If Only


Often in my English classes we work with counterfactual conditionals: “If I hadn’t overslept this morning, I wouldn’t have arrived late”; “If I knew that you would be waiting, I would have called you”; etc. The curious thing about all these statements is that we have no idea whether they are true. We think that if we had done such-and-such, things would have turned out differently, but we don’t know precisely how. All we know is what actually did happen, and (to a lesser extent) what choices went into it. So when I look back on the past sometimes, and think, for example, “If I had taken a class with Harold Bloom, if I had majored in English while also taking Russian literature classes….” my conclusions, though appealing, come down to speculation.

I tried positing this–the unreality and uncertainty of the things that didn’t happen–in a one-session workshop on the philosophy of time (which I taught at school last year on Katalin Day). I didn’t talk about my own experience but focused on the texts I had brought and on the discussion in the room. A few students protested vigorously that my argument denied free will. But it doesn’t; it merely posits that we have no way of knowing what would have happened if we had done this or that differently. This doesn’t make the choices unimportant or unreal. To the contrary: by choosing an action, we give it a reality that the other hypothetical possibilities can never attain, except in the mind. It is true that we can return to, and embrace, a rejected option later. But we are now doing it as a different person from before, with the accumulated experience.

Well, I take that back. There are certain physical certainties, or relative certainties. If I take a book out of the bookshelf in my apartment, it will stay out until I put it back in; if I do not take it out, it will stay there. I can say, with some confidence, “If I hadn’t taken that book out of the bookshelf, it would still be there.” But as soon as other people and complex situations are involved, the alternative possibilities and their outcomes become less definite.

Let’s take the example of majoring in English. I see now that my reasons for not doing so were foolish. I paid too much attention to the amateur advice-givers around me. People were saying that the English major was overcrowded and that you “couldn’t do anything” with a degree in English. I don’t know about the first assertion, but the second was false. English majors can become writers, editors, scholars, critics, and much more; if they decide to change fields–for instance, to go into law–their studies will serve them well. Moreover, they will carry many of the works they read, and memories of the lectures and discussions, for the rest of their lives.

Why do I sometimes wish I had majored in English? Part of the reason is that I wanted to do this, early on, but let myself be dissuaded. Part of it is that I had a difficult time choosing a major at all; I finally chose Russian, but this came after I entertained many other possibilities. And there lies the catch. There are many reasons why I had difficulty choosing a major: a multitude of interests, contradictory and confusing advice, too many opportunities to change my mind, and profound uncertainty about what I was doing. There is no guarantee that any of this would have abated if I had chosen a different major.

Moreover, I loved the study of Russian literature and excelled in it. The one problem was that I didn’t want to go to Russia to study for a semester or year. I wasn’t required to do this, but it would have helped my Russian greatly. I wanted to stay put–having traveled and moved a lot in childhood–and this placed a limit on my Russian. My Russian was considered proficient at the time, but it wasn’t fluent. I could express myself well in certain areas, write essays, and read Dostoevsky without a dictionary, but there were swathes of vocabulary and colloquial expressions that I didn’t know. My deficiencies were even more basic than that; I made mistakes with perfective and imperfective verb forms and was far from mastering the prefixes.

Over the long term, I learned and accomplished things I never would have predicted–but beyond that, this is the only life I know. All those things that might have happened, that might have turned out differently, stay part of the imagination. Like any human, I take them up in the mind, but I can be certain of none of them.

Back to my students’ objections: If there is only one way for things to turn out, what happens to free will? I question the question’s premise. There are many ways that things can turn out, but only one way that they actually do. But even that is only partly true. Do we ever know, with certainty, how things turned out? To a degree, we can state what happened. But the meaning of what happened is continually changing; our perspectives change, and we learn from others’ perspectives. So, in a sense, an event many turn out in many ways at once. We have more free will than we even know: we not only make choices in life, but later choose how to interpret what we and others did. In this interpretation, the things that did not happen play a large role. There is still a distinction between things that happened and things that did not, but both sides involve the imagination, and the choices are infinite. (I didn’t manage to say all of this in class; these thoughts, provoked by the students’ challenges, came later.)

I am very sorry that I never took a class with Harold Bloom (or even met him in person). That’s on my mind now, since he died last week. But in ways I didn’t realize, I was learning from him indirectly. My friends and professors (and later my colleagues) spoke of him often; I picked up and returned to his books, which I read in passages and parts. He was in my life in some way, and he remains.

I have a similar (though different) feeling about Toni Morrison, who died in August. I would have learned so much from being in the room while she was speaking. I thought the day would come, but it did not. Still I continue to learn from her.

I didn’t miss out, though, even in terms of English courses; I had the great joy of taking two classes from John Hollander, as an undergraduate and a grad student. I think that was how things were supposed to be, since I sought those classes out. There was nothing like them in all my years of school; I return to them often in my mind. I am so far from missing out in life that a regret seems frivolous. But regrets have a place, when not taken too far. They help us perceive things that did not come to pass and that never will. Without such imagination we would fall for a much more dangerous illusion: that we are always justified, right, and complete.