Creating the Self in ‘The Argonauts’

In this week’s newsletter, we look at Maggie Nelson’s exploration of what it means to experience changes to body and self in her memoir.

pregnancy, the argonauts, maggie nelson
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To be a body—a physical, corporeal being—is to take a risk that you were never given a choice to avoid. Will you like the skin suit you’re given? What will society tell you about it? How will you be perceived? Can you avoid other people’s perceptions and all the baggage that may come with those perceptions? Will it be with you and serve you as long as you live? Can you change it? Should you change it? Will it kill you? In The Argonauts, the May CBC pick, author Maggie Nelson takes back the story of her body to risk it again on her own terms.

From the very first passage of her book, in which she describes a sex act, Nelson is concerned with bodies, her own and that of her future spouse, Harry’s. She writes, “What’s your pleasure?” This is a question being asked of Nelson, but to set off the query, she puts it in italics rather than quotation marks, a choice that allows readers to experience the language as if it were addressed to them. Immediately forced to confront our own body’s reactions, we are made to feel the stakes of Nelson’s project: writing her body. What I mean by this is that Nelson does not simply tell us the story of her life in this autobiographical work. She also gathers moments, thoughts, and theories that have come from other bodies—confessions, pleasures, and discomforts—and puts them down on the page, creating a physical construction of her self through acts of collaboration.

This construction is mirrored in the format of her self-writing. The book is written as a countless series of separated passages that arrive in nonconsecutive order and function like puzzle pieces. Most of the passages are about a paragraph in length, and each is separated from those preceding and following it by at least a line (sometimes two) of blank space. In creating these spaces on the page within her text, Nelson breaks up her body (of writing) and provides a physical point of entry for readers with white space. She references the Argo as theorist and philosopher Roland Barthes used it, drawing on the idea that the Argonauts renew their ship as they travel, replacing and repairing parts of the boat, without it ever becoming anything other than the Argo. Equally, she creates her body as the ship Argo in her pages. It remains the same vessel, but as she selects pieces of her life and thoughts to fill it, none of the parts that constitute her person remain the same.

Nelson’s book does not follow a linear timeline. She orders the events she recounts in a cyclical fashion, which further elucidates the concept of the Argo by emphasizing the fluidity of her self-creation. She cites gender theorist Judith Butler, who says, “Performativity has to do with repetition, very often with the repetition of oppressive and painful gender norms to force them to resignify. This is not freedom, but a question of how to work the trap that one is inevitably in.” Accordingly, Nelson steers clear of categorizations, instead prioritizing the role of sensation in creating the self.

Toward the end of the book, Nelson emphasizes the primacy of the body by alternating paragraphs describing her labor with a series of passages written by Harry as he lets go of his mother as she dies. “Here he comes,” Nelson writes of her child as she undergoes a sexual/physical/orgasmic/visceral/mindful disintegration of the self to create a new self. “It feels big but I feel big enough.… I also feel the shit that had been bedeviling me all through pregnancy and labor come out too.” A parallel disintegration bookends the passage when Harry’s voice takes over to describe his mother’s passing into death: “she was jutting her chin in the sweetest, most dignified little coquettish juts.… her neck was pulsing a little bit?… she was so incredibly beautiful.… i could’ve stayed another hundred years right there—kissing her and visiting with her.

These two acts, birth and death, seem to leave little room for interpretation in our usual discourse—certain organized religions have all but ensured it—but Nelson casts them both as one act: that of becoming. As if in the moments we think we have the least control over our bodies, we have the most. She becomes pregnant, her baby becomes born, and her mother-in-law becomes dead. The choice is not ours. The choice to become is never ours: “We are for another or by virtue of another.” But the process of becoming is an exhilarating opportunity for agency. Once again opposing the categorization of anything and everything, Nelson writes that it is “the transitive, the flight, the great soup of being in which we actually live. Becoming, Deleuze and Guattari called this flight…a becoming whose rule is neither evolution nor asymptote but a certain turning, a certain turning inward.”

Nelson’s pregnancy turns her inward. As she intentionally changes her body, she undergoes a whole new cycle of becoming: becoming full to becoming empty. When describing the prevailing tale of comfort that women forget the exact pain of labor, Nelson writes,

You’re either in pain or you’re not. And it isn’t the pain one forgets. It’s the touching death part.

As the baby might say to its mother, we might say to death: I forget you, but you remember me.

I wonder if I’ll recognize it, when I see it again.

Because Nelson takes so seriously the issue of agency over one’s body, this idea that one touches death when giving birth makes perfect sense. As Nelson describes it, there’s an intimacy to holding your body while it creates another body, still of you, so when part of your body is expelled from inside, it’s like a death. A living body is no longer where it was. Becoming empty. Becoming born. At the hospital, Nelson is given a band to wear around her newly emptied stomach. “I was grateful for it,” she writes, “as my middle felt like it was about to slide off me and onto the floor. Falling forever, falling to pieces. Maybe this belt would keep it, me, together.” The notion that Nelson will fall forever represents the cycle of reconstruction she experiences in writing this book and creating herself as the Argo, filling in pieces that keep the vessel the same, even though the parts have changed, and will continue to change, entirely.•

Join us for an exciting evening on May 19 at 5 p.m., when Nelson will appear in conversation with CBC host John Freeman and special guest Miranda July to discuss The Argonauts. Please visit the Alta Clubhouse to discuss the book with your fellow California Book Club members. Register for the conversation here.

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