Tag Archives: Robert Graves

The Politics of Epiphany

It occurs to me that all poets at some point in their lives experience something of the profound, and the nature of this experience colors and informs their writing from that point forward. Robert Graves might have said it is the presence of the White Goddess that is that initiating profundity, that point at which the salmon in the stream bed of inspiration is first discovered, that instant when Taliesyn’s finger is burnt gold by Cerridwen’s foul potion of hyper-knowledge. James Joyce echoes this theme, in a way, through his constant obsession with epiphany. There is always a point in his writing at which key characters, in a moment of absolute clarity, realize that in order to be alive they must embrace a certain level of awareness to which their ignorant compatriots are blissfully unaware. That blinding moment of illumination is found in every poet’s work at some juncture. What triggers it, of course, is different for each writer, but it always involves a painful awareness of the difference between mere commonplace angst and profound turmoil.

Interestingly enough, this grand profundity more often than not is expressed negatively. That is, it is communicated as a loss — of innocence, of joy; or as the sense of something ponderous, weighty and sad — a sense of isolation, of powerlessness, of triviality, of uselessness, of pointlessness. It is the rare writer that colors their illumination as a positive experience, as if ignorance of the reality of things is something worth losing, if exchanged for an awareness of one’s true place in the universe. Perhaps that is because in order to communicate to those who have not had their own epiphany, one must appear to grieve as those without profound experience imagine grief to be, if only to establish some basis for communication. Never mind that the language of profundity, like the language of the acid trip, is meaningless outside its context, even to one who has made the journey and is now safe back at home.

And too, people who see the profound where others see simply the ordinary are often ostracized, ridiculed, and even institutionalized in order to maintain the fabric of society. We accept grief, loss, isolation, loneliness, powerlessness, and pointlessness as part of every day life — so long as one does not wallow in it, nor force others to witness its impact on our neatly scrubbed, public faces. I suppose it’s like agriculture, to some extent; we are pleased and proud as a culture that less than 5% of the population has to work directly with dirt in order to feed the rest of us. In a similar way, we are pleased and proud of that small number among us who serve as artists, poets, dancers, sculptors, musicians — pleased that they are indeed only a small portion, whose dalliance in profundities siphons but a meager amount of gross national product from more practical, useful and ultimately controllable employment.

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Current Reading List

For those who are interested in this sort of thing, here’s what is currently on my reading list (we just got Barnes & Noble gift cards for birthday presents, and I couldn’t resist running out and purchasing new things)…

Perfume (Patrick Suskind) – translated from German, this is a very strange psychological murder mystery about a man born with no scent, who interprets the world by smell, and ends up becoming a master perfumer and a distiller of human essence (yep, that’s where the murder comes in). A fascinating book, until recently out of print but now available again.

The Story of my Experiments with Truth: The Autobiography of Mohandas K. Gandhi – a very humble retelling of Gandhi’s early life (basically up to his return to India from South Africa and the beginning of the Indian Independence struggle). He was very honest about his own faults, and this book was the inspiration for most of the world’s civil rights struggles since its publication.

I, Claudius (Robert Graves): I had a friend in high school who was always carrying this book around, but I never read it. I saw the PBS version (I think Derek Jacobi was Claudius?). It’s an interesting counterpoint to Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, which I’m also reading. And ever since I read the White Goddess, I have loved Graves’ writing style and point of view. Trivia: Robert Graves was the first cousin of Lady Olivia Robertson, the founder of the Fellowship of Isis.

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