1.1. Some placesi say that the book centers on the romance between Nelson and Dodge: how Maggie loved Harry. While the relationship, from first meetings through the building of a family, provides the skeleton on which the muscle of theory and criticism is layered, it is integral to every exploration made across the 180 tightly packed pages.
1.2. Part of the ‘why’ of this interpenetration may be rooted in that sticky word, ‘love.’ Loving someone is no simple act, raises up specters of cultureii and personal historyiii that cannot be divided from the act itself. And in this case there is the added complexity brought by culture’s reaction to queerness, to people trying to ‘do family’iv in a way that feels familiar and comfortable, but whose selves and ways of being do not fit neatly into an acceptable mode.
1.3. The frame could easily stand alone, an account of all of the ways that Harry and Maggie aren’t allowed to live a normal life, and insist on living one anyway. But Nelson gives flesh to the frame by using it as a touchstone in exploring what other people, well-respected people,v have said about the living of life. Each part illuminates the other. It is this marriage of criticism and narrative, the bringing of the theorists into the parlor of the personal, that makes this work stunning, in both the literal and figurative sense.
1.4. It is the sort of book that deserves French flaps.vi
i Goodreads, Amazon, the exquisite French flaps of the book itself
ii Current partner assumed to be an indicator of sexuality, p. 10.
iii Jealousy of former lovers, p. 7.
iv ‘queerness’ and ‘doing family’ are often perceived as incompatible, thanks to the use of “a heroic gay male sexuality as stand-in for queerness which remains ‘unpolluted by procreative femininity.’” p. 84 Even on the fringe the default is masculine.
v Eve Sedgwick, Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, Susan Fraiman, Denise Riley, Eileen Myles, Sara Ahmed, Susan Sontag, so many others, not all of whom are agreed with.
2.1. A third of the wayi into the book Nelson recounts a seminar she attended at the beginning of her time in graduate school, in which Jane Gallopii presented new work, to which Rosalind Kraussiii gave a response. Gallup’s work was on photography from the standpoint of the photographed subject, featured pictures of herself and her new baby taken by her husband. Nelson sees in this a challenge to Barthes’ Camera Lucida, and with it the assumption that the mother is always the object, the photographed. “The writer is someone who plays with his mother’s body,” but what if the mother is also the writer?iv In response, “Krauss excoriated Gallop for taking her own personal situation as subject matter.”v It is made clear that there is no room in serious academic spaces for the personal.vi Or, that is, for the personal which is coded feminine: motherhood, femininity, childbirth.
2.2. Making space in the academic for the personal, especially a kind of personal that has been long written off as having no place there, is exactly what Nelson does. She unashamedly writes about her experience of pregnancy and childbirth, her family’s puzzling out of gender and identity, addresses the complexity of sexuality with a light but unflinching touch. When the personal is critical it is far to easy to allow the critical to exist, hermetically sealed off from any real concerns or existences, turning over abstractly while the real living happens elsewhere. But the critical arises from the personal, comments on it, is shaped by it, and may be used to shape a better, or at least more comfortable, personal.
2.3. “Whatever words come out of the lesbian’s mouth, whatever ideas spout from her head – certain listeners hear only one thing: lesbian, lesbian, lesbian.”vii viii There’s a similar tendency to discount what the mother says, or what the pregnant woman says which Nelson illustrates rather than directly mentions, even as she refuses to be limited to that identity.
i pp. 48-51
ii Professor of English and comparative literature at the University of Wisconsin. Method: Close reading. Topics: Lacan; psychoanalysis and feminism; the Marquis de Sade; feminist lit crit; sexual harassment; photography; queer theory.
iii Professor of Art History at Columbia University, specialty modernist art.
iv p. 49
v p. 50
vi Early in the book Nelson mentions how members of the GLBTW+ movement have “clawed their way” into the historically repressive structures of marriage and the military; one of the possible results of this is the birth of homonormativity: “once something is no longer illicit…that phenomenon will no longer be able to represent or deliver on subversion, the subcultural, the underground, the fringe, in the same way.” p. 91 While this loss of controversy is mourned by some members of the subculture, perhaps this loss of transgressiveness is what is needed by the personal in order to be permitted its place at the academic table.
vii p. 67, on Judith Butler
viii All of these are merely variants on ‘the woman who thinks,’ who has traditionally been excluded from discourse; now that she cannot be excluded any longer as a bloc the next best thing seems to be to exclude specific subsets, for their own good.
3.1. Despite the use of critical voices, the book isn’t executed in the style of any essay I’ve read before. It comes at the reader in self-contained bites,i the shortest no longer than a single line, the logic in their progression sometimes opaque on first reading. The work could have been broken down, like sorted with like, and built back up as a series of traditional essays, each one addressing its own neatly bordered topic. And that would have defeated its purpose, killed it the way that dissection requires the death of the specimen. The relationships, parallels, contrasts between the points on which Nelson fixes are just as much the subjects of the book as the points of fixation themselves.
3.2. The first paragraph of the book mentions: tattoos, anal sex,ii the (presumably) first time Molly told Harry ‘I love you.’ The second paragraph gets into “Wittgenstein’s idea that the inexpressible is contained – inexpressibly! – in the expressed.” All of these things recur, their meaning and weight increased each time they are revisited.
3.3. This wandering leaves space for tangents, for a whole whose parts are multifaceted and equally important, and as the reader progresses through the text lacunae slowly fill, provide added context that would have lost its meaning had it been available earlier. The mention of anal sex is only the first link in a chain which questions, among other things, the sexlessness demanded of mothers;iii the way that female sexuality is often cultivated to reflect the violent and violating fantasies which are projected onto women;iv the ridiculousness of the phrase ‘female sexuality’ itself,v as if factory-standard fantasies and turn-ons are downloaded into half the population at puberty. Each of these links connect, critically or thematically, to passages that address identity, sexuality, gender, and family, all of which also interconnect, so that what could have been assumed to be a chain is more a piece of chainmail.
i Is this wandering from thought to thought, the way they connect and then refract each other, highly calculated cleverness, or giving in to reflex? Is this a reflection of the way thought jumps from point to point performed, or the actual, effortless slipping itself? And is one necessarily better than the other? It could very easily be both – in writing this essay I’m finding it quite easy to leap between the points that caught my attention, but finding and refining the deeper connections, now that takes thought.
ii this thread is taken up again on p. 105 with the address of the absence of a “discourse of female anal eroticism,” and relates to the recurrent mention of the ‘sodomitical mother,’ who enjoys “non-normative, non-procreative sexuality… sexuality in excess of the dutifully instrumental.” p. 87 It is only in giving of themselves completely to their children that mothers are meant to find enjoyment; the sodomitical mother is not so limited. She retains a sense of self beyond motherhood, admits that she cannot be her child’s everything. The drawing of boundaries between self and child is no less taboo than delight in sexual acts that serve no purpose other than providing pleasure.
iii pp. 80-81.
iv pp. 82-83.
v p. 83.
4.1. This retreading is reflected in the book’s title, which comes from Barthes’ assertioni that “the subject who utters the phrase ‘I love you’ is like ‘The Argonaut renewing his ship during its voyage without changing its name.’”ii The ‘I’ and the ‘you’ are eternally evolving, and because of this even the ‘love’ is not unchanged, though the signifier remains the same.
4.2. “I love you” is not the only Argo of the book.iii Some things which change over the course of the book while remaining the same: The bodies of Harry Dodge and Maggie Nelson, the latter through pregnancy and childbirth, the former through hormone therapy and top surgery. Marriage,iv through the passage of Proposition 8 in California, which ended the legality of same-sex unions the day after Maggie and Harry wed.v Their family, through the birth of their younger son, the growth of their older, the death of Harry’s adopted mother, and his discovery of his birth mother. The concept of queerness, the meaning of the word shifting to accommodate contradictions, to express irresolution.vi
4.3. “We develop, even in utero, in response to a flow of projections and reflections ricocheting off us. Eventually, we call that snowball a selfvii
4.4. No human is immutable. We each live many lives, contain multitudes.viii
i pp. 5-6
ii Put another way: is an object (specifically Theseus’ ship, the Argo) whose component parts have all been gradually replaced still the same object? Is it still the Argo though no original part remains?
iii The book itself is an Argo: so many moving pieces, interconnected parts, that it changes as it is read, and changes between readings.
iv pp. 28-31
v “Off we went to kill it (unforgivable). Or reinforce it (unforgiveable).” p. 28
vi pp. 35-36
vii (Argo).” p. 118
viii We are all Argonauts.