The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson


Book Thug Nation (Brooklyn)


In bookshops, The Argonauts lives on display tables and in staff picks, those happy places whose only genre is ‘new,’ or ‘good.’ This is fitting; The Argonauts is an important book. It wraps us in the concerns of our time in that way a filtered photo obscures enough of the present to make it palatable, and sometimes beautiful.

You’ve likely read it or know someone who has, or have at least picked it off the shelf and read the first few pages, in which she is fucked in the ass and makes a declaration of love. That’s as raunchy as it gets, but Nelson gets much more graphic—which is clear code for ‘bodily’—when she writes about her body changing through pregnancy, her husband’s body changing by taking testosterone, her experience giving birth, her husband’s experience of his mother dying.

It’s not just memoir, though; it fills space in the world of interdisciplinary thought, and works “to break down whatever’s left of the partition between ‘ivory tower scholarship’ over there, and lived, embodied life over here,” as she says in her interview in Bomb with A.L. Steiner. She straddles those worlds: she is pregnant while giving a lecture on violence; her family life is in opposition to Lee Edelman’s theory of “no future”; she explicates her motherhood by citing Winnicott in the margins (a format aptly shared with Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse).

At times, it feels like Nelson is using her learning and her references to validate the personal, the bodily. It’s ok to talk about motherhood if she also talks about Winnicott. It’s ok to be uncertain if she quotes Deleuze and Parnet: “The aim is not to answer questions, it’s to get out, to get out of it.” Nelson’s intellectualism allows her to be heard in her discussion of breastfeeding, her husband’s transitioning, queer radicality, privilege. She recounts an event in which art critic Rosalind Krauss shames the feminist critic Jane Gallop for showing photos of herself and her baby during a lecture. Krauss let her criticism imply that Gallop’s work had once been great, but that motherhood had rotted her mind. Sometimes, Nelson’s citations of philosophy and criticism seem to be primarily intended to ensure that no one will attack her the same way.

Nelson says she writes, and is able to write, because she believes (through Wittgenstein) that “the inexpressible is contained—inexpressibly!—in the expressed.” This is a thought that begins the book, and there are moments so beautiful in her writing that this guiding/permissive principle goes unquestioned. She doesn’t quite say things, but points to the beginning of an articulation so strong that it lingers in the mind, gaining momentum the more often the reader recalls it (e.g., “we develop, even in utero, in response to a flow of projections and reflections ricocheting off of us. Eventually, we call that snowball a self”). But as Olivia Laing pointed out in her review in The Guardian, Nelson’s unit of thought is not the chapter, but the paragraph—and her paragraphs are short. She’ll posit a thought and move on.

And there’s an equivocation there. She moves rapidly from thought to thought, as if her ideas are too hot to hold. She relies on the weightiness of a few words, then abandons them. For instance, when talking about Catherine Opie’s work, Nelson says, “There is something profound here, which I will but draw a circle around for you to ponder.” In her interview with A.L. Steiner, Nelson says that after working on a topic, “I usually feel I have exhausted the problem. Not solved it; I’m just exhausted with it. I thought about normativity and radicality enough, and now it’s time to go on to the next thing. I never know if I’ve gotten anywhere with it . . . Maybe it’s a cop-out, the whole ‘I’m just trying to pose the right questions’ thing.”


The Argonauts is published by Graywolf Press and distributed by FSG.

$23   HB   160 pages   ISBN: 978-1-55597-707-8   Pub date: May 2015