Day 145: or what

Sometimes I wonder if the movies that permeated my consciousness as a child determined my later research interests. Take Groundhog Day. I watched it the other week with the kids and realized that it’s basically a late 20th-century version of Leibniz’s parable about Sextus Tarquinius. Both can be filed under the category: stories about assholes who are momentarily plucked out of the stream of existence so they may contemplate if they wish to renew their commitment to assholery. The fact that Phil Connors (Bill Murray’s character) chooses, eventually, to be good while Sextus defiantly refuses isn’t the only difference between the two narratives. In Leibniz’s tale the possible world that is actualized is one in which Sextus’s individual interests and the world’s fail to align: Sextus meets a grizzly end but his demise is also the catalyst for the founding of the Roman republic. In Groundhog Day the interests of the individual and the world line up: indeed, the learning curve the movie traces is Phil Connors’ gradual, very gradual discovery that dedicating himself to fulfilling the interests of other people is also the route, the only route, to his own happiness.

Before we watched the movie, I was sitting on the sofa and the younger sidled up to me, eyeing my belly critically.

“Are you going to have a baby, or what?”

I answered carefully. “No. No, I am not going to have a baby.”

Later that night, after the movie, when I was going to bed, I put on my Leibniz T-shirt, as you do (it has a portrait of Leibniz on it—I’ve been told it looks like me, truth be told, which is not a terribly flattering comparison—and underneath it reads, “In another world it would be worse”), and I wondered about that other world, the world the younger the imagined, in which she would be the middler.


Grammatically, when we express ideas about possibility, we use modal verbs like must, shall, will, etc.

This week, it being February, I had to teach “Frost at Midnight.” Duck-rabbit, I said sternly to myself, you shall. Not. Cry.

(I more or less pulled it off.)

“You shall not cry” is an example of something called “commissive modality” (I only learned this concept today.) It refers to a kind of modal statement in which the speaker indicates a strong commitment to ensuring the described event comes to pass (in this example, not crying). In English such statements usually use the modal verb “shall.”

There is something, I reflected today, especially poignant about second person commissive modality –i.e. statements in which shall is used in the second person, like “you shall not cry.” Indeed, it’s precisely when reading those lines when “Frost at Midnight”’s speaker uses shall (and it’s always in the second person, because he’s addressing his infant son) that my voice breaks:

“My babe so beautiful! it thrills my heart

With tender gladness, thus to look at thee,

And think that thou shalt learn far other lore,

And in far other scenes!

“But thou, my babe! shalt wander like a breeze”

“he shall mould

Thy spirit, and by giving make it ask”

“Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee”

“Or if the secret ministry of frost

Shall hang them up in silent icicles,

Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.”

Why is shall used in the second person poignant? I think it’s because of the other contexts in which we more usually encounter “shall,” which are quite specific.

Shall is the language of the law, whether divine and laid out in scripture (“Thou shalt not …” in the King James Bible or, to go back to Leibniz and his fable, “If you will renounce Rome, the Parcae shall spin for you different fates, you shall become wise, you shall be happy,” as Jupiter says to Sextus) or secular and expressed in legal documents, where it’s normally used in the third person (“the parties shall share joint legal custody”). The most prominent use of second person shall that I can think of other than in scripture is in fairy tales, where it’s used by fairies good and bad. “You shall go to the ball!” proclaims Cinderella’s fairy godmother. [1]

In the Ladybird book version of Cinderella I read as a child (the one with the three balls and, most importantly, the THREE DRESSES), in response to Cinderella expressing her wish to attend the ball the fairy godmother says, “And so you shall, my dear.”

Or consider these lines, uttered by the bad fairy in the Ladybird book version of Sleeping Beauty:

“When the King’s daughter is fifteen years old, she shall prick herself with a spindle and fall down dead.”

But then the good fairy modifies the bad fairy’s curse: “‘The Princess will prick herself with a spindle,’ went on the twelfth fairy, ‘but she shall not die. She will fall into a deep sleep that will last for a hundred years.’” [2]

When fairies or gods use shall in the second person, it’s not poignant because their supernatural authority underwrites their decrees ; the difference is when mere humans use “shall.” Such statements become poignant because of the auditor or reader’s understanding that the speaker can’t actually guarantee that the events they so confidently decree will necessarily come to pass. When an ordinary human uses “shall” in the second person, the very use of that verb bespeaks the individual’s powerlessness and their resultant desire to take on the authority of a god or fairy who might actually make the desired event so merely by uttering the decree.

Take Tennyson’s poem “The Death of the Old Year”: the first two stanzas end with second-person shall statements; “You came to us so readily, / You lived with us so steadily, / Old year you shall not die.” And then: “So long you have been with us, / Such joy as you have seen with us, / Old year, you shall not go.” But the point, as the poem makes clear, is that the speaker has no agency to stop the year from turning. The “shall” statements are a desperate bid to ward off the inevitability of death.

All of this is a very long way of explaining why “and therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee” makes me cry; because would that all our benedictions for our babies were also promises.


[1] I looked but couldn’t figure out where this particular, now iconic expression of the fairy godmother’s promise to Cinderella derives from. Disney???

[2] I stumbled on an amazing subgenre of YouTube video while searching for these references: videos of actual Ladybird books being flipped through silently, sometimes with hands visibly turning the pages, other times not.


Day 142: Till some blind hand Shall brush my wing

“One world exists where a man follows the road scorned in the other by his copy.”

This is a quote from Auguste Blanqui’s treatise on the multiplicity of worlds, L’éternité par les astres (1872). Catherine Gallagher cited it at the close of a talk about counterfactual narratives that she gave this weekend at a conference I helped organize; something about the line made tears well up in my eyes.

As Gallagher observed in her talk, Gottfried Leibniz is the father of counterfactual thinking. Leibniz’s theology holds that, selecting from an infinite array of possible worlds, God chose to bring our world into existence because he deemed it the best of all possible worlds. For Leibniz, thinking about how the world might have been is a way to appreciate how much worse things might otherwise have been. (“You think our world is bad? Wait till you see these others!”). While Leibniz insists that overall all other possible worlds are inferior to ours, he acknowledges that a given individual may well fare better in many of these other worlds.

Leibniz’s Theodicy (1710) ends, strangely and compellingly, with a fable that speaks to this poignant incommensurability between divine and individual interests. The fable focuses upon Sextus Tarquinius, the infamous prince whose rape of Lucretia was said to precipitate the founding of the Roman republic. Leibniz tells the parable in order to try to explain why, although God permitted the rape of Lucretia to occur, God is not responsible for Sextus’s sin. According to Leibniz, God judged that it was worth sacrificing Lucretia’s life and happiness because of the greater good that would spring from Sextus’s crime. For Leibniz we have no choice but to endorse this decision as the right decision, because God’s goodness compelled him to create the best of all possible worlds; and therefore a world in which Lucretia was spared would have necessarily been a “worse” world.

What does “the best of all possible worlds” mean here? In another context (The Discourse on Metaphysics, 1686) Leibniz writes that a perfect world is “the simplest in hypotheses and the richest in phenomena,” and Leibniz scholars tend toward thinking that Leibniz imagines God to judge “bestness” by this or another metaphysical criterion rather than appealing to a more utilitarian criterion like “a world in which the most people are happy.” Leibniz admits, then, that God permits evil in the world; these individual instances of evil, Leibniz argues, are a necessary consequence of God fulfilling his duty to create the best of all possible worlds. In other words, God permits the rape of Lucretia because that instance of evil is necessary to creating the best of all possible worlds that subsequently emerges.

It’s difficult not to feel like Leibniz’s God is kind of an asshole. Not a Milton’s God kind of an asshole, who is assholey in a Bluebeardy kind of way (“don’t go into that closet to which I am giving you this key … you did? [Sigh] Now I have to kill you”) but a libertinish Valmonty asshole who plays life like a long game of chess, mowing down pawns without compunction.

The point of Leibniz’s fable about Sextus is to show that God does not bear responsibility for an individual’s choices. The fable begins with a scene, set in our world, in which we see Sextus seek out Jupiter at the temple of Dodona in Greece. Sextus has already heard of his fate from Apollo and he’s not happy about it, so he complains to Jupiter and asks for a new fate. Jupiter says he will give Sextus a new fate if he agrees to surrender his claim to the Roman throne. Sextus refuses and storms out of the temple, abandoning himself to his fate. In the rest of the fable, we are shown an array of other possible worlds “wherein shall be found, not absolutely the same Sextus as you have seen [in this world] (that is not possible, he carries with him always that which he shall be) but several Sextuses resembling him, possessing all that you know already of the true Sextus, but not all that is already in him imperceptibly, nor in consequence all that shall yet happen to him. You will find in one world a very happy and noble Sextus, in another a Sextus content with a mediocre state, a Sextus, indeed, of every kind and endless diversity of forms.”

After surveying all of these worlds, finally we arrive back in this world, where we re-witness Sextus storm out of the temple of Dodona in a fury and return to Rome where he rapes Lucretia and is subsequently driven out, bringing down the monarchy. Pallas (Jupiter’s daughter, who has been conducting our tour) then comments: “You see that my father did not make Sextus wicked; he was so from all eternity, he was so always and freely. My father only granted him the existence which his wisdom could not refuse to the world where he is included: he made him pass from the region of the possible to that of the actual beings.”

Whenever I read this story I get stuck pondering the same question: which properties are essential to Sextus’s character and which are not? From what I can tell, Leibniz’s position is that there are certain essential properties a given individual has (like being human); and there are also contingent properties, like being the kind of human who chooses to rape Lucretia. Those latter contingent qualities are essential qualities of the Sextus of our world, but not of the Sextuses in other worlds. But then what does it mean to say that Sextus was wicked from all eternity? I suppose it means that Sextus in our world always freely chooses to rape Lucretia, despite having abundant other opportunities. Yet at the same time there’s something deterministic about Leibniz’s understanding about a person’s identity in a particular world; Pallas says, recall, that a given, world-specific Sextus “carries with him always that which he shall be,” suggesting in some way that character is destiny.

I write at a moment when those other worlds feel closer than usual, as do the other characters I might be in them, the other plots I might live out. In another world I’d still be a duck-rabbit of course (Leibniz insists that species is an essential property), but perhaps there’s one world where I’m more steadfast, and another where I’m more impulsive, and yet another, most desirable of all, where I’m more decisive. There might even be one where I return my library books. The specters of the different choices I might have made, that I could make yet, haunt those I’ve already made and those that still lie before me.

Making lists of pros and cons, hypothesizing and conjecturing possible outcomes, feels like such a Leibniz’s-assholey-God thing to do, detached from the tangible sufferings of those, like Lucretia, who may be the collateral damage of my lofty choices. In Leibniz’s fable, all the various worlds that God has at his disposal are like macrocosmic lists of pros and cons; specifically, all of the worlds are represented as books in a divine library. God likes to come in sometimes and browse these other worlds in order to “enjoy the pleasure of recapitulating things and of renewing his own choice, which cannot fail to please him.” As the verbs “enjoy” and “please” suggest, this is not the tortuous exercise in second-guessing oneself it would be for a mere mortal. Being all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good has its perks.


Due to a recent flare up of an allergy to something (mornings, I suspect) as well as a general propensity for weepiness, I seem to need tissues near to hand at all moments. Since, obviously, I am perennially out of tissues, I’ve taken to depositing rolls of loo paper on all available surfaces around the house. The other day a little fly was trying to get into my apricot jam while I was eating breakfast and I brushed it away and then unthinkingly picked up the roll of loo paper on the table and crushed the fly with it; that is, I stamped the roll of paper on top of the fly, as if I were crushing it with a mug. When I picked up the roll of loo paper and turned it over, there was the fly’s body, perfectly flattened against the plys of paper. It looked a bit like the flowers I used to press inside books when I was a girl. For some reason, I didn’t scrape the fly off; I didn’t want to touch it, so I just left it there. Now every time I reach for the roll, I see the fly’s dead body and think about how carelessly I slaughtered it. It’s a strange little momento mori. I see it and I think of Lucretia and all the other lives, big and small, that were not scorned in some other world.