Arnold van Gennep

He was born in Germany and died in France. Ethnologe. His famous book "Rites de Passage" fascinated me long before I read it.

Listen, what I wrote these days:


Borders and thresholds – about the magic of space*


- Arnold van Gennep, Rites de Passage

- Victor Turner, The Ritual Process, Structure and Anti-Structure

- Voker Demuth, Schwellenzauber

A boundless space is hard to imagine, the more strongly we suffer from it. One is losing all orientation (take for example snow storm, fog, deserts of sand or ice), one’s losing even consciousness and life. May be a space without any structure isn’t a space in the sense of the word? All spaces – as well in nature, culture, iconography or daily life – are composed and structured by two principles: border and threshold. They are to be seen as polarities.

The border separates, is limiting us, can not be crossed, and excludes – high mountains, rivers, walls, prejudices, fences of concentration camps. Prototype of a border-lover is the settler.

The threshold opens borders, constitutes a mark of transparency and transgression, but transition will always be dangerous – passes over mountain ranges, narrow passages, gates, disco-entrances, doors in general, windows, initiation-steps, bridges, knowledge, realisation, discovery...The admirer of thresholds is the nomad.

But none of them, nor settler, nor nomad, nor society, no being or thing can exist on this world without balancing and structuring the polarities of inside and outside and first of all without transparency between them. Human organism – and our skin as phenotype for it – is a highly developed system in limits and transparency we call osmosis, and human house, as van Gennep calls it, an archetype of our society. Elias Canetti says: “Windows and doors are essential part of houses; they are the sensible parts between inside and outside. If they are broken, the house loses its individuality. Everybody is able to penetrate, nobody is safe...”

If one pole is predominating our drive for the other one is growing (so the closed borders of former GDR increased people’s will to leave the country as the closed borders of nowadays European Union attire plenty of people to immigrate. Or take the “laissez-faire” education of the sixties and seventies awakening needs for security and stability – as any unindividual and unlimited surrounding does...
Up from the times of tribal societies to our bourgeois age borderlines between inside and outside, private and public sphere, family and the rest of the world, friends and enemies were crucial. A modern society though needs liminal transparency instead of belligerent confrontation.

Now the interesting point in this matter is always the phenomenon of the threshold. It is the space-less plot were ritual takes place (see: Rites de Passage by van Gennep), be it the cornerstone underneath the door sill, the pentagram on Faust’s studio threshold, the rituals taking place at may points of our growing up (birth, baptism we have many examples of new name giving during our life: Christian name, nuns and monks names, war name of the Indians, initiation names...., circumcision, sexual initiation, exams, starting a new job, marriage, death etc.). Thresholds are never crossed negligent and easy, “genius loci” (it’s local geniuses) are venture, pain and even failing. Rather often a customs officer, a ferry man or a Cerberus is standing there and asks for his fee. These landmarks are coded; one needs a passport, a password or a key to trespass and they cannot be crossed without knowledge and consciousness. Serious effects might happen to do this unprepared. But we must cross them. Because we won’t remain sitting in our easy chair nor get lost in the streets.