Thoughtfully constructed and unapologetically written, Maggie Nelson’s work of “autotheory” called The Argonauts strips the concepts of gender fluidity and motherhood to its bare core revealing theories that captures the essence of what it means to evolve as an individual in a society that pressures us to label. Homosexual, heterosexual, trans woman/man, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, and gender-non conforming are labels that surround our social sphere in this newly faceted politically correct world that is so keen on slitting throats for clarity. Nelson is not trying to say that using these words to define an individual is a bad thing, though. She calls her readers to be self aware of the fact that these words do not represent the entire LGBTQ community. Nelson even references Mary Lambert on the subject when famous singers and celebrities generalize a movement saying, “But while I can’t change, even if I tried, may be a true anthem for some, it’s a piss poor one for others. At a certain point, the tent may need to give way to field.”
Nelson wastes no time to refute and rebut arguments by lifting words from philosophers and scholars like Ludwig Wittgenstein, Sara Ahmed, who studies Queer theory, and gender studies scholar Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. She integrates her own words with her favorite thinkers commenting, “I stopped smugly repeating Everything that can be thought at all can be thought clearly and wondered anew, can everything be thought.” Written in the margins was Ludwig Wittgenstein, however the reader could clearly understand Nelson’s desire to empower her own words through the scholars she chose to represent her thoughts.
Nelson’s “autotheory” is a multi-faceted memoir filled with a repertoire of stories signaling growth, yet an umbrella theme that absorbs every lingering thought, idea, or concept is found in her relationship with fellow artist, Harry Dodge. Interestingly enough, Nelson’s idea of calling her book, The Argonauts, stems from proclaiming her love to Dodge. The ship, Argo, derives from a Greek myth stating that Jason, a Greek hero himself, led a group of heroes called the Argonauts on a journey to retrieve a “golden fleece” that was said to have magical powers granting its owner(s) immortality. Nelson argues that just as the Argo’s parts may have been replaced, changed, tinkered with, and altered, the boat was still called the Argo. She believed that uttering the phrase “I love you” is analogous “to the Argonaut renewing his ship during its voyage without changing its name.”
However, I’m not saying that this book is any borderline average, cookie cutter rapport detailing a standard love story. Nelson illustrates her struggle to understand a person she loves who does not identify as neither a woman nor a man and prefers the pronouns they and them. She keeps it the fuck real by writing about ever-present concerns usually gone unspoken about in any relationship. In a poignant and thoughtful anecdote, Dodge presented an essay about butches and femmes to Nelson that contained the line “to be a femme is to give honor where there has been shame.” Nelson explains that this is not necessarily what Dodge might have wanted her to take away from the piece, but this is simply where she stuck. She emphatically and passionately wrote that the word honor terrifies her as a woman because she never conceived herself as a femme, but it concerned her that her habit of giving too much categorized her as such. Nelson is aware of the idea that people hold contradictions and she lets her mixed thoughts unravel like a blossoming flower by saying, “I told you I wanted to live in a world in which the antidote to shame is not honor, but honesty. We haven’t stopped trying to explain to each other what these words mean to us; perhaps we never will.”
Honestly admitting that it is okay to disavow clarity and accept that some people prefer to just be misunderstood is a central theme that spirals into Nelson’s anecdotes. Her strikingly self-aware tone that strings the book into a cohesive piece will take any reader on an incredible journey of self discovery and self acceptance. If Nelson taught me anything, it’s that staying true to how you want to define yourself or wish not to define yourself belongs to you. This is your body and your life. Do by it what you see fit.
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