Novelist Charles Baxter’s book Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction is a must-read for anyone interested in the art of fiction writing. One of the most evocative essays in the book is called “Against Epiphanies.” Though Baxter is critiquing American culture and literature in this incisive essay, I believe his assertions have unique resonance in Mormon culture.
Indulge me as I quote several passages.
Regarding the place of the epiphanic in the contemporary market, Baxter says: “Almost anything can be mass produced and marketed, even insight. Especially insight.” We see this in our TV shows, don’t we, and in our self-help books, and on the shelves of the Mormon bookstore?
Baxter says the middle-class appetite for insight has served as a substitute for the difficulties of religion: “When the middle-class discovered insight—revelation free of the obligations of organized religion—they made a serious investment in it.” Commenting further on the middle class, Baxter says: “A professional-managerial class believes that it needs insight in order to survive. For the middle class, information and mental events are far more important than physical actions.”
Insight has advantages for officialdom, too: “Officials, and official culture, are full of epiphanies and insights and dogmas.” And, Baxter assures us, “Because [insight] is a private experience, it can’t be debated or contested.” My fellow Mormons, how are we doing? Does he have us pegged, along with the rest of America?
But we’re not done yet. The way Baxter connects surfaces, insights, and conspiracies should sober us even more:
“Insights, in art and outside of it, depend on an assumption that the surface is false. […] That almost everyone has been mistaken. All cults, and the occult arts, assume this to be the case. The loss of innocence is partly a recognition that there are depths to things, that what you see is not always what you get. […] But the fascination with false surfaces leads, fairly quickly, to a fascination with conspiracies.”
Is anyone thinking Glenn Beck?
I’m thinking that, but I’m also thinking of what I learned when I joined the LDS Church: the insight that a Restoration necessarily followed the conspiracy of the Great Apostasy. Don’t get me wrong: I believe an Apostasy occurred, and I believe in the Restoration. Why, then, do Baxter’s words cause me to take notice? Because of his assertion that any insight, any epiphany, requires the assumption of false surfaces.
How easily, how often, do we assume that all surfaces are false, that nothing is what it seems to be? Baxter’s conclusion is a damning critique of contemporary American culture: “Insight’s connection to the loss of innocence, to a vestigial religious worldview, and to conspiracy theories, make it particularly suited to a culture like ours that thrives on psychotherapeutic models, paranoia, and self-improvement. A belief that one is a victim will lead inevitably to an obsession with insight.” In other words, epiphanies require false surfaces, and the view that every surface is false requires paranoia.
What do Baxter’s assertions mean for the Mormon writer who seeks meaning and epiphany? Let’s consider some history first. An epiphany in Greek mythology and literature is a “showing forth,” a moment when a god or goddess casts off its disguise and reveals its divinity. In Christian usage, the word signified a manifestation of God’s presence in the created world. Twentieth-century novelist James Joyce used the word in an early draft of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (published posthumously as Stephen Hero) to describe “a sudden spiritual manifestation” when the “whatness” of an object “leaps to us from the vestment of its appearance,” when “The soul of the commonest object … seems to us radiant.”
Joyce’s adaptation of the epiphany is significant in his modernist focus on the inner self. In a Joycean epiphany, the climax occurs within the individual, not without. Such inward transformation has roots in the romantic idea of transcendence. Perhaps this explains why it’s easy to read analogs of the epiphany in nature. A seed becomes a shoot; a caterpillar becomes a butterfly; a rain cloud bursts, bringing rain; a child becomes an adult. In nature and societies, contending forces clash, fall away, and clash again, until one or all are irrevocably transformed. Old order moves through conflict and into new order. When we look at nature and ourselves, it seems that transformation and transcendence are fundamental to our existence.
Perhaps, then, Baxter’s argument is a straw man. He says false surfaces precede the epiphany. But caterpillars and rain clouds aren’t false surfaces. Sometimes an epiphany is meaningful simply because we didn’t know the thing that was concealed.
Nonetheless, Baxter’s words should be cautionary. The next time we find ourselves in the epiphanic moment, we might ask, “What had I assumed about the surface before?” We might even wonder, “Did I set up my own false surface, on purpose, in order to reach this epiphanic moment in which things suddenly seemed so clear?” Often for the fiction writer, this exactly what happens. Writers allow characters to believe things, things that aren’t quite right, in order to lead to an epiphany. But the epiphanic moment also should be, to some degree, at least, genuine for the writer. That’s the way to meaningful fiction.
My best fiction-writing moments come when I have a genuine question, something I really don’t know the answer to. Then I begin to explore that issue through writing. By the time the story is finished, I’ve acquired my own greater understanding in the process. However, fiction is not just the transmission of knowledge. Wikipedia can do that. In fiction, the epiphanic is entwined with the experiential, with characters, circumstances, and actions, which come together to reveal new and meaningful vicarious experience the reader has never had before.