Mind your language


29 July 2017

9:00 AM

29 July 2017

9:00 AM

‘I love the pumping station,’ said my husband, waving a copy of the Docklands and East London Advertiser which reported the architectural listing of the Isle of Dogs storm water pumping station.

‘I’d been looking for that,’ I said patiently (I thought). ‘The listing is not the point.’ A reader had sent the paper to me because of the strange language used by John Outram, the architect of the Grade II* building, put up between 1986 and 1988: ‘Decoration is the origin and essence of architecture. It can mediate, in the theatre of a built room or a big city, the epiphany of a meaning. I aimed to invent that “meaning” and confirm those epiphanic techniques.’

Now, I’m not saying that no one can use the word epiphanic (though, before 1951, no one felt the need to). Nor am I saying that a pumping station, decorative or not, may not spark an epiphany. But I’m unsure about Mr Outram’s choice of vocabulary. ‘To mediate the epiphany of a meaning’ is, in plainer English, ‘to say something’. Anyone who thinks that saying something is unremarkable doesn’t appreciate how wonderful language is.

An epiphany, a moment of revelation, takes its name from the Epiphany, when Christ was made manifest to the three wise men. That feast, the 12th day after Christmas, has always been linked with two other manifestations: the Baptism of Jesus and the marriage feast at Cana, where he performed his first sign.

The poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins rejoices in epiphanies, but he did not use the term, instead using his coinage instress (appreciation of inscape, or individual beauty). Oddly perhaps, it was the unbelieving James Joyce who did use epiphany, by which, according to his brother Stanislaus, he meant one of those ‘little errors and gestures — mere straws in the wind — by which people betrayed the very things they were most careful to conceal’. There inscape meets Freudian slip. I don’t think Mr Outram’s pumping station betrays what he means to conceal.

It is not much help for a deeply significant experience to be labelled as an epiphany. Mystics and poets express these things as best they can without resorting to a cliché.

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