Maggie Nelson’s new book, The Argonauts (Graywolf Press, 2015), might be better than anything I’ve read previously by her (yes, better than The Art of Cruelty, and even, I dare say, Bluets). Part personal essay/cultural critique/love letter to her newborn child and to her partner, renowned artist Harry Dodge, this whirlwind of text falls into neat fragments with its title borne from a Barthesian simile:
… 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” (p. 5).
When discussing love, it seems impossible not to bring up personal experiences. Yet the close proximity with which Nelson describes her body in love (e.g., being ass fucked by her partner, shitting while birthing her son, etc.) was jarring (at first) to me, as similar writers like Anne Carson, for example, tend to maintain some manner of critical objectivity (whatever that may mean) in their lyrical essays.
This subject/object binary is best expressed in Nelson’s description of a seminar she attended featuring Jane Gallop and Rosalind Krauss. In it, Krauss “excoriate[s] Gallop for taking her own personal situation [as a mother] as subject matter” with the “tacit undercurrent of her argument…[being] that Gallop’s maternity had rotted her mind” (p. 41).
Nelson’s reaction to Krauss was also eventually mine to Nelson’s own text: “I [am] enough of a feminist to refuse any knee-jerk quarantining of the feminine or the maternal from the realm of intellectual profundity” (p. 42).
I think it’s understandable, given our patriarchal culture, to automatically wince a bit, initially, at the seemingly abject depiction of the female body—especially a pregnant one. But Nelson’s treatment of her own body, in the context of love, lives within the subject/object binary itself, not choosing either/or but instead both: of, and so, beyond the body.
Afraid of assertion. Always trying to get out of “totalizing” language, i.e., language that rides roughshod over specificity; realizing this is another form of paranoia. Barthes found the exit to this merry-go-round by reminding himself that “it is language which is assertive, not he.” It is absurd, Barthes says, to try to flee from language’s assertive nature by “add[ing] to each sentence some little phrase of uncertainty, as if anything that came out of language could make language tremble” (p. 98).
Nelson refuses to inhabit a predetermined box (she’s not just a cultural critic but also a mother, a partner, a subject, an object)—just as her queer partnership/family is fluid:
“Queer is a continuing moment, movement, motive—recurrent, eddying, troublant,” [Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick] wrote. “Keenly, it is relational, and strange.” She wanted the term to be a perpetual excitement, a kind of placeholder—a nominative, like Argo, willing to designate molten or shifting parts, a means of asserting while also giving the slip. That is what reclaimed terms do—they retain, they insist on retaining, a sense of the fugitive.
At the same time, Sedgwick argued that “given the historical and contemporary force of the prohibitions against every same-sex sexual expression, for anyone to disavow those meanings, or to displace them from the term [queer]’s definitional center, would be to dematerialize any possibility of queerness itself” (p. 29).
Throughout the text, weaving personal narrative with philosophical treatise, Nelson systematically tears down and rebuilds her ship of love. Yet Nelson also recognizes there is a pleasure to be found in love’s sails as well as love’s anchors:
I know now that a studied evasiveness has its own limitations, its own ways of inhibiting certain forms of happiness and pleasure. The pleasure of abiding. The pleasure of insistence, of persistence. The pleasure of obligation, the pleasure of dependency. The pleasures of ordinary devotion. The pleasure of recognizing that one may have to undergo the same realizations, write the same notes in the margin, return to the same themes in one’s work, relearn the same emotional truths, write the same book over and over again—not because one is stupid or obstinate or incapable of change, but because such revisitations constitute a life (p. 112).