In a piece for the New Yorker titled “Laptop U,” Gregory Nagy, a professor of classical Greek literature at Harvard, told Nathan Heller—almost in passing:
I had this real revelation—I’m not saying ‘epiphany,’ because people use that word wrong, because an epiphany should be when a really miraculous superhuman personality appears, so this is just a revelation, not an epiphany.
Huh. So far I’ve used that word twice in my posts—in “Writing Is Meditation” and in “Where James Joyce Fails, Neil Gaiman Prevails“—and I assure you no spiritual apparition, holy or unholy, showed up to pass some profound heavenly wisdom onto me. If any, I probably would have fainted or would have been incapable of seeing it.
In my research for one of the blog posts above, I happened upon a succinct explanation of the Joycean epiphany written by Stefania Gioffrè. She seemed to use the meanings as contrasted by Nagy interchangeably (emphasis added):
I guess everybody is familiar with the old story of the three Wise Men who had ventured to visit the baby Jesus in Bethlehem. […] At the end of that journey they were recompensed by the sight of the physical manifestation of the son of God on earth: Jesus. This event is called Epiphany (from the ancient Greek ἐπιφάνεια, epiphaneia: manifestation, striking appearance), that is a moment of a sudden revelation.
She went on to say that James Joyce himself explicitly provides a definition (emphasis added):
James Joyce makes his alter ego Stephen Daedalus lecture on the nature of epiphanies during a discussion with his friend Cranly on Aquinas’ interpretation of beauty. An epiphany is ‘a sudden spiritual manifestation’ which may be provoked by ‘the vulgarity of speech or a gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself,’ a moment of claritas that leads to the truth, the quidditas, as Aquinas would say.
As Stefania pointed out, the word “epiphany” etymologically comes from an ancient Greek word—and Nagy is a professor of classical Greek literature, so he should know, right?
What, then, is the correct definition? I suspect that, perhaps given Joyce’s influence on the English literature and linguistics, the word has undergone a semantic change and therefore, is no longer confined to its ancient Greek meaning. From Merriam-Webster:
But perhaps it’s not correct to attribute its semantic evolution entirely to Joyce. Can one of the English majors among you clarify?
Top image credit: Monica Arellano-Ongpin. Used under a Creative Commons license.