This essay on Liminality first appeared on Lynn Henriksen's Tell Tale Souls Blog.
Liminality: The Literary Hinterland Between Fiction and Nonfiction
Introduction by Lynn Henriksen:
"Pushcart Prize winner, Harrison Solow’s powers of thought and prowess in writing are laudable to the degree that bringing her essay to you today is an honor and an adventure, both thrilling and expansive. The piece you are about to read was not digested immediately by me – only occasionally does the veil lift for me to glimpse Solow’s sensitivity toward liminality, but it is something that I am determined to catch hold of for myself, even bits of it, one illuminating rendition at a time. Now take your turns, as writers, to coax its significance into your worlds."
In a letter to a friend, not long ago, I wrote this sentence: “I’d like to be in Wales – my Wales, where the leaves on the ground lift in response to a wind that isn’t there and uncover for a millisecond, small vibrant worlds.”
Before I comment on this sentiment, which was neither deliberately constructed, nor designed, but sprang from my hand, fully formed before I got a chance to see it, I would like to very briefly discuss the concept of liminality, which is a very new area in literary studies – or rather a very old phenomenon that has recently captured the attention of those in literary studies and thus, been named an “area.” Gwyn Thomas of the University of Wales, Bangor wrote an article in A Place That is Not a Place: Essays in Liminality and Text, called “Your Margin is My Centre” in which he invokes Arthurian narratives, specifically Vita Merlini (The Life of Merlin) by Geoffrey of Monmouth to illustrate the idea, as I see it, that people live in different Matters within the same space/time continuum.
The literary idea of ‘matter’ originated from a medieval conviction that certain romance writing could be divided into separate spheres which were both physical and thematic, not unlike the “parallel universes” of science fiction in which disparate beings and cultures co-exist and (and occasionally overlap) in the same place and at same time but in different dimensions. These dimensions are similar, in literary imagination, to Matters and although they seem more metaphysical than physical, are actually verifiable by theoretical physics.
In the Prologue of my first book, Gene Roddenberry: The Last Conversation (manuscript edition) there is a passage that illustrates what I mean:
"There is a sense in which time is always present as space. Quantum physicists and astronomers describe the time/space differential as the result of space travel at (or near) light speed. And yet the point at which space becomes time (and the reverse) exists as a constant in everyday life as the verb “to be.”
“Where are you?” carries within it the word, “now.”
"What time is it?” implies both “now” and “here, in this space.'
Among the many unanswerable questions I have pondered over the years was one posed by my son when he was about six years old. When asked: “What time is it?” he replied, “What time is what?”
This is the very heart of the spiralled and unending quest of science fiction: “What does it mean 'to be' ? In this time, in this space, who are we?” Its struggle to answer those questions is a tale of time slippage and alternate space; a delicate and determined unravelling of current quantum theory – physics to metaphysics and back again. Quantum theory gives rise to the postulation that the universe consists of several linear, simultaneously active dimensions which coexist as interweaving patterns of timespace that are not relative to each other except at “weak points” where they meet.
It indicates that several worlds may cohabit the same space at the same time, and remain unperceived because the “fabric” of one dimension is atomically dissimilar to the pattern of another. Only at random points of exceedingly low probability, could the non time non space between these dimensions ever be traversed. The quest of science fiction is to somehow leap over that chasm called “between” - to discover the random, the serendipitous, the luminous light shining through the tight woven cloth of our timespace reality; to break through, as it were, and leave our swaddling clothes behind. ”
This is also akin to the notion of “tzimtzum” in ancient Jewish mysticism, wherein it is thought that there was originally one Matter, but that it was fragmented into many. The notion is this: When God withdrew into Himself (tzimtzum – the great withdrawal) in order to leave space for the world to be created, a vacuum was illuminated by a thin veil of light. When God attempted to re-enter this space, the delicate process went awry (for God is too large to be contained solely by His own creation and the vacuum, since it exists, is a creation) – the light of God was shattered throughout all creation (a cosmic calamity known as Shevirat Keilim – the breaking of the vessels) and was trapped in fragments, by isolated shells (people, nature, etc.). It is the duty of human beings to release this light from their shells. When all the light is again gathered together by much care and tikkun olam (repairing the world through good deeds and the monitoring of one’s own soul) only then, it is thought, will the Messiah come.
The allegory of these fragmentary “lights of God” in their cracked and faulty vessels corresponds to secular chronicles of 'what is' – records of perceptions of reality, or realms of knowledge, or imaginative narratives that attempt a cohesive answer to the questions of who are we and why are we here. I am writing such a narrative in my forthcoming book, Bendithion, (an extension of the essay of the same name that was awarded a 2008 Pushcart Prize (http://tinyurl.com/solow-bendithion) to create a network, a wholeness, a vessel out of some very mysterious Matter – both the one in which I lived in Wales, and the one I came from, each of them barely perceivable through the membranes and thresholds that both bound us to one another for that short time and divided us forever: A matrix of stories and tales, poems and legends about the thoughts and powers and deeds that illuminate a land and a people and the silence behind them. And therein lies liminality.
Perhaps this is best explained by the answer I gave in another interview (http://tinyurl.com/solow-americymru), in which I explored my own perception of liminality as "the hinterland between fiction and nonfiction:"
“[Jan Morris, the inimitable Welsh writer, describes Welsh literature as] ‘the indistinguishable blend of fact and fantasy.’ But that blend is not only emblematic of Welsh storytelling – it is at the heart of my writing. My literary life began as the Western World’s did – with oral stories and fables, and then moved on to tales of daily life and very quickly thereafter to Lives of the Saints and the rigours of the Baltimore Catechism, as I have said, at a very young age, all of which inculcated a deep affinity with imaginary heavens and hells and the rich portent with which earthly life was endowed: Biblical parables, medieval pedagogy, Arthurian quests, Bunyanesque allegory, Chaucerian pilgrimages and Apologias of all kinds.
This literature comes naturally to me. Or rather, as it was clearly imposed on me, it was not a resisted imposition and comes naturally to me now. I’m not fond of overly academic approaches to it – “overly” meaning the triumph of theory over art. And all of these literatures are both fiction and non-fiction; depending on which side of belief you live. The Welsh, with their Mabinogion and highly allegorical literary history, have no problem with this apparent dichotomy.
I’ve spent a lot of time in what can appear to others to be fictive worlds, “closed-to-the-public” worlds: convents, Hassidic communities, the very tightly guarded world(s) of Hollywood, NASA and JPL. Monasteries, astronauts associations, the clans and tribes from which my families came, lonely insular communities in the backwoods of Canada, girls’ schools, private clubs and green rooms, the hermetic enclosures of the famous. Even our house in Malibu was closed off from the world by ten foot high walls with locked gates, no windows on the side of the house that faced those gates (the opposite side of the house was all glass – 20 feet high and overlooking the Pacific Ocean) – and then, of course, Welsh-speaking Wales. All closed worlds.
Nothing significant within these worlds can be adequately portrayed by an outsider. These are cultures to which you have to belong in order to understand, in order to verify the messages you think you are being given – and because the codes and secrets, values and rituals, attitudes and assessments of these enclosures are not available to the outsider, when outsiders write about them, they inevitably get them wrong.
To return to the sentence that opened this short commentary, “small vibrant worlds” are actually what I see. In Wales, where I physically lived and metaphysically live, the gathering of light is a routine task for the oft hidden indigenous inhabitants. Wales is put together for others to see, but not to occupy, by the shedding of light on a hidden dimension of itself that is only briefly uncovered at times by what the outsider might call “wind” and the inhabitants of that particular Matter, might call the breath of God.
Liminality, in this sense, is both stance (perspective) and perception (“seeing” as opposed to “looking at”). It is the uncertain entryway through which the writer enters into such a world – either the one he is creating, or the one that he sees, that others do not.
There is no possibility of studying these worlds from outside their own Matter, as a scholar does. Not for a writer. A writer must stand on thresholds that are not revealed until she has reached – or created – them, and enter worlds that he has never seen until he gets there. A writer must live liminally, in a chasm called “between” because he can’t do what he has to do if he is looking at it.
© Harrison Solow, July 2010
Harrison’s latest book, Felicity & Barbara Pym, about writing, reading and what it means to be truly educated (http://felicityandbarbarapym.wordpress.com/about) was published in the UK with stellar reviews and is available to those outside the UK from The Book Depository (http://tinyurl.com/fbpbd) which offers free international shipping or from amazon.com
Causes Harrison Solow Supports
Lupus Foundation of America
Museum of Tolerance