On liminality

Tim Kinsella

This is from American Poetry Review, parts of an essay by poet Jane Hirschfield talking about a writer's experience in the world. I am broadly swiping parts from this essay, so what is here travels from what her points are, but I think it's interesting. So if it refers to a writer, or some other role, consider it in light of what *we* do.

She brings up, as part of the essay, a concept that she in turn has borrowed from anthropologist Victor Turner's book The Ritual Process, that looks in part I guess at rites of passage. I think it's interesting for those entering into communion with others of a different culture, or somehow placed between two cultures. She refers to this concept as the "realm of the liminal, a word derived from the Latin *limen*, or threshold."

Turner describes the liminal as a period of transition. . . During the time spent in this condition, a person abandons his or her old identity and dwells in a threshold state of ambiguity, openness and indeterminancy. Only after undergoing this process may one enter into new forms of identity and relationship, and rejoin the everyday life of the culture. . .

A number of characteristics mark the liminal state of being "betwixt and between." First one goes through a process of removal of status and identity. . . Threshold-persons are treated as outsiders or exiles, separated from the group and often. . . ignored. . . They are not present in the community in any normal sense.

Turner points out one more important aspect of liminality--the experience of this condition is an essential part of understanding the true nature of community. This means that the liminal is not opposite to, but the necessary companion to particularity and identity. By removing. . . the usual definitions by which society assigns power and status. . . entrance into the liminal not only allows individuals to change who they are in relationship to society, but also offers them a chance to know for themselves their oneness with the community as a whole. A concise description of how this happens appears in the final section of Gary Snyder's [another poet] Mountains And Rivers Without End: "Awareness of emptiness brings forth the heart of compassion."

It is just such an opening of the door to what lies outside the order of ordinary life that Czeslaw Milosz alludes to in his poem, "Ars Poetica?":

The purpose . . . is to remind us
how difficult it is to remain just one person
for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors,
and invisible guest come in and out at will.

By speaking from the open awareness of threshold and the point of view of multiplicity and betweenness, the writer [interpreter?] becomes a person who allows both individuality and community to ripen. . . a newly broadened knowledge and conception of being is made available.

Immersion in the life of this world, and the willingness to be inhabited by and speak for others is the practice of the writer. It shows so clearly the way that the life of the threshold can be a path of both permeability and knowledge.

For most members of a cultural community, the liminal is a point of transition, a state entered into briefly and at particular points of their lives, as a passage to something else. They are dipped into non-identity and self-forgetfulness in order to change who they are. But for some, the liminal becomes their only dwelling place, becomes home. How to live in such a condition is something writers must often figure out for themselves. . . , but it is a task in which they are not alone.

The writer's embodiment of threshold activity has to do with his or her fundamental relationship to language and culture itself. Words that are common currency for everyone become treasure in the hands of the writer--transformed into greater depth, luminosity, and meaning for the entire community because they have been immersed in the freedom of the liminal.

Community exists beyond one's own social group. . . What it requires of us is a true altruism. . . , even to the point of surrendering what we might rather keep: an overly-fixed idea of what is beautiful or of the justice of the current social order. It is this threshold spirit that makes the liminal writer not only an independent thinker but also an engaged one--when a person identifies with the full range of citizens of a place.

The ordinary person when in the liminal state of transition is free of the forms of status. To be of "no rank" means to be equal with everyone, whether beggar or king. Writers, too, must be persons of "no rank" for whom no part of existence is more holy than the rest. The writer offers herself or himself to everything and everyone, turning to the inconsequential and almost invisible weeds for meaning as much as to the glorious blossoms, valuing the dark parts of the story as much as its light. . . For the writer to write at all, he or she must cultivate a heart that opens to all things. . . It is up to the writer to love everything that happens to him or her and each thing that comes under the eye's contemplation, inner or outer. To set up straw men is not only a failure of heart--it will also be, inevitably, a failure of writing.

And it is worth remembering. . . that the threshold is a place that is at once empty and full. It is on the margins, where one thing meets another, and in the times of transition that ecosystems are most rich, most diverse--birds sing and deer, fish, and mosquitos emerge to feed at dusk and dawn.

The liminal and a sense of participation in the community of the whole are integrally linked. . . Remember that communitas, as Turner calls it, is not about the disappearance of one into many, but the recognition of each particular one as an equal part of the many, none to be called better or worse, none to be hidden, none to be excluded.

In Leaves of grass, Whitman says:

I am of old and young, of the foolish as much as the wise,
Regardless of others, ever regardful of others,
Maternal as well as paternal, a child as well as a man,
Stuffed with the stuff that is coarse, and stuffed with the stuff that is fine. . .

These are the thoughts of all men in all ages and lands, they are not original with me,
If they are not yours as much mine they are nothing or next to nothing,
If they do not enclose everything they are next to nothing. . .