I am not old enough in years to be wise. I am not young enough at heart to be wise. I must grow involuntarily in one direction and strive voluntarily in the other. Along the way, we are struck by unbidden moments that accelerate our journey, moments that precipitate dramatic internal change. Joyce knew this well. Many of the stories in Dubliners contain what scholars and teachers of Joyce call “epiphanies” - moments of insight, revelations. More than anagnorisis, where a character learns of his change of fortune (usually sometime after the audience learns of it), the epiphany goes deeper than the events and circumstances of the stories, allowing the present moment to enlighten the character to some truth about himself, the self, the world, or God. It is a turn inward, a turn that Joyce would embrace in groundbreaking fashion in Ulysses.
Many of my epiphanies take the form of remorse. Remorse is a powerful word, distinct from synonyms like regret and even shame. The etymology most fascinates me, as the word originates in the Latin remordere, meaning “to bite again.” I am old enough to have caused lasting damage; I am old enough to become a villain in someone’s life story, and, at times, to imagine myself as the villain of my own. When I think of these things, I am bitten, again and again.
Gabriel Conroy is bitten for the first time at the end of “The Dead,” when he realizes how thoroughly bitten is Gretta by remorse. But to be bitten by remorse is to be injected with a venom that brings us to a new life. We are taught that the unexamined life is not worth living. An old Jesuit once told me, “An unlived life is not worth examining.” Gabriel faces both realities at the end of this story. He realizes that he has not paid sufficient attention to his wife, or to the fruits of life in general. As he begins to pay attention, he realizes that he should count himself among the living dead, those who pass through life without living.
What new life might this remorse bring for Gabriel?
What bites at you?