The Liminality of the Divine
By Luca Marsico
There is in things material and immaterial alike something that, if grasped, cannot but condemn one to dreadful, hysterical laughter.
Material things are those that surround us — we are thrown at them — they are thrown at us. Our physical life is a presence between them — our bodily reality is a part of them. Only a person clouded by the dusk-like shadow of overthought may doubt their being there.
Immaterial things are those that are in us — we live by them — they live through us. Our ideas, concepts, our thoughts, ourselves. They are us. Only a person so thrown into the world as to have forgotten their own nature as a being — only a material thing, a disposable means — may doubt their existence.
Yet there is no bridge between these two. Here’s the plight, the Kantian anathema, the liminal tragedy of our self-awareness, the sorrowful mourning of modernity: we are forced to live among materials, yet we cannot interact with them but immaterially.
We are cursed — the curse, the torment is this: we know we are not the only ones here. Other unnerved souls inhabit this wasteland. They are thrown at us — we are thrown at them. In our being thrown at each other, we are nothing but materials. We bump into each other, our bodies touch — some of us even dare to utter a word.
A word? Speech? In what darkness have we sunk? What are these gunshots, heard at a distance, in the darkest of darkest nights?
Speech terrifies me — it gives me joy, euphoria, it overflows me with meaning, a flood of information knowledge emotions feelings immediate perceptions — an intoxicating glee that goes above and beyond me. It is above and beyond me — it could not be otherwise.
If speech were in me, it would be immaterial — everything would be incommunicable — I would be like a signal receptor, able to perceive the material world — the various constitutions, structures made up of atoms and molecules, a pure world of chemistry and physical waves — but unable even to try and express the immaterial that dwells inside myself. Speech cannot be something that is in the speaker: its chief function is to go outside the speaker.
If speech were outside me, it would be material — a mere organized sound — a meaningless structured noise — yet not music, for music carries meaning — but a wave — air particles moving causally in an organized way. Yet this is not the case: I understand — or, at least, I like, I need to picture myself as understanding — the others’ speeches; the others understand — or, at least, I like, I need to picture them as understanding — my speech. Speech’s chief function is to reach the inside of the hearer.
In actuality, though, the situation is more dire. Not only is there a semblance of communication between us. There is even the impression, the thought, the belief that what we are saying, that what we are communicating to each other, is true. Whatever that means is another matter.
When in a group of friends, if only we stopped from our senseless bawling and looked at what we are doing, wouldn’t we be surprised by the most obvious of observations, by the fact, asserted with the most secure, tragic certainty, that our talking, our chatting, our speaking, our emitting organized sounds are nothing else but a meaningless act? We are emitting something material — speech — to express something immaterial — our ideas, concepts, our thoughts. How foolish are we to devise such a paradoxical device?
Yet it works! It Works! IT WORKS!
It works way better than our palest expectations! The slightest noise coming from the mouth of a loved one, the quasi-imperceptible movement of the brow of a close friend, a countenance deformed by the irrepressible drive of a feeling — all these events, all these expressions of speech overflow us with the unbearable baggage of meaning — as soon as we are among others, we are drowning in meaning.
But again, a word, a brow, a face expression — aren’t all these things material? How are they to elicit in us the sense of a word, the feeling of a moving brow, the emotion of a countenance?
Philosophers have tried to give an answer. “The meaning of a sentence is its truth conditions” the devout Catholics of semantics chant in a spiritual mantra devoid of any transcendence. Is this the case? What are the truth conditions of a brow, of a smile? Are we really that sunk into theoretical abstractions to say that these means of communication, these carriers of meaning — of, perhaps, the deepest meaning a human can feel — do not have any meaning just because we cannot swiftly restrict them to a series of formulae?
But, if we reject this comforting, simplistic formal consolation, what is left to us?
Now we are facing the abyss — no, we are in the abyss — nay, we are free falling, gravitating between the materiality of the act of communication and the idea that it aims at expressing — we stand in the middle of the circle of our fellow humans, dancing and chanting the rite of sociality, in the middle of the rite, no more what we were before, not yet what we will be — we have no theory — however naive and simplistic and reductive it may be — that can save us from this abyss.
We are now contemplating the space, the liminality between the material and the immaterial — the locus where meaning reigns sovereign, the kingdom of the transcendental.
Are we to abdicate our modest hopes of knowing anything at all — to embrace the belief that all of which we decrypt as meaning is a mere representation of ours? What about reality then? What about the others? What about my need to communicate? I want, I require to communicate — I need to.
What then? Are we even able to address this problem? “The essential business of language is to assert or deny facts'' — but even if this reductionist folly were true — we have surpassed the realm of factuality, we are far from the comforting world of facts and logic — we are facing the liminal realm of what is neither material nor immaterial — we are facing the mystical — the divine.
This — what meaning is — cannot be said — it makes itself manifest in our everyday social life. “We feel that even when all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched” — but what then? This is not a scientific question. How can we address this problem? It cannot be addressed by our words, by our language, by the material movement of sound waves or by thick ink impressed on white pages — these are all material things. It cannot be impressed in our thoughts, in our concepts, in our ideas — these are all immaterial things.
Meaning must be in between — but it is not speakable, not writable, not representable, not even articulable — in a word, ineffable — yet it must be there, we perceive it, use it — we live through it.
What else remains? I cannot express it through words — grammar confines me in a logical cage — what I want to express lies outside these constructed bars. Syntax is losing its form, punctuation is pale in comparison (it’s that it’s the great being) to the mystical nature of (two persons look in the eyes communicate in touch in spirit without a word without a sign) the meaning of (it’s god it cannot be but god) life and of (god does not reveal themself in the world) ourselves (god renders themself manifest in the world) the meaning (a lighting a gunshot in the night the mystical vision of ecstasy when we are no more in ourselves) is crumbling down (the heroic furore of not being alone at last) revealing to us (in the beginning was the world and the world was with god) our (we must go outside ourselves to see ourselves we must go outside language to see meaning we must go outside) need to communicate.
Luca is a graduate student in philosophy at St Peter’s College, University of Oxford. They are from Italy and speak Italian, English and an abysmal French.