The History of Missed Opportunities explores an unrecognized, certainly an unappreciated, development in Romantic-era Britain: the discovery of everyday life as a world that had been overlooked or, as Maurice Blanchot later describes it, “what we never see a first time, but only see again.” Emergence, first theorized somewhat later in the nineteenth century, focused––to no real surprise––on the rise and synthesis of complex entities from components that were less complicated. But in a reversal of this dynamic that might be deemed pre-Darwinian, the impetus behind the everyday’s emergence as a separate stratum of experience involved two things: the emancipation of the world from subjective or phenomenological misprision in allowing a symbol derived from nature (in, say, a Wordsworth poem) to revert back to a more basic materiality or thingness; and second, and related, the recognition that the lives and experiences of individuals (but also of nations and societies) were myopically bound to futurity––to horizons of progress or development––that took little stock of the present, which was increasingly “missable” (as Stanley Cavell has termed it) but as a prelude now to being (re)discovered.
The everyday’s emergence is in the most basic sense, then, an act of recovery that Romantic-period literature restages, transforming “history” into a placeholder for possibilities that had been ignored in deference to the “open futures” toward which seemingly everything, from science to social progress, to bildung on a personal scale, was hurtling in “the age of revolution.”
And what of history at this moment? Well, in addition to being made daily (or so it seemed), history was being mobilized––notably by empirical philosophy––to establish generalities and probabilities so that “what we have found to be most usual,” as David Hume put it, “is always most probable.” For a skeptic like Hume, for whom nothing was knowable beyond a mere impression, history––experience in aggregate––was more than just a guide to understanding what was out there; it was just as importantly a conservative wish that our tomorrows would resemble yesterday.
For the Romantics, however, who were progressively invested in tomorrows that were different and transformative––and less concerned, for their parts, with the limits posed by subjectivity––history was put to different uses. The most common were histories that are broadly linear––so-called Whig histories––where the past and the future were coextensive in the assumption that each moment in time was a step toward absolute modernity and, eventually, the end of history. But there was another use and, as my book shows, it involved something very different: a reckoning where possibility abides in reminders and remainders––opportunities I call them––that are accessible in the wake of being missed after which they are recognized, again and for the first time.
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.
In the “Prelude” I draw an analogy between what literature discovers in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries and what other (then) versions of art turned up. In the large circular 1791 panorama of London (an aquatint of which survives) viewers were exposed to a present that was overwhelming at first sight but sufficiently recurrent that what was missed or overlooked––a world too much with them––was eventually encountered.
In a long, theoretical chapter on the everyday, history and possibility, I explore the theoretical payoff of the Romantics’ grapplings with the everyday. It is no accident that the most forceful (re)formulations of everydayness in modern times––from Heideggerean being, to Lefebvre’s embrace of nonalienation on an agrarian model, to the ecstatic immersion in the environment or surround embraced by both Bennett and Cavell––all take aim at an order of subjectivity that came to fruition in the Romantic period but that, with characteristic reflexivity (as I’ve shown previously in The Return of the Visible in British Romanticism) the Romantics were also the first to modify.
Another feature of the book, distributed throughout and of a piece with its focus, is the treatment of daily writing, both journals and correspondence. Of special interest––certainly to readers familiar with them––will be the treatment of Austen’s letters. Shallow and gossipy by comparison to her narrative style (and a disappointment to many of Austen’s fans), the letters shed new light on the fictions’ unprecedented representation of “real natural every day life” (as one contemporary reader described it) in substituting the past––an erstwhile present––for a future that, by comparison to, say, that of the novelist’s brothers, was literally impossible.
I also devote considerable attention to Byron’s epistolary courtship of his future wife, Annabella Milbanke, where marriage was experienced avant la lettre (in letters) as the opposite of the regressive activity (and pattern) that Byron disparagingly called “love.” Almost always understood in hindsight––from the vantage of its astonishingly rapid dissolution––the Byron marriage remained and remains a missed opportunity on multiple levels. It was a missed opportunity beforehand, to which Byron was referred by a courtship that modeled domesticity even as what it modeled was already an object of lament and retrospection. And it is literally a history of missed opportunities afterwards that the poet fashions (or refashions) in his ever-unfolding magnum opus, Don Juan, whose interlocutor, I argue, is none other than the poet’s estranged wife. Last but hardly least, the Byron marriage proves a challenge to posterity, which typically imagines the poet as the heterodox alternative to normativity, forgetting or ignoring that heterosexual monogamy––before and after––was arguably the queerest, most (im)possible, place that Byron ever found himself.
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.
William H. Galperin is Distinguished Professor of English and former director of the Center for Cultural Analysis at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey. His primary area of expertise is literature of the Romantic period in Britain on which he has written three previous books: Revision and Authority in Wordsworth: The Interpretation of a Career (1989), The Return of the Visible in British Romanticism (1993) and The Historical Austen (2003). He is currently at work on a project exploring the co-dependency of immediacy and loss.