The Door, the Threshold, the Between

I wrote on the image of the threshold a few months ago, and I have been wanting ever since to supplement this discussion with a few passages from Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space.  There is much that I would like to explore in these passages, but I will not take the space and the time that I would like.  Even so, this post will be much too long.  I apologize in advance.

In a section on the image of the door, Bachelard says this: “Outside and inside are both intimate spaces; they are always ready to be reversed, to exchange their hostility. If there exists a borderline surface between such an inside and outside, this surface is painful on both sides.”  Though he does not use the word ‘threshold’ explicitly here, his language of the borderline surface between the inside and the outside of the door is clearly linked to this idea, and the connotations of this passage lead me in two directions.

The first and most obvious direction is to the passage that I quoted from Heidegger in my earlier post, or, more exactly, to the passage that I was too lazy to quote in that post but eventually included as a comment at the request of one of my readers.  However, since it is a particularly significant passage for me, and since I will be referring to it very closely here, I will quote it properly this time.

The section comes from an essay called “Language”, which can be found in Poetry, Language, and Thought. In it, Heidegger is discussing a poem by Georg Trakl called “A Winter Evening”, and he is analysing the line where Trakl says, “Pain has turned the threshold to stone.”  The larger passage reads as follows:

“The threshold is the ground-beam that bears the doorway as a whole. It sustains the middle in which the two, the outside and the inside, penetrate each other. The threshold bears the between. What goes out and goes in, in the between, is joined in the between’s dependability. The dependability of the middle must never yield either way. The settling of the between needs something that can endure, and is in this sense hard. The threshold, as the settlement of the between, is hard because pain has petrified it. But the pain that became appropriated to stone did not harden into the threshold to congeal there. The pain presences unflagging in the threshold, as pain.”

The relation between this passage and Bachelard’s is in the pain that they both ascribe to the space between the inside and the outside, though their description of this pain is not identical.  Bachelard says that the pain is on both sides of the borderline surface, a pain that derives from the readiness of the inside and the outside to be reversed, from their readiness to have their hostility exchanged.  His interest is in how the inside and the outside of the doorway relate to one another as exchangeable and reversible intimacies, rather than on the between of their exchange itself.  In fact, he is not even willing to say definitively whether there is such a between.  “If,” he says, “there exists a borderline surface,” and only then, under the sign of this hesitation, does he suggest that such a surface must be “painful on both sides.”

In contrast, Heidegger insists absolutely on this space of the between, saying that its dependability is what in fact enables the outside and the inside to relate as such.  While he is like Bachelard in affirming the interchangeability of the outside and the inside, which he describes as penetrating each other, and while he is also like Bachelard in assuming the pain that this interpenetration produces, he does not share Bachelard’s hesitation to name the between of this relation precisely as the between.

Bachelard’s understanding of the between also differs from Heideggers’ in that it seems to be produced by the reversal of the inside and the outside, by the exchange of their hostilities, where Heidegger seems to say that the between precedes the relation of the inside and the outside.  His between is characterized by its dependability, by its injunction not yield in either direction, in its capacity to settle into the threshold.  This between, far from being provisional or dependant on the relation between the inside and the outside, is the dependable space that makes this relation possible.

In fact, in Heidegger’s terms, Bachelard is not describing the threshold at all, but the between which is sustained by the threshold and which settles into the threshold, because it requires the hardness and endurance that it provides.  In Heidegger’s terms, Bachelard has no threshold, only a between, which perhaps explains why Bachelard’s between remains so tentative, marked only by the pain that it suffers on both sides, because his between lacks the ground of a threshold to bear and support it.

The second direction that Bachelard’s passage leads me is to Jacques Derrida and his work on the relation between hostility and hospitality.  Derrida argues that these two things are inseparable, going so far as to join them together with the neologism ‘hostipitality’.  Derrida touches on this idea in several places, including an essay called “Hostipitality” that can be found in Acts of Religion, a chapter on absolute hospitality in The Politics of Friendship, and a short work called On Hospitality.

It is Bachelard’s phrase about the inside and the outside being always ready to exchange their hostility that reminds me of Derrida’s idea of hostipitality.  There is in his words the idea of an openness of the one to the absolutely other, of the inside to the outside, of the outside to the inside, a readiness to be reversed, to be interpenetrated, even though this exchange, this giving of the one to the other, this openness of the one to the other, this hospitality, is also, always, a hostility.  The inside and outside are ready to exchange their unavoidable hostility like the gift of hospitality, there, right there, at the door, on the threshold, in the between.

It is because of these Derridean overtones that I find Bachelard’s words to evocative, I think:  “They are always ready to be reversed, to exchange their hostility.”  The possibility of a true hospitality finds profound expression here.

There is much more that I would like to say, but I have already written more than enough, so I will just include two further quotations from Bachelard.  Treat them as an envoi.

“How many daydreams we should have to analyze under the simple heading of doors, for the door is an entire cosmos of the half-open. In fact, it is one of its primal images, the very origin of a daydream that accumulates desires and temptations: the temptation to open up the ultimate depths of being, and the desire to conquer all reticent beings. The door schematizes two strong possibilities, which sharply classify two types of daydream. At times, it is closed, bolted, padlocked. At others, it is open, that is to say, wide open.”

“There are two beings in a door; a door awakens in us a two-way dream, that is doubly symbolical.”

  1. Just back from the cottage, and I looked to see what you’d been up to. This is why I read your blog. I read it because in it I read my own reading, and therefore get closer to myself.

    I’ll have much to say in a bit about “What is Called Thinking?” but let me say something about Part I Lecture X, and how it relates to what you write here.

    I think a key point to understanding Heidegger’s insistence on the in between, on the threshold, is what he says about Time:

    “Only the ‘now’ is of the present time at each given moment. The future is the ‘not yet now’; the past is ‘the no longer now.’ The future is what is still absent, the past what is already absent. In being, present in time at the given moment is only that narrow ridge of the momentary fugitive ‘now,’ rising out of the ‘not yet now’ and falling away into the ‘no longer now’…each ‘now’ is in its present being by virtue of its passing.”

    I was struck how ‘now’ is also made of stone, is a “ridge.” I hear in this an echo of your threshold, but interestingly, in its ability to move in two directions, in its inclusion of a choice, of a reversal, the threshold disrupts. The pain of the threshold is the violence done by the constant reversal of direction, in contrast to the flow of Time. His discussion earlier and later of the bridge (e.g., man -> bridge -> superman) is another kind of threshold, but that’s a larger discussion we should have.

    Reading this, I’m also thinking that you should give serious thought to writing something larger about the threshold as such. With all of the “Doors Open” events around, I think there are people who would value some insight into what the door means, and what it is. I know I would.

  2. Dave,

    I am not sure where to begin responding to this, so I will leave most of it until we next have a chance to talk. I will say, though, that I have had more than one person suggest that I need to do something longer on the threshold. At this point, I am still pondering what this would look like, as I have been pondering for some time, but I think it will likely be made up of short reflections and lengthy quotations, rather than a traditional work of philosophy.

  3. I wonder if your approach in this post is the one you should consider in general for your writing of such a work, namely, approaching the threshold and the door from both sides at once, playing one side off the other just as hospitality and hostility hang on the same frame, but never meet. You would do well to bring us closer to the door, whether or not you ever took us through it.

  4. Dave,

    You may be right. I find, when I come to the threshold that there is little that I can say. It is only when I come to what others have said about the threshold,only when I allow them to speak to each other, that there is something to be said.

  5. Mum said:

    Recently, I’ve been re-learning a song (playing and singing)that has long been a fascination with me…it’s an old one by Amy Grant called “The Now and the Not Yet”.

    …no longer what we were before, but not yet what we will be…I’m caught in between the now and the not yet…

    As I work with this song I have trouble deciding if the now is on the interior side of the threshold and the not yet is the exterior side…whether my journey toward perfection is a coming in or a going out…is it a one way/one time purposeful stride through the threshold or a cyclical meandering back and forth between the solitudes so that the threshold becomes less like the security structure at the airport and more like an arbour in my garden.

  6. a reader said:

    Stumbled across this recently while working through some ideas about the potentiality of thresholds and wanted to thank you for tying the Heidegger in to the Bachelard. I’d be interested to read any further work you’ve done on these ideas, though I see it’s been a while.

  7. Thanks for this. I came across it via a Google search for “threshold + Bachelard.” In architecture school, we read and were much influenced by both Bachelard and Heidegger, so I was delighted to see you working w/ both of them in this essay. I also appreciate the introduction to Derrida’s concept of hostility and hospitality — very interesting. Threshold is such a powerful image, throughout human history. I’m also fascinated by the fact that the etymology of the word isn’t entirely clear, as though it is too powerful and magical to be pinned down with easy lineage. (check out this Oxford Univ Press blog post: ) Threshold is the main image I use to think about this time we live in, between cultural stories. The threshold makes room for the both/and of conflicting stories. (my blog is called Thriving on the Threshold: )
    So happy to find your blog! Thanks again.

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