The Secret to Superhuman Strength: Alison Bechdel’s Illustrated Meditation on the Life of the Body, the Death of the Self, and Our Search for Meaning
By Maria Popova
“Behold, the body includes and is the meaning, the main concern, and includes and is the soul,” Walt Whitman wrote as the Golden Age of Exploration was setting, psychology was beginning to dawn, and the parallel conquests of nature and of human nature were about to converge into their present chaos of humility and hubris. With all the world’s continents “discovered,” with most of the world’s major rivers and mountains measured and mapped, humans began to turn inward, slowly and grudgingly realizing that wherever we go, we take ourselves with us — our selves, those living bodies containing the cosmoses of feeling we call soul.
Since long before we had neuroscience to tell us that our feelings begin in our bodies and shape our consciousness, we humans have been unconsciously using our bodies to control our feelings. And despite our changing ideologies devised to distract from our greatest terror — be they the ancient religious mythologies of immortality or their misshapen rebirth in the modern mythos of productivity — our lives are unconsciously shaped by the fearsome fact of our finitude. Coursing through every moment of being is the awareness, masked and blunted though it may be, that one day we will have been. We cope with it by clinging to the self, building its exoskeleton of achievements and possessions, only to find our inner lives enfeebled by it; only to watch helplessly as the entropic spectacle that governs the universe — the universe of which we are a small and fleeting part — drags our bodies across the stage of the cosmic drama toward oblivion.
And yet, somehow, in the swirl of it all, we go on living. If we are lucky enough, if we are alive enough, we go on making art, making meaning, making an effort to “leave something of sweetness and substance in the mouth of the world.”
We spend our lives trying to discern how to do that and what it all means, trying to illuminate the grand landscape of being with the scattered diffraction of our doings. That touchingly human impulse is what the unclassifiable virtuoso of meaning Alison Bechdel explores in The Secret to Superhuman Strength (public library) — an uncommon beam of illumination, aimed at the depths of existence through the lens of the personal, that one and only lens we ever have on the universe.
As Bechdel chronicles her quest to conquer the existential Everest through the conquest of her own body and, eventually, the mind she reluctantly concedes is attached to it, what emerges from the personal history is a history of the world and a history of the creative spirit.
But as we meet the Romantics and the radicals, the feminists and the fitness fanatics, the Transcendentalists of the early 1800s and the transcendental meditators of the late 1900s, what also emerges is the slow-dawning revelation that the summit of superhuman strength is as mythic as Olympus.
In the end, the measure of our strength is in how we face the fact that we are simply human — mortal, vulnerable creatures of uncommon creativity and courage, body-minds born to die and to make meaning of our fragile existence not by clinging to the self but by practicing our various arts of unselfing: love, creative work, transcendent communion with the rest of nature.
Peel it back far enough and beneath every obsession, every compulsion, every peculiarity of being, every creative act and every destructive act, there is the kernel of some universal human struggle or longing — usually for love or for control, the twin faces of the elemental human heartache: we are born to die, and in the meantime life is one great uncertainty throughout which we are fundamentally alone, no matter the people and possessions we surround ourselves with.
How these universals manifest, however, is to a large extent a product of the time and place into which chance has deposited us.
Like Emily Dickinson — whose childhood bedroom overlooked the local cemetery, a bodily proximity that endowed her with uncommon lifelong sagacity about mortality — Bechdel grows up exposed to death at the family funeral home, a mile from the Pennsylvanian farm where her father was born.
Meanwhile, there is the living body.
Bechdel comes of age in an era when girls don’t play sports, title IX does not yet exist, and jogging is yet to be invented.
So what does she do?
She startles the neighbors by running without chasing anyone or being chased, watches Rocky and immediately fills a laundry bag with pennies and marbles to add to her training. She grows fascinated with the bodybuilding ads in her comic books, not realizing they were aimed not at girls but at men-in-the-making. (Here, the bygone practice of body-image marketing to children, whatever their gender or age, blanches with that pleasant horror of progress-recognition.)
And then, one day, in the back of a magazine, she discovers an advertisement for a mail-order jiu-jitsu pamphlet titled The Secret to Super Human Strength. (“If only I had known I already had it,” her adult self looks back with the rueful clarity of hindsight as she draws her child-self drawing in a dark closet for hours on end, “this blissful absorption in my own creativity.”)
Secretly, she orders the pamphlet. It arrives, failing to deliver on its promise.
So begins her obsession with dominating the mind by dominating the body, which would follow her throughout her life in various guises — running, karate, yoga, cycling, skiing — always ambivalent and self-conscious, until it finally resolves into a glimpse of the larger truth beneath the mechanics of illusory perfectibility: that we exert ourselves so violently on keeping the package of the body intact in order to keep it from spilling its immaterial contents — the soul, the self — into oblivion. It is all one great escapist fantasy for the fearsome fact of our mortality, FitBits and all. But if we accept that we do die, if we see clearly how the self is a fine mist of illusion, already and always pre-dissolved, then we become not superhuman but more fully human, stronger and more alive.
Like all good biography — which tells the story of an epoch through the story of a single life lived within it — Bechdel’s autobiography graphs the development of the ideas and ideologies that shaped the cultural landscape of our time, rising from the tectonic strata of prior epochs, volcanic with the same cyclical confusions and longings that make us human.
She draws the through-line of cultural heritage from Emerson’s ethic of rugged individualism to the first Soloflex home gym, from Wordsworth’s “Intimations of Immortality” to Adrienne Rich’s “Transcendental Etude,” from Jane Fonda to Peloton, from the Buddha to the Beats.
We all live with these threads of connection — often so subtle and elusive, so frayed by the selective collective memory we mistake for objective history, that we might miss them. And yet they are there, netting our very lives.
But there is something else, something subtler, about the allure of our historical heroes. We are drawn them partly because their foreclosed lives, by virtue of having been lived, are free from the uncertainty that bedevils our own; and partly because there is comfort in the knowledge that even people of staggering genius and immense public contribution were dogged by inner contradictions and private suffering not unlike our own.
In her encounters with the poets and philosophers of ages past, Bechdel finds consolation not only in their art and their ideas but in the tribulations and confusions — despite which those legacies of truth and beauty came to make life more livable for generations, and without which they might never have come into being.
She folds the fabric of time into an origami finger-game, far regions suddenly touching: We see Coleridge discharged from the army on grounds of insanity and Kerouac discharged from the navy for “indifferent character” — an eternal testament to how, if the work of war has an opposite, it is the work of art. We learn that Steward Brandt’s Whole Earth Catalogue, which was inspired by NASA’s epoch-making Earthrise photograph and in turn inspired the environmental movement of the 1970s, was heavily influenced by Buckminster Fuller, who was in turn inspired by the ideas of his great-aunt: Transcendentalist queen Margaret Fuller — the supra-friend Emerson considered his greatest influence.
In Margaret Fuller’s transcendent experience of the 1830s, Bechdel finds a parallel to the out-of-body transcendence she experiences when she discovers running as an adolescent, and then again when she discovers psilocybin as a young adult.
“The boundary of my very self seemed to dissolve as I merged with the humid evening air,” she writes of her first runner’s high. “Had I found it? The secret to superhuman strength?”
She goes on searching, oblivious to the emotional atmosphere at home — or searching because she is, as children always are on the deepest level, not oblivious; because she needs an escape from what she can neither face nor avoid.
She escapes into the universe of L.L. Bean catalogues — “a hardy, unisex dimension where the air smelled of woodsmoke and impending snow, a dimension called ‘New England'” — supplanted over the course of her lifetime by the (honorably earned, I would add) cultural reverence for Patagonia.
We see her mother — who had threatened the androgynous child with being made to wear a badge that says “I’m a girl” — at a Janis Joplin concert, thrilled and terrified by the world of empowered possibility on the other side of the decibels, echoing the world Margaret Fuller had envisioned century-some earlier but had never lived to see.
Looking back on her early experience of learning to ski, with its rite-of-passage agony of balance and self-doubt that is the Poma lift and its bruise-earned learning of “the sweet spot between hanging on and letting go,” Bechdel discovers in it a living embodiment of Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind — the 1970 classic that permeated the American counterculture, inspiring Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg and their entire generation of artists, writers, and musicians.
At seventeen, while practicing her newfound passion for cross-country skiing in the winter of “the big freeze” — the year global temperatures fell below the twentieth-century average for the last time — she watches an ice dam break thunderously and finds herself swelling with an Emersonian exaltation in the might and mystery of nature. “For a swooning moment I could see that I was not the center of the universe,” she writes. “And that I was a part of it.” (A further testament to how devoid of absolute meaning human reality is, how much meaning is a nuanced function of time and place and culture: As Bechdel makes self-conscious remarks about what skiing symbolizes within the class system of America, I look back on my own childhood at the foot of a mountain in communist Bulgaria, in a society both classless and crushed. Skiing was just something everyone did, as soon as we could walk. Unlike poetry and the arts, it was one of a handful of truly joyful activities unpoliced by the government, unoppressed by political agendas, perhaps the closest we came to freedom — a kind of subversive freedom of the mind through freedom of the body amid the indomitable grandeur of nature and its supra-human forces.)
Somewhere between the enchantment of her newfound athletic passion and the growing disenchantment with her ill-fitting hometown, Bechdel decides to skip her last year of high school and head straight to college — in New England.
That year, Adrienne Rich publishes The Dream of a Common Language — the book that gave a language of love to so many, the poet’s first book since her coming out after the collapse of her marriage and her husband’s suicide, the book in which she so boldly observed that “no one’s fated or doomed to love anyone… the accidents happen.” The book would become a kind of poetic soundtrack to Bechdel’s own life as she navigates the confusions and elations of coming out and finding love — that is, finding her place in the human universe.
But not before she finds herself mortified and doubt-riven, again and again.
On her first day of college in late summer, she takes part in an obstacle course in the woods. Unable to hoist herself over a twelve-foot wall despite her budding athleticism, she makes it her Emersonian quest to conquer it. When she finally does a season later, “a flock of geese and the first stars coming out seemed to applaud” — a touching reminder of the small, absurd things on which we humans stake our self-regard, the banal achievements we mistake for existential triumphs, the banal inadequacies we mistake for existential failure, the way we feel the entire impartial universe is invested in our fate, mocking us or applauding us.
But meanwhile, Bechdel is slowly hoisting herself over a far more limiting wall. As she struggles with coming out, we see her standing in the library reading Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness — the 1928 novel that laid the foundation of what we have the hard-earned luxury of calling LGBT rights, earned in no small measure by Hall’s countercultural courage, which put her on the brink of a jail sentence spared largely thanks to some ardent sentences of solidarity from Virginia Woolf.
Just as Bechdel comes to terms with the nature of her own heart, her father’s breaks, and breaks hers in turn.
In our era of trauma-trumpeting as a currency of identity and a magnet for attention, it is deeply admirable that Bechdel chooses to address with the lightest touch the heaviest of experiences — belaboring nothing yet belittling nothing, thus honoring both the integrity of her experience and the intelligence of her reader.
At this point in the story, it comes as no surprise that she copes with her grief the way her family had always coped with life’s most disquieting realities — by turning away from them altogether.
A month after her father’s funeral, and a month before her twentieth birthday, she and her new girlfriend — Joan — head to a “mind-bending utopian experiment, an insurgency of women engaged in nothing less than dismantling [the] patriarchy,” disguised as a music festival. There, another set of self-protective blinders lifts and she sees clearly for the first time, in its absence, the glaring reality of her daily life in the body she had drawn from the chromosomal roulette. “I could see what it meant to be a subject and not an object,” she recalls of that gobsmacking first experience of a large gathering free from “the toll taken by being constantly whistled at, taunted and groped… to say nothing of more dire yet no less pervasive threats.” (To the youngfolk reading this with an air of c’mon-it-couldn’t-have-been-that-dire disbelief, I am grateful for your disbelief. Your disbelief is Bechdel’s generation’s gift to you and to all of us in between.)
Bechdel graduates — in a man’s suit, a choice so uncommon then that it befuddles the official photographer; Bechdel receives a graduation photo not of herself but of the feminine-clad woman behind her in the line. When grad school eludes her, she moves to New York City with her new girlfriend, into the girlfriend’s mother’s apartment. There, she is spun into the eternal paradox of the lonely city — instead of being liberated from selfing amid the bustling multitude of selves, she finds herself “even more acutely self-conscious than usual.”
But one day in Central Park, the loneliness dissolves into its opposite — a profound belonging, an all-pervading oneness with everything and everyone — as Bechdel follows in Margaret Fuller’s transcendent footsteps, assisted by 150 years of hard-earned freedoms and an ancient fungus readily available in this first Golden Age of Western psychedelics.
True to the first of William James’s four characteristics of transcendent experiences, she finds the “quiet ecstasy” of it utterly inexpressible in language.
This intoxication of transcending the material body is a miniature of the most intoxicating illusion, that of transcending the ultimate limit of our materiality — our mortality. (At the selfsame age — the standard pinnacle of that youthful sense of invincibility — I was squatting 300 pounds in my bodybuilding training, high on the same unconscious illusion.)
But if the veil of illusion is lifted at all — by meditation or mushrooms or a marathoner’s high — it lifts only temporarily, then descends again, leaving us to half-consciously make sense of ourselves — our selves — through objects of selfing even in our unselfing endeavors: the outdoor brands that promise us better communion with nature, the carbonated water brand that consecrates a party with a particular air of erudite sobriety.
Strewing the book are Bechdel’s subtle, subversive winks and winces at the various evolutions and devolutions of our human tragicomedy.
As Bechdel goes on searching for the secret of superhuman strength, she takes up karate, overtrains herself into bodily agony to earn a black belt, quits her menial office job, starts working part-time at a gay newspaper and working feverishly on her cartoons, overworks herself into the mental agony of depression, starts drinking, starts therapy, slowly recovers, turns to yoga, practices “turning discomfort into an object of interest,” returns to the music festival, buys a Patagonia pullover. Yet, all along, she remains meta-aware that all these efforts at super-strengthen are the agony — the agony of the self.
In her desperation, she even wades into the modern medievalism of New Age affirmations and astrologically inspired chiropractors. Once again, she finds an assuring mirror in Margaret Fuller, who even with her fierce intellect and rational skepticism sought help from a mesmerist when the chronic headaches from her congenitally deformed upper spine became unbearable. (Perhaps even more famously, even Darwin subverted his skepticism and knowingly turned to a pseudoscience in desperate hopes of saving his most beloved child.)
Still, as she sweats and suffers, in body and in mind, Bechdel goes on making art. (This might be the very definition of an artist, as Rosanne Cash intimated in her stunning reflection on and reading of Adrienne Rich’s tribute to Marie Curie.) But a haunting theme emerges from her life in the course of living — an inverse correlation between public and private triumph, between art and love.
Brokenhearted when her partner leaves her the day her third book is published, Bechdel takes a vow a celibacy a century and a half after Margaret Fuller leaned on herself as her own “priest, pupil, parent, child, husband, and wife.”
She learns the dharma of Zen during a long cycling trip with a Buddhist bicyclist friend, who had previously attempted to become her lover but failed to break Bechdel’s vow of celibacy. As we see Bechdel huff and puff up impossible hills, reading by flashlight about Jack Kerouac climbing mountains and maybe falling a little bit in love with Gary Snyder, we are left to ponder the abiding human difficulty of telling whether we are running away from or running toward something important.
A new readiness comes slowly online with an emotional screech as the first modems are bringing the world online, and Bechdel along with it. On her second computer, in the dawning days of AOL, she beings composing, at long and shaky last, the unwritten book about her father that has been writing itself quietly in on mountain trails and meditation mats, on bicycle seats and therapist couches.
It becomes, of course, her way of feeling her grief for the first time. And it is, of course, rife with the many side-trails by which we try to escape grief before fully facing it — insomnia and migraines, brandy and sleeping pills, wayward attractions. Bechdel muscles her way through, mastering pull-ups and refusing “to have some banal midlife crisis affair.” She gets swept up in the craze for spinning while giving Buddhist practice another try. When the group setting becomes unbearable, she gives up on both, retreating further and further into artistic and athletic solitude, finding reassurance once again in her Transcendentalist creative kin.
In an effort to steady both her sanity and her teetering relationship, she heads to Maine with her partner for vacation, but takes her computer along. (“I didn’t really approve of vacations,” she writes in yet another sentiment I read with a wince of self-recognition. “They were for people who hated their jobs. I loved my work!”) But while there, they receive news that her partner’s father is dying. They begin heading back. On Bechdel’s birthday, he dies. The next morning, as they are making their way to the funeral, the twin towers and the illusion of world order collapse.
Amid the maelstrom of grief and confusion, Bechdel continues the sensemaking endeavor that is, for each of us, our art. As she interpolates between the book about her father’s suicide and the inescapable terror-stream of the news, the outer world and the inner world begin to merge — figuring out what is happening in the world and figuring out what happened in the portable universe of her family begin feeling more and more like a single anxious blur.
The already agonizing effort to transcend the self turns tortuous in a world fractured into otherness, and tortuous in a new way when the book about her father becomes a triumphal success but artistic achievement gets her no closer to the secret of superhuman strength than her black belt had — in fact, it drives her deeper into the pitfall of the self.
As the decades of her life and the decades of our epoch unspool, as losses accrue — relationships end, physical abilities wither, her mother dies — Bechdel partakes of each era’s collective fitness obsessions, each time colliding with the eternal, the elemental, and the existential that we try to exorcise with exercise.
Slowly, she realizes that she has been living her life by a cruel personal cosmogony — a flatland with only two dimensions: perfection and worthlessness.
The Secret to Superhuman Strength goes on to trace the path by which Bechdel finds an entire universe of nuanced possibility and larger truth folded between these flat and punishing dimensions. “There are apparently no shortcuts on the path”, she writes. Along the long and winding path — and not atop some mythic Olympian peak — she also finds the love of her life as she locates her own love of life, finite and uncertain as it is.
Such love is possible only when we meet life on its own terms, bowing before every aspect of reality, including our mortality. The magnitude of our assent to reality is the ultimate measure of our human strength, the pinnacle of which Margaret Fuller attained in her fabled declaration of the ultimate humility: “I accept the Universe.”
Published January 1, 2022