The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

Reviewed by Rebecca Hussey

argonautsMaggie Nelson has had what one might call a cult following ever since the 2009 publication of her genre-bending essayistic prose-poem Bluets. While many readers, even serious ones, may not have heard of Nelson, Bluets is the kind of book certain people (myself included) press into fellow readers’ hands and say “just read this. Trust me.” Nelson’s newest book, The Argonauts, is a worthy successor to her earlier breakthrough (she has also published several other works including a more traditional book of criticism from 2011, The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning). Bluets and The Argonauts are similarly inventive, mixing genres including memoir, philosophy, and criticism. They also share a distinct tone and sensibility: a combination of formidable intelligence, wisdom, and emotional vulnerability.

The Argonauts takes its name from a passage by Roland Barthes in which he:

…describes how the subject who utters the phrase “I love you” is like “the Argonaut renewing his ship during its voyage without changing its name.” Just as the Argo’s parts may be replaced over time but the boat is still called the Argo, whenever the lover utters the phrase “I love you,” its meaning must be renewed by each use, as “the very task of love and of language is to give to one and the same phrase inflections which will be forever new.”

From this starting point, The Argonauts explores how love and language form one’s identity and also shake it up. It’s about the mystery of persistence and change, that even when everything transforms around us and in us, somehow we are still the same, still finding or creating meaning in the phrase “I love you.”

To make these points concrete, Nelson focuses on her relationship with the artist Harry Dodge, who was once Harriet Dodge and who now identifies as gender-fluid, and on Nelson’s experience of pregnancy and motherhood. As she did in Bluets, she moves back and forth among subjects, so that while the book contains narrative within it, it’s not narrative that carries us forward, but instead the interest of the juxtapositions and development of her ideas. It’s also the voice that keeps us reading, Nelson’s beguiling way of creating a sense of intimacy. She works through her feelings and thoughts with the reader right beside her, inviting the reader to participate in the journey.

Of childbirth, she writes, “to let the baby out, you have to be willing to go to pieces.” The feeling of physically falling apart while trying to push a baby out, of “going to pieces,” is also a way to think metaphorically about breaking down the identities and categories society hands us. She wonders:

Is there something inherently queer about pregnancy itself, insofar as it profoundly alters one’s “normal” state, and occasions a radical intimacy with – and radical alienation from – one’s body?

But at the same time, how can this radical-seeming experience be one of the most conventional things a woman can do? Nelson is resistant to all attempts to remove a sense of strangeness from bodily experiences. She takes issue with Dr. Sears’s The Baby Book and its attempt to reassure mothers who feel sexual arousal while breastfeeding that these feelings are simply a mix-up:

But how can it be a mix-up, if it’s the same hormones? How does one go about partitioning one sexual feeling off from another, presumably more “real” sexual feeling? Or, more to the point, why the partition? It isn’t like a love affair. It is a love affair.

She returns repeatedly to the image of the “sodomitical mother,” a concept from Susan Fraiman that acknowledges a mother’s sexuality, sexuality “in excess of the dutifully instrumental,” or pleasure as a mother for its own sake. All of these experiences remind us:

that any bodily experience can be made new and strange, that nothing we do in this life need have a lid crammed on it, that no one set of practices or relations has the monopoly on the so-called radical, or the so-called normative.

This resistance to lids crammed onto actions and feelings is borne out in her relationship with Harry Dodge. In the book’s early pages, Nelson begins to fall in love with Dodge but isn’t sure which pronoun to use and can’t bring herself to ask. She prefers to avoid pronouns altogether and simply repeat Dodge’s name again and again in an “orgy of specificity.” Although the book does settle into using “he,” Nelson addresses Dodge as “you” throughout much of it, making the book feel, fittingly, like a love letter. The Argonauts tells the story of their deepening relationship, their growing family, and how “queer family making” might be “an umbrella category under which baby making might be a subset” – pregnancy as a subversive state rather than a conservative, traditional one.

Throughout, Nelson is always keen to remind us that we rely on language, with all of its flaws and inadequacies, to understand and communicate who we are. Indeed, the problem of language is at the heart of the book, the question of whether “words are good enough”:

Before we met, I had spent a lifetime devoted to Wittgenstein’s idea that the inexpressible is contained – inexpressibly! – in the expressed. This idea gets less air time than his more reverential Whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent, but it is, I think, the deeper idea. Its paradox is, quite literally, why I write, or how I feel able to keep writing.

That language can express the inexpressible is the paradox that lies behind all of Nelson’s explorations and questions. Language is limiting – even if one identifies as gender-fluid, one must choose to be “he” or “she,” at least in the form of English we speak today – but also “words change depending on who speaks them,” so we have some room to remake language for our own purposes. Or at least there is a point to trying to say what cannot be said. There is a point to trying to write.

Nelson does not attempt to write entirely on her own; The Argonauts is full of quotations from psychologists, philosophers, and theorists of all sorts: D.W. Winnicott most importantly, and also Jacques Lacan, Judith Butler, Susan Sontag, Pema Chödrön, and many others. In many cases Nelson does not attribute her quotations in the traditional way, but adds the names of her sources to the margins of the pages and uses italics to indicate what is quoted. This allows her to highlight her sources – they jump out as the reader glances through the book for the first time – and to integrate her ideas with theirs more smoothly. The book is as much a dialogue with other thinkers as it is an account of her own life and thoughts. It’s an acknowledgement that to write about herself fully, she needs to include what she has read. It’s also a recognition that in trying to use language to express the inexpressible, we necessarily depend on what others have said, or have attempted to say.

The Argonauts is an extraordinary achievement. It’s moving, challenging, vulnerable, intellectual, and beautifully written. I will be pressing it into people’s hands with the same eagerness as I did with Bluets. In a time when ideas – and, indeed, the laws – about gender and sexuality are changing rapidly, Nelson is just the thinker and writer we need.

SNB logo tinyRebecca Hussey is an English professor, blogger, reviewer, and, most of all, a reader. She blogs at Of Books and Bicycles.

Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts (Graywolf Press:  Minneapolis, 2015). 978-1555977078, 160pp., hardback.

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