Maggie Nelson’s 2015 book The Argonauts combines theory and memoir in a successful attempt to prove that the political is personal. Combining queer theory, feminism, a bit of Marxism, a dollop of psychoanalysis, heaps of gender theory, and a healthy dose of highfaluting post-structuralism, Nelson undertakes an odyssey like the mythic Argonauts not in pursuit of any Golden Fleece but a record of the self’s permutations and the difficulties with understanding others when all of our experiences appear so diverse.
Nelson’s writing comfortably rests between the informality of a blog and the professionalism of a tenured professor. Her writing rests in this golden mean by suffusing her text with quotes as wide-ranging as Ralph Waldo Emerson to Judith Butler, Michel Foucault to her partner Harry. Rather than introduce each zinger of a quote like an academic paper she cites the quote in italics while identifying its author in the margins. The effect works splendidly and renders the reading experience with heady but fluid results. The narrative consists of two stories, Nelson’s pregnancy where she faces her femininity in lurid but intimate detail, and her husband Harry Dodge’s gender reassignment where their body becomes slowly transformed in intense but exciting ways. Positioned between these two are their children, one Nelson slowly becomes more acquainted with, the other a new life force growing inside our author.
The title of the book references Roland Barthes, Nelson quoting “the phrase ‘I love you’ is like ‘the Argonaut renewing his ship during its voyage without changing its name.’ Just as the Argo’s part 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…” The Argonauts mission is one that attempts to locate meaning in a world where meaning seems to take away our freedom. Nelson finds that even in alienated modernity “the inexpressible is contained – inexpressibly! In the expressed.” The read is a deeply engaging one for anyone even remotely interested in gender or queer theory, and makes what for many people is deeply unsettling, familiar, funny, but most importantly, unflinchingly honest.
Music this show provided by the Big Sky Trio. Check out their album Short Stories on Spotify or wherever you get music!
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Podcast produced by Phillip Griffin. Graphic by Cooper Malin.
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