What Might Have Been

‘On Not Being Someone Else’
James McNeill Whistler, Reading by Lamplight, 1859 (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Theodor Fontane’s great novel Effi Briest (1895) tells the story of a seventeen-year-old girl who is persuaded to marry a man more than twice her age—the principled, unimaginative Baron von Innstetten, a senior civil servant in a remote town on the Baltic Sea. Though kind and well-meaning, Innstetten is hardly an ideal husband; his many years of bachelordom have dulled his sexual passions, while his career often means leaving Effi on her own to care for the couple’s newborn daughter. Lonely and unfulfilled, Effi is eventually seduced by the womanizing Major Crampas, an old acquaintance of Innstetten. Their brief affair—so trivial that Fontane never describes it—is not discovered by Innstetten until many years later, when he stumbles on an old batch of love letters. Shocked, he immediately informs his friend Wüllersdorf of the affair and his obligation to defend his honor. Against both Wüllersdorf’s advice and his own reservations (“I feel no hate, much less any thirst for revenge”), a duel is arranged wherein Innstetten kills Crampas. He then divorces Effi and takes custody of their daughter.    

Though the reader’s sympathy is always with the life-giving Effi, the pages in which Innstetten reflects on the antiquated social conventions that led him to kill Crampas and divorce his wife are deeply moving. “I don’t want blood on my hands for the sake of the happiness that’s been taken from me, but that, let’s call it that social something which tyrannizes us, takes no account of charm, or love, or time limits,” he tells Wüllersdorf. “I’ve no choice. I must.” In the end, Innstetten realizes that it would have been better if he’d simply burned the letters and never told anyone about the affair. Another life would have been possible—not necessarily a happier one, but a life in which Effi was still his wife, and Crampas still alive. “There are so many lives that aren’t real lives,” he sadly reflects, “so many marriages that aren’t real marriages…happiness would have gone, but I wouldn’t have had to live with that eye with its questioning look and its silent, gentle reproof.”

Few words in any novel have haunted me as much as these. They rise from the page like steam, as surely Fontane meant them to; his novels often hinge on the speech of a character that lifts itself from the page and seems to address the reader directly. (Fontane, who spent time in London, was steeped in Shakespeare.) And something about Innstetten’s words gets to the heart of the elegiac nature of fiction itself, that unique ability it has of revealing to us the contingencies of our existence. Since life is all anticipation and recollection, we resort to narrative to make sense of it. In this respect fiction is quite real; our lives are lived in what the Spanish novelist Javier Marías calls “the realm of what might be or what might have been,” which is the realm of fiction. No matter how real our lives may seem to us, no matter how tangible, they always have an imaginary, shadowy side to them. We are always haunted by fiction’s questioning look and its silent, gentle reproof.

 

Effi Briest is not mentioned by Andrew H. Miller in his excellent new book On Not Being Someone Else: Tales of Our Unled Lives, but it breathes the same speculative air. Like Fontane, Miller is haunted by what might have been—or, to be more precise, by who he might have been:

Asked to describe myself, I might say many things. I might say I’m a teacher or a writer, I might describe my habits or my looks, I might mention my family or the town in which I live, or the town from which I came. In any case, I would probably talk about who I am. But sometimes I think about myself in a very different way, focusing not on who I am but on who I’m not. I think about the lives I might have led, the people I might have become, had things gone differently in the past.

Thinking of oneself in this way, Miller concedes, can seem a little too bland or obvious to merit intellectual scrutiny—“a making much out of nothing.” For most people, it’s a primitive thought that comes quite naturally, abetting our feelings of envy, ambition, desire, and regret. Who has not, at some point in their life, entertained the thought of being someone else? Or looked back at some forking moment when an important decision was reached, and wondered whether it was the right one?

Philosophers and psychologists have long been drawn to such questions, yet one of the central claims of Miller’s book is that they are more intimately understood by novelists and poets. Our unled lives, he argues, “trouble the way language ordinarily works—trouble our pronouns, our diction, our syntax, the tone and cadences of our phrases—and writers find opportunities in our trouble.” Though Miller gives respectful nods to relevant thinkers, his book is not a philosophical inquiry into questions of selfhood, causation, or free will. He is not interested in making rigorous claims; he wants to linger, instead, in the “ambiguity and resonance of literature”:

Maybe I can put it this way: the stories devised and dissected by psychologists teach me things; the stories that matter most to me teach me nothing. At least, that’s not why I read them. They make meaning for me, with me. It’s a process that takes place at a different rate, with a different rhythm. I linger and return, seeking again that state of spirit in which I’m in the presence of meaning but not in its possession, where I might find out what matters to me and how it matters, find it once or find it again.

For Miller, imagining who we might have been or once were, or who we might yet become, is anything but frivolous. “The need for a meaningful life comes before any calculation,” he writes, “and contemplating lives we haven’t led is an especially powerful way of making or finding that meaning.” In spirited and incisive close readings of texts like Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” Carl Dennis’s “The God Who Loves You,” and Ian McEwan’s Atonement (among many, many others), Miller pursues this slippery, elusive meaning and the many questions it leaves unanswered. How should one be a person? What does it mean to have only one life? Why did I turn out to be this version of myself and not another?

 

Life over the past few months has been acutely unlived—a grim suspension of our daily habits and accustomed freedoms

While I don’t envy anyone publishing a book at the present moment, especially a work of rather speculative literary criticism, the idea of unled lives could hardly be more resonant. For millions of people, life over the past few months has been acutely unlived—a grim suspension of our daily habits and accustomed freedoms. We have become unwilling spectators of the lives we thought we would be leading this spring and summer: going to work, meeting friends, eating out, traveling abroad. Years from now, we might remember 2020, in part, as a year of unrealized possibility, a year of what might have been.

It will hardly surprise Miller that many people have discovered a renewed pleasure in fiction during the shutdown, taking to social media to participate in virtual readings of War and Peace or Anna Karenina, or locating in Camus’s The Plague a chilling guide to the current pandemic. What is this hunger for fiction if not a hunger for the lives we are not currently living? “To imagine other paths down which I might have travelled,” Miller writes, “is to imagine more life for myself: this and that, n + 1. I see another world within this world, a world I can almost touch, almost taste. It’s part of this world as shadows are part of things, as memories are part of perceptions, as dreams are part of day.” The lives we didn’t lead this year will continue to linger, casting their rueful shadows.

The nature of Miller’s book—he is, in strictly literal terms, writing about nothing—can make it difficult to summarize, while his propensity for serial quotation means that every chapter reads like a sequence of vignettes alternating between literary analysis and a kind of thinking-out-loud. Open this book at random and you will find Miller quoting John Cheever, then quoting Hilary Mantel, then quoting Robert Musil, then quoting Virginia Woolf. He brings up one poem only to move on to another, as though inviting us to work out his ideas with him. Yet how many literary scholars today write so engagingly? (On Thomas Hardy: “Hardy sharpened his feelings on the steel of their contingency.”) Miller’s voice is unabashed and free-flowing—excited, you sense, by its own happy discoveries, yet always willing to concede ignorance or puzzlement. Because his exploration of unled lives is also an exploration of his own interest in the subject, he tends to write suggestively rather than forcefully, content to let his insights dangle rather than bind. He thus risks letting his narrative grow a little unfocused, as though what we’re reading is the author’s notebook and not the finished text itself. In this sense, ironically, On Not Being Someone Else feels slightly unrealized, but in a way that heightens the poignancy of its subject.

 

In an inscrutable and silent cosmos, where no answers about the meaning of our lives are forthcoming, human beings are forced to try and discover those answers for ourselves.

Yet a narrative spine does, gradually, begin to emerge. Early on, Miller posits that the notion of unled lives is a distinctly modern preoccupation, one of the great themes of modern literature. He quotes the psychologist Adam Phillips: “The death of God is the death of someone knowing who we are.” It is no accident that the rise of the novel form occurred in tandem with the decline of traditional religious authority. With the death of God, a certain understanding of ourselves died also, or at least came unstuck from its central position. In an inscrutable and silent cosmos, where no answers about the meaning of our lives are forthcoming, human beings are forced to try and discover those answers for ourselves. And one of the most effective vehicles for doing so, it turns out, is the modern novel. Recall György Lukács in his Theory of the Novel: “The novel is the epic of a world abandoned by God.”

But there is also a social and cultural dimension to the fascination with unled lives. The novel form rode on the great wave of market capitalism from the late-eighteenth century onward, which saw the expansion of individual autonomy and the rise of middle-class culture, in which a new conception of the self was forged. “The elevation of choice as an absolute good,” Miller writes, “the experience of chance as a strange affront, the increasing number of exciting, stultifying decisions we must make, the review of the past to improve future outcomes: they all feed the people we’re not.”

One of the consequences of modernity is this proliferation of unled lives, the countless possibilities made available to us, whether realized or unrealized. In this sense the modern understanding of identity is thrillingly destructive. For if who I am is also who I am not, then it makes it impossible for me to say this is who I am with any real certainty. Suddenly I am changeable, fluid. Miller does not say so, but this may help us understand the atavistic temptations of identity politics, religious fundamentalism, and various nationalist movements.  They purport to resolve that fluidity by returning to a more fixed identity, a more rooted notion of self.

But our ability to see ourselves as other than we are, to imagine different lives for ourselves, is not merely destructive. It is also what allows us to imagine what it is like to be someone else. It is the engine of our moral imagination. If telling stories is one way of testing our attachment to who we are, then it is also a way of exploring our connectedness to others. Fiction lifts us away from our singular selves. “We’re all exceptional and anybody,” Miller writes; in other words, we’re all separate, but we’re separate together, in the same way.

Miller leaves the questions he explores daringly unresolved; fittingly, his book is written in the spirit of negative capability, which is the proper realm of fiction and poetry. “In our lives,” he writes, “we often don’t know what has happened to us, much less what hasn’t; so much has been hidden from us along our long, meandering path.” Rather than transcending that ignorance, telling stories is a way of making it meaningful, a way of affirming our contingency instead of escaping it. We are destined to remain the unreliable narrators of our lives.

On Not Being Someone Else
Tales of Our Unled Lives

Andrew H. Miller
Harvard University Press, $29.95, 232 pp.

Published in the July / August 2020 issue: 

Morten Høi Jensen is the author of A Difficult Death: The Life and Work of Jens Peter Jacobsen (2017). He has contributed to the New York Review of Books, the New Republic, the Point, and the American Interest, among others.

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