Becoming Object: The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

I. A Death

Maggie Nelson’s first book of nonfiction begins with a perfectly balanced sentence: “She had been shot once in the front and once in the back of the head.” Within that book — Jane: A Murder (2005) — the subject (she) and object (the gunshot head) set the coordinates. Jane: a wildly intelligent, fiercely independent grad school student. Jane: shot, strangled, and left shoeless in a backroad cemetery.

Written largely in unrhymed verse, Jane: A Murder juxtaposes its couplets and tercets amid a plotting of journal entries, personal letters, conversational snippets, news reports, and philosophical quotes, conjuring a vivid image of Nelson’s maternal aunt, Jane, a kindred spirit murdered by a serial killer four years before the author was born.

“The spectre of our eventual ‘becoming object’ — of our (live) flesh one day turning into (dead) meat — is a shadow that accompanies us throughout our lives,” Nelson writes in her ranging critical study, The Art of Cruelty (2011). The thud of that eventuality is far from the gradient transformation implied by the phrase ‘one day turning,’ and in the chapter “A Situation Of Meat,” Nelson reels from the crucifixions of Francis Bacon to the ruminations of Simone Weil to Kafka’s “In The Penal Colony,” staring flush at the brutal instantaneity wherein a sentient, subjective being becomes unminded, a penetrable sack of tissue flesh and flab.

“Sunlight shot around each black rind,” Nelson writes in Jane, imagining the twin bullet holes tunneled through her aunt’s head. “So that a long shaft of pale light cast out from the center of her forehead, and another shaft streamed behind her.”

The precarious nature of life isn’t merely Nelson’s most common subject matter; as she balances poetry with theory with observation with disclosure — transforming an absence into a presence — the moment of “becoming object” also represents the author’s most striking literary technique. Time and again Nelson yanks her readers from the crisply-articulated, rarified air of the text and thrusts them eye-level with scenes of bodyfail, bodywaste, or bodies mid-fuck, deploying these animal immediacies as a jolting memento mori.

II. Wittgenstein’s Mistress

“Before we met, I had spent a lifetime devoted to Wittgenstein’s idea that the inexpressible is contained — inexpressibly! — in the expressed.” So begins the second paragraph of Nelson’s latest book, The Argonauts. There may be some hyperbole shading this statement (a lifetime? devoted? really?) and I’m not entirely sure what it means (if the inexpressible is conveyed via the expressed, does it remain inexpressible? and if this inexpressible is not conveyed, how do we know it was there?); still, the philosopher’s shadow looms over The Argonauts as Nelson bypasses the sprawling critiques of The Art Of Cruelty and returns to the propositional form of her most well-known book, Bluets (2009).

Two-timing Wittgenstein, the plural subject of “before we met” is formed by artist Harry Dodge, the partner Nelson introduces in the book’s opening paragraph: “the words I love you come tumbling out of my mouth in an incantation the first time you fuck me in the ass, my face smashed against the cement floor of your dank and charming bachelor pad. You had Molloy by your bedside and a stack of cocks in a shadowy unused shower stall.”

Wittgenstein. Malloy. A disembodied stack of cocks around the bend while cheek and nose are meat-smashed to floor, upended in rectal penetration.

“You’re just a hole, letting me fill you up,” Dodge tells her, whispering sweet nothings.

While Nelson continues to balance headier flights with bits in which she toes the brink of objecthood, The Argonauts locates its center not around thingness or the shadow of death or even in the limitations of language (though the text sheds light on each, while also digressing on the work of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, the lives of George and Mary Oppen, homonormativity, sobriety, and ‘performative intimacy’). The book is, at heart, about the ongoing creation of family. Standard fare? Complicating the situation of meat in The Argonauts, Dodge prefers to let body and mind exist outside the traditional male-female binary. Plus, Dodge has a son from a prior relationship. Plus, Dodge and Nelson have a young child of their own.

2.033 Form is the possibility of structure.

4.1252 I call a series that is ordered by an internal relation a series of forms.

(From The Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, by Ludwig Wittgenstein)

Midway through The Argonauts, Nelson compares her “more ‘personal’ writing” to the late ‘70’s Atari game Breakout (a sort of inverse-Tetrus, with the player manipulating a bouncing ball and pong-paddle to gouge and gouge through layers of colored brick): “The breakout is a thrill because of all the triangulation, all the monotony, all the effort, all the obstruction, all the shapes and sounds that were its predecessor. I need those colored bricks to chip away at, because the eating into them makes form. And then I need the occasional jailbreak, my hypomanic dot riding the sky.”

This metaphorical perspective is interesting because it so completely counters my own reading of Nelson. Rather than hammering away at a solid mass, I see her constellating in open space — using the internal logic of disparate connections to create form and suggest structure — with the sporadic, hot-blooded “jailbreak” bringing her feet firmly back to earth (or, perhaps slightly elevated, depending).

In an unspoken nod to Wittgenstein, among The Argonauts’ triangulations and repetitions, Nelson returns to the common textile net as a recurring motif: as the author and I approach her personal writing from opposite directions, I cannot say for sure who’s seeing the knots and who’s seeing the holes.

III. The One That Got Away

Nelson begins Bluets with a supposition: assume the author has fallen in love with the color blue. In numbered points, she then traces her collected shades — found and given mementos, musings on the history of indigo and ultramarine, the blues of Joni Mitchell, Billie Holliday, and Young Werther — creating a deep-hued outline that expresses the shape of the inexpressible: a broken heart. Crushing loss produces the gravity holding all the divergent blues in place, and from this absence Nelson conveys a moving presence.

“Emily retained her ghosts for years,” Nelson writes in Jane: A Murder, referring to her own older sister. “After our father died it became more acute — even as a teenager she dragged around stuffed animals, T-shirts, pillowcases, anything that smelled like the people she loved. Any object could become host to the scent of the dead or the invisible.”

Retaining talismans and ghosts of her own, Nelson directly addresses her bygone lover in Bluets as a second-person “you,” spiking the more abstract and commonplace propositions with flashes of raw sex, carnal imagery that carries the force of a slap from an unseen dimension. Stinging and abrupt, these couplings are negations, with Nelson — bereft — becoming object.

[Spoiler Alert: re-reading Bluets with an eye-trained toward those moments Nelson compels the mind/meat switcheroo is a very good way to spoil a re-reading of Bluets.]

“It was around this time that I first had the thought: we fuck well because he is a passive top and I am an active bottom,” she writes.

“I am interested in having three orifices stuffed full of thick, veiny cock in the most unforgiving of poses and light,” she writes.

“Last night I wept in a way I haven’t wept for some time,” she writes. “I wept until I aged myself.”

“Was it really some other person I was so anxious to discover, when I did all that looking,” says Kate, the woman left to live alone on earth in David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress. “Or was it only my own solitude I could not abide?”

IV. Union

Harry Dodge makes films, makes sculptures, makes art out of found household items. Where Nelson announces her commitment to Wittgenstein, Dodge counters with a long-held belief that language is fundamentally inadequate, believing words are “corrosive to all that is good, all that is real, all that is flow.” Between visual artist and writer — in love, wedded — this represents a philosophical difference of opinion.

From this ideological split, however, a prosaic complication arises — Dodge performs in a designated creative space, afterward returning to the private realm. Except this private realm happens to be where Nelson lifts the curtain and performs. Given their contradictory set of boundaries, Dodge compares the relationship with Nelson to “an epileptic with a pacemaker being married to a strobe light artist.”

Reading an early draft of The Argonauts, Dodge has neither a seizure nor a coronary — in response to the work, Nelson describes Dodge’s mood as one of “quiet ire.” Nelson recognizes that via her writing she has produced a “terrible feeling” in her spouse, and the pair then “go through the draft page by page, mechanical pencils in hand.”

The Argonauts is a book of bodies in transformation — surfaces are altered by pregnancies and hormone treatments and illnesses, these reshaped exteriors tending to work in tandem with some form of internal change. Flux and motion provide the book’s title, with Nelson pointing out that over time a seagoing vessel such as The Argo can have all of its structural parts replaced and the ship will nonetheless remain ‘The Argo.’ As The Argonauts proceeds, revised, Nelson employs her vast array of materials and expertise not to create an image but to obscure one: rather than turn an absence into a presence, she sets about doing the opposite.

“Why can’t you just write something that will bear adequate witness to me, to us, to our happiness?” Dodge asks (hypothetically), with Nelson playing her own devil’s advocate. “Because I do not yet understand the relationship between writing and happiness, or writing and holding.”

What you write, you transform. Writing about ghosts, writing about loss, Nelson maintained the sole freedom to shape what was no longer there. As she writes about Dodge — in the spirit of healthy marital compromise — we see the rare sight of Nelson stumbling on the page. Perhaps to refract her own gaze, perhaps resorting to a familiar tic, Nelson composes sections about her spouse in the same second-person address she employed in Bluets — only in that prior book, we understood the “you” to be gone, a lost lover she was addressing through us because that person was otherwise beyond reach.

Dodge, however, is still at hand — not only is Nelson not addressing Dodge through us, we’re aware that Dodge has already read each draft and revision of The Argonauts. The mediation and artifice of this second-person address — its awkward transitions and unsure cadence — are anything but flow. Instead, we are watching Nelson dance on her lover’s toes; we are watching her ply the eraser-side of a pencil to smear a sketch drawn from a rear-facing mirror. Knowing Dodge’s position, each time Nelson follows a discrete paragraph about Barthes or Sedgwick or sodomitical maternity with an image of her family at home, I recoiled. Unlike the bracing slap of the sex in Bluets, these disclosures carry the flustering bulk of being co-opted as a voyeur, with Nelson giving just enough to string matters along. And as we see in the side window, as one member of the family performs, the others bide their time until invading eyes retreat from the glass and stop prying.

V. And Baby Makes Four

“He is born and I am undone — feel as if I will / never be, was never born. // Two years later I obliterate myself again / having another child… for two years, there’s no me here.”

Interrogating the loss of identity brought on by maternity, Nelson quotes the above lines from Alice Notley, using the poem to reflect on what it means for an artist to cede elements (or the entirety) of selfhood to the needs of another. Rather than share Notley’s sense of total erasure, however, Nelson counters: “I have never felt that way, but I’m an old mom. I had nearly four decades to become myself before experimenting with my obliteration.”

[A Brief Personal Aside: I tended bar long past the age it could be considered a passing phase, and as that night life grew unsustainable, during my shifts I would cap off hours of mounting consumption with a shot I dubbed “The Ol’ Brain-Blower” — Fernet or Grand Marnier or Rumple Minz poured thick in a tumbler, aiming to annihilate any last trace of myself and leave a disembodied set of hands to plunge in the ice and ply the shaker, an autopilot mouth cracking easy quips and counting out change.]

I feel safe in saying that Nelson’s decision to bear a child at forty does not represent the author’s debut experiment with obliteration.

The act of childbirth, however, succeeds in bringing The Argonauts to heaving breathless hypomanic life. I offer this statement neither as patriarchal means of biological reductionism nor as a salvo in the Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed debate: strictly at the technical level, as Nelson writes about her contractions and labor in the book’s final third, all the academic diversions and mannered obfuscation give way to a jailbreak rush of superlative prose. Sharply-observed, profound, profane, and often funny as hell, the quality of The Argonauts’ final third comes not from Nelson’s newfound mom-ness but from her total ownership of the material: while others may be present, no one — no matter how committed — shares the pain of protracted labor.

But that is not all.

Parallel to this childbirth sequence, with Nelson deep in her own “pain cavern,” she simultaneously steps aside and offers space on the page for Dodge to write in the first person. Here, her partner writes of watching a parent’s slow death in hospice, the experience rendered in quiet awe, with self-effacing and sensory-rich prose. Words alone and it is good, it is real, it is flow.

To give birth is to become object — the body reduced to a primal function (as fetal delivery system) while the mind trips the rim of death (holy fuck the pain!). This exchange can be nothing more than a situation of meat, but it need not be. Death, the same. What may at one time appear a thud of instantaneity can be transformed, can be invested with something greater. In the interplay between Nelson’s and Dodge’s prose, birth and death are given dimension, plotted with a sense of past, present, and future, turning an absence into presence.

Form is the possibility of structure.

Not the promise of structure, not the guarantee of structure — the possibility. And structure, in turn, gives the possibility of meaning.

Ordered by internal relations, a series of forms can be identified as a family. Nelson, Dodge, their two boys — theirs is a loving family. They dance in the living room to Janelle Monáe; they share warm blankets and chocolate pudding; they endure the touchy struggles of step-parenting and the terror of serious medical scares. Significant health issues aside, nothing appears a more immediate threat to their family unit than Nelson’s determination to capture it on the page. But in a book of transformations, Nelson discovers a relationship between writing and holding — both sometimes require letting go, and so, she does.

The Argonauts

by Maggie Nelson

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