THR Web Features   /   August 3, 2021

In the Sideshadows

Redeeming the present by calling attention to what might happen.

Richard Hughes Gibson

( Slunce v lese by Antonín Slavíček. Gallery of Modern Art in Roudnice nad Labem. Via Wikimedia Commons.)

But what has gone is not just the children’s present existenceIt’s all the futures they won’t get, too. All the would-be’s, might-be’s, could-be’s of the decades to come. How can that loss be measured, how can that loss be known, except by laying this absence, now and onwards, against some other version of the reel of time, where might-be and could-be and would-be still may be?

—Francis Spufford, Light Perpetual

In his 1994 book Narrative and Freedom: The Shadows of Time, the critic Gary Saul Morson introduced an idea that bears recalling at the present hour: “sideshadowing.” The term plays on the familiar notion of “foreshadowing” in which authors drop hints in the early going of their characters’ eventual fates, as in Juliet’s declaration, upon seeing Romeo in Act 1, that “If he be married, / My grave is like to be my wedding bed.” While Morson grants that foreshadowing can be used to great artistic effect, he objects to its propensity to diminish the present. By its very nature, the technique forecloses possibilities: “foreshadowing makes the future not just an inevitability but a substantial actualityIn a sense, it has already happened, and we are in its shadow.”

Sideshadowing, by contrast, redeems the present by calling attention to what might happen, or in the case of historical narratives, what might have happened. It positions us in a “middle realm of real possibilities” between actualities and impossibilities. Morson explains the effect as follows:

Whereas foreshadowing works by revealing apparent alternatives to be mere illusions, sideshadowing conveys the sense that actual events might just as well not have happened. In an open universe, the illusion is inevitability itself. Alternatives always abound, and more often than not, what exists need not have existed. Something else was possible, and sideshadowing is used to create a sense of that “something else.” Instead of casting a foreshadow from the future, it casts a shadow “from the side,” that is, from other possibilities. Along with an event, we see its alternatives; with each present, another possible present. Sideshadows conjure the ghostly presence of might-have-beens or might-bes.

Morson’s concern for sideshadows is partly aesthetic; the portrayal of an uncertain present, one that could lead in any number of directions, is truer to life as we experience it. Yet his stronger interest is ethical. The technique unsettles simple causal explanations of human events, reminding us that what actually takes place is always one of numerous possibilities that could have occurred. The technique thereby “counters our tendency to view current events as the inevitable products of the past,” a lesson that applies just as well to utopian historical schemes (such as the Soviet one whose doom Morson discusses late in the book) that would guarantee the future.

Morson is a scholar of Russian literature, and so unsurprisingly his chief illustrations come from Tolstoy and Dostoevsky (the latter of whom we’ll return to later), whose play in the sideshadows is shaped by their beliefs about human freedom and contingency. Yet sideshadowing is by no means limited to nineteenth-century Russian realism. The technique is alive and well, as seen in the epigraph taken from Francis Spufford’s recently-released novel Light Perpetual, which narrates the possible lives of five children killed in London late in 1944 by a German V-2 rocket. But sideshadowing isn’t, on Morson’s telling, the exclusive practice of fiction-writers. Later chapters of Narrative and Freedom show parallels in other genres and fields, including the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould's fascination with the “possible worlds” that would have resulted from conditions being different at different stages of the evolution of life on earth.

It’s the broader potential application of Morson’s idea that interests me here. The last seventeen months have clarified for me that sideshadowing is also a medical practice, and one of no small moment in a crisis like a pandemic. Public health administrators spend so much time in the sideshadows, indeed, that we may at this point have grown numb to this fact. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the face of federal efforts to quell the pandemic, constantly speaks from Morson’s “middle realm of real possibilities,” his interviews laden with if-statements. “The frustrating part about this from a public health standpoint,” he said in June, “is that we have the tools to stop this and if we do get more people vaccinated, you are going to start seeing a downtick again in the infections” (italics mine).

Fauci’s point is that the surges then developing were neither inevitable nor irremediable: The course of the pandemic could change if more chose to vaccinate. Or recall these words from Dr. Deborah Birx, former White House coronavirus taskforce coordinator, which caused a stir back in March: “I look at it this way: The first time we have an excuse. There were about 100,000 deaths that came from that original surge. All of the rest of them, in my mind, could have been mitigated or decreased substantially.” Birx, too, steps into the sideshadows, returning to the early months of 2020 in order to remind us that the pandemic could have been handled differently. She resists the notion that hundreds of thousands of deaths (beyond the first 100,000) were inevitable by recalling the availability of mitigation measures that weren’t ordered, weren’t followed, or were followed halfheartedly or improperly.

Even the mathematical projections of infections and deaths, which have the air of foreshadowing, have a sideshadowy character. These remarks from a recent Washington Post article are exemplary:

Modelers at the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation predict a rise through mid-August, leveling off at about 300,000 cases daily. In that scenario, deaths rise to a September high of 1,500 daily. But if everyone were to wear a mask—an unlikely prospect, institute epidemiologist Ali Mokdad acknowledged—the caseload could be about 10 times smaller (italics mine).

Universal mask adoption might be an “unlikely prospect,” yet it remains a potential one, and thus the model produces not one but a range of possible outcomes. The projections provide, to put it another way, maps plotting various routes through Morson’s “middle realm of real possibilities.” As with the comments of Birx and Fauci, moreover, the projections aren’t intended simply to inform: They are efforts to persuade us to change our behavior so that the best possible outcome is the one that materializes.

In this way, the use of sideshadowing among public health officials has had a clear ethical imperative. All of the “ifs” are reminders that we have the capacity to make choices, both as a collective and as individuals, and with the power to make choices comes responsibility. That moral charge, Morson argues, underlies Dostoevsky’s investment in sideshadowing. Morson illustrates the point in a discussion of Dostoevsky’s treatment of crime and responsibility in The Brothers Karamazov:

Crime happens because our wishes create those possibilities, one of which is bound to be realized. To focus only on the proximate cause of a crime would be to overlook the fact that it might just as well have come about in a different way, and probably would have, because the field of possibilities is rife with criminality. And that is because we all harbor criminal wishes. We must change the middle realm, the realm of possibilities, if we are to change actuality (italics mine).

If all of the sons (in Dostoevsky’s novel) want to kill their father, and are communicating that desire to one another, then they have together strongly increased the likelihood that Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov will be murdered. The field of possibilities is tilted against him. Similarly, if few wear masks, if a large segment of the population resists vaccination, a highly transmissible virus will spread rapidly through a population and continue circulating and mutating for more than a year and half.

It’s tempting to narrate the efforts of public health officials over last seventeen months as a series of largely ineffective attempts to change the middle realm. But that account would leave out the role that the rest of us have played. Our actions, too, have shaped, and are this very moment shaping, the realm of possibilities, as we, by turns, put ourselves in and take ourselves out of harm’s way. To paraphrase Dostoevsky’s Father Zosima, everyone contributes to the pandemic, so all bear responsibility. The sideshadows are no escape.