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.

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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 appears in the 14 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The making of a monster