Just because liminality was named in the first part of the 20th century that does not mean it didn’t exist before then; of course it did, by other names. In the literate societies of the past, in storytelling societies, the sense of being in-between was most often expressed narratively. And so entire conferences have grown around just that, conferences such as “Between Places and Spaces: Landscapes of Liminality” at Trinity College in Dublin in 2014. That evolved into an anthology by the same name published in 2016.[1]

Liminal categories dominate the landscape of literatures as removed by time and place as Beowulf, The Odyssey, The Divine Comedy and Hamlet. So, too, our contemporary moment does not disappoint – the field of literature is rich with liminal themes. I suggest a few:

Once upon a time, a cargo ship that carried a family’s entire future sank mid-journey and the only ones who eventually survived were a boy and a Bengal tiger. Yann Martell’s Life of Pi is the quintessential fictional story of the liminal passage and the dramatic transformations that may take place because of it. Is the story real, and in what sense? Or is it a fanciful rendition? What is true or more true and why? Adrift at sea, surrounded by all elemental forms and forces, life and death at stake, a new and transformed person is created as a result. The meaning of the story can only be relayed in mythic terms.[2]

A virus slowly passed through a population and eventually rendered all who were infected as blind, overcome with a great whiteness that blocked all seeing. In Jose Saramago’s provocative and award winning work of fiction Blindness[3] a community of the blind was quarantined in a prison under conditions of great deprivation. In this community of the blind they slowly devolved to their basest natures. But one character was somehow immune to the virus, continued to see, and became a strong guide for the others. As the virus spread the gates of the prison were eventually opened to reveal that the entire city had gone blind. What does it mean to pass through a time of collective blindness? What can be known, trusted or revealed? And where is hope?

In a cursory reading it is easy to believe that Helen Macdonald’s book, H is for Hawk,[4] is really about the rigors and tradition of training a goshawk. After all, she spends pages and pages describing exactly that in intricate detail. We are ushered into the sleepless world of the mew, the locale of training, instinct and identification. We observe the simplest rituals and most complex unfolding relationship.

What we may not realize, not until much later in the book, is what is really at work. The author has lost her father to death and this ritual with a hawk runs parallel to the vigil of grief. She has been abiding in the physical liminal territory where hawks and falconers become one, but she has also been traversing the deep inner recesses where one’s most important loves and losses are sorted out. She has lost and lost deeply. Her life shall never be the same again. She struggles toward an unimaginable future without him.

With the Civil War less than a year old Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln lose their beloved son, Willie, after a grave illness. He is laid to rest in a borrowed crypt in a Georgetown cemetery until the family can move him back home to Springfield, Illinois. During this epoch of grief, the President makes repeated visits to the crypt to mourn over his lost son. Author George Saunders has assembled a remarkable record from journalistic citations and literary sources of the time to create this portrait of Lincoln’s agony, a space taken from the nether-nether land of Buddhism and its concept of Bardo, the in-between space. Lincoln in the Bardo presents just that and leaves us wandering with this grief-stricken President through that foggy domain known or feared by us all.[5]

[1] Dara Downey, Ian Kinane, and Elizabeth Parker, eds. Landscapes of Liminality: Between Space and Place (Rowan & Littlefield, 2016)

[2] Yann Martell, Life of Pi (Mariner, 2001)

[3] Jose Saramago, Blindness (Harcourt, 1997)

[4] Helen Macdonald, H is for Hawk (Grove Press, 2016)

[5] George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo (Random House, 2018)