The author has kindly shared with readers of The Victorian Web, the following passage from her Literary Epiphany in the Novel, 1850-1950: Constellations of the Soul, which Palgrave Macmillan published in 2012. — George P. Landow.

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n epiphany scholarship, the adjective “spiritual” has brought confusion instead of clarity, since it invites an unusual level of ambiguity. As a word associated with the intangible and incorporeal, as well as the pre-logical and anti-institutional, it eludes objective categorization or analysis. Further, because “spiritual” has a mystical tag, critics have mistaken Joyce’s concept as something mystical, religious, or moral, when it expressly denies each of those vectors. Some have even criticized it for those traits, while others note the postmodern skepticism toward the “felt ultimacies” implicit in epiphany (Saltzman 498; Maltby, McGowan, Salgado). As Herbert Tucker observes, “Epiphany may have fallen under theoretical suspicion and into academic neglect because currently popular definitions violate the postulates of much advanced scholarship” (1209); epiphany had its “heyday” with New Criticism, but theoretical shifts created by deconstruction and new historicism have made it unfashionable in the late twentieth century and occluded its visibility in current discourse.

The “spiritual” is notoriously difficult to pin down and the most elusive, vague, annoying, and pesky in critical terms. Its qualities explain the difficulty of reading or employing “epiphany” as a consistent literary concept. Rather than restricting this aspect of epiphany, I wish to give it more room to emerge. I am interested in precisely those elements that have made epiphany suspect in contemporary criticism, what some critics have viewed with a sort of embarrassment, like the recurrence of six toes in a family: the various impulses toward a depth-dimension, an unquantifiable “spiritual” dimension in subjective experience that bears a resemblance to religion. This likeness is a family resemblance, embodied in both the Greek and the French-Latin-Catholic genealogy of the word “epiphany” and remembered in communities often centered outside of the domain of critical theory.

Instead of separating epiphany from its religious provenance, I suggest that exploring that origin brings into view more fully how modern epiphany works as an ironic mode of manifestation. A study of this lineage also helps to limn why literary epiphany accumulates the adjective “spiritual” even in a post-religious context, providing a starting point for reaching a less amorphous sense of what it means for modern epiphany to be spiritual. As a spiritual manifestation, epiphany becomes definitive for a character and thus becomes a significant form of characterization in the novel.

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Last modified 26 June 2013