New York, N.Y..
3 July, 1938
One hot July afternoon Wm. Nathan Miller was sitting near the front steps of his house in the shadow of a cedar tree which went straight up past the second story windows, thinking of nothing in particular, when the girl from next door came over to talk with him. Patsy was a few year younger, she had blond hair and bright blue eyes and was always asking questions of people as a way to start a conversation. They were sitting there a while, she offered him a drink from her tall glass of lemonade, it was the kind of day when it is better to sit and be silent in the oppressive summer heat, but she was getting impatient and suddenly asked her question:
--- "Do you believe in God?"
He had thought about this before and had once decided to take a chance and say NO, waiting in the back of his mind for a lightening flash or a sign from heaven to correct his answer. But it was quiet, there was no tremor in the streets and the world looked much the same to him, even if he was now a confessed disbeliever.
But this time it was different. He had been snapping off some of the low dead branches of the cedar with a gardening tool, and was suddenly noticing the patterns of the bark which seemed to be overlapping as they went up the trunk of the tree. He didn't want to look up, he just let his eye travel up the interlaced patterns which were curling around the branches as they poked out sideways to get a little sunlight. A cat was cautiously climbing the trunk slipping between the twiggy side branches with some difficulty. He felt transfixed by the bark patterns of the tree. Patsy's question was still ringing in his ears, he knew she was waiting but he didn't want to say anything.
He came back to himself and said to the girl NO. Patsy said she wasn't going to tell her mother what he had said, because she was sure she would disapprove and forbid coming over afternoons after school to talk with him. He nodded as if to say it was OK.
But that strange feeling about the tree stayed with him, he knew it had some other meaning somewhere, perhaps a mystery? But he could not erase that moment of brilliant clarity looking at the tree. He felt that something important was happening or going to happen. Had he discussed this feeling with someone older and wiser the word apparition or even Epiphany might have come up.
He was still thinking to himself. --- I was staring at the tree and I must have lost track of myself, sort of dreaming off about the bark and the branches. For a few minutes I felt it was some sort of mystery, a strange experience I was having, like they talk about in the books of the Old Testament.
--- So that is what it was! HE was going to split the cedar tree if front of the house with his mighty lightning to show me the error of my ways. But it didn't work, he must have fumbled with the firebolt and it misfired or it went off somewhere to surprise someone else. This can happen!
He felt uncomfortable, he went and got the push mower to do the front lawn, but he still felt not quite as ease, so he got some pebbles and went to look for his homemade slingshot.
--- Did you see it lying around, Mom?
--- Yes, I took it earlier. I saw a black cat inching up the trunk, searching for something higher up. She was looking for the nest of a robin which had three eggs just cracked open with one birdie already half out. The cat was almost at the nest when I got the slingshot and a pebble, aimed from the upstairs window and there was a whizz and a snap and the cat fell from the tree and was streaking across the lawn. Never thought your mother was a sharpshooter, did you? I put it back in the cellar with the can of round pebbles.
But he realized that wasn't it at all. He was now into a thoroughly Biblical mood, and suddenly realized that this was the power of MOM (as from the Non-Canonical Book of Judith3), now the matriarch of the New York clan of the tribe of Judah, who was up there at the bedroom window, leaning out in wrath toward the cedar of Lebanon with the slingshot of David in her hand, at that very moment exorcising the evil of the Tempter by casting the cat out of the tree with the lightning-fast stroke of a mightily shot pebble. Perhaps it had been the Lord of the People accosting him earlier sitting on the steps near the tree, now it was the warlike Heroine of the tribe who was exorcising the cat who was the Devil, wielding her power from upstairs as a higher authority.
Mowing the lawn and plunking for a while with the slingshot brought him back to his usual rational self, but he was still thinking of the mystical happenings of the afternoon. He wondered if his neglect of deity were in some way a family trait, since there was little talk about religion at home beyond the high holiday visits to the schule.
Grandmother Lena used to tell a story about the holidays in Germany when she was a young girl. They had sent her up to the attic to bring down a set of dishes for the Passover service. She was carrying these in a box in her arms stepping carefully as she went down the stairs, when her foot tripped on a loose nail on a tread. Down came Lena and dishes and all, and although she was not blamed for the broken dishes, there was a personal postscript to the situation. She felt that if she was carrying the dishes for god's service and if she fell while doing a small piece of his business, then there could be nobody watching over her from above, and in her opinion there wasn't really any God at all.
In the coming years she had gone through life at a polite and civil distance from deity, never speaking out of turn about religion or religious people, but never bothering her conscience with what she had figured out, that God did not exist. Had a rabbi told her that JHWH (a.k.a. Jehovah) in his wisdom had decided to test her faith by letting her fall, in what theologians would call the Job's Test of Faith, or if a Protestant minister had told her that her fall was to correct a sense of false pride in her role as the carrier of the holy service, she would have looked at either of them with a incredulous stare of disbelief, while confirming her opinion as being correct in the first place.
Maybe there was an echo of grandma from somewhere calling down to him to be cautious about his religious views. "Thou shalt not create false gods!". But all in all, he felt that his answer to the disturbing question would still have to be a considered NO, even if Patsy's mother disagreed.
In the "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" Joyce had some curious passages about a series of valuable epiphanies, which he withdrew front the edition printed in l916. But these were restored in the l944 publication of the early "Stephen Hero" probably without Joyce's author's approval since four years after his death. Since that time scholars and critics have fastened on Joyce's idea of an ill-defined "secular epiphany" of some sort, which they have claimed is a key to understanding Joyce's notions about his reaching for grace and even immortality. They extend this to a key for all his later work, I believe mistakenly.
There are three kinds of Epiphany: First is the ancient and still modern appearance of a god, from Zeus to Jesus. Second is Joyce's tentative notion of a secular epiphany at a moment of intense clarity, not unlike that of Tycho Brahe in the 17th century as he was viewing with astonished insight the plants in his garden as suddenly analyzable and comprehensible. The perception of scientists are often of this sort, some dead-ended while other lead to major discoveries. Third, and I think this is what we have here, is a psychological intensification which compresses time momentarily while putting chance visual detailing into a remarkably bright tableau. This I take to be the human factor of Imagination-cum-Perception, probably best understood by those who are investigating the internal circuitry of the human brain. But we all get touches of this from time to time, as a psychological quirk ften leading to an interesting literary fantasy. A. S.
= Aaron Seligmann