Lit Lit: The Argonauts

Lit Lit: The Argonauts

“I would give my life for The Thrill. WRITE THAT DOWN.” –Corn Mush


Lit Lit is a segment I host here on The Thrill in which I get someone lit (interpret that as you will) and then that someone chooses a work of literature and gives me a summary and quick discussion of the themes of that work. This time, I had the pleasure of getting two people lit, who will be referred to throughout as Tomato Rake, and Corn Mush. Both Tomato and Corn will be talking with me about The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson, a work of “autotheory” which I will soon find out what that means. Our dialogue is written in plain old font, our actions in italics.

Just imagine it. The three of us on a Wednesday night, all on the dirty and popcorn kernel covered floor of my Old K double, lit, getting litter, most of us staring down an 8:10 the next morning. All in the pursuit of content.


When I ask for a plot summary Corn starts repeating “Oh damn oh oh damn!”

TR: I mean I guess it doesn’t like, have a plot. The term that critics or review people use is “autotheory” and it’s like Maggie Nelson is talking about her life, in particular her life with Harry Dodge, who’s a filmmaker.


CM: And in a lot of ways she’s talking about Harry’s life too, through her lens.

TR: And for Maggie Nelson to confront her own biases and her own philosophical chestnut of what is gender, what is person, what is self that’s being renovated.

The nature of their relationship?

CM: [Nelson] uses she/her pronouns. The gender she was assigned at birth is woman and she identifies as woman. But I think that in exploring this book is asking what is the extent of that label, what does that label really mean? And all that. For the purpose of cis-people understanding this book yes Maggie is a cis-woman assigned woman at birth. Harry however is not the same as that. The point of Harry is that he cannot be described in terms that can be fully understood by cis-people.

Me: Does that Other-ize him?

CM: I don’t know. Does it? I mean, in the grand scheme of things, what is Other? Why are certain bodies coded as Other and certain bodies coded as hegemonic? This book takes all those questions and links that to other feminists and other theorists as well that she will have been reading as a feminist and queer scholar.

TR: Maggie Nelson is a fucking smarty. She is the smartest person. Okay. Do you know how smart she is? Okay.

Tomato is freaking out a bit here. Tomato picks up a copy of The Argonauts, opens up to a random page, and begins reading.

TR: “One of the most lovable aspects of Winnicott’s writing on children–” Okay who’s Winnicott? First of all. Okay. Yeah. She’s just smart.

Tomato throws the book in the air and looks me square in the eye. The point has been made.

Me: Alright, so so, what does she talk about? What’s going on?

TR: Everything BITCH.

CM: Everything. Love. Identity. The most interesting thing is how do you like properly account for a life? Especially a life like Harry’s where so much of Harry’s existence cannot be defined in hegemonic terms.

TR: What’s so interesting about this book especially is that she brings like every philosopher you can imagine into one big room and she kinda goes “You’re all a little right and you’re all a little wrong and I’m gonna tell you why you’re all a little right and all a little wrong, from my personal experience.”

CM: Both her and Harry are public figures in the gender world so you get to see two artists sort of spiraling off each other. One of my favorite things about the book is that she only uses “you” to address Harry because she’s never sure of what pronouns to use for Harry because Harry cannot be defined in that way. Because there’s a part where she’s like “I asked Harry what pronouns to use” and she couldn’t get an answer because. You know. Why you gotta?

I foolishly ask if this book is a year in the life sort of deal, trying to get a definite sense of what this book is.

TR: It’s a life in the life!

CM: It’s a life in the life! It goes all the way from them first starting out their relationship to them having a baby together and everything in between. Speaking of the baby that’s a very interesting part too in terms of creating life and pregnancy within the context of zero gender.

Tomato presents to me the “absolute absolute first paragraph of the book.

TR: The first paragraph of the book says “first time you fucked me in the ass.” It’s not just your average Arg book.

Me: I love that. You don’t usually get that described in a book.

CM: You know another interesting theme is what’s the ability of words to say what’s going on? What’s the limit of language and how much can you really get there? But in that limit is the capacity to get there and the not quite getting there.

TR: It’s like the impossibility of expressing is another possibility of expressing.

CM: It’s both and it’s everything and nothing is real, especially gender, my dudes. People often ask Nelson and she often asks herself “If I’m with Harry what does that make me?” and of course the ultimate answer to that is that it doesn’t make her anything. And that’s important too.


Upon asking this question, Tomato and Corn both begin shouting at me about the boat the ship the fucking boat my dude! But I am a fool, unfamiliar with Greek mythology, so I ask them what they mean. It is in reference to the Greek myth of Jason, who rode a ship called The Argo in order to search for a Golden Fleece, something that never sounded terribly comfortable to me anyway. But hey, gotta pay the bills I guess.

TR: So you built a ship and you built a ship a long time ago and gave it to some person. Probably Jason and Jason’s like “Hey dude I wrecked your ship a little bit is it okay if I fix it up with some wood beams or something?” and you’re like “Okay yeah it’s fine. It’s just fine.” But, you are still the creator of that ship and the ship is still called The Argo even if it doesn’t share the same parts y’know? That’s the same way we reform identity. You’re a ship, we’re a ship, everything’s a ship.

CM: There’s the physical body that gets reformed and restructured based on how you posit and present that body. Then there’s the theory of identity which is much more amorphous and you’re building it and breaking it and building it and deconstructing it again. Um. And the breaking is just as important as the building.

TR: Like a boat.

CM: Yes! You’re in the water like the fishes! We’re all boats!

All Together: We’re all boats!

We spend some time after this talking about who among us are boats and what kind of boats we are. But if nothing is real, it follows then that boats are also not real. So we’re at a bit of an impasse.


If this book establishes that so little to nothing we’re comfortable with defining is real, what keeps The Argonauts from being a nihilist text?

CM: It’s not like nothing’s real in the nihilist sense. It’s that nothing is real in the sense that everything is expansive and everything can be built upon.

TR: It’s kind of that the exploration of meaning is more important than the meaning itself.

Me: So maybe the real Argonauts were the friends we made along the way.

TR: The friends who fucked you in the ass.


Tomato is very insistent on this. He has been looking for the butt scene for several minutes.

CM: Which butt scene? ‘Cos there’s a lot of them.

While reading a birthing scene, Tomato mispronounces vagina as “vagheena.” Nelson describes giving birth to a baby as being similar to “taking the biggest shit” in a way that is more honest and profound than you might think. But this is not The Butt Scene. Tomato stops talking when Nelson describes her shit as being like Christmas ornament balls.

CM: But that’s the thing she can do shit well too! She can do anything!

Tomato, Cat, and the Peanut Gallery above us go into a several minute digression about the nature and philosophy of shit in the human body.

TR: Do we just hold shit all the time? Is there always just a little bit of shit in us?

CM: You’re digestive system is just working on it, and when it’s done working on it it sends it to the Poopy Place.

Profound. Tomato does eventually find The Butt Scene.

“Now I delight in his little butt. I delight in pouring water with toy boat full of holes over his head, over his brown locks, matted with butter from a plate he recently made into a hat.”


TR: Maggie Nelson is the smartest person on this planet. I don’t like a lot of smart books because I’m not a smart person but this book is written in such a way where I feel like I’m getting a bunch of postcards from the most skeptical but most grateful and most good person I know. And I’m just like: Thank you. Please. More.

CM: Maggie Nelson. She is my wife. But, from the WGS meets English standpoint, this book is my whole life. It’s written like a story, like a mythic story, but in the margins she puts what ideas come from what scholars, so it branches outwards like a spiderweb and you get everyone in there. From Lorde and Rich to everyone in between. More Lorde than Rich. Lorde is better than everyone really. It blends feminist scholarship with real life and that should be the point of feminism. What’s the point of it if you can’t use it in your life? Maggie Nelson is my wife.


CM: This book is very good and real for shaping my identity.

TR: What I love about Maggie [Nelson] is that she kind of takes the opportunity to have a love song to sex.

CM: This is one of the few feminist scholarship books that I know that treat gender identity properly and gender-fluidity for what it is without using binary language to classify it, or appropriating it, or Other-izing it. It’s interesting that she is a cis-woman who is able to create this super fluid and gentle and beautiful portrait of what it means to shift through gender like a boat through water.

TR: Nelson says that every time you say “I love you” it’s a different thing because it’s a different entity of language and meaning.

“Everyone. Everyone should read The Argonauts immediately.” –Tomato Rake and Corn Mush

Like this segment? I’ve done it before.

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