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.