The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

the-argonautsThis book was described to me as being a kind of memoir about how Nelson’s body changed with pregnancy while her partner Harry’s body changed as he started taking testosterone and had surgery. It is, and it isn’t. This aspect of the book is important, but isn’t really the main focus. It’s really a book about juxtapositions that are not juxtapositions – male/female, birth/death, baby/mother, assimilation/revolution – the fluidity between them.

On the surface, it may have seemed as though your body was becoming more and more ‘male’, mine, more and more ‘female’. But that’s not how it felt on the inside. On the inside, we were two human animals undergoing transformations beside each other, bearing each other loose witness. In other words, we were ageing.

The fluidities between apparent firm binaries forms the centre of the book as “an endless becoming”. The title itself comes from Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes

…in which Barthes describes how the subject who utters the phrase “I love you” is like “the Argonaut renewing his ship during its voyage without changing its name.” Just as the Argo’s parts 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, as “the very task of love and of language is to give to one and the same phrase inflections which will be forever new.

The ‘Argo’ reappears throughout the book as an image of this renewal/re-creation that both changes and does not change the subject.

The book itself is written in a fluid way which moves between more academic analysis and more traditional memoir, without any chapter breaks. While the overarching themes are clear, some of the specifics and ideas are not. It feels like Nelson is giving you her thoughts and it’s up to you to consider them and develop them. I did want some of the threads to be developed further by Nelson herself, but I mostly liked that you have to do the work yourself as the reader.

This is a great read for digging deep into notions of gender, identity, love, and parenthood. Not just Maggie Nelson’s views, but also considering your own. I think it’s going to be an interesting one to re-read.

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3 Responses to The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

  1. Pingback: January reads 2017 | mischief and miscellany

  2. Tristen says:

    Such an interesting take on the memoir genre – I’m not a big fan of theory so I wasn’t sure that I’d like it but it has really stuck with me.

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