So, I've been thinking about the business of alternate history.
I only recently read the book by Louis-Napoléon Geoffroy-Château (1803–1858) so often cited as the 'first' alternate history: originally published as Napoléon et la conquête du monde in 1836, and revised in 1841 as Napoléon Apocryphe. Its jonbar point is Napoleon's successful invasion of Russia in 1812. After this, and in quick order, he takes over England (1814) and then the rest of the world, leading it into a new golden age of technological advance, peace and prosperity.
Two episodes in the novel seem to me to epitomise something important, if implicit, in the way this book conceives of history as such. The first is the ease with which Napoleon conquers the USA. Revolution has so weakened this nation that it has collapsed altogether.
Depuis plus de vingt années, L'Amérique, cette terre sans passé, sans races, sans patries, qui, pour remplacer ses enfants égorgés, avait mendié à L'Europe son trop plein de peuples et à L'Afrique le marché de ses douleurs; cette terre qui, sans avoir eu de jeunesse, était arrivée à la décrépitude au milieu de révolutions innombrables, l’Amérique se dissolvait, et tendait à une ruine complète. What can be done to assist this benighted place? 'Napoléon seul pouvait sauver l’Amérique ... dans tous les cas, il n’y'avait plus de salut pour elle en dehors de la monarchie napoléonienne.'
What's going on here? America is hardly central to Geoffroy's novel. It's invoked here, I think, as an example of history itself as a sort of short-circuit: it has no history of its own, it has passed directly from 'le jeunesse' to 'la décrépitude' without any intervening historical narrative at all. It subsists, vampire like, by devouring the children of Europe and the slave labour of Africa. There is no hope for such a catastrophically extra-historical place except through Napoleon himself. In other words, Geoffroy's Napoleon embodies a sort of 'solution' for history.
I'm intrigued by this early imagining of America as, in effect, a place where history has been botched, or chaotically circumvented. The USA 'has' history in two contradictory ways at once: it has too little history to be properly grounded, since it is a new or only potential nation; and it has too much history, as the dead hand of the old world is carried through by its settlers. There's a third 'history' too, of course, one perfectly invisible to Geoffroy in the 1830s: its native inhabitants. But this is a history inassimilable to the model of the Old World: it is not bookish, not linear, not Whiggish, neither Herodotean nor Thucydidean. This is the first kind of 'history', whose alternative (Napoleon) brings stability.
I wonder, to digress for a moment, how far this has fed through to the genre of alt-historical writing? America (we could say) 'has' more history now than once it did, and things like a mooted Confederate victory in the Civil War is almost a cliché of the genre. Mind you, in Leinster's 'Sideways in Time' (1934), alternative history generates a kind of crazy-paving chaos out of America, not a million miles away from Geoffroy's failed state; and even in Ward Moore's splendid Bring the Jubilee (1953), the richly imagined alternate North America exists only for the novel's time-travelling historian protagonist to revert history back to our timeline. More recently, and more Geoffroyan in a way, is a novel like Felix Gilman's Half-Made World. As the estimable Abigail Nussbaum notes:
Gilman builds a secondary world in which everything from our history of American Western expansion is present and yet different. Instead of the original, Eastern colonies of the United States we have nations with names like Koenigswald and Juddua. Instead of the Appalachians and their Cumberland Pass we have the Opals and their pass at the town of White Rock. ... Alongside these parallels, however, there is one unique trait, the literalized metaphor at the center of the duology’s world. The further one travels to the West in Gilman’s alternate America, the less solid, the less made, the world becomes. The laws of nature break down and give way to magic, and at the furthest reaches of the West, “Sea, sky, land, day, night, [are] indistinguishable, not yet separated. … creation begins, or maybe hasn’t happened yet.” That creation occurs in response to human settlement, which solidifies and finally normalizes the half-made world, but the meeting between human fears and desires and the in-flux world’s magic has unexpected results. It gives rise to the Line and Gun, not just metaphors for capitalism and lawlessness run amok, but manifestations of it with minds of their own, who can conscript and enslave humans to their purpose.This is saying something about history itself, under a kind of conceptually American aegis. And I agree with Nussbaum that one of the weakness's of Gilman's book and its sequel is a kind of blindness to 'the Folk', the Native American equivalents in the novels. They are outside European conceptions of history, and therefore out of history altogether.
Back to Napoléon Apocryphe. By 1827 the global conquest is completed, and 'Universal Monarchy' finally instituted:
La monarchie universelle! Combien ont prononcé ces mots qui ne comprenaient pas l'idée qu’ils renferment. Combien le sont balbutiées et répétées froidement ces paroles: enfants, hommes, pédants et rois, qui ne savaient ce que c’était que la monarchie universelle, pas plus que l'infini et que Dieu, dont à chaque instant leurs bouches murmurent les noms.That's the thing about Fascism. Its roots are much deeper than you realised. Here are the articles of the new Napoleonic world order:
Art. 1. Les continents, les îles et les mers qui couvrent la surface du globe composent la monarchie universelle.Nicely ironic, that article 9. Everyone seems cool about accepting Christianity as the sole global religion, including all the Jews, with one single exception: and this leads me to my second example from the novel. In a chapter actually called 'Les Juifs' (chapter 34) we learn of the one Jew who repudiates Napoleonic rule and Christianisation.
Art. 2. Le christianisme est la seule religion de la terre.
Art. 3. La monarchie universelle réside en moi et dans ma race à perpétuité.
Art. 4. Le siége de la monarchie universelle est à Paris, capitale de la terre.
Art. 5. La terre est divisée en quatre parties:
L'Europe; L'Asie à laquelle sont réunies les îles de l'Océania; l’Afrique et l'Amérique.
Art. 6. Les quatre parties de la terre sont subdivisées en royaumes.
Art. 7. La France conserve seule le nom d’empire.
Art. 8. La guerre est désormais interdite aux rois et aux peuples.
Art. 9. L’esclavage est détruit.
Art. 10. Les rois de la terre sont, sous notre souveraineté, chargés en ce qui les concerné de l’exécution du présent décret. Donné à Paris, ce 4 juillet 1827. NAPOLEON.
Samuel Manassès, rabbin de Strasbourg, protesta avec la plus grande violence contre la décision de ses frères, et, dans un moment d’exaltation, il s’écria: 'a que le Christ signale donc sa vérité et sa puissance! Pour moi, fidèle à la loi de mes pères, je le blasphème hautement, et je défie le dieu des chrétiens!'. But this protest doesn't last long: stubborn Manassas is touched by 'le doigt de Dieu', has a fit, falls to the ground and dies there and then. So much for him! 'Cette circonstance extraordinaire,' Geoffroy adds blandly, 'porta le dernier coup à la religion juive, elle expira cette année avec le culte et les constitutions de Moïse.'
The Jews ('cette nation-mystère' Geoffroy calls them), of course, stand for the opposite sort of 'historical' force to the Americans. They embody not too little but too much history; the antique law that must be overcome for the ahistorical, alt-historical Napoleonic utopia to come into being. But if overcoming too little history is a simple matter of military conquest, overcoming too much requires this extraordinary (in several senses) divine intervention.
French is made the universal language; everybody is happy and at peace. Of course 'l’empereur conserva son immense armée', but you'd hardly expect him to give it up, now, would you. N. draws up a plan to eliminate all other races by selective breeding over seven generations ('arriver à la suite de quelques générations à une unité de race et de couleur') and he makes great strides in science, including the invention of superfast trains ('des voitures qui volaient avec la rapidité de la foudre sur les routes en fer') and a fleet of 'ballons aérostatiques' powered by 'les forces magnétiques avec l'électricité'. There are odder inventions, including pliable soft-glass (seriously: 'le verre, si résistant et si friable, s’amollit sous les doigts de la chimie, il se plia comme une cire assouplie') and actual mathematical impossibilities are accomplished, including squaring the circle:
Une merveilleuse inutilité, long-temps crue impossible, la quadrature du cercle, fut découverte dans des circonstances singulièresA new planet is discovered ('la planète de Vulcain'). The book doesn't say so, but maybe Napoleon goes off to conquer that one next. These literal impossibilities, mixed in with the various mere improbabilities, speak to the contradiction the novel acknowledges without making explicit. Napoleon becomes a kind of transcendental signifier, a magic finger capable of altering not just the material but the spiritual facts of history.
The contrast that comes most forceably to one's mind, of course, is another, vastly more famous literary representation of Napoleon from the nineteenth-century. The one in this novel from 1869:
Tolstoy's original working title for War and Peace was 1805; and it was under this latter title that the first version of the novel was published (in Russkiy Vestnik, in 1865). As Andrei Zorin notes, Tolstoy was 'the first major author in world history to have tried to make a year the protagonist of a novel (Victor Hugo's 1793 appeared nine years later)' [TLS March 20 2015]. It's entirely appropriate, of course; because the whole novel's dramatization of Napoleon as deluded about the power he has to shape event, is hammered home by the second par of the novel's epilogue -- a lengthy and superbly boring essay on History, laying out Tolstoy's objections to the 'Great Man Theory' of historical change. For Tolstoy, all historical events are the result of millions of smaller events driven by the huge numbers of ordinary individuals that constitute humanity itself. The comparison he makes is with calculus, and the recently discovered ability of mathematicians to sum infinitesimals). This in turn expresses a fundamental logic of individual human life, which is determined by an inverse relationship between necessity and free-will, necessity for Tolstoy being the defined by reason and therefore explicable to historical analysis, where free-will is "consciousness" and therefore inherently unpredictable.
In other words, Tolstoy is the great anti-alternate-historian. It doesn't matter what any one individual does, no matter how mighty s/he might be in the conventional scheme of things. History is 'like a deaf person who is in the habit of answering questions that no one has put to them,' Tolstoy famously said. 'If the purpose of history be to give a description of the movement of humanity and of the peoples, the first question — in the absence of a reply to which all the rest will be incomprehensible — is: what is the power that moves peoples? To this, modern history laboriously replies either that Napoleon was a great genius, or that Louis XIV was very proud, or that certain writers wrote certain books. All that may be so and mankind is ready to agree with it, but it is not what was asked.'
Alternate history is Geoffroyan in this sense: it is the deaf sub-genre that can only think of history as a succession of 'great' (that is, significant) individuals, of moments around which everything might hinge. This concept of history as fundamentally fragile is profoundly un-Tolstoyan. For Tolstoy one man, even one battle in which hundreds of thousands die, like Borodino, is not enough to overcome the immense inertia of history as such. Napoleon thinks he has won the Battle of Borodino, and so been able to occupy Moscow, and so conquered Russia. But he is wrong; it's the same error that Geoffroy makes in his novel. History doesn't work that way.
So the question becomes: what might an alternate-history look like that took the Tolstoyan approach? If instead of positing a jonbar point of the 'what if Colonel Joshua Chamberlain's hadn't been able to hang on to Little Round Top during the Battle of Gettysburg?' sort (as in Bring the Jubilee), we imagine alternate history along Tolstoyan lines? We would be writing a much more inertially aware sort of tale; differences would be fewer; the forces necessary to apply to History itself would be much much bigger to produce any alteration at all. And who knows: the results might be weightier, and less disposable too.
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