The Beautiful in Between
(Graywolf Press, 2015)
A few pages into the poet and critic Maggie Nelson’s new book, The Argonauts, she quotes from Gilles Deleuze and Claire Parnet’s Dialogues II:“There are no longer binary machines: question-answer, masculine-feminine, man-animal, etc. This could be what a conversation is—simply the outline of a becoming.” This serves as good a description of Nelson’s protean, quicksilver project as any. The Argonauts morphs from mom-oir to philosophy to love letter to gentle polemic and back again, but beneath these many-splendored movements, there runs a deep and often wordless dialogue between Nelson and her fluidly gendered husband, Harry Dodge: “a debonair butch on [testosterone].” And this conversation circles four literal acts of becoming: the act of becoming a family, the act of writing a text, the act of transforming one’s body, and the act of creating new life.
I came to The Argonauts with the trite expectation of finding a defense of queer family-making. In a sense, The Argonauts is a defense, but not of abnormality, or difference, or queerness. Nelson dwells comfortably in these spaces, and has no need to explain or defend them: “I’ve explained this elsewhere. I’m trying to say something else now,” she writes. Instead, she defends (to herself, to her radical compatriots) her decision to create something that, for all intents and purposes, resembles the average American family. For what could be more fatal to radical queerdom than fitting in? Is assimilation the same as betrayal? A wolf in sheep’s clothing, Nelson makes a beautiful, conflicted case for her unexpected and unrepentant drift into a modern, blissful domestic life, “flush with joy in our house on the hill,” dappled with sequined chain mail, testosterone shots, anal sex, and toy boats full of holes.
Early in the narrative, which is neither memoir nor criticism but some lovely new child of the two, Nelson recalls a friend’s reaction to a Snapfish family-photo mug that her mother has given her. It shows Harry, Harry’s young son, and a seven-months pregnant Nelson, all decked out in holiday best to attend the Nutcracker. “I was horrified when I received it,” says Nelson, but also: “We looked happy.” Her friend says “Wow. I’ve never seen anything so heteronormative in my whole life.” These tensions (horrified/happy; happy/heteronormative) are the book’s animating energy. “What about it is the essence of heteronormativity?” Nelson wonders:
That we are clearly participating, or acquiescing, into participating, in a long tradition of families being photographed at holiday time in their holiday best? That my mother made me the mug, in part to indicate that she recognizes and accepts my tribe as a family? What about my pregnancy—is that inherently heteronormative? Or is the presumed opposition of queerness and procreation more a reactionary embrace of how things have shaken down for queers than the mark of some ontological truth? As more queers have kids, will the presumed opposition simply wither away? Will you miss it?
Like her previous memoir, Bluets, Nelson structures The Argonauts like Blaise Pascal’s Pensées—a series of elegant, logically linked ruminations and reminiscences. Interwoven through both of her works are the ideas and utterances of Nelson’s diverse cabal of philosophical north stars—“the many-gendered mothers of my heart,” she calls them, after the poet Dana Ward. Reading The Argonauts, I thought of that old game—“If you could have a dinner party with any eminent thinkers…” At Nelson’s table are Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Donald Winnicott, Allen Ginsberg, and Eileen Myles, among others. Instead of introducing their quotes, Nelson italicizes them, placing each source’s name in the margins, a format that lends the text an admirable continuity and fluidness. In her use of quotations, she displays an erudite facility that’s dazzling without being pretentious. She also inserts startling personal anecdotes beside critical theory with thrilling confidence. Within one paragraph: “New kinship systems mime older nuclear family relationships [and] radically recontextualize them in a way that constitutes a rethinking of the family,” says Judith Butler; “Tell your girlfriend to find a new kid to play house with,” says Harry’s ex.
The name and the idea that kept returning to me while reading The Argonauts does not grace its marginalia—Emile Durkheim’s old sacred/profane dichotomy, which contains much of the same deep ambivalence and simultaneity as Nelson’s queer/normal. Like the sacred and the profane, queerness and heteronormativity cannot merge; nor can they exist without one another. Queerness would not be queerness without something to queer itself against. Nelson is aware of, and acutely frustrated, by this paradox. She wants to embrace the most inclusive definition of queerness, but she does not want queerness to be lost in the embrace. How can one embrace the sacred in a world where the profane is being obliterated? She writes:
Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick wanted to make way for “queer” to hold all kinds of resistances and fracturings and mismatches that have little or nothing to do with sexual orientation. “Queer is a continuing moment, movement, motive—recurrent, eddying, troublant,”she wrote. “Keenly, it is relational, and strange.” […] Sedgwick once proposed that “what it takes—all it takes—to make the description ‘queer’ a true one is the impulsion to use it in the first person” [...]
Nelson’s brilliance lies in her ability to have it both ways. (“There is much to be learned from wanting something both ways,” she writes.) In her journey to reconcile her queerness with her domesticity, she alights upon the paradoxical compromises that are simply a part of being a human in the world. She is in love with the both/and: both male and female, both eros and storge, both lover and mother, both sacred and profane, both Gilles Deleuze and X-Men: First Class. “How else could we bear to live?” she seems to ask. And what can “normal” really mean in a world so saturated by queerness and its contradictions? “Annoying as it might be to hear a straight white guy talk about a book of his as queer (do you have to own everything?),” she writes, “In the end, it’s probably for the better.”
Nelson rejects queerness as a binary but it isn’t quite a continuum either. She refuses to lay queerness upon a straight line. In the end, she settles on it as a question, a dialogue, a call and response. Such is her mode. Like Donald Winnicott’s “good enough mother,” it is enough for Nelson to be a good enough queer—accepting, responsive, adaptable—which is to say, one that is queer at heart.
The book’s title comes from a passage by Roland Barthes, in which he describes how the Argonauts gradually replaced each piece of their ship, the Argo, during their journey “so that they ended with an entirely new ship, without having to alter either its name or its form.” Nelson writes the passage down and gives it to Harry at the beginning of their courtship, just after that raw moment when Nelson first tells Harry she loves him. Like Bluets, The Argonauts is a book that is, at heart, about love, but where Bluets had all the tremulous uncertainty and rage of heartbreak (its subject), The Argonauts embodies the fierce confidence of pregnancy (“so profoundly strange and wild and transformative”) and motherhood. Like the Argo, like pregnancy, like Harry’s transition from female to something more complicated, love is always in a state of becoming (“a becoming which never becomes”). Nelson embraces the mercurial, elliptical nature of life and love—“a buoyant eros, an eros without teleology”—and lets that be her answer.
MADELINE GRESSEL is a writer and journalist currently based at New York University's Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute in the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program. Formerly the music critic for the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, she now focuses on environmental issues and the criminal justice system.