the lure of the liminal
What is it about gateways that is so alluring? I came across a photo in a magazine today that made me gasp in delight. Here is a bad copy of it to give you an impression:
It reminded me immediately of one of my favourite paintings, ‘The Gate to the Isles’ or ‘The Blue Gate’ by Winifred Nicholson. This was painted from the Gamekeeper’s Cottage on the island of Eigg, looking towards the Cuillins on Skye.
(You can read more about this painter of light at www.winifrednicholson.com/. It is also interesting to see how others respond to her work: here at Cornflower Books is the response of a reader, while here at Gauguin’s Loft is that of a sister artist.)
There is something about pathways, passageways and doorways that many of us respond to instinctively. It’s like vertigo, a pull which draws you towards the opening. I’m sure that Professor Freud could have explained it all to us very neatly in terms of biology. This ‘lowest common denominator’ explanation is not one that greatly interests me, however. The appeal of thresholds is both material and metaphorical: here, in both senses, is an unknown path to follow, a new experience to discover. And looking at other photos and paintings, I realise that it is the open gate in these two pictures which makes them so irresistible. If the gate were shut, or if there were no gate, there would be no invitation. For example, here is a photo of a view here at Castle Beastie which I love. The dark trees combined with the closed gate at the end, however, makes the general impression forbidding rather than inviting:
Interestingly, Winifred Nicholson’s marvellous painting – the computer cannot do it justice – is one that captures both senses of the word ‘liminal’. The word’s literal meaning is ‘threshold’, i.e. a physical doorway or gateway. More generally, however, it is used in the metaphorical sense of the threshold between metaphysical worlds or states. In ‘The Gate to the Isles’, Nicholson was apparently inspired by the Gaelic legend of Tír na n’Óg, the ‘Land of Youth’, more commonly known as the Isles of the Blest. According to Scots-Irish myth, this ‘otherworld’ was located in the uttermost West, beyond the reach of maps. It was a paradise for the souls of the blest, a land of eternal youth, without sickness, misery or death. Interestingly, it was a concept borrowed almost unchanged by J.R.R. Tolkien in his own mythologies in The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien’s detractors tend to think of his work as full of airy-faery Celtic magic: in fact his inspiration was robustly and deliberately Anglo-Saxon, with this notable exception. Who could not be beguiled by such a concept, after all? Anyone who has suffered, anyone who has lost a loved one, will understand the visceral pull of the idea of Tír na n’Óg. In Winifred Nicholson’s vision, we have but to step through a rickety little garden gate, painted a heavenly blue: it is open already, inviting us on, down to the bright shore, across the hazy sea, to the far misty hills beyond.
For further reading, see Alice Strang, Winifred Nicholson in Scotland, National Galleries of Scotland 2003 (this may be out of print now but is a good introduction to her work if you can find it); Tom Shippey, The Road to Middle Earth , Harper Collins 2005 (an erudite but accessible exploration of Tolkien’s source material by a fellow professor of Anglo-Saxon and Philology); Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, Beacon Press, 1958, new edtn 1992 (I haven’t read this yet but would like to, since reading Antony Woodward’s description of it as making him think ‘about why certain spaces (seats, gates, paths) are so symbolically loaded.’)