By Nora Brooks
The ‘70s feminist slogan that the personal is political has never seemed more true, or more revolutionary, than in the pages of Maggie Nelson’s latest book, The Argonauts. Nelson includes all kinds of intimate, memory-stick moments in this lyric memoir of family life shot through with cultural criticism and theory, which is at its heart the story of her romance with a transgender man, the artist Harry Dodge. She talks about her first mid-sex confession of love—terrifying!— and their bubble of happiness on their red couch in their first home together. She recounts watching their toddler son, Iggy, rocking back and forth on all fours in her yard in order to reach a leaf he wants to taste. She writes twelve blow-by-blow pages on her labor with Iggy, cutting in observations about death, a move that would be hokey in the hands of a lesser writer but which Nelson pulls off through a laser-like precision in her critical reading of her own life. She is reaching for something larger than memoir: she manages, always, to find the social context around these anecdotes that makes them speak more broadly than they might have, revealing the constraints of a social contract many never realize they were signed up for.
She also speaks honestly of the dangers of blurring the boundary between personal life and critical space. There can be punishment for slippages of this kind, for they are certainly a form of transgression. As she recounts, she once attended a forum at a NYC university in which the feminist theorist Jane Gallop presented photographs of her and her young son taken by Gallop’s husband, a photographer, in order to investigate a notion of Roland Barthes on the relationship between an artist and their material: “the writer is someone who plays with his mother’s body.” Gallop suggested that her lived experience as a writer who is a mother and a photography subject shed new light on Barthes’ idea. The critic commenting on Gallop’s work at the forum proceeded—by Nelson’s account—to eviscerate Gallop for her overtly personal approach, as if “Gallop’s maternity had rotted her mind.”
Public humiliation is only one of the hazards of these slippages. The subtlest of all the dangers that Nelson presents lies in language itself, in its power to define. Words are of course wildly inaccurate, only an approximation of the real world. An early, pivotal argument between Nelson and Dodge was about whether words were inherently violent—whether using a word to refer to someone was basically cutting away parts of their self that could not be accurately described.
In fact, when Nelson and Dodge first started dating, she was afraid to ask which pronouns to use to refer to him: he had not yet transitioned from butch to trans. My viewing of Dodge’s butch buddy film, By Hook or By Crook, turned up an incident where a little girl asks Dodge’s character if he’s a boy or a girl. His reply: “both.” The outside world does not accept this. The first time Dodge’s character comes onscreen, he’s getting the crap beaten out of him.
Nelson relates that in her day-to-day life with Dodge, even buying pumpkins at a farm with their young son can become fraught once the credit card comes out and the name listed on the card, still Harriet Dodge, is revealed: “a shadow of violence usually drifts over the scene.” Language, in other words, can also be a lightning rod for violence.
Nelson is a writer deeply in love with words, and at the beginning of this book, she considers language “good enough” to say what we mean. Slowly though, she is forced to recognize the ways they are also a means of confinement—in the case of Dodge and his gender, to two options that fail him. Neither is specific enough to him. It’s on one level a practical matter—what happens when someone does not fit into either set of pronouns? Nelson writes that even to this day, when buying an airline ticket or dealing with human resources, the person on the other end “keeps making all the wrong presumptions and has to be corrected, but…can’t be corrected because the words are not good enough.”
But it’s not only language that’s confining here. Nearly every choice of self-presentation, from our appearance to our body language, is complicated by gender. In one of the many associative jumps Nelson makes—she does not hold our hand so much as allow us to hop from the rock of one idea to another—she compares gender to color. An object is perceived to be, say, the color blue, but it is not precisely true to say it is blue. It’s just as difficult to say our flickering consciousness is exactly gendered, or that any of us fits our gender as easily as we may appear to. It’s a point brought home by Dodge’s experience as he begins testosterone therapy and undergoes surgery to reshape his torso. Nelson tells us: “for some, ‘transitioning’ may mean leaving one gender entirely behind, while for others—like Harry, who is happy to identify as a butch on T—it doesn’t…he tells inquirers I’m not on my way to anywhere.” The implication here is that for Dodge, his physical alteration means simply embodying more specifically the self he always was. The real problem for him seems to have been being trapped between the two allowed options.
There is a means to jimmy the cage, though, and that is to recognize that these norms can be made to break under the blunt force of subversion, as a quote Nelson includes from Judith Butler suggests: “Performativity [of gender] has to do with…the repetition of oppressive and painful gender norms to force them to re-signify…[this is] a question of how to work the trap that one is inevitably in” (brackets mine). The secret, Nelson implies, is to repeat these norms but with a difference that jams them open.
That is exactly what the form of this book does. The Argonauts performs many of the moves of cultural criticism: in fact, one of its more cerebral pleasures is the panoply of thinkers sprinkled throughout, the “many-gendered mothers of my heart.” But she also includes reams of “contaminating” material, as she puts it: anecdotes of the couple’s sex life, the disputes and tender moments of their life together, quotes from pop child psychologist D.W Winnicott, and heaps more. She places these unabashed bits of ordinary experience and middlebrow thinkers alongside heavyweights like Freud and the feminist theorist Eve Sedgewick, implicitly arguing that all of this material belongs together. At once writerly and political, the genius of this move is how it cracks apart the male-dominated arena of criticism a little wider for all of us.
In other words, her inclusiveness is a form of subversive openness, a shattering of categories, which is the real theme of this book. The Argonaut of the title is a reference to a passage of Barthes that Nelson discusses, in which the lover who says “I love you” is like “the Argonaut renewing his ship during its voyage without changing its name.” The words are a message whose meaning must be constantly renewed, as we see play out between her and Dodge. She later proposes another Argo, the word openness itself, which Nelson argues would be a good replacement for radical. She has a problem with the term because of how it is often cliquishly used to keep out those who are not militant enough about the right things, yet another box to fit into.
It’s here that Nelson is most on the attack against social structures so part of our vocabulary and how we experience our bodies as to be inescapable. Her openness becomes a “letting things fall apart, letting the world come as it is,” its meaning continually renewed by a catalogue of slippages: the widening of the term queer to include heterosexuals; the outlaw fetishist Bruce Benderson’s adventures in Romania, where homosexual sex is punishable by death; the thinning of the cervix in labor to allow passage. There’s a generosity to this, an excess. This is the opposite of confinement, of being forced to fit into language’s distinctions. By letting the world “come as it is,” Nelson complicates any notions of what or who is allowed to show up. A joy-ride through Maggie Nelson’s views on gender, queer family-making and sexuality that marries her lived experience and critical acumen, The Argonauts is both luminous and revolutionary.