On "What Ifs? and Flying Squirrels: Another 18th Century Counterfactual

Harvard art historian Jennifer L. Roberts’ compelling essay about the benefits of teaching students to appreciate “the value of deceleration and immersive attention” uses counterfactual reasoning to underscore the importance of resisting our present-day world’s insistence on immediacy and instantaneousness.

She bases her claims on a close reading of John Singleton Copley’s painting, A Boy with a Flying Squirrel (1765).  After explaining the virtues of taking one’s time to appreciate the formal features of any painting (she describes how requires students to spend three hours at a museum examining a painting of their choice), she recounts how the Boston-based Copley had to wait eleven months to get feedback from his British colleagues on the painting’s merits (he shipped the painting across the Atlantic and then had to wait for the responses).

She goes on to highlight the need to “understand that delays are not just inert obstacles preventing productivity. Delays can themselves be productive….We can see this directly in the painting, which is full of allusions to time, distance, and patience.  The painting is about its own patient passage through time and space. Look at that squirrel. As the strange shape of the belly fur indicates, if one takes time to notice it, this is not just any squirrel but a flying squirrel, a species native to North America with obvious thematic resonances for the theme of travel and movement. (The work’s full title is A Boy with a Flying Squirrel.) Moreover, squirrels in painting and literature were commonly understood to be emblems of diligence and patience….”
After listing further details, she concludes with the counterfactual observation: “Copley’s painting…is an embodiment of the delays that it was created to endure. If Copley had had instant access to his instructors in London, if there had been an edX course given by the Royal Academy, he would not have been compelled to paint the way he did. Changing the pace of the exchange would have changed the form and content of the exchange. This particular painting simply would not exist. This painting is formed out of delay, not in spite of it.”
Roberts' observation is notable for illustrating how counterfactual reasoning can lay bare the realities of our own time by hypothetically projecting them into the past and seeing the consequences that would have ensued.   This particular “what if?” underscores the enormous gap between past and present, between a society rooted in patience and one increasingly incapable of it.