The liminal: pinning it down

If you are reading this, something has made you curious about what liminality might be or mean. Perhaps you wonder if you are in a liminal state, or where to go and what to do to become so. You will perhaps already know that liminality is about some sort of transitional state one’s mind or one’s being may be in. It is about a certain rootlessness in the soul, if you allow that word, as though one has one foot in the boat and one on the quay. Maybe too you realise that some people, places or periods seem liminal: they are conducive to liminality in receptive people.

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 be arise sinmply because people in liminal flux find nourishment in experiences where matters are not well-defined.

Liminality, like spirituality, risks being, and perhaps must be, egotistical. Like spirituality, it ought to avoid being solipsistic. It can too easily become onanism for the soul. I think it is about a person seeking a new defintion 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 state, and are often thrown into or seek experiences which feed it. Young people are said to have a particular plasticity in their mental processes and these are readily described as liminal. But I am increasingly clear that adults have a certain fluidity of being which poses a great philosophical issue: how do we believe ourseves to have a unitary identity (we are one person, throughout our lives) when we experience so many changes within ourselves? Whatever we make of that issue, I am pretty sure liminality happens at all ages.

For a place or time to be 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.

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. There is little challenge there. But dystopias and dysfunctions and dysphorias surely are ripe for liminality: they are zones of disruption.

For a place and time to be liminal it needs, I think, to allow a person or a group to detach themselves from comfort. It is a matter of becoming feral, of one’s interiority taking a walk on the wild side. This isn’t about fomenting rebellion, but about disturbing oneself. Teenagers are very ripe for these adventures: they are awash with hormones and their synapses and interior networks are in a spin. They want adulthood, and the worst and best of them are lured toward exaltation and despair. They are wrongly sure no adult has really felt quite like this, or if they have, such adults have kept very quiet about it and buried the thrill of it.

Oddly, the places designated to the formation of the young or anybody else probably can’t be liminal. University, church and prison have a programme, 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. 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. So did pedlars, such as the Persian Ali Hakim in Oklahoma, set in arounf 1900, or the Lehman brothers on their first arrival in the US in the 1840s. So probably did thousands of wandering and trading Jews in Mitteleurop, at least those not picked off in progroms, or who fled them. 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.

There is a class of liminal writer. The most obvious is Frederick Rolfe, aka Baron Corvo, and – much less well-known – 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. 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 them ever had, though Byron and Keats would have given them a run for their money, granted the very different means of self-promotion available to the poets.

It is tricky to assert that there is liminality in an author (or any creative) who is perhaps merely influencing one. But I am finding that some authors do offer me a means of shifting psychic gears. E M Forster in Howards End seemed positively to explore liminality as he invited his public to open themselves to interior adventures, as Ruth Wilcox seems clumsily to have done. Liminality is perhaps implicit in his “only connect” dictum. Unexpectedly, to me, Virginia Woolf’s exploration of herself in her diaries and letters seems to be about liminality. I had thought only her Orlando, which I read in susceptible adolescence, did the trick. Susan Sontag, who has always frightened me, is now an interesting acquaintance as she pounds away at the inner persons she might better be. Wittgenstein threw my mind against the wall, as a cook might throw spaghetti, but I read him as much as a poet and as a person in a memoir as a philosopher. Edith Stein’s memoir Life In a Jewish Family and her philosophical work “On Empathy”, as explained by Alastair MacIntyre, have the same blend, and a strong, different effect. As I read more Conrad, and more about him, he seems admirably engaged in these processes, not least as a practical seaman, neither wholly Polish nor English, who took his is inner navigation to be as adventurous as the sea. These are all changing me subterraneanly, as if by fracking. And they are about people who are engaged in some sort of self-refinement, or self-modification.

In fiction, Kipling, Masters, Buchan, Shute, Balchin, Ambler, Anya Seton, Montserrat, are working on me as though by distrubing 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. 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.

The Post Modern is curiously liminal. It is upsetting and it blurs the distinction between reality and fiction. It says reality is a fiction and that fictions are a species of reality. It says our minds are not our own, but are running other people’s narratives. These alien narratives do not merely filter our experience, they are its essence. 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 premiership: I mean that he believed and lived the shifting narratives and personae that he exhibited. He seemed like an actor who did not know the difference between his public and private worlds. I should say that I think toward the end of his premiership, and over Iraq especially, he seemed at last consistent, convinced, stable and manly. In that his path was a little like that of the second, less stable, President Bush who seemed to be catapulted into reality by 9/11. Please don’t be too irritated by the remarks in this paragraph which do offer an unusual analysis, and it isn’t crucial to the rest of this essay. See how you get along with the next few.

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 what he did 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 differences the action made in the world are 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.

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 claustrophobic and the other squalid, and it is easy to see their point. It is inevitable to think that dangerous preachers preyed on their liminal flux and to wish they could have found a richer version of their being. Isn’t it fair to say that liminality is a state of heightened transitioning, and that heading toward integration or alienation are simply what immigrants have to do. Deciding how one fits in is just another testing business, ripe in liminal possibilities, for people in an adopted land.

Nowadays there is a growing academic literature about urban/rural fringes or margins which are similar to the marine or riverine littoral. These are liminal places (I avoid the use of the word “spaces” just as I abhor the uses of “texts” instead of “writing” or “books”). Or rather they are so if the susceptible use them so. For instance, there are several books and films which explore the scruffy margin between town and country, where travellers graze ponies under motorway flyovers (a habit and location which Roger Scruton regards as the last real country) and where the neat countryside and the neat industrial bash against each other and make and allow detritus. As Jane Jacobs might have observed, these are small straggling areas which no one owns or polices or cleans up and people who are not quite organised themselves feel at home and free. Druggies and kids recolonise abandoned factories on the outskirts of industry or bivouac in the outskirts of countryside. Try Keiller’s two Robinson films, especially “In Space”, voiced by Paul Scofield, but there is much more recent writing too. Try Robert MacFarlane’s useful Guardian review of Edgelands by Farley and Symmons.

The problem is, I suppose, that the modern world may well tidy up these spots eventually. I imagine that there will be a series of crises arising from that, if it happens. The mad, the disappointed, the failed, the imaginative, the feral may have no hiding place. There may be nowhere which is sufficiently unproductive to be unpatrolled. All those types are liminal, and the places they need are the places where people can go and explore an temporary terra incognita and the virtual equivalent in their head.

Money cannot readily buy liminality, though poverty may crush the appetite for it. Indeed, mass afluency has so far produced a way life which so full of distraction’s that it plausible to wonder if people allow themslves the luxury of reflection and self-examination. An understanding of the need for exigency, boredom, the provisional if one is to

Thirty years ago I wrote in the Independent about what I called the Smile Zone, which was what I thought modernity was creating. It was a zone where politeness was commoditised and compulsory, but also where everything was interpreted. As things have moved on, I find that modern poetic nature writing and glorious nature films enchant us, at least until we feel faintly oppressed by their earnestness and orthodoxies. Maybe Google Maps is part of all that: it ensures people are never lost but reduces the requirement for them to know where they are. In all, I thought, the Smile Zone was a hazard to the mucking about which some people quite badly need. This piece has been an attempt to describe the Liminal Zone and it is above all a state in the ground or in people’s heads where they can muck about.

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Publication date

10 September 2019