Secular Epiphanies

By Bob Litton

“Not ideas about the thing but the thing itself”
— Wallace Stevens

In 1970, while preparing myself for the M.A. in English oral exam at Southern Methodist University, I bought the seven-volume set of Penguin’s Guide to English Literature.  One of my first desires was to read something about James Joyce.

Within the section on Joyce, I read some paragraphs discussing his theme of secular epiphanies.  I was fascinated by the example cited, something about the protagonist’s concentrated attention on a spigot.  For many years after reading that section I carried in my mind the memory of the protagonist (or author) intently observing a beer keg’s spigot in a pub as the bartender pulled a pint of the dark drink.  I found out only recently that the “spigot” was not a spigot at all but a “faucet” in Leopold Bloom’s residence in the novel Ulysses, and the liquid was only water.  However, the topic of this essay is not faulty memories but secular epiphanies.

Originally, though, “epiphany” denoted a religious event: a manifestation, especially of a divine being.  The prime example of that meaning of the word was the appearance of the Magi at the nativity, as a preview of Christ’s reception by the Gentiles.  Later, “epiphany” took on a more secular connotation in literary theory, especially through the influence of Joyce and Marcel Proust, although it still retained a slightly mystical cast.  For Joyce, the critics inform me, the concept evolved from a sudden perception of some ordinary object’s essence, or an event, to an intuitive grasp of reality.  In both Joyce and Proust, the sudden recognition by a character of his or her condition is triggered by a brief occurrence which brings back the memory of a similar occurrence.  The example used by one critic is of the sound of a street organ heard by the young woman in Joyce’s short story “Eveline”. While anxiously pondering the wisdom of her planned elopement with a man she doesn’t really love, Eveline is reminded by the street organ of a similar sound the day her mother died.  Modern though this literary theory is, is it really all that much different from Aristotle’s remarks about anagnoresis (“discovery” or “recognition”) in his Poetics?  Joyce’s “aesthetic theory” of epiphanies seems more like a fine-tuning of Aristotle’s idea than an original idea; but that’s okay; not many ideas are original.

My fascination with the concept of “epiphany”, however, does not extend to any character’s recognition of his or her condition; I am entirely interested in the object or whatever is being focused on in an “epiphany of the mundane”.  The clock of Dublin’s Ballast Office in Joyce’s novel Stephen Hero is a good example of the mundane object, as is the faucet at Bloom’s lodgings.  Relying completely on my cursory reading about the “spigot” in the Penguin Guide, I wrote a brief essay which I titled “Epiphany on a Robin’s Egg”.   Although it was a fun exercise, however, I realized after completing it that my essay was not an epiphany at all, simply a closely imagined pondering of an object nowhere in sight.  I had merely listed and philosophized about the various qualities and purpose of an egg.  To write a valid epiphany about an object — to elicit its most intimate whatness — the writer needs to have the object before him.  (Wallace Stevens’ poem “The Snowman” is an excellent example, I believe.)  I never got around to trying the exercise with a real egg.

Nonetheless, the idea of epiphanies remained deeply embedded in my consciousness.  When I became an adjunct instructor of English composition at one of Dallas County’s community colleges, the first assignment I gave to my students as soon as I entered the classroom was, “Take out a piece of paper and a pen and write whatever comes to your mind about that clock on the wall!  You have five minutes!”  The assignment had two purposes actually.  Firstly, it was a warm-up exercise to get them ready for our discussion on writing about the concrete, not the abstract/the specific, not the general.  Secondly, it was a first step toward my goal of getting them to pay attention to all that surrounded them every minute of the day: to recognize the essence of otherness.

Fortunately for me, the first time I assigned that writing exercise, one of my students did a superb job of writing an epiphany.  I had divided the class into five groups of about five students each, told them to share their papers with each other, and then agree on the best “essay”, to be read aloud to the whole class.  When the young man who had written the essay I mentioned above finished reading his paper, a woman in another group asked, “What are you doing in English 101?”

Of course, I didn’t grade those papers.  As I said, they were just a warm-up exercise: a practice I retained for the beginning of each subsequent class session — with different subjects, naturally.  Nonetheless, I really appreciated that young man’s excellent performance because he proved to the other students that the exercise was possible.

Now, although my own little essay on the imaginary robin’s egg does not legitimately fulfill the definitional criteria of an “epiphany” as discussed above, I’m going to share it with you below just to give you a sense of what I had in mind, if imperfectly:

 Epiphany on a Robin’s Egg

There before us lies the egg.  Some wench-robin away from her nest — perhaps slaughtered while foraging by the whimsical marksmanship of a boy — has left us this half-incubated orphan.  I feel sure the mother won’t return now, since I have waited and watched the past two days, taking note of the egg’s condition within a bush outside my back door.  Before the scavenger ants could become troublesome I brought it inside and laid it on the dining-room table under a lamp.  I believe I can distinguish even now the faintest random tracery of cracks in its light blue shell: a holy object.

The shell seldom gets the reverential awe I think it deserves, probably because it is eventually cast off; and we ordinarily repudiate cast-offs.  And then again, eggs are generally so small that it is difficult for us to conceive the relatively heroic magnitude of activity maintained by the fragile-seeming cover.  But look at it this way: The shell, though not itself alive, is most essential to the gastrulating organism within.  It forms the boundary of the first universe and protects the embryo from many possible harms, including a mother’s weight.  The shell, by its porousness, is also the embryo’s only means of exchanging gases and fluids with the outer world.  Without the evolution of the egg shell there could never have been land animals.

But what particularly excites my admiration at present is the egg’s shape.  It is such a pleasant shape to sight and to touch and such a universal shape!  After being told for centuries that the Earth was flat — or, at the oddest, saucer-shaped — we were then converted by the scientists to the belief in a spherical globe, only to discover now that it is oval…like an egg.  No doubt any Mesolithic artist could have told us that in the first place.

Yes, there is something exhilarating to me in the percept of the egg and the Earth both being oval.  I think it is because, as a form, the oval is more aesthetically pleasing than the mathematically purer sphere or the precariously commonsensical saucer shape.  It is more philosophically absorbing, too.  You can say more about an oval in that what is said about one end cannot be entirely true of the other end; while each point on a sphere is typical of all other points.  On the other hand, anything which is intellectually stimulating stands more than an even chance of becoming the object of religious or political contention, as happened between the Big-Endians and the Small-Endians in Gulliver’s Travels.

In addition to their shape, birds’ eggs are often enhanced by little splotches of color.  The camouflage thing enters in, okay, but that must be mostly accidental, since some eggs, like the robin’s, are of a bright solid hue.  And besides, the predator must descry the nest first, not the eggs.  It seems, moreover, that the parent birds themselves are the ones most frequently fooled by the color of their eggs.  The cuckoo, which neither builds a nest nor broods its young, will mimic the pigmentation of another species and smuggle its own egg into the hosting birds’ nest, taking care to kidnap one of the legitimate eggs so that a head-count later on won’t reveal the discrepancy.

No, the coloring of birds’ eggs is just pretty, that’s all: that of most of them anyway.  I must admit that I have become slightly bored by the usual stark whiteness of chickens’ eggs.  But, some wild birds also lay white eggs, so the dullness of chicken productivity cannot be blamed entirely on the domesticity of our barnyard fowl.  Still, isn’t it in a way a commentary on civilization that the greatest variation any hen can manage color-wise is beige?

But hush!  Didn’t that crack in the robin’s egg just now extend a little more this way and…?

Finis

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