A COUNTEREXAMPLE is an example that falsifies a particular hypothesis, and yet a counterfactual does not falsify fact or data, precisely. In English syntax, one counterfactual construction has the unusual effect of causing past-tense forms to read in a capacious—even paradisiacal—present tense; such a conditional is defined by the fact that a speaker presupposes the proposition given in the if clause to be false:
Is the speaker’s initial proposition false, in fact? Of course there is no crime, and yet it hardly seems correct to say so. Much as one cannot command someone not to think of some topic using a sentence in which that forbidden item appears (elephants), so one cannot forbid “cat” from meaning. And one can’t stop “crime” from transpiring, somewhere within this story, and within the sentence within it. This is the truth in writing.
But perhaps it is more accurate to say that the first phrase, “If there were a crime in this story,” is not not true: Much as the actual untruth of the proposition is irrelevant to the conclusions drawn in the result clause, so the truth of the crime (in name only) hardly matters by the time we come to the end of the sentence. Though out of time, the if clause sets in motion a provisional series of events. Something appears from what is now not not not the case—or, rather, from what was not not written. Compare the Cretan counterfactual:
The promise of fact evaporates in the weird light of the subjunctive. The focus is on events transpiring on the page, on “events” “transpiring” “on” “the page.” The -actual of our counterfactual is often only handwriting; a typo, a footnote, a facsimile; caps lock, scare quote, underscore. It is mere text, a line, or minor grammar; a mere sentence, mere diction, mere style, what substance. As Wittgenstein once proposed, “They say, for example, that I should have given a particular answer then, if I had been asked.” You don’t have to think the work is difficult if you don’t want to.
The above example of the positivistic historical counterfactual is not what we would mean by “counterfactual literature”: In this issue of Triple Canopy, we indicate a relaxed decadence and a simple devotion to artifice. What we might mean is a sensibility both within and without form, genre, medium. Consider this false sentence, “The word light is underlined in this sentence.” It is, for example, in the refusal to correct a simple error that the thinking of such a decadence might begin. Here the eye returns, for no good reason, to a word, syllable, or inflection.
The business of prediction, even of speculative pasts, regarding modern conveniences, is best left to justly compensated professionals. Dealing with the present, then, and the future in the past, the counterfactuals in this issue might not survive the time of reading. The ephemerality of these visions makes them perfect for next year, with its vogue for impossibility. Indeed, even as we write, the Mesoamericans are buying up the black-market bridges. In our world-historical fire sale, it is possible to propose that
… then …