Play and ‘The Argonauts’

In Maggie Nelson’s ninth book, experience described in terms of games and performance highlights that the self is always coming into being.

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Scenes of play bookend Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, an extended essay about Nelson’s families—personal and intellectual, given and made. Play, yes, but the games in these passages could not be more different. In her opening pages, Nelson recounts sexual encounters with the person who will eventually become her partner, Harry Dodge. In flashes, we see a new couple discovering complementary kinks, the ecstasy of Nelson’s masochistic self-ownership and self-abandonment. Flash-forward and, in the conclusion, Nelson watches the children she now shares with Harry engaged in habitual affectionate wrestling, the older of their two boys swinging the younger by the armpits. “They almost always play too rough for my liking,” Nelson confides, but they tell her they love it.

The contexts for these scenes may be radically dissimilar, but the echoed play illuminates some of the abiding precepts of The Argonauts: The games we share with one another are multitudinous, painful, joyful, and necessary. Their hallmarks are repetition and performance, even (or perhaps especially) when we’re playing at being ourselves. They are the crucibles of our relationships and identities. They are ecstatically perverse. They are sweetly mundane.

Granted this capaciousness, play in The Argonauts functions as one of the ways we hold ourselves together over time and change, offering iterative opportunities for self-making. In the anecdote that gives the work its title, Nelson recounts sending Harry a passage from literary theorist Roland Barthes. In it, Barthes asserts that stating “I love you” is analogous to how the Argonauts of Greek mythology continually rebuild their ship, the Argo, by gradually replacing its parts. So, too, then should each statement of “I love you” be utterly new and always the same. For Nelson, the statement of love must cohere not only the new and enduring, but also herself and Harry in relation to each other and, by extension, to each one of us who navigates an unwieldy body and identity through time.

Gender is central to this project, but its intersections with play shouldn’t be construed as trivializing. As Harry, who uses “he” pronouns but eschews traditional gender categories, prepares to change his body through testosterone injections and top surgery, Nelson undergoes rounds of IVF in hope of conceiving. Both are profound physical interventions—“wild and transformative,” as Nelson says of pregnancy—but the former transition gets coded as queer, transgressive, while the latter seems “the ultimate conformity.” In this context, Nelson reminds us of what gender theorist Judith Butler has said in response to the habitual misreading of their watershed claim that gender is performed: “‘Performativity’ is not radical choice, and it’s not voluntarism.… Performativity has to do with repetition, very often with the repetition of oppressive and painful gender norms.… This is not freedom, but a question of how to work the trap that one is inevitably in.”

Play, then, serves as one of the ways we work our traps, a delightful repurposing of the impulses toward repetition and performance that can otherwise thwart us. Recalling a graduate seminar with Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, another queer theorist, whom Nelson calls “the many-gendered mothers of my heart,” Nelson describes a “get-to-know-you game” in which Sedgwick asks her students to name their totem animals. Nelson’s first reaction is unease—it all feels too reductive—but there’s a catch: “We were free to offer up a fake animal, a kind of decoy identification, if we so desired.” When the class gets to her, Nelson blurts out “otter,” a choice she describes as “a form of true,” capturing the slipperiness with which she seeks, in youth, to assume and “shimmy out of” identities.

In Nelson’s hindsight, the silly-serious game reveals nothing so much as the slipperiness of the real, fake, fixed, and mutable. Reflecting on her former choice, Nelson sees both its accuracy and its limitations. She is, to a degree, the otter, but she is also someone who seeks “the pleasure of abiding,” of “relearn[ing] the same emotional truths, writ[ing] the same book over and over again—not because one is stupid or obstinate or incapable of change, but because such revisitations constitute a life.”

Repetition, iteration, stepping outside oneself and recognizing oneself in the process: all the hallmarks of play are here. As D.W. Winnicott, another theorist who shows up frequently in The Argonauts, suggests, play is where one “discovers the self” precisely because it is where we grant ourselves creative access to our “whole personalit[ies].” This sense of play offers a way of understanding what The Argonauts does to the genre of memoir itself. Look hard and you might find linear narrative, a fixed “I,” and the epiphanic conventions of autobiography. To locate them, though, you’ll have to navigate cartwheeling themes, quotation as ventriloquism, and Nelson’s cheeky blurring of the academic and intellectual with the personal and emotional. Play shows us what is real and what is possible. So, too, does The Argonauts.•

Join us on May 19 at 5 p.m., when Nelson will appear in conversation with CBC host John Freeman and a special guest to discuss The Argonauts. Be sure to visit the Alta Clubhouse to discuss the memoir with your fellow California Book Club members. We can’t wait to hear what you think. Register for the conversation here.


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