Wednesday, July 9, 2008

A Voyage through Thresholds

In Voyage Around My Room, Xavier de Maistre succumbs to a reverie on the nature of the soul. He ponders upon Plato’s distinction of the soul as ‘other’, and instead wants to argue the opposite: that is that which he calls the ‘beast’ that is rightly other – it is this which “pesters us in the most distressing manner”. These two entities – beast and soul -- exist in a loose arrangement in de Maistre's estimation. He portrays them as sometimes co-existing, and at other times acting quite independently, a kind of ... open relationship. Sometimes the beast might read alone through a passage, without the soul in attendance, and you “reach the end of the page without understanding or remembering what you have just read; and this is because your soul, having ordered her companion to do the reading in her place, did not inform him that she was about to absent herself briefly, and thus the other continued reading while your soul no longer listened.”

The relationship between the self and its other, between soul and beast, is magnified exponentially when the reading eye travels onwards towards Fernando Pessoa, and his multitude of carefully crafted heteronyms. In his introduction to The Book of Disquiet Richard Zenith describes how, while many authors base their characters upon friends or family members, “Pessoa’s characters were carved out of his own soul...” These separate entities exist to a greater or lesser degree independently of the author – Zenith notes that “Pessoa was the first one to forget Pessoa”. This puts an unusual spin on the Barthesian concept of the ‘death of the author’, wherein the work becomes autonomous once adrift in the world, and beyond the author's influence, and the relationships between the self of the author, the author's creation, and the readers, becomes an 'expanded field' - to use Rosalind Krauss's term - a redefinition or renegotiation of the relationships of things as they drift out of their containers.

Such a multiple existence does not seem so alien, as our being in the world can be far more of a gradient than an abrupt sense of separation, more of a fuzzy mass than a discrete and crisp being. The zones of demarcation, of self and not self, of other, of our beast, our souls, and even such presumed absolutes as our gender, are all constantly in flux. The shift from the physical to the metaphysical, the movement through a threshold, perhaps operates in the same way as quantum particles which migrate at the subatomic level between states, destabilising things at an infinitesimally small scale.

Changes in state occur in a range of domains, dancing between physics and metaphysics, the tricks of light, the movement across gradients, present to absent, sea to land, and day to night, as in Gavin Keeney’s delectable description of evening, where, “Perhaps at no other time is the ever-elusive/allusive thing-in-itself (plus the thing-not-in-itself) revealed and more present (luminous) than in evening; i.e., less atrophied and less specified. If Virgil discovered ‘evening’ (its poetic form), as some say, it was because it is the inherent hour, the time when time shines from within and the passage of moments, specks of time, time’s dust, drips into the mind (a form of metaphysical honey gathered in the extravagant wilderness of evening). The charged expectation of the hour of evening, that pellucid zone between day and night, is the ultimate passageway to the interior of things.” (Moravian Shadows, Landscape Review, 8(2).)

Boundaries, thresholds, limens, in-between places, states, selves, souls, are not sudden shifts, but entire realms in themselves. A line is a map, a phenomenological sphere, fluid and filled with the poetry of ambience. Gaston Bachelard in The Poetics of Space describes how these spaces of in-between echo the “threshold of being”. Thresholds are passages with their own qualities of space. The condition of thresholdness can be conceived as an area of interesse. Heidegger in his Discourse on Thinking described interesse as being with and between things, with the connotation of being ‘interesting.’

Movement from one’s self or selves to the world beyond, from the beast to the soul, from the interior of architecture to the exterior of landscape, from the city to the countryside, from this world to some other perfect world beyond the edge of the sky, are all gradients, journeys. Turning again to Moravian Shadows, to a passage which identifies one particular condition of liminality, but one which also has metaphoric connotations, of the self-similarity of liminal conditions across the spectrum of being, from self, to dwelling, to the scale of the settlement and city, “The portico and the loggia are transitional, liminal places (noetic, figurative gestures) that invite both assignation and assassination. There is the dangerous passage from interior to exterior, or vice versa, in the typological place of exchange, and the strategic transfer of one condition to another.”

Searching for archetypes, crossing the threshold
to find Platonic perfection beyond,
15th Century German book

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