Sam Dolph on Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts
Maggie Nelson’s memoir, The Argonauts, is about undoing. Structurally, she undoes everything we are taught about how a piece of literature is supposed to exist and work: she does not give us chapters, indentations at the start of paragraphs, or any kind of chronological order. She undoes the intellectual hierarchy in place that puts theorists and philosophers (Barthes, Deleuze, Foucault, Sedgwick) at the top and the rest of us at the bottom, by integrating their thoughts and work right alongside her own prose—their names hovering off to the side—thus giving her own name equal weight. She undoes the identities we all cling to because we need them—mother, father, partner, boy, girl, trans, queer, hetero, homo, writer, doctor, artist—and she doesn’t fall apart. At least not forever.
It’s no surprise that she returns again and again to Judith Butler (the undoing master herself) and the assertion that we as humans “are for another, or, indeed, by virtue of another.” Nelson doesn’t even need to reiterate the part of the quote that comes before this assertion, Butler’s delicious declaration that we are “undone by each other, in the face of the other, by the touch, by the scent, by the feel… .” Because The Argonauts is clear proof. Nelson even undoes our understanding of genre by deeming her book a work of autotheory—a term before only used in Testo Junkie by Paul Preciado—rather than the traditional memoir. The truth is that memoirs get a bad reputation.
I once chose to take a class in college called “Reading & Writing Personal Essays,” but was too self-conscious to apply for entrance to a class called “Reading & Writing Memoirs.” Thinking back on this choice, I’m reminded of an NYT piece from 2010 that recognized memoir as “the black sheep of the literary family … motivated, it would seem, by an overpowering need to be the center of attention.” Sometimes, I’m embarrassed to even tell people I’m reading a memoir, and I usually feel the need to defend it by saying “I never read memoirs but this one doesn’t feel like a memoir, you know?” I’m met with emphatic nods. People get it. We’re all uncomfortable with self-reflection, and one of the scary consequences of both reading and writing a memoir is that it forces both parties into self-reflection. Yikes!
In any case, Nelson not only allowed me to avoid humiliation (and even gain some literary cred) in that I could say I was reading an autotheory, but she also offers another platform for self-reflection that is more accessible because it is cradled in theory, and thus feels meditative rather than exposing. What I really think is that we all just need to pull down our collective shame blanket and feel comfortable talking and thinking about ourselves via memoir and in everyday life, but until that happens it’s nice to know we have other options.
The Argonauts begins (after a steamy foray into the forbidden land of queer sex) with an argument between Nelson and her partner, trans artist Harry Dodge, about the inadequacy or adequacy of language. To illustrate this argument, Nelson tells a story of when she—“feral with vulnerability” after declaring her love for Dodge—sent him (as we all wish we had) a Barthes passage that discusses the ever-changing meaning of “I love you.” According to Barthes, anyone who utters “I love you” is like the Argonaut rebuilding his ship: while the parts of the ship are replaced during its voyage, the name of the ship remains the same. To Nelson, this passage solidifies her own truth, that language can always be enough, whereas Dodge can only see it as the opposite: a confirmation that language can never measure up, and even more, will destroy what’s “real.”
This argument silently chugs along as the book moves forward, just barely in the background. Even in the most beautifully biting moments of Nelson’s prose as she details an intense love scene between her and Dodge, or the moment she gave birth to her son, Iggy, or her fear as she’s stalked by a man obsessed with her aunt’s death, the question remains: is language enough? Is this book—is any book—enough? And if it’s enough for Nelson, does it have to be enough for Dodge? For me? For us?
. . . it’s OK to welcome different selves into our supreme (if messy) identities, even if those selves contradict or feel distant from each other at times. Nothing cancels something else out when it comes to who we are.
For me, the answer is complicated because I think one of the harsh truths that I found in Nelson’s work of autotheory is that there really isn’t anything that actually is enough, and this includes language. But this truth isn’t limiting; in fact, it’s liberating. None of the theories or quotes in The Argonauts can stand alone as emblematic of what Nelson is trying to convey, but they all highlight each other and help Nelson tell her story. And more, when Nelson sends Dodge the Barthes passage to declare her love, it doesn’t mean she’s done telling him. I imagine the conversation continues daily.
What The Argonauts helped me see is that no one thing needs to be enough because there is always something else to add to my story. In my most vulnerable moments when I wonder, “am I smartbeautifulcompassionatepatientstrikinghardworkinglovinglovable enough?” the answer can be no, and that can suck. But if in one moment I’m not enough of one thing, I am enough of another. And another and another and another. In the moments where I allow myself to not be enough and come undone, I welcome the possibility of becoming more.
After watching both of their bodies change side-by-side, Nelson’s belly swelling with her growing son and Dodge’s musculature increasing on testosterone injections, Nelson remarks: “On the surface, it may have seemed as though [Dodge’s] body was becoming more and more ‘male,’ mine, more and more ‘female.’ But . . . on the inside, we were two human animals undergoing transformations . . . in other words, we were aging.” Nelson is partly joking, but also partly not.
There is a funny and exciting thing that happens in a queer relationship where everything you see, experience, and think about is also queer; in The Argonauts, Nelson undoes this in a way that doesn’t diminish queerness, but surpasses it. The choices both Nelson and Dodge have made—Nelson’s pregnancy and Dodge’s transition—are inherently queer, but they are also choices and experiences that happen simply because they are “two human animals” learning how, even in their most gendered moments, to be together in their bodies and marveling at what that can mean for each of them independently.
Nelson simultaneously underlines and undoes queerness again when she struggles with understanding what it means to take on an identity that carries with it such problematic connotations: mother. She asks, “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?” Here, we see an intimate moment within a queer feminist as she both questions and justifies her choice. She continues, “How can an experience so profoundly strange and wild and transformative also symbolize or enact the ultimate conformity?” Nelson’s question is an important one—how can we simultaneously hold the identities we’ve worked so hard to create for ourselves (i.e. queer, feminist, progressive, activist) while happily leaping into others that, whether we like or not, contain the very stereotypes and associations we reject? Why do we feel like we must choose and justify? Why can’t we just have it all?
As The Argonauts proves again and again—we can. We just have some undoing to do first. “Poor marriage!” Nelson exclaims as she remembers her and Dodge’s trip to Norwalk City Hall to tie the knot: “off we went to kill it (unforgivable). Or reinforce it (unforgivable).” Sometimes it seems we just can’t win “in the face of the other,” but this defeat makes way for new possibilities, for new definitions, for undoing and rebirth.
As Nelson grapples with her own understanding and redefining of motherhood, she looks to other female artists, writers, and scholars who have manifested the same questions in (or in response to) their own work. Nelson refers to a VICE interview with artist Catherine Opie in which the interviewer comments on the shock one feels when watching Opie go from the SM scene to the motherhood scene. One might feel the same shock while reading through The Argonauts, as we see wild and sexy images of Nelson and Dodge in bed with dildos, and later the tenderness Nelson feels for her son as she climbs into the hospital bed with him during an intense health scare.
Why should this be shocking, though, and why should we expect anything different? Our perverse desires don’t mean that we can’t be moms, or that we’re bad ones. They just mean we’re human. On the other hand, deciding to move from an SM project to one that focuses on motherhood doesn’t make anyone less of a badass feminist. The Argonauts shows us that we can be all of the above, and that no identity cancels another one out. Rather, we need to undo our judgments about the identities that already exist; we need “to be willing to go to pieces” in order to give birth to anything, be it another life, a project, an identity, a self.
One of the hardest things I’ve heard—a sentiment that once brutally undid me—was something my ex-girlfriend said when we broke up: that she first fell in love with me through my writing, which created an illusory image of me that didn’t hold, and one that ultimately revealed the person behind it, a person she could not love anymore. Suddenly components of myself that I hadn’t thought of as separate were pitted against each other like fight dogs that didn’t know why. Was I unconsciously tricking people with what I wrote and disappointing everyone I loved? Which part of me was truer—the one I wrote with, or the one I loved with? Did I abandon one by choosing the other? How could I trust what I thought of as my own authenticity if someone was telling me it wasn’t?
Needless to say, it took me a long time and many therapy sessions to feel stable enough diving into these questions without succumbing to their power or my overall grief for the relationship I lost, and the self I felt I lost with it (“in the face of the other”). I’m still answering them. But one thing I learned from this breakup and a point that Nelson makes beautifully is that it’s OK to welcome different selves into our supreme (if messy) identities, even if those selves contradict or feel distant from each other at times. Nothing cancels something else out when it comes to who we are. The writer I am doesn’t outshine the partner I am, and vice versa. Both can be lousy, but in other moments, both can be stunning. The trick is to let ourselves honor all of our parts, always.
Nelson writes that she “[doesn’t] want to represent anything,” so I won’t say that she or this book does. What I will say is that Nelson and this book show us what it’s like to allow ourselves to come undone, to “go to pieces,” and proves that we can still come out alive and intact on the other side, just like the Argonaut’s ship. She shows us what it’s like to take that plunge when she—the all-knowing, queer feminist!—confesses that she googled Dodge when she first met him to find out which pronouns he uses, or when she—the good mom!—reveals a confusing mental image she once had of “a half scissor sticking out of [Iggy’s] precious newborn head,” unsure of how it got there.
Nelson undoes and redefines motherhood not only by questioning what motherhood means to her and to society at large, but also by exhibiting her own raw and repulsive experiences as they actually unfolded. “Many women describe the feeling of having a baby come out of their vagina as taking the biggest shit of their lives. This isn’t really a metaphor,” she writes. Nelson owns up to her experiences—ugly or radiant—in the same way we expect mothers to own up to the responsibilities of a curated idea of motherhood. Nelson gives these moments to us without holding back, and by doing this she creates space for different ways of being—and being proud of being—a mom. Why can’t taking a shit be romantic in the same way that “feeling a flower bloom from the inside out” is? Either way, life gets created and a couple months later the baby is sitting on a rug somewhere sucking his cute little finger.
Nelson doesn’t once take the easy way out, and that’s what makes The Argonauts so successful. It’s the type of book that makes me want to break the silence between my ex-girlfriend and me to ask if she’s read it, stop random strangers on the street to wave the sleek little book in their face, or join a book group and demand we read it. It’s not the kind of book to read and put away, it’s one that insists we keep talking about it. Even if the book has a final page, the questions and issues of identity throughout it do not, and they affect us intimately and every day regardless of how we define ourselves. Not only has Nelson started the discussion, but she has also set an example for the way we need to talk about these issues—fiercely and with care, unafraid to unravel.
Sam Dolph lives in Cambridge, MA. Her work has been published in The Silo and Pitch & Rail’s art publication, Pussy.jpg.
The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson • Graywolf Press, 2015 • 160 pages
Photo courtesy of Micah McCrary