As I read The Argonauts, I thought again and again how influential it would have been for me to read this book when I was in college. Not that it wasn't influential now, but it summarized and went so far beyond everything I've learned and thought in the past six years that I couldn't help but wonder how incredible it would have been to view Johnston and society through the lens Maggie Nelson so intricately crafts.
When I reopened it to begin my notetaking for this review, I just wanted to start reading again – the book is so rich in thought, in intimacy, in creativity, pure beauty of words, that I continually want to tattoo it's most poignant sentences into my brain so I can utilize them as frameworks through which to view the world every hour of the day.
The Argonauts is a polemic on queer family making in the twisted society we live in, a reflection on how individuals fuse to make a life, a conversation with all the best theorists that have ever lived on the most pertinent questions of conformity, society and identity today. It quarrels with the questions and contradictions that ostensibly make up a partnership – the one at the core is what words can express, and what remains inexpressible, but there are hundreds more – how to pick what parts of this society are salvageable, and what must be destroyed, what can be lived with and what must be burned. Nelson interrogates what it means to live in and abide by the social construct, and blows it up in ways that even the most revolutionary minded of us may not have imagined. Paradox is at the heart of this incredible book, and how to live with the multitude of paradoxes that life presents. Nelson interrogates language itself, in relation to gender, thought, and pretty much anything you can imagine. To me, The Argonauts was about everything – everything that goes into making a thoughtful and artistic life within the galaxy of other people.
Nelson's writing contains such crystalline, accurate turns of phrase such as 'feral with vulnerability,' 'in heart or in art,' as well as longer analyzations of the feelings that I know I and probably many people I interact with have inhabited at one time or another but never been able to put so eloquently into words: “In the face of such phallocentric gravitas I find myself drifting into a delinquent, anti-interpretive mood.”' “busting the avant garde's mythos of itself was, even then, my idea of a good time.”
At the heart of The Argonauts (other than paradox) is Nelson's partnership with artist Harry Dodge, who is genderfluid, and their journey into the beautiful terrain of queer familymaking, choosing which parts of the traditional family model to salvage while throwing others forcefully out the window. The book also goes deep into describing Dodge's revolutionary work, and the ability to see his artistic process alongside Nelson's writing process is an incredible gift. This loving portrait and Nelson's singular writing style meld to create the belief that life is a conversation, with theorists, with lovers, with friends, with family, with ideas and art and our surroundings.
Reading The Argonauts forces you to think in a way that questions everything that gives itself a name and rules, everything that abides by a definition – how structures are built and maintained, how language both controls and frees our abilities to move as individuals in relationships and in society. Nelson purports that we must be willing to hold all aspects of our lives and our culture up for critical examination. Just when you think you know what is coming next, Nelson flips the map and creates a new key – she interrogates the use of heteronormative as a buzzword, she attempts to vilify marriage as an institution by breaking it from the traditional set while acknowledging that the desire to get married is by virtue putting faith in it's system. She questions pretty much everything that self congratulatory radical people repeat on the internet, and our brains are richer for it.
Nelson's words blend seamlessly with the all star theorists she peppers throughout her pages, cementing her in my personal A team of contemporary and classical thinkers. She breathes interdisciplinarity onto the page, and gives an intimate, hard won portrait of a union of artists, which feels like a treasure to be let in on. This is a book for people who love thoughts and theory, words and how they can or, in some instances, cannot communicate the essential truths one finds in life. It is a book for people who care deeply about making art and making a family, whatever type of family that is. It should be required reading for all humans, but for now I'll settle for all the thinking humans that I know would love it as much as I did.