I hope that people reading the title of this post, expecting me to reveal some striking new realization, won’t be disappointed to learn that I am about to discuss my suspicion of the phenomenon of ‘epiphany.’ Culture, history, and literature are full of supposed cases of someone having a sudden epiphany and hot its heels beginning a new direction in life or in their work. I doubt most of them.
Of course the most doubtful one is Saul of Tarsus, who is said to have fallen off his horse (or been stricken by the Holy Spirit) on the road to Damascus. It was in that moment that Saul, a persecutor of Christians, realized that Jesus was lord—was the Christ—and became the most fervent proselytizer of the new faith in Rome, for some reason changing his name to Paul into the bargain. If there was ever a case of a preformed intention going in search of a motivating rationale, this is it.
The one most students of literature are exposed to is the scene, early on in Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, when he dips a madeleine, a delicate cookie, into his tea, and upon tasting it he is filled with such a rush of memories that he must set about writing a seven-volume novel. That seems to me a lot to put on a cookie. Of course Proust was already an aspiring novelist, and was probably always in search of a theme. The madeleine scene is very well written, as is most of In Search of Lost Time–I just regard it as fiction.
In researching my own book, I came across an interesting case of epiphany that gives me doubts. The seasons on our planet are governed by its movements around the sun. These are in turn affected by variations in its orbit, which lead to cycles of warm and cold, the ice ages and the warmer periods in between. These variations were first mapped and described definitively by Milutin Milankovic (1879-1958) a Serbian mathematician. The story is often told that one evening he and a friend were celebrating the publication of that friend’s volume of poetry. As the evening wore on and they grew increasingly intoxicated, both of them swore to do something momentous with their lives. This is the moment when Milankovic decided to spend the next decade in tedious mathematical calculations to define the variations in earth’s orbit. Does that sound likely to you? It doesn’t to me, especially since, in his own memoirs, Milankovic describes the epiphany he had while calmly surveying the sky on a summer’s evening at his family home in the countryside. Did he create this more sober version of events to make his backstory more salubrious? Could be, but it lends a tinge of doubt to both versions.
Then there is the story that Aldo Leopold (1887-1948) tells, of the time when he was working for the U.S. Forest Service in New Mexico, when game management mostly meant shooting wolves. Out on a shoot one day, he watched a female wolf expire, and saw ‘a fierce green fire dying in her eyes.’ It was in that moment that he realized that we could not kill our way to conservation, that mankind needed a more ethical path, a partnership with the land and the wild things upon it. Leopold went on to create the discipline of game management, and became one of the 20th century’s foremost ecologists. His story of seeing a wolf die is beautifully and tragically told. I just doubt that Leopold, who had grown up exploring the woods, bluffs, and rivers of Iowa, and studied forestry at Yale, did not already have a growing sense of what was right and wrong when it came to nature.
Epiphanies make for good storytelling, and those stories are told again and again, whether they are true or not. Maybe I am too cynical; maybe people do have intense personal epiphanies, but the word epiphany, with its Greek root indicating the appearance or manifestation of a ‘spirit’ puts me off. Or maybe I am only jealous that in my life, epiphanies have been slow to come.