The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

I feel like I’ve been in a bit of a reading fug recently. I’m not sure what’s at the root of it except a kind of rootlessness. I am not sure what or how I want to read, I am questioning what this reading is all about, why I do it, why I feel compelled and what I’m gaining from it, if anything, other than a shield between me and the world, a convenient, uninterruptable (because it is perceived as ‘good’) barrier that allows me to be in the world safely without all this messy personal interaction that is always so confusing and is so much less neat and controllable than relations on the page. I think about reading as something which helps me to understand the world, to generate empathy and a love of other people’s stories, but they are, I cannot forget, crafted stories and perhaps it is better and quicker to create empathy by going out and interacting with a wide range of actual people instead, but that route, for me, also generates conflict and misunderstanding as the reality of people, their inarticulateness and their uniqueness and desires and needs, is never as reassuring as the written down version. Or perhaps that is just me. I know I am far less messy and far easier to deal with and understand in writing than in person. In fact the world makes more sense to me in general in writing which is, perhaps, why I read.

None of this helps, of course, with the reading fug. Perhaps I am simply bored of what I’ve been reading. Perhaps it has been too samey and too mannered and middle-English (though that is not quite how I’d define what I’ve been reading) and I needed something to kick me off the sofa. After starting 2 books and then discarding them, I reached for Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts which I’d picked up and put down twice before and it was exactly the kick that I needed.

The Argonauts defies classification; it is a book about defying classification. It is a polemic and yet it is very much not. It is explorative. It is a novel-long question without any answers but lots of sub-questions and conjectures and possibilities. It is about sex. It is about gender. It is about love. It is about the namelessness of all these things.

“Before we met, I had spent a lifetime devoted to Wittgenstein’s idea that the inexpressible is contained – inexpressibly! – in the expressed. This idea gets less air time than his more reverential Whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent, but it is, I think, the deeper idea. Its paradox is, quite literally, why I write, or how I feel able to keep writing.

For it doesn’t feed or exalt any angst one may feel about the incapacity to express, in words, that which eludes them. It doesn’t punish what can be said for what, by definition, it cannot be. Nor does it ham it up by miming a constricting throat: Lo, what would I say, were words good enough. Words are good enough.

It is idle to fault a net for having holes, my encyclopaedia notes.”

Words are good enough, yet Nelson seeks to unpick even this certainty by showing, exploring and displaying, the ways in which words are not good enough, how reality – the messy squish of it – doesn’t fit into neat little word-shaped parcels. Much of the book centres around gender, a matter of supreme relevance to Nelson’s life as she marries and has a child with Harry (Harriet) Dodge who you could call transgender, except the word itself is too neat a parcel to fit the form:

“How to explain – “trans” may work well enough as shorthand, but the quickly developing mainstream narrative it evokes (“born in the wrong body,”, necessitating an orthopaedic pilgrimage between two fixed destinations) is useless for some – but partially, or even profoundly, useful for others? That for some, “transitioning” may mean leaving one gender entirely behind, while for others – like Harry, who is happy to identify as a butch on T – it doesn’t? I’m not on my way anywhere, Harry sometimes tells inquirers. How to explain, in a culture frantic for resolution, that sometimes the shit stays messy? I do not want the female gender that has been assigned to me at birth. Neither do I want the male gender that transsexual medicine can furnish and that the state will award me if I behave in the right way. I don’t want any of it. How to explain that for some, or for some at some times, this irresolution is OK – desirable even (e.g. “gender hackers”) – whereas for others, or for others at some times, it stays a source of conflict or grief? How does one get across the fact that the best way to find out how people feel about their gender or their sexuality – or anything else really – is to listen to what they tell you, and try to treat them accordingly, without shellacking over their version of reality with yours?”

Nelson also explores sexuality, female sexuality, and the way it is defined and has been defined and how it is being circumvented, how women can reclaim it through the power of their own words. She talks about homosexuality, heteronormative, homonormative and radical behaviour. None of this is done so directly, it is, I think, the very indirectness that makes this book so powerful. Nelson doesn’t force anything on to the reader, just as she seeks not to force anything on to herself. Everything is a question explored, the possibility of inaccuracy or incorrectness or blindness or prejudice or simply imperfect thinking is always laid bare and open. Defining anything necessarily ignores nuance, like here where she talks about gender:

“A friend says he thinks of gender as a colour. Gender does share with colour a certain ontological indeterminacy: it isn’t quite right to say that an object is a colour, nor that the object has a colour. Context always changes it: all cats are grey, etc. Nor is colour voluntary, precisely. But none of these formulations means that the object in question is colourless.

Context changes everything: yes! Having spent so long (well, perhaps a few days) feeling so colourless about reading, reading this felt like the whole palette of the world’s colours had been opened up for me – I had carmine and russet, red ochre, burnt umber, aquamarine, turquoise, ultramarine, viridian, cadmium lemon where before I had red, blue, yellow and green. It is a book that really made me think: I was thinking so many things about identity politics, about the need to ‘belong’ and how powerful it is and how it makes us prisoners and traitors to ourselves as well as imprisoning others. It is a messy, challenging jungle of a book and it is brilliant and freeing and passionate. It reminded me, in some respects, of Katherine Angel’s excellent exploration of female desire in Unmastered which deals with the conflict between desire and desiring, being desired, as a woman whose ‘role’ it is to be passive and mastered and both wanting it and not wanting it; but The Argonauts goes much further than that. It is a book I think I need to read over and over, to remind myself that any attempt I make to define anything is a poor offering in a world of glorious complexity. And that includes any attempt to define this book. If I had to choose a word it would be extraordinary, safe in the knowledge (belief) that words are not good enough (words are good enough).

The Argonauts is published in UK by Melville House UK


About bookbii

I'm an ordinary woman living an ordinary life in an ordinary place, and it is quietly wonderful
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4 Responses to The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

  1. What a complex book, but how wonderful that you seem to have found something that perhaps helps you understand the potential that reading can bring.

    There is no reading guide for many of us who read, just that feeling of disillusionment or perseverance in the hope that the next choice might contain something of what it is that attracts us to indulge in the activity. That we are drawn towards to it more than any other pursuit, is sufficient for me to indulge it, the understanding will likely take a lifetime, for ultimately that is to understand ourselves, something that is continuing in its formation.

    • bookbii says:

      Brilliantly put Claire. I always feel like I’m reaching for something when reading and choosing the next book and the next book. Like you say, it is a good habit to indulge.

  2. Such a passionate, beautifully written post, Belinda! This book has been at the edge of my reading peripheral vision for some time, cropping up on Twitter and in the blogosphere. I think you’ve persuaded me to take a look.

    • bookbii says:

      I’d love to hear what you think of it if you do read it. I put it aside a couple of times, but once I gave it a chance it really drew me in and it swept away the cobwebs that had been gathering in my mind, which is no terrible thing. It’s a beautiful and passionate book.

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