This week, we were all pleased to sink more deeply into a single book again (rather than a series of briefer essays or excerpts). Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home proved to be an extraordinarily rich text to read in the context of a course on autobiography. Throughout her tragicomic autographic, Bechdel enacts various ways in which memories change and are challenged, how new knowledge alters the way we perceive past events. In a passage from Chapter 1–“Old Father, Old Artificer”–that we discussed in class (also depicted above), Bechdel establishes this theme as she describes how her father’s absence “resonated retroactively, echoing back through all the time I knew him. / Maybe it was the converse of the way amputees feel pain in a missing limb” (23) Unpacking this complex metaphor, she describes that though her father was present during her childhood, she “ached as if he were already gone.” It’s telling that the image accompanying this scene is of a transplanted tree–a kind of natural amputation and (hopeful) replanting. Later, she echoes this sentiment when she reflects upon learning of her father’s indiscretions with young men/boys: “The abrupt and wholesale revision of my history—a history which, I might add, had already been revised once in the preceding months—left me stupefied,” she writes (79). It seems that the author herself recognizes the elusiveness of what Smith and Watson call the historical “I”–a “self” that we only have access to through the constantly reconstructed plane of memory.
As the memoir progresses, various layers of historical context accrue and begin to further impact and alter her memory: Stonewall, the Bicentennial and the start of the AIDS crisis, Nixon’s lies and dishonesty. These intersecting contexts stack up in such a way that the dominant pattern of emplotment is not so much a neatly chronological coming of age (which we might expect) as it is a constant recycling, a shuttling back-and-forth from young adulthood, to childhood, to the present, to her college years. As she moves back and forth across these layers she weaves a rich tapestry of memory that gains complexity as different layers and textures come into play. Do these layers of context and knowledge contaminate her memory, leading us further from her “autobiographical truth,” or are these layers the only way to access any autobiographical truth?
Many of your blog posts (and quiz responses) were about precisely this tension between artifice and authenticity, art and life, that courses throughout Bechdel’s memoir. We can learn something from how David Shields, in that aphoristic sprawl that is Reality Hunger, sets up this continuum. “When I was seventeen,” he writes, “I wanted a life consecrated to art. I imagined a wholly committed art-life: every gesture would be an aesthetic expression or response.” Of course, real life got in the way; or, as he puts it: “Life is, in large part, rubbish.” But he manages to find a happy medium: “The beauty of reality-based art—art underwritten by reality hunger—is that it’s perfectly situated between life itself and (unattainable) ‘life as art.’ Everything in life, turned sideways, can look like—can be—art. Art suddenly looks and is more interesting, and life, astonishingly enough, starts to be livable.” Though there are moments of existential crisis in Reality Hunger, Shields largely embraces artifice.
Bechdel, however, seems more careful and reflective about the problems and possibilities that artifice presents. The balance between art and life for her rarely seems so “perfectly situated.” For her, the continuum that Shields suggests—from art to life, from artifice to authenticity—is more complex, more difficult to negotiate. When one tries to live a life consecrated to art, one looses sight of the what’s real, one constantly wrenches life into art. Bechdel’s father–with his affected, cringe-worthy, Fitzgerald-esque letters to his future wife and his mania for botany and baroque home decor, both of which disguise a deeper truth–is Bechdel’s foremost cautionary tale in this regard. On the other end of the spectrum, the equally unattainable ideal of the real—where memory is pure, experience is self-evident, and identity unencumbered by cultural scripts—seems vexingly close and yet out of touch. Bechdel can’t even seem to trust the most basic and objective of her diary entries as she increasingly doubts the connection between signifier and signified, word and the world, artifice and reality.
In class on Wednesday, I asked you (via an in-class writing assignment / quiz) to write about how Fun Home—especially in the way Bechdel balances her relationship with her father alongside her burgeoning awareness of her sexuality—moves across this continuum. Are there times when Bechdel tries to access something beyond artifice? When does artifice disguise truth and when does it enable a different sort of truth? I didn’t ask you these questions because I expected a final or correct answer, but because I wanted to you focus on a particular scene that seems to evoke precisely these tensions. Our subsequent class time, then, became a way of working through this grounding tension—a tension that I think almost every aspect of Bechdel’s memoir can be read in relation to.
Your blogging this week was extremely strong. Though I can’t touch on all the good points (and great graphics), I’d like do direct you to a few key ideas that emerged. Whit’s post, and my response to it, suggest interesting ways of reading an autographic. In addition to the narrated and narrating “I”s, we have the illustrated and illustrating “I”s. We have two mediums at once—visual and textual—through which Bechdel negotiates her former selves from her current prospects. At one point, Bechdel even illustrates her own illustrating “I” as she depicts herself holding juxtaposed photos of herself and her father. This is a crucial inclusion of the I-as-archivist as well—an important point in a book that is full of reflections on her fathers letters and marginalia. We didn’t discuss images as closely as we did some of the text–hopefully next time around!
Angela, however, does make one such observation in her discussion of the way we are presented with the death of Bechdel’s father in the form not of some emotional declaration, but through the front page of a local newspaper, expertly placed before our eyes. Angela writes that “as the audience, we are led to understand a very complex relationship. Perhaps in this use of different tones, we are led to grasp the subtleties of influence, understanding, and misunderstanding exuding from Bechdel relationship with her father.” This is an excellent point about the ways that artifice—the way her relationship is routed through other textual forms—becomes a crucial way for the reader to understand this strained father-daughter relationship early on.
Marshall offers a striking paradox that helps use think more deeply about Bechdel’s memoir when he writes, reflecting on the videos detailing Bechdel’s artistic process, that “the exactness of the illustrations [by which he means their scrupulously archival accurateness] lend the artifice of authenticity to Bechdel’s depictions of herself and her father.” It’s great idea–that the scrupulous research that went into each shot might work against the grain of the inevitable constructedness and artifice of her own memory. Memory is fabricated, Marshall suggests, but it is fabricated in the most authentic way possible. He also suggests that perhaps the way that Bechdel’s poses as all these characters in her illustrating process, while utterly practical from an artistic perspective, again subtly works against the grain of what he calls the intense heteroglossia–the multiplication of people and meaning–in her text. A paradox of artifice and authenticity indeed!
Reflecting more on the textual and fictional evidence incorporated throughout Fun Home, Meaghan writes about how, “throughout her tragicomic, Bechdel relies heavily on allusions to characters of myths and great works of fiction that seem to embody traits of her father in the only way she can understand. She even admits that she ‘employs these allusions…not only as descriptive devices, but because my parents are most real to me in fictional terms’” (67). Her reasoning behind this choice is not one of style; rather it is one that attempts to bring her closer to her parents through the association of other people and the characters they have created.” Later in the post, Meaghan productively complicates this point by asking whether this is more of a coping mechanism than a productive form of familial understanding.
All of these posts point to the same fundamental riddle: do all these materials texts that Bechdel incorporates—novels, letters, dictionaries—provide access to the “real” or an escape from it? We talked in class about certain moments when books seem to bring people together, as when Joshua noted the way books become erotic and elemental in Bechdel’s first serious lesbian relationship. We also talked about the way that she connects with her father through books. But this powerful form of connection was also rather sad simply because it stood in place of more direct communication that never happened, as we saw in the painful quiet and evasion that suffuses their face-to-face conversations. There doesn’t seem to be any stable strategy being these fictional interludes.
Ultimately, Bechdel’s Fun Home is a tapestry of contradiction and insight. We cannot finally determine Bechdel’s success in evading or embracing the real and authentic vs. the aritificial. In the end, all we can do is observe moments when this issue comes to the fore and note how she plots her memories along this slipperly slope from authenticity to artifice and back again precisely to help us understand the core truth of her situation. This truth is a moving and movable target. Perhaps the lesson here is similar to the one she borrows from Proust, that great artificer of memory. She writes that:
In one of Proust’s sweeping metaphors, the two directions in which hthe narrator’s family can opt for a walk—Swann’s way and the Guermanites way—are initially presented as diametrically opposed. / Bourgeois vs. aristocratic, homo vs. hetero, city vs. country, eros vs. art, private vs. public. / But at the end of the novel the two ways are revealed to converge—to have always converged—through a vast network of transversals.
This is a lovely image that contains her father’s life, split between its normative veneer (family man, teacher, husband) and his erotic truth and the secret of his sexuality. The sides don’t diverge, but run together. At the same time, the metaphor helps us think about artifice and authenticity: as we discussed in class, they are not polar opposites. In some cases, artifice deceives; in others, it provides the only truth, the only reality, we could have. And finally, the same goes for her relationship with her father. They are opposites at first: Icarus and Daedelus (and all the other binaries she spins out on 14-15). But these polar roles are challenged from the start. And in the final scene, via a quick series of reversals, it is impossible to tell who is falling and who is being saved, who is learning from whom. Perhaps Proust’s logic of tranversals–more of a flexible both/and than a stable either/or–provides the best possible way of thinking about this.
We ended class teasing out this final point, and I’ll let you continue to tease it out on your own before my ClassWrap post gets out of hand! Needless to say, I thought we had a very engaging conversation about Fun Home this week, and I only wish we had more time to explore it.
Looking Ahead and Auto[BLOG]raphy
This coming week–or final reading week–we will turn to Claudia Rankin’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric. Here’s a bit about DLMBL from the Academy of American Poets website, where you can also read a bit more about Rankine :
Of her book Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, an experimental multi-genre project that blends poetry, essays, and images, poet Robert Creeley said: “Claudia Rankine here manages an extraordinary melding of means to effect the most articulate and moving testament to the bleak times we live in I’ve yet seen. It’s master work in every sense, and altogether her own.”
Here, again, we find ourselves in the realm of identity and experiment. We can view this book as en extension of the various freedoms authors have taken with autobiography, as well as a more specific extension of, and engagement with, the history of African American autobiography. In that sense, it is a fitting capstone text. In the ways in which it concerns itself with other voices, and with the contemporary world more broadly, it really recalls S&W’s idea of relationality. There’s an urge towards community here, but also a deep recognition of loneliness.
Your critical prompt for this week, as always, is to turn to those core concepts from Smith and Watson that seem to help you understand this text more deeply. Paratext, relationality, and voice all seems very important elements here–but please explore whichever aspect of the text most moves you.
For your creative post, I’d like for you to try your hand at incorporating historical context into your autobiographical reflection. It becomes very clear in Rankine’s text how her story is woven into a broader fabric of political and historical reflection (with an emphasis on difficult / hurtful events). In a way, she tries to locate herself in and through or beyond those events. Bechdel does something very similar in the second half of Fun Home as she begins to introduce historical events into her story, reflecting on how these shape her self-perception and self-construction. So there’s the creative prompt:
Posts this week will be due at their regular time–Tuesday evening. Looking forward to them!