There are some ideas in language, literature, and life that are so profound we tend to take them for granted, filtering them from conscious thought but fully acting them out in mind, body, and spirit. Liminal space is one such idea and it so ever-present that, once properly understood, can be seen to encompass the entirety of human experience in a simple but infinitely powerful pattern. It is the pattern of the horizon where earth, or sea, meets sky, dropping away below human perception yet thriving in imagination. It is the threshold crossed by the young husband who bundles his wife aloft as they venture into a new home for the first time, facing the uncertain future as a united force. It is the cover of a book which prompts its reader to embark on a quest of imagination while simultaneously hiding the literary mystery within until it is swung ajar by curiosity. Across these liminal lines is the great unknown – that force which births endless novelty.
It is not entirely accurate to define this threshold as space, rather it is a formless, invisible demarcation between the known and the unknown. Once the knower crosses it, and unknown territory is explored, the liminal line simply recedes to that area – on the horizon, in married life, or within the literary corpus – that remains to be known. As such, it is a goal we can never reach. Why then, is mankind always reaching for it? We seem compelled to quell dissatisfaction with ceaseless seeking. One man who has investigated this question across the domains of psychology, literature, neurophysiology and religion is University of Toronto Professor Dr. Jordan B. Peterson. In short, Peterson concludes that this compulsion is built into the fundamental nature of what makes us human and, in that sense, is an inescapable pattern of behavior. He conceptualizes the world as a forum for action, then notes: “The unknown, the knower, and the known make up the world as place of drama” (89). His comparison of life to drama is no semantic coincidence. As our genetic code encapsulates who we are, so too do stories encapsulate the descriptive information of our nature. “Narrative description of archetypal behavioral patterns and representational schemas—myth—appears as an essential precondition for social construction and subsequent regulation of complexly civilized individual presumption, action and desire.” Along Peterson’s line of thinking, we can assert two propositions. First, if the liminal pattern is encoded in human nature, then it will reveal itself repeatedly in the events of human history. Second, if narrative revelation of our nature precedes complex civilization, then it will be evident in the literary achievements of the past. By investigating medieval literature and the arc of historical exploration since that era, the depth and veracity of the liminal pattern can be ascertained.
THE MEDIEVAL LIMINAL PATTERN
World civilization and world literature in their entirety are sufficiently broad in scope that it is necessary to interrogate a narrower slice of each. Therefore, the medieval world and its literature will serve as a test case for the liminal pattern. Furthermore, that era, though not simple by any stretch of the imagination, is far less complex than our current civilization. For medieval people, unknown territory abounded. Neighboring societies, dark forests, limitless seas, and even human behavior were sources of constant mystery. From this milieu, the literary tradition of romance emerged. Though romance is a word that has embodied multiple meanings, in the twelfth century, it “came to designate stories of separation and return, disintegration and reintegration” (Greenblatt 140). The protagonist, or knower, crosses a threshold, moving from known to unknown, then returns as a changed self. This sequence of events can be described as having a tripartite structure – integration, disintegration, and reintegration (Greenblatt 141). Immediately, the liminal pattern is evident but specific examples further illustrate the encoded behavior.
Marie de France was one of the great medieval romance writers. In one of her lais, Milun, the integrated state, or known territory, exists in the secretive relationship between a noblewoman and a knight. Though their love is hidden from society, it is able to flourish by covert means. They even manage to conceive a child who is raised by an aunt in order to preserve the integrated state. Then, both knight and lady traverse different liminal spaces to face the unknown separately. “Milun left his homeland / to seek honor through martial exploits. / His mistress remained at home / and her father gave her into marriage” (Greenblatt 145). Disintegration. In accordance with the liminal pattern, the unknown becomes the new known once the threshold is crossed. Time passes, their child becomes a knight of his own accord, and Milun eventually encounters him. Reintegration, the process by which the wild unknown solidifies into comfortable known territory, ensues. “They both looked so happy / and said such things to each other / that all the others watching them / began to cry from joy and pity” (Greenblatt 152–153). The process and the story complete when the noblewoman’s husband dies, thereby allowing the full reunification of the family.
Another medieval tale, Sir Orfeo, is a more overt example of threshold crossing, utilizing bold imagery to illustrate the unknown. In short, Sir Orfeo’s wife dies and he crosses into the underworld to rescue her. Even that word – underworld – evokes the pattern. It is the world that lies beneath the liminal line. And in this tale, another truth of the pattern emerges. The act of crossing a threshold into the unknown is a gamble. Though the tripartite structure of medieval romances follows disintegration with reintegration, that is not a foregone conclusion in the real world and the imagery in Sir Orfeo illustrates this truth in exquisite detail. Orfeo moves from kingdom to forest to underworld. Once in the underworld, he enters a “roche”, a cave, and proceeds three miles within (Greenblatt 177). There he encounters a fairy realm imagined as a castle with architecture of red gold. The scene was “As bright so sonne on somers day, / Smooth and plain and alle greener: / Hil ne dale nas ther noon seene” (Greenblatt 177) Such imagery represents the beauty it is possible to find in the unknown. However, it is not long before the story reveals other possibilities one may encounter when crossing a threshold – danger, horror, a situation far worse than that left behind. After passing through the castle’s gate (another threshold), Orfeo beholds people without heads, limbless, and wounded clean through their bodies (Greenblatt 178). There are people hanged, drowned, and others driven completely mad (Greenblatt 178). All in all, it is a ghoulish affair. These polarized realities of what lurks beneath the liminal line are what we would expect to find encoded in truly reflective literature since they exemplify the conundrum human beings encounter when propelled by exploratory behavior. Dr. Peterson states the same observation in more clinical language: “an unexpected thing or situation appearing in the course of goal-directed behavior constitutes a stimulus that is intrinsically problematic: novel occurrences are, simultaneously, cues for punishment (threats) and cues for satisfaction (promises)” (43). As proposed, the imagery of medieval literature captures this truth with startling literary clarity hundreds of years before our more complex civilization articulated it in psychological terms.
In the medieval era, the great unknown was represented by features of nature such as forests and caves but, as technology advanced, the significance of these symbols waned. The western world began to traverse oceans during a transformative period sometimes referred to as Globalization 1.0. What power of imagination could remain in forests and caves when a new world had been discovered across the deep, liminal blue? The line of demarcation between known and unknown receded and the known territory rapidly expanded.
Did the need to explore the unknown fade away as the physical world became mapped and connected? If the liminal pattern is encoded in human nature, the answer must be no. The liminal boundary that was lost in nature was found in the human experience. It is little wonder in an age that brought completely alien cultures into contact with one another that great thinkers would reflect on what exactly it meant to be human. How multiplicitous is the mind of man? Perhaps the greatest works to continuously cross the social, liminal space are the plays of Shakespeare. “The universe Shakespeare conjures up seems resolutely human-centered and secular: the torments and joys that most deeply matter are found in this world, not in the next” (Greenblatt 1169) Instead of static thresholds represented by nature and physical structures, the bard became enthralled with the dynamic thresholds of relationship. Without traversing physical space, human actions such as betrayal, or love, can instantly transform the known into the perilous unknown. “Shakespeare might be viewed as a precursor to Freud (think of Hamlet): Shakespeare “knew” what Freud later ‘discovered,’ but he knew it more implicitly, more imagistically, more procedurally” (Peterson 77).
In the later Victorian era, the world became ever more connected, thus shrinking with no new liminal spaces to offer. The locus of the unknown remained in human beings. Therefore, it is commensurate with our exploratory nature that Freud would follow Shakespeare. Despite his different techniques, the mysteries of human behavior still constituted the great unknown. However, that was all about to change. A mere three years after Freud’s death, the first manmade object was sent into outer space. A threshold that was previously uncrossable captured the human imagination.
In accordance with the liminal pattern, as soon as humans can reach the unknown they appear compelled to do so. The moon now stood in for the forest, the cave, the castle gate. While inspiring institutions, heads of state, and brave astronauts to do the real thing, the popular imagination yearned to cross the threshold as well, albeit vicariously. Before America was successful in reaching the moon, Americans reached beyond it via a tidal wave of space-centered science fiction. An iconic exemplar of the collective thirst for exploration triggered by the space race is the opening speech of a television show titled Star Trek which aired three years before the moon landing: “Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds. To seek out new life and new civilizations. To boldly go where no man has gone before!” (Wikipedia). That speech, heroically beautiful and inspiring, is a clear fingerprint, a perfect representation of the liminal pattern.
THE LIMINAL LINE WITHIN
Though the space race rekindled the ability to traverse into the realm of the physical unknown, it should not suggest that the vein of exploration into the mental unknown, undertaken by Shakespeare and Freud, was abandoned. Concurrent with the discovery of novel technologies that propelled us into outer space, new tools also enabled us to cross the threshold of inner space. Psychedelic plants and chemicals exploded onto the scene, embroiling the nineteen-sixties as thoroughly as rockets and lunar landers. One of the most notorious advocates for psychedelic exploration was a Harvard psychologist named Dr. Timothy Leary. Leary conducted numerous scientific and personal experiments using LSD and psilocybin. In what was perhaps a manic state of mind, he concluded that psychedelics should be democratized – an experience by the people, for the people. To that end, he, along with fellow researchers Ralph Metzner and Richard Alpert, published a guide for the lay explorer titled The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead. A simple perusal of that book’s table of contents reveals the exact same tripartite structure characteristic of the medieval romances. First, there is the period of ego-loss or non-game ecstasy; the ego representing the initial state of integration. Second, a period of hallucinations follows which is analogous to disintegration. The third and final period is called re-entry, both an astronautical term and one synonymous with reintegration (Leary). The liminal pattern shines through once more.
The unconventional approach of Timothy Leary may appear to conflate literature with lived experience, but the two can be teased apart and shown to be the same. While Leary was shaking up the culture, other researchers explored the interior unknown through different disciplines. R. A. Durr, a professor of English literature, wrote Poetic Vision and the Psychedelic Experience, a comparison of literary patterns to the reports flowing from the drug-washed masses. Durr summarized his findings thus: “the kind of writing we call romantic or mystical or, more recently, visionary is symbolical of a country of the mind if not actually identical with then certainly closely resembling considerable areas of the largely uncharted land to which the takers of psychedelic chemicals are transported” (Durr viii). Put in grosser terms, romantic or mystical literature does indeed share the same liminal pattern as the psychedelic experience – moving starkly from known to unknown with the consequences that ensue.
In more recent decades, further advances in technology have allowed us to investigate the experiential pattern more objectively. Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris conducted studies using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan the brains of subjects under the influence of psilocybin, the active compound in magic mushrooms. What he discovered was previously unknown to science. The brain contains a region of interconnected neurons called the default mode network (DMN) (Pollan 301). “The network forms a critical and centrally located hub of brain activity that links parts of the cerebral cortex to deeper (and older) structures involved in memory and emotion” (Pollan 301). For the purposes of investigating the liminal pattern, it is of the utmost importance to note that the DMN does not only link two separate regions of the brain, but it inhibits the functions in the lower structures from becoming consciously perceivable. In other words, the DMN is a liminal boundary separating known territory from unknown territory. When a subject ingests a psychedelic, in this case psilocybin, the blood flow to the DMN is significantly reduced – the dam breaks and images and emotion from the unknown spill forth (Pollan 304). The liminal pattern is, in fact, built into our physical nature.
Carhart-Harris appears to objectively verify the tripartite structure of ego-dissolution mapped by Leary as well as Durr’s assertion that the psychedelic voyage is apiece with medieval romances. But Durr also mentioned the writing that we call mystical also shares the same form. It is here that the liminal patterns of brain research and medieval literature converge remarkably. A Yale researcher, Judson Brewer, conducted research that scanned the brains of experienced meditators. The scans bore an uncanny resemblance to those of Carhart-Harris’s psychonauts, suggesting there is more than one path to silencing the default mode network, which is to say, crossing the liminal line within. From such findings, it is not unreasonable to speculate that experiences similar to deep meditation such as “sensory deprivation, fasting, [and] prayer” would have the same effect (Pollan 306). If that is indeed the case, the liminal pattern would suggest that we can already find evidence in the writing of medieval mystics.
Thankfully, we have the writings of Julian of Norwich, a Christian mystic writing in the late medieval period. She wrote of her experiences as an anchoress living a life of seclusion. For her, the world of inner space was the only unknown territory available. Though her visions were many, focusing on just one can yield the depth of the liminal pattern. Her revelation in the third chapter of A Book of Showings to the Anchoress Julian of Norwich came about when she was seriously ill. Though she did not long for death, she was sure God had sent the sickness to kill her. Then, her curate came to her and said: “I have brought the image of thy savior; look thereupon and comfort thee therewith” (Greenblatt 414). This cue sent her into a mystical experience. She crosses the threshold between external and internal observation. Julian reported: “my sight began to fail. It waxed as dark about me in the chamber as if it had been night, save in the image of the cross, wherein held a common light; and I wist not how. All that beside the cross was ugly and fearful to me as it had been much occupied with fiends” (Greenblatt 414). After this vision, she explained that she no longer believed God sent the illness to kill her, but to cause her sufficient suffering to draw her closer to Him.
In this one literary reference, the liminal pattern shines so bright that it touches nearly everything explored to this point. Robin Carhart-Harris and Judson Brewer could say that blood flow was reduced to Julian’s default mode network, a real liminal alteration. Timothy Leary could say her ego dissolved, sending her into the second bardo, the realm of hallucinations. The tripartite structure of medieval romances would align with her integration, disintegration, and reintegration with a new appreciation for suffering. R. A. Durr could further point out that her mystical experience of the unknown contained both “a feeling of profound peace and joy” symbolized by the common light contained in the cross, and “hellish potential” represented by the frightening fiends on the periphery which is the same dichotomy of potential encountered by Sir Orfeo in the underworld.
The initial assertion made at the beginning of this investigation was that human beings have a deep proclivity to transgress the boundary between known and unknown. The propositions following from that assertion were that the liminal pattern, if true, should manifest itself in the historical timeline and that the same arrangement would be evident in older cultural artifacts, specifically medieval literature. The evidence, though not conclusively irrefutable, suggests the answer to all of the above is affirmative. Humans are built to seek the strange, experience the unknown, embody an exploratory nature, and to transmit that emergent pattern through literature old and new. Therefore, we would do well to bring the profundity of the liminal pattern into our conscious being and realize that the call to adventure should be honored as the cornerstone of human endeavor.
Durr, R. A. Poetic Vision and the Psychedelic Experience. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1970.
Greenblatt, Stephen, gen. ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 9th ed. Vol.
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Leary, Timothy et al. The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead. New York: Kensington Publishing Corp., 1964.
Peterson, Jordan B. Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief. New York: Routledge, 1999.
Pollan, Michael. How to Change Your Mind. New York: Penguin Press, 2018.
Wikipedia contributors. “Where no man has gone before.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 19 Jun. 2018. Web. 24 Jun. 2018.