Writing and the Threshold Life: Jane Hirshfield on How the Liminal Liberates Us from the Prison of the Self

“The creative self [asks] the surrender of ordinary conceptions of identity and will for a broader kind of intimacy and allegiance.”


Writing and the Threshold Life: Jane Hirshfield on How the Liminal Liberates Us from the Prison of the Self

A human being, Oliver Sacks observed in contemplating the building blocks of personhood, needs “a narrative, a continuous inner narrative, to maintain his identity, his self.”

We need this interior storytelling to thread ourselves together, because the self is so elusive a constellation of intangibles which fade to black under the beam of direct scrutiny. If Borges was right that our personality rests on a foundation of nothingness, if millennia of Buddhist thinkers were right that the indestructible in us is found only through the annihilation of the self, then who are we when stripped to the bare essence of our being, denuded of the stories and the ego-shells which harden into an exoskeleton of selfhood that fractures easily into limiting identity-fragments?

That is what the poet Jane Hirshfield explores in a wonderful essay titled “Writing and the Threshold Life,” which appears as the closing chapter in Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry (public library) — her altogether splendid inquiry into storytelling and the inner workings of creativity.

Jane Hirshfield (Photograph: Jerry Banter)

Hirshfield, an ordained Buddhist, examines the liminal — a word derived from the Latin for threshold, limen — through the lens of a fourteenth-century protofeminist Japanese play about initiation rituals in Buddhist philosophy, predicated on embracing the liminal. She celebrates this threshold space as hallowed ground for dissolving and transcending the self, for rising above the flatland of individual identity and toward a more dimensional sense of belonging:

Entering this condition, a person leaves behind his or her old identity and dwells in a threshold state of ambiguity, openness, and indeterminacy. Only afterward may the initiate enter into new forms of identity and relationship, rejoining the everyday life of the culture.

Hirshfield considers the essential elements of traditional Buddhist initiation into this liminal state of “betwixt and between”:

First, the initiate undergoes the removal of both identity and status — he or she becomes nameless; conventional clothing is forgone; the usual constraints of gender no longer apply. Ordinarily forbidden behavior is now allowed, or, conversely, the person may enter into an extreme discipline equally foreign to conventional life. Often there is a period of silence and of nondoing, of fasting or going without sleep. Threshold persons are treated as outsiders and exiles, separated from the group, reviled, ignored. Akin in status to the unborn or the dead, they are not present in the community in any normal sense. Possessing nothing, they descend into invisibility and darkness, and — symbolically or literally — abandon both the physical and the ideological structures of society for a wilderness existence.

More is changed during this threshold period than simply the understanding of self: free of all usual roles, a person experiences community differently as well. The liminal is not opposite to, but the necessary companion of, identity and particularity — a person who steps outside her usual position falls away from any singular relationship to others and into oneness with the community as a whole. Within the separateness of liminality, connectedness itself is remade.

Art by Alessandro Sanna from Pinocchio: An Origin Story

Hirshfield draws an astute parallel between what is asked of the enlightened being in Buddhism and what is asked of the writer as a consecrating instrument of the secular world:

Immersion in the life of the world; the willingness to be inhabited by and speak for others, including those beyond the realm of the human — these are the practices not just of the bodhisattva, but of the writer…. The life of the threshold can lead to both permeability and knowledge, offering, in [the thirteenth-century Japanese Buddhist teacher] Dōgen’s phrase, a way to study the self, forget the self, and awaken into the ten thousand things.

In a sentiment kindred to E.E. Cummings’s assertion that “the Artist is no other than he who unlearns what he has learned, in order to know himself,” Hirshfield adds:

For most members of a community, the liminal is a point of transition, entered briefly, at a particular time, in passage toward something else; such persons are dipped into nonidentity and self-forgetfulness in order to change who they are. For some, though, the liminal becomes their only dwelling-place — becomes home. A writer must invent for himself how to live in this way.

Art by Sydney Smith from The White Cat and the Monk, a ninth-century ode to the diversity of transcendent experiences.

Writers, she observes, have something essential in common with monks, both being social species who “embrace the margins”:

For writers, as for monks, to take on this work often means leaving the mainstream in outward ways, abandoning the world of ordinary jobs and housing; the garret life is found up literal stairs as well as within the steep reaches of the psyche. In its deepest sense, though, threshold life for a writer has to do with a changed relationship to language and culture itself. In writing lit by a liminal consciousness, the most common words take on the sheen of treasure — transformed in meaning for the entire community because they have been dipped in the mind of openness and connection.

But although this makes the writer’s life, in Rachel Carson’s words, “a lonely place, even a little frightening,” Hirshfield counters the cultural impulse to presume that loneliness is an apostle of madness. While genius and madness often coexist, one need not necessitate the other. In a sentiment of which Vincent van Gogh was tragic proof, she writes:

Despite the lingering social archetype of the “mad artist,” madness and artmaking are not the same; where the two coexist, the madness almost always ends up destroying the art, and often the artist as well.

Hirshfield returns to the promise of liberation in liminal space:

To speak, and to write, is to assert who we are, what we think. The necessary other side is to surrender these things — to stand humbled and stunned and silent before the wild and inexplicable beauties and mysteries of being.

Art by Tove Jansson for a special edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

With an eye to the initiation rituals of central Africa’s Ndembu tribe, in which the chief-to-be is publicly harangued into humility by being reminded of his foibles by each tribal member, Hirshfield writes:

Freedom from the opinion of others is useful for any who would live in the threshold, and perhaps especially for those who wish to practice art in public.

In consonance with Elizabeth Alexander’s reflection on the writer’s responsibility to the poetry of personhood, Hirshfield writes:

It is the task of the writer to become that permeable and transparent; to become, in the words of Henry James, a person on whom nothing is lost. What is put into the care of such a person will be well tended. Such a person can be trusted to tell the stories she is given to tell, and to tell them with the compassion that comes when the self’s deepest interest is not in the self, but in turning outward and into awareness.

At the heart of Hirshfield’s essay is a beautiful counterpoint to the cultural stereotype of the artistic ego:

The creative self [asks] the surrender of ordinary conceptions of identity and will for a broader kind of intimacy and allegiance. Ultimately, though, the threshold consciousness is not about ideas, whatever they may be. It is, like writing itself, about stepping past what we already think we know and into an entirely new relationship with the many possibilities of being, with the ultimately singular and limitless mystery of being. Above all, it is about freedom, and the affection for all existence that only genuine freedom brings.

She closes with a short poem by Gary Snyder — a poem “which embraces in its few words and concluding dateline the breadth of threshold life: particularly time and timelessness; affection for community in the widest sense; and a person, wandering, returning, making his way”:

On Climbing the Sierra Matterhorn Again After Thirty-One Years

Range after range of mountains
Year after year after year.
I am still in love.

           (4 x 40086, On the summit)

Complement the immeasurably rewarding Nine Gates with Hirshfield on how great art transforms us and her wakeful poem protesting the silencing of science, then revisit James Baldwin on the artist’s responsibility to society, Susan Sontag on the writer’s task, and Jeanette Winterson on how art and storytelling redeem our inner lives.


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