The following is a guest post by Kitti Tóth:
The word epiphany derives from epi- [on, above, to] and phainein [to show] from the Greek epiphaneia, which means approximately “to manifest”, “manifestation” and signifies the beneficial revelation of gods and goddesses to earthborn men in Greek culture. The ancient Greek believed that these gods and goddesses actively intervene in the mortals’ lives.
But not only did the Greek accept the epiphanic manifestations of the divine. In both the Old Testament and the New Testament the term epiphany is used. Later it became fixed by the miracles of Christ as an advent or manifestation of Christ and was canonized in the Feast of Epiphany, a Christian Festival observed on 6th January.
Pursuant to these sources, it can be stated that the term epiphany originally signified the unveiling of the supernatural in the realm of nature; a manifestation, which is usually not evident for the senses.
In this regard epiphany is considered to be a transcendental, godlike intervention in the lives of ordinary mortals. Hence the sudden enlightenment of a person is always connected to a supernatural power and coming from outside rather than inside.
This kind of visionary moment can never be connected to an inner realization; it is not a private revelation, but the manifestation of a supreme power.
Thus the traditional transcendental experience of an epiphany is understood rather as a disengagement with and a disavowal of the empirical world, the world of the senses in favor of spirituality.
In contrast with the mentioned original religious and spiritual meaning, the phrase epiphany gained a different interpretation in the twentieth century. In modernity the appreciation of the ordinary and the transmutation of trivial activity into a spiritual exercise were the antidotes to the agitated life of society.
Both in literature and in visual art the presentation of commonplace scenes became more important than the demonstration of heroic battles, Biblical stories or visions of the sublime or afterlife. A new valuation of life was established; family, work and reproduction were seen as the essence of a good life.
Thus ordinariness was upraised and human dignity was found not outside of the everyday life but rather in the way of living it. The writings of literary modernists give full attention to the details of ordinary life through which their characters can experience epiphanic moments and can reach higher awareness. Instead of a deity’s, or some unknown mysterious power’s intervention, from whom these epiphanic moments derived before, modernists believed in a kind of ‘abstract reality’.
In an 1928 diary note Virginia Woolf describes this new form of ‘reality’ as inherent in nature: “That is one of the experiences I have had… & got to a consciousness of what I call ‘reality’: a thing I see before me, something abstract; but residing in the downs or sky; beside which nothing matters; in which I shall rest and continue to exist. Reality I call it. And I fancy sometimes this is the most necessary thing to me: that which I seek” (Diary 3, 196).
Woolf’s narrative presents a new reality which is although connected to the physical world, does not reject the existence of a transcendental one. She creates an inbetween state where the physical and the spiritual world can engage without a presence of a greater deity.
In her autobiographical essay “A Sketch of the Past,” written in 1939, Woolf elaborates her idea on ‘reality’ what she now titles her “own psychology” (70); a spacing of a person’s life into two distinct classifications: “moments of being” and “moments of non-being” (70). The more numerous moments of “non-being” are the “cotton wool”: the daily activities of life. But there lies the “moments of being” in every life: moments of “sudden violent shock[s]” latent behind the cotton wool.
The power of these epiphanic moments are a “blow from an enemy hidden behind the cotton wool of daily life; it is or will become a revelation of some order; it is a token of some real thing behind appearances” (72). In a moment of “being” the self transcends its boundaries towards the world, and is in harmony and unity with the reality in which it participates.
Therefore, the epiphanic moments emphasize and elaborate the day-to-day experiences, and create timeless, albeit evanescent moments by allowing the past to re-emerge and permitting the present to be made permanent. The intense sensibility to the material world calls the triviality of the experience, but by no means can this experience be called ordinary.
While it is certainly true that these moments are distinctive of the religious visionary moments due to their engagement to the material, secular world, and the absence of a deity, they cannot be considered as non-spiritual experiences.
Woolf goes beyond the external life to get true reality, the “life itself” (‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’ 24); she keeps seeking the truth from within. She argues that if we free ourselves from the conventions made by society, and can perceive the momentary impressions we can experience spiritual reality in its total manifestation.
Woolf. Virginia. ’A Sketch of the Past’ in Moments of Being. ed. Jeanne Schulkind. 2nd ed.. San
Diego New York London: A Harvest Book. Harcourt Brace Company. 1985.
Woolf, Virginia. ‘Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown’. London: Hogarth Press, 1928.
Woolf, Virginia. ed. Anne Oliver Bell. The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Vol. 3: 1925-30. London: Marnier Books. 1981.