Reading 'The Argonauts' by Maggie Nelson

By Kelsey Capps

If life is anything, it is queer; strange and complex, convoluted as hell. In The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson leans into this existential quagmire and calls it good, offering her most personal journeys as proof that messiness is where beauty takes root, whether it is in creativity, partnerships, or motherhood. 

The book's unfettered structure and meandering subjects are a paean to chaos, the entire memoir shot through with references to other thinkers, artists, and writers as though she intended to put the entirety of her thought on the page as authentically as she could.

She overflows, and in the process reveals the depth of her vulnerabilities and a breadth of knowledge that reaffirms her core belief that we are all inevitably, unavoidably, human. This identity is Nelson's most cherished, and the one that she brings to the forefront again and again as she casts aside binary distinctions of all types. 

Regardless of topic, the teasing out of her subject is less about the hard won, bright conclusions that provide convenient answers and more about the glorification of the snarl itself, pushing the reader to see the soft, neglected underbelly of intellectual debate which demands that we turn to compassion and care for one another before any adamant clinging to sure conclusions. 

She writes that Anne Carson taught her the concept of leaving a space open for God, then she adds her own twist—planting ourselves off-center like a bonsai, a tilted room for the divine left at our core so that life can grow around it unimpeded. She extends an open invitation to cultivate meaning via the unknown and unpredictable, and it is that lack of balance that makes this work so powerful, so intimate.

Where yet another academic argument could begin, Nelson does you one better, taking rigorous deliberation and informing it with unscientific, but staunchly necessary, experiences of ordinary devotion. The Argonauts reveals Nelson as the most fearsome type of female-identifying academic—subversively brilliant, unabashedly exposed, and as she confronts her own life and makes meaning of it, she invites us to do the same with our own, taking off the rigid expectation of clean, antiseptic existence and inviting us to get our hands and minds dirty, for that is where real, engaged joy begins. 

Join us for the inaugural meeting of the Women Galore feminist book club for a discussion of The Argonauts at 7:30 p.m. Monday, May 7 at The Wild Detectives.


Book ReviewsLauren