A moment of light revelry in the Dale Chihuly exhibit at the MFA, Boston

This following is an excerpt from an old (1997) Atlantic interview with Charles Baxter whose recently released collection of short stories is called Gryphon:

Atlantic: In your essay “Against Epiphanies” you argue that a “character’s experiences in a story [don’t] have to be validated by a conclusive insight or brilliant visionary stop-time moment” and go on to assert that “radiance, after a while, gets routine.” Yet the characters in your short stories often do experience moments of startling revelation — and, in fact, many critics identify your graceful use of epiphanies as one of your unique talents. How do you reconcile the thoughts expressed in your essay with instances of revelation in your fiction?

Baxter: I can’t reconcile them. Or maybe I’m like Huck Finn’s father, who has perfected his denunciation of alcohol during the day and his back-alley binges at night. I disapprove of epiphanies and their phony auras but I am besotted by them—can’t get enough of them in life or elsewhere…Seriously though, as a person who was brought up with religious faith and then got out of it, I’m always looking for secular manifestations of the sacred. At the same time I know that when these moments are arranged—particularly at the end of short stories—they acquire an absolutely formulaic quality…If you’re trying to write a story with a beginning, middle, and end but haven’t found a way of tying it up dramatically, an epiphany will do the job. But it often ends up feeling like a shortcut, and besides, as I wrote in the essay, I’ve had so god-damned few epiphanies in my life that I’m suspicious of them. And most of them have been wrong anyway!

I am taken in by the dilemma he describes—disapproving of epiphanies but besotted by them nonetheless. And even though he is focused on fiction forms (he teaches creative writing to MFA students), there are parallels that exist in other art forms as well.

I was also engaged by his description of his proclivities: “As a person who was brought up with religious faith and then got out of it, I’m always looking for secular manifestations of the sacred.” That is an impulse I know well.

Advertisements