It can be hard to convey liminality in words. The feelings that come from living through a liminal experience often go beyond our means to express them adequately. Liminality, being deeply tied to experience, isn’t easily translatable into words and ideas. As such, we’re left with using an arrangement of interesting metaphors and imagery in an attempt to translate liminal experiences into words and phrases that might make sense to others. Those words and phrases sometimes hit the mark for those that have been through some kind of liminality. But for most, I’d say that one of the best ways to express and translate liminality is through storytelling. When I engage with friends about liminality, it often comes back to linking it to some kind of life event. This in turn makes liminality feel more meaningful and real. I believe we understand liminality through the stories and events that make up our lives, the ones that define us and make us who we are. That’s what makes liminality feel so dynamic and real. It isn’t something abstract or theoretical. Liminality comes from the stuff of life.
Recently I came across Dangling Man by Saul Bellow (1915-2005), one of the most prolific and award-winning authors of the 20th century. A winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1976, Bellow had a gift for expressing the folly, separation, and disjointedness that characterized the latter part of the modern era. His characters are flawed—introspective and anxious, reflecting the deep ambiguity that comes from living in uncertainty. Now I hadn’t heard of Dangling Man until referred to in an episode of Netflix’s The Crown, and probably for good reason. Published in 1944, it’s Bellow’s first work. But beyond that, it’s rather unusual in its story and presentation. Written as a diary, the story is told from the point of view of Joseph, a Canadian-American waiting to be drafted during World War 2. The story itself isn’t complex, as it doesn’t quite have a fully developed plot. But what it does offer is a telling picture of living in-between, or “dangling.” And because it’s told entirely from Joseph’s point of view, we’re able to witness the devastating effect dangling has on Joseph.
Joseph is an out of work academic living in 1941 Chicago. In anticipation of a draft call, he resigned from his employment at a travel agency, but the call never came. Because of his Canadian citizenship, bureaucratic hoops have delayed his entrance into the army. Unemployed now for seven months, and unable to find work, all Joseph can do is wait. Spending the majority of his time at home, his wife Iva now supports them. Joseph is intelligent and philosophical, acutely aware that something about him is changing. His current circumstances are beginning to take its toll on his mental health. At first, he saw it as an opportunity to continue his studies and to write. And yet, with all the time in the world available, he’s unable to write or read. Books and study no longer carry the same interest. Knowing that he’s beginning to suffer, he decides to write about his experiences in a diary. Comprising reflections about himself and the world, Joseph’s diary is his outlet and maybe the only thing keeping him sane. For the reader, the diary is a glimpse into Joseph’s turmoil, the downward spiral of depression signally his change into someone who he finds unrecognizable. Joseph is acutely aware of this transition, which becomes harder to ignore the longer it goes on. He writes,
There is nothing to do but wait, or dangle, and grow more and more dispirited. It is perfectly clear to me that I am deteriorating, storing bitterness and spite which eat like acids at my endowment of generosity and good will. But the seven months’ delay is only one of the sources of my harassment. Again, I sometimes think of it as the backdrop against which I can be seen swinging. It is still more. Before I can properly estimate the damage it has done me I shall have to be cut down.
Joseph lives as a stranger in the world, a person without place or purpose. He doesn’t know what to do with his time, worse still, he feels ashamed about the time he has. Embarrassed that someone he knows might see him during the day (when most people work), he avoids the familiar hangouts he frequented before his situation. He intentionally avoids others out of fear of what they might think of him and the awkwardness of entering into yet another conversation about his predicament. This awkwardness extends into his relationships and interactions with his family and close friends, those he can’t really avoid. Inevitably he is drawn into conversations about his waiting, questions about the draft, and their extensions of uncomfortable sympathy. The world around him no longer knows how to interact with him, being a person out-of-place. Likewise, he no longer knows how to interact with his world. The meaningless chit-chat he used to engage in with friends no longer holds any interest for him. As a result, Joseph begins to lose friends and relationships over the course of his waiting. The only person that understands Joseph is himself. Writing to himself, he describes his predicament as follows,
Joseph suffers from a feeling of strangeness, of not quite belonging to the world, of lying under a cloud and looking up at it. Now, he says, all human beings share this to some extent. The child feels that his parents are pretenders; his real father is elsewhere and will some day come to claim him. And for others the real world is not here at all and what is at hand is spurious and copied. Joseph’s feeling of strangeness sometimes takes the form almost of a conspiracy: not a conspiracy of evil, but one which contains the diversified splendors, the shifts, excitements, and also the common, neutral matter of an existence. Living from day to day under the shadow of such a conspiracy is trying.
As the days go by, living such an existence becomes more and more difficult. Days drift in and out without any purpose, reason, or direction to distinguish one day from the next. “I can’t answer for Iva, but for me it is certainly true that days have lost their distinctiveness. There were formerly baking days, washing days, days that began events and days that ended them. But now they are undistinguished, all equal, and it is difficult to tell Tuesday from Saturday.” Joseph is cruelly caught in-between, unable to find his way out of his predicament. The things that once filled his life and gave it meaning or either gone or no longer hold the same sway. He’s caught in a kind of perpetual liminality. It’s the feeling of being stuck, when life seems to have lost meaningful forward momentum. For Joseph, the customary ways the rest of society use to mark the passage of time are now alien to him. He no longer fits within the “normal time” that marks the difference between Tuesday or Saturday. Joseph is outside that time, existing in a state that isn’t recognizable to those dwelling in a world of Tuesdays and Saturdays.
Joseph no longer feels alive. Dwelling in the world and time of the “other,” Joseph’s liminality prevents him from feeling anything at all. The world around him isn’t recognizable. And because of its otherness, he has a difficult time deriving any meaning or feeling from it. He doesn’t even recognize that he’s living anymore. A liminal zombie, Joseph becomes increasingly short tempered and angry. The only way he can know he is alive is through agitating others. He causes trouble in the hopes that he might find some difference between days. It becomes his way of interacting with a world that he can’t participate in. He writes,
It may be that I am tired of having to identify a day as “the day I asked for a second cup of coffee,” or “the day the waitress refused to take back the burned toast,” and so want to blaze it more sharply, regardless of the consequences. Perhaps, eager for consequences. Trouble, like physical pain, makes us actively aware that we are living, and when there is little in the life we lead to hold and draw and stir us, we seek and cherish it, preferring embarrassment or pain to indifference.
Furthermore, he finds it increasingly difficult to control himself. Joseph has drifted too long in this liminal space. He has to find some sort of relief, an escape, from his current situation.
I feel I am a sort of human grenade whose pin has been withdrawn. I know I am going to explode and I am continually anticipating the time, with a prayerful despair crying “Boom!” but always prematurely.
Joseph’s separation with the world grows with every confrontation. The more he tries to feel, the more distant others become. One by one, his relationships begin to fail. Friends stop visiting, he becomes estranged from his family, and his marriage is on the verge of failure. In truth, he willingly sabotages these relationships. Because they can’t understand him, he abandons normal social conventions and personal filters. But most notably is the deterioration of his marriage, which is the last relationship to unravel. Through all of this turmoil, Joseph never stops questioning himself and his motives. He compares himself to the person he used to be, wonders what he still believes in, and struggles to find an escape from this endless dangling.
I am forced to pass judgment on myself and to ask questions I would far rather not ask: “What is this for?” and “What am I for?” and “Am I made for this?” My beliefs are inadequate, they do not guard me. I think invariably of the awning of the store on the corner. It gives as much protection against rain and wind as my beliefs give against the chaos I am forced to face.
Through it all he questions his freedom and what freedom means when one is without purpose, meaning, and direction. Essentially, he is asking the question of what freedom means within a liminal state. Within liminality, it can feel like one’s choices are constrained. Being in-between often feels like being stuck, lacking forward momentum as I mentioned earlier. Choices may abound, and in Joseph’s case, there’s a freedom of time. But despite the freedom Joseph has in his daily life, his existence feels constrained. Joseph’s life has become a prison of perpetual liminality. Of course, there’s still movement, Joseph is drastically changing. But this change is also scary, as it causes him to question his world, his relationships, and his identity. As he puts it,
The quest, I am beginning to think, whether it be for money, for notoriety, reputation, increase of pride, whether it leads us to thievery, slaughter, sacrifice, the quest is one and the same. All the striving is for one end. I do not entirely understand this impulse. But it seems to me that its final end is the desire for pure freedom. We are all drawn toward the same craters of the spirit—to know what we are and what we are for, to know our purpose, to seek grace. And, if the quest is the same, the differences in our personal histories, which hitherto meant so much to us, become of minor importance.
Joseph seeks pure freedom, not the minor freedoms that come from choosing this or that in everyday life. He desires the freedom of existence, to live without the confines imposed on us by society—the masters of meaning that come from jobs, politics, money, war. However, this pure freedom is also scary.
We are afraid to govern ourselves. Of course. It is so hard. We soon want to give up our freedom. It is not even real freedom, because it is not accompanied by comprehension. It is only a preliminary condition of freedom. But we hate it. And soon we run out, we choose a master, roll over on our backs and ask for the leash.
Joseph laments, “It isn’t love that gives us weariness of life. It’s our inability to be free.” He’s afraid of life outside of liminality. He’s afraid of what freedom might look like, and dangles precariously as he considers his own purpose and existence. Beyond the veil of his personal liminality lies the war. And though he is afraid of it, it offers him a way out of this disastrous state—the conditional freedom that continues to torture him.
Ultimately, a catalyst event marks the point when his liminality becomes untenable. A violent and dramatic episode against a neighbor makes it clear to Joseph that something must be done. Months of waiting, dangling, had finally taken its toll on nearly every meaningful aspect of his life. But finally, this liminal chapter is coming to a close. Joseph receives the news that he is going to war.
I am no longer to be held accountable for myself; I am grateful for that. I am in other hands, relieved of self-determination, freedom canceled. Hurray for regular hours! And for the supervision of the spirit! Long live regimentation!
Dangling Man masterfully captures the frustration and insecurity that often defines the liminal experience. Despite its age, Dangling Man is easy to relate to and strikingly modern. It makes me think of my own liminal experiences and the impact such times have had on my own identity. And how difficult it can be to feel as if one is dangling, being neither here nor there, hanging on in those in-between spaces of indeterminacy where it feels like we don’t know where we are or where we are going. Dangling Man captures that feeling of searching for meaning and purpose when your life seems to have none. It shows how painful transitions can be as our old ways of defining ourselves slowly peel away, forcing us to confront that uncomfortable question of “Who am I?”
I believe that many of us feel like we’re dangling. We may not be waiting to be drafted, but that doesn’t mean we’re not waiting for something else to “draft” us and take us away from our perpetual liminality. We’re waiting for something to come along and give us meaning. Joseph was so ready for meaning, any meaning, that he actually wanted to be drafted and go to war. Because even if he died, he would die knowing that his life actually had meaning. He was no longer dangling in this perpetual liminality. In losing his conditional freedom he found true freedom—the freedom of purpose.
 Saul Bellow. Dangling Man (Penguin, 2006), 4. Kindle Edition.
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