Maggie Nelson | The Argonauts | Graywolf Press | May 2015 | 17 minutes (4,137 words)
Published to great acclaim earlier this year, The Argonauts blends memoir and critical theory to explore the meaning and limitations of language, love, and gender. At its center is a romance: the story of the author’s relationship with artist Harry Dodge. This story, which includes the author’s account of falling in love with Dodge, who is fluidly gendered, as well as her journey to and through a pregnancy, offers a firsthand account of the complexities and joys of (queer) family-making.
A note: In the print edition of The Argonauts, attributions for otherwise unattributed text appear in the margins in grayscale. We’ve tried to recreate those marginal citations here. However, due to the limitations of digital formatting, if you are viewing this excerpt on a mobile device the citations may appear directly above the quotations, as opposed to alongside them.
October, 2007. The Santa Ana winds are shredding the bark of the eucalyptus trees in long white stripes. A friend and I risk the widowmakers by having lunch outside, during which she suggests I tattoo the words HARD TO GET across my knuckles, as a reminder of this pose’s possible fruits. Instead the words I love you come tumbling out of my mouth in an incantation the first time you fuck me in the ass, my face smashed against the cement floor of your dank and charming bachelor pad. You had Molloy by your bedside and a stack of cocks in a shadowy unused shower stall. Does it get any better? What’s your pleasure? you asked, then stuck around for an answer.
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 constricted throat: Lo, what I would say, were words good enough. Words are good enough.
It is idle to fault a net for having holes, my encyclopedia notes.
In this way you can have your empty church with a dirt floor swept clean of dirt and your spectacular stained glass gleaming by the cathedral rafters, both. Because nothing you say can fuck up the space for God.
I’ve explained this elsewhere. But I’m trying to say something different now.
Before long I learned that you had spent a lifetime equally devoted to the conviction that words are not good enough. Not only not good enough, but corrosive to all that is good, all that is real, all that is flow. We argued and argued on this account, full of fever, not malice. Once we name something, you said, we can never see it the same way again. All that is unnameable falls away, gets lost, is murdered. You called this the cookie-cutter function of our minds. You said that you knew this not from shunning language but from immersion in it, on the screen, in conversation, onstage, on the page. Thomas Jefferson and the churches—for plethora, for kaleidoscopic shifting, for excess. I insisted that words did more than nominate. I read aloud to you the opening of Philosophical Investigations. Slab, I shouted, slab!
For a time, I thought I had won. You conceded there might be an OK human, an OK human animal, even if that human animal used language, even if its use of language were somehow defining of its humanness—even if humanness itself meant trashing and torching the whole motley, precious planet, along with its, our, future.
But I changed too. I looked anew at unnameable things, or at least things whose essence is flicker, flow. I readmitted the sadness of our eventual extinction, and the injustice of our extinction of others.
I stopped smugly repeating Everything that can be thought at all can be thought clearly and wondered anew, can everything be thought.
And you—whatever you argued, you never mimed a constricted throat. In fact you ran at least a lap ahead of me, words streaming in your wake. How could I ever catch up (by which I mean, how could you want me?).
A day or two after my love pronouncement, now feral with vulnerability, I sent you the passage 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.”
I thought the passage was romantic. You read it as a possible retraction. In retrospect, I guess it was both.
You’ve punctured my solitude, I told you. It had been a useful solitude, constructed, as it was, around a recent sobriety, long walks to and from the Y through the sordid, bougainvillea-strewn back streets of Hollywood, evening drives up and down Mulholland to kill the long nights, and, of course, maniacal bouts of writing, learning to address no one. But the time for its puncturing had come. I feel I can give you everything without giving myself away, I whispered in your basement bed. If one does one’s solitude right, this is the prize.
A few months later, we spent Christmas together in a hotel in downtown San Francisco. I had booked the room for us online, in the hope that my booking of the room and our time in the room would make you love me forever. It turned out to be one of those hotels that booked for cheap because it was undergoing an astonishingly rude renovation, and because it was smack in the middle of the cracked-out Tenderloin. No matter—we had other business to attend to. Sun filtered through the ratty venetian blinds just barely obscuring the construction workers hammering away outside as we attended to it. Just don’t kill me, I said as you took off your leather belt, smiling.
After the Barthes, I tried again, this time with a fragment of a poem by Michael Ondaatje:
Kissing the stomach
kissing your scarred
skin boat. History
is what you’ve travelled on
and take with you
We’ve each had our stomachs
kissed by strangers
to the other
and as for me
I bless everyone
who kissed you here
I didn’t send the fragment because I had in any way achieved its serenity. I sent it with the aspiration that one day I might— that one day my jealousy might recede, and I would be able to behold the names and images of others inked onto your skin without disjunct or distaste. (Early on we made a romantic visit to Dr. Tattoff on Wilshire Boulevard, both of us giddy at the prospect of clearing your slate. We left crestfallen at the price, the improbability of ever completely eradicating the ink.)
After lunch, my friend who suggested the HARD TO GET tattoo invites me to her office, where she offers to Google you on my behalf. She’s going to see if the Internet reveals a preferred pronoun for you, since despite or due to the fact that we’re spending every free moment in bed together and already talking about moving in, I can’t bring myself to ask. Instead I’ve become a quick study in pronoun avoidance. The key is training your ear not to mind hearing a person’s name over and over again. You must learn to take cover in grammatical cul-de-sacs, relax into an orgy of specificity. You must learn to tolerate an instance beyond the Two, precisely at the moment of attempting to represent a partnership—a nuptial, even.
Gilles Deleuze/Claire Parnet
Nuptials are the opposite of a couple. There are no longer binary machines: question-answer, masculine-feminine, man-animal, etc. is could be what a conversation is—simply the outline of a becoming.
Expert as one may become at such a conversation, to this day it remains almost impossible for me to make an airline reservation or negotiate with my human resources department on our behalf without flashes of shame or befuddlement. It’s not really my shame or befuddlement—it’s more like I’m ashamed for (or simply pissed at) the person who keeps making all the wrong presumptions and has to be corrected, but who can’t be corrected because the words are not good enough.
How can the words not be good enough?
Lovesick on the floor of my friend’s office, I squint up at her as she scrolls through an onslaught of bright information I don’t want to see. I want the you no one else can see, the you so close the third person never need apply. “Look, here’s a quote from John Waters, saying, ‘She’s very handsome.’ So maybe you should use ‘she.’ I mean, it’s John Waters.“ That was years ago, I roll my eyes from the floor. Things might have changed.
When making your butch-buddy film, By Hook or By Crook, you and your cowriter, Silas Howard, decided that the butch characters would call each other “he” and “him,” but in the outer world of grocery stores and authority figures, people would call them “she” and “her.” The point wasn’t that if the outer world were schooled appropriately re: the characters’ preferred pronouns, everything would be right as rain. Because if the outsiders called the characters “he,” it would be a different kind of he. Words change depending on who speaks them; there is no cure. The answer isn’t just to introduce new words (boi, cis- gendered, andro-fag) and then set out to reify their meanings (though obviously there is power and pragmatism here). One must also become alert to the multitude of possible uses, possible contexts, the wings with which each word can fly. Like when you whisper, You’re just a hole, letting me fill you up. Like when I say husband.
Soon after we got together, we attended a dinner party at which a (presumably straight, or at least straight-married) woman who’d known Harry for some time turned to me and said, “So, have you been with other women, before Harry?” I was taken aback. Undeterred, she went on: “Straight ladies have always been hot for Harry.” Was Harry a woman? Was I a straight lady? What did past relationships I’d had with “other women” have in common with this one? Why did I have to think about other “straight ladies” who were hot for my Harry? Was his sexual power, which I already felt to be immense, a kind of spell I’d fallen under, from which I would emerge abandoned, as he moved on to seduce others? Why was this woman, whom I barely knew, talking to me like this? When would Harry come back from the bathroom?
There are people out there who get annoyed at the story that Djuna Barnes, rather than identify as a lesbian, preferred to say that she “just loved Thelma.” Gertrude Stein reputedly made similar claims, albeit not in those exact terms, about Alice. I get why it’s politically maddening, but I’ve also always thought it a little romantic—the romance of letting an individual experience of desire take precedence over a categorical one. The story brings to mind art historian T. J. Clark’s defense of his interest in the eighteenth-century painter Nicolas Poussin from imaginary interlocutors: “Calling an interest in Poussin nostalgic or elitist is like calling the interest one has, say, in the person one cares for most deeply ‘hetero- (or homo-) sexist,’ or ‘exclusive’ or ‘proprietorial.’ Yes, that may be right: those may be roughly the parameters, and regrettable; but the interest itself may still be more complete and human—still carry more of human possibility and compassion—than interests uncontaminated by any such affect or compulsion.” Here, as elsewhere, contamination makes deep rather than disqualifies.
Besides, everyone knows that Barnes and Stein had relationships with women besides Thelma and Alice. Alice knew, too: she was apparently so jealous upon finding out that Stein’s early novel Q. E. D. told the coded story of a love triangle involving Stein and a certain May Bookstaver that Alice—who was also Stein’s editor and typist—found all sorts of weasely ways to omit every appearance of the word May or may when she retyped Stein’s Stanzas in Meditation, henceforth an unwitting collaboration.
By February I was driving around the city looking at apartment after apartment, trying to find one big enough for us and your son, whom I hadn’t yet met. Eventually we found a house on a hill with gleaming dark wood floors and a view of a mountain and a too-high rent. The day we got the keys, we slept together in a fit of giddiness on a thin blanket spread out over the wood floor of what would become our first bedroom.
That view. It may have been a pile of rough scrub with a stagnant pond at its top, but for two years, it was our mountain.
And then, just like that, I was folding your son’s laundry. He had just turned three. Such little socks! Such little underwear! I marveled at them, made him lukewarm cocoa each morning with as much powder as can fit in the rim of a fingernail, played Fallen Soldier with him for hours on end. In Fallen Soldier he would collapse with all his gear on—sequined chain mail hat, sword, sheath, a limb wounded from battle, tied up in a scarf. I was the good Blue Witch who had to sprinkle healing dust all over him to bring him back to life. I had a twin who was evil; the evil twin had felled him with her poisonous blue powder. But now I was here to heal him. He lay there motionless, eyes closed, the faintest smile on his face, while I recited my monologue: But where could this soldier have come from? How did he get so far from home? Is he badly wounded? Will he be kind or fierce when he awakens? Will he know I am good, or will he mistake me for my evil twin? What can I say that will bring him back to life?
Throughout that fall, yellow Yes on Prop 8 signs were sprouting up everywhere, most notably jabbed into an otherwise bald and beautiful mountain I passed each day on my way to work. The sign depicted four stick figures raising their hands to the sky, in a paroxysm of joy—the joy, I suppose, of heteronormativity, here indicated by the fact that one of the stick figures sported a triangle skirt.
(What is that triangle, anyway? My twat?) PROTECT CALIFORNIA CHILDREN! the stick figures cheered.
Each time I passed the sign stuck into the blameless mountain, I thought about Catherine Opie’s Self-Portrait/Cutting from 1993, in which Opie photographed her back with a drawing of a house and two stick-figure women holding hands (two triangle skirts!) carved into it, along with a sun, a cloud, and two birds. She took the photo while the drawing was still dripping with blood. “Opie, who had recently broken up with her partner, was longing at the time to start a family, and the image radiates all the painful contradictions inherent in that wish,” Art in America explains.
I don’t get it, I said to Harry. Who wants a version of the Prop 8 poster, but with two triangle skirts?
Maybe Cathy does, Harry shrugged.
Once I wrote a book about domesticity in the poetry of certain gay men (Ashbery, Schuyler) and some women (Mayer, Notley). I wrote this book when I was living in New York City in a teeny, too-hot attic apartment on a Brooklyn thoroughfare underlined by the F train. I had an unusable stove filled with petrified mouse droppings, an empty fridge save for a couple of beers and yogurt peanut honey Balance bars, a futon on a piece of plywood unevenly balanced on milk crates for a bed, and a floor through which I could hear Standcleartheclosingdoors morning, noon, and night. I spent approximately seven hours a day lying in bed in this apartment, if that. Mostly I slept elsewhere. I wrote most everything I wrote and read most everything I read in public, just as I am writing this in public now.
I was so happy renting in New York City for so long because renting—or at least the way I rented, which involved never lifting a finger to better my surroundings—allows you to let things literally fall apart all around you. Then, when it gets to be too much, you just move on.
Many feminists have argued for the decline of the domestic as a separate, inherently female sphere and the vindication of domesticity as an ethic, an affect, an aesthetic, and a public. I’m not sure what this vindication would mean, exactly, though I think in my book I was angling for something of the same. But even then I suspected that I was doing so because I didn’t have a domestic, and I liked it that way.
I liked Fallen Soldier because it gave me time to learn about your son’s face in mute repose: big almond eyes, skin just starting to freckle. And clearly he found some novel, relaxing pleasure in just lying there, protected by imaginary armor, while a near stranger who was quickly becoming family picked up each limb and turned it over, trying to find the wound.
Not long ago, a friend came over to our house and pulled down a mug for coffee, a mug that was a gift from my mother. It’s one of those mugs you can purchase online from Snapfish, with the photo of your choice emblazoned on it. I was horrified when I received it, but it’s the biggest mug we own, so we keep it around, in case someone’s in the mood for a trough of warm milk or something.
Wow, my friend said, filling it up. I’ve never seen anything so heteronormative in all my life.
The photo on the mug depicts my family 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 have 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 his son 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.
But what about it is the essence of heteronormativity? 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? As more queers have kids, will the presumed opposition simply wither away? Will you miss it?
Is there something inherently queer about pregnancy itself, insofar as it profoundly alters one’s “normal” state, and occasions a radical intimacy with—and radical alienation from—one’s body? How can an experience so profoundly strange and wild and transformative also symbolize or enact the ultimate conformity? Or is this just another disqualification of anything tied too closely to the female animal from the privileged term (in this case, nonconformity, or radicality)? What about the fact that Harry is neither male nor female? I’m a special—a two for one, his character Valentine explains in By Hook or By Crook.
When or how do new kinship systems mime older nuclear-family arrangements and when or how do they radically recontextualize them in a way that constitutes a rethinking of kinship? How can you tell; or, rather, who’s to tell? Tell your girlfriend to find a different kid to play house with, your ex would say, after we first moved in.
To align oneself with the real while intimating that others are at play, approximate, or in imitation can feel good. But any fixed claim on realness, especially when it is tied to an identity, also has a finger in psychosis.
If a man who thinks he is a king is mad, a king who thinks he is a king is no less so.
Perhaps this is why psychologist D. W. Winnicott’s notion of “feeling real” is so moving to me. One can aspire to feel real, one can help others to feel real, and one can oneself feel real—a feeling Winnicott describes as the collected, primary sensation of aliveness, “the aliveness of the body tissues and working of body-functions, including the heart’s action and breathing,” which makes spontaneous gesture possible. For Winnicott, feeling real is not reactive to external stimuli, nor is it an identity. It is a sensation—a sensation that spreads. Among other things, it makes one want to live.
Some people find pleasure in aligning themselves with an identity, as in You make me feel like a natural woman—made famous by Aretha Franklin and, later, by Judith Butler, who focused on the instability wrought by the simile. But there can also be a horror in doing so, not to mention an impossibility.
It’s not possible to live twenty-four hours a day soaked in the immediate awareness of one’s sex. Gendered selfconsciousness has, mercifully, a flickering nature.
A friend says he thinks of gender as a color. Gender does share with color a certain ontological indeterminacy: it isn’t quite right to say that an object is a color, nor that the object has a color. Context also changes it: all cats are gray, etc. Nor is color voluntary, precisely. But none of these formulations means that the object in question is colorless.
The bad reading [of Gender Trouble] goes something like this: I can get up in the morning, look in my closet, and decide which gender I want to be today. I can take out a piece of clothing and change my gender: stylize it, and then that evening I can change it again and be something radically other, so that what you get is something like the commodification of gender, and the understanding of taking on a gender as a kind of consumerism. . . . When my whole point was that the very formation of subjects, the very formation of persons, presupposes gender in a certain way—that gender is not to be chosen and that “performativity” is not radical choice and it’s not voluntarism. . . . Performativity has to do with repetition, very often with the repetition of oppressive and painful gender norms to force them to resignify. This is not freedom, but a question of how to work the trap that one is inevitably in.
You should order a mug in response, my friend mused while drinking her coffee. Like, how about one that features Iggy’s head crowning, in all its bloody glory? (I had told her earlier that day that I was vaguely hurt that my mother hadn’t wanted to look at my birth photos; Harry then reminded me that few people ever want to look at anyone’s birth photos, at least not the graphic ones. And I was forced to admit that my past feelings about other people’s birth photos bore out the truth of this statement. But in my postpartum haze, I felt as though giving birth to Iggy was such an achievement, and doesn’t my mother like to be proud of my achievements? She laminated the page in the New York Times that listed me as a Guggenheim recipient, for God’s sake. Unable to throw the Guggenheim placemat away (ingratitude), but not knowing what else to do with it, I’ve since placed it below Iggy’s high chair, to catch the food that flows downward. Given that the fellowship essentially paid for his conception, each time I sponge tidbits of shredded wheat or broccoli florets off of it, I feel a loose sense of justice.)
During our first forays out as a couple, I blushed a lot, felt dizzy with my luck, unable to contain the nearly exploding fact that I’ve so obviously gotten everything I’d ever wanted, everything there was to get. Handsome, brilliant, quick-witted, articulate, forceful, you. We spent hours and hours on the red couch, giggling, The happiness police are going to come and arrest us if we go on this way. Arrest us for our luck.
What if where I am is what I need? Before you, I had always thought of this mantra as a means of making peace with a bummer or even catastrophic situation. I never imagined it might apply to joy, too.
From The Argonauts, copyright © 2015 Maggie Nelson. Published by Graywolf Press. Purchase the book.