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
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--,
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
© 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.