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Diamanda Galas: Feminist Witch, Feminist Bitch

By angsang

Diamanda Galas: Feminist Witch, Feminist Bitch

 

Introduction to the Text:

Diamanda Galas is an American avant-garde artist of Greek descent who has been considered one of the most important artists of our time. She is a pioneer of a new vocal music style that seeks to embody the most extreme states of consciousness. Galas’s radical approach to music is such that she “ doesn’t care if the lyrics are heard clearly; she only needs to sing the ‘id’ subtext, because she’s already swallowed the song text so wholly into her expressive DNA that the meaning is clear gesturally” (Grant). Galas dares to transgress against the common artistic imperative to constrain the intensity of one’s emotions within established musical structures that, while emotive, only allow one’s art to represent, but not to be the thing itself.

Galas is classically trained in opera and in jazz and was a musical prodigy early in life. In her early years as an adult artist, she did improvisational work with artists in New York but made her performance debut as an opera singer in 1979. She played the lead in Vinko Globokar’s Un Jour Comme un Autre and continued to do classical performances until she focused her energies on rock music and the development of a new vocal aesthetic. Galas’s distinctive style that I explore in this paper first emerged with her performance of “Wild Women with Steak Knives” and then with the album, “Litanies of Satan”. For Galas, “Wild Women with Steak Knives” was a “kinesthetic representation of the mind diffracted into an infinity of crystals… .the subtractive synthesis of mental entropy into various bands of absolute and mere schizophrenia” (Galas, 61). Galas maintains that this attempt to embody mental diffraction with the voice required:

“a huge repertoire of vocal sound at one’s disposal as well as a completely elastic vocal ability, which enables the rapid navigation through these timbral elements. This is certainly not a new idea, but the absolute accuracy, the absolute detail I am referring to requires a virtuosity, a versatility with the instrument that has not been yet approached. The most minimal or the most maximal increment of timbral change over the smallest unit of time is required and, in many ways, resembles what is attempted in subtractive synthesis of white noise, wherein highly specified pitch/’timbre bands may be heard suddenly alone, in quick succession, or simultaneously. The question here is not one of a simplistic development of vocal virtuosity. Rather, it involves a redefinition of a most accurate sonic representation of thought via the most accessible, direct, and sophisticated music-making apparatus” (Galas, 62).

Galas’s interview in Angry Women occurred in 1991, about 10 years after she first came out with “Wild Women with Steak Knives” and “Litanies of Satan”. Angry Women includes interviews with some of the leading feminist thinkers of the time period who were notable for their radical and outraged approach to the injustices committed against women. In this interview, Galas elaborates on her feminist politics and how it relates to her artistic outlook. It is apparent from Galas’s radical views, that she developed her radical feminism within the context of the second wave feminist movement in the 1970s. This new era of feminism was interested in the intersection of the personal with the political and how this intersection perpetuated gender hierarchies in the everyday lives of women. Second wave feminists recognized that the political rights gained during feminism’s first wave were meaningless unless the social and private roots of women’s oppression were addressed. Thus, second wave feminism had a particular interest in sexual politics. The bedroom was suddenly open to feminist critique and women were beginning to speak of themselves as sexual beings with subjectivity, autonomy, and agency. In Angry Women, it is clear that sexual politics are central to Galas’s feminism. As will be elaborated upon later, Galas demands that women reclaim sexual power, by reversing sexual power dynamics so that women have power over men. Her misandry is evident. For example, she says “I have an allergy to ‘male genius’. If I listen to a man talk about his work for more than 2 minutes, I get supremely bored… I can certainly understand why lesbian separatist concepts evolved. So ‘male genius’ is something I have to rail against, because I feel it, I understand it-and I’m not interested” (Juno, Andrea, Vale, 17) It is also evident though, that while her radical feminism may have been crucially formed by seventies feminism, she also draws upon the female, punk rock aesthetic of the nineties. In this paper, I will examine pictures of Galas as well as videos of Galas’s performances to analyze her gender performance in juxtaposition with the interview she gave to Angry Women. I argue thus: Diamanda Galas’s gender performance in terms of appearance and vocals on stage uses ugliness as a strategy of resistance against the violence of patriarchal cultural representations of femininity. To begin, I mean to clarify how I define ‘ugliness’ as a general concept before I delve into the specifics of Galas’s performances. Gertrude Stein’s Composition as Explanation is useful to define ugliness and to demonstrate how it is transgressive.

 

Ugliness in Composition as Explanation

Stein argues (if it can be said that she argues anything in this text!) that nothing changes from generation to generation. Eras are “compositions” in the sense that “the only thing that is different from one time to another is what is seen and what is seen depends upon how everybody is doing everything. This makes the thing we are looking at very different and this makes what those who describe it make of it, it makes a composition, it confuses, it shows, it is, it looks, it likes it as it is, and this makes what is seen as it is seen. Nothing changes from generation to generation except the thing seen and that makes a composition” (Stein, 407). The elements that give an era it’s character and sensibilities are not fundamentally new they are only newly salient. Also, the way in which people understand or practice these elements are determined by “those who describe it” and what they “make of it”. Thus, discourse and changes in cultural emphasis determine the composition of an era, the word composition implying something that is prepared and constructed. And for Stein, anything really new in society is extrinsic to the established modern composition because anything created in sync with modern sensibilities participates in communal constructions. And it is for this reason that she describes anything ‘classic’ as being ‘beautiful’. She writes “the first rate work of art becomes a classic because it is accepted the only thing important from then on to the majority of the acceptors the enormous majority, the most intelligent majority of the acceptors is that it is so wonderfully beautiful. Of course it is wonderfully beautiful, only when it is still a thing irritating annoying stimulating then all quality of beauty is denied to it” (Stein, 408). According to Stein, finding something beautiful and enjoyable (certainly not the common experience when listening to Galas’s music) involves being indolently entrenched in the communal soul of your time period, re-enforcing it’s sensibilities, ethos, and aesthetics by categorizing what is familiar and unchallenging ‘beautiful’ and what is “irritating, annoying, stimulating” ‘ugly’. The reflexive nature of finding a work of art beautiful (because it re-enforces established tastes) seems an inevitable consequence of being social animals that revel in the security of our communities and is also indicative of our desire to identify with them. In this way, I wish to define Galas’s use of the ‘ugly’ as transgressive because it doesn’t participate in communal constructions, and thus is anti-social. Galas’s appearance and her vocals on stage defy gender norms in terms of feminine ‘prettiness’ and passivity in order to resist the violence of patriarchal constructions of femininity.

 

The ‘Ugliness’ of Gala’s Appearance On Stage and in Print:

Galas’s image on stage and in print borrows from the female, punk rock aesthetic in that she juxtaposes images of ‘prettiness’ with images of violence. However, unlike female punk rockers like Courtney Love who “expose the alienation and ‘messy’ interior of the female body exacted by its violent over-mythification” and style themselves like “’Kinderwhore [s]’; … ‘a child-woman, fucked up Lolita, innocence disturbed. It’s a potent, one the edge image which toys with vulnerability and power [and] hints at a ‘rape victim’ look (Raphael 1995, xxvi)” (Eileraas,128),Diamanda Galas projects nothing but threat, strength, and power. However, both female punk rockers and Diamanda Galas use ugly in their appearances in the media and on stage in order to contest patriarchal constructions of femininity. Female punk rockers play with vulnerability and power in order to reveal the damage done to women’s bodies as a consequence of patriarchal notions of ‘prettiness’ that objectify and hyper-sexualize women and that also render their bodies ‘rape-able’. One way they contest this construction is by confronting taboo features of female sexuality such as masturbation and sexual fluids, thereby re-claiming female sexual subjectivity, re-positioning women as sexual agents who are not alienated from their bodies or made ashamed of them. One performer pulled her “tampon out of her vagina and hurled it in to the audience. However outrageous, [this] action[ ] can be read as feminist for [its] brash evocation of the ‘improper’, ‘unclean’, below-the-belt femininity” (Eileraas, 129),revealingthe messy interior of female bodies that is deemed disgusting because it does not please or sexually titillate the male gaze. By contrast, Galas does not present herself as sexually vulnerable or battered in any capacity. She manipulates patriarchal constructions of ‘prettiness’ and sexual appeal in order to claim power and resist their damage.

Make-up and tight clothing are generally associated with feminine ‘prettiness’. The logic of traditional make-up is to imitate the state of sexual arousal on the face. Blush and lipstick are meant to mimic the flush that comes with the rush of blood, eyeliner and mascara are meant to imitate the slight plumping of lashes that also comes with the rush of blood, and darkened eyelids are also meant to mimic the very slight darkening of one’s eyelids that also occurs with arousal. Thus, traditional make-up is meant to hyper-sexualize. Tight or revealing clothing is meant to display the body, often connoting availability and vulnerability (which is not to say tight clothing is necessarily disempowering, but only that with women this is often the social connotation of this aesthetic). Galas wears make-up frequently in her performances and pictures. However, Galas’s make up is often garish, giving her face a pale, deathly, or menacing look. She does not wear make-up to look attractive. Galas adorns her face in ways that do not highlight her sexuality but that connote severity, threat, and perhaps even the war paint of tribal societies (note, this is in contrast to the battered make-up look of female punk artists). Galas dares you quite literally to fuck with her.

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Galas also wears tight or revealing clothing. However, the combination of her make-up, expressions, poses, as well as the kinds of props she uses does not present her as being vulnerable or available. Rather, Galas projects power. For example, in Angry Women, Galas is pictured wearing a tight, leather crop top with tight leather pants. However, she is also holding a gun (Juno, Andreas, Vale, 21). In the same text, Galas is also depicted with a torn dress, breasts exposed as copious blood runs down her body (Juno, Andreas, Vale, 16). But Galas does not look like a bloodied victim, she looks like a naked, satanic victor, body running with the blood of her victim. This violent image does not project Galas’s naked body as vulnerable. Rather, her body becomes threatening, murderous. Any attempt at sexual violation, perhaps elicited by her nakedness, will be met with death. Interestingly, male nudity or shirtless-ness often projects power rather than vulnerability. It implies strength, comfort with one’s physicality, sexual aggression, and at times, sexual threat. This is rarely the case for women. But, Galas appropriates the male prerogative to be nude/wear tight or revealing clothing and to at the same time be powerful and even sexually menacing. Diamanda’s ugly gender performance is highly anti-social because she subverts normative, patriarchal constructions of pretty femininity that are a part of the modern composition of her time period. For Galas, ‘beauty’ in the Steinien ‘classical’ sense would render her powerless and passive.

 

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‘Ugliness’ in Galas’s Vocal Performance: 

One has never heard anything like Diamanda Galas’s vocal performance. It screeches, howls, babbles and seems to come from some dark, diffracted, demon recess of the soul. It is shamanistic in character and, for some, deeply disturbing. We can see in the character and effect of Galas’s vocal performance the unique politics of her radical feminism. In an interview in Angry Women, it is clear that Galas’s feminism calls women to take power, not ask for it. She says “its like: to some women it is considered a ‘bad vibe’. We’re conditioned to the idea that if someone fights back – well, that’ll bring you ‘bad karma’. We’re conditioned to this idea that if you have a gun, you’re inviting trouble” (Juno, Andrea, Vale, 22). She says, “women need to think of themselves as predators rather than prey” (Juno, Andrea, Vale, 8). And it is precisely this call to forcibly claim power that is so empowering but also so deeply problematic about Galas’s feminism. There are overtones of violence and disdain for men in Galas’s interview. She calls women to commit sexual violence against men, to reverse the power dynamics that would objectify them and make them sexually vulnerable. Galas says, “I really wanna fuck men in the ass. I want to break the flesh, too and exorcise my violence on them to show them just how much I love them!” (Juno, Andrea, Vale, 11). And she notes “Some men get angry because they think I view them just as sex objects. But I say, ‘You don’t need to read to me – I can read. And as for conversation-I can get that from my friends. So you should feel lucky that you at least have this service you can offer me” (Juno, Andrea, Vale, 15). It is interesting, however, that Galas says explicitly in the interview that she does not support non-consensual sex. Galas wishes to exercise sexual violence in a consensual relationship. However, her disdain for men is clear. She tells women that if they “want subordinates, [they can] fuck a man in the ass” (Juno, Andrea, Vale, 17). This aspect of female perpetrated sexual violence manifests in her vocal performance, whose sound is akin to an invasive and penetrative attack. Furthermore, Galas’s vocals appear to be a particularly female/feminist method of counter-discourse against patriarchal constructions of meaning and modes of communication.

 

Here are links for examples of Diamanda’s performance and vocals:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f0AIjnQ8t30

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LEKuX8arORc

 

In her article, Witches, Bitches, and Fluids, Karina Eileraas describes the way in which female punk rockers use vocal ugliness as a method of feminist discourse. Galas uses her voice in very similar ways. Eilerass describes the animalistic screeching, howling, and wailing of punk girl-bands as politically and socially transgressive. In a culture where women are conditioned to be silent, to soften their voices, and where women are left voiceless in situations like domestic abuse or rape, these women scream. The ugly vocals of both Galas and female punk rockers proclaim a “substantial feminist presence” (Eileraas, 125) that will not be silenced, and that may also be a conduit for the collective scream of abused, enraged women that were/are silenced. Furthermore, “the ugly voice also constitutes a form of revolt against the grammar and syntax of phallogocentrism and, arguably, a step toward a specifically ‘female’ language… The ugly sounds and incoherent babble of girl rockers disrupt ‘language’ as we know it. They operate on the poststructuralist premise that language speaks through us, through our bodies, history, and culture-we do not just speak it or, least of all, own it. As such, girl bands’ voices represent ‘selves’ that are not always intentional, knowable, or visible to themselves.; … [they use] nonsense as… a margin from which to contaminate the patriarchal symbolic center” (Eileraas, 127). To reject and damage language in the way Galas and female punk rockers do can be a very powerful act of rebellion. These women refuse to allow supposedly patriarchal constructions of meaning to dominate or obscure the “not always intentional, knowable, or visible” aspects of their discontent or of their being which they seek to express, these aspects being expressible only as nonsense because of the patriarchal symbolic center of language.

The raw, untamed way in which Galas uses her vocals combined with the nature of the phenomena of sound contribute to the penetrative nature of Galas’s performances. In Millie Taylor’s article Exploring the Grain: The sound of the voice in Bruce Nauman’s Raw Materials, she posits that because sound issues from the body, vocal communication also transmits empathetic information about the vocalist’s internal state to the listener. Vocals affect people’s understandings of their bodies in space such that “Through the impact of vibrations on the receiving body, sound is perceived as a gesture that is impossible to avoid… with unique possibilities to exchange empathetic and embodied knowing” (Taylor, 289-290). Furthermore, vocals “create sounds that are of [one’s] body… the sounds [one] makes are part of [one’s] identity” (Taylor, 291). Vocal noises can be an intimate sharing of bodies and internal states that act upon listener bodies through the listener ears and through atmospheric vibrations. However, when Diamanda Galas screeches, babbles, and wails with satanic venom, her ugly sounds are invasive because for most listeners they are unwelcome and inescapable. This vocal method seems to echo Galas’s impulses toward violation that were apparent in Angry Women. Furthermore, “Galas claims to have trained herself to use her voice as a gun-presumably as protection against, and response to, violation” (Eileraas, 127). And so it may be that Diamanda’s vocals that speak the improprieties of the body, the diffracted, embodied knowing of an abused female experience but may also be a violent threat against any further attempts at violation, even committing a violation of it’s own. And though physical or sexual violation may not be addressed in every song she makes, they do appear to be one of her primary drives for expressing herself in the way that she does. Thus, Diamanda’s ugly vocal gender performance is highly anti-social because she subverts normative, patriarchal constructions of who has sexual power and who has the right/ability to violate.

 

The Carnival in Galas’s Performance: 

Lastly, I wish to briefly discuss the presence of the carnival-esq in Galas’s gender performance. For Mikhail Bahktin in Rabelais and his World, carnival was the “nonofficial, extra-ecclesiastical, and extra-political aspect of the world, of man, and of human relations… [a] two world condition” (Bahktin, 8). Similarly, Galas’s performances create an alternative reality where femininity is performed in a way that transgresses against normative, patriarchal constructions of feminine prettiness, passivity, and sexual vulnerability. But, I argue that the carnival-esq aspect of Galas performances both does and does not revive and renew institutional structures as did carnival in medieval Europe. In medieval Europe, the double life of carnival was a kind of socially sanctioned transgression that re-affirmed institutional structures by temporarily suspending hierarchies in order to renew them. Galas means to destroy the violence of institutionalized patriarchy in her creation of an alternative reality, in calling women to create an alternative reality where they are empowered to defend themselves against men with violence. And certainly while Galas’s call to female perpetration of violence is deeply problematic, it is refreshing in that it calls women to claim power, to act boldly, loudly, and to vent fury at the violence committed against their collective bodies and souls. In this way, Galas’s gender performance seeks to incite the destruction of oppressive hierarchies. Galas appropriates patriarchy’s violent means for feminist ends. And because Galas wants to re-instate a new gender hierarchy where women have power over men and where women commit the same acts of violence that men use against them, she renews the institutional structure of patriarchal violence. Thus, the carnival spirit both is and is not a part of Galas’s performance and transgression.

 

Conclusion:

Understanding Diamanda Galas’s radical feminist ideology and punk rock influences helps us contextualize her gender performance on stage and in the media. Ultimately, her use of ugliness as a strategy of resistance manifests itself as violence. But like the Sirens of Odysseus, Galas’s song is both alluring and repulsive. Her ugliness is almost beautiful, a sentiment of which I’m sure Gertrude Stein would approve. 

 

 

Works Cited

Bakhtin, M. M. “Introdcution.” Introduction. Rabelais and His World. Cambridge, MA: M. I. T., 1968. 6-35. Print.

 

Eileraas, Karina. “Witches, Bitches & Fluids.” TDR: The Drama Review 41.3 (1997): 122. International Bibliography of Theater & Dance with Full Text. Web. 2 June 2014.

 

Galas, Diamanda. “Intravenal Songs.” Perspectives of New Music 20.No. 1/2 (1981-1982): 59-65. JSTOR. Web.

 

Grant, Mark N. “Diamanda’s Bio.” Diamanda Galas Diamandas Bio Comments. Diamanda Galas Website, Aug. 2007. Web. 07 June 2014.

 

Juno, Andrea, and V. Vale. “Diamanda Galas.” Angry Women. San Francisco, CA: RE/Search Publications, 1991. 4-22. Print.

 

Stein, Gertrude. “Composition as Explanation”. PDF from class. 407-411.

 

Taylor, Mille. “Exploring The Grain: The Sound Of The Voice in Bruce Nauman’s Raw Materials.” Studies in Theatre & Performance 26.4 (2006): 289-296. International Bibliography of Theater & Dance with Full Text. Web. 2 June 2014.

 

 

Multimedia Works Cited:

 

Sources for pictures:

Ferrer, Jason. “Let My People Go.” Sang Bleu. N.p., n.d. Web.

“Diamanda Galas and Others like Her PlayList.” Diamanda Galas and Others like Her PlayList. N.p., n.d. Web. 07 June 2014.

“Diamanda Galás with Sergei Tcherepnin.” – The Brooklyn Rail. The Brooklyn Rail, n.d. Web. 07 June 2014.

“Diamanda Galás.” ThisNext. N.p., n.d. Web. 07 June 2014.

“Diamanda Galás with Sergei Tcherepnin.” – The Brooklyn Rail. The Brooklyn Rail, n.d. Web. 07 June 2014.

 

Sources for videos:

“DIAMANDA GALÃS | This Is The Law Of The Plague.” YouTube. YouTube, n.d. Web. 07 June 2014.

“Diamanda Galás & John Paul Jones – Skótoseme (live 1994).” YouTube. YouTube, n.d. Web. 07 June 2014.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Power Confusions and the Daedalus-Icarus Story in Fun Home

Bechdel distorts the Daedalus-Icarus narrative to illuminate the confusions of power she experiences in her relationship with her father.  In her childhood as she describes it, sometimes Bechdel feels more powerful than her father, whereas sometimes she feels her father’s authority was decisive.  Her relationship to the authority of her father is further complicated within the meta-narrative of the novel, in which she struggles with the ultimate dominion over her father’s identity that she has as an author creating him as a character in her work.

            In the parallels that Bechdel draws between her relationship with her father and the Daedalus-Icarus story, the author makes it unclear which figure represents her and which her dad. The graphic novel begins with Bechdel elevated on her father’s legs and hands, playing airplane.  She notes that in the circus, this kind of acrobatics is called “Icarian games” (3).  When she explicitly describes her connection with her father as a “reenactment of this mythic relationship” between Daedalus and Icarus, it would be logical to assume that Daedalus is to her dad as she is to Icarus, since she is the child (4).  This assumption is strengthened by the image in the panel in which she establishes the parallel: Alison loses her balance on her father’s legs and falls to the ground.  However, the text goes on to say, “it was not me but my father who was to plummet from the sky,” casting him as Icarus and her as the senior Daedalus (4).  Here, common sense and the image contradict text, leaving it ambiguous who is who.

            This ambiguity emphasizes the confused distribution of fatherliness between her and her dad.  On one hand, Alison’s father’s authority is dominant in the family.  Throughout the first chapter, most of the action consists of him ordering Alison and her siblings to do various household tasks. Images show him spanking her presumably for an imperfectly completed task and him asking her to change her clothing because the necklines do not match (18, 15).  She recalls that “something vital was missing…an elasticity, a margin for error” (18).  In this way, Bechdel establishes the dominion her father has over her family and her in a traditional head of the household way.  Despite this power, as Alison matures, her relationship with her father changes so that she doubts his ultimate authority.  As she and her father share stories about their queerness, she feels “distinctly parental listening to his shamefaced recitation” (221).  “Which of us was the father?” she asks herself (221).  While her father formally holds authority as the one who makes family decisions, Alison feels confused about who really parents whom.  This confusion recalls the opening comparison to Icarus and Daedalus.  The mixed-up parallels between Alison, her father, Icarus, and Daedalus highlight the unclear relationship of power between Alison and her dad.

            This unclear relationship is further distorted by Bechdel’s act of writing a story about her father, in which she has ultimate control over how she crafts his character.  The closing reference to Daedalus and Icarus underlines this complication. In the graphic novel’s final panels, Alison stands on a diving board above her father, who stands in the swimming pool below.  In front of this image, Bechdel’s text reads, “What if Icarus hadn’t hurtled into the sea? What if he’d inherited his father’s inventive bent? What might he have wrought?” (231).  The parallels are confused already.  As earlier, Alison lines up with Icarus according to their youth and the images, since she is about to jump into the water, and Icarus was the one that “hurtled into the sea.”  However, her questions implicitly wonder what her father-as-Icarus may have done had he not killed himself.  This implication is confirmed by the following panel in which the image of the truck that killed Alison’s father accompanies the reminder that “he did hurtle into the sea, of course” (232).  Once again, both Alison and her father are cast as Icarus within the same statement, leaving both the role of Daedalus, too.  

The questions Alison asks also hint at the creative act of writing a story, pointing towards the confusion of authority Bechdel experiences as she crafts her father as a character within her narrative.  The “inventive bent” Bechdel attributes to Daedalus in the midst of her questions refers explicitly to the craftiness he displayed in making wings so that he and his son could fly.  As previously noted, she implicitly wonders what her dad would have created had he not committed suicide.  The fact that Bechdel spends the few pages before this Icarus panel describing James Joyce’s publishing process adds another level of meaning to her questions.  A parallel emerges between Daedalus’ craftiness and her craft as an artist and writer.  Since the panel’s image features Alison-as-Icarus about to jump into the swimming pool, it stands to reason that Bechdel refers not only to her father’s but also to her own “inventive bent” in her questions.  In this way, the question of “What if it had happened this way?” becomes not just Alison the character struggling to come to terms with her father’s death, but also Bechdel the writer asking a classic writer’s question: “What if the story went this way?”.  She alludes to her ability to craft the story any way she likes, almost asking, “What might I have created had my father not died?” or “What kind of story would I make if I ended it without my father dying?” The novel’s closing line strengthens this undertone. Writing, “In the tricky reverse narration that impels our entwined stories, he was there to catch me when I leapt,” Bechdel shows that the role confusion between her and her father also exists in the meta-narrative of her writing their story (232).  The action in this statement takes place within the narration, in other words, within her creative act.  Thus, in her act of narration, she takes a leap, and her father catches her.  What might this mean?  Perhaps Bechdel refers to the leap of the creative process and the fact that the story she creates crystallizes around her father.  When she jumps into creating her graphic novel, her father’s story is there to cushion her fall by providing ample material for creativity.  In this way, the relationship between Bechdel and her father is further confused.  No longer can Alison’s dad tell her to change her dress; instead, Bechdel can draw herself and her father in whatever clothes she likes. Alison’s life is somewhat subject to her father’s determination through his commandeering nature as well as the profound emotional impact his life and death has upon her, but Bechdel the writer has ultimate control over the narrative she expresses and the characterization of her father in Fun Home.  This is one way in which the narration is in “reverse.” As such, confusion wrought by both Alison and her dad taking on characteristics of Daedalus and Icarus extends to the realm of Bechdel’s creative process.   

–Deviant

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Some Things Better Left Unsaid: Self-Censorship in Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic

In Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, Alison Bechdel uses autobiographical narrative to broach a number of traditionally “transgressive” topics: LGBT issues, (possible) suicide, sex with minors. But, as is the case with any autobiography, there is an inherent tension between what is remembered and what is forgotten; what is made explicit and what is left as subtext. Bechdel self-describes as a “careful archivist of her own life,” yet in the graphic novel chronicles her acts of censorship in her early diaries. Surprisingly, Bechdel is able to use censorship to negotiate her identity as an act of self-fashioning. However, it seems as if the instability of these early narratives becomes manifest in her relationship with her father; she is not able to use language to connect with him in the way she would like.

Bechdel’s attempts to narrativize her life began at an young age; she explains that around ten, she began a diary during an “obsessive compulsive spell” (140). These early diaries—first a calendar, then an agenda—were meant to record her daily activities. Yet Bechdel felt unsure if she was able to accurately portray these events. As a result, her diaries became littered with phrase “I think” (141). Bechdel attributes this to a kind of “epistemological crisis;” she asks, “How did I know that the things I was writing were objectively true?” (141). To counteract this, Bechdel sought to exorcise the subjective narrative element from her diaries by blotting out the “I thinks” that began each sentence. However, this proved to be an insufficient solution. She then began drawing a lambda-like symbol as a shorthand for the phrase “I think” (142). This was then placed over specific names or pronouns, then over entire passages, as a kind of “amulet”  (142).

Bechdel’s habit became so compulsive that her mother took over writing in her diary for her. At some later point, she regained the ability to write on her own again. However, instead of fixating on concrete events or actions, Bechdel’s entries now focused on recording her subjective thoughts and emotions. As Bechdel explains, “When I was ten, I was obsessed with making sure my diary entries bore no false witness. But as I aged, hard facts gave way to emotion and opinion” (169). Bechdel began to frequently incorporate ellipses to denote uncertainty in her narrative. In addition, she began to use code words to replace words she viewed as transgressive: “n-ing” became synonymous with either menstruation or masturbation (169-170).  

I argue that Bechdel’s act of self-censorship in these anecdotes reveals much about her personal psychology. I want to suggest that in these examples, censorship primarily functions as a coping mechanism. In the first case, it allows Bechdel to play with symbols in a way that gives her access to a liminal space between objectivity and subjectivity. She gains authorial power by being able to blot out or cover words, and in a sense, becomes the arbiter of what is real and what isn’t. Furthermore, censorship allows her self-narrativize in a way that enables her to explore her identity—as a female-bodied person, as a sexual, adult  being—without making these changes entirely concrete. Bechdel is able to come to terms with her developing body by negotiating how she presents herself in her own narrative.

This seems to suggest that censorship is not always a negative act; an absence does not always translate into a loss. In Fun Home, Bechdel actually transforms censorship into a method for artistic self-fashioning. However, the idea that censorship is positive is troubled by Bechdel’s complicated relationship with her father. Bechdel strongly identifies with her father—particularly after she find out he is gay as well—but he remains inaccessible and enigmatic throughout the graphic novel. In this sense, Fun Home is Bechdel’s attempt to locate her father in her narrative, as well as construct her own identity through narrative.  

I want to suggest that the distance Bechdel feels from her father, Bruce, is created by his acts of self-censorship. The most telling example of this is when Bruce writes a letter to Bechdel in response to when she comes out as a lesbian. Instead of confiding to her that he is also gay, he talks around the subject in veiled language, alluding to the difficulties he faced growing up isolated from any sort of queer community. Eventually, Bechdel’s mother reveals that he is gay. Why would Bruce consciously choose to withhold this key point of identification from Bechdel? As she explains, “He thought that I thought that he was a queer, whereas he knew that I knew that he knew that I was too” (212). Bruce relies on censorship to reveal what is unsaid; by cloaking his words in this manner, he simultaneously allows what is and what isn’t to coexist.

Nevertheless, this liminality comes at a price. Bechdel misses the subtext, and Bruce’s message is not conveyed. Instead of talking to each other in the same language, Bechdel and her father are reduced to talking past each other. Though Bechdel desperately tries to reach her father, he inevitably remains cut off. Bechdel later compares this miscommunication between her and her father to the missed connection between Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom in Joyce’s Ulysses.  

Ultimately, this comes back to the Foucauldian idea that language cannot express transgression. However, Fun Home is not just a novel—is Bechdel able to say more through her multimedia presentation? For her readers, possibly; for her father, I fear it is too late. Nevertheless, I want to argue that Fun Home is transcendent by its mere act of creation; through her narrative, Bechdel is able to go beyond the bounds of mere reality and re-negotiate the way she interacts with her world.

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– Alcibiades

 

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