Epiphanies are rubbish.
Restate: Epiphany stories are rubbish.
This isn’t to say that I haven’t written stories that might be called epiphany stories, or that you won’t catch me out (very soon) (probably immediately after I finish this) writing another epiphany story.
I’m not going to make the argument, which others have, that epiphany stories are rubbish because that’s not how real people’s real lives are. People don’t have what Thomas Hardy called ‘moments of vision’ and Virginia Woolf called ‘moments of being’ – or at least not after a series of events which seem, coldly observed, to have been designed to step-ladder them up to the point where they can peek over this or that particular metaphysical garden wall.
(In some cases, the event is more like a trampoline or – if the reader is lucky – a bouncy castle.)
It’s not that real people don’t have these moments. I believe they do. I believe, given a couple of minutes, you could probably think of a half dozen you’ve had yourself.
The rubbishness I’m trying to get at comes in elsewhere.
It’s located around this question: What, in a secular story, is an epiphany an epiphany of?
If your character’s vision, like that of David in John Updike’s ‘Pigeon Feathers’, is essentially religious – essentially Christian. Then there is no issue. They have been granted access to timeless knowledge. They are allowed a glimpse of beyond. They are graced with truth, or more simply graced with grace.
David, experiencing a crisis of faith, shoots pigeons and, whilst gathering them, regards their feathers:
‘And across the surface of the infinitely adjusted yet somehow effortless mechanics of the feathers played idle designs of color, no two alike, designs executed, it seemed, in a controlled rapture…’
The fact of their appearance transforms him; the argument from design is in his hands.
‘..he was robed in this certainty: that the God who had lavished such craft upon these worthless birds would not destroy His whole Creation by refusing to let David live forever.’
In most contemporary stories, though, the world-view is secular and the vision gained is post-religious.
What I mean by this is that the vision is of something whose meaning was established during a previous era, when religion was the dominant cultural force. To the extent, at some points, of being a cultural hegemony – an inescapable power structure of perception. No meaning except that delivered ex cathedra. No honourable way out of Catholicism, except through the flames around the stake.
To assert a different metaphysics was to be a heretic.
The post-religiousness of epiphanies is in plain view. Pick any recent short story anthology, and you will find your own little feast of epiphany. The codifier of epiphanies, James Joyce, reached for orthodox Catholic language to describe his desperate craving for unorthodox moments of vision.
How much happier Joyce’s early Irish critics would have been if his characters had been witnessing the Virgin Mary rather than the not always respectable women of dear old dirty Dublin?
Yet epiphany brings with it an implicit orthodoxy of imagery.
The writers of epiphany stories are strangely orthodox. The imagery they use can’t help but be orthodox. How many of them depend, time after time, upon how the light falls?
Yet light, for most contemporary writers, is a particle that is a wave (or something else that physicists assert that the rest of us struggle to understand, because our brains are wrong).
The light within an epiphany story isn’t the light of physicists. And if the main character in an epiphany story were to be a physicist, their moment of vision would not be of something they have professionally known for decades. Epiphanies, in stories, are about the characters going beyond their everyday knowledge, their everyday truths.
When I teach epiphanies to my students (how silly does that sound), I try to explain that they are not a momentary realization of a small this (my son never liked cheese and onion flavour crisps) or a big that (my life has been wasted) but of an overarching what.
To get philosophical for a sentence, not thisness or thatness but whatness. Your good old quiddity.
An epiphany does not depend upon a specific instance of how this world works, but upon a general truth about what is what in this world.
As Kurt Vonnegut put it, So it goes.
As you might put it, Shit happens.
Which brings me back to my initial assertion, that epiphanies are rubbish, and also to the ongoing argument, Why write about unimportant people?
For the secular short story writer, the argument will be something like this: I write about unimportant people because, sometimes, they have moments of vision/being in which – despite or because of the apparent triviality of their day-to-day lives, they confront or are confronted with larger-than-life truth.
And, secondary to this: Hey, I’m not a philosopher. Partly because I don’t respect all that jargon, but mainly because philosophers are always into generalizations, and I’m into specifics. If you talk specifics, ordinary people stand a chance of understanding you. Whoever said ‘quiddity’ or ‘whatness’ in a bar in Ohio or Oldham, without getting the shit kicked out of them?
You see the contradiction – why epiphanies are rubbish? Because they are always going to the specific instance in order to assert the general truth.
But they have no belief in a general truth.
They believe the only truth is in the specific instance.
Circle, circle, circle.
Religious belief allows general truth. But, as I said, most epiphany stories are post-religious – and almost no epiphany stories are genuinely scientific. (The physicist character’s epiphany is extra-physical.)
There is a way out of this, perhaps. That the epiphany itself must be a vision of rubbishness.
Your character’s glimpse over the wall, beyond the garden, is out across the municipal dump.
Otherwise, as a writer, you end up in the horrendous position of the character in Marc Cohn’s ‘Walking in Memphis’.
‘Now, Muriel plays piano every Friday at the Hollywood
And they brought me down to see her and they asked me if I would
Do a little number and I sang with all my might
She said, “Tell me, are you a Christian, child?”
And I said, “Ma’am, I am tonight!”‘
Tonight, or whenever else I need to write an epiphany story. (But only for the last paragraph.)