Feministing Reads: Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts

Maggie Nelson’s new book The Argonauts (Graywolf Press) made me feel many things while reading, but nothing more often than giddy. So many kinds of joyfully awed, for so many reasons. I have joked to friends that I cannot distinguish between loving The Argonauts because it is good and loving it because it is the kind of book I am always trying to read, wanting to write. (And what is the former if not the latter, anyway?)

This kind of book has been called (by Nelson, by interviewers, and in my head when I dream of reading and writing it) autotheory, autobiographical criticism, embodied theory, and critical memoir. This particular book concerns itself primarily with Nelson’s love for her fluidly gendered partner, the video artist Harry Dodge, and for the children they raise together; these threads of memoir are braided with and provoked by other writers’ words, quoted seamlessly throughout the text with attributions running along the outside margins. It has been compared to books by Roland Barthes, Claudia Rankine, Hilton Als, Paul B. Preciado, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick—my kind of books.

argregAnother way of saying this: I am giddy because The Argonauts is so queer, and it is so openly constructed through—or “leaning against,” as Nelson has put it—so many of the writers through whom I’ve constructed my queer self. I am joyfully awed by how its queerness is bedrock, how it starts from the place of queerness.

And maybe, if I am being honest with myself and with you, I am at least a bit giddy because of how readily readers have embraced it. Nelson’s caution midway through The Argonauts that social progress is rarely straightforward and never inevitable—“really justice has no coordinates, no teleology”—is welcome, because I can’t help feeling that the book’s mainstream literary success is a measure of certain other political ones.

Of course, I would never claim either (a) that mainstream literary reception is in any way metonymic for some broader American zeitgeist, or (b) that I’ve taken any authoritative measures of the book’s reception. And yet, when I read glowing reviews at Vulture and the New Yorker, when I hear interviewers asking Nelson about heteronormativity at Tin House and Lit Hub and The Rumpus, when I see friends at all levels of political involvement Instagramming their favorite passages, I can’t discipline my awe, my giddiness.

But The Argonauts does not aim, Nelson reminds us, to stake a claim or make a case: “I don’t want to represent anything. At the same time, every word that I write could be read as some kind of defense, or assertion of value, of whatever it is that I am.” This is not polemic. This is Nelson’s own life she’s writing, or rather, a particularly dense slice of it. Nelson has applied her staggering intelligence to autobiographical material before, including her aunt’s murder in Jane: A Murder (2005) and The Red Parts: A Memoir (2007) and the blueness of solitude in the universally adored lyric essay Bluets (2009), but in The Argonauts she interrogates for the first time “The pleasure of obligation, the pleasure of dependency. The pleasures of ordinary devotion.”

In an interview for Lambda Literary Nelson explains, “I tried to do something I hadn’t done before, which was use the book as a holding container for sentiments of love and happiness.” Love for Harry, to whom much of the book is directly addressed; love for Nelson’s new stepson; and love for Iggy, the son she has with Harry, spill out of The Argonauts, suffusing every page. It is because of rather than despite this deep love that the book also holds conflict, ambivalence, and loss.

After years of painful chest binding—“Your inability to live in your skin was reaching its peak”—Harry begins to medically transition at the same time that Nelson becomes pregnant with Iggy. Taking seriously the notion that “in the field of gender, there is no charting where the external and the internal begin and end,” Nelson spends much of The Argonauts charting the unstable, ever-changing relationships between body and self and between self and others, wrestling all the while with how such changes are reflected in or elude language.

The book’s titular reference to the Argonauts and their mythical ship Argo is a metaphor, borrowed from Barthes, for this endless reconstitution of all we struggle to hold under the signs of self and love: “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.”

In their efforts to build a home that can hold their love and their children, Nelson and Harry inevitably confront longstanding queer critiques of the nuclear family as an unsalvageable emblem of heteronormativity. Nelson is herself well versed in these critiques, and she details her own investments in their motivating values of sex positivity, sexual and gender plurality, anti-capitalism, and so on. But Nelson also airs reservations about the ways in which certain strains of queer thought inflexibly dismiss procreation and monogamy as inevitably normative, regardless of context. There is no universal checklist for radicals resisting the heteropatriarchy, Nelson reminds us, which is not the same thing as denying the reality of heteropatriarchal oppression. “Perhaps it’s the word radical that needs rethinking,” Nelson speculates, shying away from the programmatic rigidity that often attends the label; “But what could we angle ourselves toward instead, or in addition? Openness? Is that good enough, strong enough?”

Many of Nelson’s most moving and exciting insights into prescriptive anti-normativity are arrived at through her experience of pregnancy and motherhood, which brings her into conflict with the underlying misogyny of much anti-procreative rhetoric. She ventures that pregnancy might be an inherently queer experience in the way it reconfigures one’s relationship to their body, but much male-authored queer theory either ignores or condemns the reproductive body as inherently heteronormative.

Nelson finds a more productive model for thinking through the queerness of her pregnant body in Susan Fraiman’s figure of the “sodomitical mother,” a woman who claims “non-normative, nonprocreative sexuality” without repudiating or quarantining her maternal experience. She writes beautifully about the deeply sensory, even sensual, joy that her child brings her, and about the difficulty of disentangling this mother love from other loves: “it is romantic, erotic, and consuming—but without tentacles. I have my baby, and my baby has me. It is a buoyant eros, an eros without teleology.”

Nelson reminds us that for theorists like Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, the suppleness of the term queer was the very value that originally made it such an appealing alternative to the homo/hetero binary: “[Sedgwick] wanted the term to be a perpetual excitement, a kind of placeholder—a nominative, like Argo, willing to designate molten or shifting parts.” At the same time, and Nelson acknowledges this, Sedgwick was adamant about the importance of keeping homosexuality central to queer critique. (Sedgwick often referred to her own work as “anti-homophobic inquiry” rather than queer theory.) “It’s easy to get juiced up about a concept like plurality or multiplicity and start complimenting everything as such,” Nelson cautions.

And here I stop feeling giddy and start feeling anxious. Nelson’s intervention is necessary, and I am glad for it. Still, I worry about the literary mainstream being introduced to queer anti-normativity only through its disavowal. Refer to caution (b) above about my circumstantial evidence, but I worry about The Argonauts being embraced as a queer stamp of approval on certain straight readers’ otherwise unexamined heteronormativity. For example, I am deeply suspicious not just of the truth but of the utility of claims like the one made at the outset of a review published in the Boston Review, in which the author confidently asserts that procreation is a more “ghettoized” topic in art and academia than “ass fucking” or genderqueerness. I resent this ranking impulse, as well as the implicit accusation that queer sex is hip or post-political, which only serves to obscure persistent homo- and transphobia (or, at least, persistent aversions to ass fucking).

But I also think these are willful misreadings rather than risks inherent to Nelson’s book. The Argonauts does not reverse queer lifestyle hierarchies, but rather aims to undermine them; Nelson does not argue that norms do not exist or do not oppress, but rather that there is no single way to live in opposition to them. An even greater challenge, I think, is posed by her (and Sedgwick’s) insistence that norms change, in both the course of history and the course of a life, and are therefore context dependent. So too must be our resistance.

Which returns us to Nelson’s disclaimer that she has “never been less interested in arguing for the rightness, much less the righteousness, of any particular position or orientation.” In counterpoint to her thick web of citations, Nelson’s more anecdotal passages can be disarmingly direct, as when she writes of Harry’s preparation for top surgery, “I’ve never loved you more than I did then, with your Kool-Aid drains, your bravery in going under the knife to live a better life.” In its constant motion between criticism and memoir, The Argonauts is a thrilling realization of that effort so central to so many queer and feminist lives: the effort to live (with) our theory. Nelson demonstrates at the level of form how our interpretive vocabularies can alternately illuminate and fail to apprehend the primary text of lived experience, and how the texts that sustain us dovetail with or chafe against all the other stuff we are sustaining: “we develop, even in utero, in response to a flow of projections and reflections ricocheting off us. Eventually, we call that snowball a self (Argo).”

Or, in her disarmingly direct mode, “How to explain, in a culture frantic for resolution, that sometimes the shit stays messy?” The Argonauts is an indispensable testament to Nelson’s particular, particularly gorgeous mess.


New Haven, CT

Sam Huber is a writer and editor living in New Haven, CT. He is a books columnist for Feministing and a graduate student in English at Yale University.

Writer, editor, queer.

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