Gaither Stewart

Recently a person very dear to me wrote that he had had a “sort of epiphany” and believed that as a result he was on the road to recovery from a host of life-threatening problems resulting from long-term drug addiction.
    Shortly afterwards I saw the film Les Miserables and experienced in a new way Jean Valjean’s epiphany when the priest he had robbed and threatened instead forgave him and gave him the candelabra he had tried to steal. It was the beginning of a new and rewarding life for Victor Hugo’s hero among the post-revolutionary poor of France.
    I don’t believe I had ever used the powerful word “epiphany” in fiction writing before. Now suddenly I was meeting with increasing frequency either the word itself or the word in action; in fact, since I began this essay I seem to encounter the word everywhere. I too like the sound of  “epiphany” and have found that it often expresses the emotion I want.
    Writers often turn to the word to depict the miraculous event of human transformation from evil to good. To express transcendence. Joyce’s Ulysses has been described as one long epiphany. Over a century earlier Wordsworth used epiphanies to impart his belief in the moment of glory when a person becomes aware that he is indeed a human being: when his “spirit shows forth.”

    Though each writer gives his own interpretation to the epiphany, its role in fiction remains central, sometimes even greater than the writer himself intends. In Wordsworth the epiphany occurs when the person suddenly manifests the quality of his particular being and the wonder of his being in general. The established implications of epiphany are that like a revelation it occurs suddenly, in a flash, the showing forth of the spirit out of the tran-tran of everyday existence. It is a supernatural aesthetic revelation before the sight of beauty or truth that sweep you up and out of your normal human condition.
    Most certainly the epiphany is an extraordinary event. It is a most rare event. Not everyone experiences it. Or not everyone is aware of it. I think the writer who uses the word explicitly has in mind some kind of divine intervention in human life as, for example, the light of God.
    In vain I searched the King James version of the Bible--translated into English out of the original languages--for the word, epiphany. I found however such expressions in which light expresses a similar meaning: “the light shall shine upon thy ways” [Job 22:28], “light that shines more and more” [Proverbs 4:18], “upon them hath the light shone” [Isaiah 9:2],  “arise, shine, for thy light is come” [Isaiah 60:1], “burning and shining light” [John 5:35], “turn from darkness to light” [Acts 26:18], “a light shining in a dark place” [II Peter 1:19], “how is it thou wilt manifest thyself?” [John 2:11].
The Greek word is clear: epiphaneia--an appearance--and the verb, epiphainein--[ep--upon and phainein--to show] thus to show forth, to manifest. Dictionaries define the word also as the manifestation of the divinity of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles in the persons of the Magi at Bethlehem on the twelfth day after Christmas--the day of the Epiphany.
    One Wordsworthian meaning of epiphany relates directly to the writer himself--the rare writer, one underlines--for to claim for oneself an epiphany as the source of a piece of true writing is in my book dangerous territory. For Wordsworth however the sudden revelation communicates to the writer a transcendent message of truth and understanding of human existence--his own included.

    What is the epiphany then for each of us in our humdrum lives? Does it exist in modern life in which science and technology claim near universal knowledge?
    An epiphany seems to point toward answers to questions like, What am I as an individual? What is my life all about? Do I count? The answers to such questions however are misty and cloudy. We are just barely aware of that “light,” of that something that hovers in the beyond, which some rare times, for brief moments, seems within reach. I have sometimes referred to that fleeting evanescent sensation as “it.”
    Saul Bellow speaks of the “essence” of our real condition, which is shown to us in glimpses that manifest themselves and then vanish. Tolstoy called those glimpses--this essence, this it--, “true impressions.”
    After it has departed as quickly as it came, we might stop and wonder if it was really there. Yet there is a residue. A shadow of the essence. And it is sad because it vanished so quickly. We long for its return. We feel nostalgia for something unnamable. We hope it will return and stay longer and reveal to us once and for all the ultimate secret of who we are.
    Here we seem to be speaking of a spirit. Or the spirit. Our soul. Many people hesitate to speak of spirit and soul. Not that it’s a taboo subject but it’s embarrassing. Many people don’t want to risk the ridicule for delving into things that anyway can’t be proved.
    Yet despite the inadequacy of language to bridge the gap between day - to - day trivialities and the core or essence of life, I think the real sense of literature lies precisely in that gap. It lies in those moments of revelation, which can conveniently be called epiphanies.
     The revelations, the epiphanies, come to be associated with the good, with the unexplainable, the unnamable, the silent secrets in our hearts, which we feel in us and sometimes speak to. It’s something like longing for an impossible Utopia that we aspire to. It’s the conviction that we are not neutral, not mere uncharged neutrons.
    Lionel Trilling in his wonderful book, Sincerity and Authenticity, traces Renaissance resistance to the heroic ideal of man as passed down from the Greeks and how Renaissance man’s new emphasis on the practical conduct of life prepared the way for a renewed kind of spiritual experience. For it is out of the commonplaces of life that can emerge the wonder of the moments of transcendence that from time to time occur.
    This, Trilling points out, is the basis of Joyce’s conception of the epiphany, the ‘showing forth’ of the spirit of Leopold Bloom from the trivialities of that one Dublin day.
The assumption of the epiphany is that human existence is in largest part compounded of the dullness and triviality of its routine, devitalized or paralyzed by habit and the weight of necessity, and that what is occasionally shown forth--although it is not divinity as the traditional meaning of the word would propose--is nevertheless appropriate to the idea of divinity: it is what we call spirit. There are times when the sudden disclosure transfigures the dull and the ordinary, suffusing it with significance.
    The poor poor reader! The writer lords it over him with his implacable and both premeditated and unpremeditated unpredictability. For the writer’s creative life varies over different levels reflecting his varying sensibilities. The lower level, the more ordinary creative plane, runs through all his works--beguiling, deceptive and deceitful. Until occasionally, like a bolt from the blue, it is overshadowed by a higher plane.
    At epiphany level the creator surpasses ordinary considerations of elegance, which on that high plane are coupled with an absence of restraint and control, perhaps even dignity and sometimes self-awareness. The transcendence in such a moment is infected with an indelible didactic - ideological Geist; it is here then that the deepest abysses of the artist’s consciousness can be revealed.
    In that light Dostoevsky’s Memoirs from Underground appears as one extended epiphany. It reveals at once the writer’s essential self. As much of Dostoevsky’s work, it transcends art and stands among the great mystical revelations of man. Similarly, in some of Tolstoy, the epiphany, which is most often a revelation of inner light, is all-pervasive.

    Thus, for writer, reader and the character experiencing it, the epiphany lies on the highest level of human emotion and reception. It is the testimony that each human has the possibility of discovering in life a tiny part of the essence of himself and of the Absolute.
    The danger I see for the gullible cannibalistic writer is in identifying epiphany with the concept of the more commonly used “inspiration.” Overuse of the word inspiration as the source of artistic ideas has already made it nearly meaningless. It reminds me of the overuse of the word feelings; I was glad to meet Wilde’s words that “all bad poetry springs from genuine feelings.” Some things you can’t talk about too much; the more you speak of them, the less meaning they have--like also sincerity--or truth and love.
    To consider the epiphany as synonymous with inspiration, it seems, grants much too much to the concept of inspiration and much too little to the wonderful and rare occurrences of the epiphany in any life.  

July 2002

© 2002 Gaither Stewart

Gaither Stewart grew up in Asheville, NC. After studies at the University of California at Berkeley and other American universities, He settled first in Germany, then in Italy. After a career in journalism as Italian correspondent for a major European daily newspaper and contributor to the press in several European countries, he began writing fiction full-time five years ago. Since then he has authored three novels and two short-story collections. He has resided in Italy, Germany, The Netherlands, France, Russia and Mexico. Today he lives with his wife, Milena, in the hills of north Rome. Novels by Gaither may be ordered from our Ebook Library.
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