By Alenka Figa
In the introduction to The Secret to Superhuman Strength, Alison Bechdel issues herself a swift, succinct diagnosis. Amid nonstop movement from panel to panel — she kicks, guzzles water, and shifts from a downward dog on an orange yoga mat to doing rapid bicep curls — she declares, “I’m not good at sports. I’m not a jock. I’m the vigorous type.”
For Bechdel, “vigor” does not refer solely to physical strength or power. After this declaration, she continues to vault through panels without pause, gearing up for a hike before taking a walk along a fallen tree that covers a stream, like a balance beam. It’s here, as she prepares to carefully cross the water, that Bechdel reveals the obsession she wishes to explore in The Secret to Superhuman Strength: “the feeling of the mind and body becoming one.” This feeling is tied to a loss of ego, a dissolution of self – when mind and body are one, self and nature and self and others are also one. As Bechdel quips at the end of the intro, “Is that so much to ask?”
This question is, of course, a joke – obviously it’s a lot to ask! As she has in past memoirs, Bechdel engages with various literary figures, including Jack Kerouac and transcendentalists like Margaret Fuller, who also spent their lives chasing this specific kind of experience, or state of being. It is an intense, lifelong pursuit, and I am tempted to ask if it’s even worth attempting. Simultaneously, however, it feels like a deeply human pursuit – one that is relatable even to a reader like me, who has largely forgotten all the reading on transcendentalism I did in English class. Haven’t we all experienced this, even a little bit? Those moments when your mind suddenly quiets and the world feels enormous, endless – like the distance between you and me isn’t such a big deal after all, but it’s also everything.