The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson. Graywolf Press. 160 pp, $23.00.
You pass as a guy; I, as pregnant. . . . On the surface, it may have seemed as though your body was becoming more and more “male,” mine, more and more “female.” But that’s not how it felt on the inside. On the inside, we were two human animals undergoing transformations beside each other, bearing each other loose witness. In other words, we were aging.
Such is the thread that runs so exquisitely through The Argonauts, poet and critic Maggie Nelson’s memoir, for lack of a more comprehensive term. At once a meditation on queerness, language, and family, and in part a spiritual follow-up to the melancholic Bluets, Nelson’s book traverses the gap between theory and the lived experience that it so often abstracts into oblivion. She traces her relationship with artist Harry Dodge, and memories pass through critical-philosophical cogitation. We often find Nelson and Dodge in conversation, or sharing passages from Wittgenstein or Barthes, and the two spar on the function of names and categories, assimilation and resistance in X-Men, and Nelson’s neglecting the queer part of her life in her writing until now, which is effectively the starting point of this project.
Once we name something, is it irreversibly changed? Can words “do more than nominate”? At one point Nelson recalls the fervor for and against Proposition 8 in California (which made same-sex marriage illegal), and her and Dodge’s frantic journey from courthouse to courthouse to get married once it becomes clear that the ballot proposition would likely pass. But how adequate is the term “same-sex marriage,” anyway? And how many queer folk actually “think of their desire’s main feature as being ‘same-sex’”? What really makes a family unit? And what exactly are the so-called defenders of traditional marriage really lamenting? Earlier, Nelson expresses an initial dismay over Dodge’s decision to undergo hormone therapy, but comes to reconsider her latent prejudice, and what it just might be like to be genderfluid in a culture so obsessed with binarism. “How to explain that for some, or for some at some times, this irresolution [of gender fluidity] is OK—desirable, even . . . whereas for others, or for others at some times, it stays a source of conflict or grief?”
Quotes from Butler, Freud, Irigaray, Sedgwick, Barthes, Foucault, and Deleuze, among others, make ample appearance throughout, though this academic tendency asserts itself in the service of augmenting Nelson’s memoir, never qualifying it. The Argonauts’ significance is evident in its substance, in its poetic texture, and the philosophers are woven into its fabric like thread. With so much agility, Nelson’s ruminations on identity bleed into introspective meanderings on writing, and back again. It’s as though identity politics are not in fact subordinate to intellectual or artistic sophistication, unlike what the status quo would have us believe. Surely Nelson is right here. Take for instance a riff on Barthes, and the futility of combating language’s assertiveness, “as if anything that came out of language could make language tremble”:
My writing is riddled with such tics of uncertainty. I have no excuse or solution, save to allow myself the tremblings, then go back in later and slash them out. In this way I edit myself into a boldness that is neither native nor foreign to me.
At times I grow tired of this approach, and all its gendered baggage. Over the years I’ve had to train myself to wipe the sorry off almost every work e-mail I write. . . . One only has to read interviews with outstanding women to hear them apologizing [Monique Wittig]. But I don’t intend to denigrate the power of apology: I keep in my sorry when I really mean it. And certainly there are many speakers whom I’d like to see do more trembling, more unknowing, more apologizing.
Here one finds a shade of the formal play at work in The Argonauts, in its fluidity between theoretical inquiry and memoir, between deep introspection and annotation. Another example: as Bluets could be read as a series of propositions, its structure a nod to the Tractatus, The Argonauts is not so different, but does away with the sequential numbering of its segmented composition. Again, Wittgenstein finds repeated cameos among other thinkers, and perhaps even in the blank spaces between the book’s many segments, which serve an embodiment of silence (“Whereof one cannot speak thereof they must be silent”)—the act of listening.
Listening, as opposed to speaking: a relationship in which Nelson locates a fundamental human importance. “The best way to find out how people feel about their gender or sexuality—or anything else, really—is to listen to what they tell you, and try to treat them accordingly, without shellacking over their version of reality with yours.” In many ways, The Argonauts chronicles the growth of Nelson-as-listener; with Harry, with other marginalized people, with writers, scholars, and artists . . . but the book isn’t just a vessel for a plurality of voices so often underrepresented in our shared literary history. In acts of sublime vulnerability, Nelson plumbs her own intellectual and writerly insecurities, particularly with regard to what potential her writing may hold for representation or otherwise. Writing feels “more clarifying than creative” for her, and so perhaps writing really isn’t “pharmakon, but more of a mordant—a means of binding color to its object . . . like a tattoo needle drumming ink into skin.” Writing might not tease material out from the ether so much as it can reify, a multi-discursive being always in flux. The filial myth didn’t end entirely with Barthes after all; it was only displaced.
Yes, 20th-century writing and criticism reflected, or adapted to, such uncertainty about its own origins, chasing networks of intertexts and deconstructing itself. But can even the most formally audacious work really generate new, wholly creative objects, entirely devoid of the author? Or is writing just artful reassertion of one’s life up until that point? This isn’t meant to be loftily metaphysical—though it could be—but practical: “‘mordant’ too, has a double edge . . . it is not just a fixative or preserver, but also an acid, a corrosive.” Writing clarifies but also degenerates, and so often the philosophers (and critics) act in violence against the objects of analysis, and one’s life and past always seeps into the work at hand, even when considering someone’s else’s from a critical vantage point. Nelson wrestles with the implications of the mordant in her own work, and it finds an appropriate parallel in the reality of 21st-century motherhood:
The phrase toxic maternal refers to a mother whose milk delivers poison along with nourishment. If you turn away from the poison, you also turn away from the nourishment. Given that human breast milk now contains literal poisons, from paint thinners to dry-cleaning fluid to toilet deodorizers to rocket fuel to DDT to flame retardants, there is literally no escape. Toxicity is now a question of degree, of acceptable parts per unit. Infants don’t get to choose—they take what they can get, in their scramble to stay alive.
This is in some sense inevitable: even when speaking on another’s experience, even after having listened, one invariably ends up “shellacking over” that experience with theirs, as the former listener, now “completing” the former speaker’s experience. Nelson’s concession? Proceed, but be sure to make abundant space for the voices of others. The Argonauts is a prime example: writing from Nelson’s partner Dodge gets plenty of airtime, as do highly personal excerpts from journals, letters, and essays from Dodie Bellamy, Eileen Myles, Naomi Ginsberg, and so on.
Susan Sontag called the artist’s diary an egotism uninhibited, devolving “into the heroic quest for the cancellation of the self.” We could easily include parts of The Argonauts here, though this doesn’t wholly apply to Nelson’s book, in which the self constantly fluctuates. Any elimination of it is only temporary, as Nelson ponders: “is there really such a thing as nothing? As nothingness?” The book takes its name from a passage from Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, in which he writes that the phrase “I love you” must constantly see new inflections in order to retain significance and newness, like the “Argonaut renewing its ship without changing its name.” The Argonauts paints love, family, writing, and even that ever-cancelling self as the ships we must maintain.
One wonders how on point Sontag may have been when she said creative production and sexual love are “the two most exquisite sources of suffering.” Sure, The Argonauts can be seen through this lens, and there is plenty of sadness throughout. Nelson’s conceiving at clinics is fraught with pain (“They’re probably shooting egg whites”) until she’s eventually with child. Harry’s grief is palpable when defending his decision to inject testosterone (“Don’t you get it yet? . . . I will never feel as free as you do, I will never feel as at home in the world, I will never feel as at home in my own skin”). But suffering is hardly the final destination. Creation and sexual love aren’t merely gravel in the road to pain; suffering is instead part of the ink on the map of the mordant. Writing the self is not the elimination of it, but its coloring, and any temporary destruction of selfhood in Nelson’s book serves as room made to listen.
I worry that even the most well-intentioned critic or blurber might reduce The Argonauts to any of the identities weaving in and out of its pages, and that even favorable readings might supplant the nuance of experience contained within with tired methodologies and outdated classification. It would be a shame; here is a book that eschews the categories and exercises one often finds in criticism and literature. There is something unequivocally avant-gardish about it, an undertaking every bit as intellectually rigorous as your brand-name radical philosophers, those so keen to tokenize any real consideration of race or sexuality outside the bounds of the dominant apparatus. The brilliance of this book is that it is many things, and among them, a case study in how language colors identity, identity colors language. Perhaps the prevailing reservations about where identity politics belong are wholly outdated. Nelson’s formal and rhetorical acuity don’t occupy a plane separate from the nuance of lived experience, they are inseparable from it. The Argonauts reinvigorates the potential for literary and critical thought, breaking their exhausted forms apart, and repurposing the fragments into something not only more genuine, but more useful, too.
Tyler Curtis is a writer and an editor for The White Review. He lives and works in New York.
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