James Joyce’s Ulysses: The beginning of an epiphany

Ulysses 300x225 James Joyces Ulysses: The beginning of an epiphany

Nine decades ago, on February 2 1922, Ulysses was born.

It arrived in a handsome turquoise cover, its face embossed in gold. (At least, it did in Paris. In the UK it remained banned for a further fourteen years, on account of a masturbation scene.)

Over the years, this iconic Modernist text has been written about and written about. But one of its most important lines is not often enough discussed. It occurs in Episode 3, Proteus: “remember your epiphanies on green oval leaves, deeply deep, copies to be sent if you died to all the great libraries of the world.”

By the time he scrawled those words, James Joyce had long been working to claim the term “epiphany” on behalf of secular literature. Hitherto, the word had an ancient, and predominantly religious, history. It has its genesis in ancient Greece (ἐpιfάνeιa), where it was used beautifully to refer to the first glimmer of dawn, the first sight of the enemy in battle, or the first vision of a god. It became Judaised in 2 Maccabees, when it was used to describe the God of Israel, and was Christianised in 2 Timothy, where it mainly referred to the Second Coming; thereafter it came to describe the personal realisation that Christ was the Son of God. In AD 361, the Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus used the word for the first time to refer to a Christian feast (epiphanion). In the centuries that followed it was mainly used in connection to a variety of Christian festivals, which were celebrated differently, and at different times, by the different Churches.

Joyce, however – an atheist with profoundly Catholic roots (which he described as “black magic”) – felt that the term could more usefully be applied in a humanist context. Each of his Dubliners stories is structured around a central epiphany. Moreover, his less widely read autobiographical novel, Stephen Hero, contains an explicit exposition. Epiphany, Joyce writes, means “a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself.” It is for the “man of letters” to “record these epiphanies with extreme care, seeing that they themselves are the most delicate and evanescent of moments.”

(Several years prior to writing this passage, Joyce himself had begun to create a group of seventy-one fleeting, disembodied epiphanies, ranging in content from the supoernatural to the mundane. Forty of these survive in manuscript form, and are collected at the American Universities of Cornell and Buffalo; they were reprinted in the early nineties by Faber.)

Two decades after the publication of Ulysses, in a small cottage in rural Ireland, another epiphany occurred that would have an influence on literature forever. It involved Samuel Beckett, an erstwhile disciple of Joyce, who was freshly back from his involvement in the French Resistance during the war. His literary career had not yet yielded the works on which his modern reputation is based; he had written Murphy (1938), More Pricks Than Kicks (1934) and two books of poetry, but as yet – surprisingly, perhaps – no drama. Much of this early writing was influenced by Joyce in its learned obscurantism. Beckett had enjoyed a close relationship with Joyce in the thirties, but this had soured as a result of his refusing the advances of Joyce’s mentally ill daughter. Despite this acrimonious split, however, Beckett had fully assimilated Joyce’s ideas; alone in his mother’s room he was struck by a very Joycean epiphany, the repercussions of which are still being felt today.

Beckett experienced a vision in which the direction of his entire future oeuvre appeared to him, confirming that his own creative method lay in stripping down rather than proliferating, or as he put it, in “subtracting rather than adding.” To Beckett, Joyce was the principal boundary-pusher of the age. In Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake – which Beckett had helped to research – he had been exploring an approach of endless multiplicity, of layer upon layer of references, nuances, ideas and threads of thought. In the cottage in Ireland, however, Beckett realised that his own literary destiny, by contrast, lay elsewhere. “I realised that Joyce had gone as far as one could in the direction of knowing more,” he told his future biographer, James Knowlson. “I realised that my own way was in impoverishment, in lack of knowledge and in taking away.”

The rest, as they say, is history. This new orientation would later give rise to such colossal works as Waiting For Godot,Happy Days, and a magnificent trilogy of novels. Without that single moment of artistic and spiritual epiphany, our cultural heritage would, paradoxically enough, be all the poorer.

Although epiphanies play an important role in both religion and the arts, there are important differences. Each of the three epiphanies on which the great monotheisms hang – those of Moses, Christ and Mohammad – was accompanied by an impulse to proselytise. For the writer, however, this is not the case. When Samuel Beckett attempted to embark on a pedagogical career in Trinity College, Dublin, for instance, he hated it so much that he vented his frustration with an elaborate prank, presenting a learned paper about an entirely bogus philosophical school called Concentrism. Nobody got the joke; Beckett resigned from his post shortly afterwards.

The migration of the notion of the epiphany to the sphere of the secular is emblematic of a society that looks increasingly to the non-dogmatic arts and sciences, rather than religion, to satisfy its spiritual appetites. This gradual shift has been underway for centuries; Alain de Botton traces its inception to the period of the Romantics, noting that it was “no coincidence” that the Western attraction to the sublime developed at “precisely the moment when traditional beliefs in God began to wane.” Ninety years after the publication of Ulysses, a masterly masterwork of a master, we should recognise Joyce’s role in bringing epiphanies to the non-believers, and thank him for the greater cultural richness we enjoy as a consequence.

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  • peter quadrino

    No apostrophe in Finnegans Wake

  • gerard

    Well, the epiphany I had while reading this post was that Samuel Beckett was in rural France from 1942 to 1944.  He had left Paris ahead of the Gestapo, which rolled up the Resistance network he was working with. He was definitely not in Ireland, rural or otherwise.

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