TOM ATWOOD
Show Hide image

Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts is moving in every sense of the word

This American memoir is a portrait not only of marriage and motherhood, but of gender identity in flux.

What’s in a word? “I love you,” the French theorist Roland Barthes said, is a phrase that constantly refreshes love, pushing the old declaration aside with the new. Maggie Nelson agrees: “Just as the Argo’s parts must 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,” she writes in her memoir The Argonauts. She quotes Barthes: “the very task of love and of language is to give to one and the same phrase inflections which will be forever new”.

“I thought the passage was romantic,” writes Nelson, who favours the ability of words to generate a multiplicity of meanings. “You read it as a possible retraction.”

“You” is her then lover, now husband, the artist Harry Dodge, who was born a biological female and who, in the course of the book, undergoes treatments that render her body more masculine though Dodge has no desire to identify wholly as male. He is pessimistic about the possibilities of words, which, he believes, are “corrosive to all that is good, all that is real”.

Nelson and Barthes are citing the age-old philosopher’s problem, “Theseus’s Ship”, which asks whether, if each part is replaced one by one, the Argonauts’ boat can consistently be given the same name. In Nelson’s case, the thought experiment applies not only to the renewal of love across time, but to Dodge’s experiments with gender, Nelson’s own pregnant body and, perhaps above all, the process of writing.

What is more artificial: Dodge’s testosterone treatments, or Nelson’s long dedication of her body as a “prenatal temple” to artificial insemination? Nelson is both a biological mother and a stepmum to Dodge’s child: does either have greater validity? Is there any use thinking about anything in ­essentialist terms?

Nelson argues that it is wrong to see this “performativity” as a gender-identity free-for-all. She quotes Judith Butler’s definition: “Performativity has to do with repetition, very often with the repetition of oppressive and painful gender norms to force them to resignify.” Both Dodge and Nelson must encounter the questions “What is a mother?” and “What is a man?” in order to redefine their identification with these terms. “The writer,” Nelson writes, quoting Barthes again, “is someone who plays with his mother’s body.” In The Argonauts, Nelson the writer plays with her own “mother’s body”. The book’s structure follows the linear progress of her pregnancy and birthing (of a son, Iggy) but Nelson adopts Barthes’s fragmented and circular form, as well as his method of footnoting, dropping names into the margins elegantly to square the circle of otherwise clumsy annotations. She writes that pregnancy “queers” the body, “in so far as it profoundly alters one’s normal state, and occasions a radical intimacy with – and radical alienation from – one’s body”. The Argonauts is nothing less than a manifesto for the queerness of writing.

Nelson’s work has been a constant, changeful Argo: she has produced poetry and criticism, but excels at the indeterminate form called the “lyric essay”, especially when based on personal stories, as in Jane: a Murder, which deals with her aunt’s death. She fears “punishment for my writerly transgressions” – for her stance on the ethics of writing about real life (“trans” here reminds us of the transgender Dodge, who is happiest hovering between male and female). Nelson’s writing, crossing from life to the page, then out again from the page to the reader, is necessarily transgressive, and the best writing remains flexible to interpretation, needing no resting place in fixed meaning. “It is idle,” she says of language, “to fault a net for having holes.”

“So far as I can tell,” Nelson writes, “most worthwhile pleasures on this earth slip between gratifying another and gratifying oneself. Some would call that an ethics.” In her book about narrative, Love’s Know­ledge, the American philosopher Martha Nussbaum puts love outside the realm of ethics – given that one of its characteristics is a willingness to transgress ethical boundaries. Yet at the same time she allows love as a necessary complement, because its sympathetic urges enlarge the realm of the ethical.

Nelson’s book is a portrait not only of a marriage, and a motherhood, but of a loosely grouped community of people exploring how to live through redefining gender. This is enlarging even for those leading more conventional lives, providing a blurring of narratives, an expansion of options. The operations of love upon the ethical cannot be conveyed, Nussbaum argues, by “conventional philosophical prose, a style remarkably flat and lacking in wonder – but only in a language and in forms themselves more complex, more allusive, more attentive to particulars”. Nelson also argues for the vir- tues of “particulars”, defending the literary theorist Jane Gallop’s “troublingly personal, anecdotal, self-concerned” baby photos, presented in a seminar in which they were dismissed by the art historian Rosalind Krauss as vehicles unfit for thought.

Theseus’s Ship is described not as a “problem”, but as a “paradox”. It cannot be “solved” but, like the ship, it exists in a state of flux, inside the holes in the net. The Argonauts offers no easy answers to the questions Nelson poses: but it is moving, in every sense of the word.

Joanna Walsh is the author of Hotel (Bloomsbury) and Vertigo (And Other Stories)

The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson is published by Melville House (192pp, £9.99)

This article first appeared in the 14 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The making of a monster

Show Hide image

Beyond Moonlight: how Hollywood is still failing LGBTQ audiences

2016 was a bleak year for gay and transgender characters in Hollywood pictures.

How was 2016 for LGBT representation in Hollywood? It was the year Moonlight was released – the breathtaking love story of two young black men that won Best Picture at the most recent Oscars.

Beyond Moonlight, many smaller studios produced thoughtful, empathetic explorations of the lives of gay characters: from Gravitas Ventures’s All We Had and 4th Man Out to IFC’s Gay Cobra to Magnoloia Pictures’s The Handmaiden.

So… pretty good, right?

Not when you look at the statistics, released by GLAAD this week. While a low-budget, independent production managed to storm the mainstream, of the 125 releases from the major studios in 2016, only 23 included characters identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and/or queer. And almost half of those releases saw that LGBTQ character receive less than one minute of screen time. Only nine passed GLAAD’s Vito Russo Test – which, inspired by The Bechdel Test, asks whether characters are treated as real people, or just punchlines. Plus, while many studios claimed characters were gay, they refused to explicitly or implicitly discuss this in the script: take Kate McKinnon’s Holtzmann in Ghostbusters.

A closer look at some of the LGBTQ characters we had from the big studios this year underlines quite how bad the industry is at portraying LGBTQ people:

Deadpool, Deadpool
While much was made of Deadpool’s pansexual orientation in the run-up to the film’s release, the only references that actually made it to screen were throwaway jokes intended to emphasize just how outrageous and weird Deadpool is.

Terry, Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates

Mike and Dave’s bisexual pal Terry repeatedly tries to persuade other characters to sleep with her, often at deeply inappropriate times, and even attempting to bribe one character into engaging in sexual activity. According to this film, bisexuality = hypersexuality.

Marshall, Lubliana, Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie

This whole film was a mess in its treatment of LGBTQ characters, particularly transgender ones. The very concept of being transgender is here treated as a punchline. Edina’s ex-husband Marshall is described as “a transgender” and treated as a joke, Marshall’s wife Bo claims she is now black, insisting she can change race as her husband has changed gender, while Patsy goes undercover as a man to marry the rich Baroness Lubliana, who announces “I’m not a woman”. Other lines from the film include ““I hate how you have to be nice to transgendered people now.”

Random strangers, Criminal

Remember the moment when two men kiss on a bridge in Criminal? No, me neither, because it lasted approximately four seconds. See also: Finding Dory – which supposedly features a lesbian couple (two women pushing a child in a pram). Literally blink and you miss them.

Bradley, Dirty Grandpa

The black, gay character Bradley only exists in this film as somone for Dick (Robert De Niro) to direct all his racist and homophobic jokes at. But this film doesn’t stop there – there are also a whole collection of jokes about how Jason (Zac Efron) is actually a butch lesbian.

Hansel, All, Zoolander 2

Dimwitted former model Hansel McDonald is now bisexual and involved in a long-term polyamorous relationship with 11 people – his entire storyline of running from them when they become pregnant, finding a new “orgy” and eventually coming back to them – relies on the most dated stereotypes around bisexuality, promiscuity and fear of commitment.

Meanwhile, straight cis man Benedict Cumberbatch stars as a non-binary model named All, who has “just married hermself” after “monomarriage” has been legalized, and exists purely so other characters can speculate loudly over whether All has “a hotdog or a bun” – yet again reducing transgender people to their body parts for cheap laughs.

Various, Sausage Party

From Teresa del Taco to Twink the Twinkie to the effeminate “fruit” produce, these are stereotypes in food form, not actual characters.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496