Epiphany as a Mode of Perception. The Origin of Joyce's "Ulysses"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 1998

21 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1. Introduction

2. Defining Epiphany

3. Joyce’s Epiphanies

4. The „Verbal“ Epiphanies

5. The “Sensual Epiphanies

6. The “Visionary Epiphanies

7. Conclusion

8. Bibliography

1. Introduction

How do writers make their figures perceive the world they inhabit? To answer this question would amount to writing a book along the lines of Franz K. Stanzel’s Narrative Situations in the Novel, which is clearly not my ambition. Even narrowing the scope down to one writer or even a single book, in the case of Ulysses, it wouldn’t make things much easier. But there seems to be a consensus among Joycean scholars that there is one way typical of Joyce, in which fictional characters can achieve an understanding of their experiences. „Epiphany is the name of the game and there is hardly any reader of Joyce who would not be acquainted with this concept in one way or another. Although no invention of Joyce’s, the word is today associated primarily with him, and has since enjoyed great popularity exceeding the literary context.

In this paper, I will trace the origins of this theory in Joyce’s early writing and examine how it can be applied to Ulysses. I see two approaches to some such undertaking. First, there is the explicit theory that Joyce formulated in what came down to us as the fragment Stephen Hero. Using Stephen as a mouthpiece for his own aesthetic theories, Joyce applies Thomistic aesthetic philosophy to everyday perception of the world surrounding his juvenile alter ego. This theory is later expanded and accordingly modified in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Rather than relating this theory solely to Stephen and following his artistic and philosophic development in Ulysses, I intend to examine moments that correspond with Stephen’s aesthetic notions, even where other characters, or, perhaps, no characters at all, are involved. In this attempt, I deem it necessary to draw on Joyce’s own collection of Epiphanies, a book not published in Joyce’s lifetime, which was, however, later presented to the public, despite the fact that the extant pieces form only a fragment of Joyce’s original notes. Stanislaus Joyce remarks: „This collection served him as a sketchbook serves an artist.“[1] Should, or could, these sketches be regarded as Joyce’s theories put into practice? Some motives from the Epiphanies were incorporated into Ulysses, modified accordingly[2]. Even though the „sketchbook“ was exploited to a much greater degree in Stephen Hero and Portrait, the fact that some of the „genuine epiphanies“ found their way into Joyce's writing two decades after they had been jotted down, is significant enough for the correspondences to be examined. With this background in mind, many more „epiphanic“ moments can be detected in Joyce’s writing and Ulysses is certainly a most rewarding site for such discoveries.

After discussing the concept of epiphany and the possible ways of understanding this phenomenon, I will concentrate on the major points of contention, which could be subsumed under the heading: „subject-object debate“. The most complicated issues are those concerning the validity or verisimilitude of an epiphany, which are connected to the problematic question of the point of view. Comparing Joyce’s Epiphanies, dating from 1901-03, with those to be found in Ulysses (both those deriving from the original collection and those without a traceable model), I will track the development of the Joycean epiphany concept and suggest possible differentiation of what can be described as epiphanic moments. This differentiation will also be carried out with a view to the two protagonists of the novel, Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus. If epiphany is regarded as a mode of perception, then there must by necessity be differences between two characters as different as Bloom and Stephen. Giving special attention to chapters that have a tendency towards the epiphanic mode („Proteus“, „Hades“), this distinction becomes apparent, as will the fact that there is no such thing as „the concept of epiphany“.

2. Defining Epiphany

Coming to terms with this intricate phenomenon, it is perhaps best to start with the origin of the word „epiphany“ itself. Etymologically, epijneia means „appearance“, or „manifestation“. In Greek mythology, the term expressed the unexpected manifestation of the divine. Similarly, in Greek drama, it signified sudden appearance of a god on stage. Early Christianity appropriated the term for liturgical purposes, retaining the basic meaning of a „visible manifestation of a hidden divinity either in the form of a personal appearance, or by some deed of power by which its presence is made known.“[3] Today, the term is most readily associated with the Feast of Epiphany, 6 January, commemorating the arrival of the Magi at the crib.

Joyce’s application of the term is twofold. He uses it in his (or Stephen’s) aesthetic theory, describing the climax of aesthetic apprehension, as well as for the records of moments imbued with special significance, which are, however, not always of aesthetic nature. It should be noted that the concept of epiphany played an important role in Joyce’s artistically formative years, but it does not follow that the lack of explicit reference in his later writing makes the theory invalid. Almost as if to define his artistic program, the young Joyce spoke of „converting the bread of everyday life into something that has a permanent artistic life of its own.“[4] This very endeavour to render mundane experience in poetic terms is essential to the concept of epiphany that can be derived from the sketches Joyce was putting down at that time. Probably the most reliable guide to James Joyce’s early artistic development is Stanislaus Joyce’s famous book My Brother’s Keeper. It offers first-hand documentation of the impetus that lies behind Joyce's first literary attempts, both prosaic and lyrical. Stanislaus was an intimate witness to the creative process of his brother and thus we know today how most of the epiphanies originated. They were genuine observations, dreams and reminiscences, all based on the revelatory capacity of seemingly insignificant, trivial incidents. Stanislaus mentions Joyce’s interest in the subconscious and his pleasure in ironical observations of slips of tongue and other similar gestures that betray the true nature most individuals try to hide, with a higher or lower degree of intentionality. This approach, which we today classify as psychoanalytical, bears conspicuous resemblance to Sigmund Freud’s observations, most notably those in Psychopathology of Everyday Life, a copy of which was an item of Joyce’s library in Trieste.[5] Joyce was probably not acquainted with Freud at the onset of his literary career, but, we can assume a good knowledge of Freud’s teaching on Joyce’s part at the time of composing Ulysses.[6]

In Stephen Hero, Joyce formulated a theory of epiphany, which is expressed partly through the mouth of Stephen, partly through the voice of the narrator. It is the narrator who is first entrusted with precise elucidation of Stephen’s ideas as if to interpret these for the reader:

By an epiphany he meant a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself. He believed it was for the man of letters to record these epiphanies with extreme care, seeing that they themselves are the most delicate and evanescent of moments.[7]

What Stephen has in mind, are such moments when the mind arrives at some important apprehension, and the suddenness of such manifestation seems to suggest a certain irrationality. The words have a religious touch to them and connotations of Annunciation can easily spring to mind. Such ecclesiastical connotations are perhaps not unintended if only for the fact that Stephen experiences his first epiphany in Eccles Street, a site for more important events to happen later on July 16, 1904. Stephen’s musings are triggered off by a fragment of conversation he overheard when passing „one of those brown brick houses which seem the very incarnation of Irish paralysis.“ The juxtaposition of the words „chapel“ and „wicked“ is memorable enough to make an impression on Stephen’s mind and we shall see how this principle applies to most epiphanic moments throughout Joyce’s writing.

When Stephen himself explains his concept, it is almost as if he were describing a somewhat different phenomenon:

He told Cranly that the clock of the Ballast Office was capable of an epiphany. [...]

- Imagine my glimpses at that clock as the gropings of a spiritual eye which seeks to adjust its vision to an exact focus. The moment the focus is reached the object is epiphanised.[8]

Now, Stephen speaks of object perception and his words have a distinctly epistemological undertone. Significantly, the way an epiphany is achieved, differs from the preceding example. The „spiritual eye which seeks to adjust its vision to an exact focus“suggest considerable intent and intensity when compared to the sudden and rather incidental quality of the first experience. I do not wish to neglect the fact that there is an instantaneous moment of insight when understanding is eventually achieved: „Then all at once I see it and I know at once what it is: epiphany.“ Hence, these approaches do not necessarily have to be regarded as contradictory and can very well complement each other. There is, however, another aspect, which seems to me to be more significant and more contentious as well. According to Stephen, it is „the object [that] achieves its epiphany. “ This statement would imply that the way Stephen conceives of epiphany is an impersonal one, omitting the perceiver and his consciousness, reducing his function in the process merely to that of a camera-eye. On the whole, there is very little in those passages of Stephen Hero or Portrait dealing with Stephen’s aesthetic theories, which would at least suggest the impact that the moment of epiphany exercises on the person going through this experience. So, though it seems quite seductive to reconstruct a watertight theory of epiphany on the basis of Stephen’s theoretising, such objective proves in the end unobtainable. We are also at somewhat slippery ground when trying to compare and contrast Stephen’s utterances, the voice of the narrator and Joyce’s own statements, mostly filtered through his brother’s memory. What we are left with is a fairly stretchable theory, and this can best be documented by the scope of its application, ranging from Robert Scholes’s suggestion that the „phrase should designate those little bits of prose which Joyce himself gave the name to“and its use in scholarly criticism be „abandoned entirely“[9] on one side, to some critics embracing emphatically the whole body of Joyce’s writing as a „texture of epiphanies“on the other.[10]

While the latter stance broadens the concept to the point of making it useless, I regard the first position as unduly ascetic. At this stage, the term „epiphany“has been firmly grounded in both literary criticism and theory, far exceeding the Joycean context[11]. Whatever difficulties the term poses, it conveniently captures a distinct phenomenon, be its nature metaphysical, religious, epistemological or literary, which would otherwise have to be circumscribed in lengthy details. Nobody would go as far as to suggest that it was Joyce who actually invented such moments of insight, similarly as we cannot regard Freud as the inventor of neuroses, Oedipal complexes and other fashionable symptoms. In pre-Joycean prose, similar moments occurred in the stories of Anton Chekhov, or, in his own times, in the novels of Virginia Woolf. There is also the ancient term anagnorisis that corresponds roughly to one way in which „epiphany“ can be understood . It is possible that our understanding of „epiphany“ is tainted by what is already a part of our literary heritage and so we can become more acutely aware of the traits distinguishing a Joycean epiphany when we try to pin down the difference between these similar phenomena. In what sense do the moments of truth for a hero of Greek tragedy differ from a „sudden spiritual manifestation“ in the manner of Joyce? The most significant difference can be derived from the opposition: rationality and causality versus irrationality and chance. The revelatory moments for an Oedipus or Odysseus are rooted in their conscious experience and their suffering. When some seminal facts are disclosed, they realize the relation between the cause and its effects and there is nothing „evanescent“ about such moments. The heroes of the Joycean Odyssey, on the other hand, usually gain their insights on the basis of irrelevant incidents, their sudden understanding depends on a particular constellation of a variety of circumstances and hence the balance thus achieved is highly precarious. The subjective nature of such insights makes any validity of this experience questionable and I would like to elaborate on this point later on. The comparison between an „antique“ and a „modern“ mode of revelation stresses the importance of the mundane and the banal, of the seemingly irrelevant details for the modern way of perception. This seems to be the actual discovery Joyce wanted to be remembered for: „It is my idea of the significance of trivial things that I want to give the two or three unfortunate wretches who may eventually read me.“[12] Well, there were a few more...


[1] Stanislaus Joyce, My Brother’s Keeper, p. 134.

[2] For this comparison, Morris Beja’s chart in A Companion to Joyce Studies (p 712 f) is of much help, as it lists all the epiphanies and the corresponding passages in Joyce’s novels.

[3] For extensive treatment of the liturgical background to Joyce’s concept see Florence Walzl’s „The Liturgy of the Epiphany Season and the Epiphanies of Joyce“ in PMLA 80, 1965, pp 436-450.

[4] Quoted in Richard Ellmann’s James Joyce, p. 169.

[5] See Klaus Reichert: „The European Background of Joyce’s writing“ in The Cambridge Companion to James Joyce, p. 79.

[6] In Joyce in Nighttown, a psychoanalytical reading of Ulysses, Mark Shechner writes: „[ Joyce’s] epiphany is a version of Freud’s parapraxis, the thoughtless gesture that lays bare the hidden motive, though Joyce’s theory revealed in Stephen Hero surely antedates any possible acquaintance he could have had with Freud’s work.“ (p. 17).

[7] James Joyce, Stephen Hero, p. 216.

[8] Op. cit., p. 216.

[9] Robert Scholes: „Joyce and the Epiphany: the Key to the Labytinth ?“, in: Sewanee Review 72 (Winter 1964) p.76.

[10] The latter stance is to be found especially in Florence Walz’s or Irene Hendry’s contributions to the „epiphany-debate“. See the bibliography at the end of this paper.

[11] As David Lodge writes in The Art of Fiction, „the term is now loosely applied to any descriptive passage in which external reality is charged with a kind of transcendental significance for the perceiver“ (p.146 f). Lodge cites as a major example a passage from John Updike’s Rabbit, Run.

[12] Quoted from Stanislaus Joyce’s diary, in Richard Ellmann’s James Joyce, p. 169.

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Epiphany as a Mode of Perception. The Origin of Joyce's "Ulysses"
Humboldt-University of Berlin  (Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik)
James Joyce's "Ulysses"
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Epiphany, Mode, Perception, Origin, Joyce, Ulysses, James, Joyce, Ulysses, literary
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Barbora Sramkova (Author), 1998, Epiphany as a Mode of Perception. The Origin of Joyce's "Ulysses", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/34587


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