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New Age

The literary epiphany as precursor of the New Age

F1.large100 years ago this year, James Joyce published Dubliners, his first book, in which he explored the lives of characters through what he called ‘epiphanies’. He’d been experimenting with epiphanies for some years, and even started to write a ‘book of epiphanies’, which he intended – with customary modesty – to send to every library in the world. You can read some of them here.

Epiphanies were, for Joyce the lapsed Catholic, a way to retain a sense of the sacerdotal in everyday life, while still throwing off the ponderous moralisms and barbarous superstitions of the Catholic Church. And many other writers and readers have found in the epiphany a way to retain a sense of spirituality beyond any institution or dogma. In that sense, the literary epiphany is a precursor of the ‘Spiritual but not Religious’ movement of today. And I think it reveals some of the limits of that movement.

The word epiphany comes from the Greek epi-phanein, meaning ‘to show forth, or manifest’. In Christian theology it usually means a revelation of God – in western churches, the Feast of Epiphany celebrates the recognition of Jesus by the Three Magi, while in the orthodox church, Epiphany refers to the moment St John baptises Jesus and the Holy Spirit comes down and anoints him.

Joyce was particularly influenced by the ideas of Thomas Aquinas, the 12th century philosopher, who described epiphanies as moments of realization, where you see a thing’s claritas (radiance), and its quidditas (whatness). The artist, like the mystic, sees something, hears something, tastes something, and is suddenly struck by its incredible luminous quidditas.

This can happen sometimes when you’re on magic mushrooms or LSD – you become completely transfixed by a packet of crisps, by their incredible crispiness. Or you may suddenly see a mate of yours, Jimmy, and be almost overwhelmed by their extraordinary Jimminess.

However, because we’re not being artists, we would struggle to communicate this sudden epiphany to other people. It would just sound weird. The artist, by contrast, has the ability to describe the thing in all its quidditas and to help us achieve a mini-epiphany too. They can capture the epiphany in language, like a lepidopterist capturing a butterfly.

A famous example is Gerard Manly Hopkins’ vision of a windhover:

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king
-dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!

An epiphany is not necessarily positive or spiritual – especially not in Joyce. It might be a moment where a person suddenly has an insight into the fatuity and wretchedness of their condition, like a flash of lightening suddenly illuminating how lost you are. This is the negative epiphany, in the sense meant by William Burroughs when he described the phrase ‘naked lunch’ as ‘a frozen moment when everyone sees what’s at the end of their fork’.

Or an epiphany might be a moment where a poor unsuspecting stooge in the street accidentally reveals their true character to the piercing, pitiless eye of the artist. The author and theatre critic Henry Hitchings occasionally posts these sorts of epiphanies on his Facebook page. For example:

Overheard, Shoreditch: “Do I look contained? Man’s gotta look contained if he wants to find sweet connections.” Somehow I’d take this more seriously if the speaker wasn’t carrying a golf umbrella.


Brick Lane. The first thing I hear is ‘Yo, Django, is the Moog at your place or Fabrice’s?’

Wordsworth and the Romantic epiphany

But literature of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries is also replete with more positive epiphanies, in which the artist is struck by something, and seems to see in it a ‘point of intersection of the timeless with time’ (as TS Eliot put it). A thing catches the light, and suddenly seems a window to eternity.

That thing might be a wild flower, as it was for Blake, or a cat, as it was for Christopher Smart, or a couple walking down the street laughing, as it was for Marilynne Robinson.

Yesterday I read some of a book called The Poetics of Epiphany: nineteenth century origins of modern literary moment, by Ashton Nichols, which suggests the key influence on the literary epiphanies of modernism was Wordsworth. He tried in his poetry to capture what he called ‘spots of time’:

There are in our existence spots of time
Which with distinct preeminence retain
A fructifying virtue, whence, depressed
By trivial occupations and the round
Of ordinary intercourse, our minds –
Especially the imaginative power –
Are nourished and invisibly repaired;
Such moments chiefly seem to have their date
In our first childhood

WWordsworthThe revolution of Wordsworth’s poetry was to find epiphanies and spiritual revelations not in the typical epic subject matter of Greek myths or the Bible, but in the everyday objects and encounters of his neighbourhood. The most ordinary and common thing – a cliff, a tree, a leech-gatherer – becomes illuminated and holy when it strikes against his consciousness.

Wordsworth then tried, in The Prelude, to make an epic poem of his spiritual autobiography, by weaving together these epiphanies, like a rosary stringing together prayer beads.

Lev Tolstoy's War and Peace juxtaposes the grand history of the Napoeonic Wars with the spiritual history of his characters' consciousness.
Lev Tolstoy’s War and Peace juxtaposes the grand history of the Napoeonic Wars with the spiritual history of his characters’ consciousness.

This would inspire 19th and 20th century novelists to try and use the novel as a way of exploring the spiritual history of their characters, and how the kairos of their consciousness intersected with the chronos of history. Tolstoy’s War and Peace, for example, explores both the grand sweep of the Napoleonic Wars, and also the spiritual history of Prince Bolkonsky – his moments of epiphany when wounded on the battlefields of Austerlitz and Borodino, when he looks on the infinite sky or feels the flower of ecstatic pity unfolding within him (Bolkonsky is constantly having epiphanies when wounded – he sounds a most impractical soldier).

Both DH Lawrence and Virginia Woolf also tried to make the novel an exploration of the foldings and unfoldings of consciousness.  This is what DH Lawrence explores so beautifully in The Rainbow – the struggles of the souls of Tom, Lydia, Will, Anna and Ursula to come into being, to unfold into fullness, and their struggles with each other, how friendships and sexual relationships can either help our unfolding or prevent it.

Sometimes the novelistic epiphany involves a sudden sense of a hidden pattern behind the characters’ history – they run into an old love (as in Dr Zhivago) or an old enemy (as Bolkonsky does in War and Peace) and think – why them? Why now? Is this a coincidence or evidence that our lives are somehow weaved together, like works of art, if we could but glimpse the hidden pattern?

The epiphany as narcissistic self-glorification

Now here’s the key point. The literary epiphany was in some senses an evolution of a religious idea or experience in a post-religious age. But the epiphany in Wordsworth and his descendants is quite different to religious experiences in, say, Augustine, John Bunyan or John Wesley.

As Ashton Nichols explores, in religious epiphanies, the experience is very much tied to an theological explanation – it is a revealing of God and the nature of God. The theology is the trellis for the flower of the experience.

Keats suggested the poet needs a negative capability in which they can experience the Sublime without 'an irritable reaching after fact and reason'
Keats suggested the poet needs a negative capability in which they can experience the Sublime without ‘an irritable reaching after fact and reason’

In the Romantic and modernist epiphany, by contrast, ‘the powerful perceptual experience becomes primary and self-sustaining. Interpretation of the event may be important but it is always subject to an indefiniteness that does not characterize the powerful moment itself’, in the words of Ashton Nichols. He goes on: ‘the visible reveals something invisible but the status of the invisible component is left unstated. Its mystery becomes part of the value of the experience.’

So theology is abandoned and there is the raw experience, the raw emotion, and the encounter with…something, we can’t be sure what. Call it God, or the World-Soul, or perhaps some private deity of one’s own imagining (Blake’s Albion, Graves’ White Goddess, Allan Moore’s Glycon, Philip K. Dick’s Valis).

In fact, one could say that what is revealed in the moment is not God, but rather the God-like mind of the artist. Wordsworth wrote: ‘To my soul I say / I recognize thy glory.’  Shelley said of Wordsworth: ‘Yet his was individual Mind / And new created all he saw.’  There’s a kind of grand narcissism to the Romantic epiphany – it reveals not the greatness of God but the greatness of the poetic imagination. The poet becomes the Creator, the Animator, and all they see in nature is their own beautiful reflection. Where Milton tells the epic narrative of the human race, Wordsworth sings only the Infinite Me.

This narcissism, this pride, goes back perhaps to Petrarch, and beyond that to Gnosticism. Petrarch wrote that he had learnt from the ancient philosophers that ‘nothing is great but the soul, which, when great itself, finds nothing great outside itself.’ Well…how nice for you Petrarch.

This, I think, is the risk of the modern epiphany. Firstly, there is little sense of how to achieve them through practice, prayer and discipline – the Romantic poet scorns all such discipline as deadening routine. Instead they wander around, perhaps on drugs, hoping for the moment to strike.

Secondly, there is little sense that such experiences are only valuable if they genuinely transform you and make you a better and more loving person. They become an end in itself, which culminates in Walter Pater’s dandyish aestheticism. The poet may be a complete bastard, as long as they have the occasional exquisite epiphany.

Thirdly, there is no sense of beliefs and theology as the trellis around which religious experiences become structured. The experience becomes paramount – and the poet may well hang any old theoretical nonsense around that experience. It leads ultimately to the incoherence and banality of much modern spirituality (one thinks of Paulo Coelho and The Celestine Prophecy, and their deification of coincidences as revelations).

Metamorphosis_of_NarcissusFinally, such moments become excuses not to glorify God, but to glorify one’s Self, one’s own incredible Mind. This is the Gnostic tendency – I am God, I am the Over-Soul, I am the Creator of Heaven and Earth – which one finds in Romanticism, in Wordsworth, Coleridge, Whitman, Emerson and Nietzsche, and which blossoms in the New Age movement of today. This is a dangerous error, because it can become a puffed-up egotism which actually cuts us off from God.

We have forgotten how to pray, how to create routines, habits and practices to carry us through the dry spells and to integrate the epiphanies. And we have forgotten how to kneel.

Can one be spiritual *and* religious?

Yesterday we had the first public event in the RSA’s new project: Spirituality, Tools of the Mind and the Social Brain. It’s the child of the RSA’s Jonathan Rowson, who wants to rehabilitate the term ‘spirituality’ and re-connect it to our public conversation. As he noted, there is a large body of people out there who don’t sign up to any one particular religion, but still have a hunger for a spiritual life – including him. I found it refreshing to hear a public conversation on this topic – as if a window had been opened and we could all breath easier.

The Guardian’s Madeline Bunting was on the panel, and initially made a slightly caricatured dismissal of ‘spirituality’ as self-pampering rather than self-denying, suggesting it’s all scented candles and personal development rather than hair-shirts and soup kitchens. I presumed she was speaking from a superior position of orthodox religious commitment. Actually, no – it emerged later in the conversation that she grew up a Catholic but still went to Buddhist retreats, and has wrestled for years with the question of which tradition to commit to. She, like the rest of us, is meandering down the aisles of the spiritual supermarket.

I found myself meandering down the aisles a few weeks ago, when I spoke at a New Age festival in Holland. Every tradition was thrown in together, as in some heavenly paella – angels, yoga, palmistry, Tarot, aura photos, crystals, more Buddhas than you could shake a joss-stick at. The line from The Wasteland came back to me –

Madame Sosotris, famous clairvoyante,
Had a bad cold, nevertheless
Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe

– and I wondered what TS Eliot would make of the festival. Then I thought, well, Tom, you helped make it, you and your generation.

Don’t blame us, Tom, your generation created the spiritual supermarket

There were some pre-modernist pioneers, like Ralph Waldo Emerson, but I’d suggest that it was the modernist generation who created the spiritual supermarket – artists and thinkers like Wagner, Jung, Tolstoy, DH Lawrence, TS Eliot, Yeats, William James and Aldous Huxley. They ate the apple of knowledge – knowledge of other religious traditions, particularly through their first, breathless reception of eastern classics like the the Dhammapada, the Bhagavad-Gita, the Tibetan Book of the Dead and the I-Ching.  Eliot was as heterodox as any of them, studying Sanskrit and Bergson, and ending The Wasteland with some rousing Hindu chanting.  And they also had a Romantic sense (I’m thinking particularly of William James here) that spiritual experiences could happen outside of any religious tradition, particularly if you’ve done enough nitrous oxide.

Spiritual pluralism was developed by the modernists before passing, via the Beats, into the main arteries of western culture. We all now grow up in the spiritual supermarket – I am fairly typical in having dismissed Christianity as a teenager, and turned instead to Walt Whitman, the Buddha, Rumi, Marcus Aurelius, Lao Tzu and Hunter S. Thompson for spiritual guidance.

After such knowledge, what forgiveness? Once you are aware of the spiritual wisdom in many different religious traditions, how can you commit to any particular one? It’s the paradox of choice – we are offered so many paths, we end up going a few steps down each one, before returning the way we came to try out another route.

The free market in religion is the consequence of liberalism, the disestablishment of church and state, the tolerance of multiple faiths – all of which seem to me a good thing. And yet the free market works in strange ways. Holland and the UK, for example, have established churches, and are among the most secular countries in the world. The US, where religion is disestablished, has a much higher percentage of believers.

America’s free market in religion may have spurred innovation and aggressive marketing – like this Mormon cathedral in San Diego

Why is this? It may be that America’s 250-year-old free market in religion has spurred more innovation, new religious movements (Mormonism, Christian Science, Seventh-Day Adventists, Pentecostalists), more aggressive marketing, bolder truth-claims on the part of all those competing churches, while the Church of England always reined in their evangelical wings before they got too ecstatic. Or it may be, as Robert Rowland-Smith suggested at the RSA, that World War II and the horrors of the death camps made it difficult for Europeans to believe in providence.

In any case, some have reacted to the free market by hardening their faith into fundamentalism. This weekend, I chatted to a nice Christian girl about how spiritual experiences seem to happen to people outside of any religious tradition. ‘Oh yes’, she nodded. ‘Spiritual experiences can happen without Jesus. That just means they’re demonic.’ In a similar vein, I read an American pastor recently insisting that anyone who doesn’t accept the divinity of Jesus is going to Hell. ‘Otherwise Jesus would have died in vain’. So he’s happy to consign four fifths of humanity to Hell to preserve the specialness of one life.

This modern fundamentalist reaction to the free market gets nasty when it feeds into the public sphere. There can be no tolerance of other religions – they are demonic. We see the fruits of this attitude across the Middle East and Africa, where Christians are murdered every day by Muslim fanatics. It makes us long for the cosmopolitan spirit of earlier Islamic eras, so beautifully elegized by William Dalrymple, when many different religions rubbed shoulders, mixed together, interbred.

On the other hand, there is a risk in not being committed to any particular path – as I’ve put it before, you end up sleeping with everyone at the New Age orgy, and not marrying anyone. You never really commit to a religious tradition, never allow yourself to be transformed. I’m not saying this is always the case, by any means, but it’s a risk of the ‘spiritual-but-not-religious’ approach.

I wonder if it’s possible to be spiritual and religious: one recognizes that the Spirit connects with people in many different religious traditions, and also with people outside of any religion. At the same time, one also recognizes the value of submitting oneself to a particular religious tradition, its scripture, practices and community structures. As Elizabeth Oldfield suggested at the RSA, perhaps one can recognise many paths to God but still suggest yours is the best (the best you’ve found, anyway).  I wonder if it’s where TS Eliot ended up too – Four Quartets is clearly a Christian poem, yet we also get guest-appearances from the Buddha and Krishna.

What I’m grappling with is this: does the ‘spiritual and religious’ position undermine the specialness of Jesus, and contradict his words that ‘no one comes to the Father except through me’? Can one be a Christian pluralist, or does that basically mean I’m not a Christian, I’m a (gulp) Unitarian? Am I Ba’hai? Ba’how did I end up here?


In other news:

This coming Monday, pragmatist philosopher Robert Talisse is speaking at the London Philosophy Club. Handful of places left.

My book came out in America! Without any media promotion alas, so it’s languishing at #50,000 on Amazon. But anyway, you can get it in the US and Canada now.

Check out the great trailer Donald Robertson made for Stoic Week (last week of November)! Keep November 30 free for a big Stoic event we’re organizing in London.

Talking of Stoics, I did an interview with Jonathan Newhouse, CEO of Conde Nast International, about how he uses Stoicism in his life.

Next weekend I’m speaking at the Radio 3 Free Thinking Festival in Gateshead, about ecstasy. Fuck knows how that will go! Come and find out.

New paper by Kinderman et al showing how psychological processes like rumination predict mental illness. Good to show that mental illnesses aren’t just physical diseases, but involve thought habits that people can change.

Two days left to watch this fantastic Otis Redding documentary on BBC iplayer. You gotta!

Here are my top ten tips for recovering from mental illness.

Finally, do listen to Grayson Perry’s first Reith Lecture, on why democracy has bad taste when it comes to art. Funny and interesting.

See you next week,


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