Liminality II: the serious part

[ by Charles Cameron — follow-up to Liminality I: the kitsch part, dealing with the strange business of liminality, submarines, monks and more ]

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Limen is the Latin for threshold, and the liminal is therefore what happens at thresholds.

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Something pretty remarkable happened as 1999 turned into 2000 — something liminal. And it happened aboard the USS Topeka, SSN-754 (below):

USS Topeka, credit: United States Navy, released ID 090623-N-1126G-005

The Associated Press reported:

Its bow in one year, its stern in another, the USS Topeka marked the new millennium 400 feet beneath the International Dateline in the Pacific ocean. The Pearl Harbor-based navy submarine straddled the line, meaning that at midnight, one end was in 2000 while the other was still in 1999… The 360-foot-long sub, which was 2,100 miles from Honolulu, Hawaii, straddled the Equator at the same time, meaning it was in both the northern and southern hemispheres. Some of the 130 crewmembers were in Winter in the North, while others were in Summer in the South…

Sitting pretty on the threshold between two millennia, two centuries, two decades, years, seasons, months, days and hemispheres was an extraordinarily liminal idea — as the two-faced January is a liminal month — and I think illustrates effectively the terrific power of the liminal to sway human thinking

Navy commanders in charge of billion dollar ships seldom get up to such “fanciful” behaviors!

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And if we might turn from the contemporary US Navy and its submarine to ancient Indian mythology and Hindu religion for a moment:

Narsingh avatar depicted in Nepali dance, credit: Navesh Chitrakar, Reuters / Landov

The story of Narsingh (above), the fourth avatar of Vishnu in Vaisnavism, also captures the idea of what’s meant by thresholds very nicely:

A tyrannous and oppressive king obtained a boon from the gods that he should die “neither by day nor night, neither within the palace nor outside it, neither at the hand of man nor beast” and thought his boon conveyed immortality — but when he persecuted his son, a devotee of God, a half-man half-lion figure — the Narsingh avatar of Vishnu — met him on his own doorstep at dusk and slew him, so that he died neither by day nor by night, neither within the palace nor outside it, and neither at the hand of beast nor of man.

Dusk, doorsteps and metamorphs are all liminal, — with respect to day and night, home and abroad, man and beast respectively.

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Anthropologist Mary Douglas has pointed out how things that are “not this, not that” (ie that don’t fit our categories) are precisely the ones that taboos form around – hence her remark in Purity and Danger:

Uncleanness or dirt is that which must not be included if a pattern is to be maintained

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