“The terror of the unforeseen”; or, Missing The Plot

While not entirely lacking in fancy or imagination, I generally avoid speculating about roads not taken, avoid taking in prospects retrospectively by asking “What if . . . ?” What if I had never gone to America? What if I had not left again some fifteen years later? What if what I had left had not been a country whose majority had just re-elected George W. Bush? While I would not go so far or sink so low as to substitute that “What if” with a nonchalant “So what,” I much rather ask “What now?” or justify whatever decision I made with a defiant “So there!”

I suppose dismissing the value of such speculations by arguing that any alternate of myself would not be myself at all is a way to avoid accusing myself of not always having chosen the best or most sensible path. Perhaps, a little foresight might have worked wonders greater than could ever be performed by getting myself worked up wondering, in hindsight, what I might have been; but to compound the failure to see the future with the failure of facing up to the past as is strikes me as perversely self-destructive . . .

Now, this is not about me sighing for what might have been. Since I don’t ask “What if,” such regrets rarely present themselves—itself ample justification for not indulging in morosely remorseful constructions of alternate biographies. This is about the alternate history I took with me on that trip back in early November 2004, when I left America for a new life in a part of the old world I had never seen let alone set foot on. The book in my hand luggage was Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America—which, I thought, was just the volume for the occasion, just right for the moment of leaving behind what had been home to me and what, owing to the hysterical war-on-terror politics in the shaping of which I had no right to take part, had felt increasingly less like the freest, the friendliest, much less the only place to be.

In The Plot Against America, Roth considers what might have happened if Charles A. Lindbergh had defeated Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941 to become President, largely on the strength of a persuasive if false—and unfulfillable—promise of “an independent destiny for America.”

Roth conceives of an alternate 22 June 1941, five months after Lindbergh’s inauguration, while yet adhering to the historical fact that it was the day on which the Treaty of Non-Aggression between Germany and the Soviet Union was broken when the former nation embarked upon Operation Barbarossa in an attempt to conquer the latter.

On that 22 June in AR (Anno Roth) 1941, Lindbergh, as President, addresses his countrymen and women by expressing himself “grateful” that Hitler was waging a war against “Soviet Bolshevism,” a war that “would otherwise have had to be fought by American troops.” Listening with dread to that address over the radio are the central characters of Roth’s nightmarish revision, a Jewish family from New Jersey who are terrorized by the thought that the pursuit of an ostensibly “independent destiny for America” means the alignment with a regime engaged in the Holocaust, that putting America first means putting an end to their civil liberties, which means “destroying everything that America stands for.”

“The terror of the unforeseen,” Roth writes, “is what the science of history hides, turning a disaster into an epic.” Good histories, including alternate ones, may yet provoke terror by not swaddling in the paper logic of hindsight causalities what, however palpable, is yet uncertain and unascertainable as events unfold, and by reminding us not to mistake the unforeseen with the unforeseeable.

I remember opening The Plot sitting at a New York airport named after another American president and finding myself distracted by a German family visibly disquieted by the book’s cover art. There, staring at them was a swastika, the symbol of the terror that could have been foreseen. I was so self-conscious of this act of provocation that I was unable to read on; and once I had arrived in Wales, I was too absorbed in my own altered state—the detachment from what I had known and been—to have much use for any engagement with any alternate past one.

This week, for no particular reason, I picked up the book anew, and I read it as a commentary on two historical pasts—1941 and a 2004 (mis)informed by 11 September 2001—that somehow seems too comfortably remote, the anxieties that had given rise to its creation and my purchase of it being past as well. I can now amuse myself by pointing out that the day I read the abovementioned passage in Roth’s book coincided not only with the anniversary of that imaginary radio address but also with the birthday of Lindbergh’s spouse Anne; I can appreciate references to popular radio programs (“You should be on Information Please”) and personalities like Walter Winchell that render The Plot verisimilitudinous, conveniently to extract them for the sake of yet another cursory entry into this essentially escapist journal whose raison d’être was the sense of homelessness and estrangement I felt when I arrived in Britain on the eve of Guy Fawkes, that celebrated plot against King and Parliament.

What if I had not mislaid—and not even missed—The Plot all these years? What if I had avoided the impulse of discontinuity, of creating for myself a virtual space and time capsule of extra-historic hence fictitious isolation and had made more of an effort instead to participate in the real debates that are shaping my future? By refusing to ask myself “What if . . .?” as I belatedly re-enter The Plot I seem to be defusing Roth’s argument, fully aware that, by doing so, I may well expose myself to—rather than becoming exempt from—that certain “terror” of not foreseeing.

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