Why Write About Unimportant People? – Part 4

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.

6 thoughts on “Why Write About Unimportant People? – Part 4

  1. Apologies, but this comment has nothing to do with the ostensible subject of this blog entry – or maybe everything to do with it.
    I recently read an essay of yours (in “Morphologies”) in which you allude to Chekhov and Kafka, as you do here. Your essay sparked off these random thoughts (amongst a good few others):
    Chekhov wrote to Suvorin in a letter: “I AM A COWARD”. He used the capitals, and in the letter this sentence appears as a sudden utterance, quite shocking, out of context. When reading and re-reading Chekhov ( a master, no question) its easy to think: “grab it by the lapels, don’t tip-toe around it, say it.” But then we forgive him all for his deeper, quieter power.
    When reading Kafka, I often sense a sly humour going on, a sort of shared laughter amongst an intimate group. Like you, Kafka never makes me laugh. I find it useful to always remember that Kafka spent most of his adult life working in an office, day after day.
    Chekhov would have survived at best perhaps, say, three days in the office environment in which Kafka, after his fashion, appeared to thrive.
    Wallace Stevens, another office-lifer, famously said of poetry: “I have no life except in poetry”; this seems to me to have a direct correlation to your view about Kafka (“However, I suspect it was partly because he believed everything depended upon what he wrote; and not a reasonable everything.” You italicise “everything” which I cannot do here…)
    A comparison of Chekhov’s Ward No 6 and most of Kafka’s work would make an interesting essay.
    So it seems to me that Kafka’s and Stevens’s work shouts out: WE NEED EPIPHANIES. It also seems to me that Chekhov goes beyond that position, to some other place.

    • Thank you for such a thoughtful response. This deserves a longer reply. For the moment I’ll say, I’m talking a bit more about Kafka on Radio 3’s The Verb, this evening – Friday 28th Feb 2014.

      I disagree about Kafka needing epiphanies, and would say that Stevens (who I’ve been reading again recently, after a gap of years) is almost perpetual epiphany. He’s never not having a revelation about being.

  2. When I used “WE” I did not mean Kafka and Stevens themselves, but was referring to us, the readers, all of us, mankind etc, etc.

    It seems to me that when a man or woman prepares a room, closes the curtains, and sets out to write, to attempt to communicate by whatever means available to them something of their understanding of their own experience as felt by their own temperament, that activity is by its very nature epiphanic, i.e a moment of meaning, of revelation.
    So in this sense, perhaps Kafka was in search of epiphany.
    This sense of epiphany dos not impact on literature alone. As an obvious example, Cezanne spent the whole of his creative life searching for a way to express this knowledge of the nature of epiphany (we might equally say “consciousness”, an awareness of who and what we are – “we” here in the collective again), was ridiculed for it, but kept to his path and the inherent truth of his search was eventually recognised.
    So it seems to me that when you talk about epiphany, you are really talking about art – the search for meaning by means of created form and structure, and specifically those evanescent .moments when meaning appears to be achieved.
    Ciao bene…

    • Ah, I understand. But I think most writers (and artists) would disagree that the mere act of preparing to write (or whatever) is itself epiphanic.

      Cezanne made the struggle of creating a painting an obvious part of the finished work. And that struggle, it seems to me, is always saying, ‘I’m not getting to the epiphany. This is failing. This is not it.’

      You can have unsuccessful art about achieved epiphany (some Bruckner – he says, encouraging annoyed responses). Or you can have successful art about failed epiphany (Beckett) – and this latter can create the epiphany in the reader.

      Maybe you’re arguing, along Buddhist lines, that ‘the path is the goal’.

  3. I’ve been considering just what I do mean, and what it is I am trying to say, and we don’t have to bring in Buddhism!

    I spent some time (many years) looking at Joyce and his work. Although I’ve moved on, his influence is still pervasive. When we talk about epiphany, we are right in the middle of a Joyce space. In Dubliners he used a social-realism style to try to capture epiphanies, moments of meaning where ‘reality’ is revealed. By Ulysses he had moved on, and used all of those innovative styles and techniques to describe a day-long epiphany in Dublin. In Finnegans Wake, he went still further, and attempted to produce what might be described as pure epiphany. Beckett described FW as ‘not being about something, it is the thing itself’. (This has a direct relation to your Heidegger quote, but I don’t want to go there).

    If we now think of Kafka, we might imagine a deeply sensitive artist dominated by his father, living and working as a social outsider, part of a Jewish minority in the Prague society of those times. This paternal oppression and social outsiderdom was endemic, part of his everyday experience, taken for granted. If we then think of (say) The Trial and The Castle, we might believe that we are not reading about something, not reading an author “trying to get to an epiphany”; we are experiencing the thing itself; this is what taken-for-granted paternal oppression and social outsiderdom actually feels like. And it is beyond strange. So the form, structure and content of these works in themselves may make manifest the emotional reality of experience of a father-dominated sensitive Jewish artist in the Prague of his time…i.e it is all epiphany to Kafka, even the decision to attempt to write about it.

    And now It’s more than possible I am exhibiting my own bafflement and bewilderment in a far-too-assertive way, but it’s been a good discussion….

  4. Thanks for the sensible critique. Me & my neighbor were just preparing to do some research on this.
    We got a grab a book from our local library but I think I learned more clear from this post.
    I’m very glad to see such fantastic info being shared freely out there.

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