Relearning Everything: Jay Aquinas Thompson with Maggie Nelson on The Argonauts

Jay Aquinas Thompson and Maggie Nelson
Jay Aquinas Thompson and Maggie Nelson

When M. got to Seattle, the first place she wanted to go was the bookstore: “There’s this new book I have to buy you,” she said. “Couldn’t I just buy it myself?” I asked. She shook her head: “No. I have to be the one to give it to you. You’ll see what I mean.” So it was M.’s $25.18 that put the book in my hands.

The book was The Argonauts (2015, Graywolf Press), poet and memoirist and critical theorist Maggie Nelson’s new work of “autotheory”: a reflection on queer family and sexuality, art-making and self-revelation, privilege and oppression, performance and identity, healing and the ghosts of old scars. The book opens with the twinned somatic, prickling pressures of sexual desire and the Santa Ana wind, and ends with the braided stories of the birth of Nelson’s child and the death of her partner Harry Dodge’s mother. In between, Nelson’s scrupulous candor and synthesizing intellectual energy takes in teachers (her “many-gendered mothers of my heart”) and loved ones, and offers back sparkling assertions as well as aching, unanswerable questions. I read The Argonauts, scribbling notes, in three days, and immediately gave my copy to my wife and—like M. before me—took another friend out for coffee and bought it for her.

What about The Argonauts demands such a personal response? A book I expected to examine and reflect on instead itself became a lens, through which I saw other things—art-making, queerness, oppression, parenting—in a completely new light. “There are things in The Argonauts I never knew I’d always thought,” M. told me, and after reading the book I agreed. I reached out to Nelson this fall and we conducted this interview over e-mail.

Jay Aquinas Thompson: Near the end of The Argonauts—after writing about fake totem animals, Barthes’s concept of the Neutral, and the limitations of evasiveness—you write of, and seem to defend,

the pleasure of abiding… of insistence, of persistence. The pleasure of obligation, of dependency. The pleasures of ordinary devotion. The pleasure of recognizing that one may have to undergo the same realizations, write the same notes in the margin, return to the same themes in one’s work, relearn the same emotional truths, write the same book over and over again—not because one is stupid or obstinate or incapable of change, but because such revisitations constitute a life.

I know many writers can’t wait to get away from a book once it’s done, and devote energy to other projects or preoccupations. But, with the above pleasures in mind, I guess I’ll ask: what of your subjects or concerns from The Argonauts are still sticking with you, or turning over in your mind? What do you feel you’re still relearning lately?

Maggie Nelson: I’m relearning everything. I’m still thinking about The Argonauts’s conversation about dependency and freedom, but in different realms: criminal justice, addiction narratives, art. Every project I do branches pretty directly out of the last; it just ends up looking different. Since The Argonauts was more of an interruption than a development, I’m not sure what that means, as far as ontogeny goes.

JAT: In The Argonauts, you speak of your sense of writing as a private home for your free, unique self, and the challenge this poses in “negotiating” your writing with your family, lovers, community. You ask, “How can a book be both a free expression and a negotiation?” I wonder: do you feel this question playing out in the political, and not just the personal, dimension of your work as well? Is the thought of how your work will be read as, say, a statement on “queer family,” a criticism of “homonormativity,” a feminist work, etc., a paralyzing one, as you struggle to do right by these ideas in front a large, diverse audience of readers? Or this thought an energizing one, an invitation?

MN: It’s not a paralyzing thought, because it’s one I mostly keep at bay. I think worrying about phantom audiences (as opposed to intimate ones, i.e. the people you live with) is, generally speaking, a total waste of time and energy. You’re almost always wrong, almost always engaging in the business of trying to control something which is fundamentally not within your control. You have to—I have to—do right by myself, my own thinking; if you aren’t trying to speak for anyone else, all the better.

JAT: This answer takes me from phantom to real audiences. What’s been the most interesting conversation you’ve had since The Argonauts has been in the world? What sorts of responses to The Argonauts have most stuck with you?

MN: I’ve had so many good conversations. Some of these have been published—like with artist A. L. Steiner in Bomb; some have been in public, like with Eileen Myles in Brooklyn, or with Lucy Corin in SF—but I’ve also had many great in-person or email exchanges with people in queer families of various kinds, with younger writers, with people interested in autobiography and theory, and so on. I recently did a conversation with Bill Forsythe and Matthew Barney which was unusual, in its collage of people, and meaningful to me. It kind of sticks with me when strangers write to enlighten me as to the fact that there is no gray area in the realm of gender—more as comedy, though. Always good to be set straight!

JAT: In an essay on the poetics of bewilderment, Fanny Howe wrote: “A signal does not necessarily mean that you want to be located or described. It can mean that you want to be known as Unlocatable and Hidden.” This idea—like the slip and drift of Barthes’s Neutral—was in my head constantly as I read The Argonauts. I wonder if Howe’s idea gets at a tension you describe in your conversation with Steiner, where you said that

Sometimes when people tell me about a strong relation they have felt to me via reading my work, it can feel more alienating than when I imagine the work setting off into a void. Maybe this is just because it’s so amazingly difficult to give each other credible reports from our interiority. Or maybe it’s because there’s something deeply solitary about writing, even when it promises or depicts relation.

And/yet: I hope it doesn’t feel alienatingly fannish for me to say how much it mattered, to me and the queer families and caregivers and radicals in my community, to feel ourselves seen by The Argonauts. Maybe it’s the way the book brings a lived-in immediacy and complexity to ideas (on freedom and dependence, sexuality and family) that many readers have only considered politically or categorically…

Does it feel strange to have written a book that’s so resolutely personal—which grants itself so much freedom in playing non-authoritatively with its ideas or positionings—that so many people see themselves reflected in?

MN: I love what you say here. I think in that talk with Steiner, I may have over-spoken when I used the word “alienating.” I think what I meant was, I can’t really & truly understand what my writing might mean to someone, even when they tell me, but that also seems to me as it should be, as I think reading and writing are both typically solitary activities, and the way that solitudes speak to each other is mysterious and deep, and need not be legible or made public per se. Writing and reading need not be theater, in other words. In my experience, there is no necessary relationship between hoping to speak to others and actually speaking to them, so in some ways instead of “alienating,” I could have said, miraculous, or paradoxical, or happily bewildering. But maybe it’s not so bewildering after all, in that I believe in the intensely, idiosyncratically, unapologetically “personal” as the greater vehicle toward connection, identification, and so on than I believe in the loose baggy sock of the generic or general. And maybe it’s just a good day, but instead of any alienation I feel totally thrilled by what you say about the writing being meaningful to you and caregivers and queers and radicals in your community. Thrilled!

JAT: I wonder, looking at what you say here, if you see a relationship here around the unapologetically-personal and the authentically-moral in art. Your last book, The Art of Cruelty, examined and hazarded a lot on the question of morality for one who’s an audience member for deviant art, and then ended—gutsily, I think—by again invoking Barthes’s Neutral, refusing the choice among binaries, even/especially when presented with art whose moral power lies mainly in insisting on provocation. Moving from thinking as a critical experiencer to thinking as a maker, do you have any thoughts on what makes a work of art “moral” or not? Does the communion-of-solitudes you describe have something to do with this?

MN: What is authentically moral art?

JAT: I guess that was my (underarticulated?) question to you. Early in Cruelty, you refer to community-engaged, “dialogical” art (as opposed to vanguardist “shock-and-awe” art) as an important response to Grant Kester’s question: “How do we reduce the violence and hatred that have so often marked human social interactions? How do we, in short, lead a ‘non-fascist’ life?” You noted that that question fell outside of Cruelty’s purview; Cruelty instead took up the uncanny, but maybe rigorous or clarifying, effects of taking in transgressive art. But I wonder if, on the other side of The Argonauts, you feel closer to Kester’s question. (Or, what the heck, closer to answering Kester’s question, at least as art-making is concerned.)

MN: I’m interested in Kester’s question (of course), and I would never draw a stern line between aesthetics and ethics, but part of the point of The Art of Cruelty (which is the same point in Rancière and others) is that the activity of art does not typically respond well in a one-to-one fashion with the kind of instrumentality and intention that can attend the aim of living a non-fascist life. I still feel that way, so I don’t think The Argonauts is very distinct in that respect. It is true that The Argonauts takes as its subject caring, whereas the cruelty project had a different focus, but good enough caring always invokes its shadow—non-good enough caring—just as a focus on cruelty inevitably engaged questions of compassion and freedom. In that sense, I see these books as sharing similar concerns. Neither one pushed toward “an answer”; answers likely belong to the realm of moralism, which does not have a good track record of encouraging ethical behavior, in my POV. For that reason, the phrase “authentic moral art” sounds to me like a fascist or Stalinist concept, not something to strive for.

JAT: Ah, thank you for this response! For me, the moral dimension of The Argonauts—a big part of why it was so moving—had something to do with its relationship to paradox, holding opposites without either fetishizing a fashionable sort of uncertainty or building a theory around some notion of the grounding quality of Difference (as Zizek, so obnoxiously, does when degrading transgender sexuality). For instance: The Argonauts speaks of “the outsized faith in articulation itself as its own form of protection,” yet is willing to “draw a circle around” certain topics (like Catherine Opie’s self-portraits and the whole notion of sodomitical maternity) and leave them to the reader’s reflection; it frames artistic and emotional self-reliance by meditating on dependence. I didn’t experience this dimension of Argonauts as intentionally morally “instructive,” but it was incredibly refreshing and left me feeling more human. (The book, like Cruelty, invites opposites to co-exist without destroying each other: is this itself a part of a non-fascist relationship to life?) I guess when I get excited, I call things moral …

The Argonauts is full of references to grounding works of art and theory and sources of inspiration. Are there any works—either discussed in the book or silently behind it—that you were particularly aware of The Argonauts “coming after”? Works in whose legacy or echoes or community you see The Argonauts existing?

MN: Thanks for all you say here. Very interesting.

The Argonauts references so many pieces of art and literature that are its many-gendered mothers of my heart, so it seems a bit foolish to name more. I guess I would just say that the book is most explicitly in homage to Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes and a line of theoretically-inflected autobiography which is meaningful to me (Barthes, Audre Lorde, Beatriz Preciado, Patricia Williams, Wayne Koestenbaum, Herve Guibert, Anne Carson, Sir Thomas Browne) as well as works of so-called “wild theory” whose genre status or writing style is enjoyably indeterminate, disobedient, or motley (Bataille, Deleuze & Guattari, Fanon, Avital Ronell, Fred Moten, Luce Irigaray, and so on). I’m not nearly as wild as many of them, but they send me.

JAT: I just finished Carl Wilson’s book-length study of Celine Dion’s album, Let’s Talk about Love. In it, Wilson asks: how might criticism or theory look if critics like himself were less concerned with asserting their own cultural capital or with persuading readers of a work of art’s “absolute value,” and instead approached criticism more like travelogue—a memoir of an aesthetic experience—and an attempt to attentively ask the question, “What is it like for me to like something?”

This question underlying Wilson’s imagined-future-criticism took me back to The Argonauts’s own reflection on how it’s frowned upon to openly display pleasure in one’s own work. If writers feel and display pleasure in their creation and “express themselves as they desire,” they’ll risk being seen as sentimental, weak, or guilty of (the uncool kind of) self-absorption. “People seem hungry for permission,” you say, adding that you try your best to give it to your students or readers. Anything else you’d seek to “give” to someone who was moved or challenged by The Argonauts? What do you hope you offer to folks who finish your book?

MN: I will look up that Carl Wilson book. It sounds interesting. I have to say, I don’t generally think in terms of what I want to give to readers, which I don’t mean to sound harsh. In my experience, and at the risk of repeating myself, being smitten with or caught up in projections about audience often diminish rather than amplify a work’s generosity or effects. There is a deep value, I think, in watching an author perform, in language, an absorption, be it self-absorption, absorption in an idea, a problem, a conviction, a hope, an obsession, a work of art, etc. I gravitate toward the genre you describe as memoirs of aesthetic experience—I think of TJ Clark’s work The Sight of Death, or Wayne Koestenbaum’s Anatomy of Harpo, as good cases in point. All of which is to say, I conceive of my job as following my interests and performing my findings in the more precise or otherwise right language as possible; the rest follows.

Maggie Nelson is a poet, critic, and nonfiction author of books such as The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning, Bluets, and Jane: A Murder. She teaches in the School of Critical Studies at CalArts and lives in Los Angeles, California.

Jay Aquinas Thompson is a poet, essayist, activist, parent, and teacher of incarcerated adults. He has recent work in Berfrois, THEthe_poetry, and The Inbreaking, the newspaper of the Seattle Catholic Worker. He keeps a blog at, and he lives with his family in Seattle.

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