Review: THE ARGONAUTS by Maggie Nelson
Review by SHAELYN SMITH
At this year’s NYC PRIDE a group of people were handing out self-published, large format, pink and black newspapers that pronounced in 212-point font “I HATE THE GAYS.” Rather than the assumed bashing a title like that would suggest, this group was instead advocating for a resurgence of queer—this distinction, the nuance, is something the paper then begins to dissect through a variety of manifestos, poems and expose-style articles, all written anonymously. The overarching point is that the term “gay” signifies the hetereonormative, when the fight instead should call attention to difference. Especially this year’s pride, with SCOTUS’s ruling to legalize same-sex marriage coinciding almost directly with the parade, the rally seemed to lose its original intent and dissolve into a questioning of terms: what these things mean, what should or could be defined as what. These self-published papers seemed to impress upon the crowd at Friday night’s Drag March an ideology of taxonomy, and an oncology of etymology. The unity seemed inherently divisive as people began to superimpose their ideals upon the decisions of others. An older woman, after handing me a celebratory plastic flute of champagne bought from the wine store across the street and toasting, turned to my group friends again and asked, somewhat harshly, “Why are you here?”
Much attention is called to the idea of “queer”—especially under consideration of “queering the family”—in Maggie Nelson’s latest book The Argonauts. She questions her own family dynamic—her trans- partner, her stepchild, the son she most recently gave birth to—in a slim volume that could be categorized as an “autotheory”—a blending of criticism and memoir. Though short, it’s dense, and meandering—not unlike Nelson’s other work. Her ultimate autotelic purpose here, though, could be summed up by her own interrogation toward the middle of the text: “How does one get across the fact that the best way to find out how people feel about their gender or their sexuality—or anything else, really—is to listen to what they tell you, and to try to treat them accordingly, without shellacking over their version of reality with yours?” In The Argonauts, Nelson doesn’t shellack over any version of reality—instead she tears away the strata of detritus and half-truths that have been layered over her own.
The recurring symbol of argo—the displacement of the old by the new, yet retaining some idea of the thing itself, if not the same thing, it is made a new—serves as an anchor throughout the text to excavate Nelson’s truths of self, identity, relationship, love. Through patterning these accruals, Nelson intimates the impermanence of all things—that, by basis of the argonaut, these ideas and emotions we consider “truth” are constantly changing. She offers that even we ourselves are shaped of accrual: of thought, emotion, experience. By which we remember, and continue to forge ahead with myriad assessment and reassessment with varying maturity and candor the particular truths held to be self-evident. The Argonauts investigates this subjection to restructuring: how we come, through Nelson, to understand the propulsion of intellectual and emotional growth. The enveloping argonaut seems a perfect symbol for Nelson’s work—continually associating and abstracting itself into sheer brilliance, and genius transcendence.
She allows herself to access the dark and dirty corners of the brain—by admittances that the flooding of milk to her breast is akin to orgasm, that “age doesn’t necessarily bring anything with it, save itself,” that depression and anxiety are very real things that crop up of their own accord. She talks about failure: “other moments of my life may have looked worse, but this one felt like its own kind of bottom”; she recognizes the need for recognition in these moments. She understands this is how the “snowball of a self” keeps its necessary momentum. This is how Maggie Nelson’s self-exploration unfolds, and we are lucky to be witness to it. It’s a process of needling the abject, examining from a distance, the practice of systemically and simultaneously negotiating the line between being of this world and belonging to this world. She knits out and navigates for us this Mobius strip of iterations and intentions, all the while heeding back to the binomial of the relationship to the self, which by an osmosis of power, engenders the ability to conjure and cultivate relationships with others.
This book serves, as least for me, as a causal nexus of necessity, following in this cultural wake of all things empathy, Nelson employs a startling lack of it. She doesn’t need empathy, this oft-deployed buzzword of the societal times, because here Nelson interrogates the self and investigates (step-)motherhood and catechizes feminism, all the while keeping a stakehold in the problematization of class, academia, family, art, love. She never loses sight of the so-called (queer) female experience, which everyone wants to observe, reflect upon and call witness to, but so many are afraid to claim. Here this experience is given breath, and room to breathe.
Toward the end of The Argonauts, Nelson breaks down the process of childbirth, of giving birth to a child, making it an action on-going, rather than a one-time symbolic event. The indefensible, unknowable, unbearable, inadmissible—these become Nelson’s stomping ground, though the only outreach she does is into the depths of theory, culling a collaboration with criticism. Nelson brings to the page with her insight and vigor, as well as a vast swath of knowledge—of art, of performance, of theory, of self. She juxtaposes the associative reflection and mediation of a memoir with the cutting inflection of art criticism, by which she saves herself from the trap of the common memoir—the snowballed tumbling into the furnace of myopia in which any truths made manifest melt into a tepid pool of self-pity. The latter a notion Nelson recognizes as all too common: “You may keep saying that you only speak for yourself, but your very presence in the public sphere begins to congeal difference into a single figure, and pressure begins to bear down hard upon it.” Instead, Nelson skillfully and sharply, in a sort of apogee of its type, offers an interrogation into theories and roles in shaping the truths of our lives, loves, selves. In The Argonauts, Nelson positions herself as specimen, rather than prototype, and the resulting distances allows for an epochal honesty and integrity.
Nelson is doing something scary: she makes vulnerable the experience of the self without making it into metaphor, but rather theorizing it—forcing the intimate to be expansive, and dialing the personal to the political to the polemical without attempt to justify, or over-explain it away. For example, when she admits to and writes about her history of dappling in various addictions, she’s not trying to pedantically impart wisdom or connect with her audience as much as she is trying to discover something transcendent of the situation:
I learned this scorn from my own mother; perhaps it laced my milk. I therefore have to be on the alert for a tendency to treat other people’s needs as repulsive. Corollary habit: deriving the bulk of my self-worth from a feeling of hypercompetence, and irrational but fervent believe in my near total self-reliance.
There’s something terrifying about the sparseness and silence of honesty—an economy of language that begets the price of love. Nelson writes without pretense, and then allows us in on that secret: “That’s part of the horror of speaking, of writing. There is nowhere to hide. When you try to hide, the spectacle can grow grotesque.” But, that doesn’t mean she has it figured out, either, or that we should hold her theories to be anything other that her own truths.
Nelson says in an interview with Guenrica shortly before the publication of The Argonauts: “I think everybody knows what it’s like to have strategic identifications throughout a day. Everybody code-switches, some people more than others. Everyone knows what it’s like to spend a day passing in certain environments.” We could see this book, then, rather than a manifesto, as a treatise of a modern era, and a necessary admission for the times, and something often overlooked—so eager are we to identify, that we forget introductions, so eager are we to assign blame that we forget to acknowledge balance; to organize that we forget origins; to envelope that we forget to encounter, to explain that we forget avowals; so insistent are we to wax theoretical that we forget to wander whimsical; so eager are we to code-source that we forget about code-switching. Nelson devises, then divulges, partway through The Argonauts that even she does not intend to, but finds herself beginning to “write the same book over and over again—not because one is stupid or obstinate or incapable of change, but because such revisitations constitute a life.” That perhaps, simply, things are not as stolid as we may like to assume—that ever present is the idea of the Argonaut: the ship perpetually re-hulling itself, the self constantly re-inventing itself, the lover constantly re-presenting herself.
In her previous books of criticism, namely The Art of Cruelty, Maggie Nelson adopts a similar voice: not cold, not icy, but indifferent—an intellectual indifference by which she finds herself capable of such mastery and meditation and awareness. The particular form of citation in The Argonauts plays advocate to this—the text of the slim volume (appears) as contained fragments justified sections that favor the center seam, leaving space in the exterior margin for gray-font names of the authors, theorists, artists, and critics Nelson references, or quotes, denoting their speech by italics. This is breezy, but not lazy. It’s not off-putting—it shows remarkable restraint and ability by which to hold a commonplace conversation amongst these topics, so familiar they have become to her. She can meander about them with ease, therefore too eliminating the need for sections or chapters—it’s all of the same ilk and register for her. As she notes early on in the book: “I’ve explained this elsewhere. But I’m trying to say something different now.”
The Argonauts seems only a natural next step in Nelson’s oeuvre, as she’s known for an unflinching approach to the taboo, and for making that taboo something lyric, something intelligible, something enlightened—and certainly in due course as a follow up to The Art of Cruelty, which ends on an avowal that “one of this book’s primary aims…has been making a space for paying close attention, for recognizing and articulating ambivalence, uncertainty, repulsion, and pleasure.” Nelson has here, in The Argonauts, made that space personal—it becomes a conversation to Harry, rather than a conversation with Harry (she acknowledges of Cruelty that “the thoughts in this book belong as much to my beloved and brilliant Harry Dodge as they do to me”). She addresses throughout a “you” that we learn to be her partner, Harry, as she contends with domesticity, love, parenting, sex, gender, class, age. And despite that direct address to an explicit second person, no audience is excluded. This memoir embodies what Cynthia Ozick cites as most crucial quality of an essay—that “she may be privately indifferent to us, but she is anything but unwelcoming. Above all, she is not a hidden principle or a thesis or a construct: she is there, a living voice. She takes us in.” In the pages of this refreshing, much needed and invigoratingly transparent work, Nelson is there. And she will take you in without questioning why you are there, too.