The Secret to Superhuman Strength
By Alison Bechdel
Oh great. Alison Bechdel has turned into a boring liberal. Hooray.
I think I should be clear from the very start that this is basically going to be a big long rant about how much I preferred her earlier work (mostly Dykes to Watch Out For) for all sorts of multifaceted reasons. In fact mostly because it was multifaceted. A long running soap opera drama that felt like something Dickens would write if he was still alive and knew how to draw. I mean if fiction is good for one thing (and please understand if nothing else that fiction is useful for a whole host of splendid things) then high up the list is definitely the way in which it shows you a – dare I say it? – diversity of different experiences and ways of being. Yep – that’s right. Maybe there’s more ways to see the world than just the way in which you see it. (Shock. Horror).
Of course then came Fun Home and Bechdel succumbed to the worst fate possible for an artist – she became respectable (Shocked Gasp! Oh no!) and instead of turning outwards and taking in different perspectives she instead became enamoured with her own and thus gave birth to what can only be described as The Bechdel Literary Universe.
Fun Home was the book about her Dad. Are You My Mother? was the book about her… well… Mother. And now like a plane flying in ever decreasing circles comes The Secret to Superhuman Success. The book about herself.
And yeah – what can I say? I hate it.
There’s an idea that says that ideology is aesthetics and aesthetics is ideology. What then should we make of a movement that believes that the best way to bring about social change is by gazing ever more attently into our navels?
I think page 15 is where she lost me. Page 14 makes reference to “the demise of our ecosystem” (which I can’t help but think is maybe a little bit much coming from a 200+ page hardback comic book?) but then she immediately lampshades it by saying “Given the extremity of our situation you might will ask what use another book about fitness by a white lady could possibly be.” To which I can only say – well yes Alison now you’ve got me thinking precisely that.
Her response is as follows: “”Well I’m not just writing about fitness. I’m writing about how the pursuit of fitness has been a vehicle for me to something else… The feeling of my mind and body becoming one.”
And I’ve gotta say: that’s a very interesting choice of words right? She’s not just writing about fitness – she’s actually erm: writing about herself? It’s her mind and body becoming one after all. She’s not interested in the general abstract concept. Just in her own experience of it. To which I can only think: well – why should I care? And how does this help with the demise of our ecosystem exactly?
And it gets even worse.
Right after that she asks the reader: “But what is the mind? What is the body? What is this self that they somehow constitute?!” And hey you know what? Those are very good questions. And exactly the kind of thing that a work of fiction would be perfect in exploring. You know – showing us those different perspectives and ideas I mentioned up above. But then the next part made me groan in like several different ways.
“These questions demand rigorous phenomenological, neuroscientific and quantum-mechanical investigation.”
Erm. What? Like the questions are literally philosophical questions. I don’t think neuroscience or quantum mechanics has very much to teach us about how our concepts work. But then – isn’t that like the main problem with our modern world? People seem to think that scientists hold all the answers to things when actually the only thing they’re really good at is collecting data (and whoops – it’s actually pretty difficult to get scientific about human beings mainly because science is about replicating your results and every human being is a beautiful and unique snowflake so you know – it’s difficult to replicate your results etc).
And then she hits us with this:
“And I majored in art. All I can do is offer up my own anecdotal evidence.”
I mean… fucking sigh.
As I hope that I’ve made clear I actually think that using art / fiction to make sense of heady philosophical questions is exactly what art is all about and why it’s such a beautiful and precious thing. But – and I think this is my big sticking point with like the entire Guardian Graphic Novel Industry – there’s really not that much you can learn from somehow just telling you a whole bunch of anecdotes about their lives. And you know there is the bigger question posed by Bechdel herself when she says “what use is this book?”
Because yeah – I don’t think it’s very useful at all.
In fact it’s main use to me is holding it up as an exemplar of Liberal thinking. Bechdel making sure to mention that she’s a white woman so everyone knows what her politics are. Lots of facts about things sew together so that people feel like they’re learning something as they read (From one page picked at random: “The confluence of Beech and Bald Eagle Creeks had been some sort of sacred site.” “Where does the Beech Creek go?” “Into Bald Eagle Creek, then the Susquehanna River, then the Chesapeake Bay, then the Ocean.” “In April 1970, the First Earth Day was held” “…and ecology means the relationship between humans and the environment. It comes from the Greek word for home.”) I mean yes well done – it’s obvious she spent a lot of time on Wikipedia but as these facts kept hitting me in the head one after another like a series of mallets I couldn’t help but think – and what is the point of all this exactly?
I don’t want to sound too strong (whoops – bit too late for that maybe) but this all just strikes me as the consequence of an imaginative landscape that has been completely hollowed out and replaced with a mechanism that only really permits the space for people to tell stories about their own experiences interwoven with a few historical stories about prominent well off figures. And god it’s dull. It’s like trying to eat wood shavings. And everyone thinks it’s deep and insightful but erm yeah – I’m of the opinion that looking into a single human soul can only tell you so much. And that if you want real insight then you need to leave the confines of your own head and write something that encompasses more things than just yourself.
I got up to about 100 pages before I gave up. Maybe it gets better after that? I don’t know. I guess I’m not that strong.
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