Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Adult Pleasures XV: Boundary Setting & Breaking

There are certain things we are taught never to do while in public: pass gas (though it happens frequently; some Wilmington grocery stores seem to elicit this particular olfactory intrusion--this is, truth be told, one of the reasons why I stopped shopping at Acme), pick one's nose (drive and look around: how astonishing that 21st century Americans truly believe they are invisible while driving), have sex or engage in sexualized acts (this is, of course, illegal, but it doesn't stop certain public displays of affection that go beyond, well...), or urinate or defecate (I've visited a few countries that could use a law prohibiting such things, and I did witness a drunken Red Sox fan water the hedge in front of my living room window in Back Bay, Boston).

Boundaries--indicators of limits--are necessary.

There is the ordering function of boundaries.

We need rules of social decorum, else there be disorder and sown seeds of disgust that could morph into hatred (you know, separate water fountains; back seats on the bus; and all that...).

We need to know where to walk in the garden, else we trample on helpless plants (I've seen people traipse through plantings, oblivious to the more subtle boundaries of beds, perhaps thinking that flowers translate into gardens, and spaces sans flowers mean the absence of a garden).

We need to know where the laws of one country reach their physical limits of application, and the laws of another take effect. Maps provide the quintessential expression of the boundary.

But then there is the transgressive function of boundaries: an invitation to flex against them, to push the envelope, to test them. This may not, obviously, be an inherent function of the boundary itself but rather a response we have to the existence of a limit.

I think of the boundaries of physical exertion we feel on the treadmill. Or the interior, psycho-emotional-intellectual limits we feel when faced with the choice of adding yet another work project to our overburdened professional lives. We often do not know our limits until we test them. That makes me think that transgression is an inherent property of borders. Borders are very much psycho-social constructions, and psycho-social constructions are very much predicated on common understandings and, I would add, on silence; borders remain if we do not question.

I happened to begin writing this post yesterday, as the Wilmington snows began to melt under weight of temperate air and light rain. The borders of the garden began to reappear, stark, blackened lines of rock, perfect contrasts to winter white. These borders may be set: yet the garden in its exuberance spills out over those rock walls, wayward roots searching for prime real estate to claim, and foliage masks portions of those walls, softening their effect, producing a harmonious mix of structure and process.

Many gardeners often excise those roots and the sprawling selves of desirous plants; the border is sanctified, and order prevails.

Yet some gardeners, look upon those sprawling selves and the new finds at garden centers and question the position of the boundary itself. The gardener may buy himself a little happy, and be forced to re-situate those rock walls, as has happened since he created the garden at 410.

I was thus pleasantly surprised when I saw a little ditty in The New York Times' "Opinionator" this morning: an article on "the world's most exclusive condominium," Pheasant Island, situated, to use my language, IN the border between France and Spain. It is not "on" the border, nor is it "near" the border; neither is it "at" the border, nor is "it" the border. Rather, the island, off-limits to tourists, is situated in that psycho-social space inside the border.

The island, the author notes, "was a favorite royal meeting place, often serving as a bridal exchange." This may sound inconsequential to modern ears, but in the age of royal politics, marriage was a way to enlarge or cleave one's territorial claims (and hence space of rule). Modern European countries owe their borders to these kinds of exchanges (as well as to wars and conquests and revolutions). And so Pheasant Island, site of marital unions and border amendments, itself became consecrated as a space within a Franco-Spanish border, a shared space, a condominium. It is for six months of the year French (Île de la Conférence), and for six months of the year Spanish.

Along the Mosel River, a condominium arrangement between Germany and Luxembourg (made in 1815) there are spaces that are not alternately one or the other but simultaneously German and Luxembourg. That makes me think of the Four Corners in the southwestern United States, and all of those hokey tourist photos where people splay themselves across the pinpoint to be in four states at once. Go to the bridge at Echternach (Luxembourgish)/Echternacherbrücke (German) and you need not get on all fours and other contortionist poses, for you are simultaneously there and here.

So perhaps in the end transgression is a property and a function of borders.  So long as you are willing to situate yourself within the border, and not on either side, you can see and experience the possibilities of transgression, and with it the sheer impermanence of the boundary.

It just feels so right.

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