Well yeah. I was just sitting here, eating my muffin, drinking my coffee, when I had what alcoholics refer to as a moment of clarity. – Jules Winnfield (Pulp Fiction)
Putting aside for the moment the definition of Epiphany-with-a-capital-E as a Christian feast celebrating the manifestation of the divine nature of Jesus to the Gentiles as represented by the Magi, most dictionaries define epiphany as a sudden intuitive perception of or insight into reality or the essential meaning of something often initiated by a simple commonplace occurrence or something very similar.
To my mind the most famous epiphany is the one later on in the Bible where Saul of Tarsus witnesses this blinding white light on the road to Damascus accompanied by the voice of the resurrected Jesus telling him to stop kicking against the pricks and become a Christian. From this, of course, we get people saying that they've "seen the light" meaning that some fundamental truth has revealed to them. I find it most interesting that a revelation of this kind would be accompanied by blindness but let's leave that there. I'm more interested in secular epiphanies.
Of course one could argue that epiphanies of sudden comprehension have made possible forward leaps in technology and the sciences. Arguably the most famous epiphany would be Archimedes' realisation of how to estimate the volume of a given mass, which inspired him to shout "Eureka!" whereupon he bolts down the street in the all-together. As you do.
In her foreword to her book, Epiphanies: Where Science and Miracles Meet, Ann Jauregui has this to say:
[M]y favourite part of the definition, tells us that the revelation is usually brought on by some simple, homely, or commonplace experience. Something big is occasioned by something little, something easily missed. And it unfolds from there – sometimes as a flash, sometimes in exquisite slow motion – out of conventional time and space and language. ‘Look at this,’ you whisper as you see something about the universe you’ve never seen before. ‘And look at this,’ you whisper too, seeing yourself seeing it. The universe is bigger than it was a minute ago, and so are you.
The world's literary understanding however owes much to James Joyce, who expanded on its meaning in the fragment Stephen Hero much of which was incorporated in the novel Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
In Stephen Hero, we find the following definition of Joyce’s style of writing between 1900 and 1904:
First we see that the object is one thing, then we see that it is an organized composite structure, a thing in fact: finally, when the relation of the parts is exquisite, when the parts are adjusted to the special point, we recognize that it is that thing which it is. Its soul, its whatness, leaps to us from the vestment of its appearance etc…
Stephen is trying to explain to his friend, Cranly, how even the most common-or-garden object – in this case the clock of the Ballast Office – can be the catalyst resulting in an epiphany. Elsewhere in the book we find epiphany described as a
…sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself. [It is for] the man of letters to record these epiphanies with extreme care, seeing that they themselves are the most delicate and evanescent of moments.
For Joyce then, an epiphany is not necessarily the once-in-a-lifetime experiences of Saul or Archimedes, but a fairly commonplace event, a way of seeing the world afresh. I suppose others may call this experience 'a moment of inspiration' but I've always considered them as potentially life-changing moments (think of them as often tiny course corrections) not merely fodder for stories.
A simple example can be found in the work of Marcel Proust. Working at the same time as Joyce, Proust was another writer who made much of epiphanic experiences in his writing, the most well-known being found in his classic book Remembrance of Things Past, where Proust recounts the story of how biting into a tea-soaked madeleine cake prompted a rush of memories that motivated him to write.
The fictional account is actually rooted firmly in reality. During a lull in his writing in January 1909, he apparently had an unexpected and compelling surge of memory over a cup of Linden tea into which he dipped a dry piece of toast known as a rusk cracker. Not as poetic as madeleine cake so one can understand why he changed it and it is surprising how much has been written about why madeleine cake wouldn't have worked. Some people really have too much time on their hands.
Proust's personal experiences have here provided the basis for his fictional character's experiences substantiating the claim made by James Joyce that "it would be a brave man would invent something that never happened". The other thing is that this is not the only epiphany in Remembrance of Things Past nor even the most important one though it is the one most often cited.
The same is true of Stephen Hero. At the time Joyce collected epiphanies as a way of developing his skills as a playwright and by 1903 he had dozens. Suddenly, in 1904, he decided he was ready to link them with conventional prose. If one pays heed to an epiphany, in the same way as Saul did, ones life has to change direction or perspective and this is how Joyce uses the epiphany, as plot almost.
Whereas the catalyst in a Proustian epiphany, is often a commonplace object or mundane gesture or snatch of conversation, with Joyce its stimulus is more likely to be a critical situation or some incident that upsets the individual's established view of himself and the world.
I pointed out earlier that Saul was blinded by the light he saw. In Joyce's short story collection, Dubliners, poor – or at least obscured – eyesight is a recurring theme: in 'The Dead', Gabriel's eyes are irritated by the floor which glitters with beeswax under the heavy chandelier; in 'The Boarding House', Bob Doran wears glasses which he polishes all the time, Little Chandler in 'A Little Cloud' is another visually-oriented Dubliner who sees in a blurred way: "his sight … confused by the shining of many red and green win-glasses" and in both 'Clay' and 'Araby' Joyce has characters whose sight is blinded by tears. The characters in these stories depend solely on their eyes for comprehension and, what is more frustrating, they do not see clearly but rather in a blurred way. What is ironic, but this is the point Joyce was making, is that in each story when an epiphany occurs no one changes direction; they 'see' but they do not understand, to use another biblical allusion.
In 'After the Race' Jimmy, an intellectual nouveau-riche who has studied law at an English university deceives himself trying to climb the ladder of success and reach emancipation on international standards. Because he has trained himself to rely solely on his eyes, he has acquired such a distorted perspective that when he is involved in a crucial game of cards, ironically, he misreads them ("he frequently mistook his cards") and therefore loses a fortune. The epiphanic punch line at the end of the story: "Daybreak, gentlemen!" is uttered by Villona, a pianist (who stands for the auditory frame of reference). With this acoustic message, Jimmy becomes aware of his folly, an unwanted truth that he had tried to avoid confronting to the very end. – Joyce's Dubliners as Epiphanies
An epiphany, literally or spiritually, is an opportunity, nothing more. Saul could have just as easily continued persecuting the Christians; it would have been far easier for him in fact. In some cases our moment of insight comes too late, as is the case in so many of Roald Dahl's Tales of the Unexpected where his characters learn what they should have done but you couldn’t really call these twists in the tail epiphanies.
My favourite literary epiphany comes predictably from Beckett. In Krapp's Last Tape, the wearish Krapp listens with growing impatience to the recording of his younger self relate with gusto the tale of an epiphany he experienced one night on a storm-tossed jetty. This was long considered to be Beckett’s own experience. It turns out that an equivalent epiphany did occur but it was in the far less dramatic setting of his mother’s bedroom as he watched her suffer from Parkinson’s Disease. Beckett wrote to Richard Ellmann: "All the jetty and howling wind are imaginary. It happened to me, summer 1945, in my mother’s little house, named 'New Place', across the road from Cooldrinagh."
Shortly before his death he summarised what this experience signified for him in a conversation with his friend and biographer, James Knowlson:
I realised that Joyce had gone as far as one could in the direction of knowing more, [being] in control of one’s material. He was always adding to it; you only have to look at his proofs to see that. I realised that my own way was in impoverishment, in lack of knowledge and in taking away, in subtracting rather than in adding. – Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett p352
As in the cases of Joyce and Proust before him Beckett has taken his personal epiphany – and one nowhere near as spectacular as the one he presents on the tape – and fictionalised it. Worthy of note is how the elderly Krapp views that moment at the end of his life. He skips through the tape and is clearly irritated at what he now regards as naïveté on the part of his younger self. Does he regret making the decision to put his writing first and foremost in his life? It certainly looks like it. And that could well have been Beckett sitting there instead of a merely fictional Krapp. Had it not been for the phenomenal success of Waiting for Godot Beckett might have continued with his prose work and not be any better known today that his contemporary, the not entirely untalented Pinget.
While tempted to rejoin his old ambition to compose a great masterpiece which would ‘realize a life within the confines of a book!’ - mimetically drawing ‘comparisons from the loftiest and the most varied arts’ – Marcel says no. He resists the temptation. ‘What a task awaited him!’ he proclaims, taking his final distance from the persona of the Great Writer, now suddenly displaced into the third person – ‘How happy would he be, I thought, the man who had the power to write such a book!’ But Marcel now knows he is not this man. He is not one of those Promothean romantic artists whose will-to-power would construct his work ‘like a general conducting an offensive’, or an architect building a huge vaulted ‘cathedral’, ensuring one’s immortality even in the tomb, ‘against oblivion’. This Ideal Author of the Ideal Book is not for Marcel. He has learned, like Stephen [Dedalus] in the wake of the Library episode, to ‘cease to strive’ … Instead, he resolves on a far more modest proposal. – Epiphanies in Joyce and Proust
In modern times an epiphany lies behind the title of William Burroughs' Naked Lunch, a drug-influenced state, as Burroughs explained, “a frozen moment when everyone sees what is at the end of the fork.” Further examples of epiphanies can be found is the work of all the following writers, although there are many others: J D Salinger, Alice Walker, Allen Ginsberg, Flannery O'Connor, John Steinbeck, Don Delillo.
There was a comic I remember vividly from my childhood, an issue of Action Comics entitled "The Day Superboy Became Superman!" (#393 Oct. 1970 for those interested in these things) and it was the first time I'd ever thought that there would be a time when I stopped being a boy and became a man; I suppose you could call it an epiphany – I had always known but now I knew. I was in my forties before it happened but there you go. The thing is there wasn't a day like in the comics when the transition took place but one day I realised I was actually a fully-paid-up adult. The same goes for being a writer. I'd written four novels before I actually started to be comfortable calling myself a writer; before that I just wrote. I never had an epiphany, I popped an Old English Spangle in my mouth (showing my age here) and suddenly realised I was a writer. I just drifted into it.
All of which brings me to an epiphany I once had. But first a poem:
Did you ever think you might have
done it because you wanted to?
she said after.
No need to apologise.
Drowning inside I close my
eyes allowing such feelings
to cover me as will.
Unaware of their names I
open my mouth to the waters.
19 June 1985
The catalyst for this poem was nothing more complicated than a hug. It came at the end of a bad day (make that an extraordinarily bad day) from a woman I was very fond of. She and her family had run across me wandering around the harbour and brought me home, fed me and did their best to cheer me up, which they managed. At the end of the night the wife came to the door to see me out and I gave her a goodbye hug. Actually that's not really it; I threw myself into her arms and clung on for dear life. And I kept hanging on.
After a very long hug I started to let go but she kept hanging on too. I started to make an apology for my desperate act but she shrugged it off with the quote in the poem. As regards to hanging onto me her answer was ever bit as straightforward: "Did you not think I might have needed a hug too?" The answer to that was that I hadn't. No one needed hugs but me. Why did she need a hug? She was married, she had hugs on tap.
I left that flat reeling and wrote the poem above. It was not an instantaneous revelation you need to understand but rather, like Jauregui describes it in her book, an unfolding of the truth "in exquisite slow motion". 'White Light' became the first of a series focusing on a man drowning in emotions. I suddenly had an image that explained what I was going through. I had defined the problem; the next thing was to do something about it. But that's another story. The simple fact is what caused my epiphany was nothing more fanciful than a hug and it wasn't that I'd never been hugged before either just like I don't imagine that was the first bit of toast Proust ever ate. I used to think the title wasn't very good but after writing this blog entry I find myself better pleased with it.
The series culminated in this poem:
THE DROWNING MAN
Though I kept my rooms on
I'd given up all hope of an audience
when one day I was summoned.
It was like an interview in the womb
before being granted life.
He read what I'd brought without comment,
and then addressed me in the half-light:
"There is a drowning man in us all,"
"and like a man who never sleeps
he is driven mad by his own existence."
He said no more;
but then he'd said it all.
We never met again.
I did not expect we would.
And that's all I can remember,
except his eyes:
as if some prisoner inside him
was peering out through them at me.
I had only ever seen them in a mirror.
17 October 1986
The poem describes the meeting between the poet I saw myself as and his doppelgänger, the poet I expected I would end up as. It was my Krapp's Last Tape only the young man has the opportunity to do something about it. When he looks in the old poet's eyes he gets to see a future he thought he wanted. Of course we have no idea what he will do about it but I've always believed the young poet would continue regardless.
Which brings us the a wonderful new word, at least it's new to me: anagnorisis, the point in the plot especially of a tragedy at which the protagonist recognizes his or some other character's true identity or discovers the true nature of his own situation. It would have been a good title but I'm happy with the one I gave it.
For a writer there's a lot here to think about. Just watch out you don't miss the moment when it comes. There may not be any lightning bolts or blinding lights but hopefully you can get where you're going without the soggy toast.