Fort Collins, Colorado, was the first place I heard the term “outdoor culture”. It was, indeed, a beautiful location at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, with hiking, biking, and freshwater trails within easy reach of downtown. The “outdoor culture” did not describe the physical landscape itself, but rather the expensive and exclusive world of high-end camping gear, mountain bike shops and high-stakes hiking expeditions that attracted tourists and transplants in the small western town.
Part literary history, part spiritual journey, part exercise memory, Alison Bechdel’s 2021 graphic novel The secret of superhuman strength explores and historicizes the various metaphysical questions that the sponsors of “outdoor culture” – the romantics, the transcendentals and the beatniks – have projected onto the American landscape, alongside his own.
Periodizing his life into decades (as we are encouraged to recount our time on Earth), Bechdel takes us through the ups and downs of 50 years of fitness craze, from skiing and yoga to karate and cycling. . We follow her through forays into meditation, acupuncture, hallucinogenic mushrooms and her fixation on realizing the elusive and blissful feeling of oneness of body and mind.
The chorus of the book – That was it ? The secret of superhuman strength? – lays bare the allure of transcending materialism and mortality through both spirituality and physical form. Rather than reinforcing the individualistic tropes of “superhuman strength” and material transcendence promised by physical form and spiritual fashions, Bechdel argues for interdependence with other humans as true strength. This theory is forged on over 200 pages of beautifully illustrated American landscapes, from Appalachia to New England to Minneapolis and northern California.
One of the main strengths of the book is its vulnerability to existential questions. Raised Catholic, Bechdel guides us through her encounters with transcendentalist writings and the Beat Generation, both deeply influenced by Hinduism and Buddhism. In doing so, we bear witness, with striking visuals, to the difference between exhaustion and calm, concentration and anxiety, endorphins and escape. At the same time, we are grappling with the true interconnections between physical, mental, emotional, spiritual and relationship health.
Physical activity and creative activity emerge in these pages as deeply gendered practices. Bechdel documents the structural sexism that has blocked women (white, middle class) such as Margaret Fuller, a feminist journalist associated with the transcendental movement, from intellectual and creative self-fulfillment. Bechdel beautifully exhumed the women whose childcare, domestic work, and editorial assistance supported famous literary figures like Wordsworth, Coleridge, Thoreau and Emerson as they wandered the wilderness, published and gained notoriety. These women include William Wordsworth’s sister, Dorothy, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s former wife, Sara Fricker, and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s second wife, Lidian (who wrote a satirical “Transcendental Bible” denouncing the intellectual elitism of the movement).
Bechdel felt this structural sexism and heteropatriarchy in his early ventures in physical activity and the outdoors. There weren’t many athletic options for women available at school, which led her to pursue solo games of wrestling, cross-country running, and skiing. We witness this as she navigates through gender-non-conforming clothing choices (outdoor stores have the best options) and turns out to be a lesbian. Her months of karate training don’t adequately prepare her when a man gropes her and then hits her in the New York subway. And the famous men of transcendentalist thought don’t offer a way of thinking about love and struggle, unlike Adrienne Rich’s lesbian feminist poetry.
These tiered layers of life position the reader like a fly on the wall for Bechdel’s production Dikes to watch out for, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, and Are you my mother? : a comic drama, which earned him a MacArthur “genius” award in 2014. The secret of superhuman strength offers an illustrated window into the writing process and its interconnection with all other elements of our life, including our relationship with our body. In this sense, the book resonates with other memories of the body, such as that of Kiese Laymon Heavy: an American memory and Roxane Gay’s Hunger: a memory of (my) body. These three texts forge links between bodily practices and trauma / bereavement avoidance; in Bechdel’s case, his grief over his father’s suicide.
Unlike the texts of Gay and Laymon, however, racism, sexual violence, and intergenerational trauma do not make up Bechdel’s bodily narrative.
For example, Bechdel’s flashbacks to earlier canonical literary figures, combined with his foray into backcountry sports, require an account with the privilege of free mobility. As she writes, transcendentalist philosophies responded to the racism and exploitation of the time (“slavery, the” Indian Removal Act “, the grabbing of Mexican land, the subjugation of women, [and] brutal conditions in the new factories “), but it locates the response of transcendentalist philosophy to this context primarily (if not totally) in” inner transformation “.
The relationship of humans to the land, in this context, is largely a matter of leisure; nature exists primarily as a scene for romantic relationships, physical effort, spiritual purification, and the inner life of writers. I would like to see Bechdel explore his relationship to the earth as being at the heart not only of the body / mind relationship, but also of his theory of interdependence.
Interdependence seems different when it is based on an understanding of the American landscape as a colonized space with a long-standing history, memory, and trauma woven into each encounter with it. Human / earth hierarchies are fundamentally constitutive of colonization, and by understanding this we can extend our notions of interdependence beyond the realm of humans alone (and the occasional cat). Works like that of Lauret Savoy Trace: memory, history, race and American landscape focus more directly on the deeply historical, spiritual and contested relationship between humans and the earth. Bechdel, on the other hand, situates her metaphysical journey as exploring the “relationship between humans and the universe”, being part of a long line of writers of European descent in the United States that preceded her.
This understanding of interdependence is not unique to Bechdel. After leaving Fort Collins to return to New York City, I jokingly described Colorado’s “outdoor culture” to a Palestinian friend, but admitted that I loved camping. She dismissed camping as a “colonial fantasy of American settlers”. Whether we are white or not, we can still be brainwashed into a relationship of white settlers to the land. And whether we are white or not, we can still be seduced by spiritual circumvention, which obscures systemic failures (to quote my sister mental health counselor).
Bechdel’s text provides a window into a writer’s struggle with existential questions and the role of the people and landscapes around him in shaping his responses.