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

BBC
Show Hide image

Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit