I finally got a copy of The Argonauts from the NYPL last week. I read it in three days feeling underwhelmed. Autotheory? Is this it? Hey I came up with “autotheory” too, in 2007. I wrote a college admissions essay for the University of Chicago’s creative prompt that was a surrealist tour of a dying man’s hospital room narrated in the first person which, when met with underwhelming acclaim by my AP Literature and US History teachers (“too dark”), I turned into a metaphorical review of my favorite philosophers and critical theorists. “See that misspelling of ‘fantasy’?” I asked my teacher, pointing out the ‘ph.’ “That’s because it’s Freud.” The teachers loved this, my disdain thickened. Though it is nice to be loved. In retrospect I guess this is the phase I’m in with blogging right now.
I expected autotheory to be like that. Now that I’ve read the book, I still don’t think autotheory needs its own name, but it was nice to read. It’s like blogging or annotating. Here’s what I lived, here’s what I read, here’s what I thought. Being alive to the interpretive possibilities of the world and the worldly possibilities of texts. The best parts of the book aren’t its conceptual framework anyway, or the other way the book was billed, as a story by a woman whose partner is trans. What was that, SEO? This book is about motherhood. The trans part is practically incidental. It’s a mirror to the queer body of the pregnant and postpartum mother.
I keep coming back to the part in the book where Nelson, quoting some other theorist (I’ll have to look up whom) says being an artist is about playing with the body of your mother. I think it was phrased that way too, never “your mother’s body.” May be something to ponder. Or is that just a French to English translation issue?
I think about playing with the bodies of mothers all the time. It’s the part of my relationship with my mother I feel most deprived of. The other things– her love, her criticism, her advice– are all abstract concepts. They don’t need to exist in time. But touching my mother’s body, seeing it, that feels like something I don’t have. That’s always the thing that guts me when I watch family shows like Gilmore Girls or (today) The Skinny. The way mothers and daughters own each other’s bodies, scooping their heads into each others’ laps, rubbing shoulders with one hand, kissing cheeks. And I wonder if I would love myself more if I could do that to my mother and had it done to me. Maybe it feels so powerful to me only because I left home when I was a young teenager. Maybe mothers’ bodies are more powerful when you’re a child, and if your relationship is ended by death or estrangement that power never attenuates.
I have to return the book tomorrow so here are some excerpts I particularly liked:
One problem with lyrical waxing, as Snediker has it, is that it often signals (or occasions) an infatuation with overarching concepts or figures that can run roughshod over the specificities of the situation at hand…Such accusations would not come as a surprise to many writers, especially to those who have attempted to pay homage, in their writing, to a beloved. Wayne Koestenbaum tells an instructive story on this account: “Some psycho girlfriend of mine (decades ago!) answered a long rhapsodic letter I’d written her with this terse, humiliating rebuff: ‘Next time, write to me.’…”
Nelson 46. Reminded me of L. Nelson also adds that this has something to do with Derrida’s The Post Card if you (I) want future reading.
We ought to say a feeling of and, a feeling of if, a feeling of but, and a feeling of by, quite as readily as we say a feeling of blue or a feeling of cold.
Nelson 54, quoting William James. I didn’t realize Sedgwick’s “Cybernetic Fold” essay had such strong precedent in the other James sibling.
One time I thought she was trying to make me come lay her– flirting to herself at sink– lay back on huge bed that filled most of the room, dress up around her hips, big slash of hair, scars of operations, pancreas, belly wounds, abortions, appendix, stitching of incisions pulling down in the fat like hideous thick zippers– ragged long lips between her legs– What, even, smell of asshole? I was cold– later revolted a little, not much– seemed perhaps a good idea to try– know the Monster of the Beginning Womb– Perhaps– that way. Would she care? She needs a lover…
When I read this passage now, I feel only moved and inspired. “What, even smell of asshole?” –this is the sound of Ginsberg cajoling himself as far out onto the ledge as he can go, even if it means pressing into the speculative, the fictive. Beyond the “Monster of the Beginning Womb” to the mother’s anus, which he leans into and sniffs. Not in the service of abjection, but in pursuit of the limits of generosity. She needs a lover– am I that name?
Nelson 56, quoting Allen Ginsberg’s “Kaddish.”
When it comes to my own writing, if I insist that there is a persona or a performativity at work, I don’t mean to say that I’m not myself in my writing, or that my writing somehow isn’t me. I’m with Eileen Myles–“My dirty secret has always been that it’s of course about me.” Lately, however, I have felt myself awash in a fresh irony. After a lifetime of experimenting with the personal made public, each day that passes I watch myself grown more alienated from social media, the most rampant arena for such activity. Instantaneous, noncalibrated, digital self-revelation is one of my greatest nightmares. I feel quite certain that my character is too weak to withstand the temptations and pressures that would come with hoisting it onto the stages of Facebook, and truly amazed by the fact that so many others– or all others, so it seems– bear it so easily.
I’m staring at his trousers has he opens his flies and that’s when I see something I’ve never seen again in all my life: a kind of threshed ringed beast, cork-screwed and blood-filled and raw, a pink sausage ending in a cone-shaped knob. At this moment I see my father’s prick as if it were skinless, as if my eyes had the power to see right through the flesh. I see something anatomically separate. It’s as if I see a superimposed and scaled-down version of the shiny cosh that he brought back from the slaughterhouse and puzzlingly places on his bedside table.
Nelson 65, quoting Herve Guibert. Also realized something while typing this: the myth of the skinless man doesn’t horrify out of identification (ouch! the pain!). It horrifies because the skin protects us, the viewer, from something overwhelmingly intimate. Skin is there to protect other people, not its wearer.
I couldn’t help but think of Nan Goldin’s 1986 “visual diary,” The Ballad of Sexual Dependency…
Nelson 98. Just jotting the phrase “visual diary” down here for my project on diaries. I have seen this series at the Guggenheim but don’t know anything about how Goldin talks about it.
A day or two after my love pronouncement…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.”
Nelson 5. I ship it.