Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts came to me at a time when my mind and identity were as thirsty as each other and it resonated with me in the rare way that only words spoken with nakedness can. When your world involves the constant migration from an institutional academic realm to a queer one, as mine does, an insistent tinnitus of rage creeps up on you because you know which one holds the power and which one you care about more.
Maggie Nelson holds these worlds in each hand and flings them both onto the table giving validity not to power, but to what she sees as true. She does this with a fluid confessional style integrating the words of published thinkers and their ideas into her own and the events of her life. Neither is quarantined for the sake of the other and so the reader finds themselves moving from Andre Breton’s ‘hetero romantic’ letter to his daughter on her conception to the clinical intimacy of Nelson’s own experience of artificial insemination to conceive with her non-binary partner Harry. Harry and Maggie who have, what she describes as a ‘compatibility of perversities’.
She is unafraid to take down where take-down is deserved, declaring Baudrillard, Badiou and Žižek, with their philosophical objections to assisted conception, as ‘embarrassing’. Their words, framed within Nelson’s chosen house of kinship, make them sound like insecure, eloquent transphobes concerned with the redundancy of the penis.
There is an understanding, too, of what this kind of epistemic violence incites in those affected by it. It’s why I like Jean Genet; it’s why Nelson likes Claude Cahun. Sometimes there is nothing better than breaking the order of the room. Nelson’s respect for Professor Jane Gallop comes from her ‘deep investment in Lacanian thought, without having drunk the Kool-Aid. She was having a fling with the philosophers, all right, but she seemed to be learning everything there was about the boiler room so that she could blow it up.’
This love for the fugitive queer; the queer fugitive is almost embodied by the neither male nor female Harry – ‘I’m a special – a two for one’ – who has never had a bank account and only ‘inched toward the state’ for an official name change. It’s also a validating delight to read as a genderqueer in NSW where the state still requires the testimony of two doctors that one has surgically transitioned before an official gender marker change is possible. A law that feels designed only to crush the fugitive queers of this world.
This kind of state/power questioning-meets-body lands on Nelson herself when giving a talk on her book The Art of Cruelty and attention is drawn to her pregnancy by a respected white guy concerned for the impact of this dark topic on her foetus. As well as rejecting the implied oxymoron of ‘a woman who thinks’, Nelson’s thoughts to an answer are truthful and complex and as she puts it, she would have explained her take to the questioner ‘but he had already left the room’.
For the transgender experience, as it is, the question is asked ‘What is the nature of your body?’ but no one sticks around to listen to the answer.
But then Maggie and Harry also get married in the face of Prop 8. Nelson understands ‘the seduction of normalcy’; Harry also enjoys the male camaraderie of passing. There is an outright rejection of the unsustainable nature of binaries, ‘that anyone live a life that’s all one thing’. The deliciousness of this book is that Nelson just has no time for that of which she accuses Freud: ‘the willful annihilation of nuance’.
It is only because she carves this space of nuance and fluidity that there is somewhere protected to for her to open up about her vulnerabilities. Her concerns on Harry’s transition: her worry about missing his breasts; how he might change; how they might change. Reading this in the context of cis-ally trans writing and its narrative of ‘shoulds’ trying to claim their stake in the infancy that is trans etiquette, it feels like here is an account of someone trying to understand.
‘Exasperated, you finally said, You think I’m not worried too? Of course I’m worried. What I don’t need is your worry on top of mine. I need your support. I get it, give it.’
What Nelson does for queerness, I feel she also does for childbirth and dying and femininity and the etymology of care. In describing her notion of ‘same-sex’, Nelson says the sameness she has experienced is not that of Woman or parts but ‘rather, it is the shared, crushing understanding of what it means to live in a patriarchy.’
In a sense-making digression Nelson describes an exhibition she attends titled ‘Puppies and Babies’, with photographs of handstand-breastmilk-pumping and nude-puppy-spooning, as an art of value and reality. She then estimates that 10 per cent of The Argonauts was written whilst hooked up to a hospital-grade breast pump.
To tell these stories then, is an act of audacity. Stories not just with the flavour of femininity but with femininity as the main meal. She holds her newborn with one hand and takes a baseball bat to Žižek with the other. I don’t see this as the narcissism it stands, as standard, to be accused of, but as an important declaration of life.
Nelson muses often on the ability of words to be ‘good enough’. She seeks to express the inexpressible. Whether words impact meaning more than they express it, is probably something that shifts too much to ever be pinned down to a sentence. But in The Argonauts, Nelson’s words certainly help.