Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Get Creative: The Liminal State

By James Curcio

Although we need to make many assumptions - as we often do in life, let alone death - there is often a connection drawn between life and waking, and death and dreaming.

This connection is specious, but not because it is shallow. It is rather wrong, and yet strikes very near to a profound truth about consciousness, if not the nature of reality itself. (How can we draw a distinction between the two when we are ourselves housed within a bio-mechanical walker? That is a subject for another book to be sure, much as we tried to touch on it in The Immanence of Myth and Apocalyptic Imaginary.) These epistemological uncertainties aside, death itself is the void of the great unknown. Whatever our conjecture is of that nether region, it is the point beyond the point of no return - the dark side of the moon - a place that is no place, and certainly no story exists there. The world is full of damn near verifiable near-death experiences, but no verifiable death experiences. There is a reason for that.

The so-called Tibetan Book of the Dead is also, more accurately, called the Bardo Thodal. This translates loosely as the "intermediary space." And Bardos are spaces we are actually quite familiar with. When you are falling asleep, but have not yet hit the bottom of the well - that is a Bardo. When we are coming awake, but the curve of your lovers neck is still at one and the same time the scroll upon which the history of another world is writ in blood - a Bardo. I intend to extend from this idea and the general concepts therein, without making any claims as the following being textually relevant to Tibetan Buddhist practices.

It is in these spaces that all mythic artists carve out their homes. We may not even know it, making that rote flow a part of an unknown process. Or, like me, you might instead be very conscious of the process, intentionally allowing yourself to almost fall asleep, time and again, with notebook and pen in hand, dredging up symbols and the threads that connect plot, character, and something deeper than that - some archetypical knowledge that does not come from pat books on Jungian symbolism.

This reminds me a bit of the plot to the movie "Flatliners," where med students kill themselves time and again, and then bring themselves back, all so they can unravel some mystery that perches at the brink between life and death, like a gargoyle, part stone and part something else though not quite flesh. This theme returns again in the reboot of Battlestar Galactica, where one cylon kills herself again and again so that she can look upon the face of their archetypal parents, the faces of God.

This too is an archetype. To see the face of God is to not only court death: it is to die. This premise exists in Greek myth, where Dionysus' mother is consumed in a pillar of fire when she discovers the true nature of her paramour - Zeus. It exists equally in Jewish mysticism. The Zohar is laden with this idea, though like a bad scholar I'll not look up all the references. The reason is not so much laziness as that it is actually not particularly important to our point, so much as you recognize the general ubiquity of this idea.

And as in "Flatliners," there is indeed a price to be paid for this knowledge. I myself paid for it rather harshly, as my experiments with creative liminal spaces led me to rather extreme lucid dreaming experiments that I explained by tying it into my creative work. Eventually some sort of threshold was overcome, and this passage that I put in my first novel "Join My Cult!" is actually entirely truthful, as is a surprising amount of the material that finds its way into my 'fiction' (that is a topic for a later article, I'm sure.)
   A burst of pleasure runs through me, unbearable ache. There is a
yanking, rending, of my insides and the room around me. I am reaching
out to her, I so desperately want to stay here… To get close enough to
allow her to become first person and myself third, let myself go to let her
in… I can’t even remember what she was saying, now.

   The sensation of thick downy covers brings me awake. Blankets
almost as thick as pillows. Samantha is curled beside me. I nudge her.
She groans a little, her breath grows uneven just for a moment, then she
returns to a low steady pace. I nudge her again and she wakes up. I try to
describe what just happened, thinking that maybe I’ll recall the details in
the retelling. I’m holding the images behind my eyes but the words won’t
come. How can I describe the valley? The depth of my interaction with
the doctor? My feeling of love for that woman?
   As I’m speaking I notice that the wall behind her is rippling like a
curtain in the wind. Suddenly I feel terrified at what might lie behind that
curtain, and I turn towards her. She can tell I’m frightened, but doesn’t
seem to understand why. She asks me if I’m having another “one of my
episodes.” Everything is rippling now, almost a whirlpool—and I am
clutching her, clutching through her flesh to her bones. Everything turns
upside down, inside out. I watch her face melt. Then blackness.
   But I am still here. I am still awake.
   The sensation of thick downy covers brings me awake.  Fuck. Not
again. I open one eye, quickly close it. Samantha is beside me, just as
she was. Is she really there? I poke her quickly, though of course in my
first awakening she had felt quite solid, quite real. As had the chair under
me in the kitchen, when I was with the woman. This time she opens one
eye, stares at me dully.
   “Mmm. Mmm?” The other eye half opens. After much effort, it drifts
closed again.
   “Are you…here?” God, I feel stupid. She was there before, too. Then
she melted. I’d have felt even more ridiculous asking her if she planned
on melting again, and if she did, she should at least have the decency to
warn me. Forget it, I’ll never know the ground is solid again. (From "Join My Cult!")
Though it may come as a surprise to a few of you, along with being a vocation that is incredibly harsh the moment you graduate college and get past the point where it is simply "cool" to say you're an artist, being an artist can actually be incredibly dangerous. But if you are committed, then there really is no danger that can or should put you off your goal.

As such, you must explore these liminal spaces cautiously and yet boldly. And you must do so immediately, and never stop for the rest of your life. (Possibly longer, depending on what you think about death.) For any would-be artist, musician, or author that is serious and not doing it just to seem cool, you need to learn to dredge up material from these in-between spaces, because the matter in your conscious mind is not particularly useful, certainly not for the first decade or so of your work. Eventually you can train your conscious mind to be a valuable creative tool as well, especially once you manage to train yourself to flow. But before that point you need some quicker routes, and if you depend only on drugs, you're going to destroy yourself before you get anywhere. Me? I used these liminal techniques. The question is how deep do you want to go? Your work will change depending on how deep into dreams you delve.

From the movie "Perfect Blue
Personally, I find that some projects demand a different "depth" than others, but in general, you don't need to necessarily go as deep as you might think. For many, just being able to learn to have controlled daydreaming sessions may be enough. Others demand more, and if you are a surrealist, you will need to learn to fish as deep as recollection can fathom. It is to the surrealists that the passage above may be a familiar experience, after a few years of experimentation. The brain does not take well to blending waking and sleeping with such willful abandon.

What you will be practicing is exploring that turning about point, between the various states of waking that lie and believe they are tethered by some sort of rationality. (A sort of tangential hint: there are bardo states within waking as well, and levels of brain-state "depth" here as well, and rationality is, aside from those of us using the scientific method of math for a specific task, a post hoc... well, rationalization. An excuse. Pay it no heed. Emotional commitment and belief steers your ship far more than logic does unless if you're autistic.) We must explore all transitions of brain state, which at first may seem like a simple band from white "waking" to pitch black "dreamless sleep." However, as you experiment, you will discover that there is in fact a whole spectrum of color, and there are multiple vectors here. This is consciousness, and as an artist, consciousness is your palette. Medium is actually irrelevant, save what you have time to train yourself in.

One first stage in the process of exploring these Bardos are the points where "I" becomes nebulous, as you slip ever so slightly toward sleep, and you begin to see connections spanning out around you, almost as if we have dived under water with a group of friends and can no longer tell whose limbs are whose. This is the liminal space, which holds the first essential key for all who wish to be mythic artists.

And beyond that? Just between you and me, as they say: artists need to share experience and skills like we are a clan tasked with teaching humankind to remember and speak to their dreams. This is incredibly critical. Instead, we've all been had with the glamor and $$$ game, used as competition pieces, tricked into thinking that we need to kill the others and emerge victorious.

Much more need be said about this, but maybe we've all done too much talking as it is, and not enough acting. Neil Gaiman's instantly famous speech about making art is right on, but it seems to leave out the question of WHY we need more artists. Maybe that's because he thinks it should be for each of us to discover -- which is true -- or maybe it's because he thinks it doesn't matter. How should I know? But I'd say that "the why" is to be found in what I just said, if you do a little dreaming on the subject yourself.

I'm working now on a short story, or illustrated book, or graphic novel or -- we'll see -- about a girl that grows up to become a storytelling shaman, so this is being raised closer to the surface for me. I'll stop the off topic rant. I only allowed any of it to stay because of how badly it need be said. The only person you need to compete with is yourself. 

For more posts on related subjects, please see: 

For some works that utilized the techniques discussed in this post, check out Mythos Media

NOTE: As always, if you are an artist or know an artist that worked on one of the images that come up here through tumblr, please contact me so you can be properly credited. Often credits are stripped before they make their way to me, but I have absolutely no reason no reservation in giving credit to artists, being one myself. 

[Where is the fucking counterculture? Mythos Media.]

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