How the Romantics turned their—and our—attention to the quotidian.
One of the most striking moments in Wordsworth’s poetry comes at the very end of his most famous poem, where he speaks cryptically of the “meanest flower that blows” as “giv[ing] / Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.” This statement has long perplexed readers but there are two aspects that bear particular scrutiny: the frequency of the experience as described and the fact that the flower is demonstrably, extravagantly, ordinary.
There is a third aspect as well—thinking as distinct from feeling—best glossed by recourse to another Wordsworth poem, “The Two April Mornings,” which features an old man’s recollection of an encounter at—of all places—his daughter’s gravesite, which he remembers coming upon by accident only to be distracted by someone who is very much alive:
And turning from her grave I met
Beside the church-yard Yew
A blooming girl, whose hair was wet
With points of morning dew. . . .
There came from me a sigh of pain
Which I could ill confine;
I looked at her and looked again
—And did not wish her mine.
It’s hard to say where feeling stops and thinking begins here, given the pain with which thought is seemingly allied. Still, it’s pretty clear that the girl’s transit from something personal to something impersonal—and in that sense ordinary—is administered by a revision, a double take, where something missed and refashioned is suddenly present and freestanding. The same is true of the meanest flower. By giving rise to thought such as Wordsworth describes it, the flower, like the girl, is casting off a different kind of thought: a poetical or subjective thinking where flowers speak, where the living are stand-ins for the dead, and, as Wordsworth punningly hints earlier in the poem, where a thought can be a natural object rather than the other way around.
But there’s a Tree, of many one,
A single Field which I have looked upon,
Both of them speak of something that is gone:
The Pansy at my feet
Doth the same tale repeat:
Whither is fled the visionary gleam?
Where is it now, the glory and the dream?
Poised between a declarative statement of loss and a question that bears the promise, at least rhetorically, of some recovery in the present, the Pansy/pensée turns out to be a pivot from the former to the latter: from the potency of interiority (for better or for worse) that we associate with a Romantic poet like Wordsworth to a more fundamental materiality or thingness, which, no less than the movement from daughter to girl, marks a “turning” from something irrevocably lost to something lost and found.
As the experience of re-seeing suggests, the everyday comes to consciousness as a history of missed opportunities.
It takes the remainder of the poem for this discovery to materialize in the “meanest flower” and in the world, by turns, to which “it” refers. But the point to stress, both here and in other writings of the period, is that this awareness is a question not just of retrospection (however sudden or instantaneous) but of a peculiar deference, a surprise, best encapsulated by a phrase from Jane Austen’s Emma and the memorable character of Miss Bates, who in a rare moment of economy states flatly: “What is before me, I see.” Miss Bates could easily have said, “I see what is before me.” But the difficulty or dis-ease embedded in her syntax, where emphasis is on “what” (vs. “I”) gets at something endemic to Austen generally, where “what” is present or “before” the observer is equally “before”—that is, prior—as a condition of being seen again and for the first time.
The world to which Miss Bates (as it happens) is preternaturally sensitive is an aspect of the novels that Austen’s earliest readers continually remarked on, with many complaining that the novels had no story certainly by comparison to their remarkable presentation of “real natural every day life.” Thus what Miss Bates gets at with extraordinary succinctness is not only the achievement in representing a world that readers were similarly struck by. She points also to the historical distance—a gap separating then and now—in which by process of revision, literally and figuratively, the everyday came to life for Austen as a distinct and parallel world.
What’s also interesting, then, about the various histories fashioned by Wordsworth and Austen is that they forgo memorable content in deference to something of which memory is no more than a feeble index. Stanley Cavell, in one of his many meditations on the ordinary, describes this unmemorable content as “something there,” something “open to our senses,” that “has been missed” and whose discovery amounts to what he hyperbolically calls an “ecstatic attestation of existence.” What ecstasy betokens here, and as the signature of something special, is the abandonment of a self, such as we see in Wordsworth, in deference to a world too much with us (pace Heidegger) to be noticed except in aftermath. As the experience of re-seeing suggests, the emergence of the everyday as a distinct category comes to consciousness as a history of missed opportunities.
Such thinking necessarily anticipates a constellation of non-anthropocentric or mind-independent formulations that are object-oriented, or speculative in the degree that they postulate a real simultaneously removed from core aspects of realism, such as probability. But just as important, and altogether fittingly, these formulations recall what has been missed or unappreciated in the Romantics themselves, for whom the environment is frequently “another world” to which Wordsworth is turned in encounters with persons and things; and to which Austen bears witness as something anterior that, as she revises her earliest novels, comes “before” her in a different way.
To this day, whether in theory or the arts, we are the inheritors of the Romantics’ discovery of the quotidian. I recently received an email from a friend who thought that Imre Kertész’s novel Fatelessness had bearing on the dynamic of loss and recognition that brought everyday life into unprecedented relief two centuries earlier. Kertész’s protagonist comes to conclusions very similar to the ones I turn up but under radically different conditions. For what forges his awareness of everyday life—an order he likens to “perfection”—is nothing less than life in a concentration camp. “One’s imagination,” 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 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 Maurice Blanchot, what continually “escapes.” Most significantly, there is the continuum—the “entire, unbroken” stratum as Kertész frames it—that the everyday comes to constitute as a world that had been “overlooked” and, like that “day back home,” emerges as history or, closing the circle, a history of missed opportunities.
The idea that such a perfect world could shadow, even subsume, the relentless probability of a labor camp (notably the prospect of death at any time) is hard to conceive, though it may be one more explanation of what Kertész means by “fatelessness.” But this is in fact where his historiography leads. Not to something irreducibly anterior but to a world, whose very presence 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.
To this day, whether in theory or the arts, we are the inheritors of the Romantics’ discovery of the quotidian.
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 not only because of the “open futures” that were simultaneously abroad in an environment marked by multiple changes and revolutions and by a general sense that everything was moving at an accelerated pace. It was ready by virtue of the opening that history could perform in slowing things down: both as an aperture onto what was missed and unappreciated in a world blessed (and cursed) by probability; and as a pathway to a present that was always possible—fateless, if you will—because it was there, hiding in plain sight.