Pursuing a literary quest that results in a personal unearthing of one’s life is familiar territory to writer, thinker, mother, and academic Maggie Nelson. Similar in style to Jane: A Murder, or The Red Parts, Nelson embarks on a memoir-like sojourn in The Argonauts while simultaneously addressing the various constituents of normativity. She challenges both the heteronormative and homonormative assumptions inherent in one’s identity, desires, language, and profession. It is through her personal narrative, which often feels like a conversation, interwoven with feminist and philosophical explorations of life and language, that she confronts the status quo of binary thinking— male/female, gay/straight, pro-life/pro-choice.
There exists no holier-than-thou tone in this work as the author states that early in her relationship with her gender-fluid partner, Harry Dodge, she too, may have ascribed to some of the compartmentalization of gender. Nelson admits to conducting internet searches in order to find out which gender pronoun to employ regarding Harry, only to avoid pronoun use altogether. As the reader learns more about Nelson’s life, they learn more about Nelson’s commitment to challenging the paradoxical binary traditions of the “normal” that prove pervasive in our culture, as well as pondering whether “the words are not good enough?”
One of the first dualistic traditions that Nelson challenges is the assumption that one can claim a specific gender: male or female. After falling in love with Dodge, becoming a step-parent to Dodge’s son, immersing herself in the never ending infertility maze, and witnessing Dodge’s transformation on testosterone, Nelson turns this binary notion upside down. The testosterone that she injects in Dodge’s body, she labels “a gift,” as it unlocks an unfamiliar sense of freedom that Dodge has never experienced before. Yet the word “trans,” she continues, implies again that the destination in this process is either male or female:
That 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? I’m not on my way anywhere, Harry sometimes tells inquirers. How to explain, in a culture frantic for resolution, that sometimes the shit stays messy?
What Nelson describes above begs one to consider gender on a spectrum with male on one end, female on the other, and a host of other experiences in the middle. Societal expectations at either extreme end of the identity spectrum subsequently reflect the heteronormative status quo: two partners, house, two kids, etc. Homonormativity, which assumes that those in the LGBTQ community desire to embrace these heteronormative values, is examined by Nelson in a multitude of perspectives. For example, when Californians were voting on Proposition 8, Nelson reflected on Catherine Opie’s Self-Portrait/Cutting from 1993. In the photo, Opie has two female stick figures holding hands carved on her back, blood oozing from the wound. At the time, Nelson herself could not understand Opie’s desire for the two-partner, house, etc. as she wondered who would want a “version of the Prop 8 poster, but with two triangle skirts?” Dodge, however, who had a child from a previous relationship, empathized with Opie’s desire for the family by considering that maybe Opie embraced this purported “heteronormative” desire.
This desire for the two-parent family scene ultimately finds its way into Nelson’s realm, despite the fact that she had never planned on having children. She and Harry want to have a child and work their way through the never-ending maze of infertility and subsequently, pregnancy. Finally, while laboring at home with Harry and their doula, Jessica, Nelson adds:
Now I’m sick of these two clowns who aren’t in pain. I say I want to go to the hospital because that’s where they take the babies out. Jessica stalls; she knows it’s not time. I begin to get desperate. I want a change of scenery. I’m not sure I can do this.
But Nelson does end up doing it and she gives birth to their son, Iggy. She embraces motherhood in ways similar to women around the world: She breastfeeds, co-sleeps, feasts on child development books, and carries her baby everywhere. She struggles post-partum, worries about her child, and then discusses the post-partum professional discrimination (i.e. “soft-brained” stereotype) so many women endure at the hands of other women as well as men.
One such anecdote highlighting this discriminatory experience that Nelson witnessed was when she attended a graduate seminar in 1998 where two feminist heavyweights, Rosalind Krauss and Jane Gallop were presenting. Gallop’s work took a less erudite, more motherly approach and Krauss, in her rebuttal of the work, proceeded to publicly dismantle the integrity of it:
But the tacit undercurrent of her argument, as I felt it, was that Gallop’s maternity had rotted her mind—besotted it with the narcissism that makes one think that an utterly ordinary experience shared by countless others is somehow unique, or uniquely interesting.
I was enough of a feminist to refuse any knee-jerk quarantining of the feminine or the maternal from the realm of intellectual profundity. And, as I remember it, Krauss was not simply quarantining; she was shaming. In the face of such shaming, I felt no choice. I stood with Gallop.
Professional desires were not the only aspects of identity that Nelson took to task. She also addresses sexual desires in various and sundry ways, occasionally using language that might not be palatable to some, as noted in this letter she wrote to Dodge:
A few months later, we spent Christmas together in a hotel in downtown San Francisco. I had booked the room for us online, in the hope that my booking of the room and our time in the room would make you love me forever. It turned out to be one of those hotels that booked for cheap because it was undergoing an astonishingly rude renovation, and because it was smack in the middle of the cracked-out Tenderloin. No matter—we had other business to attend to. Sun filtered through the ratty venetian blinds just barely obscuring the construction workers hammering away outside as we attended to it. Just don’t kill me, I said as you took off your leather belt, smiling.
Later on, she confesses as to why she and Dodge are so compatible:
Why did it take me so long to find someone with whom my perversities were not only compatible, but perfectly matched? . . . . Really, though, it’s more than a perfect match, as that implies a kind of stasis. Whereas we’re always moving, shape-shifting.
It is this shape-shifting philosophy that gives birth to the fact that dualism and binary traditions are not sustainable in Nelson’s paradigm. Life experiences often lie on a spectrum and sometimes, no either-or exists:
Never in my life have I felt more pro-choice than when I was pregnant. And never in my life have I understood more thoroughly, and been more excited about, a life that began at conception. 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.
What’s more is that the vessel of this either-or tradition, language, may not necessarily be enough. Words and meanings vary depending on the speaker, the listener, and the context of the situation. After her partner’s “top surgery,” Nelson recounts:
Flipping channels on a different day, we landed on a reality TV show featuring a breast cancer patient recovering from a double mastectomy. It was uncanny to watch her performing the same actions we were performing—emptying her drains, waiting patiently for her unbinding—but with opposite emotions. You felt unburdened, euphoric, reborn; the woman on TV feared, wept, and grieved.
Based on Nelson’s premise that more exists than a dualistic normative, one has to have flexibility to move rhythmically like a wave coming into the shore and then retreating back out again. What this reader found most fascinating about The Argonauts is that Nelson’s content proved congruent with her presentation style. Her story is not told in a traditional, beginning-middle-ending format. Instead, she moves fluidly from earlier parts of her life to later parts and back again. For example, she juxtaposes the birth of her son with that of Harry’s mother’s dying. She contrasts feelings that emerge while breastfeeding her child with those of a more sexual nature. It’s as if she is decompartmentalizing her life experiences and offering them for the reader to examine for a deeper understanding.
To facilitate this understanding, Nelson intercalates the comments and opinions of various theorists and philosophers within her story (similar to her book Bluets). In her effort to enhance the readers’ awareness of “the other,” the names of these great thinkers are highlighted in the margin adjacent to their beliefs and thoughts that Nelson either supports, challenges, or uses as further explanation of her life experiences.
So how relevant is Nelson’s work to the mother writer? First and foremost, she demonstrates that one’s personhood and one’s writing cannot be pigeon-holed based on gender, identity, or desires. Secondly, the words employed by writers may not be adequate to fully capture an experience which, subsequently, may or may not be translatable for someone engaging in a similar experience. The best one can do, like Nelson does so well in The Argonauts, is to chose words honestly, openly, and sometimes profanely, in order to convey the authentic self. To do so, philosopher Gilles Deleuze and journalist Claire Parnet as quoted in The Argonauts suggest:
You must learn to tolerate an instance beyond the Two, precisely at the moment of attempting to represent a partnership—a nuptial, even. Nuptials are the opposite of a couple. There are no longer binary machines; question-answer, masculine-feminine, man-animal, etc. This could be what a conversation is-simply the outline of a becoming.
Nelson serves as a metaphorical argonaut in her quest to go beyond dualistic traditions-similar to the Greek hero, Jason, who led the Argonauts in their quest to find the Golden Fleece. This “going beyond,” however in and of itself is not a binary, concrete, circumscribed process, but rather, an ongoing conversation that Nelson encourages us to continue in the full spectrum of our lives.