In Catherine Opie’s 1994 photograph Self-Portrait/Pervert, the artist poses in front of a black brocade curtain with the word pervert carved into her chest. The cuts are fresh: the letters are the five-alarm color of fresh blood, and the surrounding skin of Opie’s clavicle is swollen and bright pink. The word is accented with another carving beneath it, in the shape of underlining laurel vines. In the portrait, Opie sits shirtless and straight-backed, with her hands folded demurely in her lap; her breasts hang down on either side like two great patties. Her face and neck are entirely obscured by a black leather fetish mask and collar.
Ten years later, in 2004, Opie took another photograph, Self-Portrait/Nursing. In that picture Opie is again sitting before a brocade curtain, this time a red one. She is naked, and cast in the saintly white light of a Hans Holbein painting, a cherubic blond child at her breast. In this photograph Opie is unmasked, and she and the baby are looking at each other. Neither of them seems concerned with the camera: in the picture, their gaze is very private. The scarred word pervert is faint but still traceable on Opie’s chest.
In her book-length essay The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson is concerned with a dilemma she identifies in Opie’s photographs. In the book, Nelson — a political queer in a relationship with the butch, male-passing artist Harry Dodge — becomes pregnant by artificial insemination and gives birth to a son. Along the way, in an episodic, nonlinear narrative, Nelson examines the difference between the subversive form she always assumed her happiness would take and the apparently conventional form that it does. What does one hope to achieve, she wonders, when one performs gestures like the one Opie did when she carved pervert into her chest? What are we signaling, and to whom, when we mark ourselves as different — as queer, as deviant, as angry or oppositional? Above all, how do we think our way out of the easy sense of contradiction that Opie’s revisited image presents, between the pervert-self and the nursing-self?
The Argonauts arrives at a critical moment for queerness. The expansion of marriage rights and rapid cultural shifts toward assimilation and acceptance have rendered homosexuality much safer and less politically radical than it once was. For some queers, this has provoked a desire to preserve queerness’s alterity: to evoke its history and mark it as fundamentally and continually separate from the straight culture that surrounds it. It’s an understandable impulse, given how quickly the LGBT movement has been embraced — and co-opted — by corporations, politicians, and other fair-weather allies eager to keep up with the times. But this impulse has a downside, too, as it risks becoming attached to its own idea of authenticity, the distinctions it makes between real queerness and queerness’s supposed traitors.
“The tired binary that places femininity, reproduction, and normativity on the one side, and queer resistance on the other has lately reached a kind of apotheosis,” Nelson writes, “often posing as a last, desperate stand against homo- and hetero-normativity, both.” She has no patience for this binary, which understands “procreative femininity” as a pollutant both of queerness and of radicalism; she sees the misogyny of this stance. If The Argonauts can be said to have a primary concern, this is it: how to resist a conception of queerness that shoehorns complex lives into a neat dichotomy of normative versus not, and how to resist the unhelpful demonization of motherhood, domesticity, and the other supposedly reactionary forms that love can take.
Including the poetry, The Argonauts is Nelson’s ninth book. She’s published two works of straightforward criticism: Women, the New York School, and Other True Abstractions (2007), which originated as her doctoral thesis, and The Art of Cruelty (2011), an examination of brutality in contemporary art. In addition to The Argonauts, she has published two other works of what is most accurately called memoir: The Red Parts (2007), about violence in the media and the murder of her aunt; and the cult hit Bluets (2009), which used meditations on the color blue to weave together the story of a breakup with that of the motorcycle accident that left her mentor, the feminist theorist Christina Crosby, paralyzed.
If The Argonauts eludes easy plot summary, it may be because the plot is not what anchors the book.Tweet
Like her other autobiographical books, The Argonauts is episodic, fragmentary, and pointedly acategorical: it’s not a conventional memoir, but neither is it any of the other genres that it borrows from — not poetry, not scholarly criticism, not theory, not essay. There are no chapters, only paragraphs, which range from one sentence to two pages in length. Sometimes these form a sequence; at other times each stands alone as a self-contained thought. Mostly, the book tells the story of Nelson falling in love with, marrying, and raising children with Harry Dodge. It also tells the story of Nelson becoming a mother to the baby Iggy, a stepparent to Harry’s son, Lenny, and a partner to Harry during a period of transformation: after nearly thirty years of wearing “smashers,” even to bed — “doctored sports bras, strips of dirty fabric” that erase any visible trace of breasts — Harry decides to undergo top surgery and start taking testosterone. Harry’s bodily transformation parallels Nelson’s during her pregnancy, and both transformations hint at the title’s meaning. Like the Argo, the mythological ship that keeps its name even as its parts are replaced, Nelson and Harry remain the same even as their bodies change. “On the surface, it may have seemed as though your body was becoming more and more ‘male,’ mine, more and more ‘female,’” Nelson writes. “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 aging.”
This is one way to narrate the arc of the book. It is accurate, but also misleadingly tidy: if The Argonauts eludes easy plot summary, it may be because the plot is not what anchors the book. What does instead is the character of Nelson’s thought, which is warm, winning, sprawling, inexhaustible, and above all bent on a generous kind of self-improvement — one that doesn’t dwell on personal failure so much as measure old ideas against new experiences, to test if they’re still capacious enough, still flexible enough, to be true. Anecdotes become springboards for intellectual gymnastics, which Nelson performs without pretension; critical theory permeates the book, but she’s not simply showing off her ribbons. (Nelson holds a PhD from CUNY, where she studied with the queer-theory heavyweight Eve Sedgwick; she now teaches at CalArts in Los Angeles.) Her style is vernacular, intimate, and practical: reflections on maternity, queerness, domesticity, and their representations derive from real questions that feel urgent because they are. A fondness for the psychologist D. W. Winnicott, for example, marks the distinction between theory that feels useful and theory that doesn’t:
In Iggy’s first year of life, Winnicott was the only child psychologist who retained any interest or relevance for me. Klein’s morbid sadism and bad breast, Freud’s block-buster Oedipal saga and freighted fort/da, Lacan’s heavy-handed Imaginary and Symbolic — suddenly none seemed irreverent enough to address the situation of being a baby, of caretaking a baby. Do castration and the Phallus tell us the deep Truths of Western culture or just the truth of how things are and might not always be? It astonishes me to think that I spent years finding such questions not only comprehensible, but compelling.
The italicized line comes from the gender theorist Elizabeth Weed, and it’s one of many quotations Nelson works seamlessly into her text. These quotations are almost always rendered in italics, with the original writer’s name printed in the margin in a pale font. “I’m looking for a thoroughly digested way of thinking with other people,” Nelson once said of this technique, and digested seems like the right word. The effect is that other people’s sentences blend into Nelson’s; they seem to belong there, as residents of her mind she must contend with.
Nelson likes to write about writing, to make the story of how her books come into the world a part of their project.Tweet
There may be something deeper to this. Early in The Argonauts, Nelson quotes Judith Butler’s Bodies That Matter, a book that argues gender is not only constructed but built out of citations, references to images, movements, and behaviors of the past. (Think of the guy sitting spread-legged on the subway, with his knees pointing toward either end of the car: his unconscious citation is of the bowlegged cowboy — rugged, arrogant, and masculine.) It wouldn’t be a stretch, given the nod to Butler, to read Nelson’s method of citation as a way of constructing her identity as a writer: she cites Wittgenstein or Deleuze when she wants to be a philosopher, Dodie Bellamy or Eileen Myles when she wants to be a punk. That she is ambivalently and imperfectly all of these things is a part of her appeal.
But the citations fulfill a second purpose, of suggesting a kind of heritage. Weed, Winnicott, Bellamy, Butler, Myles, and the countless others Nelson cites — including Leo Bersani, Anne Carson, Pema Chödrön, Michel Foucault, and above all Sedgwick — are her “many-gendered mothers,” she says, borrowing a phrase from the poet Dana Ward, and with Nelson’s mind on maternity this concept has a vague but meaningful resonance. “I think of citation as a form of family-making,” she has said, and The Argonauts is a project about queer family-making twice over: literally, as it tells the story of Nelson, Harry, and their children, and literarily, in its composition.
Moments of resonance, like this one, come often in The Argonauts. They arrive with the sudden force of an epiphany, but slip away just as quickly, leaving only a faint outline of sense. A more dutiful philologist could explain why this happens and how — What trick of language does she use to conjure the feeling of meaningfulness so regularly? — but it’s enough to say it’s an effect of Nelson’s elliptical style. Fragments align, sometimes unexpectedly, creating a powerful sense of interconnectedness: the symbol of the Argo appears first in a quotation from Barthes about the phrase “I love you,” then as a metaphor for Sedgwick’s preferred vision of queerness (“a perpetual excitement . . . a means of asserting while also giving the slip”), then in reference to Michael Jackson’s habit of replacing his aging chimpanzee, Bubbles, with “a new, younger Bubbles. (Cruelty of the Argo?)” A disagreement between Nelson and Harry about whether “words are good enough” is echoed by Winnicott’s concept of the “good-enough mother,” who mothers best when she’s not overthinking it. What do these parallels, these echoes, add up to? Not nothing — but the answer isn’t always obvious, and Nelson doesn’t make it her job to make it so. “It is idle to fault a net for having holes,” she writes on the first page of the book, and one could read it as a disclaimer: If a reader wants to plug up the holes in The Argonauts’ net, she will have to do it herself.
The book’s autobiographical elements are similarly evasive. When they arrive, they come out of order, as best suits the trail of Nelson’s thought. First she and Harry are dating, but then just as suddenly they have not yet met, and Nelson is living in New York, instead of LA. We first meet their son, Iggy, as a baby in arms, with Nelson surprised by the color and specificity of her maternal love: “His thin hair is damp, smells like candy and earth, I bury my mouth into it and breathe.” But just as quickly Iggy reverts from a baby back into a hope, and we see Nelson lying frustrated on a gynecologist’s table, enduring yet another round of artificial insemination as the couple tries to conceive. “Abiding the string of the catheter threaded through the opal slit of my cervix, feeling the familiar cramp of rinsed, thawed seminal fluid pooling directly into my uterus.” “They’re probably shooting egg whites,” Nelson says bitterly to Harry on their umpteenth attempt, and Harry soothes her. Such anecdotes are private, but not especially revelatory. They leave you with the uncanny feeling of knowing someone deeply without knowing much about her at all.
Nelson comes from two distinct backgrounds: one of queer poetics, and one more straightforwardly of academia. Both are equally compelling to her, and the drama of her more recent books, including The Art of Cruelty and The Argonauts, arises when these two influences — manifest as two contradictory systems of thought — come into direct conflict. Nelson likes to write about writing, to make the story of how her books come into the world a part of their project. Much of her work is therefore the attempt to reconcile these two strains of influence and lineage, and to understand how they merge in her writing.
A dancer, Nelson moved to New York after college and began performing in independent productions, while in the meantime she enrolled in the poetry workshops that Eileen Myles held in her living room. For years, she made her money working in smoky bars, and lived in a series of cheap, crumbling apartments. It’s an origin story that sounds so picturesquely bohemian that it’s hard to imagine that it happened in the New York of the late ’90s, rather than that of the ’50s or ’60s. Maybe its resonance in her own life is why this earlier era compelled her: when she finally went into a PhD program, she wrote her dissertation on the New York School of poets, studying the work of Myles’s own mentors Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, and Bernadette Mayer.
Nelson has spoken of Bluets, The Art of Cruelty, and The Argonauts as all being books that were written almost accidentally; they were supposed to be shorter, or more or less autobiographical, or in a different genre. This way of speaking about her work lends it the solemnity of the inevitable: she sees the books as fated, as necessary, at least for her. Similarly, her ideas and intellectual impulses seem to emerge in her work in spite of herself. In the introduction to The Art of Cruelty, for instance, Nelson sets out to make a distinction between “intelligent” and “stupid” kinds of cruelty in art. She claims to be writing the book in part to defend intelligent cruelty, or to find a way for it to exist in a world that we would all want to live in. As the book goes on, however, the distinction breaks down: some cruelties can comfortably be called “stupid,” but very few are exclusively “intelligent” or wholly defensible. In the end, The Art of Cruelty becomes a work against cruelty. Nelson’s writing is persuasive and compelling, but her repeated failure to complete the project she outlines for herself is hard to ignore. A reader gets the sense that she has unmasked herself, or that her compassion has hijacked her intellect for its own purposes. In true Nelson form, she acknowledges this. In a radio interview with the Los Angeles Review of Books’s Arne de Boever, she breaks out in good-humored laughter when she describes her own failure to redeem “intelligent cruelty,” as she aims to at the book’s outset. “Of course, it’s kind of a false claim,” she concedes, and her voice takes on the guilty tone of a conspiracy; perhaps she never intended to defend intelligent cruelty at all. Much of Nelson’s charm comes from her failure to follow her own rules.
A quote from Wittgenstein sits beside a breathless, enamored sex scene on the first page.Tweet
Failure, like “thinking with other people,” is a long-standing tradition in queer writing. Nelson is noticeably indebted to the New Narrative, a group of writers originating in 1970s San Francisco that was founded by the poets Bruce Boone and Robert Glück. New Narrative work was conceived as an outgrowth of Language poetry, relaxing some of that movement’s strictures — its straight-white-male-ness and disinterest in embodiment — while pursuing its fascination with the political uses of everyday language. Like Nelson’s beloved New York School, the poets of the New Narrative used direct address, occasion, autobiography, and metatext, taking to heart Frank O’Hara’s axiom, “When you can’t just pick up the phone, write the poem.” They were interested in transgressive sex, genre disobedience, and theory, and combined the formal techniques of fragmentation used in Language poetry with first-person descriptions of their own marginalized experiences. Above all, they were interested in creative writing’s political utility, its capacity to make the world less unfair. “Eventually we were gay, lesbian, and working class writers,” Glück writes in his essay “Long Note on New Narrative.” As he tells it, the aim was to “elaborate narration on as many different planes as we could, which seemed consistent with the lives we lead.”
Believing that genre and the ability to fit into it was a symptom of being legible and acceptable to society at large, the New Narrative writers disobeyed genre conventions in order to create new and more egalitarian forms of autobiographical writing. It may be due to their influence that so much thinking about queer writing equates the blending of genres with the queer ontological refusal to conform. As Eileen Myles puts it,
I think literary categories are false. They belong to the marketplace and the academy. It’s the obedience issue that I’m saying fuck you to, the scholar or the editor trying to trap the writer like a little bug under the cup of “poetry” or “prose.”
Nelson, too, is interested in sex writing, genre disobedience, and theory. Direct address is a key feature of her work — Bluets is written conversationally, to an unidentified you, and much of The Argonauts reads the same way, with long passages addressed to Harry in the tone of frank intimacy specific to longtime couples. A quote from Wittgenstein sits beside a breathless, enamored sex scene on the first page. In Bluets, Nelson writes about being fucked in the Chelsea Hotel while she watched a blue construction tarp fluttering on a roof outside the window. In The Red Parts, she writes about how months of researching her aunt’s murder left her plagued with irrepressible fantasies and morbid dreams — not of being murdered, but of committing murder. This is not the sort of confessional writing that is meant to shock or upset you; Nelson is no Kathy Acker, no Ozzy Osbourne biting the feathery head off the dove. In fact, one of the most striking elements of Nelson’s work is the sheer absence of anger in it. But there is a challenge inherent in Nelson’s frank mixing of the theoretical and the personal. Her books don’t want to make you want to look away; they want to make you wonder how you feel so at ease in them.
Dodie Bellamy once said of New Narrative, “At its worst, [it] would be, ‘I have sex, and I’m smarter than you.’” If this were the extent of Nelson’s approach, she would be a much less innovative writer than she is. She does have sex, and she is smart, but genre disobedience for its own sake is not a principled stance for her. Her blending of forms and subject matters feels rather like a means of writing as diligently as possible about presumably indulgent things, or as indulgently as possible about presumably diligent things. “I don’t think of criticism or scholarly-ish writing as a place to dump your boringness,” she has said. Many of the unconventional forms her writing takes arise from very conventional inclinations: with her incessant quotation and frequent pose of interrogative investigation, she seems to be reaching for the credibility of research, and the comfort of intellectual precedent.
One of the most moving stories in The Argonauts is that of Nelson’s relationship with her college mentor, Christina Crosby. Crosby was an “elegant, professorial, windswept kind of butch,” who represented for Nelson a zenith of intellectual integrity. Crosby comes across as someone distrustful of personal writing, and it may have been from Crosby that Nelson first acquired the anxiety that runs throughout The Argonauts: how can one be both the austere, disciplined academic and the disobedient, confessional queer? “I was cruising for intellectual mothers,” Nelson writes of herself in college,
unconsciously gravitating toward the stern and nonmaternal type. . . . [Crosby] said she was willing to be my thesis adviser because I struck her as serious, but she made it very clear that she felt no kinship — indeed, she felt a measure of repulsion — at my interest in the personal made public. I was ashamed, but undaunted (my epithet?).
To use Myles’s metaphor: Nelson is half a scholar with a downturned cup, attempting to trap something scuttling uncooperatively around, and half a writer-bug, trying to dodge the cup.
As in The Art of Cruelty, Nelson’s struggle to reconcile these two halves of herself is on display in The Argonauts, but here the stakes feel higher, more urgent. One of the many questions that animates the book is whether it’s possible to build permanence, and the safe and reassuring boundaries that creating a family requires, on the shifting terrain of queerness. How can a person have stability without relinquishing perpetual movement? How to live in both, and let neither win out? Nelson remembers her mentor Eve Sedgwick, who wanted the word queer to be “a nominative, like Argo” — both an assertion (an answer) and an evasion (a perpetual question). Nelson notes, “There is much to be learned from wanting it both ways.” This problem — of wanting it both ways — touches everything in Nelson’s life. In The Argonauts, she describes looking at Harry and his visual art of “pure wildness” with envy. Meanwhile, she writes, “I labor grimly on these sentences, wondering all the while if prose is but the gravestone marking the forsaking of wildness (fidelity to sense-making, to assertion, to argument, however loose) — I’m no longer sure which of us is more at home in the world, which of us more free.”
Time and again, Nelson pledges her allegiance to ambiguity; it’s the position she’s drawn to with age, as life grows more mysterious, not less. Early on, Nelson writes to Harry, “Before we met, I had spent a lifetime devoted to Wittgenstein’s idea that the inexpressible is contained — inexpressibly! — in the expressed. This idea . . . doesn’t feed or exalt any angst one may feel about the incapacity to express, in words, that which eludes him.” But for the genderqueer Harry, for whom the failures of language are more intimate, this doesn’t ring true. They argue about it. “For a time, I thought I had won,” Nelson writes. “But I changed, too. I looked anew at unnameable things, or at least things whose essence is flicker, flow. . . . I stopped smugly repeating Everything that can be thought at all can be thought clearly and wondered anew, can everything be thought.” Of her own writing, she says she’s “afraid of assertion. Always trying to get out of ‘totalizing’ language, i.e. language that rides roughshod over specificity.” In a parenthetical aside, she reminds herself, “(Rule of thumb: when something needs to be willfully erased in order to get somewhere, there is usually a problem . . . ).”
The Argonauts is not a political polemic. It does not have a program. But if there is one idea that Nelson seems bent on advancing, it is that a queerness that can be too easily defined — in its dimensions, in its lineages, or in its art — is one that has been reduced. One of the book’s most politically resonant moments comes in the form of an anecdote about Crosby:
A few years ago, she told me the story of a subsequent feminist theory class that threw a kind of coup. They wanted — in keeping with a long feminist tradition — a different kind of pedagogy than that of sitting around a table with an instructor. They were frustrated by the poststructuralist ethos of her teaching, they were tired of dismantling identities, tired of hearing that the most resistance one could muster in a Foucauldian universe was to work the trap one is inevitably in. So they staged a walkout and held class in a private setting, to which they invited Christina as a guest. When people arrived, Christina told me, a student handed everyone an index card and asked them to write “how they identified” on it, then pin it to their lapel.
Christina was mortified. Like Butler, she’d spent a lifetime complicating and deconstructing identity and teaching others to do the same, and now, as if in a tier of hell, she was being handed an index card and a Sharpie and being told to squeeze a Homeric epithet onto it. Defeated, she wrote “Lover of Babe.”
Babe was Crosby’s dog, a mischievous yellow Lab. Queer liberation, in Crosby’s vision and in Nelson’s, too, is not a matter of creating better words, better labels to pin to your lapel, a better box to put yourself in. It means not having to put yourself in a box at all.
It’s an idea that extends logically from Nelson’s view of queer politics to her ideas about her own work. In another scene, Nelson goes to an academic talk, where she watches as the art critic Rosalind Krauss eviscerates Jane Gallop for presenting naked photographs of herself and her son in the bath. Krauss calls Gallop’s work naïve, soft-minded, ahistorical, and a misuse of Barthes. Nelson thinks, “It’s true that Gallop is no art historian, certainly not in the way Krauss is. (Nor was Barthes, for that matter, but artistry trumps mastery.)” Still, “in the face of such shaming, I felt no choice. I stood with Gallop.” Standing with Gallop means standing against mastery and its scorn for failure, laziness, and inconclusiveness. But the fact that these terms still exist for Nelson as camps — categories, nameable things, which can be sorted and then better understood — shows that mastery, for her, has a deep and irrefutable appeal.
At least in her writing, Nelson is, as Crosby identified her, “serious.” She’s not censorious or intimidating like Krauss is, but she doesn’t like to be easily won over, either, and has little patience for academic posturing. Mercifully, she cuts off lines of inquiry that seem to her pointless, sparing both her readers and herself. Sometimes the “orgy of specificity” involved in the project of queer politics feels like a bit much, even to her. “It’s easy to get juiced up on a concept like plurality or multiplicity and start complimenting everything as such,” Nelson says. “Sedgwick was impatient with that kind of sloppy praise. Instead, she spent a lot of time talking and writing about that which is more than one, and more than two, but less than infinity. . . . This finitude is important.”
Does one have to choose? And if so, why?Tweet
Nelson is also impatient with sloppy praise, but her inclination toward mastery can double as a defense. There are moments when her academic language can seem like a shield or an apology for the personal nature of her subject matter, such as when she discusses the tender feeling of her postpartum body or the expansive power she feels when being fisted. For Nelson, writing can be a way of keeping her shit together, of keeping control. Writing about giving birth, she says,
All through my labor, I could not shit at all, as it was keenly clear to me that letting go of the shit would mean the total disintegration of my perineum, anus, and vagina, all at once. I also knew that if, or when, I could let go of the shit, the baby would probably come out. But to do so would mean falling forever, going to pieces.
This question, which haunts The Argonauts — the question of mastery or artistry, of keeping it together or falling to pieces — is an anxious one for Nelson. She writes of falling in love, of giving birth, and of engaging with the full strange complexity of her life as “submitting.” But at times, “submitting” fully seems to be beyond her capability. It’s something she not only fears, but longs for.
Does one have to choose? And if so, why? Sometimes Nelson engages with binaries — male versus female, straight versus queer, private versus public — simply because other people believe in them, and thereby make them real. As Nelson reflects in her account of Krauss’s takedown of Gallop, the boundaries between personal and academic writing are still often enforced with stern superiority, even among feminist thinkers. Applied to queer and normative lives, policing is still more obvious, literal, and brutal. In one scene, as Proposition 8 is set to pass in California, the couple grows worried over the questionable legal status of Harry’s adoption of his son. In another, they have an uncomfortable moment at a pumpkin patch, when they try to buy a jack-o’-lantern for Halloween and a clerk sees Harry’s former name (Harriet) on his credit card. One night, in an argument, Harry yells at Nelson, “You will never feel as out of place with the world as I will,” and Nelson — blonde, femme, and straight-passing — knows that he is right, and feels the pang of failed identification.
But there is pressure, too, from other queers. Nelson relays the story of a friend who comes over to her and Harry’s house and, looking for a mug for coffee, pulls down a cup that Nelson’s mother gave her, “one of those mugs you can purchase online from Snapfish, with the photo of your choice emblazoned on it.”
Wow, my friend said, filling it up. I’ve never seen anything so heteronormative in all my life.
The photo on the mug depicts Harry, Lenny, and me, all dressed up to go to the Nutcracker at Christmastime — a ritual that was important to my mother when I was a little girl, and that we revived with her now that there are children in my life. In the photo, I’m seven months pregnant with what will become Iggy, wearing a high ponytail and leopard print dress; Harry and Lenny are wearing matching dark suits, looking dashing. We’re standing in front of the mantel at my mother’s house, which has monogrammed stockings hanging from it. We look happy.
The friend is making a joke — the kind that’s meant to signal inclusion, and the fact that they all belong to the same queer tribe — but something about it bugs Nelson. What exactly makes the cup, as her friend says, heteronormative?
That my mother made a mug on a boojie service like Snapfish? That we’re 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 family? What about my pregnancy — is that inherently heteronormative? Or is the presumed opposition of queerness and procreation (or to put a finer edge on it, maternity) more a reactionary embrace of how things have shaken down for queers than the mark of some ontological truth?
Nelson is similarly bothered by an interview with Catherine Opie in Vice magazine about the famous Self-Portrait photographs. The interviewer notes that what makes the juxtaposition of Self-Portrait/Pervert and Self-Portrait/Nursing so shocking is that people want to keep sadomasochism and “being a mom” separate. “They do want to keep it separate,” Opie agrees, and then adds, somewhat amused, that for someone like her to become “homogenized and part of a mainstream domesticity is transgressive. Ha. That’s a very funny idea.” “Funny to her maybe,” Nelson writes, “but to those who are freaked out about the rise of homonormativity and its threat to queerness, not so much.” Nelson is not interested in a queer “liberation” that precludes happiness, including the happiness captured on the “boojie” holiday mug. “It’s the binary of normative/transgressive that’s unsustainable,” Nelson says, “along with the demand that anyone live a life that’s all one thing.”
“Fuck the social order and the child in whose name we’re collectively terrorized.”Tweet
It’s not that Nelson is immune to queer anti-assimilationist pleas. She writes of the years she spent “harshly deriding ‘the breeders,’” and assuming that she would never want to be pregnant. But she seems to attribute some of this stance to a previous moral vanity, or to the smug and silly conviction of the young that they will never get old. Now, she seems somewhat weary of the queer position of wanting always to break things. Recalling a group of radical queers at the 2012 Oakland Pride, who unfurled a banner that read CAPITALISM IS FUCKING THE QUEER OUT OF US, Nelson says, “I was glad for their intervention: there is some evil shit in this world that needs fucking up, and the time for blithely asserting that sleeping with whomever you want however you want is going to jam its machinery is long past. But I’ve never been able to answer to comrade.”
This is the lineage of radical queer thinking that Nelson is tracing when she references Lee Edelman’s concept of “reproductive futurism,” the idea that mainstream culture silences, oppresses, and negates queer lives under the guise of enacting a better future “for the children.” In his book No Future, Edelman puts forth a queer political position that specifically rejects fantasies of the happy future and the optimism of having children. The caricature of the evil queer is already projected onto gays, Edelman argues: “Rather than rejecting . . . this ascription of negativity to the queer, we might, as I argue, do better to consider accepting and even embracing it.” Why not? “Fuck the social order and the child in whose name we’re collectively terrorized,” he writes. “Fuck the whole network of symbolic relations and the future that serves as its prop.” It’s a position that doesn’t leave much room for nuance. Conceptions of queerness like Edelman’s, which privilege negativity, might view Nelson’s wedding, her pregnancy, even her nightly sniffing of the baby Iggy’s hair, as a breed of betrayal.
Nelson is not afraid of queer critiques of straight bourgeois happiness, or of acknowledging how the promise of happiness can be a cruel trick that lures you into participating in your own oppression. But the happiness she seeks is a genuine one; she wants to take joy in caring for other people, and to witness them take joy in caring for her. “I’ve never loved you more than I did then, with your Kool-Aid drains, your bravery in going under the knife to live a better life, a life of wind on skin, your nodding off while propped up on a throne of hotel pillows, so as not to disturb your stitches,” she writes to Harry following his successful top surgery. Of the night after their ambivalent wedding — “Poor marriage! Off we went to kill it (unforgivable). Or reinforce it (unforgivable)” — Nelson writes, “We wept, besotted with our luck, then gratefully accepted two heart-shaped lollipops with the words THE HOLLYWOOD CHAPEL embossed on their wrappers, rushed to pick up Lenny at day care before closing, came home and ate chocolate pudding in sleeping bags on the porch, looking out over our mountain.” Marriage may not be an institution that can achieve much in the service of radical politics, but when I read this scene, I felt overwhelmed by its quiet ecstasy. One yearns for such a moment to be allowed to go uncritiqued, allowed to exist and spread.
About halfway through reading The Argonauts, I saw Wayne Koestenbaum in Penn Station. Koestenbaum, who is also a writer, is a champion of Nelson’s; when she was a graduate student, he was her dissertation adviser. His effusive blurb is on the front cover of The Argonauts, and he’s quoted in the text telling a story about writing to a onetime girlfriend. I don’t know Koestenbaum, but he’s easy to recognize. A tiny man in a bow tie with a patch of his hair bleached, he stood in front of the departures board with his hands held primly over his crotch. Like Nelson, Koestenbaum is a disciple of Sedgwick’s, whom both of them knew at CUNY in the early ’00s, when Sedgwick was dying of cancer. Among the other things they seem to have inherited from her is a calm delight in their own work: Koestenbaum’s books exude writerly enthusiasm, like the serene resting faces of people who have no doubts about whether they’re loved. In the crowd of commuters awaiting their trains, even his posture looked happy.
What does it mean that Koestenbaum finds it novel that a person like me, with all of my things, is reading Nelson?Tweet
When I finally worked up the courage to introduce myself, I asked Koestenbaum about The Argonauts. He was gracious and kind, but he didn’t really say much. “Don’t worry about where its power comes from,” he told me. “Just experience.” He then told me, unsolicited, that Nelson hates to be called “brave” for her work. The epithet seemed condescending, like something backhanded that a disapproving aunt would say at Thanksgiving.
I said good-bye to him when the loudspeaker announced that my train was boarding. “It was so nice to see someone reading that book,” he told me. “I thought, wow, Maggie must have really made it, if a young woman in Penn Station is reading her, with, with” — he made a vague, up-and-down wave at my body — “with all of your things.”
On my train, I wondered what he meant by this. Like Nelson, I’m white, and if you met me you could tell that I’m a cis woman without having to be told. On the day that I met Koestenbaum, I was wearing lipstick and a dress. What does it mean that Koestenbaum finds it novel that a person like me, with all of my things, is reading Nelson? What does it mean that he measured my interest as a signal of “success”?
“I’m boring myself with these reversals (feminist hazard),” Nelson writes at one point in The Argonauts, following a string of rhetorical questions, and one hazard of reading the book is that you can become trapped forever in the irresolvable questions she poses. Queerness may be the perfect subject for Nelson, since its fluctuations, ambivalences, and irresolutions reflect her own intellectual tendencies so neatly. The Argonauts is a book whose subject matter so perfectly mirrors its form that it’s difficult to imagine how Nelson will write another book after this one; it reads like the culmination of a career.
Then again, building an unending inquiry of irresolution is the whole point of Nelson’s work. Her greatest contribution — and, I think, the reason why so many readers find her writing not just compelling but intimately important to them — is that Nelson has renewed an idea of queerness that is more dedicated to troubling our received categories and allegiances than it is to reinforcing them. When Nelson was asked about queer assimilationism in an interview with Bookforum following the release of The Argonauts, her response reflected her typically thoughtful ambivalence. “I really don’t care,” she says, “if caring means that you have to buy into the terms of the dichotomy that has been presented to you.” This ambivalence looks uncannily familiar: a means of asserting while also giving the slip.