Harrison Middleton University

Liminality and Creativity

Liminality and Creativity

We’re excited that you’ve joined the conversation! At HMU, we want to continue the great authors’ conversations in a contemporary context, and this blog will help us do that. We look back to Aristotle and the early philosophers who used reason and discourse to gain wisdom and now we endeavor to do the same every day.


August 6, 2021

Thanks to Jaya Upadhyay, a 2021 Harrison Middleton University Fellow in Ideas, for today’s post.

A marine biologist examines a decaying coral colony only to discover a few surviving cells among the dead ones. Some of these colonies, she adds, harness sunlight while others perish, and sometimes a dead coral leaves a speck of living tissue behind. To her, it represents a close occurrence of death and repair in an organism. One could relate it with something similar in the human organism triggered by either an illness, loss of a loved one, or a significant life change. As a result, one might experience extended periods of nothingness or existential distress. These moments that leave threadbare the fragile fabric of selfdom can variously be called threshold moments or moments of liminality. But how does this death of the matrix of self lead to a repair? Does the loss of our life’s existing meanings leave something on which revised meanings can be raised? And how do these moments of liminal consciousness affect the creative soul?

It was Thomas Carlyle who wrote that creativity was “seeing the thing sufficiently.” It was the calmly seeing eye and not a transitory glance necessary for a creative genius. Interestingly, difficulty often becomes a force that makes this sufficient seeing possible. And therefore, histories are not short of stereotypes of the melancholy poet or the dejected artist. Difficulty often creates fault lines in the monuments of truth erected around oneself. The apparent peeling off of the restful understanding of oneself and the world leads one to question the closely held beliefs and value systems. Often the face of the world appears gibberish, devoid of meaning, and such moments evoke a sense of being pushed to the threshold or the liminal. However, standing amidst the debris of familiar narratives, of defined identities and meanings, often helps get newer perspectives. The fall of a dictated vision makes a broader, more universal vision of things possible. In such moments the thing reveals its mysteries, gives them away silently and generously, in the words of Carlyle, “reveals not this or that face of it, but its inmost heart, and generic secret.”

An artist, one of the more sensitive souls of the world, awakens to a larger unity in the liminal moments. Standing at the abandonment of his egotistical self, at the threshold of his “I,” makes him more permeable to life’s subliminal rhythms and movements. This abandonment of the egoist self is not incompatible with a writer’s life, who is supposed to express his subjective experiences as part of the material universe. Surrendering to the immensity of existence does not make the self weak but instead expands it to accept a flood of connections from all ends. This transitional experience is shared by another soul who, like the writer, willfully surrenders his ego to a broader oneness. On the day of their ordination, monks within some eastern traditions are required to read their burial rites and throw their tuft of hair into a sacrificial fire. This act represents the last detachment from material existence. They are then given a new robe that is distinct from conventional clothing and a new name that becomes part of their identity. Their older selves, family, friends, and profession meet a symbolic death the day they are born as monks. This non-attachment to their older selves opens them to a more profound oneness around them. A creative artist is similar to a monk in that he embraces the world’s margins and dissolves his will towards the collective will. And the finest artists are frequently known to be impersonal. To put in T.S. Eliot’s words, “The progress of the artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.” He could not emphasize enough the significance of depersonalization and objectivity, particularly in relation to poetry. In poetry, as in life, the writer surrenders his personality to the mystery that the universe reveals to him, just as monks do. He shapes his perspective to compliment the world, no longer attempting to modify the external; like the monk, the writer looks at things with a camaraderie he has never felt before.

Of all creative forms, one could study poetry the best in relation to the liminal since there is in its essence something at once arresting and detaching, both concrete and intangible, both eternal and ephemeral. Poetic language tends to be removed from the logical necessities of meaning and bends towards the production of writing constructed not just of words but also by sounds and movements of thoughts. A poetic genius writing from a fractured, liminal standpoint opens up to a mobile, fluid “Choric” space. This choric space or the “Chora” is a term used by Julia Kristeva to define a pre-linguistic stage in the development of a subject. A space before the acquisition of language, before the stepping into the symbolic. Also known as the semiotic, it is characterized by gestures, body movements, and drives instead of linguistic signs. The semiotic is always undefined and in flux, while the symbolic stands for all concrete and closed structures. When a creative person encounters the liminal, he is ushered into a space where he may see the unorthodox openness of words, much like an infant in the pre-lingual stage observes the world with the unmediated lexicon of touch, vibration, and gesture. This opening into the dawn of the semiotic helps hone a creative person’s craft since it makes them unearth metaphorical links between concepts. Thus, words lose their closed structures allowing numerous connections and deviations to enter their nucleus. Under the impact of the choric, writing is subjected to a “becoming” as opposed to a “being.” It is essential to mention that for Kristeva, semiotic chora is not isolated from the symbolic; they are always present together. The semiotic threatens to shatter the symbolic unity; similarly, a person in the liminal moves between discarding and acquiring a self. The liminal self, like the choric, is pulsative, moving, and emerging.

The liminal that threatens the unity of the self also becomes a space of regeneration. Marked by liminality, poetry becomes an arena of struggle between the symbolic and the semiotic. Standing on the ground of symbolic, it plays with the rhythms of semiotic, producing that which shatters its hegemony. This space is not muting rather transformative for the individual working from inside it. Kristeva mentions in her work, Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia, that a possible investigation of the semiotic can be made through studying a depressive; for her, it is in this state that a person is overwhelmed by his biological drives, which goes to the extent of quietening the symbolic reality completely. She suggests that fixing the melancholic or the depressive lie in discovering the potential of the semiotic rather than deliberately smearing it with symbolic. Poetry can, according to her, help weave the directionless drives into a form of prominence. Poetic language is a kind of elusive dance that deconstructs ordinary language by injecting it with multiple significations. Through creative transformation, the language of the threshold is concretized into recognizable units of meaning.

To conclude, liminality can become a pre-condition for creative vitality. The powers of solitude, awareness, and presence that line the liminal depths serve as forces of transformation in a creative soul. It is in times when the fear of oblivion and disappearance is loosed upon the genius soul that he breaks through and creates. The interplay with liminality is best represented by the triad of poet, mystic, and melancholic. For a brief period, all three enter the liminal, becoming divided and divorced from others. This descent into separateness, however, is merely a transition from a quotidian to a more expansive existence. The greatest bestowment of the liminal to the creative soul is the “choric” perception that it brings into being, which is a continuous source of replenishment. It is only from the choric beat that even the most distressing and devastating life experience can be transformed into and sung as a melody. It must have been from a liminal consciousness that a genius like Perce Bysshe Shelley could weave the line, “I fall upon the thorns of life, I bleed” into a lyric. And only from a semiotic well could Sylvia Plath have sprung a phrase like, “Dying is an art, like everything else, I do it exceptionally well.”

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