Persepolis: Truth and Working-Through the Comic Form (Part 1/2)
Two major interrelated issues leap at the reader of the graphic novel Perseplis (or the viewer of the film). The first deals with content (or, the fictionalisation of historical memory) and the second concerns form (or, the illustrative graphic novel-format). The issue dealing with the content of Marjiane Satrapi’s memoir, can only here be noted and hinted to. It relates to a vast body of work, led by J.F. Lyotard’s The Differend, which deals with the relationship between the factuality of history and its incommensurability with the more subjective structure of personal narrativisation of history.
History is Janus faced, on one hand bearing the marks of objective fact: the prisons in Iran surely exist, ex-prisoners bear the marks of torture and skeletons of the dead are likely buried within its walls, on the other hand marked by an opposite face that resists such objectifications. Persepolis is a work that recognizes this dual face of history insofar as it is, in Satrapi’s own words, told in her “version of what happened. Just to give people another point of view”.
We’ll limit our discussion of this idea to a 2006 interview where Satrapi tells her interviewer: “to know what is exactly true and what isin’t is my secret and I won’t tell you”. In this interview, she is questioned on the topic of “illustration in the service of autobiography or memoir or other kinds of nonfiction and how that affects the ‘nonfictionness’ of it, the truth of it.” The question arises of historical truth, demonstrating the interviews proximity to the controversy surrounding James Frey’s fictionalized memoir A Million Little Pieces, and where Satrapi’s memoirs fall. She explains that she is not aiming for historical truth: “As I say, the truth, you have to ask Fox News to tell you the truth – and the New York Times and USA Today.” She becomes angry when the interviewer persists in asking her about the historical accuracy of her work, exclaiming “The search for truth in a novel, you know, is a very sick thing.” From here, our discussion might open in any number of ways.
Perhaps then, it is more manageable to discuss the second issue, form, and reflect on the graphic novel as an instance of what Freud refers to as ‘working-through’ of past events.
By the conclusion of Satrapi’s memoirs in Persepolis the reader may have the sense of having played a double role. One feels as if they have not merely been asked by the narrative to be a diligent reader, but that they have been a necessary part of the narrative. The structure of the narrative is, after all, written in some part for us: the reader. We are, in a strange way, in the position of the psychoanalyst, for whom our patient is acting-out, albeit in her own way, the past that has impelled her to present before us. After all, we might ask ourselves whether Satrapi would have written Persepolis if not to tell her story to someone. What, in other words, does the other have to do with the subject’s narrative? It is onto us that Satrapi performs. After all, the panels of the comic are simply lines of ink without the eyes and central nervous system of the reader.
Perhaps the best place to begin is to turn to a long yet helpful passage from Freud’s 1914 ‘Remembering, Repeating and Working-Through’ that elucidates this quite well:
The main instrument for curbing the patient’s compulsion to repeat and for turning it into a motive for remembering lies in the handling of the transference. We render the compulsion harmless, and indeed useful, by giving it the right to assert itself in a definite field. We admit it into the transference as a playground in which it is allowed to expand in almost complete freedom and in which it is expected to display to us everything in the way of pathogenic instincts that is hidden in the patient’s mind (Freud, Working Through, 156)
We have the sense that Freud, in this relatively early paper, advocates letting the patient’s repression have its playful freedom. In this regard, he develops the notion of transference that he held during his case study of Dora to include a transference from analysand to something other than analyst. In the case of Persepolis, we find Satrapi’s compulsions exploring themselves, articulating themselves, giving themselves shape and form, rather than remaining the obscure forces that command repetition without the possibility for recognition.
Satrapi’s pathogenic instincts, while repeated over and over again, are given the opportunity to limit themselves to a small panel or expand to full-page size panel, but most importantly they loose their obscurity and present her (and us) with not only a concretization of her pathology, but, by extension, the ability to heal. For without such a concretization, one cannot begin to recognize what ails them, and begin the often long road to healing.
Freud refers to working-through the pathology of trauma. It allows for a talking cure. Talking cures allow the sufferer to bring to presence what had been initially ignored. As opposed to treating the Holocaust as if it were a sacred and unquestionable void in history, working-through trauma is about being open and dealing with it. As opposed to constant repetition and pathological acting out, ‘working through’ is about concretizing an event (or some aspect of it) and exploring it. The ability to heal depends largely on factors relating to the survivors’ ability to narrativize their experience. But the ability to work through trauma depends not only on place but method. In narrativising and reflecting on a traumatic event one gains a degree of distance from the event in its literalness. It allows the unprocessed event to be processed into some other (and hopefully productive) form.
In a collection of writings by daughters of Holocaust survivors called Daughters of Absence, Mindy Weisel’s paintings are “reactions to [her] personal history” and Eva Fogelman understands her art as a creative process capable of transforming a traumatic legacy, “giv[ing] us license to speak about the dead and for the dead”. In summary: working-through trauma via narrativizing or an aesthetic approach allows us to return to the traumatic event while simultaneously venturing away from its literalness.
Returning to Persepolis, it is evident that Satrapi is exploring a profound schism at the core of her identity, one informed by the binaries she encounters between opposites like freedom and repression, war and peace, male and female, fundamentalism and tolerance, West and East etc… [In a way the fundamentalists come, due to Satrapi’s manner of drawing the veil and beards, to all resemble one another in the same way that the German S.S. soldiers in Maus resemble identical felines.] Yet we were noting that there exists a fundamental schism within Satrapi, who explains in an interview that she was never quite able to “decide what country you are born in or what family you grow up with or even the time period” We have the sense that has been treated as a total outsider, an other, more than once in her life. In an interview she describes moving to France and people coming close to asking her whether she was driving a camel in Iran.
This sense of alienation drips from the pages of her graphic-memoir.
(To be continued….)