The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson: On Building and Rebuilding Identity

The Argo by Lorenzo Costa
The Argo by Lorenzo Costa

On the third page of her new book The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson gives us a hint of what she’s getting at with the title, a reference to the crew members of the ship Argo, which according to Greek mythology was dismantled and replaced board by board, leading to a famous philosophical dilemma regarding whether it remained the same ship. Addressing her partner, Nelson writes:

"A day or two after my love pronouncement, now feral with vulnerability, I sent you the passage from Roland Barthes by 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.' 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, as the very task of love and of language is to give one and the same phrase inflections which will be forever new."

The struggle to change oneself and change language -- while at the same time not quite losing control of the way one is changed by language -- is a central theme of The Argonauts, affecting every page and certainly every pronoun. Nelson’s partner, the artist Harry Dodge, identifies as neither male nor female at the beginning of their relationship, but embarks on a course of testosterone therapy to transition to male. At the same time, Nelson undergoes a transformation no less significant, if less likely to meet with cultural suspicion or incomprehension: she becomes pregnant. Together, Dodge and Nelson remake their bodies and are remade by their bodies, a process that Nelson slyly and joyously casts as simultaneously the universal story of all couples growing older together and a story that could belong to no one but the two of them.

A rich account of a love affair -- "Why did it take me so long to find someone with whom my perversities were not only compatible, but perfectly matched?" -- The Argonauts also presents a far warmer and more enticing portrait of the nuclear family than any conservative pundit (or, for that matter, virtually any left-wing novelist) could muster. Particularly moving is a scene in which Nelson and Harry play a game called Fallen Soldier with Lenny, Harry’s son from a previous relationship, in which Lenny has died and Nelson, playing the good Blue Witch, must bring him back to life.

Perhaps most unusually, the book is an involving and heartfelt account of Nelson’s lifelong relationship with critical theory. The Argonauts is filled with quotations from and discussions of theorists ranging from Freud to D.W. Winnicott to Julia Kristeva to Eve Sedgwick; not because Nelson has any need to show off but because she is clearly in love with these writers who have helped her think about love, and feels a lover's need to annotate and argue. She quotes Susan Sontag’s famous line that "In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art," but goes further:  "But even an erotics feels too heavy. I don’t want an eros, or a hermeneutics, of my baby. Neither is dirty, neither is mirthful, enough."

Looking for memorable sentences to quote, I am tempted simply to re-type every page. Though it might be in the spirit of The Argonauts to remove individual sentences like boards and hold them up for praise, it also seems wrong somehow. This book should be experienced in full, as a complete ship. Like one, it takes you places you couldn't have reached otherwise without drowning.