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Maggie Nelson’s ‘The Argonauts’: A heavily biased review

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I began reading Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts four or five months ago. I say ‘began’ because I haven’t really stopped since. I pick it up several times a week to sink back into particularly beautiful passages, or plumb further her more layered and difficult observations. I have a slightly wary suspicion that I will be reading this book on my deathbed, by which point I will naturally be onto my third or fourth hardback (there will have been reissues by then, of course) and will probably also have become close friends with Mag IRL. 

Truly though, this is a text that rewards repeated readings. Nelson covers an immense amount of ground: just when you think she’s exhausted all possible subjects of feminist analysis, there is (more) anal sex; there is arousal while breastfeeding; there is the naked dead. Her approach to these topics is clear-eyed and frank. While pregnant she explains that feminists who advocate for abortion understand that the procedure entails taking a life. “We’re not idiots; we understand the stakes. Sometimes we choose death.” She pokes at all of your parochial discomforts until you are forced to either denounce them or live uncomfortably aware of them ever after. 

This is writing that twists love and care in all their fractious, messy instantiations, into the substance of real theory, and tests out theory in turn on the rough grounds of real life.

If this is a text that bears revisiting though, it is not one that yields to the usual recounting of Things That Happen. The book feels less like it is ‘about’ things, and more as though it does things: Things like breaking down binaries from the breakfast table and arguing with people, and exposing the messy human underbelly of being any kind of person, any kind of human animal. Forget the plot. Even attempts to classify The Argonauts by genre fall short. It is often called memoir, but its fidelity to that category seems subverted by a deft and ambitious constructedness. The language of the text shifts around between the poetic, the first person reflective, and an analytic used to draw readers into conversation with a generation of thinkers. Indeed, the book is in many ways a long conversation between Nelson, her family, and those she calls the “many gendered mothers of [her] heart”.

Theorists, writers, activists, and thinkers all partake in this conversation: their names appear, small and bolded, in the margins of the pages, a physical as well as intellectual presence. Amongst the challenges Nelson puts forth in The Argonauts, she thus adds an interrogation of the author. She tell us: “Writing for me has always felt more clarifying than creative”. If we envision the production of a novel less as a rabbit-out-of-hat trick and more as a work of dialogue, thought, and feeling through one’s own and other’s ideas, then perhaps we come to a novel that is less about ownership, individual brilliance, and mystical (tortured?) creativity, and more to one that is contingent, dialogic, transparent-ish, and open to modification. Which is to say, a more feminist novel. 

The genre-bending of the novel also characterizes one of Nelson’s core concerns: The place and potential of queerness in an age of homonormativity and soft transgressionism. It is a poetic irony that if the book attracts a mainstream following (a project Ark Books and I myself are entirely complicit in) it will follow the steps of same sex marriage into convention and acceptability, perhaps losing its power to affront. She puts her finger on the problem while perhaps simultaneously producing an example of precisely that. The genre fluidity of the text may also stand in as a nod to Nelson’s partner, Harry, who transitioned during their time together but without the intention of ending up entirely in one particular gender. “How to explain, in a culture frantic for resolution, that sometimes the shit stays messy?” Her answer, I think, is to demonstrate as much as explain: Look at all of these wonderful, unresolved, in-between healthy things! Look at how good they are!

In the first page of the book Nelson introduces us to “Wittgenstein’s idea that the inexpressible is contained – inexpressibly! – in the expressed”. She tells us that this “paradox is, quite literally, why I write, or how I feel able to keep writing”. Yet her relationship with Harry quickly destabilised this faith, and we are led into one of Nelson’s abiding interests: an interrogation of words, the question of what language can do for us. Are words in the service of our experiences and our need to communicate them, or do they just get in the way, obscure, and disappoint? How can we load up these ultimately meaningless and wiley things with our meaning, our feelings, our ideas, and the subterfuge that is trying to get them across the breach, to another? Harry, a person whose existence is only provoked by identitarian language argues, repeatedly, the limitations of words. Though Nelson starts out adversarial she sways and falters throughout the book.

Yet, the book. It’s language is arresting and inquisitive. Nelson, a poet par excellence, throws words onto the page like punches. Subtle imagery lifts up complex ideas or difficult feelings: “Via T [testosterone], you’ve experienced surges of heat, an adolescent budding, your sexuality coming down from the labyrinth of your mind and disseminating like a cottonwood tree in a warm wind”. At other times, like when she reflects on her and Harry’s early talks over having a child together, she uses such a heartbreaking few short words: “What if we called and no baby spirit came?” It is lines like these that convince me that sometimes not only are words enough, they are our only hope.

The Argonauts has come to prominence at the same moment as Chris Kraus’ I Love Dick, and the two work well when read together. Kraus diagnoses a culture across the art world, the academy and beyond, that relegates any woman’s attempt to work through matters of feeling, emotion, or attachment, to the domain of the personal and unserious. Nelson presents to us a blood-boiling vignette in which a young scholar, showing slides of her children and attempting to think through these attachments, is cut down by the respondent, who shames and disparages the trespass of motherhood into her work. Kraus and Nelson point fingers to the same problem. 

One of Nelson’s chief achievements with this book, and an area in which, to my mind, she far surpasses Kraus, is her insistence on having care, love, and affection transcend supposedly unbreachable differences.

And both have produced the resistance most acutely needed: Works of art and literature that amplify the cultural and political resonance of their personal lives. While she emplots herself in an intellectual family through the margins of the text, it is Nelson’s reflections on her own role as a wife, a writer, someone’s daughter, a mother and step-mother that root her book in the fabric of the real and weight it with significance. She marvels at the “ordinary devotion” that keeps a child alive, as she describes for us how she and Harry set up a home for his son “that would feel abundant and containing”. This is writing that twists love and care in all their fractious, messy instantiations, into the substance of real theory, and tests out theory in turn on the rough grounds of real life. Having reported on her son’s youngest years Nelson turns to Klein, Freud, and Lacan, and writes, “It astonishes and shames me to think that I spent years finding [their] questions not only comprehensible, but compelling”. Becoming a mother prompts Nelson to reflect on the value of ‘enough’, with the same gaze that she turns on her inability to care for Harry’s terminally sick mother. Love may be fundamental, but it is not always limitless or even adequate for the problems at hand. 

puppiesbabies
Puppies and Babies by A. L. Steiner

One of Nelson’s chief achievements with this book, and an area in which, to my mind, she far surpasses Kraus, is her insistence on having care, love, and affection transcend supposedly unbreachable differences. When invited to speak at an evangelical Christian school, it is not the institution’s expulsion of gay students, nor the small student club advocating for homosexuality but condemning premarital sex (“What kind of queer is this?”, she asks) that most disturbed her. No, it was their Creationist teachings and refusal of evolution. “Our shared ancestry with earlier forms of life is sacred to me”, she writes, declining the invitation and pay-check. Later parts of the text are devoted to a photography installation of Puppies and Babies, a “joy swirl of sodomitical parenthood, care-taking of all kinds, and interspecies love” whose title seem fairly accurately to describe its contents. “One of the gifts of genderqueer family making—and animal loving—is the revelation of care taking as detachable from—and attachable to—any gender, any sentient being.” In the artist’s equivocal arrangement of babies and women and puppies, there is no pre-given hierarchy of relations, no non-human subordination.

Revisiting this puts me in mind of theorist and anthropologist Donna Haraway, who in recent years has developed an impassioned anti-pro-natalist agenda captured in the slogan “make kin, not babies”. Haraway has long written against eco-feminism, preferring instead to embrace the always already mediated (cyborg) human body and life. (Who is this natural woman whose hormones are modulated by oral contraceptives and body policed by her entire social world?) She is also an advocate for getting past species boundaries, for cultivating ‘response-ability’ between beings ordinarily thought of as other or apart. She hopes that “carrying meaning and materials across kinds… might yet ignite epidemics of multi-species recuperation”. And while the scholar in me loves to grapple and exalt with Haraway, it is Nelson who brings these arguments into the context of a life I know; it is poetry that impels me to try and push around my own relations, that makes me not only know of but feel the world and its many pains. Haraway advocates for ‘staying with the trouble’, for agitation and persistence. Maggie Nelson has put the trouble into poetry, in a paperback, along with the joy of it all. 

Courtney is an anthropologist and New Zealander, and has spent recent years wandering the globe, mostly while wishing she was home on the farm with a good book. She would like you to read more Janet Frame and spend more time outside, please.

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