“Writing and Holding”

By Jonathan FarmerSeptember 12, 2015

The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

“WORDS CHANGE depending on who speaks them,” Maggie Nelson writes early in The Argonauts, her widely-praised memoir of love, language, motherhood, queerness, and critical theory: “there is no cure.” The notion of language as something that cannot be cured of our human interactions with and within it — and the attendant fear of our presence in language as a kind of contagion — isn’t, by itself, new. What makes Nelson’s version of it remarkable is the degree to which the incurable, in this book, becomes an invitation to health.

Of course, “health” is itself part of our language, with its compromised immune system and its constant exposure to humans — to our varied ends and assumptions — so it’s hardly a simple ideal. In Nelson’s rendering, health is at once physical and mental, holistic and provisional, grounded in honesty and, perhaps most importantly, attendant to the needs of one person at one time. “The peace is not total,” she writes of her husband’s transitioning and the relief it brought to him, “but in the face of suffocating anxiety, a measure of peace is no small thing.”

In the early days of her relationship with Harry, Nelson introduces the riddle of The Argonauts, also known as The Ship of Theseus:

A day or two after my love pronouncement, now feral with vulnerability, I sent you the passage from Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes in which Barthes describes how the subject who utters the phrase “I love you” is like “the Argonaut renewing his ship during its voyage without changing its name.”

Immediately after the above quote, Nelson concludes, “I thought the passage was romantic. You read it as a possible retraction. I guess it was both.” There are probably as many ways to praise The Argonauts as there are to read it. Critics have rightly focused on the book’s interest in normality and normalizing, its generic freedom, its marriage of intellectual brilliance and emotional force, its emphasis on transitions and resistance to binaries, and its careful considerations of gender and motherhood. But it’s also worth taking some time to talk about its remarkable, oddly subversive, undercurrent of practicality. Its cherishing of something as prosaic as health, particularly for those whose very acts of love and self-identification have long led society to deem them sick, is essential, I think, to The Argonauts’ appeal. It’s essential, too, to the book’s commitment to looking at the world through such a variety of scholarly insights and personal experiences (hers and others’), to inviting in so many of the contexts in which one might use or hear a given word.

At several points in The Argonauts, Nelson talks about functional relationships in terms of compatible perversities, and though she doesn’t say it, she seems to be invested in the word’s literal meaning, its sense of turning away. Her use of the phrase suggests that we are all capable of perversity: Rather than simply turning away from a fixed norm, it is in turning toward one thing that we turn away from another. Health requires us to make room for all our distinct turnings, including our turnings through an already imperfect language that we will nonetheless mark, merely by living in it, with all our turnings, all our perversities. With all our attempts to use the language with more precision. “The answer,” she explains, “isn’t just to introduce new words (boi, cis-gendered, andro-fag) and then set out to reify their meanings (though obviously there is power and pragmatism here). One must also become alert to the multitude of possible uses, possible contexts, the wings with which each word can fly. Like when you whisper, You’re just a hole, letting me fill you up. Like when I say husband.”

You could spend a long time looking into that little bit of writing — the way it flirts with a controversial position (that simply inventing newer and better terms isn’t going to get us any closer to justice) before disarming it in a parenthetical; the way it moves between at least a half-dozen different registers (“reify,” “one,” “obviously,” “you,” “just a hole”) to land on another (“husband”) that seems especially warm in part because it’s so unlikely (so potentially normalizing) in this queer, theoretical space; the way that last sentence echoes and alters the bluntness of the first. And all these turns are fundamental, a part of her sense of language as a kind of complex perversity, and of perversity — the acceptance of perversity — as a necessary condition for living in any sort of health, in the improvisational harmony of a functioning society — or self. And I think, too (though you could easily go too far with this), that acceptance, for Nelson, requires the freedom to move, if one’s perversities point that way, outside of the expectations of queerness itself.

“I have come to understand revolutionary language as a kind of fetish,” she observes, responding to a flyer passed out during a Pride festival. Nelson is, characteristically, sympathetic to some of the revolutionary goals described in the flyer (“there is some evil shit in this world that needs fucking up”), but she resists not only the call for an “attack” but the call for “comrades,” with its aspiration toward a fixed and collective identity that doesn’t make room for variety: “Perhaps it’s the word radical that needs rethinking. But what could we angle ourselves toward instead, in addition? Openness? Is that good enough, strong enough?” 

A throwaway phrase in isolation, “good enough,” in The Argonauts, serves as a governing ideal for life and language alike. Nelson borrows it from the 20th-century British psychologist D.W. Winnicott, a rare island of practicality and humility in Freud’s grandiose wake. Though she never specifically numbers him among “the many-gendered mothers of my heart” (another borrowed phrase she returns to frequently, drawing from the poet Dana Ward) that shepherd her toward well-being, Winnicott proves essential, in part because he is so willing to attend to the needs and feelings of the imperfect, embodied, ever-altering individual. She talks in particular about his emphasis on “feeling real” (a decidedly untheoretical term):

the collected, primary sensation of aliveness, “the aliveness of the body tissues and working of body-functions, including the heart’s action and breathing,” which makes spontaneous gesture possible. For Winnicott, feeling real is not reactive to external stimuli, nor is it an identity. It is a sensation — a sensation that spreads. Among other things, it makes one want to live.

As in the earlier passage (the one that ends “Like when I say husband”) Nelson moves through abstract, even abstruse, language to land at something that feels generously direct and surprisingly encompassing, as if having worked her way down to something so elemental, Nelson is able to reach out unconditionally, “one”: “It makes one want to live.”

The Argonauts is an astonishing love story, one of the most powerful I’ve read in a very long time. It takes a while to realize it, but the very act of writing the book is an image of the transitions Nelson is undergoing under the aegis of her love for the artist Harry Dodge, who is meanwhile undergoing a transition himself. (Importantly, though Harry is shifting genders, he doesn’t identify as female or male. The male pronouns, the use of he and him and his that refer to Dodge throughout, are themselves examples of “good enough” language and the freedom one can find in sheltering and shifting there.)

Nelson describes, without rancor, her complicated inheritance from her biological mother, which includes a fear of dependency. Citing Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor, “The self without sympathetic attachments is either a fiction or a lunatic … [Yet] dependence is scorned even in intimate relationships, as though dependence were incompatible with self-reliance rather than the only thing that makes it possible.” Nelson goes on to describe a habit that comes, for her, from that inheritance: “deriving the bulk of my self-worth from a feeling of hypercompetence, an irrational but fervent belief in my near total self-reliance.” The Argonauts, for all its obvious and open striving for precision and complexity, pushes her to a place beyond competence, with its fixed identity. The mode she moves toward instead — in the real-time of recounting her and Harry’s other transitions — is one of “letting my shit hang out,” as she puts it several times. 

Neither “letting my shit hang out” nor embracing that which is simply “good enough” means that growing complacent is an option for Nelson, though. Health is not idle, and nothing is ever still. “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,” she writes. Steadied by the overarching fact of their relationship, one that they continually refashion, Nelson and Dodge are actually partnering in the creation of the book as a part of their relationship, much as their creation of the relationship is part of the book. Only a third of the way in, Nelson tells a story of the collaboration that emphasizes the extent to which we all must be mothers and children alike to each other: 

I finish a draft of this book and give it to Harry. He doesn’t have to tell me that he’s read it: when I come home from work, I can see the pile of ruffled pages sticking up out of his knapsack, and I can feel his mood, which one might describe as quiet ire. We agree to go out for lunch the next day to talk about it. At lunch, he tells me he feels unbeheld — unheld, even. I know this is a terrible feeling. We go through the draft page by page, mechanical pencils in hand, with him suggesting ways I might facet my representation of him, of us. I try to listen, try to focus on his generosity in letting me write about him at all. He is, after all, a very passionate person, who has told me more than once that being with me is like an epileptic with a pacemaker being married to a strobe light artist. But nothing can substantively quell my inner defense attorney. 

Inside Nelson’s interior monologue, an argument breaks out. It finally concludes after the imaginary Harry Dodge — the one she’s arguing with in her head — says in exasperation, “Whatever — why can’t you just write something that will bear adequate witness to me, to us, to our happiness?” Nelson replies with an admission of insufficiency, far from the protection of the “inner defense attorney”: “Because I do not yet understand the relationship between writing and happiness, or writing and holding.” The quiet confidence of that “not yet” doubles time, suggesting that, with Harry’s help, she will understand, and that the lesson has since filtered back through the entire book, making the act of writing the book an attempt at holding another — holding Harry and herself and their kids, individually and together. But such writing — such holding — is only possible once she accepts that, in doing so, she will have to submit to forces beyond her control, and that in doing so she will have to submit to becoming something else. 

Near the end of The Argonauts, a description of the cervix’s transition in labor from a wall to an opening inaugurates the twinned narratives that will bring the book to its close. Another set of transitions — the birth of their son Iggy and the death of Harry’s adoptive mother — draw Nelson back toward the elemental, eros and thanatos, life and death: “This feeling has its ontological merits,” she notes, “but it is not really a good feeling.” And later, “… to let the baby out, you have to be willing to fall to pieces.” Though she doesn’t say it explicitly, to be willing to go to pieces, you have to believe that you will subsequently be restored. You have to trust that the person you’re with is good enough to accept the person you will become. In Nelson’s case, that includes not only Dodge but also the readers who will encounter her amid all these incurable words.

Shortly thereafter, Nelson flashes back to a time, not so long ago, when she told Harry that his dying mother could not go on living with them, and must instead go back to Detroit, where she would approach death alone at home. “It was almost good enough,” Nelson writes of the situation they send his mother back to, but she quickly gives up on that thought and does nothing else to try to justify her decision. She instead moves on, with deliberate abruptness, to an expression of her own frustration at Harry and his son (Nelson’s stepson), “who aren’t in pain.” By letting her wounding of Harry stand unjustified next to her anger at him for his lack of another kind of suffering, she’s letting her shit hang out, and trusting the reader to understand.

That shit, that failure, which Harry has presumably forgiven or at least understood, hangs over the description of his mother’s death. Moving beyond collaboration or conversation, here Nelson lets Harry speak for himself. Good enough — better than that — he describes climbing into his mother’s bed and trying to help her let go:

i thanked her. i said, “thank you mom.” i leaked tears but tried to hide them from her now. i turned on the bathroom light and closed the door so a long foot thick rectangle of yellow reached her from feet to head. i touched her feet over the blanket, then her thighs, her torso and bare chest below her throat, her shoulders her face and ears. i kissed her all over her beautiful bald head and i said “goodnight mama. you go to sleep.” and then i laid down in my little chair bed there put my jacket over my body and silently cried myself to sleep. the sound of her breathing, deep and gulping and certain.

There is much in the world of The Argonauts that is not good enough — grotesque bigotry, global destruction, indifference, blindness, cruelty, greed — and Nelson doesn’t hesitate to call it out. But life, she makes clear, life is good enough, as long as it lasts. So is love — including, especially, love that allows for perversity, vulnerability, imagination: “… one of the gifts of genderqueer family making … is the revelation of caretaking as detachable from — and attachable to — any gender, any sentient being.” And language, too; language is good enough, at least when it’s infused with love and life, when it’s alert to its context, in the midst of failure, disagreement, and change. More than anything else, Nelson seems to want something as simple, singular, and vulnerable as kindness, as care: care for the individual, an alert and imaginative beholding that embraces queerness but does not constrain. She wants the practical work of helping someone find a home in her body’s radiant, healthy awareness of its own going on, its harmonizing of its intricate, imperfect, altering parts. “I know we’re still here,” she writes in the book’s final sentence, and I can’t help feeling that she’s talking directly to Harry at that point: “who knows for how long, ablaze with our care, its ongoing song.” But I think she means us, too, us readers, beholding her and Harry in the midst of our own ongoing perversities, and beheld, imperfectly, by her words.


Jonathan Farmer is the Editor in Chief and Poetry Editor of At Length and the poetry critic for the Slate Book Review.

LARB Contributor

Jonathan Farmer is the author of That Peculiar Affirmative: On the Social Life of Poems and the poetry editor and editor in chief of At Length. He teaches middle and high school English, and he lives in Durham, North Carolina.


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