Marginal People, People of the Margins

Given the doings and structure of the psyche, there is no such thing as being alone.  If you are the only one in the room, it is still a crowded room. – Michael Ventura

While reading and enjoying the interviews in Bill Moyers Journal (which I discussed here,, I came upon a phrase that evoked a cluster of other ideas.

Moyers interviewed author, Louise Erdrich, concerning her novel, Shadow Tag, which he considers exceptional.  During the interview, Erdrich, who is the daughter an Ojibwe mother and a German American father, said “I live on the margin of just about everything, Bill.  I’m a marginal person, and I think that is where I’ve become comfortable.”   I recommend the interview as a whole, as I do the others in Moyers’ book, but right now I want to focus on the phrase Erdrich used – “marginal person.”

Louise Erdrich

In context, she was talking about the split between people’s waking selves and their dream selves, which is one of the subjects of Shadow Tag.  She was also talking about the tensions between her Catholic upbringing and the Ojibwe culture, as well as the tensions between her various roles, such as mother and writer, which don’t always fit well together.

In short, I take the phrase, “living on the margin,” and being a “marginal person,” to mean”outsider,” one who stands at the edges watching, related but not quite part of.  I am going to take this notion a step further, because it accords with recent thought in depth psychology as well as conditions in our culture.

James Hillman, a prominent post-Jungian thinker, has written eloquently of our “polytheistic” psyches, formed of a number of archetypal forces that often compete with each other.  This is in distinction to Jung’s “monotheistic” psychology, which posits a central “Self” which is alpha and omega of the psyche.

James Hillman

Here is what Michael Ventura, a journalist, screenwriter, and friend of Hillman’s has to say:  There may be no more important project in our time than displacing the…notion that each person has a central and unified “I” which determines his or her acts.  “I” have been writing this to say that I don’t think people experience life that way.  I do think they experience language that way, and hence are doomed to speak about life in structures contrary to their experience.  Ventura adds, The central “I” is not a fact, it’s a longing – the longing of all the selves within the psyche that are starving because they are not recognized” (Michael Ventura.  From “A Dance For Your Life in the Marriage Zone,” in Shadow Dancing in the USA, 1985, out of print).

Ventura’s essay on marriage names a few of these “selves:”  My tough street kid is romancing your honky-tonk angel.  I am your homeless waif and you are my loving mother.  I am your lost father and you are my doting daughter.  I am your worshipper and you are my goddess.  I am your god and you are my priestess.  I am you client and you are my analyst.  I am your intensity and you are my ground.  These are some of the more garish of the patterns. 

You get the idea, and though you may find it mildly interesting, perhaps you wonder, what is the point, and what does it have to do with margins?

Plenty, I think, and it’s all wrapped up in a word in a word related to margins.  The word is liminality, from the Latin word, limen, which means, “threshold.”  People and cultures in liminal states are “betwixt and between.”  The definition given in Wikepedia is:  a psychological, neurological, or metaphysical subjective state, conscious or unconscious, of being on the “threshold” of or between two different existential planes.  Though the word was initially used by anthropologists to anaylze the middle stage of ritual practice, it has passed into broader usage, with this important meaning: [liminality is] now considered by some to be a master concept in the social and political sciences writ large…very useful when studying events or situations that involve the dissolution of order, but which are also formative of institutions and structures.

Hermes, the Greek messenger god, is the archetypal figure of liminal states, for he can easily pass between the worlds and speak to gods and mortals.  His Roman name, Mercury, is synonymous with quicksilver, that flashing liquid metal that is not quite one thing or another and cannot be contained.  My suggestion is that marginal people, people who are at home in the margins, people whose psyches welcome Hermes, are fortunate in this liminal state of our culture and world, as it becomes increasingly hard to bury our heads in the sand and fail to note “the dissolution of order…which [is] also formative of institutions and structures.”

Hermes, Messenger of the Gods

My previous post on nonfiction writing spoke of the “dissolution of order” in publishing and the nimbleness that is likely to characterize and benefit those writers who can adapt and even help create the new structures that are going to emerge.

The landscape of work is another example that touches everyone.  My father worked forty years for the same company, doing the same sort of job, before retiring with a pension.  Showing up as the same person every day served him well.  I had three distinct careers in six different organizations; that is the current statistical norm, and I bet it will seem tame to the generation now coming of age.  Access to a variety of “selves” was an asset in sailing those waters.

Rigid and hierarchical structures are not faring well this year, be they Arab governments, the government of California, the management of Borders, or people in almost any endeavor who cling to business as usual.

If you recognize yourself as a marginal person, a child of Hermes, one who has never been quite “this” or “that,” but both and neither, relax.  These may be the very times when you shine, when your gifts are needed, and when the ways will open as you come into your own.

4 thoughts on “Marginal People, People of the Margins

  1. People have many different roles that they have to fill in different aspects of life. For example, at different times when I am at the bowling alley where I work and bowl at, I have some of these roles: mechanic, cook, bowler, coach, teammate, and others that I’m sure I’m forgetting. I think that the idea of being a marginal person is being aware of your various roles and being comfortable switching between the roles when you are required to.

    I think the society that we live in today makes us take on more different roles than in previous years. This is causing more people to be marginal people and causing more people to have different roles that in some cases do not fit together very well (as the writer/mother example in your post).


    • I agree. Certainly work is prime example of having to wear many hats. I suspect mobility is a factor too – how many adults live in their home town, as compared to 50 or 100 years ago? Freedom on one hand, insecurity on the other. Thanks for your comment.


  2. I found this post very interesting; it has been on my mind for days.
    I am not sure that marginal and liminal are as similar as you suggest. Liminal is a transitional state, relating to the ability to pass through. Marginality, I think, indicates an inability to enter or pass through. The marginal person is ever caught between two or more worlds, unable to fully partake, yet unable to entirely leave. It seems to me more akin to Bataille’s notion of the heterogeneous, that which cannot be either expelled or assimilated but exists on the boundary or margin. I would like to suggest that the liminal person is fluent in many worlds and can move between them at will – which is not to say easily, but achievably. However, I see the experience of marginality as essentially one of trauma, something of a tear in the psyche. It is an uncomfortable position, generative for the artist, but never the less uncomfortable.


    • Thank you for all the thought you put into your reply. I just looked and my dictionary does identify liminal as “a transitional state.” The definitions of margin and marginality do not address the question one way or another. You make a very good point, and in the future I will not use the two terms as if they were synonymous.

      One reason I did not assign a dire meaning to “marginal,” is that in the Moyers interview, Louise Erdrich called herself “a marginal person,” but not from the position of trauma. She told Moyers, for instance, that because she knows her Ojibwe name, according to some stories, in the afterlife she will have her choice of the Christian or Ojibwe heavens, (the latter being more fun).

      This is not to suggest that anyone who is half Native American can grow up without trauma, but to point out that Erdrich does not appear to be stuck there.

      Whenever I think of this kind of “boundary,” I think of shamanic consciousness and the ability to pass between the inner worlds or levels of awareness. It is liminal, in the way you use the word, ie, deliberate, and yet in most of the literature, the initiation is painful. Black Elk, for instance, came to a point where he knew he would either have to embrace his unwanted destiny or die.

      Thanks again for your very thoughtful comment!


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