Sunday, January 31, 2016

Notes on The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

I thought I might try a new thing here: blogging. Possibly even about the books I read!

As of this moment, I've finished reading two books so far this year, both of which had figured to be the final book(s) of 2015, but were not, and only one of which will I write about here. (I saw a year-end post which said that any book worth reading is worth devoting 100 words to. Fair point. One hundred words isn't many; maybe I'll give it a try. Not that I expect to keep to it.) (Is this one hundred words yet?)

Maggie Nelson's The Argonauts. In short, I loved reading this book. But what is it? A very slim volume (which helps, no doubt). Inside flap says it's "Memoir/Criticism". Sales categories bug me, but Nelson does do those things here. She writes about her own life - her attempts to get pregnant, her pregnancy, her relationship with her partner Harry Dodge, to whom the book is frequently addressed and who is "fluidly gendered" (that phrasing is taken from the intro to this interview with Nelson; I use it rather than "trans" if only because she writes about that term some in the book) - she writes about her roles as mother and step-mother - the messiness and physicality of all of these things. She writes about feminism and queer theory and poetry and writing: and about the former being just as worthy of critical attention as the latter.

I'll just offer one example from the book. Nelson tells the story of a seminar she attended as a grad student, in 1998, in which Jane Gallop was to present new material, and Rosalind Krauss was to respond to it. (Neither name was familiar to me. Nelson describes Gallop's work as having "evidenced a deep investment in Lacanian thought without seeming to have drunk the Kool-Aid", as seeming "to be learning everything there was to know about the [philosophical] boiler room so that she could blow it up". Krauss's work she knew less well but "gathered that everyone was invested in her theories about the modernist grid".) Gallop's presentation was a slideshow of resolutely personal photographs, about her husband and son and their lives, and commentary about the subjective experience of being photographed, combined with her experience as a mother. Nelson: "I liked that Gallop was onto something and letting us in on it before she fully understood it. She was hanging her shit out to dry: a start." But Krauss goes on the attack, accusing Gallop of a disturbing "soft-mindedness", in sharp contrast to her important previous work. Nelson: "The room thickened with the sound of one keenly intelligent woman taking another down. ... the tacit undercurrent of her argument, as I felt it, was that Gallop's maternity had rotted her mind—besotted it with the narcissism that makes one think than an utterly ordinary experience shared by countless others is somehow unique, or uniquely interesting."

Nelson was at that time neither a mother nor had any expectations of becoming one, but her sympathies were with Gallop: "I was enough of a feminist to refuse any knee-jerk quarantining of the feminine or the maternal from the realm of intellectual profundity." In saying so, of course, Nelson is reminding us that such refusals have been a basic component of feminism, i.e., nothing new. However, the need to refuse such quarantining (and of not just "the feminine or the maternal", but also "the physical", "the medical", and any number of other "personal" categories people are encouraged to keep hidden, or told is outside the realm of thinking), and to assert its opposite, is perpetual. Maggie Nelson not only calls bullshit on such mindsets, but beautifully demonstrates throughout that it is bullshit.

I think The Argonauts is both important and beautiful. It is that elusive species, writing.

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