Speaking in St. Paul recently, the documentarian Ken Burns deplored our American habit of pinning things down into simplistic categories — good/evil, black/white, rich/poor — which we then try to keep separate, uncontaminated by the other. A more honest approach to history, he claimed, can be found in John Keats’ concept of negative capability — the capacity “of being in uncertainties,” the ability to complicate rather than simplify, to hold opposing and contradictory ideas in tension without needing to moralize about them or resolve them.
Sitting in the audience thinking about “Ode to a Nightingale,” “The Civil War,” “Baseball” and “The Roosevelts,” I thought too about Maggie Nelson’s “The Argonauts,” a memoir that performs boundary complication and contamination on every page.
“The Argonauts” defies easy categorization — that’s a good part of its point. Personal experience and quotations from theorists intermingle freely in short paragraphs — no chapter breaks in sight — that create an almost musical conversation about gender and sexuality, heteronormativity and queerness.
“The Argonauts” is an intimate memoir: Nelson details falling in love with and marrying the transgender artist Harry Dodge (who initially inflicts Nelson with pronoun anxiety by refusing to be categorized by either gender), becoming stepmother to Harry’s son and giving birth to a son, Iggy.
At base, “The Argonauts” is a story about transformation and shapeshifting, literally and conceptually; Nelson writes about “the summer of our changing bodies” as Harry underwent “top surgery” and began testosterone injections at the same time as she became pregnant — an experience “profoundly strange and wild and transformative,” as is motherhood. Ultimately, “The Argonauts” is deeply, personally and movingly about love.
The title comes from the ship the Argo, each piece of which was gradually replaced, leaving a new ship with the same name and form. Near the beginning of the book, Nelson remembers sending Harry a passage in which Roland 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,” Nelson writes. “You read it as a possible retraction. In retrospect, I guess it was both.”
“It was both”: Nelson describes how watching “X-Men: First Class” led her and Harry into good-natured bantering that led them “to get polarized into a needless binary.”
“That’s what we both hate about fiction, or at least crappy fiction — it purports to provide occasions for thinking through complex issues, but really it has predetermined the positions, stuffed a narrative full of false choices, and hooked you on them, rendering you less able to see out, to get out.”
“The Argonauts” is a considered rejection of false choices, an intelligent, irritating, theoretical, intimate, funny, sad and exhilarating testament to the ever-fluid process of seeing out and getting out.
Patricia Hagen teaches English at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.