I first encountered Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts because of the #MeToo movement.
Bored one afternoon at work, I found myself wandering down a Google rabbit hole that led me to a young woman named Moira Donegan. In January of this year, as many of you may remember, something of a scandal was made of a phantom spreadsheet floating around the internet detailing a number of sexual misconduct allegations against “Shitty Media Men.” Within hours the spreadsheet went viral and caused a heated debate over the limits of female accusers’ credibility and spawned a number of think pieces from all sides.
After months of speculation over the identity of the document’s anonymous creator, Moira Donegan finally came forward as the author through a video confession produced by the New York Times and subsequently penned a thoughtful piece about the whole ordeal in The Cut.
Before the fallout brought on by the list, before she was fired from her job at The New Republic, before she became (in)famous, Moira Donegan also wrote an essay–one that is infinitely more interesting than her unwitting role in #MeToo–in the Fall 2015 issue of n+1 about the work of Maggie Nelson titled, “Gay as in Happy.”
In the essay, Donegan claims that Maggie Nelson’s “greatest contribution — and, I think, the reason why so many readers find her writing not just compelling but intimately important to them — is that Nelson has renewed an idea of queerness that is more dedicated to troubling our received categories and allegiances than it is to reinforcing them.” At that point I didn’t need to read any further; I was thoroughly convinced.
As soon as I left work that chilly evening in January, I walked two blocks from my office to the Strand Bookstore and bought The Argonauts. On the first page, after a racy scene involving anal sex, Nelson makes reference to philosopher Ludwig Wittengstein while writing about her husband, trans artist Harry Dodge: “Before we met, I had spent a lifetime devoted to Wittgenstein’s idea that the inexpressible is contained–inexpressibly!–in the expressed.”
On a recent trip to the Brooklyn Museum–where I had planned on catching the David Bowie exhibit but, much to my dismay, found it was sold out upon arriving–I was reminded of this passage in Nelson’s book by the exhibit Infinite Blue.
As soon as I walked into the exhibit on the first floor, I was drawn to a quote illuminated in neon blue letters against a wall with strands of loose cords hanging down plugged into a series of electrical sockets. It read: “276. But don’t we at least mean something quite definite when we look at a colour and name our colour-impression? It is as if we detached the colour-impression from the object, like a membrane. (This ought to arouse our suspicions.)”
A white plaque next to the installation listed the artist as Joseph Kosuth and 276 (On Color Blue) as the title of the piece. The caption revealed Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, published in 1953 in the form of a numbered list of 693 paragraphs, as the source of the quote.
Paragraph 276 asks the reader to examine the relationship between language and object, using the idea of color as an illustrative example. This questioning of language and its tenuous relationship to the external world of things is a central concern in the philosophy of Wittgenstein–and, clearly, in Maggie Nelson’s work as well.
Like Philosophical Investigations, Nelson’s book of poems Bluets is a list of 240 numbered paragraphs of loose prose. Nelson writes the paragraphs as if almost in a trance; the poems are brief musings on all of her associations evoked by the color blue. Take this line from paragraph 2, for example: “And so I fell in love with a color–in this case, blue–as if falling under a spell.”
On the next page, Nelson cites the exact same Wittgenstein quote as the artist Joseph Kosuth, in paragraph 4: “I admit that I may have been lonely. I know that loneliness can produce bolts of hot pain, a pain which, if it stays hot enough for long enough, can begin to simulate, or to provoke–take your pick–an apprehension of the divine. (This ought to arouse our suspicions.)” [emphasis in orginal]
Staring at the soft blue neon of Wittgenstein’s quote, I pondered its meaning. Perhaps the installation was the artist’s attempt at personification by creating a work of philosophy, which is itself a metatextual reference to Wittgenstein’s idea of language as pictures. Whatever the case, I too found myself gently pulled into a trance-like state. I thought to myself–How do I know this color is blue? Is the blue I see the same as everyone else’s? What does it even mean for an object to be blue? What impression does it give?
Then I thought of blue as loneliness, as an unfulfilled desire for an object–in my case, the desire produced by the loss of a lover. Standing there suspended in the middle of the room, bewitched by the neon quote, I thought–Blue is desire itself, or perhaps the impossibility of ever fully expressing desire, of turning my desire for another person into something real.
I left the museum that day with a renewed suspicion over the ability of language to encapsulate the inexpressible machinations of the heart–a suspicion that remains fully aroused.