Ben Smithgall

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Bit pusher at Spotify. Previously Interactive News at the New York Times, U.S. Digital Service, and Code for America.





The Argonauts

By Maggie Nelson

Finished reading on August 10, 2019

I am glad I read The Argonauts, a bizarre auto-theoretical meditation on motherhood, gender, and sexuality, but I am not sure what I took away from it. Nelson’s alleged aim is to present a case for radical individual freedom by blending together philosophy, lived experience, and the chronicling of simultaneous changes between wrought by her pregnancy and those of her fluidly-gendered partner, Harry Dodge.

Nelson, though, seems to sneer at lives less radical than her own, and this results in a sort of fundamental weakness of the book: she is performing a “normal” act – motherhood but is unable to resolve that fact with the highbrow experience of her own life. Her solution is an attempt to elevate motherhood (at one point wondering if it is possible for there to be a non-queer pregnancy), but that particular joining often feel lacking. In the end, it turns out that people are complex and contain multitudes!

That being said, there is wonderful writing and interesting thinking in the pages. I was particularly interested in what she wrote about “homonormativity:”

There’s something truly strange about living in a historical moment in which the conservative anxiety and despair about queers bringing down civilization and its institutions (marriage, most notably) is met by the anxiety and despair so many queers feel about the failure or incapacity of queerness to bring down civilization and it’s institutions, and their frustration with the assimilationist, unthinkingly neoliberal bent of the mainstream GLBTQ+ movement, which has spent fine coin begging entrance into two historically repressive structures: marriage and the military.

Some of the most beautiful writing comes at the end as well, when she is describing her experience in labor with Iggy: her sentences get shorter and the theory disappears for a moment as she conveys what can only be described as physical and emotional labor. Afterwards, she writes about her worries with motherhood, whether by perhaps even writing the book she has damaged her child in some way, striving to achieve what D.W. Winnicott, whose work she quotes routinely throughout the book, calls “ordinarily devoted.” It would do a disservice to try to quote or annotate it in some way; it is better to read it in full and experience it all at once.