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


In Imre Kertész’s autobiographical novel, Fatelessness, the protagonist comes to conclusions virtually identical to those I explore but under radically different circumstances. “[I]magination,” he recalls,

remains unfettered even in captivity. . . . [I could] have been anywhere––Calcutta, Florida, the loveliest places in the world. Yet that would not have been serious enough . . . for me that was not credible, if I may put it that way, so as a result I usually found myself merely back home. . . . my favorite pastime was. . . to visualize an entire, unbroken day back home, from the morning right through the evening if possible . . . . but then I normally only envisaged a rotten day, with an early rising, school, anxiety, a lousy lunch, the many opportunities they had offered back then that I had missed, rejected, or completely overlooked, and I can tell you now, here in the concentration camp, I set them all right to the greatest possible perfection.

The last thing any of us needs these days is another self-serving appropriation of Holocaust-related materials. At the same time, there is too much in this passage––the “missed opportunities” being only the most obvious––that is relevant to the point of being uncanny.

Most significantly, there is the continuum––the “entire, unbroken” stratum as Kertész frames it––that the everyday comes to constitute as a parallel world that had been “overlooked” and, like that “day back home,” emerges as history or, closing the circle, a history of missed opportunities. It matters a great deal that also missing here is the very term itself. In this Kertész is all but restaging the everyday’s emergence as a concept, where, far from the ceiling it eventually becomes for an historian like Fernand Braudel and countless others (not to mention a camp inmate), the everyday is allied with history and, to complicate matters more, history as opposed to memory.

There are other histories that elude memory, notably traumatic ones where the “event” ––for example a train wreck––is forgotten only to reemerge weeks, months, even years later. What’s interesting, then, about Kertész’s recollection and about the various histories fashioned by writers much earlier is that they forgo memorable content in deference to something of which memory––or such memories as Kertész conjures––is no more than a feeble index. The early rising, the lousy lunch give way to opportunities that go unrecognized and unappreciated not because they’re suddenly recuperable in comparison to lousier lunches and lousier regimens. They offer back something––something yielding to perfection––because at the moment of its discovery as something new or different, the everyday is both present and, to borrow directly from Blanchot, what continually “escapes.” It may be available in the “shape of fields or ploughs” as “part of the immense wealth that humblest facts . . . contain” for a social thinker like Lefebvre, whose “critique of everyday life” simultaneously celebrates an earlier, precapitalist quotidian. But it is just as importantly an “implicit, unexplored content” that eludes him, and that Kertész, all duress aside, captures in a conceptual move that he calls setting right. Cavell, in one of his many meditations on the ordinary, describes this content as “something there,” something “open to our senses,” that “has been missed” and whose discovery amounts to what––no less hyperbolically than Kertész––he calls an “ecstatic attestation of existence.”

Now, to someone in the concentration camp at Zeitz, the appeal of ecstatic self-abandonment, as opposed to being in captivity, scarcely requires elaboration. But that prospect is not the point, either for Kertész or for the Romantic-period writers who preceded him. At stake in the peculiar surprise that underlies the everyday’s emergence––its being set right––is something inaccessible that is fathomable by retrospection but not necessarily in retrospect: something missed and––phenomenologically––“missable,” but present as an article of faith or, with special bearing on Kertész again, a basis for hope.

The idea that such a perfect world could shadow, even subsume, the relentless probability of a labor camp is hard to conceive. Yet this in fact is where his historiography leads. Not to something irreducibly anterior but to a parallel world, again, whose very possibility is guaranteed––and here we’re back to setting things right––in the understanding that it happened, that it is possible, and that its possibility is what makes it perfect––now more than ever.

There was a time, not long before the eighteenth century, when probability was difficult to assess or to calculate in a world where things were simply too random and unstable and where everyday life, by sad contrast, was an unrelenting grind. By century’s end, however, when life in general became fated and more predictable (thanks to innovations in science and technology), the world was also ready for the kind of do-over that both Kertész and the Romantics administer. It was ready thanks to the opening that history could perform in finally slowing things down: both as an aperture onto what was missed and unappreciated in a world blessed (and cursed) by probability and progress; and as a pathway to a present that was always possible––fateless, if you will––because it was there, hiding in plain sight.