In her 2011 book The Art of Cruelty, Maggie Nelson raises Kafka’s famous question: “‘If the book we are reading doesn’t shake us awake like a blow on the skull, why bother reading it in the first place?’” In The Argonauts, Nelson delivers that blow on the skull. I turned to The Art of Cruelty as a lens through which I read The Argonauts – or, more specifically, a lens through which I read my reading of The Argonauts. I found myself circling in particular around Nelson’s comment about Pope.L’s work: “I like it, though, because it bothers me, and I’m not sure why.” I will confess that The Argonauts bothered me. I will also confess that I was very much bothered by the fact that The Argonauts bothered me. However, this discomfort is, I think, so crucial to the reading of the text that it is built into the text itself.
The Argonauts insists upon the obliteration of the boundaries, be they social, psychological, political, biological, or familial, in and between our bodies and our lives. When art works best, Nelson writes in The Art of Cruelty, it “doesn’t really say or teach anything. The action is elsewhere.” The Argonauts is a work of art that works by broadening the reader’s capacity to understand and act inside and outside the borders of her own life. Nelson’s nonfiction is lyric to an extreme, composed of relatively self-contained fragments that defy the reader’s expectations for the lyric essay. Though not disconnected to a Joycean extreme, the fragments connect – or do not connect – far more chaotically than the carefully composed sections and intersections of, say, the braided essay, which Brenda Hillman describes through the metaphor of challah bread. The text more closely resembles electronic literature, structurally echoing Stephanie Strickland’s description of a work that demands the reader’s participation: “To read e-works,” Strickland writes in “Born Digital,” “is to operate or play them[,] more like an instrument than a game.” The very structure of The Argonauts itself calls for the reader to participate in the making of meaning, theme, and narrative. At the same time, the narrative dwells in the most-typically-private experiences of Nelson’s life, from the sexual to the maternal to the intellectual, from a meditation on the anatomy of a naked stranger at a public bath to the erotic feelings associated with breastfeeding to resolving her fear of touching her son’s genitals by finding “delight in his little butt.”
To read The Argonauts, therefore, is to exist in a place of intimacy that can at times be uncomfortable. In The Art of Cruelty, Nelson celebrates artists who don’t ask the audience why they have not turned away, but rather “’How will you participate in this?’” In The Argonauts, Nelson is this kind of artist. She asks her audience how they will participate in the text through her use of the second person. As is often the case with the lyric “you, Nelson’s “you” does refer to a specific person – Nelson’s spouse, Harry Dodge – but it also involves the reader more intimately than a third person pronoun. The reader’s experience of the scene is not so much voyeuristic – a term dependent upon a clearly defined separation between the viewer as “us” and the viewees as “them” – as it is participatory. To travel into the borders of Nelson’s life, the reader must travel through her own life, experiencing and, more importantly, examining her own discomfort. However, there exists a limit to the distance we can travel into Nelson’s experience, a limit signified by her use of “you.” The reader is drawn in by this “you” and simultaneously pushed away by the awareness that this “you” is an actual person – Harry Dodge – which means that the reader exists firmly outside of the circle of the plot.
Nelson thus creates a text that enacts a paradox: the reader is at the same time a participant and an outsider. In this way, Nelson moves towards Ranciere’s idea of emancipation and the development of “‘a third thing’” that “‘no one can own.’” In The Art of Cruelty, Nelson describes this as “the process of being brought together and given a measure of space from each other at the same time.”
This also reflects Nelson’s relationship with Dodge, which moves beyond boundaries and binaries. Early in the book, we find Nelson “lovesick on the floor of my friend’s office,” searching for a pronoun to attach to Dodge. She doesn’t find it. Nelson’s use of “you” highlights the failure of pronouns to act effectively as signs, as they are binary signifiers – he or she – of a signified concept – gender – that is not itself a binary.
Nelson extends the idea of gender fluidity to identity of all kinds. Her own identity merges with Dodge’s, including her identity as a writer: she writes that Dodge participated in the writing of the book, shattering the reader’s preconceptions of the memoir as a singular, personal narrative. This, too, is foreshadowed in The Art of Cruelty: Nelson begins the acknowledgements by stating that the ideas in the book are as much Dodge’s as they are hers. In The Argonauts, this idea extends beyond the circle of Dodge and Nelson. Much like David Shields eschews traditional citation in his complex and controversial Reality Hunger, so too does Nelson counter the reader’s expectations for credit and quotation. Shields abandons citation completely to support his argument that information cannot be owned; Nelson instead italicizes quotes and lists the author’s name in the margins. The narrative’s placement on the page itself shows that the borders of mind, body, and self are porous; once absorbed, ideas become part and parcel of our person. At the same time, Nelson’s nod to citation, however slight, implies that these are never fully dissolved. The self is the ultimate paradox, a border that remains both open and closed.
Emma Bolden is the author of two full-length collections of poetry: medi(t)ations (Noctuary Press, 2016) and Maleficae (GenPop Books, 2013). She’s also the author of four chapbooks of poetry: How to Recognize a Lady (Toadlily Press); The Mariner’s Wife (Finishing Line Press); The Sad Epistles (Dancing Girl Press); This Is Our Hollywood (The Chapbook) – and one nonfiction chapbook – Geography V (Winged City Press). A Barthelme Prize and Spoon River Poetry Review Editor’s Prize winner, her work has appeared in The Best American Poetry and The Best Small Fictions as well as such journals as The Rumpus, Harpur Palate, Prairie Schooner, Conduit, and Copper Nickel.