August 2022

The Secret to Superhuman Strength

Michael Bettencourt | Scene4 Magazine

Michael Bettencourt

I haven't read many graphic works done specifically as graphic works. I didn't read comics as a kid (or at least I don't remember buying and reading them—perhaps shared them with friends? though I don't have a memory of that, either).

But I read a review of The Secret to Superhuman Strength by Alison Bechdel in the NYRB by Sarah Blackwood (July 21, 2022, issue) that interested me enough to go to the local library (online version) and download the book to my Kindle phone app (I was surprised it was available). In the course of a day, I read the piece (about 220 pages, but, of course, mostly pictures!).

We are roughly age-contemporaries (she, 1960; me, 1953), and the parts of the book that touch upon the achy journey of bodily aging resonate: we have commiserable challenges in that regard. Her renditions of (over) exercising gave me the good laugh that comes from self-recognition, but she is also sharp about the ego-erasing salve of hard exercise and why a person would apply that to the self (in short, to shut down the goddamn chattering in the brain and the brain-adjacent ricochet rooms of social media—to give whatever is the self [what is the self?] a respite from its own incessant and spastic and wasteful nattering on).

The momentary annulment of anxiety produced by a hard run is what this book is about, elevated to the metaphysical—a maundering and divagating about meaning and purpose as she finds herself in the middle of Dante's road. I understand her urges in this space—is the answer in zen/yoga, exercise endorphins, substances and their abuse, nature, exhausting labor, companionship? She tries to tie together as a single search for life-meaning an exposition about 19th-century romantics (the Wordsworths, Coleridge) and transcendentalists (Emerson, Fuller), her father's suicide because he was a closeted gay man and her mother issues around gender (all of which impact her own relationships), nirvana/samsara, and the perhaps unique modern torture of trying to find self-fulfillment in a capitalist regime.

All this is, of course, a mosh pit and a mess generated in part by the word games with which we tease ourselves about ultimate questions (zen is notorious for this, believing that its koans and paradoxes and contradictions burn off the undergrowth of logic and clear the field for ripening insights when, in fact, they are just willful confusions so that older people can lord it over the neophytes). I've long since abandoned this questing/questioning because it interferes with actually living one's life with all available fullness.

(These word plays are also based on the false assumption that the words map on to reality, that they echo and broadcast some already-existing content that the words uncover and reveal, when the truth is that the words are their own world, mapped on to nothing but the urges of the speakers and the need for communal illusion.)

Who cares if life has an ultimate meaning or is extruded from a divinity or (equally nonsensical) is an outgrowth of a sentient energy permeating the universe? Even if the assertion basic to all these is true—there is something, an energy or a being, that can be tagged as the reason why there is something rather than nothing and answers the question of life, the universe and everything—it doesn't solve inflation at the gas pump, doesn't feed the hungry, doesn't explain why we have so many fucking streaming services, and so on.

As the philosophers in The Hitchhiker's Guide found out when Deep Thought gave them the answer of "42," the answer depends on the question. But I'd go one step more—why have a question at all? It is pretty clear that we are born, we live, and we die and that is it, and in that time frame, it is as imperative as possible to love well, eat and drink well, pay close attention to everything, take nourishment from the absurd humor of the universe, and die peacefully in bed. We damage ourselves if we think that such a mundane life-arc as this betrays something noble about human nature, devalues that vaunted human urge for creativity and discovery and blah blah blah ("we are destined to live among the stars")—that somehow our overreaching and the inflicting of suffering is a sign of our dark greatness as a species.

Yet, as is true, as Bechdel's struggles demonstrate, we are also very much a species that devises intricate afflictions that tie our lives into knots and then spends vast energies slicing through those knots to land in an undone place of peace—until boredom settles in and the self-suffering begins again. The zen folks are correct in that we generate endless cycles of suffering for ourselves and others—but no amount of sitting and mantra-mouthing is going to change that.

Bechdel handles how she cycles through her cycles with a good deal of wit and self-deprecation, though at times I felt there were one or two cycles more than needed—the book could use some tightening. But Bechdel occupies a cultural and artistic space where her all-too-human explorations of family, friends and gender satisfy a low-level constant yearning in her audiences for relatability and friendliness. Her messiness is like the messiness of all of us—I see myself in her, I see her in myself, and we share vulnerabilities. No wonder her previous work, Fun Home, got the musical theatre treatment it did because she has a good ability to create an intimacy with people she doesn't know and who don't know her but who, for the moment, have agreed to act on a time-limited basis as if they are close and trusting and understanding and accepting.

If the human species does have one special gift, it is in creating fictions like this that can behave like actual worlds that, for the moment, calm the anxious waters and repeal our isolations.


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Michael Bettencourt is an essayist and a playwright.
He writes a monthly column and is
a Senior Writer and columnist for Scene4.
Continued thanks to his "prime mate"
and wife, María-Beatriz.
For more of his columns, articles, and media,
check the Archives.

©2022 Michael Bettencourt
©2022 Publication Scene4 Magazine



and creates



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