Having buried epiphany stories last time, I’m now going to try and dig them out.
To start with, I need to do a little clarification. One of the things I attacked epiphany stories for was being secularized religious experience. If you don’t believe in anything transcendent, then it’s bogus to have your main character experience a moment of real meaningfulness – just because that’s a good (and highly conventional) exit from a story.
By ‘real meaningfulness’ I mean an experience of ultimate truth – not the sort of thing secular, relativisitic writers usually admit. A ‘moment of vision’ where the vision is clear, a ‘moment of being’ where being is unveiled.
(Two quotes: Raymond Carver‘s Chekhov’s ‘And suddenly everything became clear to him…’ and Kafka‘s ‘You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet, still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.’)
But maybe there’s a quick way out of this secular/religious loop.
Let’s say that the experience itself (of the feeling of real meaningfulness) is neither religious nor secular. It’s an experience which all humans have, at some point or another.
In fact, it is one of the evanescent sensations upon which creeds build their monuments. Because it can be recapitulated within any number of different theologies.
Maybe we need a more specific example.
There’s a moment towards the end of Van Morrison’s live version of ‘Rave on, John Donne’ (Live at the Royal Opera House, 38:48), where he begins gruffly to rhapsodize on the words ‘the oneness the oneness the oneness’. (Bless Van, I love his full frontal assaults on the unutterable.)
Now, it’s easily possible to imagine a short story ending with a character having an epiphany about ‘the oneness’. And it’s equally easy to remember moments where one felt something similar.
So, instead of saying that epiphanic moments are necessarily religious, let’s just say that they have been annexed by religions.
This doesn’t (for those thinking I am recanting) get us away from the difficulty of non-religious writers dealing with transcendent experiences or experiences of realness. But it does shift things a little.
Because, there could be a defense of epiphany stories that said they were an attempt to look at these fleeting human experiences of (possibly delusory) meaningfulness and to see what they are and what they mean.
As a defense, this would be stronger if these experiences didn’t usually come so late in a story that their effects are never narrated.
This investigation of what meaningfulness means could take two basic froms:
1 – the experience (the moment of being was beyond language but I gotta use words when I speak to you)
2 – the language (I gotta use words when I speak to you but the moment of being was beyond language)
And now I’m afraid I’m going to have to quote Heidegger, briefly, and then unpick him in my limited way.
‘..the word itself already reveals something (something familiar) and thereby conceals that which is supposed to be brought into the open in thoughtful saying.
‘Nothing can remove this difficulty. Indeed, the attempt to remove it already signifies a misunderstanding of all saying of beyng. The difficulty must be accepted and must be grasped in its essential belonging (to the thinking of beyng).’
This comes from a section of Contributions of Philosophy (Of the Event) called ‘Every saying of beyng is couched in words and namings).
Ignore that weird word ‘beyng’.
What Heidegger is saying here fits epiphany exactly. We have the word ‘epiphany’. It pre-exists us. It has been attached to an experience within being, perhaps an experience of being (that’s why it’s so important). But because we have the word, and all of its religious associations, and all of its grammatical having-to-fit-ness, we have misunderstanding.
Yet this difficulty, Heidegger says, essentially belongs to all attempts to get at the truth of being. And if it belongs to anything most essentially, it is to epiphany.
If the meaningfulness weren’t covered over most of the time by words, we would live in a state of perfect, passive perception. We would not have formed societies; we would have starved whilst looking ecstatically at heaven in a grain of sand, whilst grunting the sound that meant ‘the oneness’.
The question, really, which epiphany stories might be a semi-noble attempt at asking is – In what particular ways does language deform non-verbal experience?
Or, How can words sneak around the back of words?
I don’t think this completely exhumes epiphany stories. But they weren’t really dead and buried. They were already scratching their way back to the surface.
They’re zombies, like everything is.