The New Yorker review on the back of The Argonauts says “Thinking and feeling are, for Nelson, mutually necessary processes; the result is an exceptional portrait of both a romantic partnership and of the collaboration between Nelson’s mind and heart.” I think that connection– thinking and feeling in concert, not opposition–is what so appeals to me about these books. They reconceptualize the mind vs. body dichotomy of Western philosophy, using the privileged category of the abstract mind (theoretical analysis of language and society and gender) to interrogate and understand the very personal (messy relationships and uncomfortable impulses and inexplicable emotions). I love this kind of thinking because that’s what I do in my life– perhaps not as eloquently or as coherently as either of these two authors, but that urge to understand the why of the self is powerful. And since I love theory, and on some level I trust theory, that’s the medium I use to try to understand.
The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson
First off, what’s up with the title? Assuming you have the exact blend of ignorance/information that I have, here’s what you know: the Argonauts, Jason, Golden Fleece, Medea…. so you’d be justified in thinking a book titled The Argonauts is a retelling of a myth, in the nature of Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad, which tells the story of Penelope, she of the wandering husband Odysseus, complete with Greek chorus of slaughtered maidens. (Confused? Read the book. It’s excellent.)
But The Argonauts— Nelson explains the title, which is a complicated analysis of the use of language by Roland Barthes:
A day or two after my love pronouncement, now feral with vulnerability, I sent you the passage from Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes in which Barthes describes how the subject who utters the phrase “I love you” is like “the Argonaut renewing his ship during its voyage without changing its name.” Just as the Argo‘s parts may 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, as “the very task of love and of language is to give to one and the same inflections which will be forever new.”
I thought the passage was romantic. You read it as a possible retraction. In retrospect, I guess it was both.
So love is both a personal and immediate declaration, but it’s also an acknowledgement of your place in the structure of human emotions and the way we use language, and the way the word or the concept, in some way, inevitably transcends the immediate experience. But by using the word, we stitch ourselves into the narrative, so to speak.
I read this book as an extended meditation on integrity– not the moral kind, but in the more archaic sense of wholeness. What does it do to your identity– your personal coherence, shall we say– when you fall in love? (What do we mean by “fall in love?”) When you have sex? When you get married? When you get pregnant? When you give birth? If we define the self by the borders of our body, when do we think of these borders as being permeable, and what does that do to our sense of self?
One of my favorite things about this book is the constant references to theorists. See those (very tiny) names in the margins? Those are the names of theorists from whose ideas she’s building on in the paragraph. On this page she references Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Mary Lambert, Susan Fraiman, and Lee Edleman; other pages cite Wittgenstein, Butler, Deleuze, Foucault… anybody you’ve ever read in an intro to theory class. I quite like this form of hat tip, but not citation– new thinking is most often built on old, either in reaction to or extension of, and this is just a very elegant way of attribution without getting bogged down. I think. Down side is that if you wanted to read more of such and such particular idea, it would take some work to locate. And random aside, which is neither a pro or a con: the further in my education I get, the more I feel like people are writing for my precise level of education. I’m guessing this is more an example of the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon, and not actually the stars acting in alignment, but I’m reserving judgment.
Heroines, Kate Zambreno
In Heroines, Kate Zambreno interprets her life through the nearly invisible lives of the modernist wives and muses. She talks about “Vivienne Eliot, Jane Bowles, Jean Rhys, and Zelda Fitzgerald: writers and artists themselves who served as male writers’ muses only to end their lives silenced, erased, and institutionalized” (from the Amazon review).
“The biographies of the great men see their excesses as signs of their greatness. But Jean Rhys, in her biography, is read as borderline; Anaïs Nin is borderline; Djuna is borderline; etc. etc. Borderline personality disorder being an overwhelmingly gendered diagnosis. I write in Heroines: “The charges of borderline personality disorder are the same charges against girls writing literature, I realize—too emotional, too impulsive, no boundaries” (45).
Heroines is ostensibly about the modernist wives and mistresses, but more about how the woman’s voice is silenced, how women living outside the lines are eccentric, mad, while aberrant, even anti-social behavior is merely a part of genius in a man. But it’s a personal memoir, not a history, more of a rambling and digressive contemplation of Zambreno’s position as a woman, as a writer, as a wife, as an academic. She’s overtly working out her own role through the studies of these other women (she terms it Bovarizing–as in, interpreting your life through literature, like Madame Bovary did.)
“I am beginning to realize that taking the self out of our essays is a form of repression. Taking the self out feels like obeying a gag order–pretending an objectivity where there is nothing objective about the experience of confronting and engaging with and swooning over literature.”
And my personal engagement with the text: I underlined paragraphs, scribbled annotations in the margins, wrote essays on the end papers, wrote gobs in my journal. This joins Nancy Mairs’s Voice Lessons: On Becoming a (Woman) Writer in the small category of books that keep me inspired, make me want to keep working, to keep writing.
And every time I try to talk about this book, I end up talking about how much I write when I’m reading it. And I’ve read it several times– I first picked it up about a year ago, and read it cover to cover then, but since then I’ve dipped in at the odd moment, reading a paragraph or a page or ten, coming away feeling less crazy, less insufficient, less wrong in my selfness. It gives another lens to interpret parts of myself that I’d otherwise read as, well, crazy and insufficient and wrong. And her narrative style gives me confidence– she skips and swoops and is occasionally less than clear, but always intelligent. It seems so personal. So idiosyncratic. It seems like her voice, not just her thoughts, polished and straightened up into acceptable narrative form, but personal. A perfect blend of thinking and feeling.
Read more about The Argonauts here.
Read more about Heroines here.
This is a continuation of my “best books of the last year” project, in which I’m writing about the (you guessed it) best books that I read during my blogging sabbatical. The first entry to this collection discussed Tannie Maria and Nelly Dean, read it here.