For the last couple of weeks I’ve been sharing chunks from the (very) draft version of my doctoral dissertation, and I’m continuing that this week with some more reflections on liminality, that slightly mysterious and transitional/transformational realm on the edges of society. Although transformation CAN take place en masse (and let’s hope for the sake of the world that it does, and soon!), historically it has been a solo enterprise, undertaken alone, and usually in nature. Here I explore some of the academic literature on the liminal state, and reflect on how it relates to my experiences on the ocean.
Historically, and still in some indigenous cultures, solitude is seen as sacred, a liminal space in which there is space for a re-creation of the self as it transitions from one chapter of life to the next.
“…the initiands live outside their normal environment and are brought to question their self and the existing social order through a series of rituals that often involve acts of pain: the initiands come to feel nameless, spatio-temporally dislocated and socially unstructured… the formative experiences during liminality will prepare the initiand (and his/her cohort) to occupy a new social role or status, made public during the reintegration rituals” ” (Bjørn Thomassen, “Liminality” in The Encyclopedia of Social Theory (London 2006) p. 322).
The folklorist Arnold Van Gennep (Rites of Passage, 1909) was the first to analyse liminality in an academic context. He identified three stages:
- Preliminal rites (or rites of separation): In order to make space for the new, the initiate leaves behind her/his previous identity and ways of being.
- Liminal rites (or transition rites): Traditionally, these follow a ritualised sequence, presided over by an officiant of some sort. The identity of the initiand is transformed as she/he passes over the threshold from one phase into the next.
- Postliminal rites (or rites of incorporation): The initiand integrates the rite of passage to form a new identity, and is re-admitted to the community in this transfigured form.
Lacking only the officiant to supervise the transition rites, unless we hand that role to the ocean, this tracks exactly to my experience on the ocean, particularly my Atlantic crossing. There was a powerful sense of process in venturing away from dry land and into the liminal space of the ocean, having my old identity stripped away as many of the things that I would once have deemed essential (comfort, company, entertainment, communication) were shown to be optional luxuries, at the same time as an intense learning curve took me onto a higher plane of self-knowledge, wisdom, and understanding, and finally the process of returning to land and diligently doing the work of integrating the lessons learned on the ocean into the fabric of who I am in everyday life. Of lesser importance to me, but nonetheless following Van Gennep’s structure, was the societal recognition of my achievement as having been transformative, by the elevation of my social standing, invitations to write and speak, and awards such as the MBE, honorary doctorate, and so on.
(For a blog post from the Atlantic that reveal how this process felt at the time, see Day 49.)
Victor Turner picked up on Van Gennep’s work in the 1960s, and expanded its relevance beyond tribal societies. According to Turner, the liminal person’s sense of identity dissolves, as I described above in my own personal experience, creating a degree of disorientation that leads to the possibility of new perspectives. Turner suggests that liminality can be regarded as a period of withdrawal from normal cultural modes of social action, and is thus an opportunity to re-evaluate the central values and norms of one’s culture.
This certainly felt true in my case. In Stop Drifting Start Rowing I wrote of my return to dry land after rowing from San Francisco to Hawaii:
“As Mum and I were given a lift from the Yacht Club to my weatherman’s house, I went into reverse culture shock. The speed of the car seemed unnaturally fast. The skyscrapers of Waikiki seemed dangerously high. And all these people! I felt like a space alien seeing human civilization for the first time. I looked at the shops selling designer clothes, jewelry and electronics. I was quite perplexed that people would spend so much money on such pointless things. If you couldn’t eat it, drink it, or row with it, then what purpose did it serve? A rower’s needs are very simple – enough food and water, and a few miles in the right direction are enough to make it a good day. Examining my visceral reaction to the blatantly conspicuous consumption all around me, I realized that, having been so very materialistic in my early adult life, my values had fundamentally changed. Not only was I not interested in owning much stuff, I was actually repulsed by this flagrant consumerism.”
It did feel very much that I had been in what I now understand to be a “liminal space” and had come back with a fresh eye, able to see the prevailing culture through a more objective lens. This relates back to the idea of the operational narratives of a society: while we are living inside the narrative, we can no more see it than a fish can see the water. It is only when we separate ourselves from the society that we can see it clearly.
This contributed to the profound effect that Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael had on me. By casting a telepathic gorilla as the teacher, Quinn shifts the perspective from the human to that of an intelligent observer who can clearly see from one step removed the destructive path that humanity is pursuing.
How do we enable more people to achieve this degree of objectivity? It is said that travel broadens the mind, but that is increasingly untrue. Even though they may travel overseas and move through other cultures, most tourists and travelers are encased in a bubble of their own culture, insulated from exposure to a different narrative. Traveling in groups, or staying in hotels and hostels amongst people of similar nationalities, income brackets, and cultures, does not expand the mind in the same way as would, say, spending a month living with locals. So the artifice of their own cultural narrative is not revealed as it would be to the solo traveler.
There may be, to some extent, a fear of venturing into a liminal space, even those that are far less intimidating than the ocean or a foreign country. The disorientation mentioned above is an uncomfortable sensation for many. In tribal and some religious societies, where rites of passage involving liminality are undertaken by all (or at least, all males) on reaching a certain age, peer pressure, and the knowledge that one’s elders have all endured the experience, effectively render it non-optional. In non-tribal, secular societies, however, where social pressure to undergo a rite of passage does not exist, many people prefer to take the option of ease and comfort rather than challenge and transformation. There have been a few calls for the reinstatement of national service to provide a structured, disciplined transition into adulthood, which could be effective, but this remains a minority view.
What are your thoughts? Are you comfortable with discomfort, all cool with life on the edge? Or do you find it intimidating, and if so, what is it that scares you about it? Either way, I’d love to hear from you!