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, https://thefirstgates.com/2011/05/24/bill-moyers-journal-the-conversation-continues/), 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.”
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.
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.”
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.