LIKE THE EARLY 20th-century traveler and writer, Norman Douglas, I find that “gleams of light flash[ing] from that mirror-like” surface of the sea follow me about, like “some all-pervading, inevitable melody.” Being fascinated by the play of sunlight on water is not a personal idiosyncrasy. The phenomenon has provided effective images to illustrate religious and philosophical teachings, Platonist, Christian, and Buddhist included. To render in color or in sound the experience of reflections in water has been an ambition of artists and composers from Turner to Hockney, from Debussy to Takemitsu. And a host of writers — Nietzsche, André Gide, D. H. Lawrence, Albert Camus — have found the experience of sunlit seas life-enhancing: the cure for those people who, in Lawrence’s words, lead the “un-elemental, [...] un-sunned” existence of “graveyard worms.”
The scintillating surface of a sunlit sea has proved fascinating and inspiring, I suggest, because it provides an epiphany. In and through it, something significant about the world shows up for us. This is a suggestion endorsed, as we’ll see, by many religious teachers and other thinkers. The main business of this essay, however, is to make a plea for epiphanies — or, more accurately, for paying reflective attention to them. Epiphanic experiences are not of merely “psychological” interest, not indicators simply of personal tastes and predilections. Epiphanies, though they may be joyful, are more serious than that.
The word “epiphany” comes from a Greek term meaning to “become apparent” or “manifest.” When the Magi entered the stable in Bethlehem, what they had so far believed on the basis of prophecy was made visibly present to them — the birth of the Messiah. Hence the reference in Western Christianity to this event as “The Epiphany.” As epiphanies of the divine go, the sight that greeted the wise men — a baby in a cradle in a stable — was not especially imposing. Not, for example, when compared to the one described in the Bhagavad Gita. During a pause in a battle, the warrior Arjuna discovers that his chariot driver is the god Krishna in human form. Arjuna asks to see Krishna’s “supreme form.” The god obliges, providing Arjuna with a “divine eye” to behold his “supreme power.” Thus equipped, the warrior is treated to a brilliant vision of suns, jewels, weapons, gorgeous robes — “the whole universe,” in effect, “in the body of the god of gods.” Unsurprisingly, Arjuna is “shaken to the core”: not only has he seen Krishna in his supreme form, he has been “entered into” by the god.
An epiphany does not have to be a theophany, a manifestation of a divine being. In James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen explains to a friend, as they walk down Westmoreland Street, that a clock on a building is not simply part of “Dublin’s street furniture.” It is an “epiphany,” “a sudden spiritual manifestation,” in which the “whatness” or essence of a great city shines forth. So “epiphany” need not be invested with a theological sense. Experiences of sunlit seas need not have a specifically religious significance. Nor need an epiphany be dramatic and sudden, like Krishna’s appearance before Arjuna. The experience may be relaxed and cheerful: like Stephen’s on a Dublin street, it may be abiding and steady.
What should be retained from the ancient notion of epiphany is the sense of a showing forth — a becoming manifest to experience — of what has been occluded or recessive. We should retain as well the sense that what is manifested is something that matters — a significant, even fundamental, aspect of reality. You can appropriately speak of epiphanies of divine splendor, spiritual force, or the soul of a city, but not, usually, of epiphanies of cabbage leaves and rubber bands. An epiphany is something that is experienced by a person as a showing or bodying forth of a profound aspect of the way of things. An epiphany brings a truth about the world into the sphere of vivid personal experience.
The early Greek philosopher Heraclitus is best known for his remark that you can’t step into the same river twice. It was not flowing water, however, but combustion that provided him with an epitome of universal movement and change. The world is “an ever-kindling fire,” and everything in it “an exchange for fire.” In watching a log burn in the hearth, we observe in miniature the essential process of reality: the flaring up of the log and its disintegration into ashes exemplify the process to which everything is subject. The fire, for Heraclitus, is an epiphany of the fundamental character of the universe, a cosmic metaphor.
A very different epiphany is recorded in the novel that established Jean-Paul Sartre’s reputation as a writer, Nausea. The book’s central figure, Roquentin, goes into a public garden as dusk falls. He looks at the base of a chestnut tree and is overcome by the uncanny feeling of “nausea” to which he is prone. But now for the first time he understands this feeling. Looking at the chestnut root, he sees it in its “obscene nakedness,” devoid of any connection to human measure and understanding, disjoined from the human purposes and concerns that normally shape our perceptions of things. The root — and the world it belongs to — is experienced by Roquentin as “absurd” or “superfluous,” just “there.” The root is an epiphany of “existence as such,” of being as it is, in disturbing isolation from our dealings with things.
Gardens, including public ones, may themselves be epiphanies. Certain gardens exemplify in a salient way a general truth about the relationship between human culture and the natural world. This relationship is one of mutual dependence. Human creative activity is always constrained by a way of experiencing nature, and how people experience nature is in turn conditioned by their cultural inheritance. Not every garden is suited to inspire recognition of this. Not those highly formal gardens in which culture appears to have stamped itself upon nature, and not those deceptively “wild” ones that look as if they are untouched by human hands. But there are gardens — from Suzhou to Highgrove, from Kyoto to San Francisco — that wear on their sleeve the interplay of human design and natural process, of art and nature. To walk around such gardens in a responsive mood is to experience in a quiet way an epiphany of a deep aspect of our world.
Do epiphanies matter? Should we, like the Magi following their star, seek them out? The answer is that epiphanies play important, even indispensable roles in promoting our understanding of things.
Arjuna had been told about the glories of Krishna by priests and teachers long before his meeting with the charioteer who turned out to be the god. But it required the great epiphany described in the Bhagavad Gita for this hearsay knowledge to translate into a direct knowledge able to penetrate Arjuna’s soul and “shake him to the core.” Educated in a French lycée, Roquentin would have heard plenty about philosophies of being, from Plato to Hegel. But it is an epiphany, the encounter with the chestnut root, that induces in him a vivid and emotionally charged understanding of being in itself, in all its “nakedness” and “absurdity.” Again, most Buddhists will be familiar, at some level, with the doctrine of universal transience: but it may need the eponymous, ever-changing Japanese garden described in Tan Twan Eng’s novel, The Garden of Evening Mists, to “reach inside you […] [and] make you appreciate the impermanence of everything in life.”
So an epiphany may convert cool, abstract understanding into the kind of knowledge William James called “hot and alive.” But an epiphany may serve as well to open someone up to an understanding that has been repressed. In his great sonnet, first published in 1807, “The World Is Too Much With Us,” Wordsworth regrets our inability, in a world of frenzied “getting and spending,” to any longer “see in Nature” something that relates to us, something with the power to “move” us. To overcome the tendencies in modern life that degrade our relationship with nature and put us “out of tune” with it, “glimpses” of nature as it truly is are needed. A glimpse like the epiphany Wordsworth referred to nine years earlier in his “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey.” There, in the waters and landscape of the Wye Valley, the poet famously experienced “a presence that disturbs me […] a sense sublime / Of something far more deeply interfused […] A motion and a spirit, that […] rolls through all things.”
The author of the Bhagavad Gita had a fair shot at trying to describe “the god of gods” whose epiphany astonished Arjuna. Roquentin and Wordsworth, by contrast, do not attempt a literal description of what manifested itself to them. This is because they appreciate that description would be impossible. Confronted by the “absurd” chestnut root, Roquentin realizes that “words had disappeared,” and Wordsworth’s spirit that “impels [...] all objects of all thought” is not itself the object of a thought that can be articulated. So, it is not simply that, as every news editor knows, an image is worth a thousand words. In the case of some epiphanies, what shows forth cannot be described in a thousand, a million, or any number of words. An ineffable presence to a person’s experience may be the sole way for it to enter into the understanding.
Another role played by epiphanies is akin to that of good metaphors — guidance. A rich metaphor — the world as a fire, say — suggests fresh ways in which to think about something. Likewise, an epiphany of an aspect of reality may prompt new ways of understanding or imagining it. In Tan Twan Eng’s novel, referred to earlier, the narrator remarks on how, obviously enough, her garden “borrows” the mountain scenery to enhance its visual effect. But she then wonders if the Japanese creator of the garden also intended to “borrow” the mists that swirl before the mountains — and “the wind, the clouds, the ever-changing light,” even “heaven itself” perhaps. The narrator’s speculation illustrates how attention to the garden as an epiphany of art’s relationship to nature extends an appreciation of the interdependence of the two. The epiphany leads us from obvious to much less apparent ways in which a human creation is a response to the world of nature.
Epiphanies, then, may help an idea to become “hot and alive,” render salient a feature of reality that has become occluded, provide access to an ineffable dimension of the world, and guide exploration of the way of things. These are good reasons to attend to experiences with a claim to be epiphanic.
Here, by way of a coda, is an indication of some roles that have been assigned to the epiphany with which I began — sunlit reflections on the surface of the sea. In some East Asian schools of Buddhism, the imagery of light reflected on water — of a quicksilver and luminous flow in which waves merge and reflect one another — serves to render more vivid and compelling the otherwise abstract conception of a holistic world of interpenetrating phenomena. For Arthur Schopenhauer, the “most pure of our perceptions” — that of “the reflection of objects in water” in all its “incredible beauty” — recalls for us something that is suppressed in the business of everyday life, subject as it is to the demands of desire of will. This is the possibility of a form of experience and existence “freed and delivered from all will” a disinterested delight in the play of appearances. Finally, as the poets and sages of Daoism understood, no experience is better suited to evoke the mysterious Way that sustains all things than the sight of glistening water. When it glints and glitters, the great mass of water beneath the surface is invisible, yet its presence is inevitably sensed and felt, its dark and profound movement rising up to the surface that we see.
Here, I suggest, are indications of how reflection on one epiphany contributes to understanding of the world and to the enhancement of our engagement with it. Reflections on countless other epiphanies would be similarly rewarded.
*Author’s Note: This essay draws on material in my Sunlight on the Sea: Reflecting on Reflections (2013).
David E. Cooper is Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Durham University, England.