Nearly two weeks ago, I began to write here about my PhD exams problematic: liminality and narrativity. Today, wandering through a number of texts from my historical list, I realize just how far I’ve come since that spring day of my first year when Lance first suggested "liminality" as my possible problematic / topic / theme / subject / object of investigation. Looking back, I can articulate (I couldn’t have, then) that I did, in fact, identify as a cross-genre or hybrid forms writer. Today, I do not. Today, I say: it doesn't get much more traditional than the shit I do. Long, narrative poems featuring characters in dramatic situations? Real original. So yeah, let's throw out our trifling attempts to create neat taxonomies like "cross-genre" or "hybrid forms." Tell me where the borders are between fiction, poetry, nonfiction. Show me. Can't? Because genres aren't divisible. Neither are they definable or defensible. To “cross,” then, from one genre into another is absurd. Any “lines” drawn are imaginary, constructions that have evolved over time for at least a few somewhat logical, efficiency-focused reasons, which I acknowledge: to categorize, shelve, and sell books in stores; to organize in public and private libraries; to discuss and refer to more easily in conversations (for the vast majority of readers).
Categories, of course, undeniably help us make sense of the world as we experience and share our experiences of it. Nonetheless, whether or not they are functional, categories are dangerous. Categories enclose and limit far more than they set free, open, or create space.
Imagine: unexplored, uncharted spaces for unspecified, unknown possibilities.
I see no difference, either, between “cross-genre” or “hybrid forms.” Each operates on the principle that generic forms are stable entities and can thus be split apart or transgressed (crossed) and blended together (hybridized).
Writing, I would much rather believe, is fluid.
I haven't always held this belief, these thoughts, which are admittedly subject to further change over time (which is the point, right?). A year ago, at the Best American Poetry blog, I spoke with Kristina Marie Darling about a number of things. Chief among them was the idea of genre: "I've only just begun to wonder," I wrote then, "about the broad-spectrum potential of what more play in literature might mean, what might come of more widespread generic boundary crossing, because if we can learn to be more willing to allow these shapes and forms to shift and mutate then perhaps we'll be less rigid in other areas of our lives, too." I'm not sure what to think of that now. I seemed to be taking for granted that there were boundaries to be crossed. And, perhaps, as a baby step toward my views now, I said they were invisible. Whether they are or aren't, though, isn't the point. Or the question.
To think of fluids is to think of liquids and gases and solids, and to recall that there is no single, magic moment of transformation from liquid into — poof! — gas. Or from gas into — bam! — solid. Or from solid into — splash! — liquid. The measurable and immeasurable, physical and metaphysical, theoretical and hypothetical spaces of possibility in which these properties change are zones of liminality. Our willingness to enhance our perceptions, to recognize zones of liminality — possibility spaces — when we see them and to go out of our way to actually look for them, is directly related to our human / humane ability to think, speak, and write. In other words: create narratives.
Liminality and narrativity.
That spring day of my first year, in our dungeon of a café in the basement of the Marriott Library, when Lance first said “liminality” to me, I honestly didn’t have a clue. But I trusted him and went with it. In my very early research (e.g. Wikipedia), the name Victor Turner came up, and his influence and presence has remained constant in just about every scholarly article I’ve read about liminality — whether in anthropology, sociology, or psychology journals; in political and geo-political writings; or in (at the time, very few) critical lit papers.
During the summer, heading into my second year of coursework, and well into fall semester 2014, Lance oversaw multiple drafts of my living document titled “Liminality and Narrativity.” Attempting to at least propose whatever it was I thought those words might mean, I was mostly overwhelmed and confused. I just didn’t get it. But I kept revising until finally Lance approved a draft (40-some emails by this point) that I could present to my potential committee members — not one of whom actually read said document. Instead, they asked me to explain “liminality and narrativity” face to face. Fair enough, right? Good thing I had all those drafts behind me so I could mumble a few key words and names and otherwise plead, I just want to spend the next year thinking about this stuff. Will you help me?
Once my potential committee members agreed and became my official committee members — Lance (chair), Melanie Rae Thon (creative writing), Scott Black (history), Kathryn Stockton (theory), and Eric Handman (outside the English department) — I began drafting my historical, contemporary, and theoretical exams lists (40 texts per list, 120 texts total). For most of spring term 2015, Lance oversaw somewhere around ten-thousand drafts of my lists, and once these were approved by all committee members in an official “list meeting,” I was set free to begin reading. They all looked at me with such hope in their eyes, such excitement: What an amazing year of exploration this will be! How thrilling for you!
I still didn’t have a clue what liminality meant.
At least, that’s what I thought. I realize now that I had at least a working definition (thanks Lance!) around which I’d even attempted to write a few papers for the very last courses I would ever take as a graduate student (thanks Andy Franta especially, for suffering through my paper on liminality in “The Eve of St. Agnes”!).
But working definition and blind stabs in the dark aside, the truth is I still didn’t know what liminality meant to me.
Two weeks ago, when I sat down to start figuring it out, I went back to the first text on my historical list: The Odyssey. I was worried. Scared. Terrified. Almost to the point of temporary paralysis before my computer screen. What could I possibly say about The Odyssey that hadn’t been said a hundred times before? This was the first text on my historical list, my point of entry into an entire yearlong study of canonical Western texts of my own choosing. As such, The Odyssey bore a heavy burden. What, I demanded of it, did it set into motion for me as a reader, a thinker, a writer, a teacher?
I began typing and eventually what emerged was a strong gut feeling that the first character from the Western canon who matters most to me should be Hermes. I concluded that Hermes’s presence / non-presence challenges the very first line of The Odyssey. That he is disembodied is perfect. Unlocatable, he’s not fixed in time, place, or text. He is present, however, as the patron of travelers — patron of Homer, that traveling bard who in the first line appeals to the muses, and patron of Odysseus, that famous traveler / wanderer / adventurer, about whom Homer sings.
Even as my word and page counts multiplied, I was entirely self-conscious about the idea of Hermes — a mythological character — emerging as my primary point of focus. But I pushed away my doubts and made my way toward some kind of argument about how epics, our earliest tales, begin in medias res. Odysseus’s story in The Odyssey begins when Hermes is sent by Zeus to tell Kalypso to free him. After years of imprisonment and immobility, Odysseus is allowed to go home.
Without Hermes, Odysseus would stay stuck.
Without Hermes, wouldn't we all?
Today, I found an essay online that reassures me for now at least that I haven't completely lost my mind. In “The Liminality of Hermes and the Meaning of Hermeneutics,” Richard E. Palmer reminds us of Heidegger, who tells us:
the Greek words for interpreting and interpretation — hermeneuin, hermeneia — can be traced back to the god Hermes. However questionable the etymological connection between Hermes and hermeneuein may be, hermeneutics, as the art of understanding and of textual exegesis, does stand under the sign of Hermes.
From Hermes, then, hermeneutics. "Hermeneutics," Palmer reminds us, "is the discipline concerned with deciphering utterances from other times, places, and languages — without imposing one's own categories on them (the hermeneutic problem)." From Hermes, the art of understanding. From Hermes, the art of textual exegesis. The art of interpretation, explanation, exposition, explication. Which is to say: what we English majors nerd out over. Palmer continues:
"Liminality" is a term given currency in twentieth century anthropology by Victor Turner [...]. During the liminal stage, the between stage, one's status becomes ambiguous; one is "neither here nor there," one is "betwixt and between all fixed points of classification," and thus the form and rules of both his earlier state and his state-to-come are suspended. For the moment, one is an outsider; one is on the margins, in an indeterminate state. Turner is fascinated by this marginality, this zone of indeterminacy. He argues that it is from the standpoint of this marginal zone that the great artists, writers, and social critics have been able to look past the social forms in order to see society from the outside and to bring in a message from beyond it.
Palmer goes on to discuss the significance, for Heidegger, of messages brought by Hermes from the gods to humans: "This primordial listening is hermeneutical in yet another sense: it is a listening to texts. The 'message' one must interpret is really the doctrines and thinking of one's forbears as embodied in great texts. To exist hermeneutically as a human being is to exist intertextually. It is to participate in the endless chain of interpretation that makes up the history of apprehending being."
He closes with this lovely summation:
Hermes is the god who presides over all transactions held at borders. Thus he is the god of translation and of all transactions between realms. And it would seem to be the essence of hermeneutics to be liminal, to mediate between realms of being, whether between god and human beings, wakefulness and sleep, the conscious and unconscious, life and afterlife, visible and invisible, day and night. The dimensions of the mythic god Hermes suggest a central element in the meaning of hermeneutics: that it is a mediation-between worlds. And in the strongest instances, Hermes' message is "world-shaking": it brings, as Heidegger says, "a transformation of thinking."
A transformation of thinking.
I feel the need to clarify that I'm not lighting incense and standing at a crossroads praying to the god of transformations. What this investigation into Hermes really gets at, for me, is a starting point for all that he represents. His presence in The Odyssey is perfect. If The Odyssey is Odysseus's story, then it really doesn't start without Hermes. It is Hermes who sets the Western canon into motion. At least, that's one way to read him. And one way to read The Odyssey. That I must identify "ways of reading" at all is, funny enough, the hermeneutic problem borne from Hermes himself. He is at the beginning of everything, and because he's in the middle of everything he reminds us that we are always in the middle of things, even at the beginning of things. We are always in medias res. We are always located in the liminal. And in this space, the past is behind us and the future lies ahead. Let us never fail to pause then at the threshold, and let us never forget that from within this possibility space — for better or worse — we are capable of great transformation.