Are Tropisms Only Joycean Epiphanies?

The first question we must ask is, what are Joycean epiphanies? – and hope we find a curious answer, otherwise we aren’t going to get very far.

A Joycean epiphany is where you write a short story, isn’t it, and at the end of the short story someone has some revelation about something?

This is, after all, what we’re all taught when we attend creative writing courses; and this is how we write our short stories nowadays, and then publish them in volumes along with other people’s short stories which all have similar resolutions. (Ideally, the story should be about nothing much, and preferably contain very dull characters who live simple lives and have uninteresting ideas). See, for instance, Obooki’s important – though as yet unwritten – essay on this subject: Aren’t Epiphanic Short Stories Merely Twist-in-the-Tale Short Stories Without a Twist in the Tale?.

But, on the other hand, what did Joyce have to say about his epiphanies? – Well, this here is the excerpt about them from Stephen Hero (Source 1). And here is a description of Joyce’s work entitled Epiphanies, which contains examples of such epiphanies (Source 2).

Right, now that we’ve read those, what do we think Joycean epiphanies are? – Are they moments of revelation in which a character discovers something?  – Well, I’m not convinced: the examples Joyce gives (of a trivial conversation between a man and a woman; of the clock of the Ballast Office coming suddenly into focus) don’t seem applicable to this notion at all – let alone the idea of simply cataloguing such moments in a book. I myself think it’s more likely what he’s vaguely hinting at is that the artist draws out an epiphany in the mind of the reader (as the world, in Stephen Hero’s examples, draws out an epiphany in the mind of the observer), everything comes to a moment of focus, but they are not revelations as such: Stephen is here talking of aesthetics. – I remember reading too somewhere – is it in one of these articles, I forget? – that it is not the eternally copied Dubliners in which Joyce truly displays his epiphanic theory (though it is there, certainly) but in Ulysses; – that is his epiphanic work.

So to Nathalie Sarraute’s Tropisms: a collection of moments in the lives of some people (a couple, who are bringing up a child, I think – though I shall possibly have to read it some more to decide), each a page or two long, a few emotions, feelings described, the odd thoughts passing through someone’s mind, the world as they find it momentarily around them. Nothing in it is revelatory; no one comes to an understanding of anything. But they do seem very like the kind of things Joyce is describing in Stephen Hero.

Here is what Sarraute has to say of the concept of the Tropism in her foreword to my edition (John Calder, 1963):

What I tried to do was show certain inner “movements” by which I had long been attracted; in fact, I might even say that, ever since I was a child, these movements, which are hidden under the commonplace, harmless appearances of every instant of our lives, had struck and held my attention … These movements, of which we are hardly cognizant, slip through us on the frontiers of consciousness in the form of undefinable, extremely rapid sensations. They hide behind our gestures, beneath the words we speak and the feelings we manifest, all of which we are aware of experiencing, and are able to define. They seemed, and still seem to me to constitute the secret source of our existence, in what might be called its nascent state … These movements seemed to me to be veritable dramatic actions, hiding beneath the commonplace conversations, the most everyday gestures, and constantly emerging up to the surface of the appearances that both conceal and reveal them.

Well, I don’t know – decide from yourselves – but in some way I think Joyce and Sarraute were in all this groping after the same thing.


4 thoughts on “Are Tropisms Only Joycean Epiphanies?

  1. People seem very hung up on the idea of epiphanies in Joyce, and it is (as you suggest) a widely misunderstood concept – at least, if it leads to the sausage-factory approach to writing dull short stories you’ve outlined.

    I think you are right that Joyce intended them as “spots in time” that act on a reader, rather than illustrating some supposed quality or insight of one of his characters. In fact Joyce felt it was a challenge to him as an artist to be able to locate “epiphanies” in a longer piece of work (eg a novel); he sensed they were wasted as sketches or brief stand-alones.

  2. Ah, you sound like you know something about the subject, unlike my wild theorising. – I almost managed to read some of Dubliners on a kindle that I didn’t buy for myself in an attempt to investigate the above ideas. As it was, I only got a few pages into the first story, from which I could draw few conclusions.

  3. They told me I had to switch off the kindle because the aeroplane was landing – and then after that I had to give it to the person I bought it for. So it was nothing to do with Joyce – actually, I particularly like the first story in Dubliners (I think it’s my favourite).

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