Liminality

The modern English noun liminality and its adjective liminal are derived from the Latin word limen ‘threshold’, and I for one am just madly in love this word and its universe – my world is so well described by it!  Liminality refers to that halfway state where you are neither here nor there but somewhere between there and here.  This is the territory of transitions, metamorphoses in process, the golden chrysalis of our earthly existence no longer a larva nor yet the imago — physical, temporal, emotional, spiritual.  Or – molting biology and emerging in physics — maybe this is the less problematic instar of that quantum country inhabited by Schrödinger’s cat.  Never met that famously fabulous feline?  Introduce yourself to her here!

In Greek myth it is the ancient god Hermes (known as Mercury by the Romans) who is the liminal figure par excellence.  One of his epithets, or nicknames, was ψυχοπομπός psychopompos, a designation that speaks to his function as the ‘escorter of souls’ from this world to the underworld and, in a very few instances, from the underworld back up to the world of the living.  He negotiates that tenuous terrain of tenebrous indeterminacy of being now in the phenomenological here-and-now, and now in the katabatic underworld’s there-and-then that allows him to remain eternal mediator of extremes.  There is something deeply appealing to me about the god Hermes and all that he symbolically encapsulates.

My favorite times are the matutinal day and the crepuscular night, those ‘not-quite’ quiet periods in the diurnal cycle, not yet day but yet not still night, not yet night but yet not still day.  Similarly, it is March/April and October/November that speak to me, no longer winter but not yet spring, not yet winter but no longer fall.

And the most delicious part of a relationship is when we are no longer indifferent to each other but are not sure if this is love, when we have explored in our heads the erotic landscapes that beckon but not yet found the path and climbed the mountain.  It is the psychic interstices in this scenery that fascinate me.

We live in a so-called digital age.  But our human world is not digital.  It is very much analog.  At any one moment the phenomenological world we inhabit is not crisply and unambiguously defined but a kind of fuzzy set, or, rather, numerous fuzzy subsets of an effectively unending series of fuzzy sets that form a complex topological union we may elect to call reality.

Consider the temperature sign outside the bank.  It jumps from 81º to 82º, but we know deep in our bones that the temperature did not at and within some given second leapfrog 1º from 81º across a non-existent discontinuity to 82º.  First it was 81.001º (and before that, 81.0001º etc etc) and 81.01º and 80.1º before it turned into 80.999º and 81.9991º and 81.9992º and so forth until it finally reached 82º. By contrast, a mercury (!) thermometer more closely – however imperfectly — reflects the analog-ness of reality.

It seems to me that the mathematical concept of limit that we study in learning calculus is a possible notional approximation to liminality, both the words limit and liminality incidentally sharing also etymologies in that they harbor the same Latin root that shows up in limen ‘threshold’.  That temperature sign on the bank with its crisp distinctions in effect misrepresents or distorts an underlying reality about the difference between hot and hotter or cold and colder, a difference which I understand as liminal.

Cinematically, the most exquisite — if very brief — articulation of liminality I’ve ever come across occurs in one of my all-time favorite films, “3 Days of the Condor” [1975] (which I discuss in another context here [incidentally, although it has nothing really to do with the current post, if you want to listen to the really fabulous Dave Grusin musical theme for this film, be sure to go  here for 3 mins 51 secs – well worth your time!]).  Joseph Turner (Robert Redford) is looking at some of her photos Kathy Hale (Faye Dunaway) has hung on the wall.  He comments:

TURNER:
You’re funny.
You take pictures of … empty streets and trees with no leaves on them.

HALE:
It’s winter.

TURNER:
Not quite winter.
They look like … November.  Not autumn, not winter.
In-between.
I like them.

HALE:
Thanks.

(Give the screenwriters Lorenzo Semple, Jr. and David Rayfiel some skin for turning the James Grady novel [1974] into a great shooting script!)  This is perhaps all just a different spin on Zeno’s paradox (so named from the ancient Greek philosopher Zeno, who formulated it and lived in the fifth century B.C.E.):  if Achilles wants to reach the wall at the other end of the room, first he must walk halfway there, a liminal stage as it were.  Then he must walk half way of the remaining half (yet a further liminal stage), and then half way of the remaining quarter and so on and on in such way that in theory he could never reach the other wall, since there would always be half of the previous distance left to the wall.  This of course is a philosophical illusion.  It may well be amusing to toy with in one’s head, but we know that in the real world Achilles can, must and does reach the other wall quite readily.

Now all of this sets me meandering through the meadows of my mind about possible mis-directions and the inadequacy of our fervent desires to find clarity and discover certainty in all things:  work, friendship, love, family, emotions, mental state, musings.  Although I believe there are a few absolutes (death is surely one, as is birth [taxes, in this day and age of the 1%-ers, obviously no longer are!), for the most part I tend to see the world through analog lenses tinted in liminality.  But that is what I do; that is what comforts my  temperament and my way of being, my ontological status.  There is of course unambiguous day and night — except (!) in parts of Scandinavia in June and December!! — as well as dawn and dusk; summer and winter, as well as spring and fall.

And cuddling as well as congress.

I live liminal.

For me reality is unambiguously analog.

I like anticipation, the almost-but-not-quite there – like the ardent lovers in Keat’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” [1819], eternally desiring:

Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,                        17
Though winning near the goal—yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!                          20

I suppose each of us, simply by virtue of our inherent natures and the strategies we have adopted, consciously or not, for negotiating an uncompromising reality and dealing with the world and our space in it, comes down either on the liminal analog side or the discrete digital side – or, liminally speaking, as it were, maybe somewhere between the two!

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2 Responses to Liminality

  1. heather says:

    YOU are a kind of Hermes!

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