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Queering the "momoir": On Maggie Nelson's new book The Argonauts

Maggie Nelson has been justly praised for her writing that not so much blends or bends genres, but defies them altogether. In books like Bluets and The Art of Cruelty, the CalArts writing professor seamlessly incorporates elements of memoir, criticism, poetry, and essay to create a form of writing that occupies a category of its own. Her new book, The Argonauts, is partly about her love affair with the artist Harry Dodge, partly about her first pregnancy, and partly about a host of other things. In the LA Review of Books, Abby Paige writes that The Argonauts continues Nelson’s penchant for undermining established categories:

This is the animating spirit of The Argonauts, in which Nelson is constantly disrupting the usual, binary terms of arguments. If you want to talk about same-sex relationships, she’s willing, but insists that sameness isn’t the point, that in her own relationships with women, the significant sameness has not been “the sameness of Woman, and certainly not the sameness of parts. Rather, it is the shared, crushing understanding of what it means to live in a patriarchy.” She will talk with you about abortion, as long as the terms aren’t choice versus life. Instead, she tells of how pregnancy galvanized her reproductive politics: “Feminists may never make a bumper sticker that says it’s a choice and a child, but of course that’s what it is, and we know it … We’re not idiots; we understand the stakes.” If you want to talk about female eroticism, buckle up: “I’m not interested in a hermeneutics, or an erotics, or a metaphorics, of my anus,” she writes. “I am interested in ass-fucking.” There is an intimacy here, but it does not function to woo the reader into a cozy relationship with the narrator. Rather, Nelson is staking out intimate terms for a discussion of political and philosophical ideas. She declares her individual case in order to keep the specific from being obscured by the general — an erasure often enacted by language itself.

Paige writes that in The Argonauts, Nelson strives to give her experience of motherhood its full specificity:

[Nelson] describes the attitude of reverent/repulsed bafflement with which people approach the pregnant body as a form of “static” that obscures the mother’s voice and even her personhood. Motherhood, too, lowers a kind of scrim of symbolic static between the woman and the world, limiting her possibilities for expression and freedom. Nelson defends robustly the sexuality of the mother, the sodomitical mother in particular, and argues with D. W. Winnicott that the child’s development is dependent upon the mother’s “aggression,” her demonstrating for the child that she has a self and subjectivity separate from his. It is by learning his mother’s finitude that the infant can learn his own. The aspect of motherhood that is normative is its mythology, which is often — perhaps always — contradicted by the mother’s lived experience. By speaking directly and openly about her own desires and “perversions,” Nelson makes motherhood a specific, personal experience rather than a general, archetypal one, and in so doing, allows mothers to be people.

Above image: Maggie Nelson. Photo by Harry Dodge.