Evan Kieran Wear
Liminality, Trans Ontology, and the “Man of Laws’ Tale”
By the very naming, “trans” people exist as somehow liminal. Engaging in transgressive ontological movement, trans people are caught in what Victor Turner calls “liminality.” The notion of inherent liminality in trans experience may have already proven disconcerting to my reader. Could this be a way of declaring trans people less solidly human than cis people? It could, if ontological liminality were appropriated to declare trans people “other.” But rather than diverging from, trans liminality informs cis liminality. The experience of trans people can be effectively illuminated by that of Custance in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. We can consider the liminality obvious in trans ontology to be reflective of a universal human relationship to the liminal. Taken together, the two “texts” of trans ontology and the “Man of Law’s Tale” can unseat the notion of human fixity. Constance, to whom liminality occurs externally, is yet utterly flat. Hers is an impossibly ambivalent existence, caught between her own fixity and her world’s liminality. When trans ontology and the “Man of Law’s Tale” are taken together, it becomes clear that liminality exists as the emergent horizon of all human ontology, rather than existing in discrete moments, rendering moralizing notions of human fixity false.
Anthropologically, the liminal is conceived as a moment in ritual in which the initial social status of a person is ended, but the latter status has not yet been taken on (the mid-point of a puberty ritual, for example). As Turner explores in “The Ritual Process,” liminality is the in-between in which the old has been killed, but the new is not yet born. For our purposes, liminality will be stripped of its ritual ties and considered in terms of ontology. That is, in this paper, liminality functions as an already, but not yet arising emergence of identity. Our entrance into this liminality exists in trans bodies.
In queer communities, it is often that I hear (and have participated in) questions about our androgynous or gender-bending siblings. Asking something along the lines of “oh, when did they begin transitioning?” the speaker will assume the subject to be in a transient phase. To fail to exist on the gender binary is to be an in-between, not yet having arrived at the “final” gender form. This is a conception that ultimately casts trans people as inherently transient (or liminal). At first, we may find such a notion offensive, but I think that it is true in part. Such transience is, however, not unique to trans people. Rather, trans liminality is simply a particular expression of all human liminality, existing despite notions of human (and gender) fixity.
To enter into trans liminality we must move, with an appropriation of Julia Kristeva’s “transgressive” (1249) semiotics, to allow our transgendered subjects to “however briefly, call [themselves] in question…” (1250). That is, we can undercut cissexist epistemologies by giving trans people a place to spring up, “transgressively” moving their ontological status. Such is “transitioning” reified in the fullest sense of the word. The way of approaching trans liminality is, thus, through engaging with trans identities as somehow continually emergent horizons. What, then, are the liminal symbols that trans communities employ? How do these liminal semiotics intersect with liminal experiences? Indeed, what do the answers to these questions teach us about human experience in general?
Our project is difficult to pursue inasmuch as “out” trans communities are still relatively nascent. In most contemporary studies conducted on trans people (although there is a dearth of such
studies), researchers note extreme variance in the specific semiotics that are employed (Factor and Rothblum 251). In other words, we would immediately fail in our project if we assumed that there was a normative semiotic mode across the spectrum of trans people. However, we can point to certain specific semiotic transgressions and use them as an entrance into ontological realities. Recounting the story of a trans person named “Ash,” Julia Horncastle writes that “Ash’s negotiation with the practical everyday, [sic] clearly describes … a quality of de-teleogised liminality (‘I’m not going from a to b or b to a …’), and tensity (‘sure it would be easier if I subscribed to either male or female…’)” (163). Ash exists, not as a simple liminal being with past designation “a” and future designation “b,” but a continually embodied liminality, with no definitive “telos” to be found. Ash’s account moves Horncastle to reflect that, “sexgender transitioning can be thought of in ways which do not confine trans identity to ontological entrapment” (163). Transitioning people do not have to exist as humans with a not-yet-arrived-at gender destination. Rather, we can conceive of them as ontologically liminal, yet not incomplete, existing within liminality as its own mode of being.
It would be problematic, however, if this was as far as we took our argument. Trans people are indeed liminal, but they are not unique in this liminality. In fact, trans liminality informs general human liminality. In “Liminal Semiotics: Boundary Phenomena in Romanticism,” Melanie Lörke writes that, “[i]n order to understand the world, humans need boundaries” (31). In this conception, a lack of any boundaries plunges humans into absurdity. Out of this existential need for boundaries arises a terror at boundary transgression. Inasmuch as trans semiotics prove the liminality of human ontology, and thus the possibility of boundary transgression, terror is evoked. That terror indicates a human understanding that is altogether personal: if the boundaries of the other can be transgressed, so can those of the self.
But for those who consider trans beings to be “other,” it is not a given that trans ontology is liminal in a way that informs human ontology in general. So, we must make the connection between the two explicit. One effective move toward this aim is found in Chaucer.
CUSTANCE THE STATIC
Liminal movement runs central to the “Man of Law’s Tale” in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Grounding the tale’s plot, the two sea journeys that Custance—the protagonist—takes embody classical imagery that conceives of the ocean as a site of change. But in these journeys, the liminal seems to be lost. Instead, Custance exists as a “constant,” statically bobbing along her journey, affected by her travels in body but not in being. Undergirding the whole text is Custance’s unmoving characterization. Why did Chaucer make this character so dull? Ostensibly, it is to show the constancy of God. Writing, “[f]or in the sterres, clerer than is glas, / Is written, God woot, whoso koude it rede, / The deeth of every man, withouten drede [doubt]” (194-195), Chaucer makes it clear that the man of law’s universe is fixedly directed by God. Finding further determinism in this universe we read, “Custance, that was with sorwe al overcome, / Ful pale arist, and dresseth hire to wende; / For wel she seeth ther is noon oother ende” (264-266). This moment, found when Custance has been summoned to join her new husband, begins the process of characterizing Custance within the deterministic universe to which she belongs. Custance is locked into her fate, unable to sway from it, one way or another. So “…forth she moot, wher-so she wepe or synge” (294). The first of Custance’s journeys, although liminal to the extent that any journey is, is yet inexorably tied to fate. Fixed in her ontology, Custance has not yet been moved, her body has simply been relocated. The determinism of Custance’s life is further shown with the introduction of our first antagonist, the
Sultan’s mother (360-361). Helpless to choose her husband or to defend him, Custance must now stand by as he is hacked to pieces.
The Sultan’s mother places our brave, unchanging protagonist in a rudderless boat (438-440). Immediately Custance turns in prayer, utterly faithful (449-462). After years at sea, Custance arrives in “Northhumberlond” (507-511). When she is taken in, Custance is dispassionately described as “diligent, withouten slouthe…” (530). Not only does Custance refuse to allow her faith and service to waver, her body is just as “unimpregnable.” A knight attempts to sleep with Custance, but “[s]he wolde do no synne, by no weye” (590). Additionally, that Custance be “unwemmed” or “undefiled” is the key concern in her near rape (924), maintaining her holy, embodied constancy. Together, these scenes demonstrate the fact that Custance is not supposed to be viewed as a liminal character. Rather, Custance is a static character who models Christian constancy in the face of external liminality. Indeed, when framed as a murderer by the lecherous knight and brought before Alla, king of Northhumberlond, Custance strikes the pitifully passive (and Christic) sight of a lamb being brought to slaughter (617).
CUSTANCE THE LIMINAL
When she is married to king Alla (691), a threat to Custance’s static ontology occurs,
For thogh that wyves be ful hooly thynges,
They moste take in pacience at nyght
Swiche manere necessaries as been plesynges
To folk that han ywedded hem with rynges,
And leye a lite hir hoolynesse aside,
As for the tyme – it may no bet betide. (709-714)
To engage in sex, even with her husband, threatens a key part of Custance’s being: her holiness. In a move none too dissimilar from contemporary purity propaganda, here we learn that sex is a regrettable yet requisite affront to holiness. Does the man of law think that this change in state has finally moved Custance’s rock-solid character? Hardly. We see on line 713 that it affects the wives’ holiness for just a short time. Sexuality is dirtying, yet sex acts are not liminal in this conception, inasmuch as they do not work irreversible harm to the holiness of Custance. At least, that is what our narrator wants us to believe. However, the “removal” of Custance’s virginity itself, by calling holiness into question at all, functions as an irreversible sullying of that holiness. The pregnancy that results from this sullying is indicative of such an irreversible change. The wedding night is fully a site of liminality, as the change that it describes is irreversible in nature.
When Custance is sent on her second journey, it is hard to miss our narrator’s dogged need to make her flat. Praying with absolute faith to her god, Custance seems unshakeable. However, we see Custance’s “deedly pale face” (822) as she approaches her ship. She is terrified. Terror only makes sense at this juncture if she is approaching an experience that has the potential to rub its liminality off on her. The chance of her own irreversible change strikes Custance with unutterable weight. Specifically, such change takes the form of death.
LIFE AS LIMINAL
In “‘The Friar’s Tale’ as a Liminal Tale,” Morton Bloomfield counters a notion, similar to the argument of this paper itself, that considers every part of life, and indeed, life itself, to be liminal. Using the example of pilgrims returning from Mecca, Bloomfield writes that, “[the pilgrims] may feel refreshed, changed, even different, but the change between home and Mecca and back again is not a true liminal experience. A liminal experience allows of no return; the crossing of
the threshold cannot be reversed” (286-287). Bloomfield’s distinction, although insightful in noting irreversibility, fails to grasp the fact that this does not make it impossible for life itself to exist liminally. Why might this be? In short, death. The closure of life is one of the conditions that contribute to it being liminal. The “Man of Law’s Tale” effectively presents such a condition.
Custance would, we learn, “…hir hadde levere a knyf / Thurghout hir brest, than ben a woman wikke; There is no man koude brynge hire to that prikke” (1027-1029). Our narrator thinks that this intense antipathy for wickedness to be derivative from God, as we see in his aside about biblical heroes (932-945) after Custance beats off her attempted rapist. But against him we might assert that this kind of intensity demonstrates the utter power of the liminal, rather than that of God. Custance recognizes the first, deconstructive phase of liminality, and in connecting her body to it, fights tooth-and-nail to keep from being “wemmed,” or defiled (901). As a person who has already experienced the pain of liminality by sea, Custance will by no means submit to its enaction upon her body, which is her prime asset of “hoolynesse” (709-714). To reify liminality upon Custance’s body is to potentially defile holiness. The vehemence of Custance’s fight against wickedness is thus a fight against the destabilizing influence of liminality.
Praying to Mary before her second painful journey, Custance says, “Sooth is that thurgh wommanes eggement / Mankynde was lorn, and damned ay to dye…” (842-843). By this account (following none other than Paul the Apostle in illogical direction), humanity was thrown into a torturously liminal experience by the instigation of Eve. Moving from innocent birth, like Custance’s poor guiltless child (855), to the other side of death, Custance’s cosmology considers the wretched lot of life to be a painful striving. Such striving is thus a dreadful liminality whose end is only encountered through death. To say, then, that Custance has been unaffected by her
liminal experiences would be to disregard the ways that she perceives all of life. Custance’s liminal boat-rides have taught her lessons that extend to all of her life, shaping her perception of her world, her God, and her very self.
After many tumultuous events, the truth of Donegild’s deception (and thus Alla’s innocence) is revealed to Custance. At this moment her deep sorrow (1065) turns into equally intense joy (1075, 1120). Returning to England (1130), the couple “lyve in joye and in quiete” (1131). However, our narrator makes a surprising turn, intoning that, “[b]ut litel while it lasteth, I yow heete, / Joye of this world, for tyme wol nat abyde; / Fro day to nyght it changeth as the tyde” (1132-1134). Rather than ending with “happily ever after,” we find that Alla dies within a year (1143) and Custance journeys yet again, this time on a final trip to Rome (1148). We are told, finally, that in Rome Custance and her father spend the rest of their years, “[t]il deeth departeth hem, this lyf they lede” (1158). Custance’s death does not function here to repay her for wickedness or award her for holiness. Rather than a set of causes and effects for moral action, Custance’s very flatness demonstrates for the reader how dynamic life is. Although the liminal occurs at Custance’s expense and for Custance’s joy, it does not occur to teach her a lesson or repay her for wrong. The liminal simply happens. We recognize the power of this liminality in the weakness of Custance’s characterization. It is unbelievable that a human could withstand liminality as she does, so any of the falseness in her characterization that we pick up is derivative of her unnatural ability to stave off the liminal. This counterintuitively demonstrates the power inherent to ontological liminality. So too, the essential irreversibility of the liminal will undeniably arrive. Death, then, is the closure of this liminal experience we call life.
PERVASIVE LIMINALITY AS A THREAT TO CIS ONTOLOGY
Everyone’s genders—not just those of transitioning people—are liminal. This state is terrifying to hegemony because it threatens its ability to assert itself into the future. No wonder gender-fixed discourse is violently policed. In light of liminal trans ontology, the narrator in “Man of Law’s Tale” has a manic need to assert constancy. William Quinn notes this narratorial emphasis when he comments on some of the first deterministic lines of the tale (Chaucer 190-196), writing, “[h]owever lucidly the Book of Nature may be written, human perception of its significance remains myopic” (51). Quinn links this incongruity between human perception and divine creation to the narrator’s own lack of constancy (53-54). That is, despite the fanciful, confusing, “overwritten” (Quinn 55) world that Custance occupies, the man of law declares there to be an ultimate meaning to it all. In this intense need to present a constant protagonist and an ultimately constant universe, the man of law unintentionally weakens the possibility of that selfsame universe. Thus, we find the liminality of Custance’s world reflected (or even infected, in the contagion language of holiness) in its narrator.
The man of law exhibits the existential fear of boundary transgression that Lörke notes in “Liminal Semiotics” (31). This is the fear of cis ontology when it encounters trans ontology. Such is not the fear of alterity. Rather, it is the fear of a being who recognizes that the liminal ontology of the other is not so dissimilar from that of the self. Trans liminality unseats Custance’s characterization. Trans liminality unseats human fixity. No longer can our perceptions of a holy humanity assume the fixity of Custance. Rather, we must allow our horizons of being to emerge liminally.
Bloomfield, Morton W. “The ‘Friar’s Tale’ as a Liminal Tale” The Chaucer Review, vol. 17, no.4 1983, pp. 286-291.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Man of Law’s Tale” in The Canterbury Tales. 1400. Edited by Robert Boenig and Andrew Taylor. Broadview Press, 2012, pp. 121-142.
Factor, Rhonda, and Rothblum, Esther. “Exploring gender identity and community among three groups of transgender individuals in the United States: MTFs, FTMs, and genderqueers.” Health Sociology Review, vol. 17, no. 3. 2008, pp. 235-253.
Gerhard, Joseph. “Chaucerian Game-Earnest and the Argument of Herbergage in ‘The Canterbury Tales.’ The Chaucer Review, vol. 5, no. 2. 1970, pp. 83-96.
Horncastle, Julia. Queer Being and The Sexual Interstice: A Phenomenological Approach to the Queer Transformative Self. 2008 Murdoch University. PhD dissertation.
Kristeva, Julia. “The system and the speaking subject.” The Times Literary Supplement. October 12, 1973, 1249-1250. The Times Literary Supplement Historical Archive, http://tinyurl.gale.com/tinyurl/CMiKi9.
Lörke, Melanie. Liminal Semiotics: Boundary Phenomena in Romanticism. De Gruyter Akademie Forschung, 2013.
Quinn, William A. “String Theory and ‘The Man of Law’s Tale’: Where Is Constancy?” Critical Survey, vol. 29, no. 3, 2017, pp. 48–64. Doi:10.3167/cs.2017.290305.
- Taken to include “MTF,” “FTM,” “transgender,” “transsexual,” “transqueer,” “genderqueer,” etc. people in this account. The reader would do well to note that this is not entirely unproblematic, as many people who hold these variegated identities (myself included) do not identify as trans, but for the purposes of its linguistic liminality and the scope of this paper, “trans” will serve my purposes. ↵