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Disturbing Epiphany: Rereading Virginia Woolf’s ‘Moments of Being’

Perturber l’épiphanie : une relecture des « moments d’être » de Virginia Woolf
Naomi Toth


Cette étude interroge l’usage de l’étiquette « épiphanie » dans la lecture critique des textes modernistes à travers une relecture des « moments d’être » qui jouent un rôle central dans l’esthétique romanesque de Virginia Woolf. Cette lecture accorde une attention particulière au pathos intrinsèque à ces expériences, car le « choc » qui leur est constitutif brise les apparences normées du monde et l’intégrité du sujet, et fragmente l’unité du moment présent. Les « moments d’être » passent donc par une mise en forme créative dans une temporalité de l’après-coup, de la reprise, et du rythme, où le passé peut faire retour. Les « moments d’être » woolfiens résistent ainsi à une lecture apolitique ou anhistorique qui accorderait un statut autonome à l’art, car ils perturbent le sujet et la perception ainsi que leurs déterminations sociopolitiques.

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By epiphany, he meant a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phrase of the mind itself. He believed that it was for the man of letters to record these epiphanies with extreme care, seeing that they are themselves the most delicate and evanescent of moments. (Joyce 1963, 211)

1Thus defined in Joyce’s Stephen Hero, the term ‘epiphany’ has had a long and mixed destiny in critical discourse since the manuscript’s publication in 1944. It has been used in the field of Joycean studies as a framework for reading the author’s work in general and his early texts in particular. It has also been used as a label that can be applied to all modernist novels to describe their interest in intense moments of perception in the present. Such is the thesis Morris Beja advances in his influential 1971 study, Epiphany in the Modern Novel. Using Joyce’s term as a point of departure, Beja defines an epiphany as a highly significant moment of revelation, triggered by incongruously trivial events, objects or words. For Beja, epiphanies are primarily subjective experiences, rooted in modernism’s interest in consciousness and individual psychology, and are also key to the disruption of linear narrative structures and time schemes in the modernist novel. He associates the importance of epiphany with the modernists’ rejection of institutionalised religion and mysticism on the one hand, and of rationality on the other. Indeed, despite the term’s obvious religious connotations, Beja understands epiphanies as secular manifestations of meaning.

2Beja’s definition of the modernist epiphany explicitly goes beyond Joyce’s, as the critic stretches the label to encompass, amongst others, Conrad’s ‘moments of vision’, Woolf’s ‘moments of being’, the recapture of time in Proust, and the flashbacks and intensities of Faulkner. He goes so far as to hypothesize that if Joyce’s work were to be excluded from the modernist canon, Stephen Dedalus’s definition of epiphany would still be relevant for describing instants of revelation in the movement’s novels (14). This generalization of the term therefore makes ‘epiphany’ constitutive of modernism itself, inseparable from its poetics and key to its conception of art. Epiphany thereby becomes a defining characteristic of the literary movement, a means of drawing certain typological boundaries. It allows Beja to differentiate modernism from previous movements in literary history, and, in particular, from romanticism: though Beja maintains that secular epiphanies first came into their own with the Romantics, he contends that such experiences are neither as central nor as prevalent in their work, and that they do not necessarily arise from the insignificant or the trivial as they do in modernism (ch. 2, ‘The Tradition’). The presence of epiphany also serves as a means of differentiating between canonical modernist novels and ‘other’ texts of the same historical period (19–20).

  • 1 Amongst an immense bibliography, see Jean-Michel Rabaté’s discussion of epiphany in Joyce’s work, i (...)

3The critical use of ‘epiphany’ has been challenged both as a prism for reading Joyce’s texts and as a label applicable to modernist literature in general. On this first point, critics have highlighted the ambiguity inherent in Joyce’s presentation of the term in Stephen Hero. For the three ‘stages’ of an epiphany are developed at length by the self-important and slightly ridiculous Stephen Dedalus in the context of a conversation with his friend Cranly, who is frankly unmoved by Stephen’s aesthetic theory (Joyce 1963, 211–213). That the theory is expounded by a character in a conversational setting creates ironic distance which is compounded when, upon noticing his friend’s indifference at the climatic point of his demonstration, Stephen himself seeks ‘to restore a mood of flippant familiarity’ by observing that the clock tower before them had ‘not epiphanised yet’ (Joyce 1963, 212). The ambiguity thus introduced is only deepened when we consider that the term ‘epiphany’ did not make it into the Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, for which Stephen Hero was, of course, a preparatory work. And although the term does appear in Ulysses, again in the mind of Stephen Dedalus, it is in the mode of memory of past writings, and again with more than a hint of reflexive irony at the character’s own past sense of self-importance (Joyce 1990, 40).1

  • 2 This critical school has sought to challenge readings of modernist literature in the terms of the c (...)
  • 3 A large number of studies could be cited here. Amongst them, see the discussion of epiphany in Paul (...)
  • 4 Morris Beja is, of course, too subtle a critic to enclose epiphany entirely in the subjective spher (...)
  • 5 The 1999 Cambridge Companion to Modernism edited by Michael Levenson includes one single reference (...)

4The use of epiphany as a prism for reading modernist texts more generally has been rejected by a number of critics working within what can be loosely called the New Modernist Studies paradigm.2 Here the criticism has been various. Firstly, an emphasis on epiphany has been seen as contributing to the reification of consciousness and individual interiority, thereby maintaining distinctions between public and private spheres, and, therefore, between the political and the personal. Secondly, as epiphanies have been read as privileging an ‘immanent’ and homogenous present, often detached from linear time, an emphasis on epiphany has been seen as reinforcing decontextualised, a-historical readings of modernist texts. Thirdly, and related to this, such an emphasis is said to uncritically reproduce many of the modernists’ own tendencies to accord an autonomous, transcendent status to art and meaning, thereby masking the socio-economic conditions of production of texts and their ideological commitments.3 In sum, these different critiques target—directly or indirectly—three aspects of Beja’s argument: the centrality of the notion of epiphany in modernist novels, its canon-making status, and the ideological positions at stake in its use, in particular those concerning the conception of the subject and the relationship with politics and history.4 As a result of such criticisms, the label ‘epiphany’ and its variants (‘moment of vision’ or ‘moment of being’) have been less frequent in recent discussions of modernism, and, when they do appear, they are often treated as givens in need of no further explanation.5

5And yet, any enquiry into modernist aesthetics runs up against the importance writers such as Joyce, Woolf, Faulkner and others did indeed accord to intense, ephemeral experiences of the present, both as a location of meaning and as integral to their formal experimentation. In order to account for this importance in the wake of the aforementioned critique, the use of ‘epiphany’ needs to be questioned, both in terms of its reach—that is, as a master-label applicable to all modernist novels—and its now traditional interpretation. To do this, I will focus on one of the authors Morris Beja considers at length, Virginia Woolf, and her representation of ‘moments of being’, for her discussion of intense experiences of meaning in the present lends itself to an interpretation that differs from that advanced both by Morris Beja and the detractors of epiphany. I would like to suggest that according attention to the role that pathos plays in such moments—that is, the extent to which these moments are disturbing—invites us to reconsider the relationship between Virginia Woolf’s ‘moments of being’ and her conception of art, subjective consciousness, history and politics.

The ‘Moment of Being’ and Pathos

  • 6 In this short story, the ‘moment of being’ is described at the beginning of the second paragraph as (...)

6In ‘A Sketch of the Past’, Virginia Woolf’s autobiographical memoirs, she explicitly designates ‘moments of being’ as the material of art. In this text, as in the first occurrence of the term in her fiction—the 1928 short story entitled ‘Moments of Being: “Slater’s pins have no points”’—the word she uses as a synonym for a ‘moment of being’ is ‘shock’ (Woolf 1985, 71).6 A ‘shock’ occurs when the ‘nondescript cotton wool’ of ‘non-being’—that is, the humdrum, forgettable activities of daily life, associated with the normalised appearances of the world—is abruptly torn open. This tear is likened to a physical ‘blow’ delivered by ‘something real behind appearances’ which emerges at this point (Woolf 1985, 70–72).

7Receiving such a ‘blow’ from an ‘enemy’ associated with another regime of reality is reminiscent of Lily Briscoe’s description of her painting process in To the Lighthouse, often read as a mise en abyme of Woolf’s own creative gesture. Indeed, when painting, Lily is drawn ‘into the presence of this formidable ancient enemy of hers—this other thing, this truth, this reality, which suddenly laid hands on her, emerged stark at the back of appearances and commanded her attention’ (Woolf 1992, 172). In both texts, then, the disruption of standardized appearances of the world is figured as a force or an enemy physically reaching out and affecting the perceiving subject, generating what Lily would describe as a ‘jar on the nerves’ (Woolf 1992, 209).

8When this ‘cotton wool’ of normalised appearances is pierced, the self is opened out, exposed, and made vulnerable. Indeed, in ‘A Sketch of the Past’, Woolf recalls several incidents of ‘shock’ in her childhood, many of which left her in a state of ‘despair’: ‘many of these exceptional moments brought with them a peculiar horror and a physical collapse; they seemed dominant; myself passive’ (Woolf 1985, 72). In other words, it is an experience marked by pathos. This ‘horror’ and passivity indicate that these experiences may be considered traumatic in the etymological sense of the term. Used in ancient medicine, the word ‘trauma’ comes from the Greek noun ‘wound’, related to the verb ‘to pierce’. It thus designates a wound from an external agent entering the body. This is, of course, the term Freud would transpose into the realm of the psyche to describe an event involving a significant affective charge, too great for the consciousness to incorporate at the time (Laplanche and Pontalis 499–503).

9And indeed, the experience Woolf describes in ‘A Sketch of the Past’ is marked by an excess of affect that is inseparable from an excess of meaning. This is made explicit in another ‘moment of being’ Woolf recalls in the following terms:

Again I had that hopeless sadness; that collapse I have described before; as if I were passive under some sledge-hammer blow; exposed to a whole avalanche of meaning that had heaped itself up and discharged itself upon me, unprotected, with nothing to ward it off . . . (Woolf 1985, 78).

10A comparison with To the Lighthouse is again useful, for the artist Lily Briscoe also experiences ‘avalanches’ of meaning, qualified as avalanches of ‘sensations’ or ‘accumulated impressions’ triggered by banal events such as the movement of Mr Bank’s hand in a commonplace gesture (Woolf 1992, 28–29). Such moments of intense perception give rise to a certain form of knowledge for Lily, but this knowledge is of a contradictory, inexplicable and indecipherable nature (Woolf 1992, 29–30). That is, meaning is revealed, but not fully apprehended. It is also noteworthy that in Woolf’s 1918 essay on Pearsall Smith’s Trivia, she describes ‘moments of vision’—a term borrowed from Hardy and Conrad which seems to anticipate her own ‘moments of being’—as containing an ‘inexplicable significance’ and as being ‘almost menacing with meaning’ (Woolf 1987, 250–251, emphasis added). In other words, meaning is present in a form that escapes conscious understanding, and emerges in an intense experience of perception charged with affect and tinged with danger.

11Therefore, though a ‘shock’ creates access to ‘truth’ or ‘reality’, this reality cannot be directly assimilated; it overwhelms the subject who is thereby made vulnerable and is incapable of absorbing its significance. Far from constituting or substantifying consciousness, Woolf describes ‘moments of being’ as experiences of rupture which destabilise consciousness and thereby escape it, withdrawing ‘moments of being’ from the realm of reflexive comprehension.

The ‘Moment of Being’ and Creation

12And yet, as an adult, not only does Woolf manage to better deal with such shocks, but she sees them as integral to her artistic project. The two developments are linked:

And so I go on to suppose that the shock-receiving capacity is what makes me a writer. I hazard the explanation that a shock is at once in my case followed by the desire to explain it. I feel that I have had a blow; but it is not, as I thought as a child, simply a blow from an enemy hidden behind the cotton wool of daily life; it is or will become a revelation of some order, it is a token of some real thing behind appearances; and I make it real by putting it into words. It is only by putting it into words that I make it whole; this wholeness means that it has lost its power to hurt me; it gives me, perhaps because by doing so I take away the pain, a great delight to put the severed parts together. (Woolf 1985, 72)

  • 7 Critics working in the field of ‘trauma studies’ also examine the relationship between an experienc (...)
  • 8 The contribution of such experiences to her creative process seems to be corroborated in another pa (...)

13Rather than engendering collapse, the adult Virginia Woolf is able to translate the experience into language, or rather, into literature.7 That is, she ‘wards off’ the devastating potential of such an outpouring of meaning by explaining the experience, by elaborating a representation of it through language.8

  • 9 Reality’s blow could therefore be seen as an effect of Derridean ‘différance’, inseparable from its (...)

14The relationship between the pathos of ‘shock’ and literary creation in this passage is, however, paradoxical. On the one hand, the ‘shock’ seems to precede its shaping into a linguistic form that ‘explains’ it; on the other, the ‘shock’ cannot be understood as constitutively different from or exterior to its linguistic formulation, as language creates the reality of the shock itself: ‘I make it real by putting it into words’. Thus, the nature of the reality that strikes a blow does not pre-exist the creative act; rather, it is produced by it. In other words, this ‘reality’ which strikes the subject is an effect of writing just as much as a trigger for writing. In this way, any linear causal relationship between the experience of a shock and its representation is called into question, and the ‘shock’, while not being strictly equivalent to its linguistic ‘explanation’, is nonetheless inseparable from it.9

  • 10 In this sense, this reading differs from that recently put forward by Lorraine Sim, who analyses Wo (...)

15It follows that the passivity of the subject is to be held in constant dialectical tension with creativity. Likewise, the horror and collapse a ‘shock’ engenders is to be dialecticised with the delight produced by ‘putting the severed parts together’. Indeed, Woolf continues: ‘[p]erhaps this is the strongest pleasure known to me. It is the rapture I get when in writing I seem to be discovering what belongs to what; making a scene come right; making a character come together’ (Woolf 1985, 72). That is, the pathos of the shock underlies and is integral to the rapture of the creative act. Writing is paradoxically both that which produces the reality of the ‘shock’ and allows its danger to be held at bay by giving it a circumscribed form.10

Meaning and Pattern

  • 11 This view of Woolf’s work is widespread. It is one of the modalities of ‘moments of being’ Beja ide (...)

16Attributing such a role to language affects the status of the meaning ‘revealed’ in such an experience. For the purity both of the ‘reality’ that emerges and of the event of the ‘shock’ itself is compromised. Both are constructed in the creative process through the piecing together of fragments. The very experience of a ‘shock’ is thereby situated in its after-effects; it may only be understood as such once it has been given form. ‘Moments of being’ cannot therefore be considered as arresting time, nor as a homogenous, transcendent present detached from all other temporalities.11 On the contrary, a ‘moment of being’ is described in terms of complex, fractioned time, and is apprehended through a process of continual unveiling which is also a process of continual creation.

17The ‘wholeness’ of the reality ‘behind appearances’ is therefore as much a product of the creative activity of ‘putting the severed parts together’ as it is a discovery of some external unity. What is more, any previous whole that the ‘severed parts’ may have formed (if ever) is irretrievable. It is with this in mind that the ‘philosophy’ Virginia Woolf goes on to elaborate in ‘A Sketch of the Past’ may be read:

From this I reach what I might call a philosophy; at any rate it is a constant idea of mine; that behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern; that we—I mean all human beings—are connected with this; that the whole world is a work of art; that we are parts of the work of art. Hamlet or a Beethoven quartet is the truth about this vast mass that we call the world. But there is no Shakespeare, there is no Beethoven; certainly and emphatically there is no God. We are the words, we are the music, we are the thing itself. And this I see when I have a shock. (Woolf 1985, 73)

18This passage calls for several remarks. Firstly, the pattern here is clearly art itself, and takes on several forms: it is Hamlet or a Beethoven quartet; it is a play or music. The pattern is thus not a natural given, but a creative construct, and yet, these constructs are not detached from the world, they are the world.

  • 12 Indeed, Woolf’s description here could be read as an anticipation of the ‘death of the author’ Rola (...)

19Secondly, this pattern is to be understood independently from a creator: ‘there is no Shakespeare, there is no Beethoven’. That is, the ‘truth’ these artworks express is neither defined by nor limited to the individual creator of a pattern, but lies beyond him or her, produced by the artwork’s very materiality. This depersonalisation of art seems to contradict the affirmation of subjectivity Beja sees as a trait of modernist art in general and in ‘epiphanies’ in particular, but it does not, however, mean the denial of experience. For the ‘truth’ involved is inaccessible outside of the experience of ‘shock’. That is, the pattern that emerges from behind the cotton wool only exists to the extent that it is reactualised by a subject in contact with a work of art: ‘we are the words, we are the music’. In this sense Woolf’s ‘moment of being’ as expressed through art may be understood as both impersonal and rooted in subjective experience, an experience that emphasises the creativity involved in the reception of art.12

20Finally, the reference to a play and a sonata suggests that this pattern is to be apprehended not in a homogenous instant, but in the context of a performance situated within time. The temporality involved, however, allows for repetition and refrain just as much as for linear progression.

The ‘Moment of Being’ and Art: Lily Briscoe’s Painting

21The ‘pattern behind the cotton wool’ that emerges through this experience of ‘shock’ may traverse history but it does not transcend it. Here, the parallel with Lily Briscoe’s painting process is once again instructive. While painting, Lily falls into a ‘rhythm’—a musical pattern—that is ‘dictated to her’ by the ‘enemy’ that emerges from ‘behind appearances’. It is telling that this should occur in a moment not of heightened consciousness, but of absence to herself. In this context, a variety of past events and cultural relics re-emerge:

As she lost consciousness of outer things, and her name and her personality and her appearance, . . . her mind kept throwing up from its depths scenes, and names, and sayings, and memories and ideas, like a fountain spurting over that glaring, hideously difficult white space, while she modeled it with greens and blues. (Woolf 1992, 174)

  • 13 See Georges Didi-Huberman’s study of Aby Warburg’s concept of Nachleben, L’Image survivante. Histoi (...)

22The ‘pattern’ that emerges in Lily’s painting, both as a musical experience and as contributing to a rhythmical visual form, is by no means disconnected from the past. On the contrary, it engages with both personal and collective histories, though this relationship with history cannot be understood as linear. It is rather, as Lily will put it elsewhere, a question of ‘a sense of repetition—of one thing falling where another had fallen, and so setting up an echo which chimed in the air and made it full of vibrations’ (Woolf 1992, 215). These vibrations inform the pattern her hand inscribes on the canvas. Things that have fallen are indeed called up in a haphazard order throughout Lily’s painting process, be they World War I, which is evoked through the mention of Andrew’s death, or the condition of women, which returns in various forms: through the failure of Minta’s marriage, through Prue’s death in childbearing, and, of course, through the death of Mrs Ramsay and all she represents. These different events, along with the many others which resurge as ‘scenes’, ‘names’, ‘sayings’, or ‘memories’, return to provide form to Lily’s painting in a mode that seems not far removed from the concept of Nachleben or ‘afterlife’ the art historian Aby Warburg was developing at that time.13

  • 14 In drawing attention to the dialectical relationship modernists established between the ordinary an (...)
  • 15 Alex Zwerdling has also read Woolf’s ‘moments of being’ in political terms. Zwerdling points out th (...)

23The fragments of the past that re-emerge in Lily’s painting experience may also be seen as establishing a critical relationship to social structures and dominant discourses about history. That Minta’s marital dissatisfaction and the death of Prue in childbearing are placed on equal footing in this text with the death of Andrew in World War I is in itself a political gesture, challenging the hierarchies established in dominant discourses by giving visibility to often overlooked tragedies, forgotten in official histories.14 A different pattern emerges to that which the standardised, normative appearances of the world present to the subject. When we consider that one of the ‘sayings’ that keeps coming back in Lily’s painting process is ‘women can’t paint, women can’t write’—to which Lily’s artistic gesture gives the lie—it becomes quite clear that it is not possible to isolate the ‘pattern’ Lily responds to and creates through this intense perceptive experience from concrete socio-political determinations. Rather, art is in constant dialogue with them, and its creation is in and of itself represented as a challenge to them in this novel. Indeed, artistic creation can thereby be read in Woolf’s work as a means of instituting another regime of perception, one that reorganises visibility and the hierarchies of standardised appearances (the ‘cotton wool’ of the normative, accepted order of the world) and maintains a critical relationship with power structures. Far from being a-historic or apolitical, Virginia Woolf’s representation of the relationship between ‘shocks’ and aesthetic creation locates the political and the historical within the fragments that constitute a ‘moment of being’, informing the ‘pattern’ that art both uncovers and creates.15

24The description of Lily’s painting process also situates the pattern produced by the ‘shock’ of a ‘vision’ at a critical distance from canons. Lily certainly did seek to ‘make of the moment something permanent’ in her work (Woolf 1992, 176), yet she believes her painting, which has both proceeded from and permitted her ‘vision’ to occur, would ‘be hung in the attics, it would be destroyed’ (Woolf 1992, 225). This destiny is, however, of secondary importance when compared to the process of the art work’s constitution in the novel. For it is the experience of this ‘vision’ that counts, rather than its completed, fixed results on her canvas. This emphasis on process and experience rather than objectified results is supported by the fact that the completion of Lily’s painting coincides with the end of the novel, and that description of the canvas itself is absent from this novel, in which there is no ekphrasis. This may be read as a challenge to the idea that art, in order to be considered significant, ought to be understood as a completed work, to be hung in galleries and admired. Not only then does the matter from which Lily constructs her painting seem to challenge established orders of significance, but it also does so by producing a form whose very existence is imagined as marginal. Such a representation of art acts as a counterpoint to the use of ‘moments of being’ by critics to constitute the modernist canon.

25Read in these terms, then, an emphasis on ‘moments of being’ in Woolf’s aesthetics seems less susceptible to the critique New Modernist scholars have made against studies of ‘epiphany’. However, this is also because being attentive to the pathos such experiences involve implies a significant revision of Morris Beja’s definition of the term. The importance Beja accords to individual, subjective consciousness needs to be counter-balanced by a consideration of that which escapes it, and inherently constitutes it. Such experiences cannot be restricted to the personal sphere, nor to a reified consciousness, but rather connect the subject of a ‘shock’ to a pattern that is at once impersonal and intimately experienced. The ‘moment’ cannot be understood in terms of unity or closure, but emerges as an after-effect and interacts with past cultural forms that return as part of a rhythmical pattern. Far from being autonomous—that is, detached from history and social structures—, the art linked to ‘moments of being’ interact with them and maintain a critical relationship with them. And the meanings revealed in such experiences are imagined neither as transcendental nor universal but as constructed nature, inseparable from the force of affect involved in the experience of a ‘shock’.

26Virginia Woolf’s ‘moments of being’ can therefore be considered as disturbing, not only because they unsettle the critical usage of the label ‘epiphany’, but also in two other senses. Firstly, when described as a ‘shock’, Woolf invites us to consider pathos as constitutive of such intense experiences of the present. She thereby accords an epistemological status to affect, as emotion is not detached from art or meaning, nor is it in opposition to them, nor is it secondary. Rather, pathos is constitutive of the very advent of meaning and of art. Secondly, the pattern that emerges through this experience allows for a re-imagination of history and society, and this in itself, is a disruptive, political act.

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Banfield, Ann, ‘Time Passes: Virginia Woolf, Post Impressionism and Cambridge Time’, Poetics Today, 24.3 (2003): 471–516.

Barthes, Roland, Le Bruissement de la langue. Essais critiques IV, Paris: Seuil, 1984.

Beja, Morris, Epiphany in the Modern Novel, Seattle: U of Washington P, 1971.

Bernard, Catherine, ‘L’Autonomie moderniste en question’, Textuel 53 (2008): 13–25.

Caruth, Cathy, Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1996.

derrida, Jacques, Marges de la philosophie, Paris: Minuit, 1972.

Didi-Huberman, Georges, L’Image survivante. Histoire de l’art et temps des fantômes selon Aby Warburg, Paris: Minuit, 2002.

Hartman, Geoffrey H., ‘On Traumatic Knowledge and Literary Studies’, New Literary History 26.3 (1995): 537–566.

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Joyce, James, Ulysses (1934), New York: Vintage, 1990.

Laplanche, Jean and Jean-Baptiste Pontalis, Vocabulaire de la psychanalyse, Paris: PUF, 2007.

Lewis, Pericles, ‘Modernism and religion’, The Cambridge Companion to Modernism, ed. Michael Levenson, Cambridge: CUP, 2011, 178–196.

Levenson, Michael, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Modernism, Cambridge: CUP, 1999.

———, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Modernism, Cambridge: Cambridge U. P., 2011.

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Mao, Douglas, and Rebecca Walkowitz, eds., Bad Modernisms, Durham, GA: Duke UP, 2006.

Morel, Michel, ‘The Modernists’ Commitment to the Instant Moment’, Autonomy and Commitment in Twentieth Century British Literature, eds. Christine Reynier and Jean-Michel Ganteau, Montpellier: PULM, 2010, 125–133.

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Reynier, Christine, ‘Virginia Woolf’s Dischronic Art of Fiction in her Essays’, Études britanniques contemporaines 33 (2007): 33–45.

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Woolf, Virginia, Moments of Being, ed. Jeanne Schulkind, New York: Harvest, 1985.

———, The Essays of Virginia Woolf, Vol. II, 1912–1918, ed. Andrew McNellie, London: Hogarth Press, 1987.

———, To the Lighthouse [1927], Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1992.

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1 Amongst an immense bibliography, see Jean-Michel Rabaté’s discussion of epiphany in Joyce’s work, in which he argues that the presentation of the aesthetics of epiphany in Stephen Hero paradoxically paves the way for the disappearance of epiphany in his work (11–17).

2 This critical school has sought to challenge readings of modernist literature in the terms of the canonical writers, and, in particular, the status of autonomy accorded to art. Such critics have therefore also called the frontiers of the canon into question (see Mao and Walkowitz 1–2).

3 A large number of studies could be cited here. Amongst them, see the discussion of epiphany in Paul Maltby, The Visionary Moment (see in particular the first two chapters), and Catherine Bernard’s comprehensive and instructive survey of the New Modernist critique of the ‘autonomy of art’ doctrine, ‘L’autonomie moderniste en question’. Catherine Bernard refers to epiphany in relation to the second and third points raised here.

4 Morris Beja is, of course, too subtle a critic to enclose epiphany entirely in the subjective sphere (though he does explicitly privilege readings of epiphany that focus on the subject rather than the object). Nor does he attribute a transcendent status to epiphany in all occurrences. By portraying epiphany as such, New Modernist critics radicalise tendencies within Beja’s definition.

5 The 1999 Cambridge Companion to Modernism edited by Michael Levenson includes one single reference to ‘epiphany’ (in David Trotter, ‘The Modernist Novel’, 95) and this reference is fleeting, minimising the importance of the term. However, in the 2011 re-edition of this volume, Pericles Lewis returns to ‘moments of being’ to re-read them in explicitly religious terms (see the chapter entitled ‘Modernism and religion’). Such a reading therefore differs significantly from Morris Beja’s, and also from the one I will suggest here.

6 In this short story, the ‘moment of being’ is described at the beginning of the second paragraph as the ‘extraordinary shock’ generated by the phrase ‘Slater’s pins have no points’ (Woolf 2003, 209).

7 Critics working in the field of ‘trauma studies’ also examine the relationship between an experience that is not assimilated by the subject and its literary elaborations. However, my attempt to read Woolf’s description of ‘moments of being’ in relation to the etymological definition of ‘trauma’ does not engage with the questions of testimony, witnessing, or victim therapy which much of the ‘trauma studies’ critical literature focuses on (see for example Cathy Caruth, Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History). Nor do I seek to consider literature in general or Woolf’s work in particular as a response to painful historical or biographical events. Rather, as it will become clear, the present article examines the way in which Woolf’s representation of ‘moments of being’ as ‘shocks’ destabilise substantified understandings of consciousness, linear conceptions of time and literary creation, readings of her ‘present moment’ as a homogenous unity, and positivist conceptions of the knowledge associated with both perception and literature in her work. My use of the term ‘trauma’ here is therefore closer to Geoffrey H. Hartman’s when he relates it to Wordsworth’s ‘spots of time’ (Hartman 552).

8 The contribution of such experiences to her creative process seems to be corroborated in another passage in these memoirs, where she describes herself as a ‘sealed vessel’ afloat on a ‘sea of reality’. ‘Sometimes the sealing matter cracks’ and at that moment, a ‘scene’ is both received and created. Again, such an experience of sudden rupture in subjective integrity is seen as the ‘origin of [her] writing impulse’, as she states that in all her writing, she ‘must find a scene’ (Woolf 1985, 142).

9 Reality’s blow could therefore be seen as an effect of Derridean ‘différance’, inseparable from its formulation in signs (Derrida 1-28).

10 In this sense, this reading differs from that recently put forward by Lorraine Sim, who analyses Woolf’s ‘moments of being’ in terms of a binary typology. Lorraine Sim emphasises the ‘pleasant’ nature of a majority of ‘moments of being’, which she characterises as ‘positive’ and associates with the discovery of meaning, albeit a mystical one. She distinguishes such ‘moments of being’ from ‘negative’ moments, which she associates with ‘shock’, ‘trauma’ and ‘pain’. She links such ‘negative’ ‘moments of being’ with a crisis of meaning. These two modes of ‘moments of being’ are conceived of as distinct and as in opposition to each other (Sim ch. 5, see 140, 142, 150 in particular). My argument here is that such oppositions are called into question by Woolf’s description of ‘moments of being’ in ‘A Sketch of the Past’, as they resist categorisation in terms of ‘pleasant’ or ‘unpleasant’ moments, with ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ effects. For ‘moments of being’ are rather to be situated within a dialectical tension between pathos and rapture, passivity and activity, and comprehension and incomprehension. This leads to a reading of Woolf’s aesthetics which questions binary or totalizing conceptions of meaning.

11 This view of Woolf’s work is widespread. It is one of the modalities of ‘moments of being’ Beja identifies (Beja 119-120; see also, for example, Banfield 492).

12 Indeed, Woolf’s description here could be read as an anticipation of the ‘death of the author’ Roland Barthes was to theorize in an attempt to liberate texts’ meaning from considerations of their authors’ biographies or intentions. This necessarily attributes an important role to the reader in the construction of meaning; the first reader, of course, being the writer him- or herself. For a discussion of the relationship between Barthes’ essay and Woolf’s understanding of art as developed in her essays more generally, see Christine Reynier, ‘Virginia Woolf’s Dischronic Art of Fiction in her Essays’.

13 See Georges Didi-Huberman’s study of Aby Warburg’s concept of Nachleben, L’Image survivante. Histoire de l’art et temps des fantômes selon Aby Warburg.

14 In drawing attention to the dialectical relationship modernists established between the ordinary and the extraordinary by locating epiphany in relation to incongruously ‘trivial’ events, Beja’s analysis of epiphany does indeed open up this moment to political analysis, though his study does not explore this aspect of the phenomenon.

15 Alex Zwerdling has also read Woolf’s ‘moments of being’ in political terms. Zwerdling points out that Woolf’s focus on ‘the moment’ allows for a high level of textual economy and reader involvement, and, therefore, for political and social critique (21–23). More recently, the political nature of Woolf’s ‘moments of being’ has been highlighted from a different though complimentary perspective by the numerous critics reading Woolf with Walter Benjamin. Such readings suggest that these ‘moments’ may be understood in terms of Benjamin’s conception of the present, that is, as a fleeting dialectical constellation saturated with political potentialities. See, amongst others, Michel Morel’s mention of Woolf’s ‘moments of being’ in ‘The Modernists Commitment to the Instant Moment’, and Angeliki Spiropoulou, Virginia Woolf, Modernity and History. Constellations with Walter Benjamin (in particular 29, 148, 174).

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Naomi Toth, « Disturbing Epiphany: Rereading Virginia Woolf’s ‘Moments of Being’ », Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 46 | 2014, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2014, consulté le 24 juin 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/ebc.1182

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Naomi Toth

Naomi Toth is a lecturer in English literature at the Université de Paris Ouest Nanterre-La Défense. Her research interests include modernism, literary representations of perception, the relationship between literature and philosophy, and comparative approaches to literature.

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