William H. Galperin


On his book The History of Missed Opportunities: British Romanticism and the Emergence of the Everyday

Cover Interview of June 27, 2017

The wide angle

A brief look at the Oxford English Dictionary indicates that the “everyday” (as opposed to the “ordinary” which was primarily a class designation) developed into a necessary descriptor sometime in the mid-eighteenth century, eventually achieving a conceptual apotheosis in the notion of “everydayness” in the 1840s. Thus it is the development toward conceptualization, especially in the new century, that interests me. This is not only because the emergence of the everyday as a parallel, indeed possible, world––in contrast to the one that Hume and insurance companies came to rely on––is diametrically opposed to the withering probabilism that “everydayness” would eventually signify as an urban, postindustrial phenomenon. It is also because this emergence is a transit (back) to the future in formulating a “theory of the everyday” that has gained considerable traction in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, beginning with Heidegger and continuing in the social theories of Henri Lefebvre and Michel de Certeau, the philosophy of Stanley Cavell, and most recently the political theory of Jane Bennett and Thomas Dumm.

To political theorists especially, an appreciation of (and submission to) ordinary actuality holds what may well be the last promise for democracy and solidarity, not just between people, but between humans and the environment. Dumm speaks of a politics of resignation, where anonymity and commonality join in an unprecedented sense of belonging. Bennett goes even further, viewing the ordinary as a site of enchantment, which she defines as a state of openness to the “disturbing-captivating elements in everyday experience.” Heidegger is the seminal figure here, postulating an impersonality that he calls being or being-in-the-world (Dasein), and naming “everydayness” (as he terms it) ––in, for example, the things/tools ready-to-hand that we take for granted and are paradoxically possessed by––as the “mode” in which being “operates…preeminently.” In general, what recent theories of the everyday stress over and over––and what Romantic-period writers discovered to their surprise––is “the extraordinary,” as Bennett, Cavell, and Lefebvre all frame it, “that lives amid the familiar.”

We see this in the double takes by which a poet like Wordsworth disencumbers history of memory in demonstrating what a self-involved engagement with the world forgets. We see it also in Jane Austen––the subject of my last book (The Historical Austen) and a germ for this one––whose practice of revision, especially of narratives drafted at least a decade earlier, enables a return to a world and a milieu that time and progress have erased and that reemerges, thanks to previous documentation, as something different and valuable. And we witness it most dramatically in Lord Byron, thanks to the “history” to which he consigned marriage before it even happened, creating a nostalgia for something not-yet realized and destined to fail (as he saw it) that was the more exotic as a result. Domesticity gains prestige and a certain palpability not because it was missed or overlooked at the time; it comes into focus for Byron because there was no such time––no memory but only a history of missed opportunities.