This review first appeared on Fourth & Sycamore.
Early in Maggie Nelson’s thunderclap of a memoir The Argonauts the author quotes French philosopher Roland Barthes: “‘I love you’ is like ‘the Argonaut renewing his ship during its voyage without changing its name.’” She goes on to explain the idea–all the parts of a vessel might be replaced across the course of its career but it will still remain the same ship–and relates it to identity and, more specifically, identity in intimacy. This is the essence of Nelson’s book–identity in intimacy, intimacy in identity. Nelson is an erudite student of philosophy and a gifted personal writer, and the book teeters (sometimes awkwardly) between the depths of philosophical thought on the self and the very personal emotional realities of loving another, being loved by another. One paragraph might be a dense dissection of an idea from a philosopher this reviewer has never heard of, the next a conversation over coffee with a friend about what it means to love or a game of make-believe with the author’s stepson. These poles are intentional as Nelson explores what it means to be simultaneously a brain capable of abstract reasoning and a heart that feels a realm of emotions in relation to other people.
Nelson has been married since 2008 (the day before Prop 8 effectively outlawed new same-sex marriages in California) to a genderqueer individual name Harry. Harry was born female and has spent adulthood largely presenting as male while choosing to eschew any specific gendered identity. Nelson talks about the struggle to arrive at Harry’s preferred pronouns, and settles most of the time on “he”, so we’ll go with that here. Harry has a son, and Maggie devotes some pages to the emotional push and pull of trying to bond as a stepparent. The couple also chooses to attempt a pregnancy, and the emotional roller coaster of fertility procedures is also explored. Ultimately Nelson is able to get pregnant, and much of latter portion of the book is devoted to reflections on pregnancy and birth, providing a more directly physical application for her thoughts on the Argoquote as her body changes but remains hers.
In this way the book is truly a memoir, taking us into Nelson’s life and that of her family, while also working as a worthy addition to the libraries of philosophy, feminism, and queer theory. Nelson bravely refuses to make her book only one or the other, and in the process forges a new type of personal nonfiction altogether. She’s hardly the first to make the personal political (or philosophical) or the first to alloy personal experience with social commentary, but the lucidity with which she explores abstract, academic ideas and the honesty with which she expresses felt experiences takes the form past previous efforts that come readily to mind.
“And now, after living beside you all these years, and watching your wheel of a mind bring forth an art of pure wildness–as I labor grimly on these sentences, wondering all the while if prose is but the gravestone marking the forsaking of wildness (fidelity to sense-making, to assertion, to argument, however loose)–I’m no longer sure which of us is more at home in the world, which of us more free.” – page 52
Nelson explores the limitations and the licenses of writing, both for herself and in writing about loved ones. Can what is felt truly be expressed? Do, as Tennyson said, “words, like nature, half reveal and half conceal the soul within”? And how can writers honesty but respectfully tell stories that are not their own but involve them? She talks about conversations she had with Harry regarding his inclusion in the book–a very personal inclusion indeed. To whom is the writer most responsible: herself, her audience, or her intimates?
“Most of my writing usually feels to me like a bad idea, which makes it hard for me to know which ideas feel bad because they have merit, and which ones feel bad because they don’t. Often I watch myself gravitating toward the bad idea, as if the final girl in a horror movie, albeit one sitting in a Tuff Shed at a desk sticky with milk. But somewhere along the line, from my heroes, whose souls were forged in fires infinitely hotter than mine, I gained an outsized faith in articulation itself as its own form of protection.” – page 123
Across the course of The Argonauts Nelson shifts gradually from a more objective viewpoint to one that is deeply subjective and felt. The dense academic foliage of the book’s first half gradually thins out and we emerge into a final stretch that wouldn’t make much sense within the book’s summary context if we didn’t understand the specific ideas Nelson had laid within that context. Most of the book’s final section is taken up with Nelson’s pregnancy and birth. It is direct, sparing us neither fear, pain, nor blood, and in the process taking an experience usually kept behind a curtain for reasons of both public decency and boredom and baptizing it in the light of sacred recognition and the waters of intellectual legitimacy. Birth is incredibly common and therefore commonplace, but is it ever less than miraculous, every new repetition its own original narrative? Nelson refuses to keep experiences that can be viewed as awkwardly personal and pointlessly common away from the pristine cloth of higher philosophical thought. Tied together with the other similarly common and commonplace experiences Nelson discusses in the book–falling in love, parenting, sexual desire, sexual activity, getting married, trying to conceive–she seems to be daring the establishment–both academic and social–to invalidate these experiences as worthy of intellectual scrutiny. These things are all of a piece. They are all parts of her embodied Argo. The Argonauts is a marvelous book.