Ritual and Liminality in Persepolis
This article constitutes part of the groundwork for my honors thesis in Literatures of the World at UCSD. In working with the graphic novel, and Persepolis in particular, I chose to focus on the way that the combination of text and image results in a clear view of interiority and liminal space in the main character’s mind, and marks transition throughout the novel. Liminal space, as defined in anthropological terms by Victor Turner, is a moment in and out of time, and “betwixt and between the positions arrayed by custom, law, and convention.” He sets it in opposition to a defined secular social structure, by giving it the defining characteristic as a space through which an individual manages transition.
A liminal space is often looked at as a secluded physical space reflecting a inner state of reconfiguration or a rite of passage, or initiation. My research on Persepolis seeks to reverse that order. I saw the novel as a culmination of successive experiences that force the main character, a young girl named Marji, to continually reevaluate her own values in relation to the hegemonic dogma upheld by her culture. That culture, in liminality, represents the generic authority of tradition according to Turner, and it represents both the successive religious, revolutionary, and educational cultures that Marji finds herself in, as well as the previous authority that the Shah represented in Iran. One of the onsets of that transition is her being thrust into a new way of thinking, and the adults in her life deconstruct her knowledge of the Shah’s regime and facilitate a transition in the way that she thinks about the political structure of her youth.
Persepolis follows Marji from the ages of ten to about fourteen, from the time of the Islamic Revolution and the restrictions placed on women in public as a result, to her departure for Austria. Since she is young when the novel begins, it is easy to imagine her as a sort of Lacanian tabula rasa, upon which the wisdom and knowledge of a group is described. She processes that information in an interior liminal space- thus making the liminal space a working space. She creates an identity from it, fulfilling the mirror stage in Lacanian tradition.
The multiplicity of selves on each page of Persepolis related itself well to the concept of liminality, and the way in which she forms ritual. The author tells us her story through a dual narrative that combines the objective commentary and historical context given by the older self, and the emotion and sensation that her younger self feels in the moment. The objective narration provides a lens through which Satrapi can scrutinize her own self, and as a counterbalance against the ritualized and heavily sensationalized images that her younger self dreams up, and that portray the interior liminal space to which she retreats. The novel works as a series of fractures within one’s self, and those fractures are ultimately essential to informing Marji’s formation of identity and the way that she acts throughout the novel.
That reconfiguration begins at the start of the novel; the very first lines constitute this powerful individual statement, “This is me.” That statement, however, contrasts sharply with the image of the veiled Marji, especially with the panel of four similarly dressed girls next to it. The facial expressions and poses that all five of them share constitute a display of “culturally coded behaivor”, according to Judith Butler’s Performative Acts and Gender Constitution. That behavior reconfigures those words, “This is me”, because Marji ties her identity into the cultural expectations of her gender.
While at school, they are expected to perform those expectations, and yet in this panel the resistance of Marji’s generation begins, as the “veil loses its reiterative function” as a marker of gender and a social construct, beyond its religious context. They take the symbol of religious conformity and use it instead as an instrument of violence. The schoolyard, also, becomes a liminal space because of its function in rejecting that hegemonic social structure and instead being used as a place for the schoolgirls to figure out their place in society. They act out the violence that occurs around them.
I also wanted to include this image as a nod to the conflict within Marji’s self on the topic of the veil; she has both a religious side, which is explored more thoroughly in the novel than it will be here for the sake of space, and a scientific side. The background images are symbols which shows how she herself views those conflicting sides; in parallel, contrasting, rather than as two small parts of a connected identity. They therefore represent an image of interiority and of the liminal space in which she is trying to combine them in this panel, as she attempts to transition between the two inside her own mind.
My research on the novel is far more extensive, but I feel that it is more important at this point to look at the emergent properties of the novel as a whole. I want to start with Satrapi’s dedication at the beginning of the book:
“Since then, this old and great civilization has been discussed mostly in connection with fundamentalism, fanaticism, and terrorism. As an Iranian who has lived more than half my life in Iran, I know that this image is far from the truth. This is why writing Persepolis was so important to me. I believe that an entire nation should not be judged by the wrongdoings of a few extremists. I also don’t want those Iranian who lost their lives in prison, who died in the war, who suffered under various regimes, or who were forced to leave their homeland to be forgotten. One can forgive but one should never forget.”
Satrapi intends to show us, half a world away and decades out of time, what happened in Iran through the eyes of a young girl. According to Victor Tuner himself, behind the liminal stage is the “recognition of a general human bond. We can recognize in the liminal stages that Marji goes through perhaps some of our own questionings of the norms of our social structure; liminality has become a term oft-used in connection with adolescents, to categorize the ennui and ambiguousness they feel as they form an identity based on the world around them. Satrapi’s ironic and tender language informs us of her world, and the struggles and sacrifices of the Iranian people during a time of revolution and conflict, but also reflecting human tendencies to question what is going on around us, and to challenge our society and ourselves. To me, this is what literature is about. It employs empathy, compassion, and a direct and honest voice in order to showcase the universality underlying human bonds and reactions to the outside world.