Exploring the liminal
It is good to be back, after a longer-than-intended hiatus to cope with a heavy workload followed by a trip to the South African bush. Now, I am treating myself to reading some Ben Okri — because I can’t think of a better place to immerse than in the magical potency of his storytelling. Or perhaps I should say, in his delicious insights about storytelling!
Thanks for reading Living Stories! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
Last time, I wrote about stories as seeds that carry the potential of life’s genius across time and space. This time, I want to touch on the in-between-ness, the many-sidedness, of stories and of the forms in which they are told. With this post, I am stepping into a liminal space. I am excited to explore and see where it leads!
Reading The Mystery Feast, a kindle version of a talk Okri gave at the International School of Storytelling, I was struck by these lines of poetry:
Beyond our mind, reality moves. Unknowable like the darkness Before creation. We carve from the unknown A world. Without story Our identities Starve. We live in and out Of time Simultaneously.
As humans, our story-making sense is what allows us to discover the world and make it ‘knowable’ — even if our ‘knowing’ is but a thin and limited rendering of the unfathomable infinity of existence. Our minds work in story, and through our stories we create the worlds in which we live. For better or worse, we frame our experiences as stories, and fit our own stories within larger cultural narratives. Without these devices for making meaning in our lives, connecting with one another and aligning our actions to a wider sense of the world that is shaped and guided by stories, we are lost.
And yet, stories retain their essence of mystery. Often they lie dormant inside of us and then spring to life in the spaces between. Okri writes:
‘When does a story live? It lives only when it is read or heard. A story is part telling, part hearing. Part writing, part reading. It dwells in the ambiguous place between the teller and the hearer, between the writer and the reader.’
Through such passages, Okri surfaces the liminality of stories. Have you noticed what malleable, shape-shifting creatures stories can often be? You may tell the same story over and over again — but you are never quite the same person as you were when you told the story before. And the story you tell is also never quite the same story that it was before!
Good stories invite us to explore these terrains of paradox, ambiguity and in-between-ness — tied intimately to the metamorphosis and movement of our own lives. Sometimes stories raise hidden aspects of our lives to our awareness. They let us explore new terrain, but they never take us to a fixed end point or conclusion. In stories and in life, we find ourselves always in transition, in relation to, in the intertidal zones of transformation. An ending is never really the end — it is only that interesting place where the story stops.
This magic of the in-between, as Okri calls it, is potent. Every time I tell a story, it takes on some new aspect, or raises a new question. Every time I hear a story I am already familiar with, it lives differently within me, often surfacing some previously unexamined dimension of my own life-in-movement, or reflecting some thought or insight relating to what I am perceiving in the world right now.
A little while ago, I was working with the story of Amaterasu, the ancient Japanese Shinto goddess of the Sun. The story has many versions of course. Here is a recording of my own:
Or if you prefer, a bare bones version in text goes something like this: Amaterasu is the shining one, whose radiant presence in the heavens upholds the harmony and balance of life. Until one day, a visit from her troublesome younger brother Susanoo the storm god, destroys her peace. Susanoo challenges Amaterasu to a contest, and then becomes enraged when Amaterasu insists that she has won. He goes on a destructive rampage, flinging animal carcasses into her weaving hall, destroying the rice paddies and generally wreaking havoc in her heavenly realm. Consumed with rage and anguish, Amaterasu flees to a high mountain cave, withdrawing her light from the world.
Without Amaterasu’s radiance, the world is plunged into darkness and chaos. Crops fail, people starve and the Oni demons run rampant. The other deities, the Kami, plead with Amaterasu to come out of her cave, but she refuses. So they resort to a little trickery, and lure her out by throwing a great party — which also, as it happens, sparks the invention of music. The gods have positioned a great mirror just outside the cave entrance. In the midst of much singing, dancing and merriment outside the cave, the goddess of the arts Ameno-uzume, adorned with flowers and feathers, climbs on top of an upturned washtub, shaking her bare breasts, and dances herself into a hypnotic fervour as the crowd goes wild. Curious in spite of herself, Amaterasu edges towards the edge of the cave. She finally steps outside, and meets with her own radiant image, which she does not at first realise is her own reflection in the mirror! Before she can retreat back inside, the gods block the cave entrance with a rock. They gather around Amaterasu, whose rage dissipates as she is embraced once more by the other gods and goddesses. She joins them in the celebration and joyfully shines her light on the world once more.
As with any good story, you could write a book about all the themes and questions it raises. You could choose to dwell with themes of parental loss or sibling rivalry, for example, or of self-esteem, or of the healing and restorative power of the creative arts, as does this lovely piece by Naoko Yogi Takiguchi. One morning as I walked by the sea, preparing to tell the story at a small gathering, my mind turned to that moment where Amaterasu’s outer radiance turns to inner rage. She is supposed to be the deity who upholds the harmony and balance of the universe. And yet, when an exchange of gifts between brother and sister turns into a contest and then into a bitter feud, she is quick to claim one-upmanship over her brother Susanoo, the storm god. I suddenly see a new angle on the story, and wonder: Has she become so attached to her image of being the shining, precious one — the goody two-shoes — that she cannot find it within herself to be generous and compassionate towards her brother? Is it her shame, more than anything, that keeps her hidden away in the cave for so long? So much to explore there!
Such stories are steeped in mysteries and riddles. The more one engages with them, the more one unravels new threads of insight and understanding. Okri writes:
‘Stories are the koans that life sends us. They contain hints of multiple realities.
The great stories, which appear all over the world in different variations, are intuitions sensed about this mysterious nature of the absolute reality. Great stories have lightness and multi-dimensional agility. They speak to different levels in us. They speak to us at the level that we are on.’
In this passage, I am reminded that life itself is always changing and in transformation, and as we change so do our perceptions. Perceiving and experiencing the world anew becomes a part of our transformation process. Like a butterfly emerging from its cocoon, we are always in movement and transformation, cycling through various states of in-between-ness. Change is always shaping the patterns of our existence: The circling journeys from night into day into night into day. The Earth’s journey around the Sun. The seasons and the ocean tides. The life and death cycles of plants and living creatures. The steady rise and fall over distant time of different languages and cultures and values and beliefs and ways of seeing the world that weave our histories.
As it happens, I have just been reading about an interesting moment of liminality in the history of the story form itself. This event was the transition from oral to written culture in Ancient Greece. In his book The Spell of the Sensuous, philosopher David Abram highlights this transition as an evolutionary process where something was changing in the Western mind in its sense of relationship to the wider world. As phonetic writing developed, language was gradually becoming understood as a human phenomenon, coded in the abstract, symbolic forms of letters that were increasingly shedding their sense of rootedness in the sensory, more-than-human landscapes and soundscapes from which they had long ago arisen.
As Socrates pronounced in the Platonic dialogue Phaedrus: ‘…I’m a lover of learning, and trees and open country won’t teach me anything, whereas men in town do.’
The contrast is striking, Abram observes, between Socrates’ dismissive view of the natural world, and the animate language of Homer’s epic ballads:
‘Even “fair Dawn, with her spreading fingertips of rose,” is a living power. Human events and emotions are not yet distinct from the shifting moods of the animate earth — an army’s sense of relief is made palpable in a description of thick clouds dispersing from the land; Nestor’s anguish is likened to the darkening of the sea before a gale; the inward release of Penelope’s feelings on listening to news of her husband is described as the thawing of the high mountain snows by the warm spring winds, melting the frozen water into streams that cascade down the slopes — as though the natural landscape was the proper home of those emotions, or as though a common psyche moved between humans and clouds and trees.’
A crucial difference is of course that while Homer’s ballads developed over centuries out of oral tradition long before they were ever written down, the Platonic dialogues were composed in the written form. So if stories live as they are read or heard, as Okri observes, it can also perhaps be said that stories live very differently, depending on the particular cultural patterns that shape how they are conveyed. Why is this so? According to Abram:
‘The chanted tales carried within their nested narratives much of the accumulated knowledge of the culture. Since they were not written down, they were never wholly fixed, but would shift incrementally with each telling to fit the circumstances or need of a particular audience, gradually incorporating new practical knowledge while letting that which was obsolete fall away. The sung stories, along with the numerous ceremonies to which they were linked, were in a sense the living encyclopedias of the culture — carrying and preserving the collected knowledge and established customs of the community — and they themselves were preserved through constant repetition and ritual reenactment.
As Abram writes (drawing on the work of Harvard classicists Parry and Lord in the 1930s), Homer’s epics were rooted in long oral traditions, where the use of rhyming, metre and repetition of proverbs and formulaic stock phrases such as ‘the wine-dark sea’ or ‘there spoke clever Odysseus’ were employed as necessary mnemonics for preserving the stories in memory and keeping them in circulation. These were formulaic devices ‘which readily spring to the tongue in appropriate situations.’ As Abram observes:
'Moreover, Homer’s choice of one particular epithet or formula rather than another seemed at times to be governed less by the exact meaning of the phrase than by the metrical exigencies of the line; the bard apparently called upon one specific formula after another in order to fit the driving meter of the chant, in a trance of rhythmic improvisation. This is not at all to minimize Homer’s genius, but simply to indicate that his poetic brilliance was performative as much as creative — less the genius of an author writing a great novel than that of an inspired and eloquent rap artist.’
With the adoption of phonetic writing, all of that changed. Writing provided a fixed and unchanging record of stories that could be revisited time and again. For the first time, Abram observes, the words themselves took on a meaningful life of their own, independent of the speaker. Their meaning was no longer held in the living, ephemeral exchanges between the storyteller and the listener, but rather in the fixed and abstracted written word which could travel across time and different contexts unchanged. As Abram writes:
‘… as soon as such utterances were recorded in writing, they acquired an autonomy and a permanence hitherto unknown. Once written down, “virtue” was seen to have an unchanging, visible form independent of the speaker — and independent as well of the corporeal situations and individuals that exhibited it… For only when a qualitative term is written down does it become ponderable as a fixed form independent of both the speakers and of situations.’
In embracing written culture, Abram writes, we began to lose the embodied, sensorial richness of the spoken story form, and to place more meaning in the abstract, the conceptual and the symbolic. As with all trade-offs, some qualities of story receded as others gained ground. The written form made it possible for concepts such as ‘virtue’ or ‘justice’ to take on more universal meanings. As Abram observes: ‘The specific embodiments of “justice” that we may encounter in the material world are necessarily variable and fleeting; genuine knowledge, claims Socrates, must be of what is eternal and unchanging.’
The written form also, Abram argues, made it possible to develop a kind of interiority and self-reflexivity. Writing, in other words, was a technology that enabled us to stretch our minds to new dimensions previously inaccessible. He writes:
‘As we have already seen, the process of learning to read and to write with the alphabet engenders a new, profoundly reflexive, sense of self. The capacity to view and even to dialogue with one’s own words after writing them down, or even in the process of writing them down, enables a new sense of autonomy and independence from others, and even from the sensuous surroundings that had earlier been one’s constant interlocutor. The fact that one’s scripted words can be returned to and pondered at any time that one chooses, regardless of when, or in what situation, they were first recorded, grants a timeless quality to this new reflective self, a sense of the relative independence of one’s verbal, speaking self from the breathing body with its shifting needs. The literate self cannot help but feel its own transcendence and timelessness relative to the fleeing world of corporeal experience.’
All of this brings me to reflect on what it means to be a storyteller now, in an age shaped and reshaped by so many technological iterations and disruptions that many of us feel utterly disconnected and lost if we are not clutching our smartphones. Thanks to this technological age, with its combined offerings of old and new media and story forms and its globalised culture, I, a modern day storyteller living in the midst of intense ecological and social collapse, have the opportunity to learn the story of Amaterasu and relate it to my own context. After passing from storyteller to storyteller over thousands of years, the story speaks powerfully to my present sense of reality, with its themes of chaos and collapse, shame and despair, creativity and collaboration, joy and rebirth. It raises pertinent questions: How do we deal with rupture in the continuity of natural cycles that sustain us? Will we, too, be able to heal and restore these cycles through creative and joyful loving actions, as the Kami devised music and celebration to lure Amaterasu out of her cave?
After all, as the writer Sophie Strand notes in her incredible piece The Ark: Boats of Breath, Stories of Survival, ecological and social collapse were very much a part of the ancient world. Exploring the emerging field of geomythology, which has found surprisingly accurate accounts of cataclysmic phenomena such as volcanic eruptions encoded in ancient oral stories, Strand argues that a revival of oral storytelling may in fact be key to our future survival. As she writes, around 1650 BCE, Mount Thera erupted in the Aegean Sea with the force of 40 atomic bombs, laying waste to ancient cultures of the Mediterranean and very likely unleashing long years of climate chaos. A thousand years later, Hesiod committed the story to written form, telling it as an epic battle between gods that saw the rule of the Titans displaced by a new pantheon of Olympian gods.
As Strand recounts, the eruption was a cultural extinction event that not only ushered out the Bronze Age and helped give rise to the Iron Age, but also heralded, in the change between two pantheons, the end of ‘earth reverent partnership societies’ and the beginnings of ‘dominating hero-worshipping hierarchical societies’ in Ancient Greece. ‘Translated through the bottleneck of mass trauma, the snake goddesses of Crete became the Medusa monsters of Greek mythology,’ she writes.
Strand argues that the ancients, having endured such inconceivable loss, may have embraced writing as a new technology to carry and encode important knowledge in a more durable form. She writes:
‘What seems clear to me is that centuries of dislocation, calamity, and collective trauma had destabilized any sense of permanence. Your entire island could be swallowed by the ocean. Your thousand-year-old empire could fall in the space of a year. Your gods could perish under the lightning strikes of a new pantheon. The shift into “chirographic” — otherwise known as written — culture seems to me to be a traumatic survival mechanism. After such intense violence, it seems deeply important that we find a way to make our stories last.’
And indeed the stories have lasted, thanks to the time and space travelling propensities of the written word. But at what cost? Not long ago, I took part in a group exercise where participants were asked how many indigenous tree species we could name. Then, we were asked how many corporate logos we could identify. Alas, I’m sure I don’t need to tell you the results. With our minds and imaginations captured by the abstract and the symbolic, how will we safeguard the ecological knowledge to survive? Looking to a cataclysmic future, Strand argues that the written word seems an ever-shakier prospect. She writes:
‘How does a story travel — through breath, through bodies, through cataclysms, and through thousands of years of time? Books are like butterflies when it comes to strong winds and rains. They melt away. Our encyclopedias and our digital personas are fragile places to have offloaded our knowledge. Objects can perish. But stories are relational. They live in the breath exchanged between people, between generations, and between complete overhauls in climate and culture. I strongly believe that oral storytelling may represent our best hope of understanding the past and preparing for the future.’
As a storyteller who has worked as a writer for virtually my entire career and is only now delving into oral storytelling, I feel myself in an exciting and daunting liminal space once more. Storytelling, as a human technology, continues to evolve. It must evolve, as we need story now more than ever to help us make sense and grapple with the rippling complexities of ecological and social collapse all around us. We have the written language with which to craft and and shape and reflect our thoughts and experiences with clarity, depth and precision. At the same time, we have the oral story form to share, discuss, connect and explore with one another the vast dimensions living within us in the moment and across time. We are all too deeply aware of what our separation from the natural world has cost us, as a species and as a planet.
I believe that one of our most important tasks right now as humans is to use the power of story to restore and re-animate our sense of connectedness with the living world. Caught somewhere in the cycle of collapse and rebirth, we are in that liminal space now (as we always are living in liminality), where our stories and the qualities they imbue in our lives will shape our sense of the world and our future (as they always have). One of the glorious things I observe now about story is its ability to hold the space between — to take us beyond the polarizations of our day, and into larger universes, if only fleetingly. Our stories, as Strand observes, are vessels and gifts that we bring to the future. We no longer need to be limited by the temporality and immediacy of oral stories, or by the propensity for abstraction of the written form. Each of us can be a living storyteller. How do we ensure that our best stories endure? And how do we breathe new life into our stories? How do we bring the power of living stories more intentionally into our lives and our relationships? How do we foster real connections through our storytelling? How do we lift and enliven our culture(s) with stories that are imbued with spontaneity, resourcefulness, stubborn optimism and other living qualities to shape a more generative future?
Thanks for reading Living Stories! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.