Imagining the Unimaginable: Interview with Dr Glyn Morgan
Dr. Glyn Morgan is a curator of exhibitions at the Science Museum in South Kensington, London. He is also an honorary research fellow at the University of Liverpool from whom he obtained his PhD in Literature in 2017.
In this interview Dr. Morgan and I discussed his monograph, Imagining the Unimaginable: Speculative Fiction and the Holocaust (2020). Here Morgan examines how authors have used the tools of speculative fiction – time travel, the alternate history, the dystopia – to represent an event often conceived of as unrepresentable. He demonstrates that, far from distracting from the immensity of the Holocaust’s traumatic legacy, non-mimetic fiction enables its readers to grapple with an event which violently transformed the boundaries of possibility
I know that your previous work has focused on alternate history narratives. It strikes me that in other hands this book could have become simply a study of WWII alternate histories. Why did you think it was important to focus specifically on the Holocaust?
It’s funny that you ask that because, actually, that’s exactly how the research for this book ultimately began. The book is an expanded and revised version of my Ph.D thesis which I originally proposed as being a study of the Second World War’s representation in alternate history and speculative fiction. Of course I didn’t have to do much preliminary research to realise that this was too vast a topic for a single thesis-length project and I needed to re-scope. Early on in the research I became more and more fascinated by the theory and commentary I was reading around the Holocaust, specifically the debates around representation and I realised that this discourse is being played out in the fiction of the Holocaust in really interesting ways and this felt like a direction worth pursuing. At the same time, when I started the research, over a decade ago, we were living through the era of the so-called “War on Terror”, the surveillance state was creeping and right-wing rhetoric around Islam was increasingly mainstream in the media and political arena in the West and I felt there were valuable lessons about authoritarianism, scapegoating, and intolerance which could be usefully highlighted. Of course by the time I finished the book this had only become even more relevant…
This study obviously touches on the conflict between, on the one hand, Elie Weisel’s famous statement that ‘there is no such thing as a literature of the Holocaust,’ and on the other, Shoshana Felman’s contention that the Holocaust ‘does not kill the possibility of art – on the contrary, it requires it […] for its realization in our consciousness as witnesses’. Could you discuss how you navigated this tension.
It was something I had to give a lot of thought to. With so many examples of Holocaust representation in our popular culture, I’m not sure it’s a debate that most of the public give consideration to, but it permeates Holocaust Studies and is an especially crucial discussion to understand in the first few decades after the war. It’s a complex and multifaceted debate because it wraps up all sorts of complex artistic, ideological, and ethical issues. Some of those such as the privileging of accounts written by survivors are fairly unobjectionable, but some statements end up straying into an ownership of historical narratives and that makes me uncomfortable. Once we pass first-hand experience, as the Holocaust has now done, who is to say which narratives are more appropriate than others? Obviously there are delicate questions of appropriation and such, but those are for nuanced and thoughtful navigation not for blanket statements of ownership or impermeable barriers. At the same time, as a literature scholar, it isn’t for me to say this text should or should not exist; the fact remains that it exists and thus is worthy of my attention. So, if I found myself gravitating towards any maxim by one of the big Holocaust scholars it was probably Berel Lang’s statement that ‘the Holocaust is speakable, has been spoken, will be spoken … and, most of all, ought to be.’ These texts exist, they will continue to be written (and have been), so we should study them and find out what they’re doing.
One of the most striking things about this project is your insistence on the importance, not just of Holocaust literature, but of speculative Holocaust literature. Scholars of speculative fiction are used to having genre fiction dismissed as juvenile or trivial. It seems all the more important to address this accusation when dealing with such a violent moment in history. What do you think speculative fiction specifically offers to those working through this historical trauma?
This was another one of the attractions for me. The seeming juxtaposition of speculative fiction and it’s reputation as not being “serious literature” with the single event in Western history which is taken so seriously as to be almost sacred. In particular I was fascinated by the variation in types of author who have deployed speculative fiction techniques in their storytelling, especially as for many it is a rare or singular foray into genre in otherwise realistic or “literary” careers so you get Booker Prize winners like Howard Jacobson or Pulitzer Prize winners like Philip Roth and Michael Chabon and chart bestsellers like Stephen Fry and Robert Harris alongside more conventional science fiction grandees like Philip K. Dick, Norman Spinrad, or Jo Walton.
For these writers I think they were drawn into using speculative fiction techniques because by destabilising reality in their novels they are able to approach the Holocaust in a different manner. They are able to make commentary on it, or use it in their commentary on other matters, in ways which are fruitful for them whilst reducing the risk of being offensive, or accidentally providing misinformation. It lets them turn over this traumatic event in people’s lives, but also in national consciousnesses, and talk about it in a different way. It allows them to communicate something to a reader that otherwise might remain incommunicable.
I think that idea, that speculative fiction offers narrative possibilities not accessible through realist texts, comes through really powerfully in your writing. To take alternate history as an example, a number of the texts in your study attempt to answer the question: ‘What if the Nazis had won the war?’ What do you think such texts are doing to our understanding of the inevitability of historical time?
Alternate histories, by their very nature, question the inevitability of events. However many of them do so only within certain ranges: eliminating Hitler (for example) might not result in avoiding the Second World War. However, even nudging history in a slightly different direction can create fascinating new viewpoints from which we can think about our own history and present. In doing so many of these alternate histories deconstruct our perspective on historical time as a linear, singular thread and instead encourage us to think about voices and perspectives that were previously silent, or to consider the veracity of certain narratives. A good example of this is the myth of British Exceptionalism which has long and complex roots but which draws strength from a popularised image of Britain, standing alone against Hitler, only the thin line of the English Channel separating democracy from Fascism in Europe. This myth says that had Britain been invaded then the British would have resisted the German army at every inch: we would have fought them on the beaches, etc etc etc. Proponents of this myth use this hypothetical resistance to draw contrast with nations of Europe like France who were seen as having surrendered too easily or too quickly and they completely ignore the fact that the one British territory which was occupied by the Germans (the Channel Islands) did collaborate and accept foreign rule because most people just want to survive and get on with life. So, Jo Walton’s Farthing, for example, portrays a Britain which negotiates a “Peace With Honour” with Germany after Dunkirk, over the subsequent trilogy of books Britain becomes a satellite state of the German Reich and fascism reappropriates or distorts our national institutions whilst British Anti-Semitism and racism is given full voice.
National myths are always simplistic but I think many in the UK have become toxic, particularly those around the Second World War (as demonstrated in their baffling deployment in the Brexit debate on the one hand and Covid-19 on the other), anything which can explode those myths and cause us to re-evaluate ourselves and our history is valuable now more than ever.
You write a lot about texts which challenge the association of Nazism with an absolute and incomparable evil. Your book very effectively traces the history of this association – showing how insisting on the unique horror of the Holocaust was initially a tactic to combat a right wing tendency towards Nazi apologism, but which has since had the perhaps unintended effect of diminishing the violence and trauma of other genocidal regimes. Do you think there is a connection to be made between Holocaust speculative fiction and, for example, the emerging field of indigenous futurisms which address the genocide of Native Americans?
I hope so. One of the key things I think speculative fictions of the Holocaust do (although I’m not sure the authors always intend this…) is that they call into question simplifying myths which dominate the cultural imagination and popular discourse of the event. By imagining a world in which there was a worse Holocaust you chip away at the idea of the Holocaust as the epitome of human suffering and hopefully find yourself more alert for future suffering in the world. The problem which Indigenous Futurisms and also Afro-Futurisms have, is that they are trying to undermine historical narratives which have been engrained in Anglo-American consciousness for much longer, and in which powerful commentators have vested interests in. Holocaust discourse and an image of the event didn’t emerge in the minds of the non-Jewish British and American public until the 1960s and there were commentators and novelists resisting discussing it in terms of absolutes from the beginning. In contrast, Black and Indigenous Histories have been subsumed under “mainstream” (aka White) history for decades. I think this creates a wealth of potential for speculative fiction to engage with those histories and expose the narratives in interesting and engaging ways which problematise mainstream history in the way these Holocaust fictions do, but I also think that such narratives will receive more resistance. You cannot rationally argue that the Holocaust was not a genocide – it is the event for which the word was coined – but there are still many who resist thinking about the African Slave Trade or the oppression of Native Americans in the same terms, not least because unlike the Holocaust it puts the UK and the USA on the wrong-side of the ethical line. At the same time, maybe speculative fiction can find ways of opening the historical debates out and appeal to people who are turned off by revisionist essays about Christopher Columbus or realist novels about the police brutality against African Americans.
I think a lot of people are only just waking up to the fact that speculative fiction can be, as you say, used to dismantle these engrained historical narratives. There is a trope of Holocaust speculative fiction specifically, though, which I think will be familiar to readers, even if only as a thought experiment: the idea of travelling back in time to kill Hitler. I was interested how sceptical the authors of these texts were about this possibility and how much they shied away from attempts to mitigate the effects of the Holocaust even within their fiction. Could you speak a bit more about this scepticism?
I think it’s partly an acknowledgement that although we too often learn about history in terms of biographies and personalities, that is not actually how it develops. The Second World War and the Holocaust are culminations of years of far-right politics in Europe, paranoia about the rise of Communism, centuries of anti-Semitism, and the fallout from a badly handled response to the end of the First World War. Removing one man, even the man around whom a personality cult of leadership was established, does not change the fact that these big wheels of social pressure were turning. So, for example, Lavie Tidhar’s A Man Lies Dreaming imagines that the Nazi party never makes it into power in Germany because the Communists beat them to it, the prominent Nazis all flee to live in exile in London. The Holocaust doesn’t happen on schedule but at the end of the novel British exceptionalism, anxieties around a fading Empire, and our own racism and anti-Semitism has led to the rise of the British Fascists and hints at an even darker future. Similarly, Stephen Fry’s Making History creates a world where Hitler is never born but instead another man rises to power instead and this one is more competent and calculating than the hot-headed Hitler which leads to the complete annihilation of European Jews and a dominant German Empire long into the twentieth-century.
I don’t think these texts are asking us to be thankful for Hitler, or to shrug at the Holocaust and say “there was nothing we could have done”, we can certainly learn lessons from the Allies’ inaction with regards the Holocaust, not least around taking more refugees. Rather, texts like this force us to look at our real history and face up to the fact that this horrible thing is part of how we got here. This world we have created is built on some horrible foundations but it is better that we face them and learn from them than gloss over them and buy into simplistic myths of one evil man seducing vast swathes of Europe into collaborating in his destructive vision.
Absolutely. In much the same way I think it’s easy to see the legacy of Nazism in far right extremists today, literal neo-Nazis, but it’s equally important to address the more insidious aspects of fascism within mainstream right wing politics. Do you think there’s scope for more work on speculative fiction’s engagement with fascism, both as an element of anti-facist activism and, perhaps more worryingly, as a potential fascist tool?
I really do. Because of its interest in alterity and new worlds, speculative fiction is highly suited to challenging political positions and imagining new realities. But it’s not some neutral tool, there is SF that will lend itself to anti-fascist activism and it’s important to excavate those texts and bring them to the fore, but you’re right that there will also be speculative fiction which could itself be a fascist tool, perhaps even counter to the author’s original intention. In this political moment right now, where polarisation seems more important than principle, when literacy seems like an after thought in a post-truth environment, I think it’s actually more important than ever that we have nuanced and insightful readings of speculative fiction. We need to find the texts which can be read into our activism, that can energise our resistance of fascism, we need to deconstruct those that work for fascism and understand their mechanics so that we can recognise them more easily, and we need to find things that bring us hope, joy and purpose.