The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

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“You always write about love,” a friend once said after reading an essay of mine. I immediately realized that she was right. It was meant as a criticism. I balked at her insinuation that this was a fault, but I also felt ashamed. To always write about love and desire is to always be writing about oneself. However linked to my own survival it feels, and however universal the findings, excavating one’s own heart is a luxury occupation.

Among writers and critics (less so readers), there is a bias against personal narrative—it is indulgent, solipsistic, irrelevant, narcissistic, uncrafted (for a concise history of the bias, see Ben Yagoda’s Slate article “A Brief History of Memoir-Bashing”). Most of us inclined to write it worry our stories, imagining a threshold of confession that, if crossed, will invalidate our intellectual pursuit of ideas and answers and reduce us to diarists. Implicit in this bias, and the resultant fear, is the belief that these things cannot occupy the same space. This is a sexist mechanism, founded on the false binary between the emotional (female) and the intellectual (male), and intended to subordinate the former.

That is, Knausgaard is a genius, while all my female graduate students are terrified to write about being mothers for fear that they will be deemed (or, that they already are) vacuous narcissists.

Or, as Maggie Nelson, in her latest work, says of a man inquiring how she could possibly pen a book on the subject of cruelty while pregnant: “Leave it to the old patrician white guy to call the lady speaker back to her body, so that no one misses the spectacle of that wild oxymoron, the pregnant woman who thinks. Which is really just a pumped-up version of that more general oxymoron, a woman who thinks.”

Nelson is a personal writer (she has written two books concerning the murder of her aunt), but she is also squarely a critic and an intellectual. (Her last book, The Art of Cruelty, investigated avant-garde art and the nature of violence.) In The Argonauts she occupies the simultaneity of these roles more completely than in any of her previous works. Maybe, than in any book I have ever read. I don’t believe that a writer must tangle explicitly with ideas in her work to be intellectual, but I do want to make every student of mine read this book.

The Argonauts is skinny but dense—I consumed it slowly and greedily, like a very fine piece of licorice—and I look forward to watching writers attempt to summarize it for the rest of my life. That is, it’s a challenging book to speak of, and one of that people will speak of for a very long time. It is always difficult to describe innovation—we have to assemble new combinations of our own words to name it satisfactorily.

The (mostly) chronological narrative that occupies the book is about Nelson’s relationship with the artist Harry Dodge, with whom she falls in love in the book’s first pages. Their love is forged in the passionate collision of two astute minds (“We argued and argued… full of fever, not malice”), but their story, as she tells it, unfolds (mostly) corporeally. Over the course of 143 pages: they marry (just under the wire of Prop 8); Dodge, who rejects binary gender definition, begins injecting testosterone and undergoes top surgery; Nelson navigates the confounding and delightful task of step-parenting Dodge’s son; they conceive vis-à-vis taxing rounds of IVF; and, in the book’s dazzling finale, Nelson gives birth to their son, Iggy.

It is a book about queer family building, a book that investigates what “queer” means and has meant. As an answer, Nelson settles most comfortably on the example (rather than simply the rhetoric) of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. “She wanted the term to be a perpetual excitement… a nominative, like Argo, willing to designate molten or shifting parts, a means of asserting while giving the slip,” Nelson tells us. She explains how Sedgwick also claimed that the appropriation of the term for heterosexual application “‘would be to dematerialize any possibility of queerness itself.’” Sedgwick herself was long married to a man, and came to mostly identify with gay men, and all these possible contradictions seem to delight rather than confuse or offend Nelson. “There is much to be learned from wanting something both ways,” she says. Sedgwick’s embodiment of these supposed contradictions is the best answer Nelson can find, and it is a good one.

It’s a pleasure to watch Nelson’s mind work on the page. She unspools the words and ideas of other thinkers, and threads them through the questions of her own life. She is often funny. (Unclear what to do with a New York Times announcement of her Guggenheim award that her mother has laminated, she employs it as a catch-all under her son’s high chair, and explains, “Given that the fellowship essentially paid for his conception, each time I sponge tidbits of shredded wheat or broccoli florets off of it, I feel a loose sense of justice.”) And the nuances of her analysis, whether they reach a conclusion or not, go on and on. Even as she is pondering the nature and meaning of “queerness,” she is queering the genre of nonfiction; she is depicting the inverted otherness of passing as a hetero family, and the vulnerability of outing herself.

As a queer woman myself, who is now, for the first time in many years, dating a man, Nelson’s acknowledgement of the variance within our individual queerness felt like a permission I hadn’t known I needed. Navigating the intricacies of marginalized communities can be a lonely thing. (When I recently told a gay friend that I was dating a man, he whistled through his teeth, girl, they are going to come for you—meaning, other queers.) To be outside the outsider circle, but uncomfortable “passing” as mainstream, is an odd and very real challenge.

Nelson’s intellectual, moral, and emotional ponderings lead her to the profoundly inclusive conclusion that “any bodily experience can be made new and strange, that nothing we do in this life need have a lid crammed on it, that no one set of practices or relations has the monopoly on the so-called radical, or the so-called normative.” It is an persuasive argument because she makes it not pedantically, but by demonstrating her own process of arriving at it. This humility is what makes her so trustworthy as a narrator. It is what renders this book, improbably, accessible to people both familiar with and strange to the experiences described therein.

What makes the book challenging to describe, however, is not the narrative. It is how Nelson carries each of her experiences in a plasma of ideas. On nearly every page, she wonders on her life events, and applies to them the ideas of people who have wondered on similar topics of gender, motherhood, sexuality, art, and the body—Roland Barthes, D.W. Winnicott (for whom, like me, she has a particular affection), Judith Butler, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Eileen Myles, Lee Edelman, and many others.

In a recent issue of Poets & Writers, Nelson describes the long reading periods that lead up to her writing: how she annotates passages in mechanical pencil, copies the passages into her own document—“[rewriting] other people’s words helps me understand more what they were saying”—and then prints and uses these collages for reference in her own work. One can see this integration and conversation in the text of The Argonauts, whose paragraphs feel at times like a list, a current of ideas moving fluidly in and out of the narrative of her life with Dodge, her pregnancy, and her creative process. Its form is as accurate a depiction of the relationship between ideas and living as I have ever seen, and very close to the one I (and I’m sure many more of her readers, and most writers) know intimately.

By the book’s end, Winnicott is Nelson’s Winnicott—her interpretations and applications of his work develop their own integrity, and they will be subtly and immeasurably assimilated into my Winnicott. This delicate and marvelous bastardization of ideas might be offensive to our purely scholarly peers. But to me it seems the surest way to keep ideas alive, and to transmit them to an audience for whom they might mean most.

The book is also an ode to teachers—how we reconcile uneasy questions and opposing truths is by carrying the interpretations of others, and combining them with our own. Nelson is a teacher of mine, in this way. (Which sweetened the honor of her having chosen an essay of mine about the texts of my childhood for a prize soon after I decided to write this review—a detail I feel obligated to mention.) I read her book Bluets—a philosophical investigation of the color blue told in numbered paragraphs, often called a “cult favorite”—many times. The first time out of curiosity. The second time, for its beauty. The third time, to understand the what and how of it, and to clarify what it lacked. I don’t mean lacked in a general or objective way. Bluets is a complete work. It makes a promise to the reader from its first page, and it fulfills that promise. As a writer, I aspired to much of what it achieved: how to make ideas accessible, to integrate texts, to use lyricism without hiding or posturing, to convey feeling vis-à-vis intellectual discourse. But it also helped me define my own work in contrast. When I first read it, I had just begun the manuscript I am now finishing—a book that also combines personal narrative with my formative texts (including Winnicott), albeit in a manner completely different from Nelson’s. I wanted to pry open the personal story, to avoid obfuscation, to be willing to embarrass myself by being specific about my own hurts and failings—something that Bluets enacts only obliquely.

I have an impulse to hide, to reference my hurts obliquely, and my practice of writing has become, among other things, a practice of running at them as directly as I can. Nelson speaks about a similar experience of evasiveness in The Argonauts: “I know now that a studied evasiveness has its own limitations, its own way of inhibiting certain forms of happiness and pleasure.” Bluets is beautiful, like a net thrown over some sea monster. Each of its numbered passages is a gleaming knot, and in that constellation I could see the silhouette of the caught thing. In The Argonauts, Nelson has shown us that thrashing thing, which is, of course, herself. Maybe, more exactly, it is herself in mid-wonder, baldly asking the question before she has the answer.

Out of her entire body of work—nine books—it is clear that The Argonauts is by far Nelson’s most personal. The Argonauts is not oblique—it is glorious in its giving. The thoughts, now tethered to a story, have a mesmerizing motion, and their reach stretches even further off the page.

At the recent AWP conference, I moderated a panel on women writing in unconventional forms, with the premise that the new freedoms of creative nonfiction are allowed only superficially to marginalized writers. My panelists brought the packed room of (mostly women) writers to its feet. It is a tremendous experience to witness the power of giving people permission to be what they already are. In my own presentation, I critiqued the notion of “navel-gazing” and claimed that I could probably write an essay about my own navel that defied the definition. If I had a thesis, it was that personal transformation and intellectual discourse are not mutually exclusive. Well, in The Argonauts, which I reread on the plane ride home, Nelson does just so of the anus, the lactating breast, and yes, “the dirt that collects on your belly button when it finally pops out, revealing its bottom—yes, finite after all.” Part of what enabled me to give that permission was the proof that Nelson (and so many other writers) had already given me.

Queer families ignore the voices that insist that they don’t or shouldn’t exist, and their continued growing and thriving is the best argument against those voices. It is the proof that will bear out over history. And books like this one, that so elegantly, so confidently and effectively marry personal narrative and ideas, and birth new ideas and insights—they persuade us that there is room for it all, that writers are already inhabiting that questionable space, and while others argue its existence, they are making it even bigger.

The title of the book comes from a passage of Roland Barthes, “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.’ … whenever the lover utters the phrase ‘I love you,’ its meaning must be renewed with each use.” The title then, is a thesis, and by the end of The Argonauts, Nelson persuades us that love is necessarily new each time we utter it, each time we choose to call the happening within us, between us and another, by that same name. In this way, she gives me permission to keep writing about love—insists that it is always new. That it excludes no other subject.

Soon after that explanation of her title, Nelson claims to be especially moved by Winnicott’s definition of “feeling real.” She explains that, “for Winnicott, feeling real is not relative to external stimuli… It is a sensation—a sensation that spreads. Among other things, it makes one want to live.” This reminds me of my personal favorite bit of Winnicottian insight: “It is a joy to be hidden, and a disaster not to be found.” When I set down The Argonauts, I was consumed by a feeling of vivacious life—one that was both deeply grounded and metaphysically crackling. I felt real. And maybe that is the truth, both demonstrated and described by The Argonauts—that some parts of ourselves we find first named in the work of others.

Melissa Febos is the author of the memoir, Whip Smart, and the essay collection, Abandon Me. She is the winner of the Jeanne Córdova Nonfiction Award from LAMBDA Literary, The Sarah Verdone Writing Award from the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, and the recipient of fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, Virginia Center for Creative Arts, The BAU Institute, The Barbara Deming Memorial Foundation, Vermont Studio Center, and others. Her work has recently appeared in Tin House, Granta, The Believer, The Sewanee Review, and the New York Times. Her third book, Girlhood, is forthcoming from Bloomsbury in 2021. She’s an associate professor and MFA director at Monmouth University and lives in Brooklyn. More from this author →