Mothers of Invention

By Walsh, Joanna | New Statesman (1996), April 15, 2016 | Go to article overview

Mothers of Invention


Walsh, Joanna, New Statesman (1996)


The Argonauts

Maggie Nelson

Melville House, 192pp, 9.99 [pounds sterling]

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

What's in a word? "I love you," the French theorist Roland Barthes said, is a phrase that constantly refreshes love, pushing the old declaration aside with the new. Maggie Nelson agrees: "Just as the Argo's parts must be replaced over time but the boat is still called the Argo, whenever the lover utters the phrase 'I love you,' its meaning must be renewed by each use," she writes in her memoir The Argonauts. She quotes Barthes: "the very task of love and of language is to give to one and the same phrase inflections which will be forever new".

"I thought the passage was romantic," writes Nelson, who favours the ability of words to generate a multiplicity of meanings. "You read it as a possible retraction."

"You" is her then lover, now husband, the artist Harry Dodge, who was born a biological female and who, in the course of the book, undergoes treatments that render her body more masculine though Dodge has no desire to identify wholly as male. He is pessimistic about the possibilities of words, which, he believes, are "corrosive to all that is good, all that is real".

Nelson and Barthes are citing the age-old philosopher's problem, "Theseus's Ship", which asks whether, if each part is replaced one by one, the Argonauts' boat can consistently be given the same name. In Nelson's case, the thought experiment applies not only to the renewal of love across time, but to Dodge's experiments with gender, Nelson's own pregnant body and, perhaps above all, the process of writing.

What is more artificial: Dodge's testosterone treatments, or Nelson's long dedication of her body as a "prenatal temple" to artificial insemination? Nelson is both a biological mother and a stepmum to Dodge's child: does either have greater validity? Is there any use thinking about anything in essentialist terms?

Nelson argues that it is wrong to see this "performativity" as a gender-identity free-for-all. She quotes Judith Butler's definition: "Performativity has to do with repetition, very often with the repetition of oppressive and painful gender norms to force them to resignify." Both Dodge and Nelson must encounter the questions "What is a mother?" and "What is a man?" in order to redefine their identification width these terms. "The writer," Nelson writes, quoting Barthes again, "is someone who plays with his mother's body." In The Argonauts, Nelson the writer plays with her own "mother's body". The book's structure follows the linear progress of her pregnancy and birthing (of a son, Iggy) but Nelson adopts Barthes's fragmented and circular form, as well as his method of footnoting, dropping names into the margins elegantly to square the circle of otherwise clumsy annotations. …

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