Maggie Nelson's 'The Argonauts' is an intimate portrait of queer love, a collection of literary theory, and a parenting guide

Maggie Nelson alternates between cultural criticism, epic love poem, and parenting guide in her memoir

There is something both comforting and terrifying in the idea that identity can be fluid, that our senses of self don't have to be rigidly defined. The word itself flows like water and implies something that changes or refreshes; it also feels uncertain, as if it lacks structure. But Maggie Nelson's newest book "The Argonauts" praises the uncertainty and fluidity that are present in her life. In this short but discursive memoir—which is also at times a collection of theory and criticism, an epic apostrophic love poem, and a parenting guide—Nelson unravels and then weaves together the aspects of her life as a lover, writer, and mother into a malleable whole.

Though the book touches on different moments in Nelson's life, much of "The Argonauts" is set in the context of her relationship with Harry Dodge (an artist and actor who, by the way, played Dinah in John Waters' "Cecil B. Demented"), and when she talks about Harry, it's almost always in the second person, like a poetic apostrophe. Her chronicling of the early, fluttery stages of their relationship gives way to some of the challenges that came up as they grew together, the cornerstone of which was Harry's decision to start testosterone therapy (while still dissociated from the gender binary; Nelson says Harry "is happy to identify as a butch on T"). "I had indeed been trying to figure out, in a sort of teary panic, what about you might change on T, and what would not," Nelson writes. It's ostensibly a selfish fear, and it doesn't last. But these conflicted worries that Nelson shares (her desire for her partner to be happy along with her unfair desire for him to not change), at the core, are the crux of relationships. And she all but admits the selfishness herself when she recounts the ways she tried to confront Harry, sidestepping her real feelings and citing health risks.

And sure, Nelson paints a rosy view here, where love eventually conquers all, and her fears dissolve and she falls more in love as she watches Harry change. Her story doesn't represent all trans relationship stories, but it is what happened with her and Harry. Though the book offers what seems to be a pretty intimate view of two people who are queer, "The Argonauts" is by no means a manual for non-queer people to understand queerness—it would be impossible, given the many definitions of the word, which at one point Nelson defines as a term that "designate[s] molten or shifting parts, a means of asserting while also giving the slip." And so the author never claims to speak for anyone, and in fact she expressly claims that she doesn't want to. Throughout the book, Nelson stresses that her relationship with Harry, and her experiences, aren't illustrative for anyone but herself.

To help tell her story, Nelson pulls in ideas of Michel Foucault, Susan Fraiman, Anne Carson, Audre Lorde, and many other influential writers. It could seem heavy-handed, weighing down her narrative, but it actually works well as a practical application of complex theories. She quotes and paraphrases these writers, and they bolster Nelson's interpretation of the world. "Any fixed claim on realness, especially when it is tied to an identity, also has a finger in psychosis," she writes, before quoting Lacan. She also talks at length about the paradox of writing, paraphrasing Wittgenstein on the first page: "the inexpressible is contained . . . in the expressed." And her own frantic process: "I have no excuse or solution, save to allow myself the tremblings, then go back in later and slash them out. In this way I edit myself into a boldness that is neither native nor foreign to me."

When she writes, she never stays too long in one place, ambling through stories and relating aspects of Roland Barthes or Gilles Deleuze and always finding her way back around to lead into something else. Several points pop up again and again, particularly Susan Fraiman's concept of the "sodomitical mother," which is basically a theory that women who are mothers are entitled to "non-normative, nonprocreative sexuality, to sexuality in excess of the dutifully instrumental," as Nelson quotes Fraiman.

Though so much of the book is spent embracing an unfixedness and openness, we find that when it comes to motherhood and her relationship with Harry, Nelson does not want her sense of self to collapse too much into either world. She recounts the grueling process of fertilization, with its many false starts, through her pregnancy and the birth of Iggy, but she sets up boundaries. "I'll give as much as I've got to give without losing sight of my own me." But still there is this overarching celebration of the idea of maternity and nurturing throughout. It's all delicately interconnected; Nelson refers to "articulation itself as its own form of protection," and she calls many of the writers that she mentions the "many-gendered mothers of [her] heart." Where she veers toward saccharine about everything that goes into being a mother, the idea that "mothering" extends beyond the literal makes it all more important.

Still, despite Nelson's emphasis on all the benefits of containing multitudes, that one can be guided by a number of "many-gendered mothers," she eventually admits that so much openness is not always sustainable. "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 obligation, the pleasure of dependency." Gender has nothing to do with love, but love, dedication, and care are structures in relationships, so the whole book essentially hinges on Nelson's commitment to the people in her life. This family—Nelson, Harry, and Iggy—are the Argonauts referred to in the title. "The subject who utters the phrase 'I love you' is like 'the Argonaut renewing his ship during its voyage without changing its name,'" Nelson writes, quoting Barthes. "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."

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