Thursday, July 31, 2008

The in-between

The idea of liminal or in-between spaces has been discussed in anthropology for a hundred years. The basic idea, first outlined by Arnold van Gennep and then expanded by Victor Turner, is that rituals tend to go through three stages: a “before,” and in-between, and an “after.”

This originally described rites of passage such as the transition from child to adult, but what excites me is the idea of applying liminality to other things: locations, people, states of awareness. (This is triggered by the interesting discussion on D. M. Cornish’s blog.)

I should point out that although once I was an aspiring academic, I have long since come to my senses. So it may be that there exists a whole body (or “corpus”) of work (or “text”) that studies this phenomenon (or text. That’s right, you use texts to study texts. How glad I am to have escaped that Ouroborean madness.) Point is, this may not be an original idea.

A liminal space or moment exists in between two normal places, or normal periods. These liminal spaces are places of danger, ambiguity, potential, uncertainty. The normal rules that govern everyday behavior and our expectations ... have shifted. The world pauses, power crackles in the wings.

Look at a passage from Tennyson’s Ulysses, one of my favorites. We’ve just spent several stanzas reading about the narrator’s quiet and boring home life, the looming threat of old age and weakness, and the wildness of the world outside his door. A thought tickles his mind: “Some work of noble note may yet be done...” And then the poem pauses from the narrative.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks;
The long day wanes; the slow moon climbs; the deep
Moans round with many voices.
Something is about to happen.

In the next line we learn that he’s decided to leave the comforts of home and return to the wild. He’s leaving, and that liminal moment is when he made the decision. The in-between moment when anything is possible.

A frontier on the edge of an empire is a liminal place. Beyond here be monsters. Something that looks mostly like a person but which is not quite human: liminal.

It is the moment of freefall as an acrobat goes from one trapeze to another. Tidal pools between ocean and rock. The quiet whispered exhalation just before a thunderstorm.

When I stand in the bookstore and get pulled into a book and lose all sense of time and place and who I am ... and then straighten up, rub my eyes, and look at the shelves of books and the world I knew and they seem completely foreign: that “book madness” as I pause between the book and returning to my own world, is liminal.

Like almost everything, this can go too far. My pencil is dull, so it’s in a liminal state between sharp and unused. My liminal sandwich is half-eaten, hovering between existence and non-existence. Come on.

But the idea that these in-between moments (or places, or people, or anything potentially) have special significance, special power, fascinates me.

1 comment:

Peter S said...

Why does this remind me of a Sesame Street bit on the word 'between'? There was a strap hanger on a subway who was getting crushed between two burly construction workers. With every book-end compression he would get thinner and eek out the word "between".

Between, or liminality, can be especially interesting with space and time. Wormholes go between, as does time travel, much the way the entrance to the Hogwarts Express is in an in-between place. So is Diagon Alley!

Why not start a campaign to revive 'betwixt'? Between has gotten so pedestrian...