The first time I read The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson, I was sitting in my bedroom in my hometown in Sydney, Australia. I knew that reading it had shifted something in me, but I wouldn’t understand what that was until years later, on my fifth or sixth reading. That first day, all I could think was this: these words are unflinching and beautiful at the same time, in equal measure, a combination that until that moment, I hadn’t realised was possible.
It is a love story that refuses to be boundaried. It is a memoir about a relationship, it is literary criticism, it is gender theory, queer theory, ontology, it is specific and universal, creative and critical. Nelson says to her partner Harry: ‘What’s your pleasure? You asked, then stuck around for an answer.’ describes telling Harry she loves him, and then feeling ‘feral with vulnerability’. So she sends him a passage from Roland Barthes, one that explains that saying ‘I love you’ is like ‘the Argonaut renewing his ship during its voyage without changing its name.’ The name – the words – are the same, but the meaning of them is remade every time they are spoken. Barthes says that ‘the very task of love and of language is to give to one and the same phrase inflections which will be forever new.’ She makes this point again later in the book when she tells us: ‘Words change depending on who speaks them.’
But the truth of this book comes crashing in when Nelson reflects on Harry’s response to the Barthes offering.
‘I thought the passage was romantic,’ Nelson writes. ‘You read it as a possible retraction. In retrospect, I guess it was both.’
I guess it was both.
Nelson starts The Argonauts by asking whether words are good enough. She asks this question again and again. I had spent a lifetime devoted to Wittgenstein’s notion that the inexpressible is contained – inexpressibly! – in the expressed, she tells us.
‘Its paradox is, quite literally, why I write, or how I feel able to keep writing.’
By the second or third reading of this book, I realised this is why I write, too. Like all the best writers, Nelson was explaining something to me that I knew, but was too fundamental to be expressible, at least by me.
Words are good enough, Nelson insists. Because even though there are things they cannot contain, even though there are things we cannot say, every time we sit down to try, we circle closer to making those slippery things expressible.
But Harry disagrees. Harry believes that once you put something into words, you imprison it. That you murder something by defining it. Which of them is right? Maybe both. Maybe it’s a question that we can keep coming back to, again and again. Maybe that’s what real love – the kind Nelson and Harry have – is all about. It’s the same as her love for writing. It’s the same as mine. The very task of love and of language is to give to one and the same phrase inflections which will be forever new.
As a way – I like to think – of answering Harry’s question (‘what’s your pleasure?’), Nelson writes: ‘The pleasure of recognizing that one may have to undergo the same realizations, write the same notes in the margin, return to the same themes in one’s work, relearn the same emotional truths, write the same book over and over again.’
And that’s what this book taught me: that love does not have to mean believing wholly in something. Love does not mean the absence of doubt. Love means knowing that sometimes words don’t work, but we keep trying anyway, because we know that we get closer each time we try. Love means believing in the process and sitting in the uncertainty of the outcome. Are words good enough, or not good enough? Maybe it was both.
Unflinching and beautiful. Doubt and devotion. Theory and memoir. Inexpressible and – somehow – expressed. Feral with vulnerability and steady with courage. Humbled by words but brave with them. Humbled by love but brave with it.
As Nelson tells the story of her life with Harry – of his journey through hormone treatment and transition, of her journey through pregnancy and birth and motherhood – she shows us the kind of devotion that constitutes a life. In doing that, she gives us something we can revisit, again and again, and find something new in each time. In her ordinary devotion to writing, in her determination to find the inexpressible in the expressed, she proves the theory she has set out to test. Words are different depending on who speaks – or reads – them.
Each time I read this book, I learn something new about love. Which is to say I learn something new about writing. Which is to say that this book refuses to be bounded, refuses to be one thing, refuses to shy away from the uncertainty of love and vulnerability and doubt. That’s the most important thing a writer can do. Maggie Nelson taught me that – again and again.
Image © Gilbert Munger