the Argonauts by Maggie Nelson
Graywolf Press, 2015; 143 pp
Reviewed by Elizabeth martin
If you aren’t me and didn’t live under the rock less gently known as divorce last year, you’ve already read or at least heard of Maggie Nelson’s autotheory smash, The Argonauts. This book has been considered and cross-examined. My thoughts are late to the game. However, in case you have not heard of The Argonauts, in case you too missed this layered and sensual delight, I want to help. There are too few books that can consume the reader and leave her richer for the experience. This is such a book.
The Argonauts hops around through Nelson’s life and love with her partner Harry; her pregnancy and their child rearing; their bodies in relation to each other, themselves, their genders, queerness, the world; and the work of various scholars from a variety of disciplines. Nelson taps into some of the classics (Butler, Lacan, Sedgwick, and Winnicott to name a few) to great effect, but it’s the seamless blend of her day-to-day life with these moments that delight. As the Amazon would not captivate quite the same without the whole of its tributaries, so too can The Argonauts not be appreciated in parts.
Take one of Nelson’s many considerations of labor. In discussing her fear of “falling forever, going to pieces” as a necessary part of giving birth, she connects the pregnancy magazines she peruses in her ob/gyn’s office which discuss women’s “concern about shit and labor” with noted literary scholar Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s consideration of women’s anal eroticism to author Mary Roach’s discussion with Fresh Air’s Terry Gross about the nerve endings in the anus. All of which is to say that Nelson is thorough, and playful, in her examinations. She twists and turns ideas around in full until they shine. This is just a moment, but it provides a glimpse at the kind of fully formed stream of conscious writing that’s easy to follow even as it delves through so many layers.
The writing itself is gorgeous too. Each paragraphs stands alone as a gleaming gem as much as it supports its neighbors and the work as a whole. Very early on, Nelson elucidates the work’s title:
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 reviewing 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.
The universality of feral vulnerability after a love pronouncement aside, Nelson lays out, right at the start, what The Argonauts will be. It’s not just a look at Nelson’s relationship, but of the many ways that she will delve into questions and moments so central to how we all understand our sexuality, self, and love.
I know—I gush. But while reading it, The Argonauts captivated me. Each vignette Nelson gives us, each blend of pop culture with humor and critical theory and her life, each exploration renews and reinvents the book into an aptly named ship greater than the sum of its parts.