*I throw in the goddamn only to convey my enthusiasm and admiration for the sheer BRAVERY of Maggie Nelson, who bares herself in this book for almost clinical purposes, to create a Frankenstein monster of a book that would only be possible if the author were willing to sacrifice her life to the scrutiny of an academic examination.
The Argonauts had been on the fringes of a lot of conversations, especially while
I was in college and people actually spoke about gender, theory, and feminism in an enlightened way. Since the time of my graduation has coincided pretty neatly with the rise of He Who Shall Not Be Named, speaking intelligently about gender and womanhood is more important than ever. That’s why I’m happy I read The Argonauts now, not when I was protected by Columbia’s all-inclusive bear hug.
In The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson provides a lyrical mixtape of critical theory meets personal life meets personal hangups. It’s book without chapters or sections; rather, she flows from grouped idea to grouped idea. If an essay could be an epic poem, it would be The Argonauts. It’s essentially poetry.
And boy is it beautiful. And powerful. I’ll be honest: it made me cry! The first book that made me cry in ages. I was finishing The Argonauts in the den of three finance bros, people who are lovely but probably wouldn’t dream of reading a genre-bending memoir that looks at mothers, daughters, academia, sexuality, identity, and love, love, love from a very personal lens. So I was sitting in the living room alone, reading. And then, reading and crying. It felt fitting to be having this sort of epiphanatic moment–when the words felt so shockingly true they shook me–in this setting where the written word so rarely penetrates people’s cores. This was the feminist autotheory answer to the biographies of billionaires the boys read in that living room. Felt like I blessed the space in some way.
In the book, Nelson explores the limitations of language. She thinks that everything that can be said can be said with language, and her whole mission is to chase the ineffable with her words. It’s like when I say I love you. I’m chasing what I mean, meaning something different each time. Actually, aptly enough, that’s where the title of the book comes from:
“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 to one and the same phrase inflections which will be forever new.”
I also appreciated the value Nelson gives to caretaking and the role of caretakers in this book. In her valiant prose, motherhood is important, a topic that merits serious thought. And it merits serious joy and honesty, and that description of the birth sequence is shocking and I can’t believe birth is something so many women go through! Wowzers.
This is a great book because, like a good college course, it asks you to challenge your own assumptions. Like all gender theory, it’ll make you question what you’ve swallowed and allowed to become a part of your posture, gait, and perspective. What constitutes a “family” and what constitutes a “partner” are all up for grabs in this book. And it’ll make you want to call your damn mother.
Read this book, and enjoy walking through binaries, feeling them stick to your face like cobwebs but puffing out your lungs so you lose them on the wind. Lose them for as long as you’re reaidng the book, at least.