Folk tales, like dreams, often make a visit into the dark of night and/or a dense forest where confusion and danger come close at hand—forests with mysterious houses, places where we get lost, paths where we encounter wolves or other creatures, a hundred years sleep that looks like death, a strange court ball arranged by a good fairy.
The popular version Little Red Riding Hood is a variant of the Czech tale of The Spectre’s Bride, the text for Dvorak’s cantata by that name. Both entail encounters with characters whose intentions seem at first benign; both are set primarily in forests. The wolf, like the specter, waylays a maiden and plans her perdition; she will be gobbled up by the forces of darkness, or saved by her wits and/or magical intervention. (There are always different versions.)
These spaces that cross over the boundaries of our usual life are often referred to as “liminal.” Often they represent the first phase of a process that may take us somewhere new and unexpected, then back to the place we started, with a difference.
The OED defines the word “liminal” as “of or pertaining to the threshold or initial stage of a process.” Both “liminal” and its noun form “liminality” are derived from the Latin “limen,” which means “threshold”—that is, the bottom part of a doorway that must be crossed when entering a building.
Some chorus singers have commented that we should have sung The Spectre’s Bride around Halloween, when we celebrate transitioning into darkness. Actually, a good case can be made that this work resonates with the month of January, a complimentary liminal time when we begin to go back toward the light. January gets its name from the Roman god Janus, who presided over doors. Janus was usually depicted with two faces looking backwards and forwards.
In many stories, doorways, gates and passageways figure as entryways into liminal experience. In C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe a closet provides an entryway into another dimension, a favorite example. Time as well as space can have a liminal dimension. Twilight is often cited as an example of liminal time, that short interval between day and night.
Liminal experience may entail a mysterious figure who lures us beyond our safety zone for our good or ill, or perhaps both. The wolf, the good fairy, the bad fairy, the giant at the top of the bean stalk. Ghosts and specters. Hamlet sees the ghost of his father, which pushes him into an altered state of mind; disoriented, he cannot tell if the ghost is an agent of good or perhaps of evil, bent on leading him to hell and damnation.
Writers and composers with a romantic bent take us into a liminal space outside the usual, the conventional and expected, to experience the excitement, mystery, even terror, invigorating feelings that make the reader or listener feel more alive. In this altered state strange forces turn may everything upside down before the social order is reestablished and outrageous feelings put back in the box, at least partially.
Two twentieth century anthropologists, Arnold van Gennep and Victor Turner applied the term “liminality” to describe the middle phase in a cultural rite of passage.
In his work, Les rites de passage, Van Gennep outlined the rites of passage such as coming-of-age rituals and marriage as having the following three-part structure:
- liminal period
The initiate (that is, the person undergoing the ritual) is first stripped of the social status that he or she possessed before the ritual, inducted into the liminal period of transition, and finally given his or her new status and reassimilated back into society.
Van Kennep’s three ritual elements fit The Spectre’s Bride almost too perfectly. As she runs, the maiden leaves behind her known life, as the specter tosses away her precious objects. She is stripped of her status as a young woman of the village and led on a liminal journey, half alive and half dead, to the graveyard. The maiden has to prove herself through this trial, and she is reassimilated with a revised status when the villagers acknowledge her good choice to reject the Spectre’s offer.
The anthropologist, Turner, takes the concept of liminality further. He sees it as an expression of anti-structure in society. Yet even as it is the antithesis of structure, dissolving structure and being perceived as dangerous by those in charge of maintaining structure, it is also the source of structure. Just as chaos is the source of order, liminality represents the unlimited possibilities from which social structure emerges.
While in the liminal state, human beings are “in between” the social structure, temporarily fallen through the cracks, so to speak, and it is in these cracks, in the interstices of social structure, that they are most aware of themselves. Yet liminality is a midpoint between a starting point and an ending point, and as such it is a temporary state that ends when the initiate is reincorporated into the social structure.
Turner’s theories are more complex than can be captured here, but his basic ideas have clear applicability to many works of art.
In Midsummer Nights Dream, the forest is a liminal space, existing outside the bounds of court life and its social expectations, where the characters have ‘fallen through the cracks of society’ but are also free to discover who they are. Liminal space is associated with loss of inhibitions and indulging in fantasy (elements of anti-structure). Never sure if they are waking or dreaming, the characters’ liminal experience transforms them, preparing them for re-entry into their lives.
In the liminal world into which the specter has brought her, the maiden is reduced to a kind of spiritual nakedness, which prepares her for a re-awakening. Out-tricking her trickster at the gravesite and praying to Mary, she regains access the community and its moral values. At the beginning of the piece, the maiden is alone with her thoughts while the village sleeps; in the finale, the village, now awake, surrounds her, and acknowledges her as one of them.
In Robert Burns’ poem, Tam O’Shanter, Tam has a brush with witches and warlocks, an experience both exhilerating and terrifying. Under the influence of too many pints at the pub, he rides his nag Maggie through a storm into the dark, spirit-infested countryside, a liminal space between the social pub and his domestic life drawing him back home.
George Saunders’ recently published novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, takes place in a cemetery, where the spirits of the recently dead hang out, not quite ready to evaporate completely to the other side. This liminal space is shared by these spirits, still hanging on to the memories of their lives, and President Abe Lincoln, who can’t let go of his grief over his recently deceased son Willie. Lincoln and Willie have a sort of communication through the intervention of these lingering denizens of the cemetery. The resolution sends Lincoln back to work in his office as President, ready to take on the challenges of the Civil War.
Saunders, a practicing Buddhist, used the term “liminal” himself in a recent interview on public radio. Life itself, he said, is liminal, that space between coming into life and passing out of it into some other state.
The Spectre’s Bride resonates for me with one of Emily Dickenson’s best known poems. Here we are in that liminal zone, on this side of death, but traveling toward it at a clip.
Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me —
The Carriage held but just Ourselves —
Dickenson’s poem, like the Spectre’s Bride conflates the house of the living with the house of the dead, an age-old association.
We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground —
The Roof was scarcely visible —
The Cornice — in the Ground —
In the Spectre’s Bride, the maiden asks about the house in which she will be married, little suspecting that her duplicitous suitor has a tomb in mind. We are reminded throughout this music, from the ticking clock to the frenzied dancing toward the cemetery, that, whatever our intentions, we are always racing toward death, never sure when the journey will end. It would be to our credit if we can create for the audience Dvorak’s compression of this eerie and exhilarating experience into one night’s liminal rush.