THE SEEDS of Maggie Nelson’s latest book, The Argonauts, are scattered in the final pages of her 2011 prize-winning volume of criticism, The Art of Cruelty, which explored depictions of violence in art. While theorists from Artaud to Sade have advocated violence as a revolutionary creative force, others have wrung their hands about how images of brutality might damage our culture and our souls. But Nelson seems to straddle the gap between fascination and repulsion; she defends the desire both to look and to look away, and imagines an aesthetics expansive enough to comprehend both violence and its negation.
Aggression, she argues, is not inherently sadistic, but a necessary part of the formation of self; negotiating between conflicting impulses and influences is how beliefs and identities are shaped. The Art of Cruelty consequently simmers with vexation toward bossy artworks that demand categorical responses from their audiences; indeed, Nelson seems suspicious of all things categorical. She closes the book with admiring references to D. W. Winnicott and Roland Barthes — particularly his concept of “the neutral,” defined in his book of that name as “everything that baffles the paradigm” — and with a sort of invitation: “A paradox is more than the coexistence of opposing propositions or impulses,” she writes. “It signals the possibility — and sometimes the arrival — of a third term into a situation that otherwise appeared to consist of but two opposing forces.”
This “third term” is not an attitude of ambivalence. Rather, it is a sensitive, collaborative, and perceptive terrain, open enough to contain contradiction. The paradox can also be deeply transgressive, for it tends not to be a happy medium, but a novel, left-field position likely to violate taboos and piss off both sides in a conflict. This is the animating spirit of The Argonauts, in which Nelson is constantly disrupting the usual, binary terms of arguments. If you want to talk about same-sex relationships, she’s willing, but insists that sameness isn’t the point, that in her own relationships with women, the significant sameness has not been “the sameness of Woman, and certainly not the sameness of parts. Rather, it is the shared, crushing understanding of what it means to live in a patriarchy.” She will talk with you about abortion, as long as the terms aren’t choice versus life. Instead, she tells of how pregnancy galvanized her reproductive politics: “Feminists may never make a bumper sticker that says it’s a choice and a child, but of course that’s what it is, and we know it … We’re not idiots; we understand the stakes.” If you want to talk about female eroticism, buckle up: “I’m not interested in a hermeneutics, or an erotics, or a metaphorics, of my anus,” she writes. “I am interested in ass-fucking.” There is an intimacy here, but it does not function to woo the reader into a cozy relationship with the narrator. Rather, Nelson is staking out intimate terms for a discussion of political and philosophical ideas. She declares her individual case in order to keep the specific from being obscured by the general — an erasure often enacted by language itself.
“I had spent a lifetime devoted to Wittgenstien’s idea that the inexpressible is contained — inexpressibly! — in the expressed,” she writes at the book’s opening. “Its paradox is, quite literally, why I write, or how I feel able to keep writing.” But then, something changes. Or everything changes. Nelson falls in love with Harry Dodge, an artist who is fluidly gendered and about whom, at the beginning of their relationship (and the book), Nelson avoids speaking in the third person in order to avoid gendered pronouns. Thus begin the language difficulties, the anguished gap between the Harry who exists and the one who can be rendered into words. “I want the you no one else can see,” she writes. “The you so close the third person never need apply.” Their love affair brings a searing clarity to Nelson’s life, and she resents that that clarity is sullied when it’s taken out into a world that forces everything into binaries. It is, for her, a corruption of Wittgenstein’s promise that the inexpressible rears up, demanding expression, forcing her to reconsider how language works, or fails to.
The Argonauts is Nelson’s brilliant and poetically associative search for a way to create a space within language and the world where she and Dodge can make their life together. The crux of the book is somewhere near the question of how our identities, relationships, and choices take place privately, but have public meanings beyond our control. This tension, between the personal experience of love and the political requirements of queer relationships, becomes central as their relationship deepens. When the couple moves in together, Nelson becomes a stepparent to Dodge’s son, and their life is suddenly surprisingly domestic. They marry on a whim in the midst of California’s Prop 8 controversy, a gesture that seems less political or romantic than opportunistic, like hoarding a currency that’s about to be devalued. “Poor marriage!” she writes, “Off we went to kill it (unforgivable). Or reinforce it (unforgivable).”
Indeed, queer folks who choose to marry live with the twinned accusations that they are out to destroy heteronormativity and prop it up, either way “unforgivably” mimicking patriarchal relationship structures. But who is mimicking and who is living authentically? Nelson, quoting Judith Butler, asks:
When or how do new kinship systems mime older nuclear-family arrangements and when or how do they radically recontextualize them in a way that constitutes a rethinking of kinship? How can you tell; or rather, who’s to tell?
She turns to artists and thinkers like Butler, Barthes, Winnicott, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and others whom she describes as her “many-gendered mothers of the heart” to forge a clearer idea of what such a radical recontextualization might look like and how family, society, and self could be newly reconciled to one another.
Nelson’s pregnancy makes these questions seem even more urgent. She chronicles the routine indignities of queer baby-making, from a seemingly endless and increasingly depressing series of hormone and IVF treatments, to “off-roading” at home with a generous friend and an oral syringe. At the same time, Dodge starts to take testosterone to further his gender transition. The image of the couple, each flooded with new hormones that will change them in unanticipated ways, brings the book’s title into focus. An ancient philosophical thought experiment called the Ship of Theseus asks whether a ship whose parts are completely replaced over the course of its voyage is the same ship when it comes back to port. (Because Theseus sailed with Jason and the Argonauts, some, including Barthes, suppose the ship in question to have been the Argo.) This paradox of renovation and preservation, change and continuity, belies the idea of transition as change that is headed toward some fixed destination, and posits instead that the self is always shifting, defined not so much by the individual’s choices or expression as by how those are received by the community and culture about him. “Just let him wheel around in his sac for Christ’s sake,” Nelson thinks as her fetus is subjected to yet another ultrasound.
Let him stay oblivious — for the first and last time, perhaps — to the task of performing a self for others, to the fact that 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).
Nelson is witness to how testosterone and surgery, combined with a greater comfort in his own skin, alter Dodge’s body and also how that body is perceived. At the same time, she experiences her own physical transformations under the literal and symbolic weights of pregnancy and motherhood, which magnify exponentially those outside “projections and reflections” that shape a woman’s identity. Chafed by the pressure to conform to hetero norms on the one hand and radical queer norms on the other, Nelson argues that the realities of reproduction — the extreme physicality of it — complement her queer identity rather than betray it. “Is there something inherently queer about pregnancy itself?” she asks.
Insofar as it profoundly alters one’s ‘normal’ state, and occasions a radical intimacy with — and radical alienation from — one’s body? How can an experience so profoundly strange and wild and transformative also symbolize or enact the ultimate conformity? Or is this just another disqualification of anything tied too closely to the female animal from the privileged term (in this case, nonconformity, or radicality)?
She describes the attitude of reverent/repulsed bafflement with which people approach the pregnant body as a form of “static” that obscures the mother’s voice and even her personhood. Motherhood, too, lowers a kind of scrim of symbolic static between the woman and the world, limiting her possibilities for expression and freedom. Nelson defends robustly the sexuality of the mother, the sodomitical mother in particular, and argues with D. W. Winnicott that the child’s development is dependent upon the mother’s “aggression,” her demonstrating for the child that she has a self and subjectivity separate from his. It is by learning his mother’s finitude that the infant can learn his own. The aspect of motherhood that is normative is its mythology, which is often — perhaps always — contradicted by the mother’s lived experience. By speaking directly and openly about her own desires and “perversions,” Nelson makes motherhood a specific, personal experience rather than a general, archetypal one, and in so doing, allows mothers to be people (some of whom happen to be “interested in ass-fucking”).
Nelson is routinely referred to as a “genre-bending writer” on book jackets and in book reviews, but the label puts the emphasis in the wrong place. Like describing an acrobat with the vocabulary of dance, it is a subtle but significant misunderstanding of the terms of the performance. She does not bend genre so much as she refuses to bend her writing to meet genre’s demands, and it is that unbendingness that makes her work so fresh, compelling, dark, and intimate. Like gender, genre is a performance. Nelson has written that she sometimes finds herself “in drag as a memoirist,” a broad hint perhaps that The Argonauts is genre-queer. Its format recalls her 2009 book-length lyrical essay, Bluets, which is written in numbered paragraphs that function more like stanzas, with spaces between where the reader might make silent jumps of association. Similarly, The Argonauts is mostly nonlinear and lyric in structure, but it culminates with Nelson’s childbirth, interwoven with a separate narrative, in Dodge’s voice, of his experience at his mother’s deathbed. Here the pace of the prose changes markedly, dropping into a much more linear narrative rhythm, and in so doing capturing something of the rhythm of laboring a life into or out of this world. The emphasis could easily land on the fact that, for all the specificities of our relationships and identities, some acts of love are performed universally. But Nelson is quick to remind, “My aim is not to rediscover the eternal or the universal, but to find the conditions under which something new is produced (creativeness).”
One of the great gifts of Nelson’s writing is how it embodies the process of her mind at work. She leaps deftly between theory, memory, observation, and absurdity without her prose feeling episodic or disjointed. One exception to this is a narrative thread about a stalker who appeared in her life around the time of her pregnancy, leaving threatening messages that referred to her aunt’s death in 1969, the subject of Jane: A Murder (2005), Nelson’s first experiment in memoir. This material feels jagged and undigested. She tries to frame it as one more creative challenge, part of the artist’s endless task to “metabolize” trauma into meaning, but the effort this metabolism requires is obvious. It interrupts the rhythm of the book and feels like an intrusion, which is frustrating for the reader — and yet, that is arguably her intention. Women, LGBTQ people, and, increasingly, academics live with the threat of violence. It is, at minimum, a constant irritant that disrupts our thoughts and daily lives, and so, while addressing it feels like a digression from the book’s other tender, honest, and humorous work, its somewhat awkward and tiresome inclusion is also fitting. That Nelson shows us her struggle to articulate the material reinforces her argument that it is possible to embrace change even at its most difficult, fearful, and uninvited.
It will irk some readers that Nelson wants the homonormative experiences of marriage and reproduction, but doesn’t want to give up her radical queer identity in exchange.
Homonormativity seems to me a natural consequence of the decriminalization of homosexuality: once something is no longer illicit, punishable, pathologized, or used as lawful basis for raw discrimination or acts of violence, that phenomenon will no longer be able to represent or deliver on subversion, the subcultural, the underground, the fringe, in the same way.
Homonormativity is a result of context, not conformity. Nelson’s aim is not to defend it, but to point out that the terrain is constantly shifting. LGBTQ people are living lives that have never been lived before, at least not publicly, and putting words to things that have never been named. That we would cling to the old paradigms is understandable, perhaps even inevitable, but doing so blocks the creativity and expansiveness that has always characterized queer family-making. Writing of photographer A.L. Steiner’s 2012 installation Puppies & Babies, Nelson describes “one of the gifts of genderqueer family making” as “the revelation of caretaking as detachable from — and attachable to — any gender, any sentient being.” She acknowledges both the worth of keeping queerness for queers and the contradictory value of broadening the word’s meaning to envelop any impulse toward resistance, revision, subversion, or elusion. Perhaps she can’t have it both ways — but, “there is much to be learned from wanting something both ways,” she argues. She knows she’s being exasperating, but exasperation is the cost of “baffling the paradigm,” the necessary work of making a space for oneself — and one’s family.