Maggie Nelson's The Argonauts is a philosophy of motherhood, particular to Nelson's experience and delivered with special care for the limns that define it: conception, pregnancy, labor, maternal finitude. Nelson does not generalize, and asks her reader to respect her limits. So the only way I can think to talk (let alone to write) about The Argonauts is to make it about myself, too: this is how I read it. I highly recommend rushing off to get your own copy, but not to expect the world from it.
A central theme of the book is itself, and the thing a book must do: naming. The work of identifying, and of categorizing individuals, their roles, groups to which they belong is integral to writing about them. Nelson’s categories are insistently plural ones: queer ones. Meaning is multiple, and it may be fluid:
Before we met, I had spent a lifetime devoted to Wittgenstein’s idea that the inexpressible is contained—inexpressibly!—in the expressed. This idea gets less air time than his more reverential Whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent, but it is, I think, the deeper idea. Its paradox, quite literally, why I write, or how I feel able to keep writing.
For example, even as she continues to return in the text to her biological mom she identifies handfuls of the many gendered mothers of her heart, including Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Walt Whitman, those who have materially contributed to her development as a woman, a writer, a teacher - and a mother. No surprise then the book is difficult to categorize: memoir, essay, documentary, poetry. None of the above.
Words change depending on who speaks them; there is no cure.
But of course words aren’t the end of it. As I reread and write about the book, the little one in my huge belly is quiet, generally, unless she is pushing away the book, the computer, whatever else threatens her space in my lap. My belly undulates like a pot of simmering porridge with each of this little person’s gestures, stretches, hiccups. This whole thing is animal.
Watching the screen at my ultrasound last week, or yesterday listening to the march of her heart beat on a monitor, Nelson’s observations about her experience resounded: I both knew the body on this screen, in some way that's both opaque and secret (even from me), and beheld an utter foreigner. Though I’m in emotional denial about it, I also know the mystery of this other person will only grow when I meet her face to face. And I both want to keep her safe inside forever, and know the present situation is unsustainable. Like Nelson’s son Iggy was, my daughter must be born. Rather, I must birth her. Or, better: we must do it together.
Powerlessness, finitude, endurance. You are making the baby, but not directly. You are responsible for his welfare, but unable to control the core elements. You must allow him to unfurl, you must feed his unfurling, you must hold him. But he will be unfurl as his cells are programmed to unfurl. You can’t reverse an unfolding structural or chromosomal difference by ingesting the right organic tea. … Babies grow in a helix of hope and fear; gestating draws one but deeper into the spiral. It isn’t cruel in there, but it’s dark.
One great success of Nelson’s book is its demonstration that a mother, the limitations of a single life - the single pair of hands she has to offer - coexist so naturally with the infinity of meanings she or it might and does have.
Surrendering to potential for multiplicity is more difficult in the short run than is waging a singular identity and sticking with it. But the latter option is untenable - limiting, inhuman, unrealistic. Dwelling on her own fertility and pregnancy highlights meaningful, even necessary steps or categories. Fundamental and sustained though they may be, the acts of “trying,” gestating and labor rarely get the kind of meditative treatment Nelson affords them. Too often are they just subsumed by their biological or hormonal components, or parenthood more generally: once they pass, they appear to have been nothing more than aberrations, means to ends. But they're good reflections of the fleetingness that informs human nature.
The pleasure of recognizing that one may have to undergo the same realizations, write the same notes in the margin, return to the same themes in one’s own work, relearn the same emotional truths, write 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.
Nelson is a mother, though of course she has not always been one; she’s likewise an author, a teacher, and a philosopher; she is sensual, vulnerable, sparkling, pragmatic; she is in love with her son and stepson; she is in love with her partner. Just as her many gendered mothers have inspired her, to be and think, she does the same for me - and really, I’d assume, for a lot of her readers.
After all, The Argonauts is really just a simple love story, dealing in (and perpetuating) the cycles and undulations of love.