The Argonautsby Maggie Nelson
An intrepid voyage out to the frontiers of the latest thinking about love, language, and family
Maggie Nelson's The Argonauts is a genre-bending memoir, a work of "autotheory" offering fresh, fierce, and timely thinking about desire, identity, and the limitations and possibilities of love and language. At its center is a romance: the/i>/b>/b>
An intrepid voyage out to the frontiers of the latest thinking about love, language, and family
Maggie Nelson's The Argonauts is a genre-bending memoir, a work of "autotheory" offering fresh, fierce, and timely thinking about desire, identity, and the limitations and possibilities of love and language. At its center is a romance: the story of the author's relationship with the artist Harry Dodge. This story, which includes Nelson's account of falling in love with Dodge, who is fluidly gendered, as well as her journey to and through a pregnancy, offers a firsthand account of the complexities and joys of (queer) family-making.
Writing in the spirit of public intellectuals such as Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes, Nelson binds her personal experience to a rigorous exploration of what iconic theorists have said about sexuality, gender, and the vexed institutions of marriage and child-rearing. Nelson's insistence on radical individual freedom and the value of caretaking becomes the rallying cry of this thoughtful, unabashed, uncompromising book.
In a fast-shifting terrain of “homonormativity,” Nelson, poet and author of numerous works of gender and sexuality (The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning; Bluets), plows ahead with a disarmingly blushing work about trying to simultaneously embrace her identity, her marriage with nomadic transgender filmmaker Harry, and motherhood. She mixes a memoir of her love for Harry with clinical depictions of their attempts to get her pregnant, as well as a critical meditation on the queer craft of “becoming,” investigating the ways that “new kinship systems mime older nuclear-family arrangements” and whether those older models are good, oppressive, useful, or fair. Nelson takes her title from the notion that the Argonauts could continually replace their ship’s parts over time, “but the boat still called the Argo.” The new waters she’s sailing include learning how to be a stepparent to Harry’s young son and then a mother to her newborn, no longer scorning heterosexual “breeders,” and becoming much more forgiving of what she once saw as too-outrageous queer radicalism, since all—including her husband, undergoing his own gender voyage via testosterone therapy and surgery—have a “shared, crushing understanding of what it means to live in a patriarchy.” Nelson writes in fine, fragmented exhalations, inserting quotes from numerous theorists as she goes (Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, D.W. Winnicott). Her narrative is an honest, joyous affirmation of one happily unconventional family finding itself. Agent: P.J. Mark, Janklow & Nesbit Associates. (May)
A fiercely provocative and intellectually audacious memoir that focuses on motherhood, love and gender fluidity.Nelson (Critical Studies/CalArts; The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning, 2012, etc.) is all over the map in a memoir that illuminates Barthes and celebrates anal eroticism (charging that some who have written about it hide behind metaphor, whereas she's plain from the first paragraph that she's more interested in the real deal). This is a book about transitioning, transgendering, transcending and any other trans- the author wants to connect. But it's also a love story, chronicling the relationship between the author and her lover, the artist Harry Dodge, who was born a female (or at least had a female name) but has more recently passed for male, particularly with the testosterone treatments that initially concerned the author before she realized her selfishness. The relationship generally requires "pronoun avoidance." This created a problem in 2008, when the New York Times published a piece on Dodge's art but insisted that the artist "couldn't appear on their pages unless you chose Mr. or Ms….You chose Ms., ‘to take one for the team.' " Nelson was also undergoing body changes, through a pregnancy she had desired since the relationship flourished. She recounts 2011 as "the summer of our changing bodies." She elaborates: "On the surface it may have seemed as though your body was becoming more and more ‘male,' mine more and more ‘female.' But that's not how it felt on the inside." The author turns the whole process and concept of motherhood inside out, exploring every possible perspective, blurring the distinctions among the political, philosophical, aesthetic and personal, wondering if her writing is violating the privacy of her son-to-be as well as her lover. Ultimately, Harry speaks within these pages, as the death of Dodge's mother and the birth of their son bring the book to its richly rewarding climax. A book that will challenge readers as much as the author has challenged herself.
*Winner of the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism*
“It’s Nelson’s articulation of her many selvesthe poet who writes prose; the memoirist who considers the truth specious; the essayist whose books amount to a kind of fairy tale, in which the protagonist goes from darkness to light, and then falls in love with a singular knightthat makes her readers feel hopeful.”Hilton Als, The New Yorker
“Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts exists in its own universe. My first reaction to Nelson’s book was awestruck silence, such as one might experience when confronted with some dazzling supernatural phenomenon. Nelson is so outrageously gifted a writer and thinker that The Argonauts seems to operate in some astral dimension where the rules of normal physics have been suspended. Her book is an elegant, powerful, deeply discursive examination of gender, sexuality, queerness, pregnancy and motherhood, all conveyed in language that is intellectually potent and poetically expressive.”Michael Lindgren, The Washington Post
“[Nelson's] book-part memoir, part critical inquiry touching on desire, love, and family-is a superb exploration of the risk and the excitement of change. Thinking and feeling are, for Nelson, mutually necessary processes; the result is an exceptional portrait both of a romantic partnership and of the collaboration between Nelson's mind and heart.”The New Yorker
“Maggie Nelson slays entrenched notions of gender, marriage, and sexuality with lyricism, intellectual brass, and soul-ringing honesty in The Argonauts.”Vanity Fair
“Reading Maggie Nelson is like watching a high-wire act. Her books are inspiring. . . . Because of her dazzling sentences, I will read whatever the daredevil writes. She cozies up to ideas unlike any other American writer.”The Boston Globe
“Maggie Nelson has proven her brilliance-a special blend of poeticism and philosophy, of theorizing and prose-weaving-in her eight previous nonfiction releases. But in The Argonauts, the gifted critic and scholar breaks generic ground with her work of 'auto theory,' which offers a glimpse into the writer's mind, body, and home. . . . The Argonauts is a must-read.”Bustle
“So much writing about motherhood makes the world seem smaller after the child arrives, more circumscribed, as if in tacit fealty to the larger cultural assumptions about moms and domesticity; Nelson's book does the opposite”The New York Times Book Review
“Maggie Nelson is one of the most electrifying writers at work in America today, among the sharpest and most supple thinkers of her generation.”Olivia Laing, The Guardian
“In The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson turns ‘making the personal public' into a romantic, intellectual wet dream. A gorgeous book, inventive, fearless, and full of heart.”Kim Gordon
“[Nelson's] is a radicalism that looks like the future of common sense. . . . A singular book.”Vulture
“A loose yet intricate tapestry of memoir, art criticism and gently polemic. . . . It's a book about using the writings of smart, even difficult writers to help us find clarity and precision in our intimate lives, and it's a book about the no less intimate pleasures of the life of the mind. . . . The Argonauts is a magnificent achievement of thought, care and art.”Los Angeles Times
“A daring, intelligent, strange, and beautiful book. . . . [Nelson] has created an essential thing, a guide to the first years of the queer 21st Century, and a hymn to love in all its forms.”The Gay & Lesbian Review
“Nelson's writing is fluid-to read her story is to drift dreamily among her thoughts. . . . She masterfully analyzes the way we talk about sex and gender.”Huffington Post
“Nelson's vibrant, probing and, most of all, outstanding book is also a philosophical look at motherhood, transitioning, partnership, parenting, and family-an examination of the restrictive way we've approached these terms in the past and the ongoing struggle to arrive at more inclusive and expansive definitions for them.”NPR
“Brilliant like nothing else you've ever read, Maggie Nelson's The Argonauts is as hard to pin down as it is stunning. In sharp, intense bursts of language, Nelson melds critical theory with her most personal musings, as she navigates falling in lust and love, explores gender, sexuality, and motherhood, and builds a family with artist Harry Dodge. Although slim, The Argonauts contains worlds of thought and feeling, challenging our assumptions and moving our hearts. This book is the first must-read of the summer.”BuzzFeed
“In a culture still too quick to ask people to pick a side-to be male or female, to be an assimilationist or a revolutionary, to be totally straight or totally gay, totally hetero- or totally homo-normative-Nelson's book is a beautiful, passionate and shatteringly intelligent meditation on what it means not to accept binaries but to improvise an individual life that says, without fear, yes, and.”Chicago Tribune
“Reading Nelson is like sweeping the leaves out of your mental driveway: by the end of one of her books, you have a better understanding of how the world works...The result is one of the most intelligent, generous, and moving books of the year.”Publishers Weekly, "Best Summer Books 2015"
“The Argonauts finds Nelson at her most vulnerable, arguing for a radical rethinking of the terms in which we express love.”The Paris Review, "Staff Picks"
“What a dazzlingly generous, gloriously unpredictable book! Maggie Nelson shows us what it means to be real, offering a way of thinking that is as challenging as it is liberating. She invites us to 'pay homage to the transitive' and enjoy 'a becoming in which one never becomes.' Reading The Argonauts made me happier and freer.”Eula Biss
“Maggie Nelson cuts through our culture's prefabricated structures of thought and feeling with an intelligence whose ferocity is ultimately in the service of love. No piety is safe, no orthodoxy, no easy irony. The scare quotes burn off like fog.”Ben Lerner
“There isn't another critic alive like Maggie Nelson-who writes with such passion, clarity, explicitness, fluidity, playfulness, and generosity that she redefines what thinking can do today.”Wayne Koestenbaum
“Once again, Maggie Nelson has created awe-inspiring work, one that smartly calls bullshit on the places culture--radical subcultures included--stigmatize and misunderstand both maternity and queer family-making. With a fiercely vulnerable intelligence, Nelson leaves no area un-investigated, including her own heart. I know of no other book like this, and I know how crucially the culture needs it.”Michelle Tea
“One of the greatest books I've ever read.”Annie Sprinkle
“Reading Maggie Nelson's The Argonauts helped me to feel some things I've long thought about but hardly been able to express regarding the socialization of the maternal function, which is the dispersed, dispersive essence of the futurity we present to one another until one is not another anymore. There's the violence I commit in making a claim for that futurity, and the violence I endure when that claim is granted. There's the exhaustive sharing that takes form as writing. There's the 'orgy of specificity' when the inexpressible is held and released in each expression 'cause I just want to sing your name even when I don't want to sing your name. There's the love story buried in every 'I love you,' and in every 'I love you' there's a contract for destruction and rebuilding. There's The Argonauts, which is one of the greatest books I've ever read.”Fred Moten
“In the 17th century a book like Maggie Nelson's The Argonauts might have been called an anatomy, by which I mean it's a learned, quirky, open-hearted, often beautiful naming-of-parts. The anatomy never forgets the fragile embodied world-its carnality or its finitude. And such is The Argonauts: a memoir (debriefing, really) at once raw, pensive, exhilarating, sad, funny, and embodied in the same profound way.”Terry Castle
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Read an Excerpt
By Maggie Nelson
GRAYWOLF PRESSCopyright © 2015 Maggie Nelson
All rights reserved.
October, 2007. The Santa Ana winds are shredding the bark off the eucalyptus trees in long white stripes. A friend and I risk the widowmakers by having lunch outside, during which she suggests I tattoo the words HARD TO GET across my knuckles, as a reminder of this pose's possible fruits. Instead the words I love you come tumbling out of my mouth in an incantation the first time you fuck me in the ass, my face smashed against the cement floor of your dank and charming bachelor pad. You had Molloy by your bedside and a stack of cocks in a shadowy unused shower stall. Does it get any better? What's your pleasure? you asked, then stuck around for an answer.
Before we met, I had spent a lifetime devoted to Wittgenstein's idea that the inexpressible is contained—inexpressibly!—in the expressed. This idea gets less air time than his more reverential Whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent, but it is, I think, the deeper idea. Its paradox is, quite literally, why I write, or how I feel able to keep writing.
For it doesn't feed or exalt any angst one may feel about the incapacity to express, in words, that which eludes them. It doesn't punish what can be said for what, by definition, it cannot be. Nor does it ham it up by miming a constricted throat: Lo, what I would say, were words good enough. Words are good enough.
It is idle to fault a net for having holes, my encyclopedia notes.
In this way you can have your empty church with a dirt floor swept clean of dirt and your spectacular stained glass gleaming by the cathedral rafters, both. Because nothing you say can fuck up the space for God.
I've explained this elsewhere. But I'm trying to say something different now.
Before long I learned that you had spent a lifetime equally devoted to the conviction that words are not good enough. Not only not good enough, but corrosive to all that is good, all that is real, all that is flow. We argued and argued on this account, full of fever, not malice. Once we name something, you said, we can never see it the same way again. All that is unnameable falls away, gets lost, is murdered. You called this the cookie-cutter function of our minds. You said that you knew this not from shunning language but from immersion in it, on the screen, in conversation, onstage, on the page. I argued along the lines of Thomas Jefferson and the churches—for plethora, for kaleidoscopic shifting, for excess. I insisted that words did more than nominate. I read aloud to you the opening of Philosophical Investigations. Slab, I shouted, slab!
For a time, I thought I had won. You conceded there might be an OK human, an OK human animal, even if that human animal used language, even if its use of language were somehow defining of its humanness—even if humanness itself meant trashing and torching the whole motley, precious planet, along with its, our, future.
But I changed too. I looked anew at unnameable things, or at least things whose essence is flicker, flow. I readmitted the sadness of our eventual extinction, and the injustice of our extinction of others. I stopped smugly repeating Everything that can be thought at all can be thought clearly and wondered anew, can everything be thought.
And you—whatever you argued, you never mimed a constricted throat. In fact you ran at least a lap ahead of me, words streaming in your wake. How could I ever catch up (by which I mean, how could you want me?).
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." 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, as "the very task of love and of language is to give to one and the same phrase inflections which will be forever new."
I thought the passage was romantic. You read it as a possible retraction. In retrospect, I guess it was both.
You've punctured my solitude, I told you. It had been a useful solitude, constructed, as it was, around a recent sobriety, long walks to and from the Y through the sordid, bougainvillea-strewn back streets of Hollywood, evening drives up and down Mulholland to kill the long nights, and, of course, maniacal bouts of writing, learning to address no one. But the time for its puncturing had come. I feel I can give you everything without giving myself away, I whispered in your basement bed. If one does one's solitude right, this is the prize.
A few months later, we spent Christmas together in a hotel in downtown San Francisco. I had booked the room for us online, in the hope that my booking of the room and our time in the room would make you love me forever. It turned out to be one of those hotels that booked for cheap because it was undergoing an astonishingly rude renovation, and because it was smack in the middle of the cracked-out Tenderloin. No matter—we had other business to attend to. Sun filtered through the ratty Venetian blinds just barely obscuring the construction workers hammering away outside as we attended to it. Just don't kill me, I said as you took off your leather belt, smiling.
After the Barthes, I tried again, this time with a fragment of a poem by Michael Ondaatje:
Kissing the stomach
kissing your scarred
skin boat. History
is what you've travelled on
and take with you
We've each had our stomachs
kissed by strangers
to the other
and as for me
I bless everyone
who kissed you here
I didn't send the fragment because I had in any way achieved its serenity. I sent it with the aspiration that one day I might—that one day my jealousy might recede, and I would be able to behold the names and images of others inked onto your skin without disjunct or distaste. (Early on we made a romantic visit to Dr. Tattoff on Wilshire Boulevard, both of us giddy at the prospect of clearing your slate. We left crestfallen at the price, the improbability of ever completely eradicating the ink.)
After lunch, my friend who suggested the HARD TO GET tattoo invites me to her office, where she offers to Google you on my behalf. She's going to see if the Internet reveals a preferred pronoun for you, since despite or due to the fact that we're spending every free moment in bed together and already talking about moving in, I can't bring myself to ask. Instead I've become a quick study in pronoun avoidance. The key is training your ear not to mind hearing a person's name over and over again. You must learn to take cover in grammatical cul-de-sacs, relax into an orgy of specificity. You must learn to tolerate an instance beyond the Two, precisely at the moment of attempting to represent a partnership—a nuptial, even. Nuptials are the opposite of a couple. There are no longer binary machines: question-answer, masculine-feminine, man-animal, etc. This could be what a conversation is—simply the outline of a becoming.
Expert as one may become at such a conversation, to this day it remains almost impossible for me to make an airline reservation or negotiate with my human resources department on our behalf without flashes of shame or befuddlement. It's not really my shame or befuddlement—it's more like I'm ashamed for (or simply pissed at) the person who keeps making all the wrong presumptions and has to be corrected, but who can't be corrected because the words are not good enough.
How can the words not be good enough?
Lovesick on the floor of my friend's office, I squint up at her as she scrolls through an onslaught of bright information I don't want to see. I want the you no one else can see, the you so close the third person never need apply. "Look, here's a quote from John Waters, saying, 'She's very handsome.' So maybe you should use 'she.' I mean, it's John Waters." That was years ago, I roll my eyes from the floor. Things might have changed.
When making your butch-buddy film, By Hook or By Crook, you and your cowriter, Silas Howard, decided that the butch characters would call each other "he" and "him," but in the outer world of grocery stores and authority figures, people would call them "she" and "her." The point wasn't that if the outer world were schooled appropriately re: the characters' preferred pronouns, everything would be right as rain. Because if the outsiders called the characters "he," it would be a different kind of he. Words change depending on who speaks them; there is no cure. The answer 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.
Soon after we got together, we attended a dinner party at which a (presumably straight, or at least straight-married) woman who'd known Harry for some time turned to me and said, "So, have you been with other women, before Harry?" I was taken aback. Undeterred, she went on: "Straight ladies have always been hot for Harry." Was Harry a woman? Was I a straight lady? What did past relationships I'd had with "other women" have in common with this one? Why did I have to think about other "straight ladies" who were hot for my Harry? Was his sexual power, which I already felt to be immense, a kind of spell I'd fallen under, from which I would emerge abandoned, as he moved on to seduce others? Why was this woman, whom I barely knew, talking to me like this? When would Harry come back from the bathroom?
There are people out there who get annoyed at the story that Djuna Barnes, rather than identify as a lesbian, preferred to say that she "just loved Thelma." Gertrude Stein reputedly made similar claims, albeit not in those exact terms, about Alice. I get why it's politically maddening, but I've also always thought it a little romantic—the romance of letting an individual experience of desire take precedence over a categorical one. The story brings to mind art historian T. J. Clark's defense of his interest in the eighteenth-century painter Nicolas Poussin from imaginary interlocutors: "Calling an interest in Poussin nostalgic or elitist is like calling the interest one has, say, in the person one cares for most deeply 'hetero- (or homo-) sexist,' or 'exclusive' or 'proprietorial.' Yes, that may be right: those may be roughly the parameters, and regrettable; but the interest itself may still be more complete and human—still carry more of human possibility and compassion—than interests uncontaminated by any such affect or compulsion." Here, as elsewhere, contamination makes deep rather than disqualifies.
Besides, everyone knows that Barnes and Stein had relationships with women besides Thelma and Alice. Alice knew, too: she was apparently so jealous upon finding out that Stein's early novel Q. E. D. told the coded story of a love triangle involving Stein and a certain May Bookstaver that Alice—who was also Stein's editor and typist—found all sorts of weasely ways to omit every appearance of the word May or may when she retyped Stein's Stanzas in Meditation, henceforth an unwitting collaboration.
By February I was driving around the city looking at apartment after apartment, trying to find one big enough for us and your son, whom I hadn't yet met. Eventually we found a house on a hill with gleaming dark wood floors and a view of a mountain and a too-high rent. The day we got the keys, we slept together in a fit of giddiness on a thin blanket spread out over the wood floor of what would become our first bedroom.
That view. It may have been a pile of rough scrub with a stagnant pond at its top, but for two years, it was our mountain.
And then, just like that, I was folding your son's laundry. He had just turned three. Such little socks! Such little underwear! I marveled at them, made him lukewarm cocoa each morning with as much powder as can fit in the rim of a fingernail, played Fallen Soldier with him for hours on end. In Fallen Soldier he would collapse with all his gear on—sequined chain mail hat, sword, sheath, a limb wounded from battle, tied up in a scarf. I was the good Blue Witch who had to sprinkle healing dust all over him to bring him back to life. I had a twin who was evil; the evil twin had felled him with her poisonous blue powder. But now I was here to heal him. He lay there motionless, eyes closed, the faintest smile on his face, while I recited my monologue: But where could this soldier have come from? How did he get so far from home? Is he badly wounded? Will he be kind or fierce when he awakens? Will he know I am good, or will he mistake me for my evil twin? What can I say that will bring him back to life?
Throughout that fall, yellow YES ON PROP 8 signs were sprouting up everywhere, most notably jabbed into an otherwise bald and beautiful mountain I passed each day on my way to work. The sign depicted four stick figures raising their hands to the sky, in a paroxysm of joy—the joy, I suppose, of heteronormativity, here indicated by the fact that one of the stick figures sported a triangle skirt. (What is that triangle, anyway? My twat?) PROTECT CALIFORNIA CHILDREN! the stick figures cheered.
Each time I passed the sign stuck into the blameless mountain, I thought about Catherine Opie's Self-Portrait/Cutting from 1993, in which Opie photographed her back with a drawing of a house and two stick-figure women holding hands (two triangle skirts!) carved into it, along with a sun, a cloud, and two birds. She took the photo while the drawing was still dripping with blood. "Opie, who had recently broken up with her partner, was longing at the time to start a family, and the image radiates all the painful contradictions inherent in that wish," Art in America explains.
I don't get it, I said to Harry. Who wants a version of the Prop 8 poster, but with two triangle skirts?
Maybe Cathy does, Harry shrugged.
Once I wrote a book about domesticity in the poetry of certain gay men (Ashbery, Schuyler) and some women (Mayer, Notley). I wrote this book when I was living in New York City in a teeny, too-hot attic apartment on a Brooklyn thoroughfare underlined by the F train. I had an unusable stove filled with petrified mouse droppings, an empty fridge save for a couple of beers and yogurt peanut honey Balance bars, a futon on a piece of plywood unevenly balanced on milk crates for a bed, and a floor through which I could hear Standcleartheclosingdoors morning, noon, and night. I spent approximately seven hours a day lying in bed in this apartment, if that. Mostly I slept elsewhere. I wrote most everything I wrote and read most everything I read in public, just as I am writing this in public now.
I was so happy renting in New York City for so long because renting—or at least the way I rented, which involved never lifting a finger to better my surroundings—allows you to let things literally fall apart all around you. Then, when it gets to be too much, you just move on.
Many feminists have argued for the decline of the domestic as a separate, inherently female sphere and the vindication of domesticity as an ethic, an affect, an aesthetic, and a public. I'm not sure what this vindication would mean, exactly, though I think in my book I was angling for something of the same. But even then I suspected that I was doing so because I didn't have a domestic, and I liked it that way.
I liked Fallen Soldier because it gave me time to learn about your son's face in mute repose: big almond eyes, skin just starting to freckle. And clearly he found some novel, relaxing pleasure in just lying there, protected by imaginary armor, while a near stranger who was quickly becoming family picked up each limb and turned it over, trying to find the wound.
Excerpted from The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson. Copyright © 2015 Maggie Nelson. Excerpted by permission of GRAYWOLF PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Maggie Nelson is a poet, critic, and nonfiction author of books such as The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning, Bluets, and Jane: A Murder. She teaches in the School of Critical Studies at CalArts and lives in Los Angeles, California.
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