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 no-man’s land where unsettled people feel a bit at home (they probably didn’t visit it to feel cosy). Added together, these spots are nonetheless widespread and significant. But there is a contradiction in all this: many interpreters of the liminal seem likely to destroy what they came to celebrate. As we go along, I shall suggest that they risk merging the Liminal Zone with the Liminal Zone.

Elsewhere, I discuss Original Liminality It’s my coining for how the word was first applied, and the post, called an interrogation, outlines some subsequent developments in its use.

Perhaps you wonder if you are a liminar (the jargon for a person 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, or, in the jargon, are limen). Limens are conducive to liminality in liminars.

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 late 1980s made the connection for me, has beautifully widened – loosened – the uses of liminality whilst staying quite true to Original Liminality’s insights. He is on an interesting cusp. After him came a succession of writers (I fear I may be amongst them) who played fast and loose with the concept. For now, though, I will merely stress one aspect of Fisher’s thinking. This was that all early Christians, and especially 7th Century ascetic monks, framed their spiritual duty as a sort of exile, not least because that was the Old Testament prophetic tradition.2 It is fascinating to see that a leading post-Vatican ll Roman Catholic theologian, Massimo Faggioli, has written a book, The Liminal Papacy of St Francis.3 I haven’t read it, but it conjures up ideas of the church becoming more its primitive self, more cross-cultural, more aware that all sorts of “peripheries” (the poor, the faraway, the marginal) should matter to it, and that its own comfort should not.

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 contest, a place of refuge or of danger.

One facet of the desert that is worth stressing: it wasn’t cultivated by man. Thoughtful mankind, but especially spiritual mankind, has been inclined to be at least ambivalent about the works of man, and often plain negative. The desert, in being unproductive, was an ideal place for man’s most important work, the cultivation of his soul. Fisher didn’t note, but might well have, that the desert has continued into modern times to be an important place and metaphor for spirituality. This is explicitly noted in Geoffrey Moorhouse’s account of his own desert journey in The Fearful Void (1974). His adventures were not in quest of spiritual enlightenment and he doesn’t claim they brought him any. Indeed, he wrote, “I wondered if I had forfeited a little of my soul to the desert – maybe the greater part of it”. But he does write of the desert sojourns of Charles de Foucauld and Teilhard de Chardin – the latter especially a hero of mine. In both these cases, the desert could surely be said to be a place of spiritual exploration, and also liminal.

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 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 ourselves to have a unitary identity (we are one person, throughout our lives) when we experience so many changes and divisions within ourselves? Whatever we make of that issue, I am pretty sure liminality happens at all ages, and is part of that fluidity of being. This might be taken to mean that a person allows a certain fluidity in their own being to help them respond to, resonate with, the desires of others. This might be said of actors, and some politicians. (See some remarks on post-modern politics below.)

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 of course a matter for debate, case by case. But this is probably a good moment to remind ourselves that there can be real danger in the liminal. People may dabble in exile and alienation and internal disturbance and find them no light business. Alternatively, it may be that only by exploring such interior matters can save some people from much worse repressions within and without.

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 rebellion, but about disturbing oneself. (This is, in passing, a right-wing or conservative thought. I think it was Roger Scruton who argued that a conservative should be about changing him- or herself. It is socialists who think their life is about changing society but not themselves.) 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 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 to be grand. Their writing is existential in two senses: more personal and more philosophical than the English usually allow themselves to be. The German idea of dichter catches part of this.7 Dipping in Mann or Musil, let alone Nabokov, makes this reader tentatively feel that liminality is natural to their thought and feeling. But why, more precisely? I think it is a matter of the actively examined, actively shifting or divided self. This fits with the idea that liminality is a moment when the spirit or self or whatever is in upheaval and thus more (not less) open to inspection, even as it is changing.

John Bayley points out, and their life stories and work often make clear, that many significant Continental writers were Jews. It has often been said, and seems true, that a Jew, perhaps especially a Jewish intellectual, is often someone juggling his or her sense of exile and of belonging. I have already remarked that many Muslims in the West have same issue, problem or energising distinction. The Jewish case is, oddly, exemplified by the complicated case of Muriel Spark who was half-Jewish and made such a person the heroine in her novel, Mandelbaum Gate. It exquisitely and excitingly explores several exiles, in the Middle East and Britain, and several persons who have divided loyalties.

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 liminar, and maybe a limen too.

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 exile he added a further adventure in exigency and even danger, living at times in an open sailing boat on the lagoon. I am very tempted to include Arthur Jones, aka Tristan Jones, in Corvine terms and in, as it were, the same boat. Jones was a stroppy, misogynist, partly self-invented ocean-going sailor, often in more or less DIY vessels. He was in a perpetual voluntary exile, partly motivated – one suspects – in quest of proximity to young men and adolescents. I went on my own journalistic pursuits of Jones on shore in New York in (I think) 1979 and on Jones’s last boat off the English south coast in 1984. I came away mildly convinced that he was homosexual in broadly a Corvine way. Anthony Dalton’s Wayward Sailor: In Search of the Real Tristan Jones (2003) suggests that Jones has found his own A J A Symons. He confirms many of my impressions. And yet Jones is somehow great. In at least two instances when I was pretty sure he had become untruthful quite extraordinary coincidences gave me evidence that his bizarre, brave tales were often true.

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 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. I am finding that some authors do offer me a means of shifting psychic gears, and I am bound to wonder whether this fits with Loose Liminality. E M Forster in Howards End certainly 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, with its invitation to insist on giving rein to both the “prose” and the “passion” within oneself. Likewise, Virginia Woolf’s exploration of herself in her diaries, letters and autobiographical work makes one long to reach for the liminal idea. I had thought only her Orlando, which I read in susceptible adolescence, did the trick. Susan Sontag, who used to frighten me, is increasingly becoming a valued acquaintance as she pounds away at the inner persons she felt she was, or might better be. It is precisely the prose of her intellectual judgements which she sees as holding her back, as against a certain sensuality of response – passion – which she finds elusive. Her passion to change herself makes one long to say she is in a liminal state. As I read more Conrad, and more about him, he seems admirably engaged in several process in which he is a man not so much in transition in a particular direction as constantly and energetically interrogating the competitions within his being. He writes as a practical seaman who is also an inspired poet, a man both Polish and English, not quite a conformist or a rebel, who took his inner navigation to be as adventurous as finding his way at sea and not altogether different. These writers are all changing me at a subterranean level, as if by fracking. And they are people who are engaged in, or writing about, some sort of self-refinement, or self-modification or at any rate interior investigation. Reluctantly, though, I think it is stretch to call them liminal just because they were disrupted and disputed within themselves (in a good way) and help us to be as well.

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 anti-romances produce fictional characters who are more obviously in transition, are put into a state of humiliation or disturbance, and who move through their experiences to some sort of new state. Coming to a sticky end or getting their come uppance won’t quite cut it.

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 ways, but goes too far when he says that politics is “weaponised narrative” and no more. We are certainly becoming aware that we need to stress test the real intentions of our leaders as they play games with our dreams and dreads . Meanwhile, post-modern’s less playful sibling, structuralism, usually says our minds are not our own, but are running the elite’s hegemonic pitches and messages. It says 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 political career. Of course, we cannot look into another person’s mind and soul. But he seemed an unusual leader. He did not seem to seek to impose his dreams on society. Rather, as a tabula rasa he seemed to reflect the dreams he saw voters already had. He didn’t so much manipulate the voters as was manipulated by them. The interesting feature here is the degree to which the voters wanted a fantasy and last found a politician who delivered it. It was a dissident, anti-Establishment riff. It was slightly John Lennon and Imagine, as re-envisioned for the shopping mall age. Perhaps he believed and lived the shifting narratives and personae that he exhibited as the years went by. Indeed, he seemed like an actor who did not know the difference between his public and private worlds.

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 real politik for Mr Blair (as it had been for Tories for generations) he brought what I dubbed a certain Messianism to the party. Is that perhaps Loose Liminality too?

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 thje contrary from the “reality-based community”. I think all this has a decent relation to Loose Liminality.

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 seem not to bother too much with the “reality-based community”. It is intriguing that Mr Johnson has probably become Prime Minister simply because he is prepared to be quite thuggish about British constitutional conventions. He seems prepared to deceive the electorate about his real ambitions for Brexit (that is, he is saying – pretending – as of early October 2019, that he wants a deal with the EU). Oddly, though, I imagine most people, whether or not they want Brexit, are not deceived, and he rather likes that fact. We are in on the secret. All this inclines me to say that he is not being a particularly post-modern prime minister, nor any sort of liminar.

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 liminar is detached from ordinary, daily reality in order to reach somewhere “higher” or at any rate different to his or her normal steady state. To that extent, and if Mr Blair was a post-modern figure as I very tentatively suggest, then he might be thought a liminar. Actually, of course, by much the same token, Mr Blair’s fans may well have been liminars too.

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).

The edgelands are often seen as liminal spaces, including in discussions of the eponymous book (I am cheating: I see the word scattered about the reviews, but I can’t say whether it’s in the text). I avoid the use of the word “spaces” just as I abhor the uses of “texts” instead of “writing” or “books”. Indeed, I feel that I would like to rush round to these forgotten “spaces”, and plant “Keep Off the Scruffiness” signs in the manner of a fussy municipal park keeper. Since boyhood, I have sallied forth in such spots and continue to revel in exploring them. I feel protective toward them and find that means that I don’t want them taxonomied, or poetised, anatomised or analysed (at least not by professionals). I understand well enough that these marginal areas are squeezed by various people it is easy to dislike. Capitalist developers and farmers in their different ways seek to industrialise the landscape. Where their matching depredations meet or collide, or what they carelessly ignore, there is a furtive chance for wilderness. Well, I rather like developers and farmers, though they both need discipline. I do see that conservationists and preservationists do useful work with their rescue-ownership of land. They mostly serve me very well. Still, I resist NGO smugness and bossiness. I suspect my innermost objection to most writing about marginal land is that I want liminars to be able come across it as discoverers in their own right. Wouldn’t it be ghastly if they had had their rambling cards marked in a geography lesson or in art class or Liberal Studies (or whatever has replaced them)?

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 was spreading across the face of our islands. It was a zone where politeness was commoditised and compulsory, but also where everything was interpreted. More and more of one’s public experience was with people paid to smile, and more and more of the places one wandered had been sanitised and neutered. Roger Scruton, perhaps the least post-modern of philosophers, also liked remnant unreconstructed people and places. He remarked somewhere that the scruffy fields under motorway flyovers are now the real countryside. There, “travellers” – with or without inverted commas, I forget – graze ponies. Druggies and kids colonise abandoned factories on the outskirts of industry or bivouac in the outskirts of countryside just as travellers graze equivalent fields. For images of the unreconstructed countryside, one might turn to the Devon photographs of James Ravilious, Eric’s son. Dorothy Bohm’s photography is worth mention as well: a Jewish immigrant to England, she seemed to see an unfussed post-war Sussex and recorded it without commentary.

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.


  1. “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 September, 1988 []
  2. 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. []
  3. I think it’s to be published by Orbis Books in March 2020. I haven’t been able to find any sneek previews. []
  4. Murray, Douglas, The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Identity, Morality, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019 []
  5. []
  6. Seen in Who Do You Think You Are?, 2019 []
  7. See also “Death and the Dichter“, John Bayley, New York Review of Books, 1988, included in the book I have cited. []
  8. Try Tresa Gauer’s essay on Sontag, porbably available elsewhere but accessed by me a, October 2019. []
  9. 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. []
  10. As at September 2019, I think they can be streamed from the BFI subscription service []

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Publication date

10 September 2019