Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Sunday, January 31, 2016

What If We Viewed Goethe Like Shakespeare? Adam Kirsch's Transplant Counterfactual

In the current issue of The New Yorker, Adam Kirsch offers a nice example of a “transplant counterfactual,” in discussing the significance of the famed German poet and writer, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.  

This kind of counterfactual typically transplants a particular figure from his or her own time into an earlier one in order to determine how he or she would responded to different conditions.  In this instance, Kirsch shifts the counterfactual’s purpose somewhat to shed light on how the individual would be viewed by posterity.

Kirsch seeks to get his English speaking readers to appreciate the greatness of Goethe – a writer seldom actually read in the Anglophone world – by comparing him counterfactually with the Anglophone world’s acknowledged genius, William Shakespeare.

Kirsch writes:

“To get a sense of how Johann Wolfgang von Goethe dominates German literature, we would have to imagine a Shakespeare known to the last inch—a Shakespeare squared or cubed. Goethe’s significance is only roughly indicated by the sheer scope of his collected works, which run to a hundred and forty-three volumes. Here is a writer who produced not only some of his language’s greatest plays but hundreds of major poems of all kinds—enough to keep generations of composers supplied with texts for their songs. Now consider that he also wrote three of the most influential novels in European literature, and a series of classic memoirs documenting his childhood and his travels, and essays on scientific subjects ranging from the theory of colors to the morphology of plants.”

“Then, there are several volumes of his recorded table talk, more than twenty thousand extant letters, and the reminiscences of the many visitors who met him throughout his sixty-year career as one of Europe’s most famous men. Finally, Goethe accomplished all this while simultaneously working as a senior civil servant in the duchy of Weimar, where he was responsible for everything from mining operations to casting actors in the court theatre. If he hadn’t lived from 1749 to 1832, safely into the modern era and the age of print, but had instead flourished when Shakespeare did, there would certainly be scholars today theorizing that the life and work of half a dozen men had been combined under Goethe’s name.

In making this observation, Kirsch alludes to the paucity of information about Shakespeare and the “persistence of conspiracy theories attributing Shakespeare’s work to the Earl of Oxford or other candidates.”

Would we be equally skeptical about Goethe’s genius today had he lived several centuries earlier, before the dawn of the “age of print?” 


Kirsch’s brief counterfactual reminds us that transplant counterfactuals provide useful shifts in perspective that allow us to reassess and reevaluate established truths.   

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Cashing in With Counterfactuals: McGraw Hill’s New “What If?” Marketing Push

As a college professor, I get sales pitches from publishers on a regular basis.  Most of them I ignore.  But a recent email from McGraw Hill caught my attention because of its snappy subject heading: “Would World War II Have Ended Differently?”

After clicking on the link, I was brought to the publisher’s webpage, which featuers a whole series of “what if?” propositions meant to excite readers about history. 

They are introduced with the a hashtag, #historychangeseverything, and a preamble that reads:
“At McGraw-Hill Education, we apply the science of learning to creating innovative solutions that can improve education outcomes around the world. Why? Because learning changes everything.™ In History, moments of significance have occurred when learning has taken place, often with the help of current technology. Why is this important? Because we believe that the course of history changes everything too.”
They include:

It is notable, I believe, that publishing companies are marketing their historical texts with counterfactual headlines.  This mirrors recent trends in journalism (both print and broadcast), both of which have increasingly sought to capture readers’ attention with provocative framing devices. 

Since counterfactual statements are highly rhetorical and capture our imagination, this is eminently understandable.  I wonder how much the trend will catch on with other publishers and help further normalize and legitimize the larger “what if?” enterprise.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Another Krugman Counterfactual: Why the Dems and the GOP are NOT Interchangeable

Paul Krugman often uses counterfactual reasoning in his New York Times opinion pieces and today's column is no exception.

It nicely shows how President Obama's tax reforms have benefited the country by highlighting the effects of their absence under a GOP presidency.

Krugman writes:

"One of the important consequences of the 2012 election was that Mr. Obama was able to go through with a significant rise in taxes on high incomes. Partly this was achieved by allowing the upper end of the Bush tax cuts to expire; there were also new taxes on high incomes passed along with the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare."

"If Mitt Romney had won, we can be sure that Republicans would have found a way to prevent these tax hikes. And we can now see what happened because he didn’t. According to the new tables, the average income tax rate for 99 percent of Americans barely changed from 2012 to 2013, but the tax rate for the top 1 percent rose by more than four percentage points. The tax rise was even bigger for very high incomes: 6.5 percentage points for the top 0.01 percent."

"[In forcing through these changes]  Mr. Obama has effectively rolled back not just the Bush tax cuts but Ronald Reagan’s as well."

"The point, of course, was not to punish the rich but to raise money for progressive priorities, and while the 2013 tax hike wasn’t gigantic, it was significant. Those higher rates on the 1 percent correspond to about $70 billion a year in revenue. This happens to be in the same ballpark as both food stamps and budget office estimates of this year’s net outlays on Obamacare. So we’re not talking about something trivial."

"Speaking of Obamacare, that’s another thing Republicans would surely have killed if 2012 had gone the other way. Instead, the program went into effect at the beginning of 2014. And the effect on health care has been huge: according to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of uninsured Americans fell 17 million between 2012 and the first half of 2015, with further declines most likely ahead."

"So the 2012 election had major consequences. America would look very different today if it had gone the other way."

Krugman's intent in presenting his counterfactual argument is to convince skeptical Democrats that they should actually be grateful that Obama has accomplished what he has, rather than be disappointed that he has not done more by showing how much worse things could have been.

As he puts it:

"On the left, in particular, there are some people who, disappointed by the limits of what President Obama has accomplished, minimize the differences between the parties. Whoever the next president is, they assert — or at least, whoever it is if it’s not Bernie Sanders — things will remain pretty much the same, with the wealthy continuing to dominate the scene. And it’s true that if you were expecting Mr. Obama to preside over a complete transformation of America’s political and economic scene, what he’s actually achieved can seem like a big letdown."

"But the truth is that Mr. Obama’s election in 2008 and re-election in 2012 had...real, quantifiable consequences"

The lesson for the 2016 election is thus clear:

"Whoever the Republicans nominate will be committed to destroying Obamacare and slashing taxes on the wealthy — in fact, the current G.O.P. tax-cut plans make the Bush cuts look puny. Whoever the Democrats nominate will, first and foremost, be committed to defending the achievements of the past seven years."

"The bottom line is that presidential elections matter, a lot, even if the people on the ballot aren’t as fiery as you might like. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise."

Otherwise, we might be confronting an analogous future counterfactual a la Ralph Nader in 2000.   And who wants a repeat of that?

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Final Thoughts About Season One of "The Man in the High Castle" (With Spoilers)

Having concluded the ten-part first season of "The Man in the High Castle," I wanted to jot down a few thoughts with an eye towards how the series wrapped up and may move forward.

Throughout the ten episodes, I found it hard not to keep thinking of the series' fidelity to Dick's original novel, which, in a way, I wish I hadn't read before tuning in.  I kept comparing the Amazon series with the complexities of the original novel instead of just viewing the former on its own terms.  But that’s a familiar occupational hazard for all literature lovers who are protective of their favorite texts.

Anyway, to my thoughts:

I like how the series amplifies some of the novel’s subtler themes.  Dick’s collaborators were all rather genteel (Childan, Wyndam-Matson, especially).  But the Amazon version accentuates the brutality of collaboration with the figure of the marshal/bounty hunter who freelances for the Nazis in the neutral zone by hunting down fugitive Jews (cutting off fingers for proof of “success”). 

Other ways in which the series drives home the brutality of American life under foreign rule are with the gassing of Frank Frink’s relatives and the disclosure of the mass grave containing the body of Juliann’s sister, Trudy.  The aerial shot of multiple graves outside of San Francisco is somewhat unbelievable, knowing the Nazis’ (and maybe the Japanese regime’s?) penchant for covering up their crimes.  But it’s visually striking nonetheless.

It’s interesting how the series asks viewers to empathize with Obergruppenf├╝hrer Smith, especially when his son is diagnosed with an incurable disease and faces being subjected to what is presumably a national euthanasia policy.  This might be read as an allegory for how people are forced to rethink their ideology when it is confronted with reality.  Conservatives dealing with the challenges of family members "coming out of the closet,” anyone?

I’m curious what the second season is going to do with the hypodiegetic film-within-a-film, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, showing the Allies defeating the Axis.  The producers threw in a curve ball by suggesting, in contrast to the novel, that the film's alternate world is far from being a fantasy (at least from the Allied perspective), insofar as it shows Joe Blake executing a captive Frank Frink.  Lots of ontological mystery still needs to be clarified here.  Frankly (sorry), I’m not sure how Amazon is going to pull it off.  The novel itself is frustratingly opaque about which reality is “real”: the one in which the characters live, or the “fictional” world "invented" by Hawthorne Abendsen.

Speaking of whom….Where was he?  Until a friend of mine alerted me to the fact that a second season of the series is already planned (whoosh! that fact had somehow flown over my head), I figured that Abendensen had become Frank Spotnitz’s version of Peter Jackson’s Tom Bombadil (who, one day, will have to be included in some future film version of The Lord of the Rings – to be filmed for a subsequent generation of filmgoers with the next generation’s technology).  Next season, Abendsen (and his “castle”?) will presumably loom larger.  But it’s hard to imagine how the Amazon series will explain him having “filmed” the Allies winning the war in the same way that Dick’s’ narrative shows him having “written” (or the I Ching having “dictated”) the allohistorical narrative.  

Similarly, will Hitler have a more prominent role in the second season? It’s probably too tempting not to give the audience what it wants in the sense that people always “enjoy” having Hitler up on the screen.  Dick, of course, omitted Hitler as an active presence in the novel.  In the series, we’re shown a cinephilic Hitler being intrigued by The Grasshopper Lies Heavy and wondering “what might have been” in the sense of his reality turning out less well than it did (from his perspective).  I’m not sure how much this narrative thread will be developed, but I hope it remains in the background so that the series stays true to the novel’s original narrative.

Finally, there is the larger question of the series’ overall philosophy of history.  In the tenth episode, Juliana and Joe overtly resist the film’s bleakly deterministic prediction about Joe fulfilling his Nazi “destiny” by asserting that free will can triumph over fate.  Joe declares, “I’m not the guy in the film,” and Juliana exclaims, “I don’t believe the film.  I believe you.”  What are we to make of these competing claims?  The idea that contingency can trump determinism is a familiar one within counterfactual history.  But Dick’s original novel remained agnostic about causality because it hedged on the deeper question of ontology -- by refraining from showing whose reality is actually “real." These thorny questions will have to be ironed out somehow for viewers not to throw up their hands in total confusion by the end of next season. 

I personally can’t see how Amazon will get more than two seasons out of the novel.  But I’m happy to be proven wrong.

Oh, and give us more CGI shots of Albert Speer's Germania, please....

Saturday, November 28, 2015

More on "The Man in the High Castle"

Here are some more of my recently published comments on the new Amazon Prime series, “The Man in the High Castle.”  From Yahoo (click HERE) and Thrillist (click HERE).

I hope everyone’s enjoying the binge watching….

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Sneak Preview of Stephen King's JFK Alternate History Series, "11.22.63"

When it rains it pours....

Just as Amazon Prime's The Man in the High Castle is set to debut, Hulu is jumping on the wave, releasing its TRAILER for its eight part series based on Stephen King's recent novel, 11/22/63, about the attempt to prevent the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Given the notion that trends come in threes, where will we find the clincher?

Friday, November 13, 2015

"The Man in the High Castle": An Early Look

Here is my review of the first two episodes of Amazon Prime's "The Man in the High Castle" from this week's Forward.  Click HERE of the link.

If the entire series turns out to be a hit, we can possibly expect more cinematic renderings of alternate history novels in the future.  Anyone have any suggestions as to what they'd like to see filmed?  I wouldn't mind seeing The Two Georges, personally (maybe Richard Dreyfuss could have a leading role -- wouldn't that be meta?).