Hermione Granger’s Feminist Book Club: The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

For the May book in Hermione Granger’s Feminist Book Club (aka Emma Watson’s Goodreads group), I ended up getting a library card at my campus Women’s Resources and Research Center library! This month’s book is THE ARGONAUTS, by the Australian writer Maggie Nelson.


The Argonauts is described as a “genre-bending memoir”, a work of “autotheory” that “binds an account of Nelson’s relationship with her fluidly gendered partner and a journey to and through a pregnancy to a rigorous exploration of sexuality, gender, and ‘family.'” The title comes from this passage on page 5:

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 phrase inflections which will be forever new.”

This is a smart, lyrical, complex, and moving book, a nuanced and poetic exploration of sexuality, gender, and family, but also larger questions of art, identity and politics. (It’s also interesting, given how much recent media about transgender/nonbinary people–definitely a positive step forward–has often focused heavily on the perspectives of their straight/cis loved ones i.e. Transparent, to consider that Nelson herself is queer–though Gerda Gottlieb, Lili Elbe’s hetero wife in The Danish Girl, actually was as well.)

Does that sound vague? Because I know. But when I finished The Argonauts, I realized that I wasn’t totally sure how I could write about this book, which is unlike anything I’ve ever read before (though incidentally, right before I started this I attended a reading by the visiting writer Sarah Manguso that dealt with similar themes about motherhood and left a big impression on me, which certainly influenced my experience.) So instead of trying to “break down” Nelson’s book or anything reductive and counterproductive like that any further, I kept a record of some quotes that particularly jumped out at me. Straight from The Argonauts: 

A friend says he thinks of gender as a color. Gender does share with color a certain ontological indeterminacy: it isn’t quite right to say that an object is a color, nor that the object has a color. Context also changes it: all colors are gray, etc. Nor is color voluntary, precisely. But none of these formulations means that the object in question is colorless. (15)

Happiness is no protection, and certainly it is not a responsibility. The freedom to be happy restricts human freedom if you are not free to be not happy. But one can make of either freedom a habit, and only you know which you’ve chosen. -Sara Ahmed (17)

If you’re looking for sexual tidbits as a female child, and the only ones that present themselves depict child rape or other violations…then your sexuality will form around that fact. (66)

Our last night at the Sheraton, we have dinner at the astoundingly overpriced “casual Mexican” restaurant on the premises, Dos Caminos. You pass as a guy: I, as pregnant…On the surface, it may have seemed as though your body was becoming more and more “male”, mine, more and more “female.” But that’s not how it felt on the inside. On the inside, we are two human animals undergoing transformations beside each other, bearing each other loose witness. In other words, we were aging. (83)

…a woman came up to me and told me that she just got out of a relationship with a woman who had wanted her to hit her during sex. She was so fucked up, she said…I could never be that person…I didn’t know this other woman, so all that seemed clear to me was that their perversities were not compatible. (93)

I therefore have to be on the alert for a tendency to treat other people’s needs as repulsive. Corollary habit: deriving the bulk of my self-worth from a feeling of hyper competence, an irrational but fervent belief in my near total self-reliance. (102)

What sense does it make to align “queer” with “sexual deviance,” when the ostensibly straight world is having no trouble keeping pace?…If queerness is about disturbing normative sexual assumptions and practices, isn’t one of these that sex is the be-all and end-all? (111)

I know now that a studied evasiveness has its own limitations, its own ways of inhibiting certain forms of happiness and pleasure. (112)

~This is a grossly inadequate distillation of the book. (Going over my list of bookmarked quotes in retrospect, it also comes across as disappointingly apolitical, which does Nelson’s radicalism no favors.) But really, you really should read this book. Towards the end Nelson graciously allows her partner, Harry, to have his own words on the page when describing his mother’s death, and it’s astonishing. And the ending is such an utterly satisfying payoff.


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