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The New York Review of Science Fiction: Liminal Places and Liminal States in John Crowley’s Little, Big, by Bernadette Lynn Bosky
"Especially over the past fifteen years, the terms “liminal” or “liminality” and “interstitial” have become increasingly popular in discussion of the arts. Some of these discussions, such as the mission statement of the Interstitial Arts Foundation, seem to use the term primarily in terms of work that crosses the borders of, and/or exists in the interstices between, different genres and art forms (also see Gordon 9). The conference on “Liminality in the Humanities” at the University of Utah takes the term a bit further, presenting papers at the borderlands and interstices of various disciplines. However, that conference also uses the term as it will be used in this study. So, even more strongly, does The International Seminar on Liminality and the Text and its associated journal and books published by Gateway Press.

This use of the terms is based on their origins in anthropology, referring to the borders of and spaces between categories much more fundamental than genre or even different arts. Towards the beginning of the last century, anthropologist Arnold van Gennep stated that rites of passage generally have three stages: “preliminal rites (rites of separation), liminal rites (rites of transition), and postliminal rites (rites of incorporation)” (11). In the 1960s and 1970s, Victor Turner expanded and somewhat adapted van Gennep’s work, concentrating on the liminal stage. As summarized by Richard E. Palmer:
Limen in Latin means threshold, and anthropologists like Turner have become interested in a certain state experienced by persons as they pass over the threshold from one stage of life to another. For instance, Turner notes that the rite of passage at puberty has three phases: separation from one’s status as a child . . . , then a liminal stage, and finally reintegration into society as a full and independent member with rites and responsibilities that the initiate did not have before. During the liminal stage, the between stage, one’s status becomes ambiguous, one is “neither here nor there”[;] one is “betwixt and between all fixed points of classification.” (1–2)


Two clear examples of a liminal state in modern Western culture are divorce and, even more so, marital separation. The couple isn’t joined anymore, but they aren’t separate. (Note even the switch from single to plural verb.) Rules from neither state apply; one is betwixt-and-between. Many people find that some others avoid them in such a liminal state, not knowing what to say or do. Another example is graduate school, an often arduous and curiously protracted liminal state. Graduate students aren’t professionals or students, yet they are both. They are expected to be bold as if the professors are colleagues but submissive as if they are only students; they are paid to teach but not paid much. Many of us would have preferred to be locked in a hut and fed only with implements that would be disposed of afterwards, a more common cultural response to such liminal states.

Places as well as times may be liminal. Crossroads are a meeting of two places and hence not fully either one; they are also, like the liminal stage of initiation, a place of possibilities and choices. Thus, it should not surprise us that the liminal figure of a vampire (neither alive nor dead, yet both) may be slain or buried there (see Clements, “Ogre” 39). Within a house, stairs, landings, and hallways are liminal areas—places we pass through, not generally places where people live. Unsurprisingly, landings, hallways, and stairs are among the most popular places for sightings of ghosts (us and not us, not alive or dead). Two even more popular places for ghost sightings are windows and doorways, which are quintessentially liminal, existing purely to separate yet join areas of room vs. room, room vs. hallway, inside vs. outside.

Here a distinction must be made between boundaries and thresholds, but a connection must be made as well. As stated by that quintessentially liminal figure, Hedwig of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, “Ain’t much difference/Between a bridge and a wall.” On the simplest level, that which separates is often also that which joins; one example is the semicolon.

More mythically, one of the goals of ritual is to turn boundaries into thresholds, as when a shaman crosses the barrier between our world and the other world and then personally forms a bridge between them or as a culture hero makes those boundaries less impermeable (Ellis). Roads and paths can be liminal also; they lead from one place to another, joining them, but also help define, for instance, what is safe versus what is not, as in the story “Little Red Riding Hood.” Finally, liminality is also connected to the idea of hybrids—that is, places, people, events, and things that take part in two categories that are thought of as being not only separate, but dichotomous, such as the ghost or vampire.

Note that many processes have a pattern of departure, entry into other realms, and return—Joseph Campbell’s pattern of the hero, for instance, and shamanic initiations. The difference here is that when it is defined as liminal, the middle stage presents not only physical, mental, and/or spiritual danger but also social and epistemological danger, as its very nature challenges the concept of categories of behavior and thought as absolute. In fact, at their most radical, these liminal areas challenge the binary nature of dichotomies that are supposed to be all encompassing: man/woman, human/animal, human/divine, approved/prohibited, life/death. Because it challenges these dichotomies, liminality is a source of great potential, but also at best uncanny and at worst abject.1 Liminal phenomena are taboo, again in the more technical sense—taboo things and processes are hedged with prohibitions, regarded as excluded and dangerous but still having great magic, religious, and/or social power. When William Clements discusses the work that Mary Douglas and Edmund Leach have done in this area, he concludes that liminal things and processes often inspire dread, perhaps because they “invite chaos by revealing the inadequacies of the ordering system that cannot accommodate them” (“Legends” 83). Those who understand the ordering system as inherent in life rather than constructed feel a different fear because then the anomalies become examples in themselves, or at least omens, of catastrophic rupture in the world itself (see Purcell).

Critics have commented on the mixing of genres in Little, Big. Thomas Disch remarks upon its “incredible tightrope act” between realistic human events and magic (159). James Hynes wittily describes the novel as “a long, gorgeously written picaresque family saga, in the last fifty pages of which all the major characters, with one heartbreaking exception, turn into fairies” (1). (Actually, the hint of an abrupt change within the book is vastly unfair: early indications of the presence of fairies may often be baffling to the first-time reader, but they are undeniable.) However, Little, Big is also a liminal book in a deeper, more mythic sense. It is about transitions, which are repeated on multiple scales and on multiple occasions: the turnings of the seasons and of the history of the world, the personal changes of the many characters and the overarching Tale of their final crossing-over from the world of human beings to the world of the fairies. Much of the book is about the peril and potential of these turning points. Boundary-crossings and the interstitial time between the old and the new are reflected in the novel’s nigh-ubiquitous use of liminal places, times, and processes. Characters generally do well or poorly based on their ability to live in, or at least accept, various degrees of conjunction of our world with that of the fairies.

Note that the world of the fairies is not, in itself, liminal. In fantasy, there is the place one gets to by crossing a threshold: the world of fairy, or Oz, or Shangri-La. Then, there is the place or time or condition that is the threshold itself. In most fantasies, the emphasis is on the former, while in Little, Big most of the pages and most of the emotional energy of the novel goes to the latter."



"The turning of the seasons is indicated by social holidays as well as the geophysical solstices and equinoxes. John Storm Drinkwater, writer and liminal figure who can communicate with the world of animals (192), significantly identifies Christmas as a spot out of time: “a kind of day, like no other in the year, that doesn’t seem to succeed the day it follows. . . . Every Christmas seemed to follow immediately after the last one; all the months between don’t figure in” (161). That is, the holiday is a liminal time in the technical sense, just as the period of transition in the ritual entry into adulthood has more in common with all other periods of transition, in such rituals back across the years, than to the initiate’s time before as a child and time after as an adult; and all of these out-of-time experiences are somehow the same time."



"John Crowley states in a 1994 interview, “One of the reasons you write fiction is because you can create your own world. You need that constant sense of possibility. If you don’t have that sense of possibility in your own life, don’t even feel a craving for that kind of possibility and change, it makes it hard to write” (4). Why someone with this opinion would be drawn to fiction with liminal concerns seems clear. First, the liminal state, with its breaking of old associations and even questioning of received categories of thought, is highly creative, perhaps containing the essence of creativity. Moreover, the process of writing a book is in some ways liminal, itself a transformative seclusion: while some worlds may be made immediately, with no pause—“Fiat lux!”—in general, lengthy processes of change and refashioning are essential to the act of creation, … [more]
liminality  liminalspaces  interstitial  johncrowley  bernadettelynnbosky  arnoldvangennep  anthropology  victorturner  richardpalmer  borders  thresholds  inbetween  crossroads  boundaries  josephcampbell  writing  worldbuilding  possibility  change  migration  transformation  trickster  cv  williamclements  marydouglas  edmundleach 
december 2013 by robertogreco

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