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Nigel Fabb: Why do epiphanies happen on the beach? Public Lecture

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SRWB Theatrette

Sir Roland Wilson Building #120

Australian National University

Canberra, ACT 2601

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Why do epiphanies happen on the beach?

by Professor Nigel Fabb, University of Strathclyde, Scotland

Public lecture in conjunction with the ANU workshop: Metacategories: cross-disciplinary, cross-cultural and cross-temporal perspectives,

The beach - or more generally, the boundary between land and water - is a common site for epiphanies (a kind of experience also called the sublime, peak experience, awe, ecstasy, mystical experience, etc.). Laski identifies the beach as 'amongst the most common' of physical circumstances for epiphany. This is true also in fictions, including the terrifying beach epiphanies at the end of Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’ or the film Planet of the Apes, Wordsworth’s 'spot of time' when he experiences his lakeside daffodils, or the 'moment of being' when the Ramsays step from boat to land in Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. In this talk I ask why the boundary between land and water particularly enables epiphany.

I begin by proposing that the psychological basis of epiphany is a surprise, elaborated into a more complexly felt experience. Surprise is triggered by a perception which we cannot fit into what we already know, or expect: it is a response to an uncertainty. What is it about the boundary between land and water which triggers or enables surprise, and allows surprise to be elaborated into the richly felt experience of epiphany? The answer must relate to the generalizable characteristics of land and water, and the boundary between them, which can lead to epiphany. Some part of this may involve the experience of water viewed or heard from a position on land.

I explore some of these generalizable characteristics. The boundary between water and land is a liminal threshold, and thresholds are strongly implicated in epiphanies more generally, perhaps because thresholds offer the possibility of surprise, when we cross them. The tidal beach is a place which does not 'fit': it is both land and sea, and hence inherently uncertain. Water is also inherently uncertain because it lacks the definite features characteristic of land: water is visually featureless, and its sounds are unclear noise, and these uncertainties are enhanced when water is viewed in comparison to land. Further, as Ivan Illich said, 'water has a nearly unlimited ability to carry metaphors': it is one of the most symbolically rich aspects of our environment which opens it up to an uncertain range of possible meanings. Thus it may be that beaches - and other boundaries between land and water - are places of epiphany because they are thresholds across which we can experience uncertainty.

Nigel Fabb is Professor of Literary Linguistics at the University of Strathclyde (Glasgow, Scotland). He has a BA in literature (Cambridge), and a PhD in linguistics (MIT). He was editor of the Journal of Linguistics from 1997 to 2014, and is the author of ten books, including a descriptive grammar of the Sudanic language Màdi, and four books on linguistics as applied to literature. The most recent of these also links poetry to the psychology of working memory. He currently has a Leverhulme Fellowship (2014–2017) to study epiphanies from psychological and literary linguistic perspectives.

ANU: Centre for Digital Humanities Research, ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Languages, School of Literature, Language & Linguistics, and the Research School of Humanities and the Arts

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SRWB Theatrette

Sir Roland Wilson Building #120

Australian National University

Canberra, ACT 2601

Australia

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