The Argonauts by Maggie goddamn* Nelson

*I throw in the goddamn only to convey my enthusiasm and admiration for the sheer BRAVERY of Maggie Nelson, who bares herself in this book for almost clinical purposes, to create a Frankenstein monster of a book that would only be possible if the author were willing to sacrifice her life to the scrutiny of an academic examination. 

The Argonauts had been on the fringes of a lot of conversations, especially while

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maggie goddamn nelson

I was in college and people actually spoke about gender, theory, and feminism in an enlightened way. Since the time of my graduation has coincided pretty neatly with the rise of He Who Shall Not Be Named, speaking intelligently about gender and womanhood is more important than ever. That’s why I’m happy I read The Argonauts now, not when I was protected by Columbia’s all-inclusive bear hug.

In The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson provides a lyrical mixtape of critical theory meets personal life meets personal hangups. It’s book without chapters or sections; rather, she flows from grouped idea to grouped idea. If an essay could be an epic poem, it would be The Argonauts. It’s essentially poetry.
51joiqa3rml-_sx331_bo1204203200_-1And boy is it beautiful. And powerful. I’ll be honest: it made me cry! The first book that made me cry in ages. I was finishing The Argonauts in the den of three finance bros, people who are lovely but probably wouldn’t dream of reading a genre-bending memoir that looks at mothers, daughters, academia, sexuality, identity, and love, love, love from a very personal lens. So I was sitting in the living room alone, reading. And then, reading and crying. It felt fitting to be having this sort of epiphanatic moment–when the words felt so shockingly true they shook me–in this setting where the written word so rarely penetrates people’s cores. This was the feminist autotheory answer to the biographies of billionaires the boys read in that living room. Felt like I blessed the space in some way.

In the book, Nelson explores the limitations of language. She thinks that everything that can be said can be said with language, and her whole mission is to chase the ineffable with her words. It’s like when I say I love you. I’m chasing what I mean, meaning something different each time. Actually, aptly enough, that’s where the title of the book comes from:

“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 also appreciated the value Nelson gives to caretaking and the role of caretakers in this book. In her valiant prose, motherhood is important, a topic that merits serious thought. And it merits serious joy and honesty, and that description of the birth sequence is shocking and I can’t believe birth is something so many women go through! Wowzers.

This is a great book because, like a good college course, it asks you to challenge your own assumptions. Like all gender theory, it’ll make you question what you’ve swallowed and allowed to become a part of your posture, gait, and perspective. What constitutes a “family” and what constitutes a “partner” are all up for grabs in this book. And it’ll make you want to call your damn mother.

Read this book, and enjoy walking through binaries, feeling them stick to your face like cobwebs but puffing out your lungs so you lose them on the wind. Lose them for as long as you’re reaidng the book, at least.

“I’m sick to death of this particular self. I want another.”

Virginia Woolf’s Orlando is smart, weird, and when you’re reading it you can’t help but think it’s far ahead of its time. The title character, Orlando, changes gender halfway through the book. One day, he wakes up a woman. While society treats her differently as a result, the core of her reohbj1cov-1mains the same when as a man or as a woman. Virginia Woolf is at her wittiest in this spoof of a biography of a person who never existed. It’s so entertaining that I almost overlooked all the subtle brilliance of it, too, the way she makes us think about our selves–and men and women and what’s bigger than those categories.

While Orlando merits a long post just to itself, for now I’ll just share a passage where Woolf confronts the search for the single self. After living for over three centuries (!) Orlando is aware of the many selves within her. Throughout the book, Orlando’s character changes–her habits and proclivities and passions alter as the times do. Now, she’s in the present moment and is searching for her “present self,” the true self.

Before she achieves her composite self, though, comes this fantastic passage. So, while I may not be gender-bending heroines (and heroes) of Virginia Woolf’s novels, Woolf puts her finger on something inexpressible. That’s her job, after all, expressing the inexpressible better than anyone!

When this happened, Orlando heaved a sigh of relief, lit a cigarette, and puffed for a minute or two in silence. Then she called hesitatingly, as if the person she wanted might not be there, ‘Orlando? For if there are (at a venture) seventy-six different times all ticking in the mind at once, how many different people are there not–Heaven help us–all having lodgment at one time or another in the human spirit? Some say two thousand and fifty-two. So that it is the most usual thing in the world for a person to call, directly they are alone, Orlando? (if that is one’s name) meaning by that, Come, come! I’m sick to death of this particular self. I want another. Hence, the astonishing changes we see in our friends. But it is not altogether plain sailing, either, for though one may say, as Orlando said (being out in the country and needing another self presumably) Orlando? still the Orlando she needs may not come; these selves of which we are built up, one on top of another, as plates are piled on a waiter’s hand, have attachments elsewhere, sympathies, little constitutions and rights of their own, call them what you will (and for many of these things there is no name) so that one will only come if it is raining, another in a room with green curtains, another when Mrs Jones is not there, another if you can promise it a glass of wine–and so on; for everybody can multiply from his own experience the different terms which his different selves have made with him–and some are too wildly ridiculous to be mentioned in print at all.

A Walker Percy Quote Stuck in My Head

I found Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins this summer in a bargain book basket in Cyprus. 41FWg121mhL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_Of all places to find a good Southern writer, really! Though I struggled with certain aspects of the book, I wanted to share words that have been going through my head like a song whose melody and lyrics pins the tail on the donkey of an emotion you never could name.

Comes again the longing, the desire that has no name. Is it for Mrs. Prouty, for a drink, for both: for a party, for youth, for the good times, for dear good drinking and fighting comrades, for football-game girls in the fall with faces like flowers? Comes the longing and it has to do with being fifteen and fifty and with the winter sun striking down into a brick-yard and on clapboard walls rounded off with old hard blistered paint and across a doorsill onto linoleum. Desire has a smell: of cold linoleum and gas heat and the sour piebald bark of crepe myrtle. A good-humored thirty-five-year-old lady takes the air in a back lot in a small town.

What is it about this string of words together that pulls some string inside me? The way Percy glues desire and longing and nostalgia to such concrete images is stunning. But I think getting to know Percy’s narrator, Tom More, helps. It’s a cathartic moment, and one that fits in seamlessly in the self-deprecating and extremely open first person narration. What I like about Thomas More is that he’s not an unreliable narrator in the sense that he tells the reader he’s going to tell the truth. What he’s going to tell is his truth.

So maybe the reason that I can’t get this quote out of my head is not only because it struck a chord in me, but because for a moment there, I was Thomas More, a middle-aged scientist on a normal day during the final days of a decaying society. The images worked because they were the specific images of Tom’s nostalgia, and they became mine.

Wow, Walker Percy, wow! That’s the power of a first-person narrator.

Excerpt from In Watermelon Sugar

This is a preview to this strange and wonderful little book. It’s from my favorite chapter in which the narrator describes his unusual name–which we never find out.

“I GUESS YOU ARE KIND OF CURIOUS as to who I am, but I am one of those who do not have a regular name. My name depends on you. Just call me whatever is in your mind.
If you are thinking about something that happened a long time ago: Somebody asked you a question and you did not know the answer.
That is my name.
Perhaps it was raining very hard.
That is my name.
Or somebody wanted you to do something. You did it. Then they told you what you did was wrong—”Sorry for the mistake,”—and you had to do something else.
That is my name.
Perhaps it was a game that you played when you were a child or something that came idly into your mind when you were old and sitting in a chair near the window.
That is my name.
Or you walked someplace. There were flowers all around.
That is my name.
Perhaps you stared into a river. There was somebody near you who loved you. They were about to touch you. You could feel this before it happened. Then it happened.
That is my name.
Or you heard someone calling from a great distance. Their voice was almost an echo.
That is my name.
Perhaps you were lying in bed, almost ready to go to sleep and you laughed at something, a joke unto yourself, a good way to end the day.
That is my name….”

–From In Watermelon Sugar by Richard Brautigan

Favorite Quotes of Black Swan Green

I just wrote a post about David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green, and I wanted to share some of my favorite quotes from the novel, narrated by a 13-year-old boy in a small village in 1980s England.

“Once a poem’s left home it doesn’t care about you.”

“Me, I want to bloody kick this moronic bloody world in the bloody teeth over and over till it bloody understands that not hurting people is ten bloody thousand times more bloody important than being right.”

“People’re a nestful of needs. Dull needs, sharp needs, bottomless-put needs, flash-in-the-pan needs, needs for things you can’t hold, needs for things you can. Adverts know this. Shops know this. Specially in arcades, shops’re deafening. I’ve got what you want! I’ve got what you want! I’ve got what you want! But waking down Regents Arcade this afternoon, I noticed a new need that’s normal so close-up you never know it’s there. You and your mom need to like each other. Not love, but like.”

Lovely Sentences: First Edition

“Your house, being the place in which you read, can tell us the position books occupy in your life, if they are a defense you set up to keep the outside world at a distance, if they area dream into which you sink as if into a drug, or bridges you cast toward the outside, toward the world that interests you so much that you want to multiply and extend its dimensions through books.”

–Italo Calvino, If on a winter’s night a traveler

“Both grew up happy, with a talent for happiness. Each had the will to be happy.”

“There’s a time for reciting poems and a time for fists. As far as I was concerned, this was the latter.”

–Roberto Bolaño, The Savage Detectives