: One is completely transcendental and other is completely historical. The distance between them is infinite. It is the same distance as that revealed in monotheistic revelation, in which the first moment of becoming is God and the last moment, one of absolutely historical materialization, is man, and the distance between them is insurmountable. Thus a transition between any two moments of becoming is impossible; it is a small miracle, breaking through a boundary, crossing a threshold, a jump towards infinity or, in ethical terms, the origination of the impossible and unavoidable relation with the other. Why is this relation unavoidable? In order to answer this question we cannot use Lévinas’ concepts, because we are speaking about the origination of time and about becoming, and the human other, with a face and an appeal of his own, is not necessarily part of this becoming (contrary to what Lévinas writes in Time and the Other). Man cannot but pay attention to the previous moment, not because it “calls” him and demands attention, respect, love or obedience; man turns to the previous moment of his

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becoming, of himself, because he wants to understand who he is and whence he came. His “interest,” so to speak, is intra-personal, intracommunal, intra-cultural, that is, centripetal. This relation stems from man’s interest in himself, from his desire to define himself, his identity. His gaze around himself and the question “Where am I” is immediately interpreted as a gaze backward and the question “How did I get here?” or “Where was I in the previous moment?”, “Where did I come from?”, “Who am I?” It is a desperate and hopeful attempt to perceive someone or something that brought him here, similarly to Orpheus’ attempt to see Eurydice. The truth is that it was he himself who brought him here, but in the previous moment, and because of the transcendental gap he cannot perceive, cannot identify his previous self directly. That is the purpose of memory, of the story; and that is why man appears to himself as an other. This is an other that cannot and does not want to impose itself on man: It is not a morbid, manipulative, obsessive or compulsive memory, since the distance between the two moments of becoming is irreducible and all that can bridge the gap between them is the deliberate effort, the focused work of recollection out of a desire to remember. In other words, what connects these two moments is freely chosen recollection. If we reversed Lévinas’ concepts we could say that in the course of becoming the other is the memory that is always “there,” waiting for my freely-chosen appeal, motivated by my desire to define myself, my personality, my identity, my character. In accordance with these three facets, the other of the previous moment can appear to me either as myself in the past, the “original” I (at the level of the personality) or as what shaped my identity, as the origin itself, or it can present itself as the truth, the state of authenticity (at the level of the character). At any rate, whether the past moment is perceived as “I” in the past, as the origin or as the truth, the moment itself cannot be perceived. It is only in this sense that we can say that there is no continuity between every two moments of becoming. Now we must show how this discontinuity causes the story to split. A story is a verbal or, more broadly, a cognitive realization of the becoming discussed here. A story must appear in order for the essentially unperceivable becoming to be transformed into a perceivable object in discourse. In other words, becoming is ultimately fated to become realized as myth. Myth, cognition of the existing phenomenon, makes it possible to look backward towards the becoming, to the not-yet-existing process. Myth is the evidence that the process of becoming can end. Similarly to what Ricoeur wrote in Time and Narrative, we can say that something must hold together all the non-continuous moments of transcendentalhistorical becoming. This is done by the plot, which is the basis of the


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myth. And so, if we consider the plot as becoming, we project onto it the characteristic of discontinuity that we noted above. In a plot, too, any two given moments stand in a relation of transcendence and otherness to each other. Nothing except the plot itself holds any two moments together. Now, from this perspective, let us examine the transition between these two moments. The transition between two moments is a kind of transcendental “phase” transition. The relation between two moments may be defined as otherness, which means discontinuity, again. This means that this transition is not necessary but free or, to be more precise, it is contingent: It may take place, or again it may not; it does not result from any law, whether natural, social, psychological or narratological. But if the transition is free, the question arises as to who decides if it is to occur or not. Since we are speaking about the story’s plot, it is the reader who perceives the (dis)continuity and makes the decisions. In other words, the transition between any two moments in the plot depends on the reader’s decision whether or not to cross the threshold, whether to make this transcendental phase transition. The question is not only whether to make the transition, but also in what direction to proceed. In essence, every moment in the plot is the last, after which a new story begins. Every moment brings something new with it, because in every moment the previous story is over and the reader, the plot’s creator, decides whether and in which direction to continue. Therefore every moment in the plot may be represented as a split, as a bifurcation point, because of the plot’s character of becoming. This means that at every moment another history can be created and, since there are so many moments, the plot appears as multiple possibilities of itself. This argument is in no way connected to any relativism, of whatever kind. The multiplicity results merely from the story’s emergent nature, from the transcendental essence of every moment, of every event in the sequence. To summarize, every moment becomes a possible contingent beginning of an alternative history. It does not matter if the multiplicity of possibilities is revealed and an alternative history is realized in fact, or if this multiplicity does not become conscious and is not realized. This means that every plot, every history is always already an alternative history, because it is always a choice out of a variety of possibilities. Here we must stress again: This conclusion does not indicate the lack of a transcendental origin; to the contrary, it shows that the origin exists, and its existence results directly from the possibility of choice. It is the concepts of (natural, social, economic) law that prevent the possibilities from splitting, because the transition between two moments in such a case

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is deemed to be necessary. In this case, when the law is immanent in the plot, there is no place for choosing and alternativeness, no place for freedom; only transcendence grants freedom. We have thus shown how alternativeness in the form of splitting the plot is enabled by the fact that the plot is becoming. We must now still show how this split gives rise to the multiplicity of personalities. This is not difficult to do, in light of the above analysis; we must only reemphasize one aspect of this analysis, namely the relation between two moments of becoming from the perspective of personality. As noted above, this is the relation of otherness. That is, at the moment of splitting, with the multiplicity of possibilities that is created at every moment of the plot, different possibilities of realizing the personality are created. How do these differ from each other? Every possibility of the plot represents a certain possibility of personality. In this respect the multiplicity of personality is almost self-evident now. What is not obvious and what needs to be asked is whether in this case we should speak about a multiplicity of the same or of different personalities. The only standard by which to answer this can be the extent of transcendence of historical realization. In every “other” plot, an “other” unique personality is created, one that differs from any personality that is realized in a parallel plot; in other words, historically, the realizations are different. But from the transcendental aspect all these possibilities are at the same level with respect to the plot’s previous moment, and this transcendence unites them into one identity. This is what enables this personality to remain the same personality despite the multiplicity. In this sense we also defined uniqueness as transcendental above. It must be remembered that in alternative history one cannot define uniqueness as distinction or difference. In other words, it is not the fact that the alternative personality is different from the historical one that creates the former’s uniqueness; rather its uniqueness lies in the fact that it remains the same personality even when it creates a different history. Therefore, it is a transcendental uniqueness, as we said above. We may thus conclude this discussion as follows: The plot’s emergent, becoming-like character gives rise both to the personality’s multiplicity and its uniqueness; the latter comes into being in all possibilities, unites them and keeps them together as a bundle of that personality’s realization possibilities. Both uniqueness and alternativeness thus derive from the plot’s emergent character. It is only in this sense that alternativeness can be said to constitute the revelation of the personality’s uniqueness, the same historical personality’s unique, other myth. The basis of the personality’s historical identity, the common


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denominator of uniqueness and alternativeness, is the transcendence in the emergence. We have thus shown how the multiplicity of myths results in a multiplicity of personalities; this multiplicity is of the kind that makes the personality’s uniqueness also possible. We emphasized by the way that the personality needs a story, a myth, in order to be realized and to emerge. This need of the personality for a story, for words, is not self-evident, and now we shall discuss this point in somewhat greater detail. We must show that the personality’s multiplicity is not only the result of the need to be realized in speech, in words, in myth but, more precisely, is derived from the pragmatic-ethical (i.e., rhetorical) need to speak. The personality’s becoming in multiplicity will thus be presented not as a “natural” necessity, not as an immanent feature of the personality or the story, but as a practical objective or even as a task that the personality takes upon itself in the course of its emergence. We shall speak about a circular process of mutual feedback between the becoming of the transcendental in speech and the rhetorical objective of this speech. This analysis will be based on the same approach to myth that we have promoted throughout, that is, as the realization of the transcendental in the historical, the latter being translated now as rhetorical, that is, as pragmatic-ethical. So why does the personality need speech? The philosophy of language in the twentieth century has given a number of impressive answers to this question. Here we cannot present them all, but shall only mention three prominent approaches. One is the theological approach, adopted for example by Losev, according to which the personality needs speech because it must be embodied in the “Word,” name. Losev, a secret monk who professed imiaslavie (onomatodoxy), was obviously influenced by the Christian revelation or, more precisely, its embodiment. The roots of this tradition of thought are very ancient; they go back to the Greek concept of the logos and to even older archaic mythologies that identify creation with speech. In such “logocentric” approaches the word or the name appears as the historical embodiment of the personality, divine as well as human. In this way the revelation/embodiment of God/the name becomes the model for the becoming of any personality. Another approach is represented, for example, by Wittgenstein’s philosophy, in which the personality’s need to speak derives from the need to play the social game, from the social character of language itself. It is language itself that motivates man to speak. A third, radically pragmatic approach, views every human need, in particular the need to speak, as purely pragmatic.

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Now we pose another question. Let us suppose that a personality, for whatever reason, needs speech. What interests us is why a personality, that struggles so for its existence and needs speech for its becoming and realization, splits and multiplies in this process and creates not one but many names. What is at the root of the need for a multiplicity of names? The above-mentioned approaches can explain this multiplicity only through one thing: the many-times character of the realization. In other words, the personality emerges several times. This is a distinctly social need that stems directly from the temporal sequence of communication and from its changing circumstances, which make it necessary for the personality to be realized numerous times. Thus, for example, for Lévinas the multiple interpretations of the Word in revelation is the result of the multiple people who interpret the revealed Word; in Losev’s case, the multiplicity of words can be explained through the multiplicity of the events of the miracle. However, just as uniqueness is not a matter of “one time only,” so multiplicity, the counterpart of uniqueness, cannot be its opposite, that is, it cannot be rooted in “many-times.” Logically this should be obvious: The fact that the same event recurs time and again over time does not by itself give rise to a necessary difference between these recurring events. A repetition is not selfevidently different; any difference is not and cannot be the result of the repetition itself. And if there is no difference, we cannot speak about a multiplicity of names. The question thus arises: How does the multiplicity of personality resulting, as defined above, from the multiplicity of myths, give rise to the multiplicity of words that is expressed in the need to create a language and to speak in it? The first part of the answers is already at hand: The source of every multiplicity is becoming; but the personality’s emergent character, the fact that it is different from itself at any moment, still does not explain the need to speak, whether we are talking about speech in general or the need to speak by means of multiple names. As we shall see, this need derives from the rhetorical need to convince others of the truth in which the speaker believes. Neither the theological nor the social approach assumes a need for persuasion, which is a special need, different from both social law and revealed commandment. Somewhat paradoxically, we may say that this is a non-necessary, contingent need, which does not derive logically or ethically from any social or theological conception, nor from any linguistic approach. Our hypothesis is that rhetoric answers this special human need. The fact that rhetoric involves a union of ethics and pragmatics does not mean that it constitutes a sum of the two and that these are its only constituent elements. It not only maintains a social-ethical relation with the


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environment, and not only aims at attaining immediate pragmatic objectives. It is the will to persuade that differentiates rhetoric from any other social, linguistic or ritual activity. The word “will” was stressed here because it is of particular importance. Above we asked why speech is necessary and the approaches we mentioned indeed focus on that question. But the question of necessity assumes a psychological and social determinism, a philosophy based on the laws of nature. Our purpose, however, is to show that the multiplicity of personality and speech through multiple names arises not from necessity, not from need, but from a free desire to speak, and not only to speak, but to do so by means of a multiple language, the language of alternativeness. The importance of the conception of will can be understood, for example, in light of relativistic views on truth on one hand, and purely pragmatic approaches on the other. Thus, for example, Richard Rorty treats speech as free and not necessary, as contingent. But his “speech” is superfluous and therefore meaningless; it is speech with no cause and no motive, in which the initial desire to speak is eventually transformed into a tedious habit of speaking more and more in order not to deteriorate to violence. Rorty’s move essentially has the purpose of putting distance between the speaker and the truth, and creating a figure of an “ironic liberal” who is aware of the relativity of all truth and of the fact that truth does not preexist but is “created” in speech. Why should such a person, if he finds himself not at the beginning but in the middle of a “conversation,” want to speak at all? The only possible reason is negative: fear, an unwillingness to die or to put oneself in danger. This speech is thus driven by the fear of death and the instinct for survival. It is unclear how such a simple and base instinct can give rise to the complexity of human communication and civilization in general. What could be more frightening, violent and cruel than to speak endlessly in order not to die? We therefore base speech on free will. At any moment and in any situation man has a choice: to speak or not to speak, to create a myth or not, to create an (alternative) history or not. Speech is contingent, but in the opposite sense as for Rorty: Speech results from free will because the speaker does believe in truth, because he is so convinced of it that he wants to persuade others. This is the affirmative motivation for speech. The belief in the truth drives the desire to persuade, and the desire to persuade originates the multiplicity of names and the struggle to appropriate them. If this desire is very powerful, it turns into a passion that may lead to a narrative conflict. Such a conflict will give rise not to regular speech but to the creative reality-changing variety, that is, to rhetoric. Furthermore, this passion also gives rise to history. In particular,

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since this passion generates the multiplicity of names and the conflict between the various narratives that attempt to appropriate the names, we can say that it gives rise to the multiplicity of histories, and this is what makes alternative history possible. In this respect, alternative history thus derives from the desire to persuade the other in the transcendental historical truth in which the speaker believes.

e. Identity and Re-identification Thus far we have analyzed the origination of a personality’s multiplicity. Now we must analyze the process whereby the personality’s unity is originated, since clearly within the multiplicity there resides one personality, despite its many names, conflicting narratives, and alternative histories. We can and must speak about one personality, since this is the basic assumption of alternative history. If the multiplicity of personality derives from the desire to speak and persuade others, what is the source of the personality’s unity? In order to answer this question it will probably be necessary to find another motive, one that would be the opposite in this respect to the motive of speaking to the other, of dialogue and persuasion. There must be some motive which directs the will towards the subject itself, towards the self. While the motive of multiplicity is directed at persuasion, at causing a change in the other’s consciousness, we may assume that the contrary motive will appear as a will directed towards the self. This assumes the existence of this self a priori, an assumption which reveals the very mechanism that we are about to discuss. What originates the subject is the vector of passion, the activation of the will. This is the will to originate the self and preserve it “as it is.” However, if the self does not exist before it has been intended by the will, whose will is it? We cannot go into this well-known circularity beyond mentioning Arthur Schopenhauer, who discovered that it is possible to base both the subject’s and the world’s existence on the will. This possibility is also realized in the subject’s speech towards the self, in speech within the ego’s totality. The will as presented by Schopenhauer can appear as a motive or force that unifies the multiplex personality. It is the will that creates a world, a representation, an image, and creates signification and referentiality. At another level it is the will that creates and preserves identity, both at the personal and the social-cultural levels. Each of the personality’s facets demands the same “concern,” in Heidegger’s terms, that preserves the personality’s power to want to be (identical to itself). Whatever the epistemological paradigm used to define


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things – metaphysical, scientific or discursive – the self wants to want and to be concerned. Perhaps this is Foucault’s greatest achievement in his later period: the history of concern for oneself. But the most important point is that this will-to-concern (or the concern-to-will), like any will, does not take the personality into the discourse, but rather takes it out. And while this act is also ultimately realized with discursive means, behind them there is always the “other,” so to speak, of the discourse itself, the existence outside of discourse. The personality exists as unity and singleness in this non-discursive “otherness.” It is important to examine how this will, too, originates an alternative history to the same extent as the will to persuade; it is important to show that without this will to be concerned with oneself, the other will – the will to persuade – cannot exist, cannot even be created. We began the previous analysis by emphasizing that persuasion is born of belief in a certain truth; now we can point to the nature of this truth, to the “domain” in which it is located. Above we called it “transcendental truth,” but now we can be more precise and say that the transcendence of the truth of persuasion is subjective, in the sense that it is outside discourse, and that it is perceived as the unity of the subject. In other words, the belief in truth cannot exist without a will that originates the subject. Without a subject there is no speech, and therefore the transcendence should be understood as “non-discursive,” like the unity of the personality and its name that is not split, that does not participate in the struggle over the name in a narrative conflict, that does not negotiate in the economy of the discursive subject. This unity can be discussed in terms of identity (as social unity) and it may be defined as the image of truth (metaphysical unity). This leads us to the conclusion that without the transcendental unity of personality, identity and image (character), the will to speak and persuade cannot exist, and as a result neither can alternative history. In other words, without the transcendental unity and singleness of the personality the latter’s multiplicity could not exist either, and therefore the personality’s alternativeness could also not exist. This takes us forward towards the end of our discussion on the personality’s alternativeness. We noted its motives and its conditions, and showed how it derives from the alternativeness of myth and from the transcendental unity of the personality. This must be considered further evidence that alternative history is not a form of postmodern, deconstructive, subversive, relativistic thought, but that, to the contrary, the conception of alternative history and the principle of alternativeness itself are derived from the personality’s transcendence and unity, as well as from the personality’s belief in a transcendental truth.

Alternativeness of Personality


The personality in all its three facets thus oscillates in a space of multiplicity. The analysis of this multiplicity requires a great deal of effort, and we still have a long way before us. Now we shall have to explain not only what the source of this multiplicity is, but also the source of the personality’s oscillation within the multiplicity, since multiplicity by itself is not a dynamic concept and cannot explain the oscillation’s dynamism. Multiplicity in and by itself does not count oscillation among its features. In order to put it on a firm foundation we shall first examine the special way in which the personality is linked to its becoming. Becoming is of course dynamic; it is dynamism itself. We have shown that the essence of becoming is transcendental discontinuity. From the personality’s perspective this means that between any two moments of becoming the personality is faced with a choice. In order to make this choice, the personality must make a decision concerning its connection to another moment, another event in its becoming. We call this connection identification: The personality emerges via identification. It is important to emphasize that by identification we mean a dynamic interaction between the personality and itself. This relation is characteristic of the subject in all its facets, including as character and identity. At the level of personality a person identifies with his psychological self, at the level of identity – with his social self, and at the level of character – with his authenticity. The concept of identification directs us once again to the rhetorical act. The sequence of the personality’s becoming is a sequence of rhetorical acts, since it is a sequence of speech, of the personality’s decisions within the discourse, within the myth. Therefore the decisions and choices a personality makes between every two moments of its becoming are rhetorical, choices between two myths, between two identities. In this sense choosing itself is perceived as identification. Choosing a certain myth, character or identity means to identify with it. This identification takes place by means of persuasive speech, since to identify oneself means to become convinced that “I” am “he” (“Himme,” in Keret’s words). The becoming of the personality, even if it is discontinuous, transcendental and rhetorical, is thus in essence identification. Choosing as identification is the core of the rhetorical act, which is, as we showed above, the originating element of alternativeness. But this does not yet explain why choosing between two different identities involves a dynamic multiplicity of historical alternativeness and of alternativeness in general. When we say that identity is identification we already give the personality a dynamic, emergent dimension, a dimension of discontinuous, intermittent, explosive transition between the transcendental to the historical. We


Chapter Six

described above how the relation between different moments of the personality’s realization in becoming is built. We saw that this relation is defined as “otherness.” In identification, the personality encounters the object of identification as an “other.” We saw that the nature of becoming requires that the relation between two different moments of becoming is that of otherness, because of the irreducible transcendental gap. But if so, how is identification possible? How can one identify with a character that is the “other”? The fact that this identification does indeed take place shows that it is possible, but a critical examination of this fact reveals that identification cannot be complete. This is what Kenneth Burke means when he speaks in his A Rhetoric of Motives about rhetorical identification as an eternal plea. Identification as a central concept in Burke’s book is revealed towards the end of the book as an evasive vanishing point, as a utopia, a horizon. However, in our approach things are different. As far as we are concerned, not only is it impossible to reach the horizon, but there is no reason to do so. To put it in a slightly paradoxical way, this means that the essence of identification does not lie in identification. The assumption that the other is not perceivable is trivial in the contemporary conceptual constellation. What is not obvious is that there is no reason to perceive this other. That is not the objective of a human relation. The objective of such a relation is to originate the personality’s multiplicity for the purpose of creating (historical) alternativeness. The self does not perceive the other in order to originate its own becoming, changing, and alternative self. Rather than perceiving the other, a person speaks to it. That is what Eric Gans means when he describes the growth of language from the curbing and deferral of violence. Man voluntarily renounces the attempt to perceive the other. I curb my appropriation gesture, restrict it and return it to its beginning, and so remain myself. This is the case of any move of becoming, but the problem is that there are multiple moves of this kind, that is, already in the next moment of becoming I find myself facing another “other.” Therefore I must again perform the same gesture of going to the other and returning, but not because I want or do not want to perceive the other, since that other is only my mirror. Rather, I only go out of myself in order to perceive myself anew. I thus identify with my new self at every moment of my becoming. This is a permanent rhetorical act, a kind of perpetuum mobile. It is not an “eternal plea” in Burke’s terms. The speaker does not plead with the other, nor does he want to identify with him; to the contrary, the self (the speaker) wants to know that at every moment his way back to himself is assured and the other, who is at the periphery of the self’s relation, is always “there” and does not replace it in

Alternativeness of Personality


the center, at the virtual point from which it looks at the world. It is only because of this promise (or assurance) that it is possible to speak of identification and of becoming. To summarize, we may say that identification is always already a renewed identification. This is not merely a definition of what identification is but also a definition of the becoming, that is, of historical transcendence, of a rhetorical act, of mythopoesis. Ultimately this implies that “renewed identification” is also a definition of a personality’s historical alternativeness. Alternative history is a process that realizes the personality’s historical alternativeness. Identification is the personality’s identification with itself, but it is renewed at every moment and is multiplex, and therefore the personality is multiplex as well. This is also the reason why it is not continuous; but this is a discontinuity of a uniform process with one personality at its center, one that is identified anew every moment. With the concept of renewed identification we come to the last definition of the personality’s alternativeness. In this concept we find a dialectical solution to the supposed contradiction between the personality’s multiplicity and its uniqueness and singleness. The last question that arises here involves genre features of alternative history. If in the multiplicity created in alternative history we find an identification of the same personality, how can we still speak about an actual alternativeness? This also gives rise to an even more fundamental question: Is true alternativeness possible? Let us begin with a clear example of alternative history: One of the best-known novels of this genre, a work written by someone who was not a science fiction or fantasy writer, Vasily Aksyonov (1932-2009). His novel The Island of Crimea (1979), a superb achievement in the genre of alternative history, tells about the historical alternative of the existence of an independent non-Bolshevik Russian state in Crimea that was established after the Russian civil war in the 1920s. The book’s real hero is the alternative Russian state, but the entire course of the novel reveals that this state is quite similar to the Soviet Union. The novel asks whether one nation resides in both states. No profound analysis is needed in order to show that the entire novel moves in the space between similarity and difference, and that the reader, following the narrator, hesitates and oscillates between different answers to this question, between two extremes that are two identities. But at any rate these are two identities of the same nation, the same culture, and therefore it is definitely possible to speak of the people of Crimea’s renewed identification with their brothers across the border, with the character of the Russian people or Russian culture. This is not at all a political or ideological question, nor a question


Chapter Six

of the author’s philosophical views. It is a question of genres, and a basic assumption in a genre. In alternative history, both alternatives involve the same personality’s identification with itself, except that because of the emergent character of the plot/history a relation of otherness between the two alternatives is also created. This relation of otherness is secondary to the relation of identity, and what creates the otherness is only this step of renewal of identification. The other remains always attached to the “I” in their shared transcendental identity, in what Deleuze calls the “dark precursor.” The moment that the transcendental gap disappears, so does the transcendental identity, and we speak about the perfect realization of a personality in history. But this moment marks the end of the plot, the end of a story. What alternative history is all about is the problematization of identity, but certainly not its rejection. At the level of plot/history the identity becomes multiplex and is presented as an object of choice, but at the transcendental level it remains tied to itself. The process of self-evident identification is blocked, and at this moment of delay between the two moments of becoming an “explosion of possibilities” takes place, to use Lotman’s term, and so identification becomes choosing. This delay requires participation in a rhetorical act and choosing one of the possibilities it offers. In alternative history choosing means to choose a personality, and it is this which we call “renewed identification.” The renewal is first-and-foremost that of the transcendental origin, which cannot itself be chosen but lies behind and at the root of every choice. Choosing thus always exists as a multiplicity of possibility, as long as the becoming continues. Whether I choose my old identity or a new one, what takes place is a renewed identification. In both cases we must speak of a realization of the personality and about the personality’s alternativeness. However, we still cannot explain why in the case of renewed identification of the same personality it is possible to speak of different and alternative histories. The present terminology does not suffice to provide a foundation for historical alternativeness. In the choosing between different identities of the same personality there has to be something more radical that splits history and distinguishes among alternative histories, so that the alternativeness will be real and not illusory, not imaginary. In terms of the personality alone we cannot arrive at a complete explication of alternative history as a principle or a genre. We therefore need an additional perspective, that of choosing, which we are going to discuss in the next chapter. If at the moment of choosing and oscillation we are still with the same personality, and if choosing is renewed identification, what can be the role of real alternativeness? What

Alternativeness of Personality


is the real choice? Where is the sign of otherness that will take the personality towards something that is not identical to it, to something that is really alternative? We were unable to find this at the level of the myth, or the level of the personality. Now let us try to examine the level of choosing itself. Can the choosing performed by a personality constitute an object of alternativeness? Choosing is the main act performed between two moments of becoming; it takes place at the bifurcation point, at the point of the origination of alternativeness. Therefore we may search for the root of alternativeness in the act of choosing itself. In the next chapter we shall therefore speak about the alternativeness of choosing. The main question that will be the focus of attention in the next chapter is: “How does the personality choose?” It appears that the alternativeness of choosing is the essential mechanism, the core of alternativeness in general and of historical alternativeness in particular.


a. From Semiotic Square to a Dynamic Square of Choice The main result in the previous chapter was the definition of personality alternativeness as renewed identification. However, this raises a question: If renewed identification is the main way for creating alternativeness, this way or mode presupposes the existence of at least three other ways in which the personality relates to itself. First, renewed identification is preceded by an “initial” identification. Another way is non-identification: As it encounters itself, the personality may not identify itself. An additional way is the opposite of identification: alienation. This line of reasoning is of course derived from Aristotle’s square of opposition, and another square based on it, Algirdas Greimas’ semiotic square.1 In this square any sign (for example, “bad”) is defined in relation to three others: contrariness (“good”), contradiction (“not-bad”) and complementation (“not-good”). In our case identification is contrary to alienation, contradictory to non-identification and complementary to non-alienation. Clearly, renewed identification does not derive directly from the semiotic square; rather, it constitutes a dynamic configuration of such a square, that we shall present later in this chapter. However, none of these ways (identification and non-identification, alienation and non-alienation) originates alternativeness; this is created only with renewed identification. But if we examine the totality of ways a personality relates to itself we shall see that each is connected to the other by a relationship of alternativeness. In other words, when the personality identifies with itself without renewal, when it does not identify with itself, or even when it is alienated to itself, the resulting history comes into being 1

Algirdas Greimas, Structural Semantics: An Attempt at Method, trans. by Daniele McDowell, Ronald Schleifer, and Alan Velie, Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1983.

Alternativeness of Choice and of Modes of Choice


as alternative history of renewed identification. These possibilities are therefore not merely a disjunctive set in which each has the privilege of being the mode of origination of the alternativeness while the others merely negate it; rather, all of the above-mentioned ways constitute different possibilities of the personality’s realization, that is, of identification. Identification, non-identification, and alienation are types of alternative identification. “Alternative identification” is thus the category that, in accordance with Greimas’ theory, can be expected to unify the concept of identification with its contrary, its contradiction and its complement. By the very fact of considering different types of identification we have opened a discussion on the alternativeness of choice. The latter is clearly not a separate function of alternative history but rather just an additional aspect of our analysis of historical alternativeness. As we turn to discuss the alternativeness of choice we merely claim that historical alternativeness is not only the alternativeness of myth and the alternativeness of the personality created in that myth, but also the personality’s alternativeness of choice. This means that in any alternative history it is not only an alternative history and an alternative personality that are created, but an alternative choice is also made. The personality’s choice takes place along what we may call an identification continuum that takes the place of the personality’s identification with itself; in this continuum the personality can choose different ways of identification. It is these ways that are the subject of the discussion in the present chapter. If we try to reconstruct the entire structure of an alternative history as we perceive it now, we may describe it as follows: At certain moments in his reading, the reader returns to the “historical personality’s” or the literary character’s bifurcation point, and there he identifies anew with the character and its renewed identity. The act of “renewed identification” means to create a new myth of the same personality, to tell and renew (in the sense of both reconstruction and modification) its history. The problem is that at this bifurcation point the reader, together with the character, can also choose one of the other ways of identification. Whichever way is chosen will, as already noted, be an alternative history. The essence of a bifurcation point lies in the fact that all the possibilities derived from it are equally probable. Therefore, whatever the personality will do at this point, it will always choose one out of many possibilities, and this choice will highlight the unrealized possibilities in the background. In other words, every choice made at a bifurcation point creates a history, and every history thus created is an alternative history.


Chapter Seven

What interests us now is not “What is created at the bifurcation point?”, that is, not the alternativeness of myth, nor “Who creates a new history?”, that is, not the alternativeness of personality, but rather the choosing itself. After having discussed the origination of myth and of personality, we shall now undertake to examine the central aspect of alternative history: the origination of choice. Let us not forget that these are only aspects of the process of the origination of alternativeness, not parts or stages of the process. So how is “choice” created? Clearly, the existence of multiplicity is a necessary condition for the creation and existence of choice. In the previous chapter we showed how multiplicity arises and what its nature is. But multiplicity is also not a sufficient condition. Fortunately, we also found a sufficient condition in the previous chapter, a condition involving the work of renewed identification. The personality identifies anew in the multiplex space, in axes of individuality, character, and identity. But even this is not the whole picture. We also noted the force that drives the personality to renewed identification, namely the desire to persuade, which derives from a belief in a transcendental truth. And now we are ready to take the next step. The moment the subject finds itself inside the multiplicity, it can identify with itself, or with another character, or not identify at all. These are the basic modes of choice which define the alternativeness of choosing. All these modes exist in the moment of every choice that the personality makes. Now we rise above the level of the multiplicity of names and of myths, the objects of identification, and speak of the multiplicity that exists at the background of every identification with any one of these myths. In other words, every time the personality chooses a certain possibility of realization, it not only chooses a specific alternative history, a specific myth, but it also always chooses choice itself: it chooses to choose. Therefore we may speak of other possibilities of choosing, since choosing is also alternative history. By the very fact that a person advances towards choice, by wanting to choose, he opens up the alternative possibilities of choice. This mechanism of choosing to choose, of choosing to become detached from myself in order to decide whether to identify or to identify anew, already takes the coming out from myself, the multiplicity, for granted. We shall therefore focus now on this element of “choosing to choose” as part of the complex system of alternative history. Let us turn once again to the concepts of Greimas’ semiotic square. An identical process takes place in each of the modes of identification, to wit, putting a number of possibilities inside simultaneity of structure. When the personality is faced with a choice and sees a number of possible futures, it creates or evokes a

Alternativeness of Choice and of Modes of Choice


uniform system consisting of a number of components/possibilities, each of which is perceived as a certain realization of the system or, to be more precise, as a certain possibility of deviation from the system. If we understand possibility as the possibility of deviation, we are of course entering the domain of structural concepts, and so Greimas’ theory becomes relevant to our discussion. The essence of true choice, that is, choice between equally probable possibilities, is the placement of different historical possibilities inside simultaneity. Only this way can they be compared and a choice between them made. The mechanism of choosing also works this way. At the bifurcation point the personality, before it chooses this or that historical possibility, chooses whether he must choose. Therefore choosing is a pattern in the structural sense. That is the reason why these processes create meaning. Alternative history thus creates meaning in the structural way; this is something that we already pointed out when we analyzed the alternativeness of myth in terms of Gilles Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition. Now we can be more precise and say that these concepts are not sufficient; we need a more complex model, because at the level of the personality, as we saw, the system functions in a more complex manner than it does at the level of mere signs, which is the level at which Deleuze’s discussion takes place. Still, it must be said that we do apply a certain model of sign origination here, too, Greimas’ model, but this model is more appropriate for analyzing the personality dynamics of the alternativeness of choice. Our discussion in this study can be said to proceed from the outside inwards, from the later to the earlier: We began with choosing the myth, which is the last stage in the origination of an alternative history; from there we moved on to choosing the personality, and now we are going on to an even earlier stage, the stage of choosing to choose. Greimas speaks about the origination of the signs’ meanings; so what are the signs that we must put at the vertices of the semiotic square? They have been known to us since the previous chapter: they are different identities or different characters of the same personality. Identification with them gives rise to the personality’s meaning, which is, ostensibly, the meaning of its myth, that is, an alternative history. But what is the meaning of “the personality’s meaning”? When a person identifies or does not identify with a given character (his own, a literary character, etc.), what “meaning” does this involve? Is the relation between a personality and the character of identification a relation between signifier and signified? In other words, does to identify mean to signify?


Chapter Seven

The concept of “the personality’s meaning” does not correspond to what is known as the sign’s meaning, because with respect to the alternativeness of choice the personality’s meaning is not its myth. Let us try to clarify this by examining the questions that the personality faces at the bifurcation point. The question of the alternativeness of myth is “What is happening?”, and that of the alternativeness of personality is “Who am I?” What is the question of the alternativeness of choice? Apparently it is “Should I choose?” It is on the answer to this question that the “personality’s meaning” depends, not on the personality that it will choose or on the myth in which it will be realized. But we already know that the personality chooses in any case. The question of “Should I choose?” already sets the personality on a course that will of necessity lead it to choosing and to becoming realized in a myth – in one of the many alternative, incomplete, emergent, and dissipative myths. Mikhail Epstein writes: “The deepest feeling is this: I am not existing yet, but I am possible. I can be. This ‘can be’ persists under the shell of all the ‘is’ with which a person identifies every now and then. Personality is a possibility of itself that is not exhausted by any self-realization.”2 The square of choice thus poses four possibilities to the personality at the bifurcation point. The first possibility is to remain at the same point as it was, that is, to identify with itself. That is the system’s level zero, nonmovement. The three dynamic possibilities are: alienation (equivalent to identification with the other), non-identification, and non-alienation (equivalent to renewed identification). Perhaps the best-known example of the alternativeness of choice is found in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Hamlet as the play’s protagonist has four possibilities. He can identify with himself; for him this means identifying with the character of his father, accepting the ghost’s words as the truth, and taking blind vengeance. Another possibility is to become alienated from himself; this would mean to reject his father’s character and to identify with his enemy, Claudius, the play’s quintessential “other,” and so would involve betrayal, renouncing the search for truth or deliberately ignoring it. The third possibility is nonidentification with the father character, which would in practice mean doing nothing, ignoring the ghost, searching neither for the truth nor for vengeance. As we see, in all three of these possibilities Hamlet does not search for the truth, does not think, and does not hesitate. Only in the fourth possibility, non-alienation, Hamlet may perhaps renew his identification with his father, albeit with hesitations and doubts, and so search for the truth and find it. In this case Hamlet goes to war while 2

Epstein, Filosofiia vozmozhnogo, p. 248.

Alternativeness of Choice and of Modes of Choice


The square of choice

originating a new personality of himself, the personality with which we are familiar and which is realized in the story we know. Renewed identification is the way to realized history. And yet the other, nonrealized possibilities always remain, in the background. Keeping Hamlet’s example in mind, we can now analyze the square of choice. The famous question “To be or not to be?” belongs on only a single point in the square, the point of origin: This is the question, should I come out of myself and draw the additional vectors of motion, should I create the square’s sides? But the moment this question is asked it is already superfluous, since the answer to it is predetermined: The very existence of a single vertex of the square implies the existence of the other three. Furthermore, the question can only be asked if the square exists and operates. Students of tragedy define this fact as the tragic hero’s unavoidable fate. But the tragic hero can still choose the “course” of his movement along the sides of the square. For Hamlet, as for any other character, identification is thus the primary and most accessible possibility, and so at first he identifies with his father. But this identification is extremely painful, since the alternative possibility of non-identification remains constantly in existence in the background. Had the latter been realized, an alternative history of Hamlet


Chapter Seven

Prince of Denmark would have been created, a history of a “son” who was loyal to king Claudius, as the crown prince and future king. Hamlet cannot but consider this alternative history in his mind. From our perspective the “vertex” of non-identification is not only contradictory to identification but is connected to the latter in a relation of dynamic experimentation, examination and comparison, as is the relation between the two alternatives. The dynamics of experimentation and consideration of alternatives lies in the possibility to return to the starting point, to remain there or to proceed to the two other “vertices” of the square. In other words, the square of choice is operated from each corner, as we should have expected. At every transition from one corner to the other, the hero once again finds himself faced with the four-way choice. What are the forces that pull the character from one corner to another? It would seem that inside the square of choice there is a square of forces that dictate the movement between the corners of the square of choice. For example, Hamlet proceeds from the point of identification and moves to the point of non-identification, because he wants to discover the truth, since he does not fully trust the ghost’s report. This move is not necessary, nor does it derive from duty; it derives solely from the hero’s free will. However, Hamlet does believe that this move could lead to justice being done, not merely to blind vengeance. That is how Hamlet interprets the ghost’s commands. This is a free interpretation, not a necessary conclusion from the ghost’s words. But Hamlet’s good intentions and his interpretation quickly lead him to the threshold of alienation: In the scenes he makes, in his disguises, in his pretended bouts of madness Hamlet wants to detach himself from his “normative” character, from himself; he wants to turn himself into another personality and so also to separate himself from his father’s character. His games led to him being expelled from the palace and nearly also to his death; he was saved from being murdered only by a miracle. Had he not, he most certainly would not have been able to discover the truth and to avenge his father’s blood. Thus at a certain stage he acted in contradiction to his own objectives and attempted to flee from the command, just as Jonah fled from the prophecy. Alienation strikes Hamlet like a stroke of lightning and illuminates the way for him: Just as from a descent one can only begin to ascend, so also from alienation one can only move towards non-alienation. At the end of this movement there is renewed identification. Hamlet identifies anew with himself and with his father’s character, in more than one sense: He regains his personality’s unity (sanity), achieves his objective (discovers the truth), fulfills his father’s last wish (avenges his death) and dies like his father (but in a way that compensates and retrieves his honor, in a fair

Alternativeness of Choice and of Modes of Choice


fight in which he also kills his rival). If Hamlet’s movements are depicted in the square of choice, they create a square that is no longer static, but rather a dynamic square consisting of vectors of movements and forces: The vector (dynamic) square of choice

To conclude, Hamlet begins to act and to speak because he wants to speak, because he believes in the truths that are revealed to him on his difficult path, even though he is still beset with hesitation and doubt. Furthermore, doubt, as we have seen, is a necessary step on the way to renewed identification. He chose a way that led to persuasion, out of a desire to persuade himself and others. In order to persuade himself he had to be persuaded himself, and therefore he had to identify with the character of the avenger as the ghost proposed, but by doing so he ran the risk of becoming a murderer and identifying with Claudius. To extricate himself from this paradoxical trap Hamlet chose a new character and a renewed identification. This development is usually explained in psychological or ethical terms. However, if what we have here is a rhetorical act (of persuasion), it is driven by a strong rhetorical logic, according to which identification is the motive and a necessary condition, but it can never be complete or absolute. Kenneth Burke showed this in the most precise manner. In this sense, moving along the axes of contradiction of the vector square is due to failure: The failure of absolute identification leads to non-


Chapter Seven

identification and further drives the work of choosing, while the failure of absolute alienation leads to non-alienation, at which point the character is renewed, and together with it the whole square. More precisely, from this point a new square of choice can arise. Identification is thus always driven by free will, and it always stands at the threshold of failure, like a rhetorical act. Therefore we may say that identification is contingent: It has a strong motive, but it is not necessary. Identification always occurs towards the horizon of non-identification and produces the square of choice anew time and again. This feature provides identification with a dimension that is not only dynamic but also historical, both in the sense of temporal extension and continuity, and in the sense of temporal sensitivity. So identification, like rhetoric in general, fights entropy. The square itself is a system, and the movements in it are deviations from the system. These deviations possess continuity and temporal extension, and the continuity connects the personality’s square of choice with the next square of choice of the same personality. The point of contact is, of course, the point of renewed identification. The moment that the personality realizes itself, it once more faces the next choice, so that only death or the end of the story can put an end to this adventure. However, a renewed identification is never complete, and therefore the personality again asks itself “to be or not to be, to identify itself or not?” If and when this question is raised, it is a sign that the personality has already identified its “self,” but also that it has already moved outside this “self.” As noted above, a similar dynamics is discussed in Lévinas’ Time and the Other, although it must be emphasized once more that as far as we are concerned, the “other”, with respect to the creation of the meaning of the personality in the square of choice, is just one of the square’s corners, the contrasting corner of the definition of the personality’s self. As far as we are concerned, such a definition of the “other” suffices for the purpose of the origination of time. The vector square gives the perception of the personality a dimension that does not exist in Lévinas’ approach: a complex systemic-contingent movement between four basic identification possibilities. As it moves along the square’s sides, the personality never returns to “itself,” to the same origin where it began. When it comes to renewed identification, the personality already knows the truth, and has already failed in its attempt to persuade itself and the others of this truth: It has failed to identify itself. The rhetorical game then continues. The vector square changes and moves constantly or, to put it another way, additional squares branch off and grow from it. In this sense, too, the vector square is dynamic. We thus see that the vector square reproduces itself and grows

Alternativeness of Choice and of Modes of Choice


new squares as the personality moves along its sides; in this way a chain of squares builds up an algorithm of choice. In a discussion of the alternativeness of choice as deriving from the personality’s alternativeness, the transition from the concept of the square to the more complex and dynamic concept of the algorithm is unavoidable. The algorithm of choice is just the multiplex and fractal realization of the square of choice.

b. Algorithm of Choice. How to Choose? The square of choice thus turns out to constitute a dynamic system driven by the will to persuade, and so a closed square it transformed into an open algorithm. We shall now describe this model and see how the alternativeness of choice derives from it. This algorithm’s alternative character appears quite clear: Its very essence relies on the simultaneous existence of numerous unrealized possibilities of choosing, so that a person is able to pass through them and make his own decisions and choices. But the simultaneity of this algorithm has a special character: It constitutes a scenario for action as well as the scenario’s structure, i.e. a system and a deviation from the system at one-and-the-same time. In the algorithm, all possible deviations are taken into account in advance, but what specific choices will be made is not known. The algorithm is, let us say, a cognitive scheme in which a person (a historian, writer, reader) sees history. An algorithm represents not only the hierarchy of the flow of cognitive processes, but also the hierarchy of historical becoming itself. An algorithm offers all the opportunities simultaneously and in a “spatial” manner, but the subject of choosing cannot choose just any possibility at any given moment; rather, he is led gradually from one level to another, from one choice to another, so that he cannot arrive at choice point B without having first gone through choice point A. This is the meaning of the hierarchy in this case. An algorithm thus presents a multiplicity of possibilities within the framework of a hierarchical structure. Such a framework creates a more-or-less rigid continuity between all the possibilities. An algorithm gives the impression of being a deterministic machine, but it is just a metaphysical episteme whose purpose is to overcome the machine’s determinism by being perceived as the pattern of the origination of free choice. In this somewhat Kantian way an alternative history discovers freedom and humanity within the “machine” of history and not outside it. The two basic characteristics of the algorithm correspond to the two elements of becoming discussed above: the algorithms’ hierarchical structure corresponds to the becoming’s transcendental element, while its


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temporal continuity corresponds to the historical element. The entire course of the algorithm, every movement, of necessity exists in these two dimensions and changes the relations between them. In other words, the movement of choosing takes place in the region between the two axes, the transcendental and the historical, and it is also measured by them. The relation between these elements changes in every moment of movement. The algorithm of choice thus reflects and copies the model of becoming; it embodies the paradox already discussed at length above: historical transcendence on the one hand, and non-continuous continuity on the other. The algorithm of choice imposes on alternativeness a hierarchical, continuous, temporal, and dynamic character. It is important to stress that it is completely out of the question to define it as just a historical algorithm (in the sense of historical “laws”), since it is first-and-foremost an algorithm of personality, that is, an algorithm of personal choosing. We have already noted above the personality-like character of alternativeness. Moreover, an algorithm, as already explained, possesses a paradoxical character, since its historicity is always balanced by transcendence, and its temporal continuity is always balanced by transcendental discontinuity between any two moments of becoming. It is, therefore, an emergent algorithm. This brings us once more to an important historiographical conclusion, namely that at the root of alternative history as a genre and as a way of thinking there lies a metaphysical approach, which at the present level is expressed in the algorithm of choice. Alternative history thus does not arise from postmodern thought. As we pointed out above, it arises out of a need to compensate for the damage done by the postmodern experience. The algorithm makes it possible for the reader to experience once more the trauma of the loss of history, but in a controlled and guided manner, so that at the end of the process he can find it anew. An alternative history destroys reality in order to originate it anew in an emergent manner, that is, as something transcendental-historical and deterministic-chaotic. Ultimately the unity of these oppositions is itself physical-metaphysical, both in the sense of Losev’s concept of symbol-asliving-organism and in the sense of the deterministic chaos of modern physics. And so the reader returns to the experience of the historical personality’s unity and uniqueness. The algorithm leads the reader to a renewed identification as a distinctly deterministic-chaotic process; it leads him hierarchically to bifurcation points. But the choices are personal and free, for otherwise a bifurcation is not really one, and the entire algorithm loses its meaning and disappears. Furthermore, the concept of “algorithmled” is not accurate, because even within this “being led” the same transcendental-historical process that is characteristic of any emergence

Alternativeness of Choice and of Modes of Choice


also operates: The reader is indeed led, but not by an other; he is led by his own will. We may thus definitely say that the subject both leads and is led at one-and-the-same time. To conclude, in alternativeness all the possibilities truly exist simultaneously at the transcendental level, but at the historical level a person only chooses from among the possibilities offered him at the stage of becoming in which he is at the time. For the reader, the order of becoming is embodied in the plot. The plot is the hierarchy that determines the order of return to the bifurcation points, the order of identifications and the order of making choices. The function of the algorithm of choice is to introduce order into the chaos and so also to ensure the place of chaos within order. In other words, the algorithm ensures historical freedom of choice within the transcendental hierarchy. To the question “What to choose?” the algorithm responds: “One must choose one of the possibilities offered by the emergent hierarchy of the plot or, in a broader sense, of the rhetorical act.” This brings us to the next question that concerns the nature of choice itself. Although it is clear now that a person is subject to the dynamics of the algorithm of choice as described above, and that he is led from one stage to another, from one choice to another, by the will, we are still faced with the question that was put aside in the previous discussion: When a person is at one of the levels of the algorithm and faces a choice, is this choice really free? Is this a real choice, and what is its nature? This question leads to the next level of discussion, in which we address the ways of choosing. The question of “What to choose?” is thus followed by “How to choose?” This question, in our opinion, is of the utmost importance for understanding what alternative history is, and what alternativeness itself is. It is important to stress that this question is not asked about the reading process outside of reading, but every reader must face it “within” the reading as if within a certain state of awareness, if not at the time of reading itself. This question arises as the reader’s response to an alternative history, to a history, to a story, that is, to a myth or a plot as such. The moment the reader arrives at the bifurcation point he experiences it as a rhetorical act: He stands before a choice and makes a decision concerning his identification. An integral part of identification is an awareness of the way of choosing, structurally embodied in the algorithm. The revelation of the algorithm of choice is the problematization of the way of choosing. It serves as a kind of psychoanalytic speech for all the hidden desires that drive the personality. An alternative history not only leads a person to new choices and a renewed identification, but it also reveals the work of the algorithm on which it is founded. Therefore any


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person, when at the bifurcation point, faces not only a choice between different possibilities of action, but also a choice between different possibilities of choosing itself. After he has already become aware of the algorithm of choice, the reader cannot choose without being aware of the way of choosing, that is, without knowing how he chooses. It is possible that this awareness, or at least this problematization, is alternative history’s most essential objective. Choosing cannot be automatic, in this case. It becomes a competence, one of the skills of reading and comprehension. It requires a certain amount of “training,” preparation of the work of choosing, which thus becomes accessible to a critical “didactic” examination. This “training” is undertaken mainly by alternative history, but it also appears wherever the alternativeness principle appears in literature. It can be seen already in the fact that identification in alternative history is always renewed identification. In contrast to a historical personality, the reader of an alternative history necessarily arrives at the question of the nature and ways of choosing. We thus take another step forward now to the next stage of our discussion, which deals with the alternativeness of ways of choosing. The alternativeness of ways of choosing is the pulsing heart of alternative history, and to discuss it is the most significant objective of any inquiry into alternative history. The alternative history genre itself may be driven by the desire and need to cope with the question of “How to choose?” Before discussing the issue, we shall comment on the psychological process that lead a person to this question. If this question arises for a reader at a bifurcation point, it implies the rejection of any possibility of automatism in the becoming of an alternative history. Being aware of the algorithm of choice is a tool for coping with the automatization of choice. But why is there a need to cope with it? In view of our discussion so far the answer is quite clear: The reader wants to create myths freely, to be free as a personality, to identify freely and to freely choose freedom. This is the purpose of alternative history as a genre and as a spiritual and rhetorical practice: To enable a person to choose freely precisely in the place where he always feels subject to the circumstances, in what is called “the machine of history.” Alternative history is an escape from this machine. No one wants to be a machine, in the same sense that in myths no one wants to go back (eternally) to the same point of departure, and instead everyone (as an individual or a collective) wants to create a new myth; and in the same sense that at the level of the personality no one wants to identify with himself (in which case the will itself does not exist), but everyone wants to identify anew.

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However, it is often, although not always, the case that history and culture give one an erroneous feeling of automatism. Marxist literary critics who adhere to the “culture industry” approach, such as the members of the Frankfurt School and their followers, for instance, have turned this illusion, the ghost of automatism, into the essence and tried to present cultural life as a machine. The extremists among them even tried to present the life of the mind as a (discursive) machine, very complex and sophisticated, but a machine nonetheless. The mechanization of cultural, spiritual, and mental life (from Freud to Lacan) is one of the most damaging effects of the modern and postmodern period. Alternative history as a flourishing modern and postmodern genre originated, as already noted, in an attempt to compensate for and repair the damage. That is the real motivation behind the de-automatization of history that is so characteristic of works in this genre. Since “de-automatization” is a wellknown formalist concept, it is preferable not to use it; instead, we can use a phrase that is not a term but a phenomenological description: the choice of choosing. This expression is preferable because it is affirmative and active, and cannot be reduced to the image of a new machine that destroys an old one. A man cannot destroy a machine; he is too weak and fragile. A man also realizes that such destruction is pointless, since it would only result in chaos, ruin, and violence. What a person can do, and what he does in alternative history, is not to choose the machine but to put it aside or behind, so to speak, to run away from it and to move to another place, another topos or chronotopos, to another dynamic. This is escapism in the positive sense of the word. Alternative history is not escapism in the same sense as fantasy, or any work of fiction, for that matter. It is not an escape from the problematization of history but, to the contrary, it is an escape into history’s most profound and serious problematization. Furthermore, as we have shown above, it is not an escape into a historical relativism that does not require one to choose, as researchers into alternative history often claim, but to the contrary, it is an escape from mechanical relativism to history’s transcendental truth. For, as already Kant has shown, only choosing and taking responsibility can lead to freedom. It is only by exposing the transcendental structure of choosing, what we called an “algorithm,” that a person can truly be aware and free in what he does. Alternative history enables the reader to face choices in a way that makes it possible for him to think about the way to choose. For just a moment time freezes, the machine stops, and the reader enters into a transcendental a-temporality that enables him to become aware of the way of choosing.


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c. From Historical to Historiographical Alternativeness In the previous chapters our discussion proceeded by way of the following stations: We began with an inquiry into the alternativeness of myth, with the question of “What happens in alternative history?” at its center. This question then led to the deeper level of the alternativeness of the personality, where we also found the decisive answer to the question: In alternative history the personality’s renewed identification takes place, with the act of choosing at its center. The question posed at this level is “Who chooses?” At a still deeper level we arrived at the question of the alternativeness of choosing: “What to choose?” In an attempt to answer this question towards the end of the previous chapter we came to the conclusion that even this was not yet the ultimate question of alternative history, because the question of “What to choose?” leads to the question of “How to choose?”, the question of the algorithm. This sequence can be summarized in the following brief formula: “plot = identification = choice,” or simply “plot is choice.” The question of the chooser thus has turned out to be the question of the chosen. But the subsequent discussion showed that revealing the structure of choosing in the algorithm does not only present all the possibilities that are candidates for choice but also raises the problematization of the way of choosing. There are two reasons for this, one being the hierarchy of the algorithm, which blocks the simultaneity of the possibilities and makes it impossible to make an arbitrary choice among them; the second is the equal probability of all the possibilities at a given bifurcation point, which makes the act of choosing truly free, and moves the problematization, the oscillation, the hesitation from “What?” to “How?”. It must be stressed, however, that it would not be correct to say that all possibilities are equivalent and that this equality erases the differences among possibilities, so that only the way of choosing remains of significance and value. Such a relativistic approach is not valid, certainly as far as alternative history is concerned, as we showed above. The possibilities are only equal in their probability, since if they did not possess any ethical-pragmatic distinction, choosing among them (in a rhetorical act) would be meaningless. The problematization of the way of choosing is not a default option that is left when the act of choosing itself loses its value, but to the contrary, it is choosing that is important, that gives meaning to the personality and the myth, and therefore it involves great responsibility. Responsibility requires freedom, and freedom requires delay and questioning in the course of choosing. Questioning in the face of the algorithm of choice, or in face of an impossible history with multiple possibilities, requires reflection concerning the way of choosing. At this

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level a person comprehends that true freedom, and true alternativeness, reside not only in the act of choosing itself, but also, and perhaps mainly, in choosing how to choose. Thinking about the historical choice that originates in the algorithm thus revolves around meta-historical reflection. “There are different ways of choosing” is an insight that stops one in one’s tracks and gives rise to uncertainty or bewilderment that splits the reality of choosing itself and creates multiple possibilities for perceiving the bifurcation. Our present purpose is to point out these possibilities of the way of choosing and to show that the alternativeness of the ways of choosing is the essence of historical alternativeness. The discussion of “How to choose?” contains the previous questions within itself. For example, when Hamlet is faced with his difficult decisions and asks what his father’s fate was, he necessarily arrives at the question of “Who is Hamlet?” The answer to this question will determine the history, the myth of his father, that is, the story of his death, which his son Hamlet will be able to believe. In other words, Hamlet will only discover the truth when he discovers his identity. How will Hamlet identify who he is? Only by means of a series of hesitations and choices that lead to renewed identification. The definition of his self depends on what he will choose, and since choosing is not automatic, it is delayed, as we saw at the end of the previous chapter. The freedom of choice is so absolute, and the responsibility so great, that Hamlet halts in bewilderment: How is such infinite freedom possible, how such responsibility can be borne, how is choosing possible at all?! Hamlet discovers that the problem is not whether he should or should not identify with his father, but whether and how is it possible that he is supposed to choose whether to identify or not, whether it is humanly possible to bear responsibility for such a choice.3 3

The problem of choice as formulated here ostensibly brings alternative history closer to existentialist philosophy and psychology. A clarification is therefore in order. First of all, a comparison with later existentialism, such as that of Jean-Paul Sartre for example, reveals on the one hand an interest in the same problem but also, on the other, a completely different solution. Alternative history, in contrast to Sartre, is not based on perceiving man as “sentenced to freedom,” but as choosing between choosing freedom and being sentenced to freedom. This solution is ostensibly similar to that of the earlier existentialists, such as Kierkegaard, according to which man chooses to obey the commands of freedom through faith. But even this similarity fades away once we understand that the transcendence of alternative and of alternativeness in general is not metaphysical-theological but metaphysical-emergent. This leads us to conclude that the supposed close relationship between alternative history and existentialist thought is not as certain


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The question of “How to choose?” splits into three separate questions: How can Hamlet choose? How should Hamlet choose? And how does Hamlet want to choose? These are questions of power, duty and will, and the questions of power and will combine together: The will, as already noted, is the power that drives the choosing. The question of duty, that is the ethical question, blocks any possibility of sliding into any kind of determinism or automatism: Something that is automatic does not require duty in order to exist; it completely abolishes this category. We understand duty in the Kantian sense as the source of freedom and responsibility. When Hamlet chooses to choose he fulfills his duty towards his father and towards himself freely, as a choice of one of the alternative possibilities, not as automatic obedience to the commands of the ghost. To summarize we may say that while the power of the will dominates at the level of the alternativeness of choosing, free moral duty rules at the level of the alternativeness of the ways of choosing. For Hamlet as for any subject of alternative history, a duty towards the past, towards memory, is not the kind of violent obsession found in public commemorative ceremonies that, for Ricoeur, suppress history and the true work of personal recollection, but rather the internal duty that arises from a search of renewed identification, from a desire to become realized in history, to create a personal myth. Therefore this duty not only does not block the work of historical recollection, but to the contrary, it constitutes a creative force that gives rise to new, alternative histories and the will and possibility to choose among them. What are the possibilities that open at this level of alternativeness? What determines the way of choosing and what are the possible ways of choosing? We shall begin with a number of interesting examples provided by the works of Dostoevsky. In The Brothers Karamazov each of the four brothers chooses in a different way. For Ivan to choose means to think and to give a reason; his is a rational, philosophical choice (of course, only until the moment he loses his sanity and everything is turned upside down; Dostoevsky, as is well-known, did not believe in rational choice and therefore punished Ivan so cruelly). For Dmitri choosing is passion (such a choice can lead to neither redemption nor justice; the contrary is the case: Dmitri, although innocent, is accused of murder. But this choice grants the kind of great internal freedom that is so dear to the author). For Alexei choosing means faith (the author condemns this way of choosing to failure, too: Alexei does not succeed in saving his father from death or his as might have been supposed. At any rate, this issue deserves a thorough separate study.

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brothers from insanity and prison. The author, as is known, intended for Alexei to leave the Church in a subsequent volume that was never written). For Smerdyakov, Fyodor Karamazov’s illegitimate son, choosing is, let us say, psychological and monetary economics (complexes, psychological accounting, “investing” in the brothers, manipulation and politics of inheritance/genetics). The novel thus presents a whole gamut of ways of choosing. But it does not exhaust all possibilities. In other works by Dostoevsky we find additional ways of choosing and complex dynamics of changing the ways of choosing. Thus, for example, for Raskolnikov murder is an ideological choice, but confession is a conscientious choice. For Sonya choosing Raskolnikov at first means compassion, then love, and eventually faith. Marmeladov’s early choices are driven by sadistic passion, but his later choices are the result of his repentance. Let us take another example, Dostoevsky’s The Adolescent. In Versilov’s choices it is impossible to separate philosophy from passion, social games from profound Christian feelings. Arkady’s choices are naivety and cunning, passion and economics, all at the same time. In Demons the ways of choosing are clearly divided between cold intellectualism (Stavrogin) and insane intellectualism (Kirilov). At the same time, all the novel’s characters also play their social games, all more or less indecent. The idea of gaming was not at all foreign to Dostoevsky, who was notoriously addicted to gambling, at least during certain periods in his life. The choices of the characters in the novel The Gambler are the game, and the tragedy of Aleksei the protagonist is that he does not understand this; his choice is love, and therefore he remains foreign and infinitely alienated from the people around him. In these examples we saw the ways of choosing as causes or motives. That is one perspective from which one can approach the concept of ways of choosing. In this perspective we discover too many motives, so that the list of ways of choosing remains open: Any desire, thought, emotion or idea can become a motive for choosing. Therefore discussing motives cannot replace the discussion on ways of choosing, since the motive operates on the choice but is not the method or the modus operandi of the choosing itself. The motive is the force that operates in the algorithm, but it is not the algorithm itself. The motive for a decision is not identical to the strategy of decision making, or, to use other concepts, the motive is the force that moves the pendulum, but not the graph of its movement. But since the ways of choosing are a kind of navigation paths between different motives, the list of motives we just made does indeed contain the possibilities of the ways of choosing. These possibilities are organized into a certain algorithm – one that does not navigate among different choices


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but among different ways of choosing. The motive determines the form of the algorithm only to a limited extent: It has laws operating within it that do not depend on motive but are part of much broader ethical-ideological and cultural-social systems. For example, Raskolnikov can choose to decide on the basis of an idea or on the basis of his conscience, but whether and how he chooses, out of what he chooses, are determined within the framework of Christian values. Arkady the adolescent may identify with Versilov his father or not, but whether and how he chooses whether to identify or not is determined within Dostoevsky’s socialpsychological context. The choice a person makes among ways of choosing depends on the way he perceives the relation or distance between him and a machine. At the end of the previous paragraph we prepared a foundation for the present discussion when we discovered that alternative history and alternativeness require or assume a dynamics of “escape from the machine.” Now this insight will serve as an anchor point for examining the taxonomy of the ways of choosing. We find that each of the motives mentioned above defines the relation between man and machine, between freedom and necessity, differently. The scale is of course not unambiguous or a priori; it is not absolute but relative, and yet it is the most relevant scale for evaluating the relations among different motives. The “ruler” with which we measure the motives of choosing is the criterion of the ways of choosing. This ruler, as just noted, measures the personality’s distance from the machine. For example, when a man is driven by passion or fate his way of choosing is much more “mechanistic” than when he is driven by ethics or reflection. Again, these magnitudes are not absolute, and can even change in accordance with dominant epistemes and mental paradigms. Thus, for example, spontaneous behavior, which is today perceived in broad segments of society as the epitome of authenticity and selfrealization, was viewed in the past (for example in the Fêtes galantes) as loss of control, and therefore as mechanical. In eighteenth-century England the concept of sincerity was synonymous to concepts such as fairness and honesty in interpersonal relationships and in the relations of a man to his honor and his country, while in nineteenth-century France sincerity meant self-awareness and loyalty to one’s self even at the expense of loyalty to one’s country, etc. In both cases, however, despite their almost contradictory nature, sincerity was perceived as a trait that embodies the human in contrast to the mechanical (compare this with Confucianism in which sincerity, the heart of humanism, was opposed to a mechanistic ritual and close to naturalness).

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Therefore, despite its relativity and changeableness, the criterion is unitary: The degree of freedom in choosing. The question of “How to choose?” is thus reduced to a more restricted question: “With what degree of freedom should I choose?” The question of freedom is, of course, the question of ethics, and will therefore receive different answers in different systems of ethics, but the question always remains the same. And what does define the ethics that shapes the freedom of choosing? It is the perception of history that ultimately determines the way of choosing. The word “perception” in the previous sentence does not refer to any kind of “historical awareness” or “historical sense,” in either the historical conscious or subconscious, whatever meaning these concepts may have. At this level of alternativeness, in choosing among ways of choosing, they are invalid, since this is a level of pure historical reflexivity, which means only having to face a multiplicity of possibilities of ways of choosing, that is, a multiplicity of philosophies of history, in the broad spectrum between absolute determinism and absolute “emergentism” or, in Mikhail Epstein terms, “possibilism.” This spectrum summarizes the elements composing the algorithm of the ways of choosing. The entire scale of the alternativeness of the ways of choosing is located in this space between the conception of history as fate to its conception as freedom. There is no possibility and no need to try to enumerate the spectrum’s components: Our objective was merely to draw the coordinate system whereby alternative history is tested at this level of alternativeness. Scholars are in general agreement that any work of alternative history is based on a philosophy of history. There is less general agreement on the idea that different works can be based on different philosophies, not only on those that explicitly accept the principle of alternativeness, such as postmodern philosophies. It seems that scholars have not take note of the fact that basically any philosophy of history can give rise to alternative history. At the very heart of the principle of alternativeness we thus discover the problem of the attitude towards history. In other words, the alternativeness of ways of choosing is the alternativeness of ways of writing history. The way of choosing is the way of writing. We can therefore now undertake to discuss alternative history as historiographical alternativeness. The oscillation on which alternative history is based is not merely an oscillation between different histories but also, essentially, between different historiographical conceptions. This means that the question “What to choose?” turns out to be “How to write history” or “What does it mean to write history?” This is the main question, implicit or overt, of any alternative history. We can say that any


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work of literature can be described as an alternative history, and that any alternative history is an oscillation between different histories, at a deeper level an oscillation between different conceptions of history, and at the deepest level an oscillation between different conceptions of historiography. This means that any literary work maintains a problematization not only of history itself, and not only of the conception of history, but also of the conception of historiography. Every work of literature implicitly or overtly raises the question of how history can be written. Every time that the alternativeness principle is realized in a work of literature an oscillation takes place between different historiographical approaches. In modern philosophy of history there is a well-known tendency to present historical writing as literary or narrative writing (represented most prominently by thinkers such as Hayden White and Frank Ankersmit). Its origin, of course, goes back to the linguistic turn in the thought of the twentieth century. Although Ankersmit tries to moderate White’s radical position somewhat and writes that history is not literature, still it remains what he calls “narrative interpretation.”4 Finally, Ankersmit arrives at the same conclusions about the nature of history as those that direct White’s writings, in light of which the minute differences between their approaches disappear. In our present study the concepts of White and Ankersmit are reversed, since we argue that literature is historiography, albeit in a meaning that is very far from mimesis, whether taken in the traditional or in the complex hermeneutical sense as with Ricoeur’s Time and Narrative, but rather in the sense of being based on the principle of historical alternativeness. We must be careful to avoid the pitfall of treating literature as reflecting history, in line with vulgar positivism or simplistic realism. However, it would be true to say that literature constitutes a problematization of history and of meta-history. Literature turns out to be historiography, and views itself as such wherever the mechanism of alternativeness operates. In other words, literature encodes its historiographical reflexivity by means of elements (narrative, metaphorical, symbolic, etc.) of alternativeness. We may thus formulate our contention concisely as follows: Literature is “alternativistic” historiography. Different historiographical approaches are expressed and come into contact, conflict, and problematization during moments of historical alternativeness in a work of literature. How is the choice made to adopt this or that approach? Do any two competing historiographical approaches 4

Franklin R. Ankersmit, History and Tropology: The Rise and Fall of Metaphor, Berkeley, Los Angeles, London, University of California Press, 1994, p. 37.

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necessarily have a connection to historical alternativeness? Any work of literature will likely embody the historiographical conflict that characterizes the period (or genre, or tradition, or school, in short, the cultural context) in which it is written. Let us consider an example. Modern works of alternative history manifest what is known as autoreference, that is, an allusion within the text to actual or imaginary works of alternative history. A major work of this genre, Philip Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, refers to a work of alternative history composed by the man in the high castle. Dick reveals the above-mentioned mechanism by constructing his work around the question of whether it is possible to write (literature, history) in the way that his protagonist did. Using an imaginary, historically alternative political conflict the author confronts conservative with revolutionary historiography. In a sense, such a confrontation is always relevant, in every period and in every culture. But there exist also more unique conflicts. For example, Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler constitutes a problematization of historiography in the postmodern style. Postmodern literature in general is characterized by an oscillation between narrativistic and positivistic historiographical conceptions. In the usual case literature undermines or validates the dominant historiographical approach of its times. For example, Dante’s Divine Comedy undermines the concept of historiography as diachrony and turns it into synchrony, transforming the meaning space from vertical to horizontal. Dante spreads out the range of historical figures within a spatial hierarchy, and so writes history as a synchronic system. In this sense Dante’s work is alternative history, even if the historical characters in it do not make alternative historical choices and do not create alternative myths of themselves. In that sense his work is metaphysical and dogmatic, but also alternative-historiographical, since it brings together historical figures that could never have met in real history. This encounter creates an implicit historiographical problematization. This takes place every time historical characters or events are compared in a rhetorical speech, a sermon, or a study, since any such form of discourse involves a “deterritorialization” of the character, a return to it, and its renewed identification with respect to another character, within another square of choosing. For example, the Biblical story of the binding of Isaac becomes alternative history when it is understood in Christianity as prefiguring the Crucifixion; or, another example, the making of the golden calf becomes alternative history when it is understood in the Koran as prefiguring the Israelites’ refusal to accept Mohammad’s prophecy. The creation of new connections and parallelisms between historical figures is already historiography, since it implies the


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historiographical presupposition according to which such connections do indeed create meaning and reveal regularity and truth. A clear example of this is a historical and pseudo-historical painting that depicts the heroes of the Gospel in the form of the painter’s contemporaries, or one that, like in Dante, presents historical figures from diverse periods within a single significant space, such as Rafael’s “The Athens School.” Another example, of a different kind, is the medieval European epic (such as the The Song of the Nibelungs, the Eddas) or romance of chivalry, which originates a sacred alternative historiography. This literature does not reflect a dominant historiographical approach, but rather undermines and examines it, contrasts it with alternative approaches. The historiography of chivalry subordinates chaotic reality to the meaningful order of the knight’s personal adventure, to his personal-mythical search, to his attempt to originate himself with his acts “in the name of God,” thus undermining the conception of historiography as a dogmatic super-human metaphysics and contrasting scholastic-ecclesiastic with organistic-personalistic historiography. Therefore the romance of chivalry was able to prepare the ground for the appearance of Renaissance humanism. Instead of transforming the acts of gods into personal stories (as in the historiography of classical mythology and Christianity), the romance of chivalry turned personal acts into hagiography. Such romances show very well how the same religious ideas, and perhaps even the same historical conceptions, can be materialized in different historiographical conceptions. As another example, we may take the literature of journeys to the Land of Israel in 17th-18th-century Yiddish literature.5 These represent an imaginary, metaphysical historiography that contrasts historical writing as recording events that occurred with historical writing as recording events that should have occurred. Of this type are the stories of the Ten Lost Tribes: The tribes are supposed to be somewhere beyond the river Sambatyon, and therefore in a metaphysical-mythical sense that is indeed where they are; they are the ones that truly always exist, in contrast to what is passing and constantly changing, and therefore their existence is the true history, the one that should be written. A historiography is thus created that looks like a legend, but is not one; it is not a fiction in the 5

See, for example: Hillel Weiss, “Aseret ha-shvatim, bnei Moshe u-vnei Rekhav me-az ve-ad ha-yom: bein utopia le-distopiia be-yetzirat Agnon” (Between Utopia and Dystopia in the Agnon Work), Ayin Gimel: A Journal of Agnon Studies, vol. 2 (2012), pp. 1-15. See also: Anat Aderet, “Itineraria be-Yiddish: Rishmej masa’ot le-Eretz Israel ba-meot ha17-18” (Itineraries in Yiddish to the Land of Israel in the 17th and 18th centuries), PhD Dissertation, Bar-Ilan University, 2006.

Alternativeness of Choice and of Modes of Choice


modern sense of the word, but rather the recording of the promised, the necessary reality. Therefore, even if historiography is narrative interpretation, in Ankersmit’s terms, it is not an interpretation of an event perceived as it happened, but rather of an event that is perceived as what must always take place, to arise from the very essence of history. This is the confrontation, or the oscillation between contingent and immanent (deterministic to this or that extent) historiographies. The effect of the Midrash literature, as already mentioned above, can in many cases be described not as completing, explaining, or interpreting biblical history, but as the writing of an alternative history. Midrash historiography as an alternative exegesis creates an oscillation (and at times confrontation and competition) between possibilities that were realized in the biblical text and possibilities that were not realized there, but were now realized in the Midrash text. Let us also consider a modern example, the parable of the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. Ivan Karamazov creates an alternative history (“What if Christ were to return to earth, to Seville, in the Middle Ages?”). Of course he has many objectives – rhetorical, philosophical and pragmatic. But one of his main aims is the problematization of the dialectic-progressive conception of history and of the positivist conception of historiography that predominated during the second half of the nineteenth century. Ivan creates a history as unchangeable circularity and historiography as a hypothetical intellectual experiment that serves as a tool for validating the explanation: Since human nature does not change, if Christ were to come to earth again, people would crucify him again, and therefore we can say that the crucifixion was unavoidable and even necessary. The entire novel can be considered as a kind of historiographical model in which each of the brothers represents a certain culture, episteme or ideology, for example religious (Alexei) and secular (Ivan). The existence of the two brothers side by side constitutes an alternative historiographical model to the one that presents social evolution as a transition from religiosity to secularity, particularly in light of the fact that the two brothers are in agreement on many philosophical issues. The conception of history’s consistent continuity is undermined in this model. According to Dostoevsky, all historical trends coexist in the human heart simultaneously. Intellectualism and romanticism, faith and heresy, monarchy and democracy, feudalism and capitalism, necessity and freedom – all exist simultaneously within the human heart, which is the true arena of the course of history. According to this approach not only is there no evolution or progress in history, but the division into consecutive periods each of which arises from its predecessor


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is nothing but an illusion. Dostoevsky thus presages not only Nietzsche but also Foucault, and perhaps the entire (post)modern thinking of the surface (as that of Deleuze). Marcel Proust created a new historiography of internal human time, of memory. James Joyce created historiography as multiplicity, multiple modes of existence and multiple interpretations. Romanticists created a historiography that is very influential to this day, one that sees in every historical moment the embodiment of centuries of mythology. For example, Byron’s Prometheus is also a transformation of the mythological Prometheus, a cultural element that has been in existence for millennia, and he is also the image of the poet, the modern romantic hero. The same is true also of Lermontov’s demon, a folklore figure in modern-romantic psychological-cultural garb. This is the romantic conception of historiography: Actual history is but the embodiment of the a-temporal cultural history. The romantic legend, too, is a clear example of romantic alternative historiography: It contrasts, creates an oscillation, between the empiricist conception of history to the conception of dark, chaotic and invisible forces that operate in history. Genres and literary themes may also bear within themselves alternative historiographical approaches. For example, ars-poetic works are just a specific case of meta-historical writing. We could continue endlessly to provide further examples, but the conclusion will remain the same: To write (literature) means to write alternative meta-history.

d. Theoretical Conclusions and an Introduction to the Discussion of Agnon’s Work In the previous discussion we showed that the alternativeness principle is immanent to works of literature as such. We may summarize our discussion and conclusions as follows: 1. Alternative history is not only a literary genre, but also a way of thinking, a narrative-poetic and rhetoric model. 2. This model embodies the alternativeness principle, which involves the origination of alternativeness at the levels of myth, identity, choice, and mode of choosing. 3. The essence of the alternativeness principle is the creation of multiple possibilities at all the above-mentioned levels and of the mechanisms to work with this multiplicity. 4. The realization of the principle of alternativeness in a certain genre or a certain poetics has for centuries been intended first-and-

Alternativeness of Choice and of Modes of Choice


foremost to heal and rehabilitate the conception of historical truth, which in various periods has been damaged by an exaggerated historical relativism. 5. The alternativeness principle can be realized in any work of literature. In some works and genres it is, of course, more active than in others, like in the modern alternative history genre. 6. At the root of the alternativeness principle lies rhetoric, as the main mechanism for originating a multiplicity of possibilities, oscillation, and choosing among the possibilities. Rhetoric serves to split reality/discourse, and so brings about the creation of alternatives at each one of the levels mentioned above. 7. Through the principle of alternativeness, a work of literature realizes its possibilistic potential without losing its uniform origin of truth, sign and meaning. The root of this unity lies in the transcendental nature of the becoming of myth, personality, choice, and mode of choosing. We are now in a position to close the theoretical discussion on alternativeness and to undertake an analysis of texts in the Book Two of Agnon’s The City with All That Is Therein. The stories in this work not only constitute the apex of Agnon’s art, as Shmuel Werses noted in his well-known book,6 but they are also the most complex and profound. Alternativeness as a poetic and conceptual model plays a central role in The City with All That Is Therein, not only because its theme is historical, the story of Jewish community in Buchach and its surroundings, and not only because it possesses an underlying philosophy of history in general and Jewish history in particular, but also because Agnon in his later writings demonstrates a distinctly historical orientation, reflecting the grief of a Jewish writer who has witnessed the terrible history of the Holocaust and who searches for historical alternatives to it, as a Jew, a writer, a historian and a philosopher. This yearning for a historical alternative is a deep cultural-psychological need. Agnon needs alternativeness both in order to examine the historical and social process that led to the Holocaust, in order to analyze the Holocaust itself as a realized historical possibility, and in order to study the mechanisms of this history and to predict its repetition in the future.


Shmuel Werses, S.Y. Agnon ki-pshuto (S.Y. Agnon as He Is), Jerusalem, Bialik Institute, 2000.


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While the alternativeness principle is realized in many of Agnon’s writings, several examples of which were discussed in previous chapters, it is in The City with All That Is Therein that alternativeness becomes a guiding and unifying principle, an originator of meaning, the foundation, mechanism and objective of writing. At the most universal level alternativeness is the purpose of all literary writing, but of course, not every writer succeeds in attaining this end with the same degree of rhetorical success and poetic-philosophical power. My previous book, ‘Nevua ktana’ (‘A Small Prophecy’: Sincerity and Rhetoric in Ir u-mloa by S.Y Agnon), was devoted to the stories of the Book One of The City with All That Is Therein. The present volume is thus its continuation. The two studies share the main axis on which the discussion is based: rhetoric. In the previous book I argued that rhetoric is the mechanism of the work of sincerity in the text, while in the present analysis I shall show that it is also the mechanism of the origination and the work of alternativeness. The discussion will take place on two planes simultaneously. On the “genetic” plane we shall see the motifs and symbols that play a crucial role in the thematic realization of the alternativeness principle. On another plane we shall analyze alternativeness as the principle that originates the configurations of discourse at the levels that we discussed in the previous chapters, where we distinguished between the alternativeness of myths, of the personality, of choice, and of the modes of choosing. On this plane the discussion will move mostly in the coordinates of the alternativeness of history and the alternativeness of historiography. At the external, narrative-character level, we speak of the alternativeness of plots, of their choices (that is, the bifurcation points), and of the crystallization of discursive algorithms that administer the alternativeness of the ways of choosing (that is, of the proliferation and branching out of the ideas of the philosophy of history). This discussion has a most solid and justified foundation in Agnon’s work: All his writings are characterized by splits and proliferations, and some of the manifestations that we now unite under the concept of alternativeness are known already from the earliest studies of his works. However, alternativeness as such has so far never been diagnosed, isolated or studied, despite its great importance in all respects: theoretical and methodological, poetic and interpretive. It is our aim in the present study to make up for this lack.


a. The City with All That Is Therein as Alternative History. Holocaust and Miracle The City with All That Is Therein is the alternative history of a community that was annihilated in the Holocaust. Its purpose is not only to tell the community’s story but also to originate and develop a new community instead of the one that is no more. No less significant is the fact that the new community that is created in the book is a model of the nation; it is an imaginary community – no more and no less than a real historical national community can be considered imaginary in the terms of Benedict Anderson.1 The City with All That Is Therein belongs to the type of alternative history that presents a possible historical reality that should have been realized but did not. To be more precise, an alternative community is not imaginary; rather, it is an ideal community, but not in the sense of a perfect community: The book is full of social criticism and presents reality in all its complexity. However, the main focus is not on the relation between an alternative to a historical community, but on its relation to historical truth, as understood by the author, its relation to the future community that is being produced by the historical work in the present, the community as a task. In other words, Agnon’s alternative history in this book is derived from an Aristotelian-mimetic approach, on the one hand, and from the Marburgian, Hermann Cohen’s type of neo1

Anderson’s concept refers here to the national-communal imagination of the readers, which includes the City as a part of it. The City’s community itself is too small to fit Benedict Anderson’s definition (Imagined Communities, London, Verso, 2006).


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Kantianism, on the other.2 The City with All That Is Therein embodies historical truth as it could and should have been realized, not as it did materialize. The book was doubtlessly written in response to the historical paradox of the Holocaust,3 and therefore at the historiographical level of historical alternativeness it creates a problematization of a well-known approach in the philosophy of history, that of the purposefulness of history. The book reconstructs the paradox: All the plots in it appear to possess purpose and meaning in relation to the Buchach community’s cultural-historical teleology; the telos itself is a creation of civilization, of the work of history, to use Hermann Cohen’s terms. But civilized life crashes like seawaves against a rock when confronted with the Holocaust, with disappearance. This paradox has no solution within a teleological historical approach itself, but it does have one at the meta-historical and meta-historiographical levels, in which history itself is perceived, in Matvei Kagan’s neo-Kantian terms, adopted also by Mikhail Bakhtin, not as a well-defined and foreseeable telos, but as a transcendental purposefulness that always remains outside history itself, that is never given but remains a task to be accomplished.4 Therefore it is the work of history that is the essence of history, not attaining the objective, which is 2 The question of the influence of Hermann Cohen’s (1842-1918) later works, such as Religion of Reason out of the Sources of Judaism (appeared posthumously in 1919), on Agnon will be investigated in another study. 3 On the centrality of the Holocaust theme in the Agnon oeuvre see: Hillel Weiss, “The Presence of the Holocaust in Agnon’s Writings,” pp. 427-429. 4 Matvei Kagan (1889-1937), a Jewish-Russian philosopher, was a student of Hermann Cohen, Paul Natorp and Ernst Cassirer, and a close friend of Mikhail Bakhtin who established with him the so called “Nevel Circle.” Kagan deeply influenced Bakhtin. For a comparison between the two see: Ruth Coates, “Two of a Small Fraternity? Points of Contact and Departure in the Work of Bakhtin and Kagan up to 1924,” in David Shepherd (ed.), The Contexts of Bakhtin, Amsterdam, Harwood Academic Publishers, 1998, pp. 17-28. For a presentation and analysis of Kagan’s work see: Leonid Katsis, “Matvei Kagan – evreiski filosof” (Matvei Kagan -- a Jewish Philosopher), Lechaim 2-3 (2008), e-jornal; Katsis, “Evreistvo v krizise kultury” (Judaism in the Crisis of Culture), Lechaim 2-3 (2009), e-jornal; Katsman, “Matvei Kagan: Judaism and the European Cultural Crisis,” Journal of Jewish Thought & Philosophy, 21 (2013), pp. 73-103; Katsman, “Love and Bewilderment: Matvei Kagan’s Literary Critical Concepts,” Partial Answers. Journal of Literature and the History of Ideas, 11:1 (2013), pp. 9-28. Most of the works of Kagan have only recently been published, in the volume: O khode istorii (On the Course of History), ed. by Vitaly Makhlin, Moscow, Jazyki slavianskoj kultury, 2004.

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impossible and can never be part of history. The more problematic the historical reality the more work is there for the subjects of history, and the greater the validity of historical purposefulness. The presence of a growing community and communal life in the face of the Holocaust apocalypse not only does not invalidate the meaning of historical existence, but to the contrary, it is what gives meaning to this existence. At the metahistoriographical level, that is, at the level of the alternativeness of the ways of choosing, in response to the question of “How to choose?” the book gives a resolute answer: “One must choose in the face of the Holocaust!” This statement contains two stressed elements: On the one hand, one must choose, that is, one must be free to be responsible, free to identify oneself anew, to create another, new history in the face of the Holocaust; on the other hand, a truly responsible and free choice is only possible in the face of the Holocaust. This is historiography as remembrance: The Holocaust is a memory that does not erase history but, to the contrary, turns it into creative activity, driven by love, in a repeated (and failed) attempt to originate the universe’s purposefulness. At the level of the alternativeness of choosing, the book gives a clear answer to the question “What to choose?”: “You shall choose life!” The conception of history that is embodied in this level is, of course, the work of culture, of a living personality. It is the conception of cultural organism, of vitality. Of course, The City with All That Is Therein could not be called an alternative history if this choice had been unique or unambiguous. The book is an oscillation, and here we note only the decisions that appear final from the external perspective, detached from the many complex processes that operate within and between the texts. The oscillation takes place at every level and it is what originates the alternative history. As noted, this is not merely an oscillation between what is described in the book and what happened in reality, but also between myths, identities, choices, and ways of choosing inside the texts which compose the book. At every moment of reading and at every level of alternativeness the realized possibilities are compared to those that were not realized. The work of history as presented in the book constitutes an alternative because in reality this work is not always and not necessarily done. One reason for this is that at the level of the personality’s alternativeness an oscillation between different identities takes place. The book is full of processes of identity origination that constitute a major poetic mechanism whereby Agnon creates his alternative history. In different works and for different writers the centrality of this or that level of alternativeness (myth, personality, choice, mode of choosing) may differ; it is therefore important to distinguish the level at which for a given


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author the work of alternativeness is the most intensive. For Agnon it is the level of personality, in line with the historiographical and historical approach according to which the subject of history is an individual (a single person or group). In the case of The City with All That Is Therein the individual is the community of Buchach in which, as in a fractal, smaller communities can be seen: families and congregations, even smaller temporary communities (emergent and dissipative), such as tzadiks and those who discover them, or merchants and their clients, and the smallest embodiment of communal life. The most significant work of history takes place at the level of the personality. And if it is the work of an alternative history then every personality oscillates between different identities. An oscillation of this kind can take place, for example, between a known and a hidden tzadik, between a pious and a heretic Jew, and so on. In any case, the oscillation at the level of the personality is necessary; it is what enables the oscillation at the two highest levels, of choice and of the mode of choosing. Without this creation-becoming of the personality in an oscillation between different forms of existence no oscillation at the levels of choice and of the mode of choosing would have been possible. The alternativeness principle depends on the personality’s oscillation. Without this oscillation between different identities within a kind of huge historical rhetorical act, it would have been impossible to solve the paradox at the historiographical level of the modes of choosing: How is (communal) existence possible in the face of the Holocaust? The core of the rhetorical act in Agnon’s work is the bifurcation point of choosing an identity or, as we called it, renewed identification. The author returns the characters to their bifurcation point and demands that they identify and originate anew, not in order to revive their memory as something fixed and given beforehand, but in order to revive the work of remembrance, which is the basis of cultural vitality, of intensive historical work and historiographical thought. That is the book’s main motivation. Every character thus returns to a crossroads and oscillates between various possibilities of becoming. In order for the oscillation and the choice to be real, free and ethical (since only thus can history and alternative history be real), each of the possibilities offered for choosing in this rhetorical act must be embodied in a significant myth. In other words, the oscillation between identities must be revealed as an oscillation between myths, between different stories, between different ways of the personality’s becoming. In this way we arrive at the most external level of the alternativeness principle: the alternativeness of myths. At this level alternative plots can be discovered; it is the most overt level of the alternativeness principle, and therefore also the clearest and most

Historical Alternativeness in the Work of Agnon


representative, although it is also superfluous to a great extent. This is what can happen in any alternative history in which very intensive work takes place at the innermost levels. Yet such statements can only be relative: In the case of Agnon the alternativeness of myth appears to be redundant, but with respect to many other authors it is still quite intensive and significant. At this level, too, we are faced with very complex oscillations, which is undoubtedly one of the main difficulties encountered by the reader of Agnon’s text, especially in light of the fact that such a reader does not usually perceive this text as an alternative history and is unaware of its mechanisms. Agnon’s complex plot structures can be deemed to express the same historiographical problematization that constitutes the book’s main objective and whose true essence is exposed only at the level of the alternativeness of the modes of choosing. Another level at which the alternativeness principle can be seen in Agnon’s works is the element of fantasy or miracle. In this respect many stories in The City with All That Is Therein raise a problem that does not exist for students of the author’s other books. For The City with All That Is Therein is not a medieval-style chronicle which contains miraculous accounts as a matter of course, nor yet is it a modern account that aspires to draw a reliable picture of history; it is neither surrealistic, like the stories in “Sefer ha-ma’asim,” nor meta-realistic like the stories of the Land of Israel; and although many legends and folk tales are interwoven in it, it cannot be defined as a book of legends or fables, such as “Poland.” It is impossible to explain away this difficulty by stressing the book’s complexity and stylistic diversity, since this will not resolve the issue of every single story’s poetic and conceptual unity. Nor can the problem be removed by using narratological terms such as Mikhail Bakhtin’s “polyphony” (even without going into a deep analysis, a comparison of Agnon’s text with Dostoevsky, on whom Bakhtin builds his approach, would immediately show a profound narratological difference between the two).5 We may perhaps speak of a miraculous narrative that is integrated into the text’s overall complex narrative structure, but this would not of 5

Elsewhere I have shown the difference between Agnon and Dostoevsky with respect to the myth creation mechanisms they use, including the story, the character and the miracle of the character’s becoming in the story. I found two different kinds of mythopoesis: the mythopoesis of incarnation in Dostoevsky and the mythopoesis of revelation in Agnon. One of the latter’s main features is the infinite distance (in Lévinas’ terms) between a given character and the other, that comes into being in front of it (Katsman, The Time of Cruel Miracles, pp. 109134). To speak about polyphony in Agnon would be like speaking about combining the voices of man and God in prayer.


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itself explain the structural and conceptual hierarchy between different narratives (there is an unjustified tendency to speak about multiple narratives, where the intention is to deny the hierarchy’s validity), nor would it reveal the layers of meaning hiding behind the external narrative. Todorov’s theory of fantasy literature is also not valid with respect to Agnon’s narrative of miracles, since in this case the oscillation between a natural and a supernatural explanation of the described events does not have the power of origination. Furthermore, the concept of “supernatural” is completely irrelevant to Losev’s theory of myth. That is the reason why Todorov’s third condition is not valid with respect to the Agnonian text. The reader does not have to renounce the events’ allegorical interpretation for them to remain miraculous.6 The concept of alternative history can resolve this issue. Agnon’s miraculous narrative can be defined as alternative history. This concept defines the relation between the miraculous narrative and the other narratives in the text, and makes it possible to discern the next levels (alternativeness of personality, choice, and modes of choosing) behind the narrative’s external level (the level of the alternativeness of myth). The concept of alternative history is of particular importance with respect to Agnon’s work because it may illuminate the relation between miracle and history. It turns out that any discussion about the miraculous elements in The City with All That Is Therein must involve an analysis of the higher levels of alternativeness: the perception of history and of historiography. In the genre of fantasy literature, the miraculous element is not always expressed in the form of alternative history. However, it would appear that for Agnon, whose works definitely do not belong to that genre, the miraculous is inextricably bound up with the principle of historical alternativeness in one or the other of its manifestations. This claim can also help to explain how it is possible that Agnon’s discourse retains the same level of relation between sincerity and rhetoric in both realistic and miraculous narratives. The evident solution is thus that the miraculous narrative constitutes an alternative history, partaking of the full complexity of this concept as presented in the previous parts of the present study. The chronicler and the narrator of the legends are both equally sincere, since both recount a history, whether realized or not. The narrators oscillate between their own histories, often interchange in their roles, and generate an oscillation in the reader. This oscillation is one of the main features of 6

Tzvetan Todorov, The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, trans. by Richard Howard, Cleveland, Press of Case Western Reserve University, 1973, pp. 31-35.

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reading Agnon, and the main characteristic of alternative history as a genre and a poetical-philosophical principle. Furthermore, the alternativeness principle is expressed in The City with All That Is Therein (as well as in other works by Agnon) at the level of factual uncertainty. Ostensibly this can be explained in terms of the book’s historical nature: If several versions of some historical events exist, and the narrator does not know which one is true, he has no choice but to treat them all as possibilities among which it is impossible to choose without violating the truth. Uncertainty in the form of different versions of reality and of events can be found in many of Agnon’s texts, belonging to all the genres in which he wrote, and therefore cannot be explained as simply a characteristic of his writing as a historian. It must be recognized that uncertainty was an essential element in his oeuvre as a whole, one that characterizes his approach not only towards the work of the historian but also towards history itself, consciousness and reality as a whole. In both early and later works, whether realistic, surrealistic, psychological, romantic, folkloristic, or pietistic, Agnon causes people, events, words, and objects to flicker in presence-absence, in multiple meanings and multiple interpretations. The one thing that can explain this phenomenon independently of genre and ideology is the alternativeness principle: With Agnon, every representation can be transformed into an alternative history.

b. Book Two. “The First Rabbis of Our City” At the beginning of Book Two of The City with All That Is Therein, in the first story, “The First Rabbis of Our City,” we already find clear expressions of historical alternativeness. It is immediately clear that in this story the main thrust of alternative history concerns rabbinical history, the history of dynasties of rabbis that is at the same time also the history of their books. Rabbinical history is the real history that the narrator strives to present, both as something of intrinsic value and in contrast to the sociopolitical history of the times. In what sense and to what extent can rabbinical history be an alternative history? Let us begin with the concept of a dynasty. Its importance lies in the continuity that it creates, which imposes order and meaning on the course of non-rabbinical history, which has no intrinsic meaning. The realized political history lacks meaning in the absence of the unrealized rabbinical history – that is the main point made by the narrator. Here the concepts of “realized” and “unrealized” are only relative, being connected to the external perspective of the European historiographical tradition. Of course, as far as the rabbinical world is


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concerned, it is its history that is realized. The dynasty is the archetype of historical order and the course of history. It is the only history that is possible, for one very simple reason: History as such, as defined, for example, by the neo-Kantian Marburg School, can only constitute a repeated attempt at creating-and-becoming a culture out of love for purposefulness.7 This conception can be found in the opposition of rabbinical history to the European history of destruction, hatred, and chaos. The history of rabbinical dynasties is also, as noted above, a history of writing and wisdom or, in other words, a history of study and the accumulation and transmission of knowledge. Rabbinical history is the archetypical recurring attempt to create a culture with a purpose and to come into being within it. Knowledge passes from one man to another discontinuously through books, traditions and customs, and it is this process which is the real history. The wars, rebellions, and disturbances are merely meaningless contrasting background, nothing but biology. The sole objective of real history is to go beyond the biological being. The transmission of knowledge and culture is thus the essence of rabbinical history. Elsewhere I stressed that in The City with All That Is Therein, the knowledge transmitted is always a personal knowledge, in the Michael Polanyi terms.8 We now gain reinforcement for this claim from another direction. A rabbinical dynasty serves as a mechanism for transferring personal knowledge. When a history is presented as the transfer of personal knowledge, the subject of the history is perforce a personality, an individual, in this case, the personality of the rabbi. The rabbi together with the congregation that he embodies and represents is this history’s 7

Matvei Kagan, echoing Religion of Reason out of the Sources of Judaism by Herman Cohen (e.g. pp. 92-93, 147-148 ff.), writes that the purpose of history is transcendental and free. It is not given, but it is what it gives; it gives a task. The forcefulness of life in its teleological-historical freedom is measured in relation to this task. This forcefulness defines love. Historically we live in attempts at love, or put another way, an attempt to live in love is history. Love creates a vision of purposefulness. In the course of the struggle over history the vision of love is embodied in myth. The essence of love is love for purposeful life experiences. The course of history in its struggle over myth and love is revealed in a process of purposeful culture. Kagan concludes that the time of history is a rationalteleological attempt at a voluntary struggle of love for the historical existence of humanity (“O khode istorii” (On the Course of History, 1920), in O khode istorii, pp. 254-258). 8 Katsman, Nevua ktana, pp. 275, 362, 408. See: Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy, Chicago, Chicago University Press, 1958.

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main individual, through and in whom the work of history takes place. This structure is retained at all levels: the rabbi within his family, among his students, in his community, and so on, up to the entire Jewish People, considered as the wholesome individual of rabbinical-dynastic history. At the level of the personality’s alternativeness, the character of the rabbi creates an oscillation between the “biological” or “biographical” character to the rabbi’s historical character. In order to describe the rabbi’s alternative character Agnon uses another level of alternativeness, as we noted above, perhaps the most important level for the issue in question, namely the element of miracle. In Agnon’s description of the early rabbis, visions of Elijah are mentioned: “The first of them all was the great rabbi Moshe Mach, who was prominent in his generation and Elijah frequented him every day. […] After him his son, rabbi Yaakov Eliyahu reigned. When he was being circumcised, Elijah of blessed memory sat on Elijah’s chair” (309).9 Elijah is a major character in many of Agnon’s works, and of course in The City with All That Is Therein. What is this character’s function with respect to the alternative history? In many cases Elijah may be said to serve as the transcendental double of the main character. Here “transcendental” means one that is not part of history but serves as what gives history a purpose, what organizes and magnetizes the course of history. On a practical level the character of Elijah signifies a true center and gives meaning to an imaginary center connected to the other, historical character. The comparison with the character of Elijah signifies the presence of an alternative history, which is the true history. The purposefulness of history as revealed in Elijah’s appearance stems from the fact that the entire history strives towards a center of sanctity, towards a transcendental purpose, but this purpose is never realized in full since it is constantly recreated by the same subject of history that realizes it, and therefore the history only remains as an attempt to live the purposefulness, and so remains open. That is the reason for the oscillation between the two levels or centers. When we read that this or that rabbi was “frequented by Elijah,” it must be understood that the rabbi’s character oscillates between two identities, the biographical and the historical, in the transcendental sense of the word. This conception, as noted above, is associated with a certain historical and a certain historiographical conceptions. The conception of history was defined above, namely as the transmission of personal knowledge. Historiography as perceived here is the creation of the duality of 9

All the quotations from The City with All That Is Therein in this chapter are from this edition: Ir u-mloa, Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv, Schocken, 1999. The page numbers are given in parentheses after a quotation.


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biography and history as an attempt at purposefulness. This is the narrator’s objective and his work; this is what he perceives to be his function as a historiographer: to create characters of alternative doubles that constitute the cultural centers of gravity into which the life of the community is drawn. Thus if at the level of the conception of history the choice is between biological and biographical, and if at the level of historiography an alternative personality and the possibility of a transcendental duality are created, what is the opposing historiographical conception? Clearly it is the conception of history as lacking purposefulness, as entropic chaos, as longing for death. Already in the next story, entitled “Ari de-bei ila’i” (Lion from Bei Ila’i), this issue is elaborated in the character of Rabbi Arieh Leibush Auerbuch. The alternative history here serves not only as a theoretical conception of reality but also explicitly functions as an instrument of historical research, for the purpose of explaining reality. This raises an interesting question: To what extent and how can an alternative history constitute an explanation? The narrator’s view in this case takes shape in opposition to the conception that may be defined as “the Max Weber approach,” according to which history’s alternative possibilities, which arise in the historian’s mental experiment, are meant to be rejected, and thus verify and justify the course of history as it was realized. The historian invents alternative histories in order to verify that none of them could have existed, and this provides him with an explanation of why the one possibility that appears as realized history did materialize. Agnon, however, as noted above, rejects this approach and creates a completely different historiography. In his writings, the historical alternatives, the unrealized possibilities, are realized not in order to be rejected but in order to reveal a regularity of realized history. Alternative history according to this view is not an unrealized possibility that has been rejected due to its improbability; indeed, it was realized, but in a different way, not as the “substance” of history but as its “form,” as an idea, a law or an explanation. This is undoubtedly a mythological conception, but not in the vulgar sense of myth as a pre-scientific explanation of reality, but rather in the sense given to this concept by Matvei Kagan: Myth is an attempt to perceive, anticipate the open purposefulness of history within the framework of a closed individual historical episode.10 Furthermore, for 10 Kagan, “Kak vozmozhna istoriia?” (How is History Possible, 1921), in O khode istorii, pp. 213-216; “O khode istorii” in O khode istorii, p. 255. For Kagan myth constitutes the essence of art in “the purity of an episode”: “Any plot is a myth. A plot in essence is nothing but a myth. […] A myth is always nothing but a manifestation of meaning and of a sequence of events and phenomena, whose

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Agnon the concept of myth comes to possess an additional meaning: Myth is an attempt at becoming driven by love for history and by a desire to accept the historical task, to take responsibility for it. A myth by itself is not history, but a historical vision (as meaning); but in a certain sense, with respect to the alternativeness principle, myth is history, an alternative history. A vision, after all, is a so-far unrealized but realizable historical possibility; otherwise the vision is meaningless. Myth is a prophetic history, and therefore the fact that alternative history in Agnon’s stories discussed here is a miraculous history, far from undermining the entire historiographical conception, strengthens it. Since a miracle, according to Losev, is the realization of the personality’s transcendental purpose, a (miraculous) alternative history is also a realization of the personality. What distinguishes Agnon’s conception of the myth from Losev’s, and what makes the former’s conception closer to Hermann Cohen’s and Matvei Kagan’s, is that for Agnon the realization of the personality in history is not “automatic,” that is, it is not ensured but rather demands will, work, and free creativity, and therefore makes responsibility possible. The realization fails over and over again and passes through crises, but precisely for that reason it is always open, renewing itself, and alive. This work is man’s answer to what Kagan calls the Creator’s gift of history. That is also the purpose of Agnon’s alternative history, and that is what turns myth into an explanation for or a meaning of reality. For example, as one of the explanations for R. Arieh’s death in the prime of life when he was rabbi in the city of Stanislov, Agnon writes: “The dead of Buchach in the Stanislov cemetery appointed him as their rabbi” (313). This is of course merely myth, but it is also the true history of the rabbi and the city. The myth gives expression to the element or purpose is as if predicted in the internal character of the events themselves. […] After all, the purity of accident and of fact in history is not perfect! But perfection does exist. It bursts into history, as it were, and is given it as a present. A myth is just this prior perfection of the concrete. This is the principle and the fact of the constant creative source that constitutes the vision of the revelation of the future in the present, and the past’s inclusion within the constantly revealed present, which lives the future, already lives the future. […] In this the purity of an episode is embodied. An episode’s pure being is the myth, the plot of art. […] There is no causal-legal factor. Here what operates is visible individual purposefulness, individual closure and perfection. […] The sequence is not fantasized nor does it have a prior existence; rather, it is inspired as the vision of the purpose of being in the character [through the content], which has already closed from the inside in the formal individualism of the fact of the work of art” (“Dva ustremleniia iskusstva” (The Two Aspirations of Art, 1922), in O khode istorii, p. 460-461).


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force we already mentioned above, the attraction to the center. A rabbi can play different roles and can oscillate between different (say social or political) identities and different functions in culture, but true cultural creation-becoming towards the purposefulness of history is only possible if it occurs in a gravitational system in which one is drawn from a small to a large center (that is, from what is not a center to what is). The moment a whole community, however small, of Jews from Buchach in the city of Stanislov finds itself remaining without a rabbi, a Jew from Buchach has something more important to do than to be the rabbi of Stanislov. His true duty and responsibility are towards the center which, in this case, is the community of Jews from Buchach, even though it is not actually located there. The historical task and its implementation in the work of history exist not in a geographical space, but in the space of the world’s meaning and purposefulness. The geographical community loses its cultural meaning in a flash, and becomes biological and imaginary, that is, meaningless, while the absolute community becomes an actual historical individual.

c. Fish and Salt: “In Search of a Rabbi, or The Spirit of the Ruler” This long story is constructed in accordance with a well-known Agnonian pattern: Going to a distant place leads one to a nearby one. The Jews of Buchach have not found anyone within their own community fit to serve as the city’s rabbi, and so three representatives travel to the town of ĩabno to invite the local rabbi, the same “rabbi from ĩabno” (or, as spelled elsewhere in Agnon’s writings, Zabni) who is subsequently in the same story identified as “the author of Tsiluta de-Avraham” (340), namely R. Moshe Avraham Margaliot.11 But the rabbi of ĩabno declines the offer and reveals to them that in Buchach lives a man who deserves the position, Rabbi Mordechai, a modest man, apparently a simple artisan, whose greatness remains unrecognized. Rabbi Mordechai is the student of the rabbi who fled from the governor’s ire.12 Later on in the story the rabbi is 11

R. Moshe Avraham Margaliot, Tsiluta de-Avraham (Hidushei MAHARAM), 1820. 12 “The spirit of the ruler,” according to Ecclesiastes 10:4: “If the spirit of the ruler rise up against thee, leave not thy place; for yielding pacifieth great offences.” According to Rashi’s commentary, “The ruler of the world will rise against you to strictly apply divine justice to you. Do not leave your good attributes to say to him ‘What will my righteousness help me?’ The strictness of justice is in the sufferings that will befall you, which will cure your sins and great transgressions.” Midrash

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presented as the father-in-law of R. Birekh Shapira (353), who apparently is to be identified with R. Berekhya Birekh Shapira, author of Zera Berekh.13 The first internal story in this novella is the rabbi from ĩabno’s tale of the discovery of Rabbi Mordechai’s greatness, which occurred at the same time as the revelation of the later Maharam Shif,14 which took place, according to the rabbi from ĩabno’s statement, one-hundred-andtwenty years before the events in the story itself. The Jews of Buchach are thus expected to go back and find a rabbi in their own city. In other words, they are to return to the point of origin, to the source, to the true center. But this revelation is quite harsh: It says that in their city, in the reality which they ostensibly know, there exists an entire dimension of which the residents are completely unaware. At their side, within their midst, lives a man, in whose presence and perhaps even thanks to whom R. Shif is revealed, completely unbeknownst to them! This means that Buchach possesses an alternative history, one that is different, and not perceived by everyone. True, students of fantasy literature are in the habit of making a distinction between alternative and parallel history, but here the difference between the two is not so great: In both cases the element of creation is an oscillation between two dimensions of existence. Admittedly, however, in order to define a work as alternative history one must be able to point to an event in the past at which history splits, the bifurcation point to which the readers return together with the characters, in order to consider once again the decisions which determined the narrated history. Indeed, this is what the rabbi from ĩabno does: He returns to the past with his story about Rabbi Mordechai. At the event of Rabbi Mordechai’s epiphany reality split; this split is related, not coincidentally, to a miraculous event, R. Shif’s appearance. From this, as well as from the fact that the main mechanism for the origination of (rabbinical) history is the transmission of (personal) knowledge, we may deduce that the alternativeness in this story has as its Rabba has a much more down-to-earth interpretation: “If the ruler comes to you, do not forsake your modesty, to teach you that anyone who forsakes his modesty brings death to his world and sin to his generation.” 13 R. Berekhya Birekh Shapira was a rabbinical judge in Cracow in the years in which R. Yoel Sirkis (author of Bayit Hadash) served as the head of the rabbinical court and the city’s chief rabbi (1619-1640). The character of the fleeing rabbi embodies some of Rabbi Yoel’s (1561-1640) well-known characteristics and opinions, for example his views on education (whose significance we shall discuss below) and his opposition to exegetes and legists who disregarded the ancient texts. 14 Rabbi Meir b. Yaakov Shif (1605-1641).


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foundation the principle of the incompleteness of knowledge. From the perspective of myth, this is the story of a miraculous journey to the past and back into the present. R. Shif himself, as an actual historical character, is the far horizon of alternative history in this case. However, from R. Shif, the commentator of the Talmud, a new horizon opens towards an ever further past, to the Talmudic sages, from there to the Mishna sages, and so on. Thus the split, the “crack” in reality begins with a single character, rushing into the depths of time. As can be seen from this example, the “crack” in the body of knowledge is just an infelicitous and deceptive metaphor: It does not signify absence or detachment, but to the contrary, it is what makes it possible to follow the course of the sequence of the transmission of knowledge which is, in this case, the sequence of the origination of history. The protagonists return to the past in order to obtain answers in the present, with the help of which they can predict and originate the future, that is, to originate the meaning. This backwards-forwards movement involves an oscillation not only between two histories but also between two identities: A Torah scholar as dead or alive. This embodies the oscillation between conceptions of history as an archive or as vitality, and also the oscillation between conceptions of historiography as a dead metaphor (or any other trope, in the spirit of Hayden White’s metahistory), or as a living metaphor, in Paul Ricoeur’s sense, that is, as a sincere rhetorical deed that reveals the truth (after all, there can be no doubt that pilpul (dialectical debate), and especially hiddush (invention, innovation) constitute rhetorical acts in the most sublime sense). Not only the character of R. Shif, but also the identity of R. Mordechai oscillates: between Talmudic scholar and tinsmith. And like a musical resonance, the character of the rabbi from ĩabno also begins to oscillate: between the dimension of revelation to that of Torah study.15 We accompany R. Shif into his own personal past, in which he bequeaths his writings to his daughter: “The event was that when the Maharam Shif’s time came to leave this world he summoned his daughter, the pious Ms. Henaleh. He gave her his writings and commanded her to place them in a box and close the box with a lock. She took the writings, placed them in a box, and put the box in the loft. People came, opened the box, took possession of the writings, and published them in their own name without mentioning the Maharam Shif; in Heaven this matter was 15

This is related to a well-known Talmudic dispute between Rabbi Eliezer and the Sages concerning the validity of divine testimony for purposes of halakhic ruling, in the case known as “Achnai’s furnace” (Babylonian Talmud, tractate Baba Metsia, page 59b).

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hidden from him to spare him grief” (326). This occurrence is the bifurcation point; here choosing takes place at the most profound level, that of the alternativeness of choice. This is the ethical moment, the inner engine of historical alternativeness in the story; here R. Shif decides what to do with his writings. The rabbi of ĩabno, his audience of people from Buchach, and the readers return to the past with him, to the bifurcation point, because the realized history is neither truth nor justice (the writings were stolen and published under other names), because history shows signs of crisis: “[R. Shif] began to say profound and wonderful hiddushim, and sweet, sharp tremendous pilpulim, the likes of which one does not hear in our generation. Some of these we find in the books of the new authors, but not every copyist understands what he copies” (ibid.). The return to the past is needed in order to reconsider the decision to put the writings into storage and to choose anew. This would not change history: We still live in a world in which R. Shif’s writings were put away and stolen. But another historical layer is revealed, one in which his writings do still exist and are passed on, whether by way of the “stolen language” of “copyists” or by way of miraculous revelation as in our case. After all, passing on knowledge is the very essence of (rabbinical) history. The concern, which the story expresses, is for the individual, personalityrelated nature of the knowledge and its transference. It is this concern that gives rise to the alternative history created in the story. A hidden or stolen manuscript or other cultural artifact is one of the most important and widespread themes in world literature. A specific version of this theme is an item that is exchanged or faked. In every such item culture returns to the past in order to determine what is the original and what is the fake, what is real and what is false. This is, for example, the main theme in Philip Dick’s alternative history novel The Man in the High Castle. Ultimately the aim of this move is to examine present culture and knowledge, the state of hiddushim “in our generation,” in light of the truth revealed in the originating event in which R. Shif hid his writings away. We thus discover that in the given reality (that is, in modern writings) there is an entire layer that is merely a copy, a layer of nonauthenticity, of non-unity between history (the writings) and personality (the author). This lack of unity is a sign of historical crisis. The function of alternativeness is thus to strengthen awareness of the historical process and of historical crises. In order for this to happen, a (miraculous) effort of recollection (to use Ricoeur’s concepts)16 is made. 16 See also: Dan Laor, Ha-maavak al ha-zikaron (The Struggle for Memory), Tel Aviv, Am Oved, 2009.


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The people of Buchach must recollect their illustrious citizen, Rabbi Mordechai. However, in order to do so, they must make their own journey, both in space (to ĩabno and back) and in time (in the rabbi of ĩabno’s story, to the past and back). As just noted, in this journey they arrive at R. Shif’s point of choosing, which becomes the point of choosing for everyone: to publish or not to publish, to write or not to write, to speak or not to speak. Here we thus see once more what seems to be the basic choosing point of all the choices: to be or not to be. This is an oscillation at the level of the alternativeness of choice. But there is also the highest level, the alternativeness of the modes of choosing. How should one choose? The answer to this question is given already in the story’s plot itself: It is necessary to come out of the center (out of the self), to learn and to return. That is the pattern of renovation. Furthermore, in order to define oscillation at the level of the modes of choosing, we must define two historiographical approaches. The question is: How should history be written? This oscillation stems from the previous one, since all levels are part of one process. In other words, the oscillation between modes of choosing is the oscillation of the character of R. Shif and of all the characters that emerge with him. This is not a matter of abstract historiographical conceptions. To the contrary, they are supposed to be embodied in concrete events and images, that is, in myths created at the external level. In the case in question the modes of choosing are the ways of writing, and the questions that are asked are: How does the rabbi write, for what or for whom? One approach is pragmatic-political, so to speak. Rabbinical writing (which is the real work of history in our story) is intended for the needs of this world. According to another approach, writing is intended for eternity, for the hereafter. In the former approach, the objective of writing is to originate the writer’s self, while in the latter it is to abolish it, as shown here by the fact that R. Shif himself does not know the fate of his writings: “In Heaven this matter was hidden from him to spare him grief.” However, the real reason is that there is no reason to feel any grief, since his knowledge is indeed revealed and realized. The truth comes to light, and that is the main thing. But the injustice is still there, as expressed by the fact that the truth appears in a shell of fakery, in disguise, in carnival dress. The writing is thus revealed to be stolen script, stolen language, but the story’s objective is to right this wrong, to peel off the covers of the truth. This is the function of the author or his alter ego “R. Levy, crusher of grits [kotesh grisin]” (317) (“crusher of wheat” according to the Talmud), one of the Jews of Buchach who came to ĩabno. This minor metaphor embodies the entire meaning of the alternative history in this story, at least

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in the passage under discussion. Rashi explains the Talmudic expression as follows: “Should not crushing wheat in a mortar also be considered (a labor forbidden on the Sabbath), since (this kind of work) was done with the ingredients of frankincense in the Temple? No, because it is like threshing he did not count it (as a separate kind), since there one also breaks open (the kernel’s) garment” (Rashi’s commentary to Babylonian Talmud, tractate Shabbat, page 74a). The topic here is the chief labors forbidden on the Sabbath and the question of whether crushing is one of these, that is, whether it is an action that was carried out in the Temple or is identical to such an action, such as threshing. Rashi explains the action of crushing as removing the shell, and in the mystical sense, this act becomes a cabbalistic metaphor for revealing the truth, for making the spark of divine illumination manifest. The “crusher of grits” is thus actually a revealer of what is hidden, a writer of history, and an amender of the world. This issue is known as one of the most difficult and obtuse topics in the Talmud. For Agnon, too, “garments” are an important theme. The ambivalence of garments resides in the fact that in order to remove them they must first be discovered, and therefore they must be dealt with. It thus turns out that the search for the truth involves dealing with garments. These are central to some important and very different characters in Agnon’s works, such as the protagonists of “Ha-malbush” (“The Garment”) and “Ad Hena” (“So Far”). A garment is a shell, but it creates/mediates the connection between man and his Creator, between the lower and the upper spheres. This is also the meaning of alternative history in general, and in the specific case discussed here. An alternative history, just like realized history, is a garment; all historical possibilities are shells, and the historian or author are “crushers of grits.” R. Levy is the historian, the writer, the composer of sacred history; he is the Moses of Buchach. Once again, it turns out that the most essential question of writing history is a question of sanctity: Is history one of the labors of constructing the Temple? That is the question of the work of writing history, and of the work of writing in general. This makes the writing of the book under discussion, that is The City with All That Is Therein, an object of oscillation and of the problematization of sanctity, which is the problematization of historiography by means of the principle of alternativeness. Does writing the book constitute the construction of the Temple (or a temple)? This


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oscillation pattern at the level of the modes of choosing is the Talmudic oscillation, the continuation of the same well-known Talmudic issue.17 The rabbi of ĩabno thus tells Rabbi Mordechai’s story. In this part of the story he focuses on the time when they first became acquainted. What is important here is the rabbi’s reaction to Rabbi Mordechai’s character and its strange transformation, from sublime spiritual sage to simple, earthly artisan. Perhaps we would not have stressed this oscillation, since the unification of a Talmudic sage and a craftsman in a single character is something that can be found in many of Agnon’s works (for example “The Hidden Tzadik” in Book One of The City with All That Is Therein), were it not for the amazement expressed by the rabbi of ĩabno at the oscillation: “When the caretaker’s steps were heard as he went out to awaken the sleeping people and call them to divine worship, Rabbi Mordechai’s face changed. He cast off the spiritual form which the Torah gives to its possessors and took on the form of a craftsman, like those whom we summon to our homes to do work. I was transfixed by fright, lest everything I saw was one of the visions of that night” (327). The narrator (the rabbi of ĩabno) even repeats his impressions, using almost the same words, like the narrator of a legend or a folktale when describing a miraculous metamorphosis: “When the sound of the caretaker’s feet were heard as he left to call to prayer, the light in his face that the Torah gives to those who study it disappeared, and he was no different than any of the craftsmen who do our work for us. I recoiled in fright and wonder. I was so surprised that I did not ask what I wanted to know” (329). It is easy to see that Rabbi Mordechai’s changes of form are a continuation of the theme of garments and the “crusher of grits” discussed above. Although this metamorphosis has no connection to the carnival element, one cannot ignore Rabbi Mordechai’s attempt as a Talmudic scholar to take on the character of a craftsman, to hide behind a mask. There is the impression that the two facets of Rabbi Mordechai’s character are not unified, in contrast to the protagonist in the story “The Hidden Tzadik.” It would have been more convenient to assume that both identities are combined, but testimony of the rabbi of ĩabno, according to which the transformation was greeted with shock, makes it impossible to come to such a harmonization. We thus have every reason to speak of an oscillation between two identities within a single individual. Although neither the protagonist, nor the narrator, nor the author can stand this 17

For a further discussion of the role and power of the motif of grits see: Avidov Lipsker, “Transgressia u-magia reduma be-sipuro shel S.Y. Agnon ‘Shnei talmidei khakhamim she-haiu be-irenu’” (Transgression and Latent Magic in Agnon’s Story ‘Two Sages Who Were in Our City’), Alpaim 32 (2008), pp. 133-148.

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oscillation, which is experienced as a harsh crisis of identity, a solution is found which resolves the identity crisis. The rabbi of ĩabno praises Rabbi Mordechai’s skill in lamp making and notes: “Rabbi Mordechai told me that he learned the work of making lamps from the Psiqta, from the passage ‘Arise and shine, for your light has come’” (328).18 This creates the connection between craftsmanship and redemption, especially in light of the fact that Rabbi Mordechai made the lamps for the wedding of the mayor’s son, a Gentile, thus realizing the prophecy of “a light unto the nations.” So the problem is now ostensibly solved. But did Agnon really resolve the supposed contradiction between the two identities? Another question is what the deepest levels of oscillation between the two identities are. This contradiction cannot be conceived only in its negative aspect, as nothing but a way and means for obtaining a solution; it must also have a positive meaning that would justify its poetic use. Here the alternativeness principle can come to our aid. First we return from the level of identities to a more external level, that of the alternativeness of myths, and then we enter levels deeper than that of the alternativeness of personality, namely those of the alternativeness of choice and of the modes of choosing. To begin with, at the level of the alternativeness of myth, we have an oscillation between or a simultaneous presentation of two histories, each of which is the other’s alternative. One is an apparently secular history, related to Rabbi Mordechai’s identity as a craftsman, while the other is a sacred history, in which Rabbi Mordechai is a Talmudic scholar, a witness of the revelation of R. Shif. Furthermore, in the first alternative Rabbi Mordechai is the man-genius who works at building the physical world, while in the second alternative this man-genius has the function of originating the spiritual world, to illuminate it with the divine light and the light of the Jewish people. In both alternatives, Rabbi Mordechai works on 18 Psiqta de-Rav Cahana, par. 21, a commentary on Isaiah 60:1. The passage begins thus: “‘Arise and shine’ (Isaiah 60:1), therefore honor God with lights, ‘the name of the LORD God of Israel in the coastlands of the sea’ (Isaiah 24:15). With what is He to be honored? R. Abba bar Cahana said: ‘With these lamps’.” Lamps are candles, the sun and the moon, as well as the lamps made in the days of Moses and in the days of Solomon. God and the People of Israel are likened to lights, to a candle or to olive (oil). The second part of the paragraph is devoted to the subject of redemption, the main theme of this chapter in Isaiah, and the construction of the temple: “R. Levy said: ‘It is the usual custom for a man to build a banquet hall and make its windows small on the outside and wide on the inside, in order to bring light into it. But the windows of the Temple were not like this, but were small on the inside and wide on the outside, in order to bring its light out into the world.”


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the creation of history. If we pass on from this level to the level of the perception of history (the alternativeness of choice), it is doubtful whether we will be able to distinguish here between two alternative historical approaches, since in both history is perceived as a creative individual work, to use Cohen’s or Kagan’s concepts. At this level, Rabbi Mordechai’s two identities also unite. Just one important observation must be made here: The alternative histories are organized in hierarchical order. Physical history is derived from metaphysical history, and not vice versa; Rabbi Mordechai learns his craft from studying the Torah, but the study of Torah does not reflect material practices (as a cultural superstructure and economic foundation, in Marxism and its derivatives). The concept of the alternativeness of history describes the uniqueness of Agnon’s philosophical poetics, the relationship between different layers of meaning, much better than concepts such as allegory, symbolism, metarealism and the like. All these concepts assume that one history is more real than another. This assumption may be true in the case of alternative history as a genre, but certainly not in Agnon’s case. Had it been, had the hierarchy of reality between the two histories been so absolute, we would not have been able to speak about a real oscillation, and as a result, about truly choosing freely between the alternatives. One of the histories can be (and usually is) perceived as more true, but not more real. In contrast to reality, truth lacks the status of givenness, but possesses the status of possibility, and therefore constitutes an object of search and choice. So what are search and choice in Rabbi Mordechai’s case? In order to answer this question we must return together with him to the bifurcation point of the origination of his character, which will be revealed only later in the story, when we accompany him back to his childhood, to the days when he studied with his rabbi. That is the bifurcation point at the level of myths. At the level of identities, it is already clear that Rabbi Mordechai is forced to choose time and again and to change identities. His character, as already pointed out, is not an organic whole, but originates as an oscillation. Even after the connection between the two identities is clarified, they remain distinct. This characterizes both Rabbi Mordechai himself and the world in which he lives. But since in the stories of The City with All That Is Therein we do find not a few integrated characters, this cannot be a matter of social criticism. The split existence here is not negative, but quite positive: it is a multiple, possibilistic existence within alternative histories, an existence which, in Kagan’s terms, is tragic but

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optimistic, because it constitutes a work of history for the sake of light.19 As noted above, Rabbi Mordechai’s personality is granted uniformity not at the level of identities, but at a deeper level, that of the alternativeness of choice, which is the level of the perception of history. The duality of identity justifies the work of history, and at the same time it also requires justification itself. This it receives, of course, in Rabbi Mordechai’s past, in his first choices and decisions, that is, at the ethical bifurcation of his life’s story, his biography, the heritage he received from his predecessors. In other words, the justification for the split, as well as for the alternativeness, is love for history itself, for memory, for the past. More precisely, this love originates history, just as history originates the loving personality. This brings us to the question of oscillation at the level of historiography. If at the level of historical perception there is no oscillation, what is the oscillation at the level of historiography, at the level of the alternativeness of the ways of choosing? This oscillation is revealed in a meta-historical discourse, the rabbi of ĩabno’s discourse on whether to write or not to write history, to tell or not to tell Rabbi Mordechai’s story, to speak or not to speak. This in turn takes us back to the question of “To be or not to be?”: Will Rabbi Mordechai come to existence without the rabbi of ĩabno’s story? Will the discourse originate his personality or will he remain in his anonymity? Secular history writes itself, the events in it are presented as given, but sacred history can remain within its absence, its non-existence, its secret. The rabbi of ĩabno decides of his own choosing to originate it and so to create Rabbi Mordechai’s alternative identity and alternative history. He decides that this history should be written. This is an alternative historiographical conception: The origination of history is an act of ethical and responsible choice. This approach is opposed to that of Rabbi Mordechai himself, who decided that his sacred history should not be written, that is, should not be revealed, and even asked the rabbi of ĩabno not to reveal it. It is their historiographical meaning, which is so important to the author (in addition to their mystical and ethical meaning, of course), that explains the lengthy descriptions of the attempts made by the two sages to keep Rabbi Mordechai’s identity hidden. At the beginning of the rabbi of ĩabno’s words there is a short but significant moment of hesitation: To tell or not to tell? The entire story thus emanates from this bifurcation point: “As for Rabbi Mordechai, is it permitted to reveal something that Rabbi Mordechai made an effort to 19 Kagan, “Nedoumionnye motivy v tvorchestve Pushkina” (Motifs of Tragic Bewilderment in Pushkin’s Work, 1936), O khode istorii, p. 598.


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hide? […] The time has come for Rabbi Mordechai that I tell his story” (322-323). The rabbi of ĩabno’s discourse constantly returns to the same bifurcation point, where it asks itself, so to speak, whether its existence is justified, whether the choice was the right one; in other words, the discourse repeatedly tries to justify itself. By the very existence of this problematization, the discourse casts doubt on its becoming and illuminates another, unrealized possibility of its becoming: silence, the secret. Speech casts doubt on itself and so returns to the point of choosing, and perpetuates the choosing, turns it into an oscillation, into a perpetuum mobile. This oscillation is expressed not only at the conceptual level, but also through some of the behavioral features of the rabbi’s character: hesitation, delay, and so on. A careful discourse analysis would have found them quite easily. This questioning is of course consistent with that of Rabbi Mordechai himself: To reveal himself or not, to tell or not, to come to the rabbi or to disappear? His discourse, too, is a problematization of historiography. It must be stressed that the story of the rabbi of ĩabno, which is related in the narrative present, constitutes a return to two different historical levels. His words derive from his decision not to accept the invitation to become the rabbi of Buchach, out of respect for Rabbi Mordechai. This is the most important and most relevant bifurcation point with respect to the background story. At the other level, his story is a return to the events that paved the way for his decision, that explain and justify it. One history justifies and explains the other, the history that is coming into being, the present. The rabbi’s story is payment of the debt that he owes to Buchach and its people for their long journey, for their leaving their center (themselves). The story is a work of compensation for splitting reality, a work of its reunification, the true hierarchy’s reconstruction. The story is realized history, but in the background, the non-realized history remains; this is the alternative history. As in some well-known drawings, a small change in perspective can turn background into picture and picture into background. A non-realized history is not necessarily one that does not exist. The story itself evokes this idea by means of a paradoxical game of knowing and not knowing. The whole story revolves around the problem of knowing. The question of who Rabbi Mordechai is, like any alternativeness of personality, is only this problem’s outer shell. But the oscillation in his identity echoes in the oscillation in the identity of the rabbi of ĩabno himself. The rabbi did not succeed in keeping his meetings with Rabbi Mordechai a secret for long: “In the city they began to whisper

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that Elijah came to their rabbi every night, but still he behaves just like a plain teacher. Is there anyone as modest as their rabbi?” (332). And when the rabbi convinced the people of the city that Elijah did not appear to him, the number of alternatives multiplied: “What did the people of ĩabno say? They said, ‘In that case it is the holy Isaac Luria who comes to their rabbi to teach him Cabbala. Certainly the revelation of tzadiks is of greater merit than the revelation of Elijah” (ibid.). Clearly all the rabbi’s counterarguments were to no avail this time as well. Despite the tongue-in-cheek sarcasm, one should not miss the story’s deep pathos. The story as a whole thus consists of constantly repetitious attempts to originate a true justification and to reject an erroneous one. The story’s tragic bewilderment, to use Kagan’s terms,20 concerns how it is possible to justify history in a state of divine anger (hester panim), of hiding the truth, a bewilderment that in the broader historical context refers also, or mainly, to the Holocaust. How is one to justify and how can the work of history be motivated if truth cannot or must not be revealed? Why is this a problem? Because to justify history in a situation of not knowing the truth and of divine anger means to justify not knowing the truth and divine anger. This bewilderment gives rise to historical alternativeness as a problematization of historical truth. From the perspective of those who do not know, every history is non-realized, every history is an alternative. If experienced history is not true, it is necessary to write, to invent an alternative history, which is the true one. The solution of this bewilderment or aporia in the story is elegant and quite efficient. It appears in the rabbi of ĩabno’s words when he tries to explain why it is not good to accept esteem, not only when it is not deserved but even when it is: “Even if a man is praised for something which he does possess, he must say ‘You are wrong about me,’ because nothing is so hard to bear as those praises that a man hears about himself and keeps silent. If they are things that he does possess then it will be deducted from his merits in the hereafter, while if they are things that he does not possess he will be called to account for every single praise with awful, terrible shame. In this world 20

Kagan, “Nedoumionnye motivy v tvorchestve Pushkina.” Bewilderment (in Hebrew, temiha) can ostensibly be compared to Hillel Barzel’s “gaping” (tehima): “Gaping differs from riddle and question, both of which are contained within it, not in order to abolish it but in order to empower it. Gaping transfers the text to beyond the questions” (Hillel Barzel, Ha-mea ha-khatzuia (The Split Century), Tel Aviv, Sifriyat Poalim, 2011, p. 302). However, although both bewilderment and gaping “strengthen tragic moods” (ibid., p. 304), they differ in an important respect: Bewilderment, especially in Kagan’s sense, is not tangent to the hidden and the unperceivable, but to the contrary, paves the way from darkness into light.


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a man receives honor and his body is not burnt, but in the hereafter there is not a single bone that is not burnt” (332). The solution thus relies on the metaphysics of the hereafter, of the future. It is this eschatological ethics that justifies the unrealized and unknown, and so justifies the alternative history. In other words, people are constantly searching for an alternative history driven by a desire to discover the truth. The problem is only that when they do discover it, this truth will be realized in this world and so they will not be able to enjoy it in the hereafter; it will deprive them of their right to the hereafter. And since the hereafter seems to them to be much more important, they justify hiding the truth in this world. From a theoretical standpoint, the important conclusion is that historical alternativeness is justified here by means of a metaphysical approach, indeed, by means of faith. This conclusion fits in well with the position that we developed in the theoretical parts, according to which alternative history (as a genre and as a principle) arises from and is nourished by metaphysics. Another important point to stress here is the very need to justify reality, history, one’s choices and decisions. Everything that is done requires justification. History requires moral justification, and therefore when the rabbi of ĩabno makes his decision he must justify himself and explain. This is how the story comes about, and history is created. This means that history cannot remain arbitrary, random, chaotic. One should not get the impression that the rabbi of ĩabno did not receive the invitation to serve as rabbi of Buchach without a justifiable reason. The aim of the justification, that is, the aim of creating the alternative history, is to provide history not only with a causal but, most importantly, with a teleological dimension – the purpose of the tzadik’s revelation and his becoming the rabbi of the city, the leader and teacher of the community. Purposefulness is the aim, the main agenda of writing any history. The great question that arises here, and to which there can never be a complete answer, is just how reliable the rabbi himself and his stories are. His history is based on a miracle (the revelation of R. Shif Maharam) and his rhetoric is suffused with mystical concepts. The question that always poses itself in Agnon’s writings is to what extent the miracle does or does not detract from the narrator’s or the author’s reliability and to what extent can the story be trusted, not of course with respect to its consistency with reality, but with respect to its accord with its own intention. This question does not arise with the three delegates from Buchach, but it does arise at the level of the relations between the reader and the narrator, because the latter does not try to include the story in the chronicle, but rather presents

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it as the rhetorical act of a character, the rabbi of ĩabno. It is the rabbi who bears the responsibility for the story’s reliability. This reveals the plan of the author himself: The rabbi of ĩabno’s story is part of a rabbinical history that we defined at the beginning of our discussion; it is not part of a political, social, conceptual, etc. history, nor is it part of a “chronicle,” as Kurzweil defined the book’s genre. Rabbinical history, as noted above, is a work of transmitting knowledge, learning, innovation, and the rabbi’s story is apparently one of the means of this work.21 The story is a mediating, literary, legendary version of a very important (and very common) model of this kind of historical work: one Torah scholar’s revelation to another. Learning and interpretation can by themselves be perceived as a realization of the model of revelation. Revelation is a hermeneutical-dialogical model. What is important for us is that it is also a historical and historiographical model: History is created (occurs and is written) as continuous attempts to experience or to create meaning by means of a dialogue with or interpretation of the past. But the past is perceived not as what is no longer, but as yesterday’s present or even as the day before yesterday’s future, in other words, as another version of the present, that is, as alternative history. Interpretation is an attempt to realize unrealized possibilities of meaning which could be, were or will be realized, or even those which, according to Mikhail Epstein, cannot be realized. Interpretation is alternative history. It is possible to discern the alternativeness principle in other aspects of the story as well. Let us examine the relations between the rabbi of ĩabno and Rabbi Mordechai. Rabbi Mordechai comes to visit unexpectedly, secretly, at night. The issue of secretiveness has already been discussed above, and now we emphasize another aspect. His very arrival appears as a kind of alternative history, based on uncertainty and unpredictability. There are two possibilities, that he will come or that he will not come, which stand the test of realization, but the rabbi does not know how to assess their probabilities. Furthermore, nights are themselves a time of alternativeness, as expressed quite clearly, for example, in Agnon’s story “Nights,” which is based entirely on alternativeness of events, characters, and worlds. Night is a symbol of alternativeness, and not just a romantic symbol of duality and mystery. Yet another aspect is the rabbi’s regular work, which is put aside due to his conversations with Rabbi Mordechai: “On the day I made the acquaintance of Rabbi Mordechai I left my regular lessons, because during 21 The oral narration by the rabbi is a case of higud (telling, oration), discussed by Shmuel Werses: Werses, S.Y. Agnon ki-pshuto, pp. 3-22.


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the day I examined the new ideas we came up with at night” (334). As so often in other cases, the split in reality, the duality created here immediately receives its justification in the miraculous or seemingly miraculous attempt at unification, and the rabbi hopes that his lessons with Rabbi Mordechai will help him find solutions to his everyday problems: “I put my trust in the Torah, that it would revive my spirit for my regular lessons […] as if a note fell from heaven on which the answer to my question was written” (ibid.). In this case one cannot thus speak of a binary pattern, nor of a dialectic, because the two elements are not mutually contradictory. Instead of structural oppositions there are decisions and choices here, that derive from the multiplicity of possibilities in certain moments of life. The possibilities are not metaphysical but historical and concrete, full of vitality, as if they have all already been realized to the same extent and are only waiting to be chosen by the person, in an act that can only be truly free if all the possibilities are equally valid, that is, are “true” or “existent” to the same degree. Therefore it would be more correct to define the given situation not as one of binary opposition but as alternativeness, as historical alternativeness. What is it that enables us to define this case as historical alternativeness? The answer resides in the same basic hypothesis with which we opened our discussion: In The City with All That Is Therein, if not in all of Agnon’s oeuvre, history is rabbinical history. Therefore, it is rabbinical work that is historical work, to use Cohen’s neo-Kantian terms. The rabbi’s halakhic activity is the true history, which stands in a relation of alternativeness to “actual” history, so that contradiction and complementation are united, as in Greimas’ semiotic square. And now, at this stage of the story, we witness finer hues in this history’s realization. Within the rabbi’s historical work there are deeper levels of alternativeness, one example of which is his attempts to solve the problem of the two forsaken wives (grass-widows, agunot) of the same husband, one old and the other young. This difficult moral and halakhic problem is exacerbated by the fact that the rabbi is reluctant to turn the deserting husband in to the authorities, out of fear for the latter’s life, while the rabbinical court lacks the authority to impose its decision (334). Merely the state of being an abandoned wife (aguna) splits reality and gives rise to two alternative histories, while in this case there are two cases, which create an alternativeness at a higher level, the level of the modes of choosing, in which the question which the rabbi must face is not “What to choose?” but “How to choose?” or “How to dare to choose?” And like any historical alternativeness, this one, too, brings us back to the most important question: How is choosing possible at

Historical Alternativeness in the Work of Agnon


all when all choices are equivalent and every decision is free, ethical and responsible to the same extent? Choosing among different possibilities is not only an ethical but also a historical task, since the rabbi’s halakhic work is, as already noted, the work of history. Work on any halakhic issue is, in Kagan’s terms, an attempt at the love of historical purposefulness. Every halakhic case is a historical crisis in miniature, and every legal judgment is an attempt to resolve the crisis by means of creative individual historical work. The rabbi creates history by his very choice of one or the other alternative: The aguna-history that the rabbi will choose will be the realized history. It is not by chance that Agnon decides to raise the issue of forsaken wives here; it is a major theme in his works, serving as a paradigmatic symbol of history in crisis (and in the present, history is always in crisis). The act of resolving the aguna is the symbol of the work of history. We are therefore together with the rabbi of ĩabno at the bifurcation point at which he will decide what history will be. Both possible histories are represented in the story by means of the two feminine characters, the girl and the old woman. This kind of binary pair is well known in the study of folklore, myths, and literature, in anthropological, thematological and rhetorical research. It also appears in Agnon’s other works (see, for example, “To Father’s House,” Of Such and of Such).22 It embodies alternativeness at the level of identities. In European culture, the contrast between the two characters usually disappears through the narrative of metamorphosis, the narrative of temporality, and the narrative of the dynasty: The girl grows old and becomes an old woman; the old woman gives birth to a girl or is reborn as one (for example, the Church was represented as an old woman that was transformed into a girl). In this way this theme is connected to the subject of resurrection, by means of which Western man copes with the fear of death and so does away with the need for historical-ethical work: If the old woman is indeed the young girl and vice versa, then there is no need, nor is there any possibility, to choose between them. The two characters do not constitute two possibilities, but just one, so that no real alternativeness is possible. But with Agnon things are different: The contrast remains, as does the possibility of choosing, and therefore history also remains history. It is not justified beforehand by the 22

See also the discussion of this theme in some of Agnon’s works: Nitza Ben-Dov, Agnon’s Art of Indirection: Uncovering Latent Content in the Fiction of S.Y. Agnon, Brill’s Series in Jewish Studies, Leiden and New York, Brill, 1993.


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vision that the old woman is not really one, nor is the child a child: History can only be justified in a real work of differentiation and choosing between them, in the work of historical alternativeness, even if the price is a crisis. The alternativeness of old and young women marks the bifurcation point at the level of identities, too. These are not abstract possibilities: By their very meaning they are linked to time, albeit to biological, not to historical time. They only may eventually be revealed to be historical possibilities, and this can happen only in historical work, in our case the rabbi’s work on the problem of the forsaken wives – agunot. The essence of this work is repair (re-pair) – tikun. The concept of repair, with its charged symbolism, is yet another symbol of historical alternativeness, a return to the crisis point (in English – the point of the united “pair”) in order to change the choice and envision a new future, to mystically re-pair the (heavenly) bride and groom. The renewal here is neither mythological nor natural, so that it is perhaps not the correct term at all, since renewal contains an element of action by the self, something natural and automatic. In Agnon’s case, this is innovation (hiddush), something active; it is the main part of the work of history and of choosing. Innovation, like rendering legal judgments (psika) and repair, is a real bifurcation point, in which a man chooses freely and responsibly. The pair girl/woman symbolizes this bifurcation. The essence of a bifurcation is the creation of innovation. Unlike renewal, innovation (in the Jewish sense) does not replace one character with another, one history with another, but places them next to each other and originates an oscillation between them. We may therefore say that innovation is the revelation of the principle of historical alternativeness. If innovation is the main objective of (rabbinical, alternative) history, then the objective of historiography is to reconstruct and rewrite the bifurcation points, the points of the creation of innovation. This creation is the Oral Torah and the exegesis. Alternative histories as innovations explain and confirm each other. Rabbi Mordechai’s history intends to explain, to expose the regularity of the history of the forsaken wives (agunot), and so to contribute to resolving the crisis. This is the historiographical approach that is revealed here. As already noted, the state of being a grass-widow can itself be presented as a manifestation or symbol of alternativeness. In this manifestation, alternativeness is perceived as a defective historical and existential situation, as is allegorically described in the opening of the story “Agunot.” It is this state that is the defect which requires repair, and repair is history itself. The conception of aginut (grass-widowhood) derives from a metaphysical conception of perfection and unity; therefore,

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we repeat once more, the conception of historical alternativeness itself is derived from a conception of the unity of historical truth. Concepts such as aginut, crisis, and repair are just rhetorical figures, in the sense given to this concept by the Liège Group: They mark a deviation for the purpose of reduction, destruction for the purpose of creation, descent for the purpose of ascent. This is also the meaning and the purpose of the principle of historical alternativeness as such. In order to repair and create, a historical effort is needed. This is the effort of recollection, in Ricoeur’s terms, an effort to remember the past in the present for the future, an effort to originate an identity. This is also the function of alternative history: recollection. This is the process of the “normalization” of memory, but not in Gavriel Rosenfeld’s sense, since he views it as the abolition of problematization and traumatization. We should be speaking not about “the normalization of memory” but rather about “the normalization of recollection” as historical work on problematization. This is a never-ending and never-completed work, but work towards the horizon of purposefulness. As noted above, the purpose lies outside of history, it is transcendental, but the work on its behalf is history itself, so that history is thus the embodiment of purposefulness. Without alternativeness, without the trauma of a split reality, this work would not have been carried out, and would not even have been needed. In this sense, alternativeness is Creation itself as reduction, contraction, in the Cabbalistic sense. To put the matter allegorically, God is the creator of the first alternative history. The Creation of the universe is the model of historical alternativeness also in the sense that the Creator’s choosing to create by reducing the totality of the given (i.e. of Himself) is the paradigmatic truly free choice, the model for all choices, for possibilistic thinking of “as if.” The historiographical issue undergoes an interesting development at the end of this part of the story. After the rabbi of ĩabno tells the story of how he became acquainted with Rabbi Mordechai, and before he tells the story of Rabbi Mordechai’s parents, the rabbi sighs and says: “Night, o night, how did you come unto us without Torah, without anything” (337). In response to this comment the guests from Buchach exhibit a deep historical awareness; we may assume that their characters in this case represent the author’s voice: [R. Ber said:] And are not the deeds of Israel Torah? […] R. Yeruham repeated and said, ‘Even if someone reads the history of the kings of the nations and their wars, so that he will have something to think about in a place where it is forbidden to think about matters of Torah, will he stop


Chapter Eight when he will lay his hands on the stories of the troubles and adventures of Israel? No, he will continue to read, and not fear that he is wasting his time. In the same way one must not fear in this case that one is neglecting the study of Torah. […] Most of the deeds of Israel are God’s wars that we fight against His enemies who want to abolish the yoke of His kingdom, may He be blessed. Therefore, telling the stories of the events of Israel in fact constitutes telling the fearful deeds of the King of Kings, the Holy One Blessed Be He, who protects us in all our troubles. Furthermore, the stories of the adventures of even the simplest Jew are also God’s wars, that he fights against his base nature for the sake of His name may it be blessed (338).

This passage contains three historiographical claims: (1) Every narrative work (and perhaps every utterance) requires justification; (2) a story receives justification when it is a historical story (first condition); and (3) a story receives justification when it is about the sacred history of Israel (second condition). This means that historiography (and historical literature) is justified because the history is sacred. The rabbi of ĩabno was not mistaken: History as an account of events really is not the true history as far as he is concerned; it is an alternative history with respect to rabbinical history. Neither of the alternatives can be logically reduced to the other, because they are ostensibly disjunctive, but, like in the previous passage, are connected by a relationship of explanation and justification. When Israel’s deeds, its history, become Torah, the historiography becomes the study of Torah and is given legitimacy as a kind of rabbinical historiography. In this way Agnon not only justifies himself and his writing, but also expresses a clear stand on the essence of history and the role of art: History is the attempted struggle over purposefulness, over the vision of the transcendental purpose, and therefore the work of history is sacred; story and art in general are just part of this work. As if to emphasize this approach of his, Agnon provides the following description of the rabbi of ĩabno as he begins to speak about Rabbi Mordechai: “The rabbi shut his eyes, but his face became illuminated with a light that can be seen only on the faces of tzadiks when they relate the deeds of tzadiks. Everyone lowered their gaze and sat in trepidation. The rabbi began to tell the story of Rabbi Mordechai” (340). To tell a story requires strength, according to the narrator, who withdraws from the limelight out of respect for the author of Tsiluta de-Avraham, both because the story is a historical struggle and work, and because the narrator considers himself and his art as part of rabbinical history. Rabbi Mordechai’s history begins with a story about his parents. His mother (Sara Rivka) was thrown into a dungeon after the lord of the

Historical Alternativeness in the Work of Agnon


village in which she lived with her father destroyed her father’s tavern, because the latter was unable to meet the payments on the lease. He tried to flee together with his daughter, in contravention of the warning: “If the spirit of the ruler rise up against thee, leave not thy place; for yielding pacifieth great offences” (Ecclesiastes 10:4), and he died on the journey. Rabbi Mordechai’s future father (Israel Nathan) happened to pass through, heard what happened to the publican, repaid his debt, freed his daughter from prison, and married her. The young couple settled in the city, but Sara Rivka, who grew up in a village, did not adapt to town life, and therefore they moved into a village and leased a tavern. The plot itself is not so unusual; dozens like it are strewn throughout Agnon’s works.23 What is significant for us is the interaction between rabbinical and political history, so to speak, as they are combined in this story. The relationship between the two histories must be clarified. It should also be noted that the theme of fleeing from the ruler already appears here, in the form of Rabbi Mordechai’s mother and grandfather’s flight from the village head. This marks the beginning of the realization of a history that is an alternative to the ruler and his history. What the grandfather failed to accomplish will be carried out by his namesake grandson. This may be viewed as an anticipation of the story’s main theme, which also appears in the title, namely flight from political authority. At the moment, this theme couched in terms of the dynasty, the family memory. The return of this theme creates an oscillation between the characters of the grandfather and Rabbi Mordechai’s rabbi, as both fled from a ruler. Rabbi Mordechai’s personality comes into being in the space between two alternative identities (as family member and as Torah student) and two alternative histories of flight (politico-economic and rabbinical-legal). One flight originates his biological, genetic identity while the other originates his spiritual, rabbinical identity, both of which are true histories. This creates a certain unity at the level of historical importance between biological and spiritual descent, the latter constituting the history. Dynasties, as has often been noted, are very important in Agnon’s works. Here it is important to stress once again that biological/physical descent is no longer merely biological when the descent in question is that of a human family. The biology of descent is revealed to be history.24 Such 23

In particular, for discussion of such a central for Agnon motifs as forced and running away women see: Nitza Ben-Dov, Ve-hi tehilatekha, pp. 73-110; BenDov, Ahavot lo meusharot, pp. 325-354. 24 Matvei Kagan speaks about this when he considers begetting as a sacred act (“On the Concept of History,” O khode istorii, p. 301). Kagan views giving birth to


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an alternativeness between rabbinical and political history is among the most common types in Agnon’s writings, for example in “In the Heart of the Seas,” The Bridal Canopy and “And the Crooked Shall Be Made Straight.” The poetic effect is to a considerable extent created by means of this alternativeness, so that we may speak of the poetics of historical alternativeness. But in no other work is this principle applied so consistently and fully as in The City with All That Is Therein, especially in the chapters devoted to the rabbis of Buchach. This rabbinical/political alternativeness is not always and not necessarily embodied mainly in stories in which rabbis are the main topic. But clearly such thematic backing makes the principle stand out in greater clarity. The poetics of historical alternativeness is a complex configuration of narrative/artistic techniques and historical ideas. The author’s skill is here applied to create a work of art that by its very form justifies itself as sacred history, and also shows itself to be sacred historiography. Readers and scholars are quite understandably confused by the contradictions between the various competing narratives integrated into Agnon’s stories, as in our case as well. Here in addition to political history we may also discern economic history, as demonstrated in the amazingly skillful negotiations by the agent as he tries to help Rabbi Mordechai’s father obtain a lease to the village inn at a low price. What role does this historical-commercial act play in sacred history? Agnon’s works are full of such configurations, of rhetorical acts with contradictory or at least multiple motivations, so that we may with certainly say that any interpretation is bound to be erroneous, as Paul de Man puts it.25 Such poetics and such rhetoric are found in not only Agnon’s surrealist or (human) life as a creative act of history, and not only the becoming of nature (ibid., p. 302). Therefore the preservation of life, giving life without death, is a historical task (ibid., p. 303). In this vein Kagan reads the biblical story of the expulsion from the Garden of Eden as the imposition of the historical task rooted in work and procreation (ibid., p. 304). He distinguishes between two different approaches to this issue, Jewish and Christian. Judaism sanctifies work and procreation while Christianity strives to quash and forget them. The idea of Jesus at the end of time, says Kagan, empties immanent history of its meaning; the idea of the virgin birth puts an end to the problem of history as a whole (ibid., p. 305), since there cannot be a holiday, sanctity without work. Christianity created humanity without descent, and therefore humanity has been sacrificed (ibid., p. 306). History cannot be merely a game, even if it is the tragic game of the death of the playing child’s, as the game’s hero. History as descent is work, responsibility, and reason, as expressed in the biblical verb “to know” (yad’a) (ibid., p. 307). 25 Paul de Man, Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1979, p. 26.

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modernist stories; it is the way this author thinks and feels, as can be seen throughout, from his first to his last stories. It is impossible to define Agnon’s rhetorical multiplicity in purely binary structural or semiological terms, because its components are not signs but rather complete poeticconceptual-emotional configurations. In this sense, Benedetto Croce was against defining art by means of signs.26 Thus Agnon’s book consists of many histories, with a unity at their foundation. Croce’s conception of intuition as the essence of art is materialized in Agnon’s writings as historical intuition. The concept of historical intuition is nearly tautological, since intuition means seeing the possible near or farther future. This seeing gives purposefulness to the present, and therefore at this point, where Croce’s and Kagan’s approaches meet, we can clearly state that intuition is always historical, and the perception of history is always intuitive. In other words, it is a transcendental, a priori perception, in Kantian or neo-Kantian terms. For Agnon a future purposive unity within the multiplicity of histories is thus perceived as vision. Within the entanglement of actual history it is impossible to reduce one history to another, and therefore the choice is real and free; Agnon’s writing is therefore an ethical historiography, and so we may define the relation between all the histories that are part of this work as alternative. In this way we define the poetics of alternativeness, in Agnon’s works and in general. Let us clarify this for the case at hand. A political-economic history suddenly bursts into the sublime sequence of rabbinical history. What is the meaning of alternativeness here? Whenever we speak about the poetics of alternativeness, it is as if we said: None of the histories is stable and certain by itself as it may perhaps seem to be; every history (and therefore every historiography) takes place or is written against the background of other possibilities that have not been, but could and still can be realized. The power of poetics and rhetoric, as we showed in Chapter 5 of the present study, lies in their ability to create an oscillation between different histories. This oscillation is not one-dimensional but is created at different levels (myth, identity, choice, and mode of choosing). The aim of this poetics is to show that any given moment we oscillate between different histories, even if we do not know this; every time we choose or make a decision, we create an oscillation between different possible histories, one of which we realize while the others constantly remain in the background. The main point is that a poetic-alternative history does realize them, for 26 Benedetto Croce, Guide to Aesthetics, trans. by Patrick Romanell, Indianapolis, Hackett, 1995, pp. 22-23 ff.


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otherwise it would not be possible to choose among them, because we the readers are supposed to carry out the narrator’s or the protagonist’s choices anew (in contrast to non-literary history). In actual history the alternative possibilities are realized in the consciousness of historical characters only in certain solitary actual moments of choosing. But in literature the essence of alternativeness itself lies in the return to the moment of choosing. Therefore one has no choice but to consider all the alternatives as having been realized to some extent or other. An author’s skillfulness, the strength of his art, lies in his ability to determine the relations between the alternatives and to give a representation to each, so that the reader can experience the choosing, the alternativeness in as real a manner as possible. The more real this experience – the greater the author’s art, the greater his aesthetic power. This is the case with Agnon: We discover that rabbinical history is fragile, that it may smash against the rocks of economic and political history, but at the same time, it immediately becomes apparent that political history itself is not “the real history.” The reader remains within this oscillation throughout the entire story; only the alternatives change. Let us now turn to the story of Rabbi Mordechai’s apprenticeship, his studies. This is the story of the initiation of a Torah scholar (talmid khacham): How an ostensibly simple man becomes a Torah luminary. What we shall want to show is that this story, a story of maturation, is constructed on the principle of historical alternativeness. What is very clearly manifest here, but can also be seen in many other works by Agnon, is that the story of the initiation of a Torah scholar is the true history according to the author’s historiographical approach. How so? First of all, it is rabbinical history; the becoming of a Torah scholar constitutes a basic unit and paradigmatic model, the pattern of every rabbinical history, the model of passing on knowledge, of transmitting the personal knowledge. This is what we find in this story as well: the transmission of personal knowledge in order to originate a new personality, to create a new identity or, more precisely, to enable the trainee to pass on from a state of a single possibility for his identity to a state where he is free to choose between multiple possible identities. There is a rather important historiographical aspect in this process of becoming. As already noted, we assume that the transmission/creation of knowledge is the real history, the essence of the work of history. The question that arises is: How can history be defined as initiation, apprenticeship? If we consider history as a story of maturation, we reduce the poetic-conceptual richness to a single historical approach and a single

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conceptual poetic genre pattern, known in many literatures and cultures. This is a model of Bildungsroman. It reflects a pattern that can be found already in ancient Greek novels. Clearly, Agnon’s conceptual framework is much more well-defined. But before we show what it is, we shall explain how a story of maturation can be defined as history, beyond the fact that any story is history, in a sense. At the moment, what interests us is a more specific level: How can a maturation plot constitute the model for history in general? While it is clear that maturation is development, in a certain sense the maturation plot contradicts the meaning of plot as development. Development here is not to be taken in the sense of “evolution,” since the latter involves a change in the subject of evolution, a replacement of identity, while maturation realizes the subject and reveals the identity, bringing to light what was always in it. The maturation, apprenticeship plot is the realization or the becoming of a transcendental purpose; it is a myth, in Losev’s sense. So how does this define history? Maturation can come into being as such only if it is a return to the (transcendentally defined) moment of the identity’s origination, as its re-initiation. Evolution, on the other hand, can never move backwards, by definition. History advances in double steps: forward, back, and forward again. History is the work of recollection. The personality becomes out of the recollection of what it is, what was before it and gave birth to it, what becomes through its very existence. Maturation is thus the realization of the transcendental purpose, and as such it is a model of myth, and of history as the personality’s work of creation/becoming, under the assumption of purposefulness. Without purposefulness there is no maturation, no initiation, and vice versa: Initiation is the supreme realization of purposefulness, as a transition that loses all meaning without its purpose. Now we find ourselves once more within Deleuze’s conceptual system of repetition and difference. In Chapter 4 of this study we already showed that Deleuze’s theory cannot describe the essence of history, but it is worth repeating the gist of our argument here. For Deleuze the back-and-forth movement is simultaneous, not historical, and therefore it abolishes the concept of the origin as the foundation of historical existence. But with respect to the concepts of maturation and initiation, Deleuze’s theory becomes meaningless. Certainly, the movement of becoming in initiation as in rite of passage is back-and-forth, but the changes are irreversible, so that the timeline and the source are unambiguously defined. The personality’s becoming is the only irreversible dynamic system in


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literature.27 From this perspective maturation, too, is to be considered as irreversible recollection. This is the somewhat paradoxical formula of the initiation. There is no contradiction in the concepts, since in recollection the return takes place in time, but this time is not biological or evolutionary: A different time is created, the time of the holiday, the holy time of culture and history.28 It is not biological time that defines the maturation process, but rather maturation defines the course of time. Furthermore, it is the true time, the time of the personality’s history. Recollection is therefore a return in time not in Deleuze’s sense, but renewal in the Jewish sense; it is mishna – study as repetition and renovation at one-and-the-same time. Study is a return, but one that is irreversible. Maturation as study and renovation abolishes biological time and comes into being as history. Study, renovation, maturation – these are the concepts that neutralize the Nietzschean “eternal return,” and overcome the conception of periodicity of a history. True historical return is one that reconstructs the moment of free choice. This return may be said to be an illusion, but the choice is real. Maturation, apprenticeship involves choosing, and this brings about the realization of the personality’s purposefulness. Indeed, if the choice is true, then so is the future; that is, it is unknown, open, “unfinished” in Kagan’s and Bakhtin’s terms. That is the essence of maturation: The future is not known yet, but it has already been predicted, perceived by the intuition, and is about to come. We thus eventually arrive at the conclusion that a profound and substantive similarity exists between the plot of the initiation/apprenticeship and alternative history. We find that not only is the maturation story an alternative history, but also that alternative history is fundamentally a maturation story, because it constitutes a return to a past, from which the personality comes into being anew and chooses anew. Alternative history, as noted already, is a kind of psychoanalytical speaking out, working on trauma; now we can add to this that this is clearly the process of maturation. Not normalization in Gavriel Rosenfeld’s sense,29 but an understanding of the trauma, in which one recollects and processes it, and lives as an adult with its conscious, unrepressed memory. In this process not one, but two histories are created, the biological history and the history of the personality. 27

Katsman, Poetics of Becoming, pp. 99-117. This is the reason why Henri Bergson’s philosophy of memory and Marcel Proust’s poetic-memory experiments appear to be so relevant to the study of alternative history, and may even be perceived as the harbingers of the rise of the modern wave of this genre. 29 See the discussion above, Chapter 2. 28

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It is now easy to analyze the case of the Jewish apprenticeship, the education of a Torah scholar. Everything that was said above about maturation is still valid; the only thing that must be added is that in this case alternative history is not just the history of a personality, but also the history of a rabbinical personality. It is, therefore, mainly a spiritual, educational history. In this sense it is a paradigm case of maturation, and therefore of alternative history in general. The rabbinical story is the story of apprenticeship and maturation, and it is also the story of historical alternativeness. In light of this, we must highlight the difference between the story of the hidden tzadik and the story of the initiation of a Torah scholar. The hidden tzadik is only revealed, but he always already exists, as a whole. A Torah scholar, on the other hand, is realizing his purpose and always does not yet exist; he is never complete. Initiation, apprenticeship is the historical-cultural work. This difference is very significant, but perhaps not quite so with respect to the principle of historical alternativeness, since in both cases there is the same separation between the two histories, biological and that of the personality, the hidden and the overt. There is only one more thing to stress here: in the initiation story we witness a true choice at the bifurcation point and the becoming of the personality and the memory; the same process takes place in the revelation of the hidden tzadik, but it does not come to light at the thematic level, in the plot, but remains implicit in its foundation. In the maturation story, the return to the bifurcation point for choosing a new future is the plot’s justification. In the story of the hidden tzadik, as in the story by that name in the Book One of The City with All That Is Therein, this process is transferred from the character of the tzadik himself to that of a Torah scholar who witnesses the tzadik’s epiphany. It is this witness who undergoes a “rite of passage” thanks to the revelation. The initiation process is divided as it were into two, two people or two functions. In saintliness itself, as in the divinity, there is and can be no alternativeness, and therefore the initiation must be passed on to another character. Testimony (also in the sense of revelation – edut) is an origination of alternativeness. The revelation at Mt. Sinai and the revelations of the prophets are events of passage and initiation, which create a historical alternativeness that makes choosing, and therefore the writing of history, possible. Agnon’s story has two Torah scholars, Rabbi Mordechai and the rabbi of ĩabno, undergo a rite of passage. When the rabbi of ĩabno tells the story of Rabbi Mordechai’s childhood he is not a witness but only a transmitter. This story is not the tzadik’s epiphany but the maturation of a child and his becoming a Torah scholar. This burdensome problematic


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fact, connected to the essence of saintliness, is expressed, for example, in the following apology made by the narrator: “Do not wonder that already from the very first I call Rabbi Mordechai Rabbi Mordechai, since, after all, at first he was just one of the village boys, with no Torah and no knowledge. But because of the respect in which I hold Torah luminaries I consider them as if they had been full of Torah already in the cradle” (340). These words quite consciously give rise to the possibility that the initiation of a Torah scholar can be considered as a kind of recollection. But at the same time this declaration stresses the uniqueness of the personality history that is presented subsequently, which really is another history, a history of the work of initiation-apprenticeship. The story rejects the personality’s givenness. Givenness must be distinguished from purposefulness. The only thing that is preordained is the work demanded by history and the love that motivates it. Saintliness is not a priori; otherwise it would have no ethical value. Although Rabbi Mordechai was already born as Rabbi Mordechai, that is, his name is his myth, the story of the becoming of the purpose of his personality, and despite the fact that the future of Mordechai the child already exists, as a character in the Rabbi of ĩabno’s story he must return to the past, to the bifurcation point, to make his decisions anew, to mature and to become anew, in order to provide an ethical justification for his history and rabbinical history. In this sense every myth, every story of becoming is an alternative history, even if it does not differ in content from the realized history, because the story/myth in any case splits history into two (realized and narrated) in order that the one might be justified by means of the other. Clearly, if saintliness (or any other realization of a personality trait) was preordained, there would have been no need to justify it; but in that case there would have been no saintliness at all. Paradoxically, the personality’s irreversible becoming requires recollection; otherwise it would not be the becoming of a personality but merely biological evolution. This is the meaning of the concept we introduced above, irreversible recollection, and it constitutes the shortest and most exhaustive definition of alternative history. We may thus summarize and say that in our analysis of the passage above we showed how a Torah scholar’s initiation constitutes an alternative history. Far be it for us to ascribe the meaning of an alternative history to every pair of contrasts. But when a certain contrast creates the possibility of an alternative history, an unrealized opportunity that has a long-term effect, which can be and is realized so that it competes with “trivial” history, it is impossible not to at least examine the situation in terms of alternative

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history. The same goes also for the second tavern which Israel Nathan, Rabbi Mordechai’s father, leased in the village: “In order that no other Jew would come and lease the tavern on the plot of the village lord’s sister at the other end of the village, Israel Nathan went and leased it. And in order to make do with as few servants as possible, he left it locked. And in order to hide it from wayfarers he planted poplar trees all around, for these have many branches” (345). This passage can be read as the creation of an unrealized possibility. The element of absence, which is so well-known in Agnon’s works, does not in this case take the form of complete absence, but rather of historical absence, that is, absence from realized history, one that contains an implicit promise of the realization of the alternative history and of the creation of another future. Israel Nathan, of course, does what he does solely in order to make a profit, and of course he has no way of knowing that this house will in future serve as the place where his son will undergo initiation to Torah scholar. But the economic history is quickly revealed to be transformed into an alternative, rabbinical history. It is important to point out how the narrator transforms place into time, how he turns space into a metaphor of historical alternativeness.30 The second house also in a sense represents flight from the first house. We can distinguish here a kind of pattern that seems particularly significant in the story under discussion: Flight here is a model for the creation of alternativeness; it is in the alternative house that we shall find the rabbi who fled from the ruler. The creation of the other, alternative place requires that one leave the place, the home that has so far been perceived as the center. We thus return to the same pattern that we have already mentioned so often: exit from an illusory center and transition to a real center, a transition that can now be identified with initiation and maturation. In this process, the alternative home becomes the central one, especially if we ascribe to the second tavern the symbolic meaning of the Second Temple, and to the flight from the duke the meaning of flight from the Exile. Furthermore, the motif of fleeing is inherent from the very beginning in the character of Rabbi Mordechai, since his grandfather on his mother’s side was the first person in the story who fled from the village lord. In this “originating flight,” so to speak, Rabbi Mordechai’s flight is already anticipated; in addition, let us not forget that Rabbi Mordechai himself is 30 It is very likely that Agnon’s spatial poetics usually does not possess a value by itself, but rather as a historical, or even a historiographical, metaphor. An inquiry into this subject would of course require a separate study. Scholars already pointed to such transformations in such pairs of concepts as Jerusalem-Jaffa, Poland-The Land of Israel, Exile-Zion.


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named after his grandfather. In other words, his character, too, realizes and reproduces the history of flight. We can say that his own character stands in a relationship of alternativeness with the character of his grandfather at the level of identities. Rabbi Mordechai realizes what did not become realized in his grandfather; furthermore, when he was in attendance upon and studying with the rabbi, Rabbi Mordechai in a way reverted to the character of his late grandfather, embodied in the character of the rabbi as its alternative, and pays off his debt to him, the debt of life. Of course one cannot ignore the symbolic meanings inherent in the description of the second home, a full panoply of Agnon’s most important and common themes: a locked house, a closed garden, a closed gate, bolt handles, and so on (see these themes in, for example “Thus Far,” “Fernheim” and in a number of variations in “Iddo and Einam,” A Guest for the Night and “The Whole Bread”). Sometimes the lock contrarily appears as a window into the hidden world, as for example in “The Song That Was Sung.” This symbolism is related to the mysticism of the alternative world. The afore-mentioned motifs symbolize the other, hidden history that takes place clandestinely next to or instead of overt history. We may say that the motifs arise from the alternativeness principle, that is, from the need and the desire to find the key, to return to the lock handles and try time and again to open it. The garden is a theme that plays a particularly important role here, as the plant code that is, as already noted in Chapter 1, the anthropological-cultural source of the alternativeness principle. It is what separates the seen from the hidden world, that is, what splits reality and creates multiplicity, bifurcation and choice. This is the positive meaning of the motif of the locked garden/house as the source of multiple possibilities, and therefore as the source of ethics, freedom and humanity, as the source of the work/creation of history, history as such but especially alternative history, that in this case is perceived as the true history. In the story discussed above this is rabbinical history, since the locked house is a place of Torah study, of the initiation of a Torah scholar. As a symbol of the Temple, the locked house evokes the memory of the destruction. This image could have been apocalyptic, but it is not: The locked house is unlocked, and a work of history takes place in it that transforms memory into recollection and destruction into revival and continuation; the curse becomes a blessing. At this point it is important to point to the biblical model that symbolizes alternativeness and is also quite central and common in Agnon’s oeuvre, namely the theme of Joseph. This appears already in the motif of the pit (bor): As the reader will remember, Rabbi Mordechai’s mother was “thrown into a dungeon” (bor) after her flight. The flight itself

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can also be understood as a topic associated with Joseph (especially when taken together with other motifs). The same goes for the themes of ransoming prisoners, settling down in a foreign place, and returning to the homeland. The character of Rabbi Mordechai also embodies a number of “Josephan” elements, together with some aspects of the character of Jacob: his father’s name, Israel, and his parents’ habit of calling him such contradictory names as “youngest son” (ben zekunim), “first-born,” “the only one” (346). The second name of Rabbi Mordechai’s father, Nathan, gives this mosaic an interesting twist. Nathan was the prophet who informed King David of God’s command to postpone the construction of the Temple to the reign of his son Solomon: “He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever” (2 Sam. 7:13). This bifurcation point (at the level of identities between David and Solomon, and at the levels of choosing and the conception of history between the temporary and the permanent) may be said to constitute a model for an important bifurcation point in the story: Israel Nathan or Mordechai, the tavern or a place for the study of the Torah. The very postponement, the delay in the realization of the transcendental purpose creates the alternativeness thanks to which history takes its appointed course (in the Bible leading to the inauguration of the Temple and Solomon’s reign, and in the story – the initiation of the Torah scholar, the distant descendant of the wise king). In brief, the “Josephan” elements mark the origination of two centers (similarly to the Land of Canaan and Egypt in the Bible) and the oscillation/movement between them in the search for a definition of real or fake identities (such as in the case of Joseph and his brothers in the scenes in which they encounter each other in Egypt). Joseph is the lost son who rises to greatness, Joseph the Tzadik, who may be said to prefigure Rabbi Mordechai the Tzadik, who abandons the wild amusements of youth for the study of Torah. In Joseph’s case and in Jacob’s as well, the issue of primogeniture is at the forefront: The determination of who has this right is the most significant bifurcation point in this history, and at the same time it is associated in the case of both characters with games of identity and of presence/absence. In the stories of both, history as a whole, continuity, promise, and redemption hang on a thread. The same is true in the case of Rabbi Mordechai. Let us stress once again that the main theme in this fabric is flight. At its historical horizon we find the topic of the Exodus from Egypt, as a flight that originates history and historical identity. The period between the Exodus and the conquest of the Land of Israel is full of bifurcation points, of oscillations between different centers, different myths, different identities,


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and different historical conceptions. The Exodus is a paradigmatic alternative history; it also provides flight, as the subject of the story under discussion here, with a distinct meaning of alternative history. Furthermore, even the initiation of a Torah scholar can be presented as a kind of exodus. Perhaps enslavement and flight are necessary stages in this initiation, since Rabbi Mordechai would not have been Rabbi Mordechai were it not for the flights from rulers that originated his identity: his grandfather’s flight from the village lord and his teacher’s flight from the duke. This and similar ideas can be found in many of Agnon’s stories. Many of his protagonists oscillate between two centers. For example, Gmula in “Iddo and Einam” is torn between her husband’s house and Ginat’s house, and Yitzhak Kummer in Only Yesterday oscillates between Jaffa and Jerusalem. Certainly the theme of flight appears in many stories, with or without an attendant pursuit (a particularly interesting theme is non-flight, which is immediately associated with the important theme of victimhood and martyrdom, as in the stories “In the Depths” and “On the Slaughter”). From our point of view, it is important to stress that the theme of flight, and in a broader sense, exit (as shown, for example, in Baruch Kurzweil’s famous article) creates historical alternativeness. By means of the concepts of alternative history, broad historical and historiographical horizons can be found in symbols and images that are ostensibly unconnected to this. Furthermore, by means of these concepts, we not only expose the pattern but also explain its concrete realization, that is, we offer a new interpretation of the text. Finally, we note that in this “Josephan” alternativeness we also hear the promise of redemption, associated with the character of the Messiah Son of Joseph, in our case – the spiritual son (and biological grandson) of the fleeing tzadik. In parallel to realized history, another history thus also occurs here, the rabbinical history, that is revealed also as a messianic, holy history that is realized as flight and redemption (as in many folk tales about salvation), as hiding and revelation. The other place of alternative history (such as the second tavern in our story) always exists and is always accessible and relevant. In an allegorical sense this means that the Land of Israel and the Temple may be locked or hidden, but they always exist. An alternative history always exists and is prepared to realize the work of history, not despite its being alternative, but because of it. Let us now examine the story of how the child Mordechai became acquainted with the rabbi. Their encounter takes place in an alternative dimension, so to say. This can be seen, as already noted, in the alternative

Historical Alternativeness in the Work of Agnon


spatiality of the alternative home, where Mordechai serves the rabbi and abandons his childish preoccupations. Mordechai chooses to follow the rabbi, and so begins his road towards realizing his personality. What motivates him in this choice? How does he choose? The alternativeness principle is not restricted to myths and identities: We can expect to find expressions for the alternativeness of choice (perceptions of history) and the alternativeness of the modes of choosing (perceptions of historiography). So how is this or that historical possibility chosen and realized? The story under discussion teaches us that historical crossroads are to a large extent created at random. The fleeing rabbi of the town happens to meet Rabbi Mordechai’s father in the field: “One day Israel Nathan’s cow went missing. He went out to search for it and came upon an old man wandering in the field. Israel Nathan cried out in shock, ‘Rabbi, what are you doing here alone in a wooded field?’ The rabbi said to him, ‘If you have a shelter, hide me, for the duke is pursuing me’” (347). Had this encounter not taken place Rabbi Mordechai may well not have become Rabbi Mordechai. In other words, this is a bifurcation point in the sense that chaos theory give to this concept: It is a point of chaos, of a real contingent event, where anything can happen and nothing is necessary. It is the moment of absolute freedom: Here the choices are made in complete freedom; from this point on the choices are binding and order is reestablished. But what motivates the choices made by, for example, Israel Nathan, the rabbi and Rabbi Mordechai? Clearly the motive that ostensibly binds the characters is love, originating in God’s love for His people and the people’s love for their God: “One day Rabbi Mordechai saw the rabbi as the latter was reciting the prayer ‘Much love.’ From the voice, the words, and the rabbi’s joy he realized that we have a God who has ‘much love’ for us. […] And the last of all the requests is that He brings us safely to our land. Why? Doubtlessly because it is a place where there is no fear of lords and dukes, only the nearness to a God who chooses His people Israel with love” (349). Choosing love is the model for every other choice; it is the foundation that drives every work of history as sacred work. This love manifests itself in Mordechai, too: “Rabbi Mordechai loved his uncle Nisan, who produced wonderful tools with his hands. He loved aunt Scheintscheh who could recite words of wisdom in rhyme; even though she and his mother did not like each other, he loved her. He loved the rich merchant R. Aharon who gave his father a bag of money to lease the tavern. And he loved the rabbi most of all” (350). Love by itself is not enough: It connects Mordechai to the rabbi, but how does a new path reveal itself to the novice? On the one hand, we may


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say that Mordechai connects to the rabbi in the way that children connect to pleasant and authoritative adults, but on the other hand, the rabbi here clearly represents certain pedagogy with its own specific features and sources. The rabbi makes no attempt to convince Mordechai that he should study. The desire comes from the boy himself, who is driven to study by will and love. He wants to approach the hidden source emanating from the rabbi, to an element that to him is mysterious and meaningless. The model for the revelation of this source, the pedagogical model, comes from the Bible, from the initiation into prophecy. According to this model, the initiate receives a sign that is weak and unclear, but mysterious and interesting. He must decide whether to accept or refuse the invitation, the gift that is offered to him in such an ethical, dialogical manner, so that his choice is truly free. Mordechai is given a revelation that is reminiscent of God’s appearance to Samuel: “One night he was awakened by the sound of crying. He saw the rabbi sitting on a stool before the door with a candle in his hand, mourning over Jerusalem” (350).31 But the most salient expression of this biblical model is the revelation of the burning bush.32 Moses chooses to walk over to the burning bush, and only then does God respond to this choice by addressing Moses directly. In both cases the initial communication is indirect, not firm and inviting, even misleading, leaving the novitiate with complete freedom of choice. The rabbi’s revelation to Mordechai is a miracle; it is his burning bush. For Mordechai what he sees and hears has no meaning, but he accepts this miracle challenge. He sees the rabbi burning in the ecstasy of his prayer: “But when the rabbi came to the Shema and called out ‘The Lord is our God, the Lord is one’ the boy’s thoughts froze in fear. He was afraid that the rabbi would give up the soul at ‘one,’ for it seemed quite clear that he was quite willing to give his soul in love and joy” (350). The praying tzadik appeared like the burning bush that did not burn up. Mordechai 31

Cf. “The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the house of the LORD, where the ark of God was. Then the LORD called Samuel. Samuel answered, ‘Here I am.’ And he ran to Eli and said, ‘Here I am; you called me.’ But Eli said, ‘I did not call; go back and lie down.’ So he went and lay down” (1 Samuel 3:3-5). Of course, the fact that Mordechai saw the rabbi as he was reciting the midnight prayer (tikun khatzot) is in line with the other themes connected to the Temple, the destruction and the commemoration, the story’s main historical topic. 32 “There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. So Moses thought, ‘I will go over and see this strange sight – why the bush does not burn up.’ When the LORD saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, ‘Moses! Moses!’ And Moses said, ‘Here I am’” (Exodus 3:2-4).

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heard him murmuring syllables that initially held no meaning for him but that slowly acquired a meaningful shape in his mind: “From that moment Rabbi Mordechai did not budge from the rabbi. He gazed at him frequently, and whenever he saw him sitting with eyes closed, his hands on his knees and his lips whispering, Rabbi Mordechai would approach and stand next to him in order to hear the names that the rabbi commonly pronounced, Maimonides, the Rashba, the Rif, and the other names. Slowly they began to take on the shape of great rabbis” (ibid.). Mordechai was thus drawn to this rabbinical miracle; here, at the originating event of the miracle, at this bifurcation point, his new history begins or, let us say, his own history begins. Agnon calls this “recognition” (349), the recognition that this is the real history. This is the model of choosing: At the moment of bifurcation what happens is what always happens in moments of revelation – one receives signs that are not signs. In this way Agnon, like the creators of many myths before him, exposes the true character of history as a personal choice outside or, more precisely, before the signs. Choosing originates history and not vice versa. History is created at the point when there is no longer an order of signs, no discourse. This is the chaotic moment of the explosion of possibilities, to use Lotman’s terms or, in Croce’s terms, this is the moment of intuition. Intuition draws Mordechai towards the rabbi, a blurred but whole and uniform sense of his future that is coming into being in the here-and-now. Kagan calls this momentary episode of intuition and anticipation myth. In the Big Bang of the bifurcation Rabbi Mordechai’s history is thus created; it is the alternative history. When the sounds take on the form of names in Mordechai’s mind we are in the presence of the origination of language and memory, of a creation that is recollection, of a primeval moment of transferring personal knowledge – the core of rabbinical history. Only after, and because, he chose this alternative history does Mordechai begin to understand the signs’ meanings (the names of the rabbis). Order arises out of chaos. History is not a given: It is granted to Rabbi Mordechai in the wake of his personal work and struggle, but the very possibility of being granted a history is a gift of Creation, to use Kagan’s words. The concept of history as a gift will be clearer if we accept the fact that it is an alternative history, since biological history is always a given; it is given to Mordechai, too, just as it is to anyone else. But it is not a true history, because it was not chosen out of love. Only an alternative history can be true, because one has to work for it; it is not obvious, and it is never finished, never complete. This work of history is the initiation of a Torah scholar.


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“Why did the rabbi flee?” Since flight is such an important and originating event in the rabbinical history related in the story, especially in the account of Rabbi Mordechai’s initiation, it is necessary to examine the causes of the flight with care. This brings us to a story-within-a-story entitle “Why did the rabbi flight?” The story tells of a conflict between two leaseholders, the “brothers” Reuven and Shimon. Reuven leases and renovates fish ponds while Shimon, who fears that the ponds could swamp and destroy his salt manufacturing facility, protests and tries to block Reuven’s enterprise, eventually also taking him to court. Shimon’s fears materialize, and the result is tragedy and ruin. This is not merely a conflict, but an alternative history, that is, a rhetorical act that presents two myths for the choosing. This time the myths bear the names of two individuals, the names of the two sons of Jacob, Reuven and Shimon. Their competing narratives represent not only alternative personal stories, and not only alternative identities, but also two different historical and historiographical approaches. As has already been stressed here a number of times, Agnon’s poetics of alternativeness is based on a simultaneous realization of two histories. This is the same principle on which the genre of alternative history is based. As already noted, in order for a true oscillation between two histories to take place, both must be presented as realized, one (as an alternative) in the text and the other (as the source) in the metaphysical conception of the history that is materialized in reality. The conflict between Reuven and Shimon is a “civil war,” a battle between brothers, and this is where its apocalyptic kernel lies. Of course, it also presages the destruction of the Temple as a distant historical horizon, and the Holocaust as a close one. This historicist interpretation fits into the level of myths and plots in our taxonomy. Our objective is to reach the other two levels. First, we note that this “civil war” brought about the failure of the rabbinical establishment in the context of the Diaspora. One can say that the failure is that of householders’ Talmudic sophistry, which exhausts the Torah, in contrast to the argumentation of Torah scholars.33 However, here the Jewish judiciary and Jewish self-rule do not succeed in solving the problem, and the Gentile governor’s intervention ultimately brings about the Jewish judge’s flight. His flight appears as a kind of exile from the exile, and therefore it brings about the creation of an alternative


I would like to thank Prof. Hillel Weiss for his comments on the subject.

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center, which is the real center where, far away from the authorities and the Jewish courts, a new Torah scholar is being educated. The characters of Reuven and Shimon are accompanied by a rich cultural and historical symbolism. An analysis of this symbolism may help explain why the dispute took on such exaggerated dimensions. Behind the economic conflict there lies a much deeper, primal symbolic-mythical conflict, a powerful “latent magic,” in Avidov Lipsker’s terms.34 The exile alone cannot explain the civil war, since the former is itself explained by the latter, and so we find ourselves in a circular explanation by begging the question. Agnon does not restrict himself to moral preaching, and he therefore provides a more complex system of causes and in his analysis he penetrates into the mechanisms of the course of history. Symbols drive history. The situation in the story is similar to that in “Two Torah Scholars That Were in Our Town”: a broad conflict, incommensurate with its overt cause, whose true origins are not visible. One small symbol is enough to awaken the latent psych-cultural complexes. It is in this that the power of the word inheres. This is an important topic in stories by Agnon that belong to various genres, from the psychological tale (such as “The Physician and His Divorcee”) to gothic stories such as “The Small Council House” (“Beit ha-moatzot ha-katan,” Book One, The City with All That Is Therein). However, in the story in question it is not just a matter of some isolated symbols; here entire newly created powerful myths operate, as will be shown directly below, namely the myth of Reuven (“the myth of the fish”), and the myth of Shimon (“the myth of salt”). The impression that both protagonists share equally in the guilt for the conflict and the destruction is erroneous, as is the idea that the conflict itself lies at the root of the problem. Conflict is the foundation of the rhetorical act, so if the latter succeeds or brings ruin to its participants, that is not because of the conflict, but because of the parties’ feelings and the ethical choices they make. Just as in the paradigmatic fraternal hatred between Cain and Abel, the otherness, the difference between people and their aims is the pre-historical, biological givenness of reality. The problem lies in the inability to create a historical solution for a natural conflict. The conflict can give rise to history, but can also bring history to an end. To the biblical model of Genesis the prophetic model may be added as well: Shimon plays the role of a prophet of the flood, of “great


Lipsker, “Transgressia u-magia reduma.” On the sociological origins of the conflict see the sequel of this article: Lipsker, “Ha-lomdim ba-tzina” (Those who Study in the Cold), Ayin Gimel: A Journal of Agnon Studies, vol. 1, 2011, pp. 5771 (


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waters” (below we shall have more to say on the importance of the flood for the fish theme). However, symbolic interpretation is not an objective for its own sake. Here it has the aim of showing that both sides of the conflict and of the symbolism, Reuven and Shimon, fish and salt, represent two historical and historiographical possibilities. Of course, there are several similarities between them. Both exploit the power of technology as applied to water, which is collected in the ponds or brought to a boil in the salt plant. However, the ponds use the sweet water of the river while the salt plant uses the water of the salt spring. Another important difference, especially in light of Rena Lee’s book Agnon ve-ha-tsimkhonut (Agnon and Vegetarianism), is that Reuven’s activity is associated with the consumption of flesh while Shimon’s is not. Shimon and Reuven are not just doubles, and therefore they present a true alternativeness. Had there been no significant difference between them the conception of history in the story would have been akin to pessimistic determinism: No matter what each would have done, the story would have ended in ruin. This approach takes the unknown of choosing out of the historical equation. We cannot be satisfied here with the simple logical alternativeness of a disjunction: The actions of one negate those of the other. From our perspective, the perspective of historical, mythopoetic, and rhetorical interpretation of the possibilistic type, the difference between the characters is what is important, as are their positions and their concrete decisions. Alternativeness demands that both possibilities be equivalent for the purpose of choosing, despite any differences between them. Therefore the main question that ultimately arises is not whom or what to choose, but rather how to choose. This is the heart of the problem and what hinders the court in its work; therefore, this is what the author focuses on. The story’s main topic is justice, and the main question is whether justice is possible. The biblical model of “admonishment prophecy – flood” is realized here not for the purpose of confirming a judicial verdict, but rather for its problematization as a manifestation of the problematization of history. This brings us to the level of the alternativeness of modes of choosing, the historiographical level. At this level we either find the essential difference between the two sides of the conflict that will make a rational choice possible, or we face the harsh aporia of no possibility for making the right, redeeming choice. We shall open the discussion with an analysis of the conflict’s basic symbols.

Historical Alternativeness in the Work of Agnon


The fish is an important symbol and motif in Judaism and in other cultures as well. This motif appears in a number of Agnon’s stories (e.g. “Pisces,” “The Garment”), and will be examined here for its role in revealing the story’s philosophical-historiographical and mythological foundations. The fish motif branches out in two directions, messianic and prophetic, both of which have great relevance to our story. In the messianic direction, the fish symbolizes the coming of the Messiah and the meal in which the righteous will eat of the flesh of Leviathan at the End of Days. As a symbol of redemption, the motif of the fish is associated with a number of biblical characters, primarily to that of Joshua son of Nun, since the word “nun” means “fish.” Joshua is associated, via the Battle of Amalek, to the holiday of Purim, which is mentioned a number of times in the story. The custom of eating fish on Purim is connected to the holiday’s date: The sign of the zodiac of the month of Adar is Pisces, and the word “adar” itself means virility (as the unity of heroism and manliness); in addition, the festive Purim meal is sometimes associated with the abovementioned “Leviathan meal.” The fish motif, with its association with Purim and the character of Mordechai in the Book of Esther, also contains the element of duality, or a reversal of fate from annihilation to redemption. According to Midrash Rabba, the verse alluded to in the story’s title, “If the spirit of the ruler rise up against thee, leave not thy place; for yielding pacifieth great offences” (Ecclesiastes 10:4), refers to four characters: Noah, Joshua, Mordechai, and David (Both David and Noah symbolized the element of redemption, and Noah also presages the motif of the flood, which is encountered subsequently in the story, a motif which is known to be associated with the motif of the redeeming fish in many mythologies). In this way, the fish motif connects to the story’s main theme, flight from the ruler, which is likened to flight from the Creator and from responsibility. Yet Midrash Rabba notes that these characters operated in accordance with God’s commands. Thus the context of the ancient Jewish texts itself already creates the complexity of causes and effects, of acceptance of one’s destiny and flight from it, that will be so important later on in the story. This topic leads towards the second direction in the fish motif, that of prophecy. Of course, Jonah is the prophet who flees from his destiny, from the responsibility placed on him by the divine “spirit of the ruler.” It is the big fish that returns him to himself, to a realization of his transcendental purpose. The place, where the fish prophet prophesizes, is Nineveh, “house of the fish” in its ideographic spelling. The place where the story takes place thus becomes “Nineveh the large city” (Jonah 1:2), and the story itself becomes a documentation of the prophecy of rage and


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admonition. This interpretation is supported by other mythological elements as well: Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, was the center of the Ashtoreth cult. The main motif of Ashtoreth’s “fish” myth, as also of the Egyptian myth about Seth and Osiris and of the ancient Egyptian text known as the “Legend of the Two Brothers,” is castration or selfcastration: The phallus is cut off and cast into the water, where it is swallowed by the fish; or, according to other versions, the hero’s body is torn into pieces and the fish assembles them and revives him. This brings us to the importance of the fish in myths about the dying-and-resurrected god or hero (which are occasionally also connected to the element of fertility). Thus a number of motifs come together here: The fish is a symbol of fertility, resurrection and redemption. A clear example of this is provided by Jesus Christ, who not only fed the hungry multitude with fish that multiplied miraculously, and not only turned two fishermen into apostles who fished for the souls of men, but was himself compared to a fish. In early Christianity he was called in Greek “ichthys” (ǴȤșȪȢ, ǿȋĬȊȈ) (= fish), which was understood as an acronym: ੉ȘıȠઃȢ ȋȡȚıIJઁȢ Ĭİoઃ ૽ȊȚઁȢ ȈȦIJȒȡ (Jesus Christ, Son of God, Redeemer). If we thus summarize the main meanings of the fish symbol in its messianic and prophetic directions (redemption, resurrection, responsibility and virility) we can understand the gravity of the main event in the story of the two “brothers” Reuven and Shimon: Constructing the dam in the river and blocking the fish is perceived as postponing the redemption and blocking the Messiah (a well-known theme in Agnon’s writings; see, for example, the story “Messiah” in the Book One of The City with All That Is Therein). The prophecy is not heard and the redemption does not arrive. Instead there is destruction. Significantly, in the description of both the fish ponds and the salt plant there are elements of the Temple: “Ponds” on the one hand, “service vessels” (kelim) built by the greatest craftsmen in the Land, on the other. The vessels also hint at the vessels of Creation in Cabbala. Therefore the destruction of the ponds and the vessels (implements) can be likened to the destruction of the Temple, the flood, or the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (especially in light of the salt motif: Lot’s wife turning to the salt pillar). In this connection we should mention that term Agnon uses to denote the salt plant (“Misrefot mayim,” literally: “water furnace”) is not merely the name of a production facility (for extracting salt from brackish springs), but also a biblical place name, mentioned, once again, in connection with Joshua’s wars (Joshua 11:8, 13:6), apparently located in the vicinity of today’s Rosh Haniqra. In this way the Polish town meta-realistically (to use Hillel Barzel’s term) arises to the symbolic level of the Land of Israel, completely in accordance with

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the well-known analogy so common in Agnon’s writings, between Poland and the Land of Israel, in The City with All That Is Therein as well as in other places, such as the collection “Poland: Legendary Tales.” There is no difference between Reuven and Shimon at the levels of identity and myth. Now we examine the level of the alternativeness of choice, which is the level of the conception of history. In this respect, there is a significant difference between the two. Reuven’s approach is characterized by full confidence in his knowledge, control, decisions, and in ability to predict the results; the conception is one of deterministic order. Shimon’s approach, on the other hand, is characterized by a structured suspicion of knowledge, by worry, insecurity, and fear of unexpected and uncontrollable developments; we may call his conception one of chaos. Reuven is confident that history is orderly; Shimon fears the chaos in it (or behind it). Reuven believes in human ability, in the power of civilization and technology, while Shimon fears disaster. The catastrophe that eventually engulfs them both is not punishment for sin, but the result of their views. In Reuven’s case it is the result of his excessive confidence in knowledge. We already discussed the importance of not knowing in the becoming of history. And if we take into consideration the fact that in this story true history is rabbinical history, which is the history of “not knowing,” we see that historical justice is on the side of Shimon, that is, on the side of the historical conception that he represents. It is now clear why a rabbinical court of law cannot resolve the conflict between them. The real conflict is not about business or commerce, but about history, and that is something that a court can do nothing about. That is the inherent weakness of a court. At the level of choosing, the question is, therefore, what to choose – order or chaos, security or concern, knowing or not knowing. The story’s answer is clear: History is chaos, civilization is concern, not to say awe. However, this raises the question that always arises at this stage of the discussion, and that has already been discussed extensively in the theoretical chapters: How is choosing possible at all if the future is open and history is nescience and chaos? This is aporia, or “gaping” in Hillel Barzel’s terms. We thus arrive at the core of the conflict, to an unsolvable substantive difficulty: If choosing is nescience, then there is no choice, because there is nothing to choose. This is a paradox: Choosing nescience means choosing a non-choice. And so the discussion moves to the most essential level of historical alternativeness, the alternativeness of the modes of choosing, with the question of how to choose, or how to write history. At this level we must distinguish two historiographical


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approaches, represented by the two parties to the conflict, Reuven and Shimon. On Reuven’s side we find the mainstream of historiography, from the classical metaphysical type, with its full confidence in knowledge, facts, proof, to modern probabilistic theories, such as Georg von Wright’s. The latter also defends the possibility of creating historical knowledge, at least in principle, even if this is done by means of the calculation of relative probabilities. The knowledge thus created aspires to scientific status, ostensibly in contrast to metaphysical knowledge. But this entire gamut of approaches lies on the side of the conception of history as order. If there is a place here for chaos, it is not true chaos. True chaos lies on Shimon’s side, which represents an entirely different historiographical approach. On this side, too, one can discern a range of theories, from metaphysics to science. At one end, one finds the metaphysics of divine protection, of “everything is in God’s hands”; in this approach there is no place for knowing by the subject of history. At the other end, one finds modern chaos theory, the “new science” that has brought about a revolution in the natural and exact sciences. Chaos theory provides a foundation for the possibility of true randomness that does not depend on the extent of the subject’s knowledge. At the metaphysical end of the conception of randomness there is the concept of (non-real) randomness as the incompleteness of knowledge. The basic difference between the two historiographical approaches, represented by Reuven and Shimon, does not lie in whether or not we know the history, but rather in whether it is possible to overcome not knowing. As far as Reuven is concerned, this is indeed possible, and history may be written, while for Shimon nescience is the very essence of history, which therefore cannot be written. This brings us back to the question of the nature of the alternativeness principle: to write (history) or not to write, to be (in history) or not to be. We could have assumed that the gap between the two approaches is infinite, that no solution to the conflict exists and the dilemma has no answer. But in that case we would already have been siding with one of the two, with the approach that choice is not possible. But if that were the case it is doubtful if we could speak here of alternative history at all. However, the purpose of alternativeness is not only to present different possibilities, but also to make the reader hesitate and oscillate between possibilities that are real, that is, that can be materialized, in order to ultimately enable him to make a true choice, that is, to realize the possibilities. If there is no choice, there is no history and no reading. Therefore all the narrators/mediators and the characters in the story are faced with a choice and return to their own or others’ past in

Historical Alternativeness in the Work of Agnon


order to choose. It is the essence of alternative history – to return in order to choose a new future. What, then, is the choice made in the story? Ostensibly the answer is clear. The choice is in favor of Shimon, the choice not to act, not to write, not to be. Ostensibly Shimon is right. And ostensibly the author himself leaves the choice open in order to show that it is impossible to write history. The “gaping” is infinite, and for this no solution exists. But if we turn to Matvei Kagan’s concept of tragic bewilderment instead of the concept of gaping (temiha instead of tehima), we can ask a different, affirmative question, one that will lead to a solution: What bewilders the author? Let us return to the problem of the conflict. What appears to bewilder more than anything else is not the fact of the conflict itself, nor the fact that it is impossible to bridge the gap between the two positions; the bewilderment concerns the way of coping with the conflict. The problem is one of ethics, not of abstract historiography. And this brings us to the core of the matter: The main bewilderment is bewilderment at the gaping, at man’s inability to find a solution. And if this is the author’s tragic bewilderment, it may ultimately lead to illumination. Why cannot the protagonists originate themselves as subjects of history, to realize their destiny, to create the myth of themselves? Or, using other concepts, why can they not perform the work of history and create culture? The answer is also to be found in Kagan’s concepts: If love is what drives the work of history, we are bewildered to see history incapable of realizing that love. Can it be that it is impossible to create history out of love? If so, then culture has no meaning. The whole purpose of creating culture is, according to Kagan, to justify historical existence. The story’s protagonists cannot justify themselves, because they do not love. If it is impossible to justify, it means that it is impossible to convince others, and that clearly means the failure of the rhetorical-cultural act. Here Kagan’s concepts encounter those of rhetoric. In the concepts of cultural rhetoric, the bewilderment is at the fact that people cannot create a culture and justify it, so that culture will benefit from this rhetorical act, come out of it stronger and more robust. What is the true, justified, work of history that does not bewilder? It is apprenticeship, study. It thus turns out that in our story history is indeed realized and does justify itself, but in another place, in the initiation of a Torah scholar, of Rabbi Mordechai. His character is the solution of the conflict, the way out of the paradox. The story proposes a special “space” in which a true rhetorical act does indeed take place, in which a true culture is originated as love and as study, where history can be written, and here and only here is it indeed written. The solution lies in rabbinical


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history as the initiation of a Torah scholar. Here the “nescience” of rabbinical history receives an affirmative existence, and so, from the story’s perspective, only this history is justified and able to be realized. Torah study, rabbinical innovation – that is the dialectical solution of historical and historiographical knowing and not-knowing, writing and non-writing, existence and non-existence. The subsequent events related in the story (the flood itself) retain the same tragic bewilderment with which the story began. The main question that arises is once more: What is the essence of history? These events represent, on the one hand, nature’s blind destructive force, perceived not as something meaningful in itself but merely as a withdrawal from history, the destruction or non-realization of history, while on the other hand they are interpreted as punishment, as the Creator’s response to those who did not accept the gift of Creation and its responsibility. Here once more, as can easily be seen, this ambivalence is expressed by an oscillation between two conception of history, as chaos and as order. The descriptions which accompany these events are replete with biblical allusions to apocalyptical elements. It is very tempting to present the story’s events as an apocalypse. To this we may also add the comparison to the story about the “Admonition passage” (Parashat ha-tokhekha) in the Torah, entitled “Until Elijah Comes” (in the Book One of The City with All That Is Therein): the allusion of this passage in the story under discussion (370) (apparently the passage in question is the “Admonition” from Leviticus 25, since the flood takes place in spring, when the Torah chapter in question is recited in the synagogue), the appearance of the poor vagabond who is invited in for a meal (371), and the address formula “my dear Jew” (ibid.). At the same time the messianic theme in its negative form also appears, that is, as rejection of the Messiah. It seems that in both stories the main topic is justice, the sin of a man who, because of his hubris, was unable to understand or to realize history, and therefore redemption was postponed. Along this line of interpretation the overflowing deluge of water can easily be compared to the water as a symbol of Torah, and to take the flood described in the story as the punishment which the Torah ostensibly imposes on those who do not realize history as the study of Torah. However, this raises a problem. Such a dogmatic approach is not consistent with the conception that we found above, of history as love, of conflict as inherent in history. According to this conception the purpose of history is to educate man, to convince him and lead him to love and joy, as shown, for example, in the afore-mentioned story “Until Elijah Comes,”

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which is constructed on a foundation consisting entirely on the rhetoric of truth and sincerity, that is, on persuasion: Elijah comes not to punish but to persuade. Of course, redemption is delayed because of the deeds of men, but not as a result of a dynamic of crime and punishment, nor perhaps even a linear dynamic of cause and effect. In the course of history, understood as presented above, nothing is ensured or automatic, neither reward nor punishment; history is always open, and a personality’s historical realization is not necessary but contingent, that is, possible. Otherwise it would not have possessed any ethical status or value. If not choosing history were to automatically lead to punishment, this would not have constituted choice and rhetoric; it would not have been persuasion but subjugation, not an opening of possibilities but shutting them off. If the curses of the “Admonition passage” were to be realized automatically, as feared by the synagogue shamash (sexton), the protagonist of “Until Elijah Comes,” recital of the passage would have been bereft of all joy and love, and the almost ecstatic feeling of illumination and uplifting experienced during the recital towards the end of the story would not have been possible. Agnon himself seems to introduce a problematization of the one-sided apocalyptic approach. For this he provides both Shimon and Reuven with a number of features that cause them to be presented in a morally positive light (thus, for example, Shimon was knowledgeable in Torah learning, once even being called a Torah scholar, while Reuven gives alms generously). What Reuven did cannot be considered a sin; at most we can speak of his error in having relied on his conception of order. We may thus say that the events of the flood are not a realization of rabbinical history, but a withdrawal from it or a negation of it. The method of punishment here does not fit the Torah study pedagogy. And if we also take into consideration the fact that in this story the true history is rabbinical history, we cannot accept the apocalyptic historiographical assumption. Nevertheless, we do have to accept the fact that here, too, historical alternativeness is at work. In other words, the “flood-like” events represent a non-real history; more precisely, what they represent is not history per se, but chaos taking control, a withdrawal from the real history. Real history is the alternative history that remains in the background and gives meaning to human existence. Rabbinical history maintains a unique pedagogy already at the beginning of the story, and throughout the entire book. This is a rhetorical pedagogy of persuasion and study; it is this which is the true force of history, not the destructive force of the deluge. Therefore the events of the flood must be considered an Agnonian provocation that stimulates one to arrive at a one-sided interpretation. This


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is a typical deception, since water does not always or necessarily symbolize Torah. Agnon needs this provocation in order to create a split in reality as well as in consciousness. Who is Reuven? Is he a soulless exploiting capitalist or a pious and charitable Jew? This oscillation in the protagonist’s identity is also an oscillation in the identity of history, so to speak. What is History? Order or chaos, persuasion or subjugation? The story casts light on another aspect of the poetics of historical alternativeness: Alternative histories tend to switch places. For example, in the story of Rabbi Mordechai’s acquaintance with the fleeing rabbi, the realized history is the rabbinical history of apprenticeship, as described above, while in the passage discussed now realized history is the negation of the rabbinical history. The two histories are thus not connected by a relation of continuity, but of alternativeness; otherwise each of them would lose its meaning, especially rabbinical history. If we consider the history of the flood as the negation of rabbinical history, then the latter must be seen as an attempt to repair the damage caused by the destructive, chaotic “a-history.” History is always a struggle over meaning, over purposefulness. To conclude, we may say that underneath the level of history there is the level of historiography. In the course of our discussion we already pointed to two historiographical approaches. One is that of continuity or causality, based on the force of necessity, crime-and-punishment as the pattern of explanation, as a historiographical model. The other is that of uncertainty, freedom, and not knowing in the construction of the explanation, according to which it is not possible to build a linear model of reward and punishment. We may name the former a historiography of the certainty of knowledge, and the latter a historiography of uncertainty. Historical alternativeness creates a situation in which each conception is under constant “threat” of being refuted by the other, and yet through this it gains scientific legitimacy (according to Popper’s rule). The oscillation between the two approaches thus enables the justification of historiography. The story leads to the conclusion that there are no easy historiographical solutions, that it would be wrong to accept obvious and too easily accessible historical conceptions. Philosophical haste can obviate the individual efforts of subjects of history, of people and groups engaged in unique, complex cultural creation. Let us not forget that history is not a super-human, natural, or mechanical force. The force of history is a gift granted to man, who can accept or reject it by his deeds, his creation. History is realized in the choices made by its subject. That is the reason why Agnon, through the events of the flood and the destruction, creates

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the alternative history of study and of the initiation of a Torah scholar, Rabbi Mordechai. In other words, the real force behind these events is not the force of destruction, but, ultimately the force of persuasion, as a historical alternative that truly directs man’s actions. In rhetorical terms, the events of the flood are a rhetorical figure that has value as an instrument of persuasion within a great rhetorical act, which is perhaps invisible at the given moment, because the violent scene hides it. But any rhetorical figure technically constitutes an act of violence against language, against the existing discourse configurations. Ultimately it is aimed at a renewed creation of the world, as Paul Ricoeur wrote in The Rule of Metaphor. The flood only destroys the discursive order of unambiguous, single-line, indifferent, neutral, normalizing historiographical distinctions. Instead of equating Shimon and Reuven on the line of their common guilt for the destruction, the flood merely emphasizes the unique personal role of each. Rhetoric is the creation of alternative history; it lies at the foundation of alternative history, as we showed in the theoretical chapters of this study, since it is what splits reality and creates the multiple myths that are presented for choosing and that make freedom possible. An example of the realization of this model is the story “Until Elijah Comes” which, as noted already, is considered by Agnon himself to constitute an analogue to that part of the story under discussion. Elijah reveals himself as a poor vagabond in order to convince the synagogue’s shamash that reciting the “Admonition passage” is an act of joy and love as is the recital of any other passage of the Torah, but in order to persuade he uses rhetorical devices that border on violence, or are violent by their very nature. Elijah uses considerable subterfuge to force the shamash to choose love and joy. Kagan calls this “duty out of love,” or “voluntary duty.” This is also the situation in our story here, except that the rhetorical act in this case is not meant to persuade the characters, but rather the reader, in order to evoke in him a historical and historiographical conception that seems real to the author. In order to prove that the two characters, Reuven and Shimon, do indeed represent two distinct historical and historiographical approaches, we shall now examine the symbolic difference between them. As already noted, Reuven’s character is represented by means of the symbol of the fish. Shimon’s character is thus represented by the symbol of salt, and what remains for us to do now is to describe the meaning of the latter symbol and to compare the two characters with respect to the two symbols that represent them. Salt can symbolize life, eternity, immortality, stability,


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loyalty, fraternity, and wisdom. Here just a few examples from the Bible. Sacrifices are to be accompanied by salting the offering: “Season all your grain offerings with salt. Do not leave the salt of the covenant of your God out of your grain offerings; add salt to all your offerings” (Leviticus 2:13). Salt, which prevents rot, symbolizes the covenant’s stability, its eternity. Salt plays the same role, but with a negative aim, in war: “All that day Abimelek pressed his attack against the city until he had captured it and killed its people. Then he destroyed the city and scattered salt over it” (Judges 9:45). Here, too, the scattering of salt symbolizes a permanent situation. And finally, an example in which all the symbolic meanings of salt are combined: “The people of the city said to Elisha, ‘Look, our lord, this town is well situated, as you can see, but the water is bad and the land is unproductive.’ ‘Bring me a new bowl,’ he said, ‘and put salt in it.’ So they brought it to him. Then he went out to the spring and threw the salt into it, saying, ‘This is what the LORD says: I have healed this water. Never again will it cause death or make the land unproductive.’ And the water has remained pure to this day, according to the word Elisha had spoken” (2 Kings 2:19-22). Salt is thus a symbol of eternity, purity, and perfection (of Creation and of the Creator’s covenant). Now we are in a position to compare the meanings of salt and fish as symbols, from the historiographical aspect. Salt symbolizes timelessness, eternity, sacred time, the latter in association with its meaning of purification, a symbol of immobility, unity, and confinement. The fish, on the other hand, symbolizes temporariness, motion, proliferation, openness. Thus, for example, in the Book of Jonah the fish prevents the prophet from fleeing from his historical destiny and takes him back from his timeless sleep (in the innermost part of the ship) into the circle of historicity. Now Jonah’s miraculous fish can in a sense be compared to the Prophet Elisha’s miraculous salt; both are of sacred origin and are used to sanctify and purify history. However, Elisha’s salt not only purifies, but also preserves and fixates, and so moves the sacred object beyond the bounds of history. Jonah’s purification (and through him, Nineveh’s), on the other hand, possesses a temporary and a temporal character, as indeed demonstrated by Jonah’s subsequent adventures in the desert and the affair of the leafy plant. We are thus faced with two historical conceptions: temporality and trans-temporality. Let us not forget either that the fish is a pagan, Assyrian symbol, and so of exilic character, especially in the context of Purim (see discussion above). This symbol is connected to the historical struggle of danger/salvation and death/resurrection, that is, it is a liminal symbol. In light of this, what then is the meaning of the flood described in the story?

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At the time of the flood the meanings of these two symbols coalesce and combine. Before the flood they are distinct: The fish ponds and the salt plant are separate, and the separation is perceived as clearly the most desirable situation. The flood liberates the fish from the pond and so enables the myth associated with fish to become realized in actuality; furthermore, the flood causes the water of the ponds and of the salt plant, the river water and the salt water, to commingle, thus bringing about a repetition of Elisha’s miracle. The river is purified or, in other words, history as symbolized by fish and the flow of the river itself becomes unified with the sources of sanctity, symbolized by the brackish springs, and so history is sanctified. The sublime, bitter, yet unavoidable dialectic lies in the fact that in order for this amalgamation and sanctification to take place it is necessary for Reuven to build his ponds. In other words, without realizing it, Reuven in the course of his work for the history of the commerce created sacred history and brought the miracle nearer. That is the meaning of the Torah itself: It fuses political and national history into sacred history, and vice versa. Agnon thus creates here a religious text, whose plot as well as historical conception is structured into a biblical perspective. That is apparently why the court was unable to decide which of them, Reuven or Shimon, was right. The higher objective of this historical move involves the unification of the two elements. The court did not prevent the construction of the ponds and dams, because in the Jewish community’s psycho-cultural language of dreams, the ponds evoke the Temple and the purity of the altar, while the dams evoke the sanctity of the flood. In this language Torah justice did not prevent the mixing of water and salt, because the mixing was necessary for the purification of the work of history in Elisha’s miracle that was repeated in the here-and-now. It is as if the judges realized that each of the “brothers’” activities were not legitimate in themselves, and that only their historical unification could generate a miracle and originate an old-new myth. Furthermore, this brings about a renewed legitimization of the activity of the community as a whole. It does indeed seem as if the community’s exilic conscience is purified through this Temple dynamic. The flood is the justification of history, and because of this justification, the court was unable, or did not want, to convict either one of the two. Neither is innocent or guilty by himself, but each is justified through the other, like two alternative histories. Furthermore, the two symbols, fish and salt, both signify the Messiah, although each reflects different aspects of his character: historical and trans-historical. The fish symbolizes realized history while salt is the


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symbol of unrealized history, and together they structure the symbol of historical alternativeness. Alternativeness requires the existence of two paths, two possibilities, and establishes their mutual justification. The unification of the two possibilities leads to catastrophe, but also to purification, to destruction and sanctification at the same time. As was implied in the preceding discussion, a trial between Reuven and Shimon can only begin after the flood. While this proceeding may be deemed to constitute a failure, that eventually leads to denunciation and to possible intervention by the duke, leading to the rabbi’s flight from the duke’s likely ire, the cause of this series of events does not reside in the judicial proceeding itself, nor in the way the trial was handled, nor yet in the characters of the judges, whether householders or Torah scholars. The real cause is man’s incapacity to assume responsibility and to reconcile oneself to the court’s decision. This time the narrator does not reveal which of the two, Shimon or Reuven, refused to accept the verdict, because this act negates both systems, the historical (represented by Reuven’s fish) and the trans-historical (represented by Shimon’s salt). This sudden anonymity creates dissociation between the events before the flood and the reality after it. On the symbolic level the flood has “washed away” the names, the identities and the differences between them, in order to begin anew the origination of the legitimate identity, that of Rabbi Mordechai (via the identity of the fleeing rabbi). Whether history is perceived as eternity or as becoming, as salt or as fish, it may deviate from the straight path, degenerate and be lost in the act of rejecting the verdict, of refusing to take responsibility. Furthermore, one of the plaintiffs not only refused to recognize the court’s authority, but also tried to replace it with the Gentile, and therefore – illegitimate, authority of the duke. Perhaps the main aim of this story is to challenge this replacement, and implicitly also the erroneous interpretation of the principle of “the justice of the state is valid” (dina de-malkhuta dina). But this gives rise to a further question: What is the connection between the mythology and the alternative historiography, which precede and cause the flood, and the act of rejecting the judicial verdict? Is this rejection derived from this or that historical conception? Since the narrator does not divulge the identity of the rejectionist party, the connection is clearly not to be sought at the level of identities. This blocks the first two levels of alternativeness, which leaves us with the other two, of choice and of the mode of choosing. The question therefore is how is the rejection of the verdict related to the nature of the choice and to the oscillation between different modes of choosing.

Historical Alternativeness in the Work of Agnon


First of all we should note that what we are discussing now is not only a turn of events but also a conceptual turn, although this is not expressed explicitly. The implied conclusion is that the flood did not fulfill its aim, if that aim was to purify and renew the life of culture. The combination of river water and salt should have led, according to the biblical model, to the sanctification of the world. But it had not. It is the rejection of the verdict, more than any of the other unfortunate events that take place after the flood, that testifies to this. In other words, Jonah’s “fish” prophecy failed this time, and the new Nineveh did not repent. A flood does not fulfill its aim if it is not perceived as “the Flood.” What it did accomplish was to unify Reuven’s and Shimon’s identities, and thus unified the two symbols and the two historical conceptions. From now on, after the flood, there is only one historical conception. Until the flood the conception of history was creative and individualistic, but after the flood it is completely different. While both characters were intent on building and life until the flood, after it they evaporate within the court system, in which there is no room for creation and personality. This may be taken as a statement about the relation between law and ethics. This issue is too complex to be treated here; let us only note that it arises out of a substantive inconsistency between the law as a judicial category and justice as an ethical category. The problem is that the court is external to historical-ethical categories, and that any verdict it delivered would have resulted in rejection, annunciation, and applying to a foreign instance, and eventually to the degeneration of the culture. Why was the verdict rejected? According to the narrator, the cause was “evil inclination” (yetzer ha-ra), without elaboration. But the substantive cause is that a court does not solve problems or resolve conflicts. Legal thought cannot be a substitute for ethical thought. The two competing alternative conceptions of history here are thus history as law and history as ethics. The court derives its legitimacy from ethics, but from the moment the choice that has been taken at the historical level is transferred to the court for deliberation, it is closed and taken out of the personality’s hands, and at the same time history is closed and abolished as well. From this moment, history and personality no longer exist. What is the meaning of the claim that the solution can only be found within history? The answer lies in the concept of alternativeness: As long as a man lives in history he can return to the bifurcation point at which he made his erroneous decision and chose the wrong future; he can choose a different identity and a different myth, and originate a different future. This phenomenon has many names: remorse, repentance, conversion, khazara bi-tshuva, opening a new page, and so on. And this is the essence of


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historical alternativeness: True history is always and of necessity an alternative history, that is, multiplex and ethical. This essence may be expressed in the form of a fantastic hypothesis. A man can choose a new or an “old” history; in any case, it will be a decision that he makes, and therefore it will be ethical and historical, one in which he will realize his freedom and his personality. A court, on the other hand, does not enable a man to return to the bifurcation point and to choose his life anew. A court blocks any oscillation of historical alternativeness; in order to decide on a verdict it fixes the history that has already been realized. True, the court does take the man back to the past, but only to the crime scene, only in order to confirm the realized history as a crime scene. An alternative history would be perceived in such a case as an alibi, as an attempt to shrug off responsibility and guilt, in contrast to the nature of historical alternativeness, as we understand it here. In this sense the court takes away a man’s freedom long before it pronounces sentence. This discussion leads us to an understanding of the act of rejection of the verdict. Rejection of the verdict is ahistorical in itself, but it is perceived as a challenge to the court’s own ahistoricity, so that, paradoxically, it puts the course of events back on historical rails, that lead to their true main objective, the initiation of a Torah scholar and a hidden tzadik. History continues despite the flood, and despite the court that has been convened as a result of the flood. From this perspective the narrator’s attitude towards “evil inclination” no longer appears random. Rather, it turns out to be anchored in the same thinking familiar to everyone from the wellknown Talmudic anecdote about the evil inclination and the chickens that stopped laying eggs when the sages imprisoned the evil inclination. This is the same evil desire that is the source of fertility, culture, civilization, and history. The evil inclination is the inclination to create history. It is characteristic of both history as sanctity and history as becoming, and therefore the identity of the person who rejects the verdict is irrelevant. It is the evil inclination that makes multiplicity as such possible, that is, it is what makes historical alternativeness, and alternativeness in general, possible. This explains why the turning moment in question is so important – the moment of rejection of the court as the driver of history, of cultural creation and of its sanctification (in the character of the tzadik). Nevertheless, this course of events is paradoxical and full of contradictions, because on the other hand the initiation of a Torah scholar under such impossible conditions clearly demonstrates the community’s ability to struggle against chaos and survive despite and against the evil inclination, not thanks to it. This is the focus of that tragic bewilderment

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that arises in the story: How is it possible for the evil inclination to create the conditions for the love of culture and wisdom? In the last part of the story, as in the other parts as well, the main topic is the relations between the Jewish rabbinical authority and the rule of the Gentiles. Buchach will not have a rabbi to the end of the story: Rabbi Mordechai will not get the post, because the city’s ruler decided to support him, thus arousing the impression that the Gentile ruler is the one who appoints the rabbi and ensures the stability of the latter’s position in the community: “I give you permission to appoint him as rabbi. […] Tell your new rabbi that I grant him authority to judge, command, and ban, and that he should not fear the informers, since I am the one who has appointed him to rabbi” (401). When Rabbi Mordechai hears this he refuses the offer, the idea being that Jewish rule, in this case the rule of Torah scholars, cannot depend on a Gentile authority; Jewish (rabbinical) history is not part of Gentile (political) history, but rather is its alternative. The two forms of rule represent two different alternative histories, and therefore the subject of history (man or community) must choose one of them. This is the most significant bifurcation point in the story. The question is: What is the basis for such a sharp division between the two histories? The rabbi who in time became Rabbi Mordechai’s teacher fled from the duke for no real reason, only because he was worried lest he be persecuted by him. The rabbi imagined the duke’s anger and his persecution, which was a possibility but one that did not materialize this time. This fantasy is based on a traumatic national and communal memory. There are two different historical-political conceptions here: On the one hand, there is a centrifugal conception, of fleeing from the Jewish center to the periphery and basing Jewish rule on the rule of the Gentiles, the others; on the other hand, there is a centripetal conception, of attraction towards the true Jewish center and basing Jewish rule on itself, on its own tradition and constitution. It is important that in both cases it is the same historical choice that is made: Rabbi Mordechai is appointed as rabbi of Buchach. But the abyss between the two conceptions opens at the level of the mode of choosing. The story describes the historical crisis in Buchach at its height: The community has no rabbi. The efforts of the town’s venerable citizens to search for one end in failure. If the history in the story is rabbinical, the historical crisis is the crisis of rabbinical rule. The main topic of the story is therefore the crisis of rabbinical history that is created and managed by the Torah scholars themselves. The crisis is the bifurcation point in which two alternative histories are created, the two modes of choosing mentioned


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above. The question of how to choose a rabbi turns out to be the question of how a Torah scholar can choose whether to accept the post of rabbi. The choice is a very difficult one. On the one hand, he is promised a stable and certain position, but one that is illegitimate, at least as far as the Jewish center in the community’s life is concerned, which is more “central” than the imaginary center embodied in the law of “the justice of the state is valid.” On the other hand, there is a legitimate, but unstable rule. The choice between the two possibilities is free, since both types of rule have foundations in Judaism, as shown by the dialogue between Rabbi Mordechai and the dignitaries who brought him the writ of appointment and reported the words of the duke. Rabbi Mordechai replies as follows to their learned arguments in favor of his accepting the position of rabbi from the duke: “Perhaps from the legal aspect there is nothing wrong, but I’ll tell you what I heard from my rabbi, who heard it from his rabbi, and so on back to the rabbis of Ashkenaz. It happened in the community of Cologne that they accepted a cantor who had all the virtues that the sages enumerated in a cantor. The duke heard about it and summoned him. He said to him: ‘I heard that the Jews have appointed you as cantor. I also agree that you will be the cantor.’ The cantor then said to the duke: ‘Since you are appointing me I am not worthy of that post, to be the messenger of Israel before God’” (404-405). It is therefore easy to see that the dilemma of how to choose is not only a question of the source from which one is to derive legitimacy, Jewish or Gentile, but also an internal Jewish question: What tradition should one follow, written or oral, general or personal? Clearly here, as in most of the tales in The City with All That Is Therein, it is the second kind of tradition that is chosen, the one that involves the transmission of personal knowledge. This meta-halakhic choice is also connected to a meta-historical, that is, historiographical choice: On what should the transmission of memory, that is, the writing of history, be based? On the reading/writing of an other’s memory, that is, on a historical document, an archive, or perhaps on personal testimony and personal memory? Rabbi Mordechai thus “flees” from the duke, in accordance with his rabbi’s example. In this respect the “spirit of the ruler” is not to be understood as rage, but in a more general sense, as attention, positive even, on the ruler’s part. Agnon thus gives a new interpretation to the verse “If the spirit of the ruler rise up against thee, leave not thy place,” namely do not leave your place, do not flee but also do not be reconciled, whether the ruler is angry at you or supports you. Here “leave not thy place” is interpreted as a demand not to leave the mythical (communal-personal) center, not to betray the memory, history, tradition that you inherited from

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your predecessors, even if this contravenes certain written regulations. In this sense Rabbi Mordechai, like his own rabbi before him, do not accept Ecclesiastes’ counsel in its direct sense. But what is the alternative to course proposed by Ecclesiastes? Inevitably, the alternative is conflict. If the rabbi wants to establish a Jewish rule possessing only internal Jewish legitimacy, that is, if he wants his mode of choosing to be truly free, he necessarily undermines the ruler’s authority. The result is a crisis, expressed mainly in the fact that the community has no rabbi. But for the story’s protagonists compromise is not an option. The rabbi, Rabbi Mordechai’s teacher, is already the town rabbi, and therefore his attitude towards the ruler is expressed mainly in the form of political-symbolic gestures, intended more for educational and ideological than for halakhic and practical purposes. His very flight from a ruler who has not yet said anything on the issue is an expression of profound mistrust: The rabbi does not want to be either subdued or persuaded by the ruler. Even when the rabbi is invited to return to the city, he does not agree on the spot to use the coach that the duke sent him. The reason for this is not of course the rabbi’s pride: His attempt to avoid the Gentile ruler’s help or demands is associated with his attempt to understand himself and his position in history, vis-à-vis the demands of the true ruler, the true center – God: “One of the city’s notables asked the rabbi: ‘May our rabbi please tell us why he is delaying us until after the Sabbath and does not journey with us immediately? The entire city is waiting for our rabbi […] and even the Duke, excuse his mention, looks in favor upon him […].’ The rabbi said to the notables: ‘If a Mitzvah comes your way, do not let it pass by. But as for other things that suddenly come my way, I like to wait until after the Sabbath to do them, because on the Sabbath an Israelite man is given back some of the strength that he had at the time the Torah was given, so that he will know what is good and what God asks of us” (393). The last words in the quoted passage clearly express the principle of historical alternativeness: Every Sabbath an “Israelite man” returns to the most significant bifurcation point in his nation’s history, such as the revelation on Mt. Sinai; this he does in order to again choose the legitimate historical way, to choose the correct future. As already noted, in the rabbi’s case the act is largely symbolic, since he will eventually return to his city and his post. Rabbi Mordechai takes the instructions of the tradition passed on to him by the rabbi much further, and carries them out in practice, like the rabbis of days past. Rabbi Mordechai fully implements his freedom in the given situation of choosing. This freedom makes his choice true, and the future unpredictable, and therefore real, as is characteristic of a real bifurcation


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point. The people of Buchach err twice: The first time they err with respect to the rabbi from ĩabno, and the second time with respect to Rabbi Mordechai. In such cases the same dichotomy arises as is embodied in the characters of Reuven and Shimon: The possibility and impossibility of knowing, conceiving of history as order and as chaos, necessity and freedom. The notables of Buchach are too certain that they know how things work, but they err twice and are left without a rabbi, as first the rabbi from ĩabno and later Rabbi Mordechai take back their freedom of choosing. The impossibility of compromise between the two approaches creates the historical alternativeness; but it also creates the historical crisis, a characteristic of bifurcation points. The two histories must inevitably be separated, and therefore the crisis of history is inevitable for the realization of freedom. But is this choice bearable, similarly to Hamlet’s choice of “to be or not to be?” Do we not once again face the question of whether human strength is up to choosing? How can one choose between Jewish and Gentile legitimacy? How can one choose legitimacy in any case? After all, any choice demands historical justification, and if legitimacy is itself a justification of history, how is it possible to justify the justification? It turns out that justification is of necessity self-justification, but it is needed in order for the work of history to continue. The issue of Jewish-internal justification appears in other stories as well. For example, in the well-known story “The Cantors” in The City with All That Is Therein, Book One, R. Yekutiel’s throat becomes dry as he tries to tune his voice for a Gentile dignitary who came to the synagogue for the express purpose of hearing him. What is at stake here is thus the justification of the work of history, in the case of the cantor as in the case of the rabbi. R. Yekutiel’s destiny is tragic – failure. Rabbi Mordechai reverses the situation: The fall is transformed into a historical act, and tragedy turns into an illuminating bewilderment; it is impossible not to notice the narrator’s sublime, solemn, even optimistic tone as he relates Rabbi Mordechai’s refusal. An alternative history is freedom, and therefore necessarily leads to choosing: Rabbi Mordechai finds himself in a situation in which he cannot refrain from choosing; whether he agrees or refuses, his decision possesses an active historical validity. This is indeed characteristic of every crisis, and this crisis is an inseparable part of rabbinical history, precisely because it is rabbinical, true, and alternative in essence. Rabbi Mordechai’s act is the act of a Torah scholar and a tzadik, which is also the reason why it is the most ethical and at the same time also the most pragmatic act (in addition to its being a rhetorical-educational act, of

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course). In this way Rabbi Mordechai assumes responsibility for the crisis, but also creates a historical alternativeness that ensures that there will be new historical and political possibilities; therefore it is bewildering and optimistic at one-and-the-same time.

d. The Hollow of a Sling: “The Parable and the Moral” What is the role of this fantastic story, in relation to its so realistic predecessor? The present story tells of rise of an alternative history out of the crisis, similarly to the previous story. Here the alternative history is hell itself, the punishment. Sin splits reality, splits history. This split is inherent already in the sin itself, since the story speaks about the sin of the duality of language, the language of the Torah and the language of humans. The punishment in hell therefore also focuses on the tongue, albeit not as language but in the physical sense of the organ of speech. Speech at the time when the Torah is being recited creates an alternative to the Torah’s words. But the converse is also true: The words of the Torah are the alternative to human language, despite the known adage that the Torah “speaks in the language of people.” The very act of having a conversation during the Torah recital creates alternativeness. The replacement of God’s words with those of man brings about the severe punishment described in the story. The situation that arises in the story appears to place the person before a choice between two alternatives: Divine versus human discourse. This is a historical alternativeness, in the sense that his future, nay more, his eternal life, depends on his choice. The Torah recital ritual thus appears as a rhetorical situation in which the person must choose between two myths: The myth created in the recital and the myth created in human speech (for example, in the Torah scholar’s interpretations and innovations, as in the story under consideration). The need to choose is what differentiates alternative from parallel history (not only as genres but also as poetic-conceptual elements). To illustrate, we may compare “The Parable and the Moral” to Dante’s Divine Comedy, with respect to the principle of historical alternativeness. Shmuel Werses has written about the Jewish sources for the descriptions of the inferno in the story; these are, in addition to the Talmud, mainly Midrash, the Zohar, Elijahu Vidash’s Reshit khochma (The Origin of Wisdom, 1579), and Shevet musar (The Scepter of Morality, 1712) by Elijahu Hakohen from Izmir, in addition to descriptions of the inferno in Haskala literature, for example Yitzhak Baer Levinson’s Emek refa’im (Ghost Valley), and Yitzkhok Leibush Peretz’s “By the Dying Man’s Head.” Werses also points to Immanuel of Rome’s book, Mahberot


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Immanuel (Immanuel’s Notebooks, 1320), in which the description of the narrator’s descent into hell (Notebook 28) is greatly influenced by Dante’s Divine Comedy.35 This comparison may highlight one of the unique features of Agnon’s writings. Dante’s inferno (together with paradise and purgatory) is not on an alternative plane with respect to the given historical reality, but rather constitutes the latter’s internal structure, in the spirit of medieval scholasticism. The book is an encyclopedia of society and of the human soul as these were conceived by early humanism. Dante presents the alternative world as given, as having always existed. In this respect Dante’s conception of history is essentially deterministic, as realized in the two key figures of Dante’s mythology: The character of Lucifer (Satan), which marks the point in the past that determined the history of sin and evil once-and-for-all, and the character of Beatrice, that marks the ultimate point of future salvation towards which history is moving. Mortal life is imprisoned between these two points, which also define history deterministically. This is not the case for Agnon. His alternative history is a true alternative, because it is non-deterministic. This is so because, although it does make it possible to understand the given history (especially the rude behavior of the servant towards the young Torah scholar who spoke during the recital of the Torah), that history is not the law, the core, the structure of this given history. It contains nothing that binds or defines or legislates the course of the given, overt history. The story’s importance may consist in the fact that it clearly and tangibly shows the meaning of what has been so often said, and frequently stressed in the present study as well, namely that alternative history explains given history. True alternative history, being non-deterministic, cannot be an explanation in and of itself, if by explanation we mean the imposition of regularity. History has no law in the positivist sense it has in the natural sciences, in biology or economics. The only law is the ethical law of free choice between multiple possibilities, which as far as the author is concerned is embodied in the divine command, that is, in the Torah. This concept of law does not correspond to the concept of law in the sciences; it is a law understood as a command to the personality, and therefore assumes in advance that non-compliance is possible, in contrast to a natural law, which cannot but be obeyed.


Shmuel Werses, “Ha-tzadik be-gehenom” (“The Tzadik in the Hell”), in Tzvia Ben-Yosef Ginor, ed., Mekhkarim be-sifrut Yisrael mugashim le-Avraham Holtz (Studies in Jewish Literature in the Honor of Abraham Holtz), New York, JTS, 2003, pp. 110-112.

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In Agnon’s story of the journey to the inferno, one important point thus becomes clear: Neither in the past nor in the future is there any concrete metaphysical ideal that can bind the course of given history in a deterministic manner. Any such ideal will forever remain a transcendental aim, which will never and can never be fully realized. Thus, while alternative history cannot but find expression, it can do so only as a prophecy which, like biblical prophecy, is only a signal, a call, an ethical imperative: It neither defines reality, nor determines facts, nor deprives one of the freedom of choice. A prophecy illustrates and realizes in mythical form the possibility of choice itself. It does not do away with the need for historical work.36 Jewish prophecy, as dramatized so perfectly in Agnon’s work, is conceived as a big bang in which a multiplicity of possibilities is issued. This is the cultural explosion of which Juri Lotman speaks: It creates the conditions for the historical work of originating meaning. Yet another difference between Dante and Agnon is that for Agnon the journey to the inferno is not an aim in itself, but is driven by an ethical and halakhic need: to enable a forsaken wife to remarry (hatarat aguna). In other words, alternative history here, as in the previous stories, is part of rabbinical history, and first-and-foremost it is work. Enabling a forsaken wife to remarry is not only a deed of great merit and an important act for a rabbi; it is also a symbolic action. In Agnon’s works in particular this act acquires what may be called a mega-symbolic and mega-narrative status. This theme makes the entire story meta-historical and ars-poetic.37 Agnon’s “Divine Comedy” has a pragmatic objective: To create an alternative history whose purpose is not only to understand and explain, but also to repair and change the “given” history, which is never already given. Of course, the motivation for the story about the journey through the inferno is also completely pragmatic: The synagogue servant would never have opened his mouth to tell the story, were it not for the need to justify his (alternative-historical) deed. Furthermore, his rhetorical act has the purpose of educating and reforming the community as a whole, its customs and its conceptions. It is an act of cultural-communal rhetoric. 36

Kagan emphasized that in Christianity the events associated with Jesus’ birth and death do not only reveal and illustrate the possibilities that a man has, but also predefine every other historical event. Jesus’ sacred history is both the given and the only history; it cannot be split, and therefore it abrogates any possibility for historical alternativeness (Kagan, “Evrejstvo v krizise kultury” (“Judaism in the Crisis of Culture”), O khode istorii, p. 175). 37 For the extensive discussion of ars-poetic subjects in Agnon, particularly in The City, see: Michal Arbel, Katuv al oro shel ha-kelev.


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According to its classical rhetorical characterization, such an act is to be classified under the category of epideictic rhetoric, that is, rhetoric that educates and preaches. In other words, the alternative history justifies the given history by legitimizing the servant’s extraordinary deed. That is the ethical role of historiography in general and of alternative historiography in particular; and the ethical here is also the pragmatic. Both history and the story about history must therefore be justified. Now the story about history is historiography; the trip through the inferno is presented as history as it becomes, while the servant’s story about the trip is perceived as the origination of historiography. This way we arrive at the historiographical level of historical alternativeness. Does the oscillation of alternativeness take place at this level, that is, at the level of modes of choosing? In order to answer this question we must take two steps back and examine the level of the alternativeness of personality. The personality that is undergoing oscillation is that of Rabbi Moshe. The servant, in contrast, creates his discourse at the level of the alternativeness of the modes of choosing. The rabbi’s personality oscillates between two characters or two identities: the hero and the anti-hero. Such an oscillation, such ambivalence, is completely foreign to Dante and his protagonist. This is due not only to the fact that as he prepares for the journey, and especially after his return, the rabbi shows signs of weakness and collapse, and dies at the end of the story, but also due to the status of the journey to the inferno itself, whose very occurrence as well as its efficacy are doubtful in light of the words of the servant. The journey, which according to the servant was perhaps reality but perhaps also a dream, achieves its goal in a completely indirect and mysterious way: The rabbi and the servant meet the forsaken woman’s husband in the inferno and hear his story. But after their return the divorce agreement arrives, which seems to indicate, in the story’s mystical spirit, that in their journey to the inferno the two saw not the past, but the future. At any rate, the rabbi’s personality oscillates between the legitimate halakhic pole and the transgressive magical pole. At the same time it is also an oscillation between the character of the man who controls the journey and history, and the man whom history controls and whom the journey destroys, as a result of which he can no longer influence the course of history. The entire story may be said to oscillate, together with this oscillation, between Dante and Kafka. Kafka’s major works, such as The Trial, The Castle, and America, can be conceived of as myths of a journey to the inferno. But Kafka’s historical alternativeness appears to be deterministic (while its determinism is pessimistic, in contrast to Dante’s optimistic determinism). When contrasted with these two great writers,

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Dante and Kafka, Agnon’s uniqueness becomes even more salient. Agnon’s historiography is not only indeterministic, but it actually struggles, works against determinism. The fact that the rabbi-hero also appears as the anti-hero, far from detracting from rabbinical history, actually reveals its essence through its problematization. Man is never already a hero, but always in a state of becoming one; therefore he always oscillates between his present, given character, and his future, intended one. This oscillation reveals his personality’s transcendental purpose, and empirical history (the course of his life) also acquires a meaning. This oscillation is not automatic; it is hard work that demands decisions and free, true choices. That is the reason why history is open and not predetermined, at least not with respect to its subject. The same goes for rabbinical history. Agnon creates such an ambivalent and oscillating character of the rabbi, such a problematic alternative history, not only for purposes of social satire, as noted by Shmuel Werses,38 but also, and perhaps mainly, in order to establish his anti-deterministic approach, of history as work and creation, as a constant journey to the gates of hell and back, as in the hollow of a sling. It is well-known that the theme of journeying is extremely important in Agnon’s writings. However, it should be added that usually we find the model of the journey to the gates of hell at the foundation of the hero’s journey, as in the stories “To Father’s House” and “Thus Far,” for example, not to speak of actual stories about the inferno, such as “The Old Maid” (“Ha-ravaka ha-zkena”). We can now return to the question of historiography: Does oscillation also occur at the level of modes of choice? This leads us to a discussion about the servant’s character, which takes us back to the beginning of Book Two of The City with All That Is Therein, to the beginning of the story “In Search of Rabbi, or The Spirit of the Ruler.” It raises a basic historiographical or even meta-historiographical question: Is it necessary and possible to tell a (new, other) story, to write an (alternative) history? Is it necessary and possible to split the given reality/history? This question is to be answered in the affirmative, only because alternative history is real history; it is the truth. This brings us back to the story of the revelation of Rabbi Maharam Shif and the story of his writings (see discussion above). Here the rabbi of ĩabno appears as Dante’s counterpart, who with the help of Rabbi Mordechai, Vergil’s counterpart, finds himself face-to-face with a man from the other world, the Maharam. Here, as in other stories by


Werses, “Ha-tzadik be-gehenom,” p. 118.


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Agnon, the encounter with the dead does not necessarily take place in hell, but it certainly involves an alternative history. As we noted above, the historiographical dilemma associated with the Maharam’s character is whether to write history or not, to preserve writings or not, to publish or not. In “The Parable and the Moral” the same dilemma arises with respect to the servant: To tell or not to tell about the journey to the inferno; to speak or to remain silent? Should a myth be created? This question appears truly vital, because the reality demands justification, and myth is perceived as a quite convenient and accessible justification. But at the same time the question of the creation of myth is accompanied also by the question of the servant’s credibility, that is the question of the reliability of historiography. The question of the truth arises here in a special form, one that is characteristic of the truth of myth. The servant’s credibility is founded on a certain anthropological basis: Myth is always and of necessity true in the eyes of whoever experienced it as a myth; but for whoever did not experience the myth, it does not exist, and the question of its truth does not arise. A myth is not true or not true because the events it relates happened in reality or not, but because in it the personality’s transcendental purpose is realized or not. In our case the myth tells of the realization of Rabbi Moshe’s personality in the miracle of the journey through hell, but also in his sermons and his everyday behavior. For the audience of the servant’s story this myth is very real, and therefore the servant is very credible, particularly since the story is about a miracle. The myth suits the audience’s philosophy of history, this being the main condition for the speaker being perceived as credible and for the success of his rhetorical act (it is perhaps the main condition for any rhetorical act, even one that does not overtly refer to myth and history). Furthermore, the servant’s reliability as narrator is based on yet another, most important element, that of sincerity. His discourse appears as the discourse of sincerity in his rhetorical act, and this sincerity persuades the audience. Sincerity enables him to present his story as a true alternative history. Sincerity itself is not truth, but only a rhetorical function, but it can be understood as a metaphor for the truth, and as such it may well make it possible to recognize the truth. So just as in the previous story, the historiographical dilemma of “To speak or not to speak?” is revealed to be a question of justification: Should the historical work be justified? The servant chooses to justify, and so creates history. In other words, when the question of “How to choose?” arises, the servant responds in accordance to the model established by Rabbi Moshe and accepted by him from that time: One must choose on the basis of the ethical-pragmatic need, that is, on the basis of the need of

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cultural rhetoric; one must choose based on the need to educate, to justify the creation of new forms of cultural activity. Of course, justification does not involve making excuses, but rather creating a continuum of historical work. This is the servant’s main motivation. His rhetorical act is essentially identical to that of Agnon himself, namely the renewed origination of the community, the renewed choosing of its alternative identity as a community in which one does not speak during the Torah recital; this is its true identity. Historiography, the writing of history, is thus presented here as a vital and justified cultural rhetoric whose objective is, by definition, to re-originate, strengthen and advance the community. Like the stories “In Search of Rabbi” and “Until Elijah Comes,” the story under discussion here also tells of an initiation of a Torah scholar, a servant and an entire community. The servant’s character represents the community as a historical personality. That is the reason why it is the simple servant of all people who, at least in some stories, is granted revelation: The revelation of Elijah or a journey through hell, which indirectly is but the revelation of the rabbi as a tzadik. The role of the revelation in all the stories is initiation, or perhaps just education, a rhetorical-epideictic act whose objective is to change the community’s habits and customs: the habit of speaking during the Torah recital, the unseemly custom of hiring a poor person for the recital of the admonition passages, and so on. And as we come back to the question of what the nature of this initiation is, we return to the question that arose already in our discussion of the previous story: Is history the transfer of personal knowledge, and if so, how? In the story under discussion here, as in the previous one, a simple man is given the personal knowledge by the rabbi; it is then he who mediates and gives this information to the entire community, an act which may affect (at least) the community’s historical existence. Of course there is a justification for the fact that the knowledge is not passed on directly to the public but only to a single individual, since the knowledge is occult; furthermore, the fact that it is passed on to simple people is also justified, in the spirit of the Hassidism. But as a result of this the knowledge is not always passed on in a legitimate way but arrives at a kind of dead end, as in “Until Elijah Comes.” In “In Search of Rabbi,” too, the information that is passed on remains socially unclaimed, so to speak: Despite its having been revealed, Rabbi Mordechai does not obtain the post of rabbi. The servant or a member of an unlearned simple family such as Rabbi Mordechai as the mediating link in the transfer of personal knowledge marks the popular dimension of rabbinical history on the one hand, but


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also a way that may prove to be a dead end in the course of history. Had it not been for that incident in the synagogue, the servant would not have said anything and no one would have become aware of the punishment for speaking at the time of the Torah recital. Personal knowledge is transferred in the form of a rhetorical act so that the knowledge’s receiver can choose whether and how to receive it, choose between different identities and myths. In the servant’s character this is expressed in a relatively simple form, as we noted above: At the level of historiographical alternativeness he oscillates between speech and silence. The main focus of alternativeness is not on the servant’s character; his initiation is preceded by another: Rabbi Moshe’s, the alternativeness in whose character is hinted by way of mentioning his teacher Rabbi Yehiel Michel from Nemirov, who died a martyr’s death in the pogroms of 16481649. His character, frequently mentioned in the story, is intended to provide a background to that of Rabbi Moshe, to explain his special powers, his ability to journey through hell. On the other hand, the connection to Rabbi Yehiel and the Khmelnitsky pogroms in general also hint at the possible dead end mentioned above, the possibility of breaking the continuity of knowledge transfer, since Rabbi Moshe’s entire family was killed and he has no one to whom to pass on his knowledge. Even the young daughter of one of his relatives whom he adopts remains a forsaken wife (aguna). This status of hers, and the problem of the break in the continuity of the dynasty and of history, are the true motive of the journey in hell, and therefore of the whole story. In this sense Rabbi Moshe’s character marks the historical crisis, the collapse of the continuity of descent and history, and therefore he seeks so desperately to liberate her from her (real and symbolic) status of forsaken wife, of the only “king’s daughter.” The narrator himself stresses Rabbi Moshe’s doubts with respect to her. On one hand he loves her and truly wants her to be liberated from her status, but on the other hand he realizes that there is no legal way to do this. The collapse of Rabbi Moshe’s and the girl’s dynasty is the result of vast historical events such as the Khmelnitsky Uprising. The crisis of the forsaken king’s daughter is thus part of a global historical crisis. Judaism, however, does possess some tools for coping at least a bit with this crisis. The tools are magical, the main one being the journey into hell, but this is preceded by another event, that perhaps gives Rabbi Moshe the transcendental powers he needs for such a trip: Rabbi Moshe himself survived the pogroms of 1648-1649 thanks to a single teiva (word) in the Torah that his teacher Rabbi Yehiel gave him. In this sense Rabbi Mordechai is “the one who survived,” the chosen one redeemed in order to redeem, the classic character of the epic

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hero; after all, his name is Moshe (Moses), the same as the biblical Moses who was also saved by a teiva (box). Rabbi Moshe owes his life to his teacher, to magic, and to a word. He is therefore a kind of living dead, which is perhaps what enables him to journey to hell, since he himself points out that he is going where no living creature can enter. At the end of his life Rabbi Moshe must pay back his debt and save a Jewish soul and so goes to hell and eventually gives his soul to the one who gave it to him, which is not only God but also Rabbi Yehiel Michel from Nemirov. Rabbi Moshe’s life thus grows out of a historical bifurcation point and itself constitutes a kind of alternative history, a contingent, miraculous possibility of redemption, one realized possibility against the background of another possibility, of destruction and ruin, which always exists as part of the course of history. A debt like that of Rabbi Moshe implicitly assumes a question that lies at the foundation of the plot of the story as a whole: What if Rabbi Yehiel had not been able to save Rabbi Moshe? One thing is clear: The continuity of personal knowledge that structures rabbinical history would have ceased to be. In the stories in question the very essence of history as rabbinical history is the initiation or the survivability of Torah scholars in the purgatory of the catastrophes of the given history. Every Torah scholar, and perhaps even every Jew who survives this history, is a miracle, living testimony for the existence of another history, transcendental and therefore alternative, which in every given moment survives as a possibility of meaning and purposefulness. That is the reason why the given (political, economic, etc.) history is perceived as one that exists only for the sake of its alternative, from which it derives its justification. History is justified only as the history of redemption, and therefore it is a repayment of the debt to whoever gave the loan. This debt is an ethical burden, but it is also what gives man his freedom and his “super powers”; it is what transforms a man into the living dead, but this is how he acquires the freedom of choice and becomes an epic-mythical hero, a survivor, a chosen one. The main aspect of this repayment is the concern for history, for culture and reproduction, the concern for continuity. The concern for history is the main aspect of Rabbi Moshe’s activity. The status of the forsaken wife is a symbol of history with no concern, no meaning, and no alternativeness. Therefore, the liberation from the status of forsaken wife (hatarat aguna), which is one of the central themes in Agnon’s writings in general, may be presented as yet another symbol of alternative history. The concern for history is the main ethical and pragmatic motivation for the creation of historical alternativeness.


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Given history is perceived as a kind of dystopia. The pogroms of 16481649 are an impossible phantom of destruction. And what if the pogroms and all the other historical catastrophes had not taken place? History would be transformed into utopia. The story, like any history, oscillates between these two myths, the dystopic and the utopic, and returns time and again to the same bifurcation event (like the pogroms of 1648-1649), with respect to which the question was asked (or the wish made): “What if (If only) this had not happened?” If the story vacillates between the two fantasies, the dystopia and the utopia, where is the real, “normal” history?39 The alternativeness that we find in the story clearly does not depict a portrait of “normality” of any kind, but this is not surprising, since the objective of an alternative history is not the normalization (of memory), contra Gabriel Rosenfeld. Quite the opposite is the case: The principle of historical alternativeness (especially in Agnon’s writings) rejects any possibility of normalization of memory, history, and historiography. Every historical possibility which the story offers is a deviation. “Real” history, that is, the one that actually occurred, is not acceptable as history, since it lacks any meaning or purposefulness if it is not complemented by a (utopic or dystopic) alternative history. Such a history is not a history at all, because history cannot be “given,” fully prepared and complete. History is an open and incomplete work and creation. The essence of history is the oscillation between utopia and dystopia, between desire and fear, between debt and repayment. “Normality” is not even utopia: It is the embodiment of total (and sometimes totalitarian) confinement, and therefore is not a historical possibility at all. When it opens it is a wild, wanton history that demands, in metaphysical terms, to be repaired and redeemed. This is the purpose of myths, like that of Rabbi Moshe, and of rhetorical acts, like that of the servant. When Rabbi Moshe and the servant arrive at the gates of hell there is a description that is quickly seen to be a parable of alternative history. It is a Jewish counterpart of the purgatory of Christian mythology, what in mystical literature is known as the hollow of the sling:40 “The servant said, ‘Those who think that the evildoers who die are sent down into hell do not know that there is a punishment that is harsher than being in hell. What is 39

Hillel Weiss ponders over such questions in the contexts of Agnon’s personal and family, real and fictional biography, of dreams about Eden and nightmares about destruction (Weiss, “Aseret ha-shvatim”). 40 “But the lives of your enemies he will hurl away as from the hollow of a sling” (1 Samuel 25:29).

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it? It is the hollow of the sling. It is not the one mentioned in books, that is the name of a place, but it is agonizing [tegura], named after the action, because one perishes there in the agony of torture of the sins [tigrat haavonot].41 And the sinner seeks shelter from the tortures of the agony [tigrat ha-tegura] in hell. When he arrives at the opening of hell, they shoot him to the place where he sinned and to places where he thought of committing sins. He goes and does not find these places, since they were transformed by the sins, and those places that did not change are spread under his legs and are filled with pitfalls’” (418).42 These words present in an allegorical manner what we have called a return to the bifurcation point. To the ethical meaning of this return an eschatological dimension is added, one that turns out to be spiritual. Return and renewed choosing are only the means; the true aim is to repair and purify the soul. As this happens, the man undergoes suffering, caused by the fact that he sees the results of his sins. A different world is revealed to him, a world that he does not identify as his own. This man is deprived of that most basic of human pleasures, the pleasure of identification. He watches the alternative history created in the wake of his deeds, or that could have been created had he done the deeds he had “thought of doing,” the deeds in question of course not being just any act, but one of sinning, that is to be understood only negatively, as stopping the work of history. In the hollow of the sling, as in alternative history, something happens that cannot happen in actual history: The given history splits, different possibilities of historical evolution are realized simultaneously in a person’s mind, possibilities among which the person must oscillate, in order to maintain a rhetorical epideictic event, in other words, in order to educate, to change consciousness, to repair a soul. This oscillation of alternative history is meant to induce in man a sense of repentance, recognition, and illumination concerning the importance and the nature of his historical working or non-working. The story presents the oscillation of the hollow of the sling in quite a negative light, since in this parable the alternative history is viewed through the eyes of a sufferer, a sinner. The hollow of the sling is a temporary, unstable state, a stage of transition and initiation, but as the servant points out, its sufferings are greater than those of hell. It thus turns out that the sufferings of the oscillation of alternative history and of repentance, a clear recognition of the results of the deeds 41 Cf. “Remove your stroke from off me; I am consumed by the blow of your hand” (Psalms 39:11, or 39:10 in the Christian Bible). 42 Cf. “One angel stands at one end of the world and another at the other end, and shoot the [sinners’] souls to each other” (Babylonian Talmud, tractate Shabbat, page 152b).


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and the missed possibilities, are more painful than the suffering caused by the punishment that was actually delivered. Alternative history is thus seen to be a spiritual-mystical practice of purification-reparation of the soul, a practice that is quite closely related to cultural initiation and to ethical-historical education. With its help man not only learns history, but also learns to take historical responsibility for his own actions. He learns the action of the hollow of the sling, and if the subject is close enough to his feelings, he also experiences it. The moral sufferings in the hollow of the sling are much harsher than those of hell. The grotesque elements in the descriptions of the latter – huge ears, open mouths, long tongues with teeth stuck in them, and so on – do not contribute to their credibility, in contrast to the sublime, reserved and very sincere tone that characterizes the description of the hollow of the sling in the passage quoted above. The punishments in hell, too, are built on the principle of alternative history, as is the usual case in many folkloristic and literary traditions, both Jewish and Christian. Some of the sinners do in hell what they did when they were still alive, while others do the opposite of what they did in life. In both cases the true meaning of their deeds is realized immediately: the meaning that in their lives remained an unrealized possibility. The punishment consists of the fact that despite infinite returns to the bifurcation point, that is, repetitions of the same sins they committed, the sinners do not have the possibility to change or improve anything in their behavior; they are ostensibly given a second chance, but they cannot create an alternative. Hell is the impossibility of changing, of choosing anew, of repairing, of repenting, in other words, the impossibility of creating an alternative history. Let us return to the sin on which the story focuses, speaking during the recital of the Torah. At the time the deed was done its terrible meaning was hidden from people. History, reality was uniform and complete. But there always exists another history in parallel, one composed of the true meanings of acts, “true” in a sense that includes also historical responsibility, acquaintance with its transcendental purposefulness. In other words, reality is always split, and at the alternative, “true” level of history, man’s “true” myth, the one that realizes the “true” meanings of his acts, comes into being. This myth is usually not visible to the ordinary person. Only tzadiks and Torah scholars can see it. Their initiation is a practice of creating-seeing an alternative history. The essence of alternativeness resides in understanding that things can be otherwise, and that they should be otherwise. This is the optimistic dimension of alternativeness. But the tragedy of hell’s historical alternativeness lies in

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the fact that sinners cannot change anything, and cannot themselves change. The journey through the inferno takes place close to Yom Kippur, while the story’s last part is devoted to events connected to the 20th of Sivan, the date commemorating the victims of 1648-1649, and especially to the rabbi’s sermon. Neither the rabbi nor the narrator make a connection between speaking at the time of the recital of the Torah and Khmelnitsky’s pogroms. They do not attempt to blame the community for this catastrophe. Rabbi Moshe’s sermon centers on God’s love for Israel. As a reflection of this love, Rabbi Moshe shows love towards his community and its history in everything he says and does. This leads us to a conclusion concerning a hierarchy of objectives in the operation of alternative history. The return to the point of choosing, as we pointed out, is not the objective but a means of the practice of repairing the soul. Now it turns out that even this practice is not the objective itself, but also a means to a higher objective, namely the realization of the personality’s purpose in history. In rabbinical history, as in our story here, the purpose is to love God and receive His love. In practice this means complete identification between love and the meaning of history. In other words, love is meaning and meaning is the work of personality. Alternative history is thus true historical work, whose objective is the understanding and the realization of the transcendental purpose. Alternative history is thus a problematization of history not only for the purpose of understanding the meaning of history, and not only for the purpose of taking responsibility for history, but also for the purpose of discovering and experiencing the love of history. If we consider the story as a whole, it would seem that the character of Rabbi Yehiel of Nemirov constitutes a kind of framework for it. The theme of martyrdom, the tragic manifestation of the topic of the love of God, rises above all the story’s other themes. The character of Rabbi Moshe as Rabbi Yehiel’s student is intended to realize the purpose of his teacher and to justify his death and that of other Jews, while at the same time justifying his own life. In this respect, if the Jews had not died the death of martyrs, the community would not have existed. This is not the negative-pessimistic conception of “land that eateth up the inhabitants thereof,” but to the contrary, a positiveoptimistic conception, of the work of the historical individual who originates himself anew each time, like the phoenix that is mentioned in the story (441), yet another symbol of alternative history: The Jews’ struggle for their identity originates their community. The home of the community is the synagogue, which Rabbi Moshe in his sermon compares to a nest, which is a messianic symbol on the one hand, and on the other


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hand a symbol of continuity and reproduction with a transcendental vector: “Like Israel, who are like that bird which lay her young, even thine altars, O Lord of hosts, my King, and my God” (ibid.).43 The nest is the symbol of the time-place to which the community always returns (like the rearisen phoenix) and from which it always goes out to the new (purposefulmessianic-transcendental) future. In this respect the nest, too, is a symbol of historical alternativeness. Furthermore, for Rabbi Moshe the 20th of Sivan is not just a theological and communal matter, but also something personal. This day of destruction was also the day of his second birth. This is the essence of every commemorative day; memorial days, fasts, holidays, and so on constitute links of alternative history, which the subjects of history (whether individuals, communities or nations) create for themselves and for the dialogue with those around them. So saving one Jew, the initiation of a Torah scholar like Rabbi Moshe, justifies martyrdom. Without the personal, individual meaning of memory, there is no history. This is the function of alternativeness: To impart a personality dimension of history. This is done, as already noted, by means of a return to the bifurcation point, at which the personality of necessity is resurrected through its act of free choice. Alternative history is the hollow of the sling that exercises the personal responsibility for history and through this – the continuity, the link of mutual commitment between past, present and future. Finally we shall examine the story’s last part, which describes the process of inscribing the servant’s words in the community ledger. This ledger was burnt in the Holocaust, according to the narrator, and now he is writing these things down again in the present story; in other words, the narrator is resurrecting the burnt ledger. Writing the burnt ledger,44 like the phoenix, is yet another symbol of alternative history. This part of the story is ars-poetic in nature, with Agnon presenting his counterpart, the community scribe. At the level of historiographical alternativeness there is hesitation here, whether the events should be written down in the ledger, should history be written, should the personality parable related by the servant be turned into a binding collective memory. The community decides to do so, thanks to the story’s convincing educational character. 43

“The sparrow hath found an house, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, even thine altars, O LORD of hosts, my King, and my God” (Psalms 84:4, or 84:3 in the Christian Bible). 44 Cf. the concept of “writ of fire.” See Dahlia Hoshen, Agnon: Sipur (eina) sugiia bi-Gemara (Agnon: A Story in (Not) an Issue in Talmud), Jerusalem, Reuven Mas, 2006, pp. 70-73.

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Let us emphasize: A successful (persuasive, ethically-pragmatically strong) rhetorical act is what obtains a place in history. The story turns out to be a tale of redemption, a choosing of an old-new identity, namely the most complete and legitimate, and the most authentic Jewish identity. This is the aim of Rabbi Moshe’s parables in his sermon, such as the one about the monkey and the ants, a warning to people not to give in to the satanic temptations around them, which seem like easy and convenient solutions and choices. In other words, this story, like many others in The City with All That Is Therein, describes a centripetal transition from a more marginal to a more central center of identity, so to speak. The story does this by means of a successful rhetorical act. How does a rhetorical act become history? This is the main question of this entire study, to which we answer: by way of creating historical alternativeness. The story of the servant himself and writing it down in the community’s ledger create an illuminated, significant, purposeful, authentic alternative to history. At the foundation of this alternative history there is a theological and social structure that is unknown (and therefore nonexistent) in the given history. The servant’s story is history because it is an alternative history, and because it is a rhetorical act. It splits the given, casts doubt on it, problematizes it. In other words, a given rhetorical act, like any rhetorical act, creates a new discursive-social configuration, and this creation is not only rhetorical but also historical work. The new configuration defines the boundaries of speech: what is permitted and what is forbidden, what, when and where one may and must say. The entire story focuses on one issue, namely the bounds of legitimate speech. When the question of historiographical choice arises, of whether to write down the story, it goes back to that issue, of the bounds of speech. The main question of discourse is “To speak or not to speak?”; this is also the main question in the story. The narrator in an ironic account relates how the people of Buchach, immediately after they heard the servant’s shocking story, continued speaking unabashedly, despite all his (more precisely, Rabbi Moshe’s) parables about the need to speak as little as possible (a common theme in Agnon’s stories, for example in “Tehilla”). But the narrator takes a forgiving attitude towards his fellow townsmen, reflecting a forgiving attitude towards himself as well. When reality splits, when the meaning of history becomes manifest, it is impossible to remain silent. While this discourse is not intended to replace the sacred discourse, and is therefore perceived as justified, there still remains the somewhat ambivalent fear that profane discourse (even if the content is related to Torah learning) will replace sacred discourse, not only inside and outside the synagogue walls, but also in people’s minds. It is this fear that underlies the story and drives


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it, as it underlies and drives the behavior of the well-known tzadiks in Agnon’s stories who refrain from unnecessary speech. The source of this fear is the paradoxical nature of the word of God itself, which diminishes itself in order to make place for another discourse, which opens itself up to discursive configurations that are no longer sacred. This diminution, this openness, is the gift of history, in Kagan’s terms, a gift that was given to man. It is this diminution that is the source of historical alternativeness. This explains the narrator’s forgiving attitude towards his loquacious fellow townsmen and towards himself. An utterance, any utterance, is not justified in and of itself, but seeks its justification in the historical work that it helps carry out. The principle of “These and these are the words of the living God” can become real and not remain a mere metaphor only if man accepts the gift of diminution, the splitting of reality, the alternativeness of history. However, such an acceptance is accompanied by great fear, as expressed in the spiritual instruction given to the servant by Rabbi Moshe: During prayer and during the recital of the Torah one must feel as if one stands over the inferno. The journey through the inferno only provides a folkloristic illustration of this religious and ethical principle, whose meaning is recognition of alternative history, exposure of the hollow of the sling that lies at the foundation of life. This existential conception illuminates the similarity of alternative history to modern existentialist thought, and once more demonstrates that it is not anchored in postmodernism. This conception also affects Agnon’s approach to discourse, although it does not imply the constant presence of the Holocaust, as claimed by Yaniv Hagbi.45 The conception of historical alternativeness is closer to Søren Kierkegaard’s metaphysical existentialism and the philosophy of Franz Rosenzweig and Emmanuel Lévinas than to Nietzsche’s and Heidegger’s anti-metaphysics. Alternativeness is not a Holocaust, either in history or in language, but it reveals the Holocaust as a possibility, and as such makes it possible to choose a different history, a new future. In this way the discourse, the profane speech, justifies itself and turns into what Agnon calls, here as well as in the first pages of The City with All That Is Therein, “a writ of truth” (ktav emet) (9; 450). This can be understood as a kind of closing of a circle. The concept of “a writ of truth” that frames Books One and Two of The City with All That Is Therein does not mean just law, a legally binding document that will survive for all eternity, but also that it constitutes the truth itself. The very 45

Hagbi, Language, Absence, Play, p. 77 ff. See also his: “Hebetim Nietzscheaniim ve-Heideggerianiim be-yetzirat Agnon” (The Nietzsche and Heidegger Elements in the Work of Agnon), Ayin Gimel: A Journal of Agnon Studies, vol. 1 (2011), pp. 72-93,

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act of creating it is the truth; it is not the given history that is the truth but the writing of history, in other words historiography. A writ of truth is not only contrasted with a writ that is not the truth, but also, and in this case mainly, with any discourse that is not the truth, including the given, nonproblematic and unsplit history, which lacks the element of alternativeness and does not originate meaning. The writ of truth thus becomes yet another symbol of alternative history. It is only in this sense that one can speak of a writ of truth as of literary writing that represents the historical truth and not history itself, in the spirit of Aristotelian poetics. Writing does not represent a law or regularity in the deterministic sense of the term. A deterministic approach to literature deprives it of its main virtue, its freedom. Elsewhere I have shown that the concept of “writ of truth” as it appears at the beginning of the book expresses the idea of sincerity as a rhetoricalcultural category: The author’s writing expresses the community’s intentions in a reliable way.46 A writ of truth is a writ of sincerity, and therefore is not necessary but free and contingent. The only thing that is necessary in the act of sincerity is that it forces one to make choose anew one’s identity (as the subject of discourse) and the history that one wants to tell others (one’s myth). Alternative history dramatizes this choice and subordinates one to the test of sincerity. Now that we are approaching the end of our study, we perceive a new meaning of the “writ of truth”: It is the writ which truly makes choosing possible, while accepting responsibility for the rhetorical act of sincerity that originates the subject of history and its myth. The writ of truth is what truly opens up the possibility of a new future. Man and community always need such a possibility. In Agnon’s stories, the subject of history is never in the center; he is in the center’s vicinity, but not in it. The “writ of truth” is the possibility of choosing the center, that is, the true source of the subject’s being and becoming, a new (second, third, etc.) opportunity to realize the old myth anew. The main obstacle on a man’s path to self-realization is pride, the belief that he is the center and that there is no alternative to his existence and his story. This is the mistake that many of Agnon’s protagonists make, for example the Torah scholar who speaks during the Torah recital in the present story, and some of Agnon’s communities, such as those in the stories “Messiah,” “Until Elijah Comes” and others. The “writ of truth” is the creation of a myth without hubris, a historiography built on the principle of alternativeness, since the ethics of choice is the opposite of pride. It is an 46

Katsman, Nevua ktana, pp. 265-269.


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ethics that characterizes Agnon’s “alternative” heroes, such as hidden tzadiks and Torah scholars. Without their “alternativeness” the given history has no meaning. Alternativeness as the ethics of choice is what makes it possible for the subject (person or community) to return to the center. The story under discussion here thus presents the return to the true center of discourse, to the meaning of speech. This return, like the “writ of truth” that documents and embodies it, is a historical work that is not easy. The “writ of truth” is eternal only in the sense that it always causes the eternal return of the subject, whether this is understood as a Nietzschean return or as an ethical return to the bifurcation point. It is eternal in the sense that it is not closed; it is always open. That is the reason why it is never forgotten; it always constitutes a means and at the same time it is also the object of unceasing historical work. Eternity is promised through this work’s openness and freedom. Let us now return to the central symbol of the last part of the story, to the ledger that was burnt during World War II. The ledger is presented not merely as history or historiography, but as an actual subject of history. The narrator compares the letters of this writ of truth to people.47 The writ of truth thus is what re-originates the personality; it is the personality in its eternal return. The ledger’s significance lies in the fact that it is constantly being written anew. Its function is to help in the community’s constant effort at recollection. Recollection is the effort to choose an identity, a myth, a history anew. The effort of recollection is the kernel of the rhetorical act, which is the act of choosing. Burning the ledger, far from depriving recollection of its significance as an ethical, individual act, strengthens the recollection infinitely. Symbolically the ledger is burnt time and again: Every rhetorical act that opens history up to renewed choosing constitutes a rewriting of the ledger. As mentioned above, the burning ledger, which is similar to the phoenix, constitutes another symbol of alternative history. It is also similar to the hollow of the sling: Burning the ledger can be likened to standing at the gates of hell; and writing it anew constitutes a return to the familiar/unfamiliar history and 47

Letters are a common and important theme in Agnon’s writings, as in Judaism in general and especially in Jewish mysticism. See: Nechama Ben Aderet, “‘Ani katan ve-shar le-yeladim ktanim’: Al Sefer ha-otiyot meet Agnon” (“I Am Small and Sing to Small Children”: On The Book of Letters by S.Y. Agnon), Ayin Gimel: A Journal of Agnon Studies, vol. 1 (2011), pp. 214-271; Sarit Ezekiel, “Archetype ha-otiyot ve-yitzugo be-kitvei Agnon” (Hebrew Letters as Archetypes and Their Application in Agnon’s Works), Ayin Gimel: A Journal of Agnon Studies, vol. 1 (2011), pp. 272-285,

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makes it possible to compare it to the history that could have been written were it not for the fire and the fact that it was burnt. This is a painful and very remorseful comparison, but it also holds out much hope, because the burnt ledger is never burnt, but always rewritten at the bifurcation points. This is thus the aim of historiography in general, and Agnon’s historiography in particular, the historiography of The City with All That Is Therein. The justification of writing lies in its intention. As in The Book of Letters, the narrator of the current story notes that each letter has a different shape, but they are united in their intention. The intention transforms writing into an ethical act, an act of choosing, because it originates the source of writing, its subject, and makes it solely responsible for this act. The burning ledger symbolizes the principle of historical alternativeness as a unity of ethics and history. To write history means to make history, and this means choosing it anew. This is possible because history is never already given, but by its very nature it is always presented for choosing. Kagan stresses that this conception of history is the foundation of faith. The converse is also true: Faith lies at the basis of this historical conception. Faith means accepting responsibility, accepting freedom, accepting the gift of creativity and activity for the sake of the future, in other words, for the sake of a transcendental purpose. In Kagan’s terms, the personality originates itself by accepting history as its task. This approach cuts the ground from under both determinism and relativism. Agnon writes the community ledger, The City with All That Is Therein, because he accepts the task, because he believes that it is both necessary and possible to create history anew, to recollect; this is because he believes that there exists a source which can be recollected. Therefore he accepts the challenge. And conversely, the very feeling or recognition of the task is the basis of faith in the source and the purpose. The sense of mission and of being chosen is the basis of a man’s love for the historical task. However, it must be remembered that without man’s oscillation vis-àvis the task, without the need and the difficulty to choose whether to accept or to reject it, it would not be a task. A task can only be seen and recognized if one stands before it, not if one is already united with it in a perfect, closed totality, that is, only if it does not control one, if one has a choice. The task in essence is open to becoming; it always remains transcendental, it is never identical to the given history. A man’s doubts in the face of a historical task are always a choice between two histories, between two modes of becoming. There are always two possibilities, to accept or to reject the task; this is the most basic model of historical and historiographical alternativeness. A bifurcation point is just the moment of


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choosing whether to accept or reject the task, and every subject of history, whether man or community, can always return to this bifurcation point in creating an alternative history as in the hollow of the sling. This oscillation is the core of the principle of historical alternativeness.


Alternative history is not only the name of a sub-genre of fantasy literature but also a poetic and hermeneutic principle. Elements of the principle of historical alternativeness can be found in works that have no connection to genres of fantasy; in such a case we speak of the poetics of historical alternativeness. Furthermore, even when a composition contains no overt manifestations of the poetics of historical alternativeness, the principle of historical alternativeness can be used as a method of reading, that is, as a hermeneutical principle by means of which it is possible to expose the implicit historical and historiographical conceptions on which the work’s poetics and ideology are based. What makes it possible to speak about alternative history in such a broad sense is the conception that alternative history is not merely an oscillation between different histories, but between alternative elements at four levels: myth (plot), personality (identity), choice (perception of history) and mode of choosing (perception of historiography). The mechanism of oscillation is identical at each of these levels: a return to the bifurcation point in the past and freely choosing a new future. However, at each of these levels the oscillation’s ethical, historical, cultural, and personality meaning is different, because at each level different elements are available for choosing. Thus an analysis of the implicit historical and historiographical discourse that lies at the basis of every work of literature can be carried out using a multi-level method, even if at the end of the analysis it turns out that a true oscillation did not take place at every level. At each level it is the oscillation that originates the choice as well as the object and subject of choosing. Without oscillation among unrealized possibilities, there is no myth, no personality, no history, and no historiography. The oscillation creates the alternativeness, and not the reverse. Rhetoric is the internal mechanism whereby the oscillations, and therefore also historical alternativeness, are created. To speak of alternative history means to speak about a mechanism for the origination of the meaning of a story, of a personality, of a memory, and of writing. In light of this, the origination of meaning is the creation of history and personality, and therefore it is an act of originating truth and ethics. Alternative history as a genre and the principle of historical alternativeness are based on the metaphysics of historical truth. Therefore they are neither postmodern nor relativistic. To the contrary, alternative



history is meant to repair the damage done to culture by the extreme relativism that characterizes certain periods and ideologies, postmodernism in particular. Agnon’s oeuvre, and especially The City with All That Is Therein, is a clear example not only of historical writing, but also of the poetics of historical alternativeness. The application of the research method of alternative history is not only relevant to Agnon’s works, but is essential for understanding the author’s complex philosophical-historical conceptions. Both our theoretical analysis and our reading of the texts have shown that at the core of alternative history there is the question of “How to choose?”, or “How to write (history)?” This is the issue where oscillation among different historiographical conceptions unites with oscillation among different conceptions of writing, on one hand, and with oscillation among different ethical conceptions (identity, memory, responsibility), on the other. Historical alternativeness is expressed by means of various rhetorical and poetic devices, perhaps the most powerful of which is the symbol. In the story “In Search of Rabbi, or The Spirit of the Ruler” the symbols are fish and salt, which embody two different historical conceptions: the conception of becoming (temporal and multiplex), and the conception of eternity (meta-temporal and unitary). Only the unification of the two symbols, fish-and-water and salt, generates the miracle of the origination of the pure and sacred history, which in the form of rabbinical (both dynastic and extra-dynastic) history constitutes the essence of Agnon’s philosophy and poetics. In the story “The Parable and the Moral” there appears, next to the symbols of alternative history such as the phoenix and the burning ledger, also a central symbol, the hollow of the sling, in which one happens to come to the gates of hell. In the hollow of the sling one sees the results of one’s actions, and a different world appears before one’s eyes, a world that the observer does not identify as his own. One ostensibly views an alternative history that is created in the wake of one’s deeds, or that could have been created had one carried out acts that one “thought of doing.” In the hollow of the sling, just as in alternative history, different possibilities of historical course are simultaneously realized before one’s eyes. The purpose of this is to educate and be educated, to repair one’s soul and the world. It is the impossibility to choose anew, the impossibility of creating an alternative history, that is the true inferno. Deeply rooted in ancient mythology and in universal possibilistic thinking, the alternativeness principle reflects the tragic, though optimistic and productive, bewilderment of writers and historians in the face of a crisis of culture and historiography. Alternative history unites belief in

Literature, History, Choice


historical truth and belief in the creative (epistemological, ethical, and aesthetical) power of inventing unrealized possibilities. It originates at an equal distance from both relativism and determinism, which enables artists and scholars of all philosophical and ideological branches to apply it for their creative and analytical purposes. The secret of this universality lies in the personalistic nature of the knowledge produced, transferred, and communicated by alternative history. In rabbinical history, as in ancient plant mythology, the alternativeness principle creates a personalistic unity of a community by means of responsible and contingent rhetorical acts, thus enhancing a civilization’s vital powers, its sustainability and fertility. The emergent powers of alternative history rebuild a community, as in The City with All That is Therein, in order to problematize its history and to synthesize its new, living future against destruction and death.


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A Abugel, Jeffrey 174 Aderet, Anat 220 Adorno, Theodor 163 Agnon, Shmuel Yosef 15-18, 25-27, 31-32, 47-49, 51-56, 96, 100-102, 129, 136, 138-142, 145, 149-151, 154-155, 162-163, 223-312 Aksyonov, Vasily 6, 32, 195 Almog, Shulamit 15 Amossy, Ruth 149 Anderson, Benedict 2 Anderson, Paul 81 Ankersmit, Franklin R. 1, 218, 220 Arbel, Michal 16, 293 Arendt, Hannah 171 Aristotle 9, 10, 36, 45, 65, 85, 133, 165, 167, 198, 225, 306 Aron, Raymond 6, 116-118, 143 Auerbach, Erich 65 Averintsev, Sergei 88 B Bakhtin, Mikhail 22, 70, 85, 88, 104, 226, 229, 260 Baring, Maurice 58 Barthes, Roland 2, 70, 72, 94, 144-145, 169 Barzel, Hillel 54, 247, 274-275 Bateson, Gregory 43 Baudrillard, Jean 9 Beaumarchais, Pierre-Augustin Caron de 56 Becker, Hans-Jurgen 16 Begin, Menahem 50 Ben Aderet, Nechama 308 Ben-Dov, Nitza 16, 162, 251, 255 Benjamin of Tudela 33 Benjamin, Walter 6, 44 Bergson, Henri 121, 125, 175, 259 Bhabha, Homi 3 Biale, David 6 Bitzer, Lloyd 144, 151 Blanchot, Maurice 93 Blumenberg, Hans 160, 183


Index of Names

Boon, Kevin A. 102 Booth, Wayne C. 10, 70, 85 Borges, Jorge Luis 32, 46, 165 Brenner, Yosef Haim 24 Brown, Dan 32, 39-40 Bunzl, Martin 6 Burke, Kenneth 14, 159, 168, 194, 205 Byron, George Gordon 222 C Calvino, Italo 219 Canaan, Howard 62 Carr, David 9, 13, 83 Cassirer, Ernst 226 Chabon, Michael 24 Chamberlain, Gordon C. 58 Chapman, Edgar L. 58 Cliff, Michelle 58 Coates, Ruth 226 Cohen, Hermann 31, 225-226, 232, 250 Collins, William J. 35 Cowley, Robert 6 Croce, Benedetto 18, 256, 269 Currie, Mark 12 D Dante Alighieri 219-220, 291-295 Danto, Arthur 1, 100 Deleuze, Gilles 11, 21-22, 80, 127-142, 143, 157, 163, 196, 201, 221, 259 Demandt, Alexander 6 Derrida, Jacques 22, 92 Dick, Philip 6, 62, 219, 239 Doležel, Lubomír 1-3, 7, 28, 91 Domanska, Ewa 60 Dostoevsky, Fyodor 45, 66, 88-91, 112, 214-216, 221, 229 E Eakin, Paul John 34 Eco, Umberto 165-166 Edlmair, Barbara 58 Eikhenbaum, Boris 72 Eliade, Mircea 160, 182 Elton, Geoffrey R. 3 Epstein, Mikhail 4-5, 9-10, 84, 87, 104-105, 109, 176, 202, 217, 249 Evans, Richard J. 9 Ezekiel, Sarit 308

Literature, History, Choice F Fairfield, Paul 18 Farrell, Thomas B. 145 Ferguson, Niall 6 Ferr, Rosario 58 Foucault, Michel 13-14, 64, 192, 221 Frankl, Viktor 176 Frazer, James 7 Freud, Sigmund 23, 37, 211 Frye, Northrop 64, 71 Fuery, Patrick 54 Funkenstein, Amos 6, 29 G Gadamer, Hans-Georg 18, 86, 90, 98 Gallagher, Shaun 18 Gans, Eric 149, 194 Gelner, Ernest 2 Genette, Gérard 72, 84-85, 98 Gevers, Nicholas 58 Ginzburg, Carlo 3, 164 Gleick, James 102 Greenfeld, Liah 2-3 Greimas, Algirdas 4, 14, 85, 94, 198, 201-207, 250 Grimm, Jacob 7 Grondin, Jean 18 Gurevich, Aron 88 H Hagbi, Yaniv 16, 51, 53-54, 306 Hakohen, Elijahu from Izmir 291 Handelman, Susan 17 Hardesty, William 8, 58, 67-74 Hastings, Adrian 2 Hawkins, Harriett 102 Hayles, Katherine 85, 102 Heidegger, Martin 98, 123, 125-126, 191, 306 Helbig, Jörg 58 Hellekson, Karen 8, 35-36, 58-67, 157, 163 Hempel, Carl Gustav 63 Hobsbawm, Eric 2 Horkheimer, Max 163 Hoshen, Dahlia 304 Husserl, Edmund 9 Hutcheon, Linda 1, 8, 67, 78-79



Index of Names

I Iggers, Georg G. 9 Immanuel ben Shlomo ben Yekutiel of Rome 291 Ingarden, Roman 90 Iser, Wolfgang 39, 71, 98 J Jacobson, Roman 10, 72 Jameson, Fredric 1, 4, 71 Jenkins, Keith 2 Johnson, Mark 144 Johnson-Laird, Philip 68-69 Joyce, James 222 K Kafka, Franz 294-295 Kagan, Matvei 226, 232, 234, 247, 250, 260, 269, 276-277, 281, 293, 309 Kahneman, Daniel 28 Kaniuk, Yoram 34 Kant, Immanuel 207, 201, 214 Katsis, Leonid 226 Kenan, Amos 34 Keret, Etgar 24, 34, 163-166, 193 Kierkegaard, Søren 213, 306 Kincaid, Jamaica 58 Knapp, John 94 Kook, Rabbi Abraham Isaac 28 Koren, Roselyne 149, 153 Kozintsev, Alexander 88 Kuhn, Bernard 34 Kurzweil, Baruch 249, 266 L Lacan, Jacques 211 Lakoff, George 144-145 Laor, Dan 15, 239 Laor, Yitzhak 34 Lee, Rena 27, 271 Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm 9, 29-30, 136 Lejeune, Philippe 34 Lem, Stanisáaw 90 Lermontov, Mikhail 222 Lévinas, Emmanuel 11, 70, 110-112, 119-126, 143, 161, 171, 184-185, 189, 206, 229, 306 Levinson, Yitzhak Baer 291 Lévi-Strauss, Claude 107-110, 112, 169

Literature, History, Choice


Lewis, David 4 Liège Group (Group ȝ) 10, 38, 144, 147, 152-153, 252 Lipsker, Avidov 16, 241, 270 Livy 30 Locke, John 168 Lope de Vega (y Carpio), Félix Arturo 56 Losev, Aleksei 11, 70, 88, 96-97, 99, 104, 110, 149, 160-161, 167, 169, 182-183, 188-189, 208, 230, 235, 259 Lotman, Juri 12, 72, 84, 109, 145-149, 156, 196, 269, 293 Lyotard, Jean-François 36 M Mailloux, Steven 153 Man, Paul de 34, 93, 256 Margaliot, Rabbi Moshe Avraham 236 Márquez, Gabriel García 46 Maximin, Daniel 58 McKnight, Edgar 58, 78-82, 158 Michelet, Jules 107-108 Mink, Louis 83 Minz, Alan 16 Molière, Jean-Baptiste (Poquelin) 56 Musil, Robert 84 Myers, David N. 2 N Natorp, Paul 226 Newton, Adam Z. 11, 70, 90, 94, 110-112 Nietzsche, Friedrich 140, 182, 221, 260, 306-307 Nicholas Cusanus 9 Nora, Pierre 180 Nussbaum, Martha 10, 70 O Ortega y Gasset, José 85 Orwell, George 32 P Paul, Herman 60 Paviü, Milorad 32, 39, 46, 165 Pavis, Patrice 36 Perelman, Chaïm 70, 149, 153 Peretz, Yitzkhok Leibush 291 Phelan, James 11, 85, 94 Plato 70, 153, 163, 167 Poe, Edgar Allan 129


Index of Names

Polanyi, Michael 17, 232 Popper, Karl 1-2, 65, 280 Poyatos, Fernando 71 Prigogine, Ilya 44, 54, 138 Propp, Vladimir 71 Proust, Marcel 84, 222, 259 R Rafael Santi da Urbino 220 Rénouvier, Charles 58 Rescher, Nicolas 7 Ricoeur, Paul 9, 13, 46, 59-64, 83, 92, 96, 98, 115-118, 124, 139, 168-170, 175177, 180-181, 185, 214, 218, 238-239, 252, 280 Roland, Marie-Jeanne Phlippon (Madame Roland) 33 Ronen, Ruth 3, 7, 28 Rorty, Richard 4, 10, 31, 190 Rosenfeld, Gavriel 8-9, 58, 74-78, 179, 252, 260, 300 Rosenzweig, Franz 306 Rosman, Moshe 9 Rousseau, Jean-Jacques 33 Ruppin, Refael 34 Ryane, Marie-Laure 7 S Said, Edward 3 Saramago, José 46 Sarraute, Nathalie 3, 22 Sartre, Jean-Paul 121, 213 Saussure, Ferdinand de 108 Schmidt, Wolf 72 Schopenhauer, Arthur 191 Shakespeare, William 202-205, 213-214, 289 Shamir, Ziva 16, 28, 51 Shapira, Rabbi Berekhya Birekh 237 Shif, Rabbi Meir b. Yaakov 237 Shiloh, Elkhanan 16 Shklovsky, Victor 72 Sholem, Gershom 6 Simeon, Daphne 174 Sloterdijk, Peter 85 Stalnaker, Robert 4 Stelzig, Eugene L. 34 Strecker, Ivo 62 Suvin, Darko 35, 58, 79

Literature, History, Choice T Tacitus 30 Titus Flavius 47, 49 Tjupa, Valery 145 Todorov, Tzvetan 35, 230 Toporov, Vladimir 20 Toulmin, Stephen 43 Troeltsch, Ernst 2 Tsur, Reuven 10 Tucker, Aviezer 6 Turtledove, Harry 6, 81, 165 Tyler, Stephen 62 V Vaihinger, Hans 9 Vidash, Elijahu 291 W Weber, Max 5, 63-64, 114, 138, 143, 234 Weiss, Hillel 15-16, 220, 226, 270, 300 Weiss, Tzahi 16 Werses, Shmuel 15, 223, 249, 292, 295 White, Alan R. 4 White, Hayden 1-2, 8, 59-66, 83, 180, 218, 238 Wittgenstein, Ludvig 188 Woloch, Alex 94 Wordsworth, William 33 Wrathal, Mark A. 98 Wright, Georg von 63, 275 Y Yehiel Michel from Nemirov, Rabbi 298 Yoke, Carl B. 58 Z Žižek, Slavoj 70-71, 85 Zola, Emile 66