Maggie Nelson and The Ambiguity of Language
Lately, I’ve been fixated on the work of Maggie Nelson and the idea that the art you are drawn to — the kind that causes obsession, embeds itself inside you — reflects your own deeper state of wanting. And sometimes these desires are unearthed, labeled and enacted through reading alone. This does not mean that the work in-and-of itself isn’t meaningful, but that timing plays a significant role in its reception.
Nelson’s work is indisputably magnificent and it embodies the work of a moment, of our cultural milieu. It just happens that it also embodies the work of my individual moment, and while reading her vignettes — penned in a memoir-ish style of prose, a genre transgressing style of writing she has termed “auto theory”— I find myself engaging in a type of co-catharsis with Nelson, explaining why I find her work so hard to put down.
The desires Nelson’s work satisfies (and reveals) for me are both concrete and not: A desire to break literary form, the tendency toward binary writing which implicitly enforces strict limits on what can be said and how you say it. A desire to ground ethereal, philosophical lessons that sometimes stay contained in thought, to actual lived experience. To give them a name and place in the day-to-day. And a desire to be so painstakingly honest, that just as the truth seems to become clear to you, you choose to obscure it, and so on.
Even now as I write about the meaningfulness of Nelson’s work, I find myself wanting to circle around the specificities and just close now by saying, “read it for yourself,” out of fear of misrepresenting, or further obscuring the way her art has been meaningful for me. And it is ironic because it is just this conflict Nelson writes about in her book Bluets: the fear that is associated with honest writing about something you feel deeply for and something whose memory has an inexpressible, subjective significance.
“I don’t want to displace my memories of them, nor embalm them, nor exalt them,” Nelson explains when considering the harmful potential of ruining something through the process of writing about it. She continues to refine this questioning later in the novel. She asks:
“Does an album of written thoughts perform a similar displacement, or replacement, of the “original” thoughts themselves?… But if writing does displace the idea — if it extrudes it, as it were, like pushing a lump of wet clay though a hole — where does the excess go?”
In both her books Argonauts and Bluets this greater idea concerning the usefulness of writing, or any genre of art making that gives form to the intangible, connects these otherwise disparate works. Throughout each book, Nelson questions the limits of language and what can be lost when the intellect attempts to make sense of something felt. She opens Argonauts with a similar reflection:
“Before we met I had spent a lifetime devoted to Wittgenstien’s idea that the inexpressible is contained — inexpressibly! — in the expressed. This idea gets less air time than his more reverential whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent, but it is, I think, the deeper idea. This paradox is, quite literally, why I write, or how I feel able to keep writing.”
Harry Dodge, Maggie’s partner for whom the book Argonauts addresses, is invoked continually throughout the novel. The book in a way takes the form of a long conversation between the two of them. At one point Harry challenges Maggie’s privileging of language:
“Once we name something, you [Harry] said, we can never see it the same way again. All that is unnamable falls away, gets lost, is murdered.”
Even after finishing these novels the resonance of the ideas Nelson presents, and the questions she leaves unanswered, have reverberated through out, and even challenged, my daily perspective. This is way I read, I keep thinking to myself.
Moments in Nelson’s novel Bluets bear such a striking resemblance to my own that I have begun to collapse our stories into one another, unable now to distinguish where hers end my own begin. I speak mainly of the close of Bluets when after witnessing her friends paralysis, a symptom of a traumatic injury, Nelson interrogates the complexity of believing anything at all:
“118. As her witness, I can testify to no reason, no lesson. But I can say this: in watching her, sitting with her, helping her, weeping with her, touching her, and talking with her, I have seen the bright pith of her soul. I cannot tell you what it looks like, exactly, but I can say that I have seen it.
119. Likewise, I can say that seeing it has made me a believer, though I cannot say what, or in what, exactly I have come to believe.
120. Imagine someone saying, “ Our fundamental situation is joyful.” Now imagine believing it.
121. Or forget belief: imagine feeling, even if for a moment, that it were true.”
I read these closing lines with an uncanny sense of familiarity. Recently, I sat next to my partner’s mother as she lay in a recliner covered in a wool blanket, computer resting on her belly, with the glow of the screen shinning on her soft looking skin. This was the first time we met. A diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis (what she refers to as her life curriculum) confines her to this chair, and this position. Although, I even now hesitate to mention her MS, because it does not seem to place a limitation on the fortitude of her soul and the brilliancy of her humor.
Amidst conversation she looked at me and asked if I believed in an afterlife. Shocked by the spontaneity of the question, and wanting to be honest, I told her that recently I’ve had enough problems with the word belief itself. She smiled, and reassured me that my skepticism comes from trying to intellectualize a feeling. And this is an impossible task to take on.