This article was published online on May 3, 2021.
Death comes, and the soul, dragged blinking from its nest of nerves, perceives its dimensions for the first time. It swoops; it stretches; it delights; it trails its wing tips in a dazzling, boundless sea. And all the dichotomies, all the infernal dualities—mind/body, I/you, subject/object, wanting/getting—are finally, finally resolved.
But what if there were something we could do about them while we’re alive? What if through, say, very determined bicycling, or running up mountains, or doing push-ups on our knuckles, we could override ourselves? Forget ourselves, and so transcend these binaries that bedevil us?
This is the theme, or one of them, of Alison Bechdel’s rather astonishing new graphic memoir. The Secret to Superhuman Strength is an account of Bechdel’s lifelong pursuit of nondual bliss through vigorous-to-the-point-of-violent physical activity: the dharma of working out, you might call it.
The big questions have always preoccupied Bechdel, the memoirist of Fun Home fame. In one of my favorite sequences in the book, she is in the bathroom, age 9 or so, sitting on the lid-down toilet, clipping her toenails and staring at her cat. She is wondering whether her cat has a soul. “He was definitely conscious,” runs the text. “But perhaps not conscious of himself as a self, as I was.” The cat stares back at her with his small, humorless cat face. Bechdel stands up and looks at herself in the bathroom mirror. “I deduced that the soul must therefore consist in this self-consciousness. How I envied the cat. God knew, no one was more self-conscious than I was.” The cat leaves.