Head, tail, threshold

Hello dear readers. This is my first letter of the new year, and the beginning of the fourth cycle of Polylith. Four is a special number, the last before beginning again with one, and fourness recurs a few times in this letter. What shall we make of that?

This year I aim to write these letters in a slightly different mode from how I have. It may seem like a subtle difference, but there’s something I’m after — a certain multivalent quality, a sense of play, lightness — that our present time calls for. By coming out with it at the outset, I hope to include you in the experiment.

So, here we are. It begins, as it must, at a threshold.

A warm and luminous painting: we see the entrance from above, perhaps from the branches of a tree. The entrance is a round opening in solid stone, with steps leading inward. Two figures drag a boat from the clear water, and two others wait to land. One robed figure has already crossed the threshold.

Gondolin: The House of the Golden Flower by Pete Amachree

A threshold comes just before the first step of a journey. On one side is what we have known, our orderly abode, and on the other what appears to be chaos. At the threshold we’re simultaneously pulled in both directions at once: backward and forward, both into the past and into the future. We must move in each direction to proceed, but we cannot move in both at once. Backward and forward are two sides of one coin; try to see head and tail at the same time and the coin disappears. The line that the faces collapse into is the threshold, and here we are caught.

In the fifth century BCE, Zeno of Elea observed that in order to reach a destination, a traveler must first walk half the distance. But before she can do that she must walk a quarter, and so on ad infinitum; she must walk to an infinite number of points before reaching her destination, a clearly impossible task. And what’s more, any first distance she might walk can be divided in half itself, and is then no longer the first. She cannot even begin.

In our dreams, the two sides of the coin arrive in a puzzling unity. Past, future and many alternate nows coincide; they arrive together, all at once. Paradoxically, it is in being shown opposites as if they are one, as dreams sometimes do, that we are able to recognize their opposition — their relation — to one another. Upon waking we might tease the faces back apart, out of the dream’s tricky coincidence, so as to put them in conversation with one another. We follow along.

Waking fantasy, in its own free-associative way, can guide us as well, but we should be careful. Taken literally, fantasy can easily turn to folly, whereas taken symbolically — as a living, indeterminate thing — it can help guide us onward from the threshold.

When we approach fantasy (or dream for that matter) with an alertness to the more-than-rational, with a certain double attitude, we find a lightness of step that is otherwise elusive. Following a symbol allows us to leap from past to future to many alternate nows as we go. We can slip free of Zeno’s paradox that makes motion impossible.

The mandala, from the Sanskrit for circle, is an image that arrives often (and especially, it seems) at the threshold. Its concentric circles surrounded by a square frame suggest the seasons linked by an endless ellipse, the familiarity of an abode, a labyrinth (in which, as Borges tells us, any place is another place)1 — a cosmos in all its self-similarity. Mircea Eliade, in his 1952 ‘Symbolism of the Centre’, puts it this way:

The function of the mandala may be considered at least twofold, as is that of the labyrinth. On the one hand, penetration into a mandala drawn on the ground is equivalent to an initiation ritual; and, on the other hand, the mandala ‘protects’ the neophyte against every harmful force from without, and at the same time helps him to concentrate, to find his own ‘centre’.

The mandala, we might say, offers us an opportunity to reconcile past with future, and both with the present moment; an opportunity for chaos to cohere into cosmos before the whole cycle is re-enacted. The mandala is the coin seen, startlingly, from three sides at once — head, tail and threshold.

Thank you for reading along with this first installment in the fourth cycle of Polylith. I have a vision for the essays and stories I’ll write this year, and I’m excited to share them with you all as they arrive.

I’d be grateful if you’d consider sharing these letters with a kindred reader, or steering a friend toward the bookshop. You’ll find copies there of everything I’ve published on paper over the last year. The next issue of Drift Body zine — the fourth! — is in the works and will embark on its own journey to subscribers in February.

And thanks to Pete Amachree for permission to reproduce the supremely liminal painting above. Check out their other work.

Until next month, may motion feel possible.

  1. I highly recommend Borges’ strange and heartbreaking story ‘The House of Asterion’.