Monday, May 18, 2009

Liminal places

Rita is excited by thresholds. Whenever the trail we are hiking crosses a stream, switches back at a hairpin turn, passes over a ridge, or requires that she leap (and the rest of us crawl) over a fallen tree, Rita barks and dances and greets us on the other side.

She’s always done this, even when she was a puppy. These points themselves seem to provoke in her an urge to check in. Is it joy? Is it fear? I’m not sure. Whatever it is she makes a great hallelujah about it.

She does not seem fearful so much as anxious. But of what? Perhaps only that something might happen.

I think when she performs these ritual dances she is making sure we are all on the trail, all together, before the journey continues, so that none of us misses whatever it is that is going to happen.

Does a dog recognize natural landmarks?

We do not discourage these excitements. If anything we encourage them by regarding them as dear. But we do not regard the same points on the trail as worthy of particular excitement. So though her barking and jumping around may be cultivated behaviors, their timing, as far as I can tell, is hers alone.

I have noticed that these moments of excitement are always at transitions: we were going one way, now we are turning to go another; we were on that side, now we are on this.

Her behavioral explosions occur at boundary lines between “inside” and “outside.” Inside is what was before, what was familiar, known, expectable. We were marching this way. Now, however, we are going to be marching another way, different from before. Hence we are heading outside. Outside is what is yet to come, what is still uncertain.

Notice that such outsides quickly become insides, become the familiar trajectory of a walk. No sooner have we established it than Rita calms down.

Thus, it is not the new trajectory that she remarks upon but the space between old and new – which seems a funny way to talk about the different legs of an afternoon hike – so, let us say the space between what came before and what comes next. It is liminality she finds exciting.

The decision of where to go is made, by definition, on the threshold between an inside and an outside, when one is neither fully inside anymore nor yet altogether outside. Put another way, the threshold is both inside and outside, under the influence of both locations, or in this case, trajectories.

“For the door,” according to Bachelard in The Poetics of Space, “is an entire cosmos of the Half-open... The door schematizes two strong possibilities, which sharply classify two types of daydream. At times, it is closed, bolted, padlocked. At others, it is open, that is to say, wide open.”

One of Bachelard’s insights about “the dialectics of outside and inside” is the way outside and inside constitute false poles. False in two ways.

First, contrary to the way outside and inside are typically regarded as a matched set, geometrically balanced, Bachelard emphasizes their asymmetry. Inside is close, concrete, intimate, here. Outside, by contrast, is everywhere else, abstract, strange, there. They are neither balanced nor reciprocal.

Levi-Strauss makes the same point about dual social organizations, which are never simply dualistic, such as senior-junior, high-low, or center-periphery, but open: center-periphery-and what lies beyond.

Moreover, Bachelard points out that inside and outside are relative – inside being another’s outside, providing intimacies to some that are, to others, strange.

He quotes the poet Jules Supervielle on finding a prison, an inside, on the vast Uruguayan pampas: “‘Precisely because of too much riding and too much freedom, and of the unchanging horizon, in spite of our desperate galloping, the pampa assumed the aspect of a prison for me, a prison that was bigger than the others,’”

Similarly, Gabra nomads of northern Kenya move constantly across the desert but each night pitch a familiar tent, in the same way, always in the same relation to other tents, recreating a familiar home and community. In that way they carry their insides with them into the wilderness.

Thus, not only is there ambiguity in the liminal transition from a literal inside to outside, there is ambiguity on either side created by the shadow of its opposite, a presence owing to its lack.

“... (S)imple geometrical opposition becomes tinged with aggressivity,” Bachelard writes. “Formal opposition is incapable of remaining calm. It is obsessed by the myth.” That is, by the imagination.

Bachelard is interested in the experience of space. His impulse is to push us away from the mathematical into what ordinary persons think and feel about the spaces they move through – and given the human mind, these spaces are never cleanly arithmetic. One place is colored by the thought of another.

For poets the liminal is everywhere.

Thank god Rita is not so imaginative, for her transitions occur in geographic locations, when the material world changes. Otherwise she'd be barking and dancing all the time.

1 comment:

Ruth Halbert said...

I found your blog while researching 'liminal' for a series of art works I am making. Thank you for your beautifully written, thoughtful piece.
Best wishes