(Host) What’s the connection between the Biblical story of the wise men, Shakespeare and James Joyce? Commentator Peter Gilbert explains.
(GILBERT) “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is a familiar song, but many don’t know what the Twelve Days of Christmas are. They are December 25th through January 5th. The next day, January 6th, is called Epiphany – or Twelfth Night. Shakespeare entitled a play Twelfth Night, and some scholars believe that the romantic comedy was first performed for Queen Elizabeth I at Whitehall on Twelfth Night, January 6, 1601.
The word epiphany means “a showing forth.” In Western churches, Epiphany remembers the coming of the wise men – or Magi – bearing three gifts for the Christ child. Their visit is said to “reveal” Jesus to the world as the incarnate Christ. That would make the wise men’s finding of the Christ child the first and ultimate epiphany.
In the secular twentieth century, epiphanies had special – albeit not sacred – meaning for James Joyce, author of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses, and Finnegans Wake. For Joyce, epiphany meant a sudden revelation of the truth or essence of a thing. It refers to a moment of insight or understanding in which one understands the essential whatness of a thing – when “the soul of the commonest object…seems to us radiant.” It means, in short, a moment of truth, understanding, discovery or awareness.
Epiphanies are at the center of Joyce’s literary works. His collection of short stories called Dubliners was, for him, a series of fifteen epiphanies, written to let Irish people take “one good look at themselves….” Scholars argue that Dubliners reveals what Joyce considered the essence of the entire city of Dublin: paralysis. It’s no wonder, then, that while Joyce wrote largely about Dublin, he lived all of his creative years in continental Europe.
At one point, one of Joyce’s characters, the largely autobiographical Stephen Hero, overhears just a snippet of conversation between a young man and woman, but Stephen found in those few words something transcendent. Joyce writes,
“This triviality made him think of collecting many such moments together in a book of epiphanies. 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 that 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.”
Joyce said that epiphanies contain what Thomas Aquinas considered the three requisites of beauty: wholeness, harmony and radiance. That’s why Joyce found epiphanies so compelling – because they are beautiful and the very embodiments of truth revealed.
Where do you find epiphanies around you today? They’re out there, but you have to look and choose to recognize them.
This is Peter Gilbert in Montpelier.
Peter Gilbert is the executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council.