The Liminal Zone: a loose account
If you are reading this, something has made you curious about what liminality might be or mean. This piece discusses what I will call the Liminal Zone. It’s a wide imaginary territory where Loose Liminality roams free. I call it a zone because in 1988 I wrote an essay in the Independent about what I dubbed the Smile Zone.1 This was much of the modern world, where courtesy is compulsory and commoditised. It is also a place where everything is interpreted and signposted. I hadn’t then noticed the idea of places being liminal. Once I did, I developed a love-hate relationship with the notion. The liminal has become a commonplace of trendy academics and Nature Writers and is rather freely applied. What follows here is an account of how they, and I and others, use the word conversationally and perhaps too casually.
The Liminal Zone is not contiguous or large. It is scattered. It is a sort of archipelago of scruffiness. It is a
Elsewhere, I discuss Original Liminality It’s my coining for how the word was first applied, and the
Perhaps you wonder if you are a
People in a liminal state find themselves in a curiously confused but receptive frame of mind and find odd relief – a sort of productive sanctuary – in spending time with certain people and places, at certain periods. These fruitful “transmitters” of liminality are often seemingly unpropitious, indeed neglected, marginal, or despised. This oddity may arise simply because people in liminal flux find nourishment in experiences where matters are not well-defined.
I write elsewhere about liminality and Christianity, partly because that is the conjunction that first brought the idea to my attention. Duncan Fisher, whose writing in
Early Christians and later monastic movements had an attachment to the idea of the desert, and they framed it variously as challenging or welcoming, godly or demon-filled, a place beyond politics or full of
One facet of the desert that is worth stressing: it wasn’t cultivated by man. Thoughtful mankind, but especially spiritual mankind,
Liminality, like spirituality, risks being, and perhaps must be, egotistical. Like spirituality, it ought to avoid being solipsistic. (Note a tricky shift here: do I mean, people who are liminal have an obligation to be true to some supposed decency in the process, or do I mean they should be true to its characteristics?) Liminality can too easily become onanism for the soul. I think it is about a person seeking a new definition of himself or herself as a matter of their distinctiveness or particularity. It is usually about finding that which makes one a singular person in a crowd rather than seeking anonymity in one.
Adolescents are prone to being in a liminal
For a place or time to be loosely liminal it must offer a certain freedom but not merely leisure or relaxation. One is afforded an opportunity to be lulled but sometimes also jolted into mental change.
It would be tricky if places, periods or persons that were liminal were labelled and signposted as such, and certified, or taught. Such matters are best left as rather brave disoveries. That is partly why in what follows I will lay out some varieties of liminality but suggestively rather than authoritatively. (As if I knew anything anyway.)
There is often something furtive about the process of the liminal, something illicit. Seeing a fork in the road, it is the one less trodden – even grown-over and litter-strewn – which may more likely be liminal. The liminal often comes disguised. Punk was a fashion statement devised in a Kings Road boutique, but it hit a nerve which made it accommodate or encourage the liminal, probably. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein helped spawn the back bedroom and High Street Goth, which is a mode which is surely liminal for some of its adherents.
We have touched on exile and alienation and it is worth mentioning that these are, both of them, sometimes involuntary and sometimes chosen or affected. The adolescent stomping upstairs and slamming his door may be playing with an internal exile within his own household and maybe affecting disaffection. Or his case may betoken a horrible crisis forced on him by his own chemistry or by an awful world. Whether he is being liminal is
There is a modern fashion for celebrating the disruptive, the transgressive and the subversive. But these words have been tamed by their becoming badges of honour handed out to anyone who rocks any boat, however little and however safely. They have become mandatory, orthodox, and normal. Douglas Murray posits that they have become a sour part of cultural politics.4 Dystopias and dysfunctions and dysphorias surely are ripe for liminality: they are zones of disruption. But they can also be co-opted and manipulated and it is fair to point out that as they lose spontaneity they may also lose liminal power.
For a place or experience to be liminal often means, I think, that it allows a person or a group to detach themselves from comfort. This is a matter of becoming feral, of one’s interiority taking a walk on the wild side. This isn’t about fomenting
Oddly, the places designated to the formation of the young or anybody else probably can’t be liminal. University, church and prison have programmes, but liminality defies bureaucratic programmes and good intentions. Theatre is mostly now a state-sponsored engine of bossy liberalism. Such advertised channels of education and improvement are not, probably, liminal. Night clubs are more likely to be liminal, and derelict warehouses.5 The coastal resort is a good place for liminality to lurk because it ostensibly offers sunshine and good health but covertly offers mischief, the sinister and thus self-discovery.
Some times are liminal: we are diurnal, so if we walk instead of sleep at night, we are likely to be uncomfortable enough for our neurology to wake up. But even asleep, we are perhaps in a liminal state as our synapses organise themselves around all the data that we have received and now must in some sense absorb. The 3.30am low-ebb of our daily rhythm often offers a liminal rockiness of spirit.
Certain types of people are liminal in their own being or produce liminality in “straight” people who go amongst them. Queers can be those people. Actors can, if they are forced or allowed to be adventurous. Gypsies and circus people have always offered an idea and sometimes an experience which is liminal. Some people carry liminality like an infection, they are peripatetic liminal vectors. Strolling players, buskers (such as Paul Merton’s great, great grandmother, Caroline Plunkett) qualify.6 So did pedlars, such as the Persian Ali Hakim in Oklahoma, set in around 1900. Other famous Jewish pedlars included the Lehman brothers on their first arrival in the US in the 1840s. Mostly unknown, there were probably thousands of trading Jews wandering in Mitteleurop, at least before they were killed in pogroms, or fled them (usually westwards). Jonathan Meades said in a recent TV documentary that pilgrims in Spain spread money and sometimes disease around their path, but I would add as he did not, probably they were portable hotspots of liminality too.
Because I am a distinctly middlebrow reader, it wasn’t until I read the critic John Bayley’s The Power of Delight (2006) that I really appreciated the difference between English and Continental writers: the latter are far more likely to luxuriate in their own anguish, and, one might add, feel it
John Bayley points out, and their life stories and work often make clear, that many significant Continental writers were Jews. It has often been
Susan Sontag is a key figure in this discussion. She was Jewish by birth and lived as a child in pre-war New York with her grandparents whilst her parents were away in China running a fur business. I have not done the reading which would let me know much about how Jewish Sontag felt herself to be. Not very, according to one opinion, which suggests she felt herself more an alien or exile when her mother moved her from New York to Tucson, Arizona (for Susan’s health) and then remarried and moved the family to Los Angeles. Sontag apparently felt being a step-child and a budding intellectual in a suburb.8 (Shades of Richard Yates’s Revilutuonary Road (1961) there.) It is good fun to see that this, the greatest in the sense of being the most famous, public intellectual of her day, made her name with Against Interpretation, in 1966. Most intellectual discussion around that time and since has been one long orgy of discussion about interpretation. Put it another way: she was raging against intellectualism (whose banishment, it must be admitted, comes with its own, “if I call it Art, it’s Art”, perils).
Sontag was not an especially nice person, apparently, but she was great at agonising on the page (often her private pages, admittedly) about her divided self or selves. She was several selves, a splintered, unsettled, uneasy person, perhaps an exile and alien within her own being. I imagine she lived an intense interior life and am inclined to argue that she attempted to put all this on the page. So we can surely call her, in a loose sense, a
These moments are at the heart of much or most good writing. We see Stevenson or Conrad, or Woolf. But it seems especially in play amongst Continental writers for whom it is a core, sanctioned, almost obligatory sort of work and it tends to add philosophical dignity or pretention to it. The difference between the English and the Continental approach is that the latter is almost always deadly serious about the matter of the unsettled – one might say, the liminal – self whilst the former are often surprised, or wry, or sceptical, or mystified.
Amongst British writers, some lesser-known figures seem especially good candidates for liminality. They invite us to explore their obduracy, their misdirections, and their courage. Try these first two candidates, not least as stroppy exiles. Frederick Rolfe, aka Baron Corvo, wrote Hadrian the Seventh, a luminously fantastic novel about a devout loner’s sudden elevation to the papacy. I also recommend his other novel, The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole as very fine. It is more nearly autobiography, but again is an account of a bitter man somehow transcending his own limitations. He very nearly succeeds in making them glorious. A J A Symons’ Quest for Corvo, a biography of the great, misguided, misunderstood man, is illuminating and remarkable in its own right. As much as Rolfe was religious, he was attracted to adolescent or young adult males. (It is moot whether this deserves the pederasty label.) He lived a self-imposed exile, not merely by decamping to Venice, but by allowing his perpetual stroppiness to impoverish himself more than anyone else. To his Italian
Another figure who deserves consideration as liminal is Bruce Frederick Cummings, aka W N P Barbellion, whose The Journal of a Disappointed Man is a memoir of the joys and dreads of a death foretold but has other dimensions of sleight of hand which are decidedly Corvine. It has the wonderful oddity that it is a book written by a man who sort of faked his own death because he wanted to see how a posthumous journal of his own life would be received. All the same, the journal rings with authenticity. But then, that’s true of the Corvine in general. Rolfe’s writing may not all have been factually accurate but it had a poetic truth. A rather similar argument was deployed in the case of Chernobyl, 2019, the TV show. It was not an entirely literal account of the events it portrayed, but it was poetically accurate. (See more on this narrative role in the post-modern, below.)
Quentin Crisp may perhaps have been so, not least when he articulated the thrilling danger of homosexuality when “real” men paid homage to queerdom with a kick or a punch. Indeed, gender-bending pop stars like Bowie, Mercury, Prince and Bolan probably helped more people in some sort of liminal development than all the writers before
It is tricky to assert that there is liminality
Whilst we are on fiction, I should say that certain works by Kipling, John Masters, John Buchan, Nevil Shute, Nigel Balchin, Eric Ambler, Anya Seton, Nicholas Montserrat, and (perhaps surprisingly, John Osborne) have all worked on me as though by disturbing my inner strata. They have in common that their imaginations, often romantic as well as realistic, seem to help me prise apart the bonds which hold my mind in old habits. Several of them are thriller writers with real-world experiences under their belt: it is a useful surprise to find them at ease with the transcendental. They all deal frankly with the imaginative and spiritual yearnings or processes of people who often seem to those around them to be merely functionary and ordinary.
My point about all the writers I’ve discussed here is that I find them powerfully evocative and that I wonder how legitimately I can think of them as being liminal. The case for their being so is all the better when their romances or
Edith Stein’s memoir Life In a Jewish Family and her philosophical work “On Empathy”, as explained by Alastair MacIntyre, have had a strong, only slightly different effect: I find myself watching her spiritual journey as an admiring acquaintance, for sure. Her writings have both thrilled and unsettled me. For now, it may be worth noting that reading late Wittgenstein in the 1970s and off and on ever since also had a strong, but an even more disturbing, effect. I felt my mind and feelings were being picked up and chucked against a wall, as a chef might lob cooked spaghetti. I found I could not judge him philosophically (not being clever enough for that), but I did think that I understood broadly the terms in which clever people found him unsettling, as I did. I would say it was almost a poetic effect. So Stein and Wittgenstein are thinkers whom I return to because I value the turmoil they cause in me. I wonder if that counts as Loose Liminality? Again, even if in strict moods I resist the idea, it’s a tempting possibility.
The post-modern, politics and liminality
The idea of the liminal turns up a lot in writing which is also post-modern or structuralist in tone. This may be a case of a bendy (fluid, flexible, suggestive, elusive) concept fitting in nicely with an interpretive view in which it is hard to pin anything down. The post-modern and the structuralist are upsetting and obscure almost on purpose. The former blurs the distinction between reality and fiction. It says reality is a fiction and that stories are almost all we know. Craig Mazin, the author of the TV show, Chernobyl (2019), is valuable in several
Tony Blair was for many years the most obvious shape-shifter in western politics: a series of narratives serially appealed to him and each became the dominant political story of our country. David Cameron learned all too much from him as the Tories borrowed Labour’s clothes. They were post-modern PMs.
Of Tony Blair, especially, it is tempting to say that he was in a liminal state for much of his political career. Of course, we cannot look into another person’s mind and soul. But he seemed an unusual leader. He did
An alternative analysis might go that Tony Blair merely sought a new middle ground for Labour voters: they could have their cake and eat it. They could allow themselves to support capitalism insofar as and because it paid for the state’s beneficence. Tories had been allowed that approach to cake for years, and Labour could now have a slice of the action as well. Even if this was
I should say that I rather perversely think that toward the end of his premiership, and over Iraq especially, he seemed at last consistent, convinced, and adult in his pursuit of what he did seem to believe was a necessary and right course of action. Of course, it may merely have been, what some thought, that he had become half-mad. Certainly, many observers became convinced either that he was faking his evidence and maybe his convictions, or that, if he was not, he was a fantasist. It was thought that he had joined President Bush’s team in sneering at the “reality-based community”.9 Perhaps becoming the unpopular visionary (or unscrupulous autocrat) was just the latest in a list of roles. But this observer at least was convinced that embracing unpopularity really might have been the first sign of leadership in Mr Blair.
It is interesting that the run-up to the Iraq War of 2003, with its discussion of Liberal Intervention and the Neo-conservatives, also brought discussion of “magical thinking”. This last is allied to the power of narrative. The magic comes when people who are imbued with a narrative refuse to be bothered with evidence to
President Trump is in the White House and Boris Johnson is in Number 10 and Fake News is a major talking point. Both men are certainly speaking to – are seeking to address – some very real, stubborn politic facts about their countries, and perhaps especially about a disaffected white working class. In that sense, one could say they are necessary politicians. Both seem to have a casual relationship with the truth. Both
I hope the remarks in the above paragraphs are not thought trivially provocative. They are my attempt at summarising some peculiarities in Mr Blair’s premiership, and perhaps in modern politics in general. Even if I have made a case about post-modernism in that sphere, I know I have a harder task in persuading anyone that liminality is at work. I think my thought is that liminality involves a certain transcendence. The
Osama bin Laden produced the most astonishing coup of any terrorist in history. His killing of 3000 people in the US in 2001 was brutal. It was also an astonishing theatrical and imaginative masterstroke. People were shocked by the death toll but also by their own muddled response to the event, which seemed so like a disaster movie. Because 9/11 was unimaginable until it happened, it produced amongst many other reactions a sort of respect for Osama bin Laden. He had a dream that he could make a nightmare and he made both a reality.
No part of bin Laden’s scheme involved much cleverness or even originality in any of its details, but no security agency, however clever, had imagined such a plot might arise and need thwarting. What difference the action made in the world is highly debatable. It is certainly amongst much else a textbook example of what is open to post-modern discussion. To call it liminal is to risk widening the word’s definition to any seminal moment and perhaps emptying it of meanings which are crucial to it. But it may be true to say that the event was so unbidden and so left-field that many people all over the world found themselves shaken in a way we may call useful. Is that why the idea of Paradigm Shift is so valuable, and may often be analogous to liminality?
One thought is worth risking. The liminal is not necessarily virtuous or nice. Indeed, I don’t see why it may not be dangerous and wicked. So 9/11 may serve as a sharp example of a moment which, for all I know, some people may have found liminal, for good or ill. What is more, Islamic political extremism seems especially to appeal to ardent young people who are alienated alike from the Eastern cultures they inherited from their parents and the Western cultures into which they are invited to adjust. They find the one psychologically claustrophobic and the other morally squalid, and it is easy to see their point. Dangerous preachers prey on their liminal flux and one is bound to wish they had have found a richer version of their being. Liminality is often a state of transitioning toward – choosing between – either integration or alienation. Immigrants make a good example of liminality’s reach: surely it may well apply to many of them? Deciding how one fits in is just another testing business, ripe in liminal possibilities, for people in an adopted land.
Marginal “spaces” and liminality
Nowadays there is a growing creative, academic, post-modern, psychogeographic body of work and “literature” about the urban/rural fringes or margins which I love and which are similar to the marine or riverine littoral. Try Patrick Keiller’s three Robinson films, especially the first and second, London (1994) and Robinson In Space (1997), voiced by Paul Scofield.10 Their politics weren’t my cup of tea, but I was very struck by the series from the start. The films had, I think, perversity and persistence, and rather mad erudition, and these are worth something. (Rather similar qualities are in Adam Curtis’ work.) There is much more recent writing too. I can’t quite face reading it, but Edgelands (2011), by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons bids fair to be a classic of the genre. It may also qualify for inclusion in New Nature Writing, a genre I am uneasy about too (see below, if you will).
Money cannot readily buy liminality, and poverty may crush the appetite for it. Certainly Forster and Woolf both thought creativity depended on quiet leisure. But then neither of those writers knew poverty and probably they couldn’t imagine just assertive mass affluence would be. Indeed, materialism has so far produced a way of life which is so full of distractions that it is plausible to wonder if people nowadays allow themselves the luxury of reflection and self-examination. Voluntary discomfort, boredom and exigency may well be necessary to the inner life. I am inclined to add that we probably need to cultivate the provisional and the passive, by which I mean that without a sense that all life is temporary and that one is pretty powerless one is not likely to be facing life squarely. One can deplore quietism all one likes, but surely one’s awareness of one’s feebleness may be a part of the kind of transition which we may call liminal?
Thirty years ago I wrote about the “Smile Zone”, which I thought modernity and affluence
My argument was rather muddled, as was my response to the phenomena I thought I detected. In some ways, however, I didn’t know how right I was. Current post-moderns now write about the countryside as though it were a text in which were embedded endless meanings and labels to be chewed over. I intend to write something soon about the tradition of capital “N” Nature Writing and the newer phenomenon of The New Nature Writing, much of which has always been, and increasingly is, quite tiresome in what we can call its Romantic messaging. Much as modern nature films enchant us, they are also faintly oppressive in their earnestness and orthodoxies. Google Maps produces a sort of virtual Smile Zone: it robs us of the risk of being lost but also of the need to be properly aware of where we are. In all, I was probably right that the Smile Zone was and would continue to be a hazard to the mucking about, on the ground and in their heads, which some people quite badly need. The modern world will inevitably continue to tidy up our urban areas and our countryside. I imagine that the mad, the disappointed, the failed, the imaginative, the feral, the psychically adventurous will have fewer cheap hiding places. There may be nowhere which is sufficiently unproductive to be unpatrolled and free to access. Liminal types sometimes seek places they can explore; sometimes a temporary terra incognita, real or virtual; sometimes a spot to linger without being charged with malingering. I don’t fancy their chances as modernity unfolds.
What I had not properly appreciated is that there are countervailing trends. For every forced low-wage smile, there is a genuine underpaid kindness, or a forbidden, unbidden scowl. A foot or two away from the council’s explanatory board, there is a spider doing its thing as it always did. Our minds are as much open to discovery and debate as they ever were. The Smile Zone captured a sort of E M Forster anxiety, and it was right to, in its way. This piece has been an attempt to describe the Liminal Zone to counter the Smile Zone. It is a zone in which people are free to muck about. In some moods, I think it is in fine shape.
- “Welcome to the Smile Zone: A bitter tour of Theme Park Britain where mess and muddle are erased, people play without danger, and eccentrics are paid”, The Independent, 17
- This is reinforced by the work of the academic Alexander O’Hara, “Patria, Peregrinatio and Paenintentia: Identities of alienation in the Seventh Century”. I can’t see a date or other citation for this, but it seems authoritative and is certainly interesting on aspects of the three wandering, ascetic, influential and stroppy monks, Columbanus, Jonas of Bobbio and Valerius of Bierzo.
- I think it’s to be published by Orbis Books in March 2020. I haven’t been able to find any
- Murray, Douglas, The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Identity, Morality, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019
- Seen in Who Do You Think You Are?, 2019
- See also “Death and the Dichter“, John Bayley, New York Review of Books, 1988, included in the book I have cited.
- Try Tresa Gauer’s essay on Sontag, porbably available elsewhere but accessed by me a myjewishlearning.com, October 2019.
- The phrase has its own Wikipedia entry, and those who are interested might like to pursue Carl Rove’s denial that he was the source of the quote.
- As at September 2019, I think they can be streamed from the BFI subscription service