The Emptiness That Interests Her

Reviewed by Aisha Sabatini Sloan

In Virginia Woolf's novel, To The Lighthouse, we come to find out that our main character, Mrs. Ramsey, has died within a set of brackets: “[Mr. Ramsay, stumbling along a passage one dark morning, stretched his arms out, but Mrs. Ramsay having died rather suddenly the night before, his arms, though stretched out, remained empty.]” The revelation of Mrs. Ramsay's passing comes across as especially removed (and moving) because of the grammar of the sentence, which shuffles the deceased into a dependent clause that seems to hover in between the clauses that surround it (evidence of what literary critic Denise Delorey describes as Woolf's “transformational grammar”). I remember the sense of immediate betrayal I felt upon reading this sentence. I turned my head, put the book down, and began to cry. The fact that I turned my head was the direct result of the brackets, as if they physically pushed my body; so powerful and unexpected was the gesture.

In her essay, “Every Exit is an Entrance (A Praise of Sleep),” Anne Carson writes of these bracketed deaths: “These square brackets convey surprising information about the Ramsays and their friends, yet they float past the narrative like the muffled shock of a sound heard while sleeping. No one wakes up. Night plunges on, absorbed in its own events.” Carson continues, “Virginia Woolf offers us, through sleep, a glimpse of a kind of emptiness that interests her. It is the emptiness of things before we make use of them, a glimpse of reality prior to its efficacy [. . .] Woolf likes to finger the border between nothing and something.”

The same can be said of Maggie Nelson. Her most recent work of nonfiction, The Argonauts, is a 143-page book of “auto-theory,” a combination of memoir and theory that might not use the word “finger” to describe what it's doing to the border between nothing and something, only because the double-entendre would be glaring in this narrative, which opens upon a scene of anal sex. The book charts the author's journey into a romantic relationship with the artist, Harry Dodge, while illuminating her experience of becoming a step-mother and giving birth to their son, Iggy. A scholar of feminist theory, Nelson thinks her way through questions about queerness, feminism, gender identity and motherhood while offering an arc of anecdotes from her life that span from 2007 to 2013.

I laughed out loud throughout the book, which despite its academic concerns includes words like “stupidhead.” Anyone familiar with Nelson's voice won't be surprised to hear that the language is fraught with beauty. The moment when I had to lift my eyes from the text to sit with emotion, to write it down, involved a pregnant Nelson, about to go into labor, surrounded by that books that Harry has impulsively decided to reorganize: “More pains. All these beautiful pages.” In the passage that follows, Nelson describes the process of giving birth as “touching death.” The image of the author, anticipating labor, surrounded by books, reminded me of the scene in Jim Jarmusch's film Only Lovers Left Alive, when Tilda Swinton, a vampire, packs a stack of books for a trip to Detroit— scanning through each with the speed of a reader who has had centuries of practice, her finger drawing an invisible line down each page. In these moments, both Swinton and Nelson seem to be showing us something about what literature does to mortality, to the question of eternity.

And yet, even for an author that enamored with writing, The Argonauts constantly circles around the possibility that words won't—can't—cut it. Nelson begins by pointing out, “I had spent a lifetime devoted to Wittgenstein's idea that the inexpressible is contained—inexpressibly!—in the expressed.” This caused an immediate spark of argument in her courtship with Harry, who “had spent a lifetime equally devoted to the conviction that words are not good enough [. . .] corrosive to all that is good.” Over time, Nelson changes her view, “I looked anew at unnameable things, or at least things whose essence is flicker, flow.” And, “I stopped smugly repeating Everything that can be thought at all can be thought clearly [Wittgenstein] and wondered anew, can everything be thought."

Harry's gender identity, which is not confined to the realms of male or female, provokes special cause for curiosity about words, pronouns in particular. This is depicted rather sweetly in a scene where a lovestruck Nelson has a friend Google Harry to see what pronoun she should use in conversation, as she has been avoiding pronouns entirely up until this point. But the concern—with how to represent what refuses to be labeled—moves beyond, or beneath, identity politics: “I readmitted the sadness of our eventual extinction, and the injustice of our extinction of others.” 

There is never a conclusion or solution offered—for pronouns or extinction—but we can enjoy watching Nelson wrestle with the capacities of language because her concern (like so many of the theorists she cites, or as she calls them, “the many-gendered mothers of my heart”) is not to conduct an academic exercise, so much as it is to locate a space (within patriarchy, in the margins, off the page) where the people she loves can breathe. She quotes Gilles Deleuze and Claire Parnet, “The aim is not to answer questions, it's to get out, to get out of it.” In an interview with Guernica, Nelson explains, “Some people who’ve read the book say, 'Wow, you’re really down on language,' and I think, 'If I were really down on language, I wouldn’t be trying to do this in language! I’d be doing something else!' I love language. It doesn’t bother me that its effects are partial.”

In her ongoing investigation of words v. silence, Nelson recalls an instance when she receives a literary magazine in the mail featuring an interview with Anne Carson, “she answers certain questions— the boring ones? the too personal ones?— with empty brackets .” The gesture makes Nelson feel ashamed of her own instinct to write “a dissertation on each query.” She goes on, “They seemed to make a fetish of the unsaid, rather than simply letting it be contained in the sayable.” Beyond feeling ashamed or annoyed, though, Nelson remembers a lecture that Carson gave in New York City, “at which she introduced (to me) the concept of leaving a space empty so that God could rush in.” The moment was pivotal, “it was like stumbling into a tarot reading or AA meeting and hearing the one thing that will keep you going, in heart or art, for years.” Each page of The Argonauts adds a new round to this match, and you never can tell who is winning, words or silence, nor who you want to win, but it is clear that lives are at stake.

The first time I saw Maggie Nelson in person, I waved at her from across the room. I had unwittingly instigated a playground vibe, my arm flagging down her friendship before I was able to stop it. More recently, and for reasons that will forever seem mystical to me, I participated in a reading with her alongside Amarnath Ravva and Brian Blanchfield. The reading was titled “Don’t Call It Lyric: Inquiry, The Essay, and Independence,” and before the conference, Brian prompted us to exchange some thoughts about this collection of words: lyric, essay, independence. Throughout the course of our short email interchange, Brian used the word “teleology,” which caused me to have a mild panic attack. Maggie talked about her beef with fiction, which ended up being a kind of endorsement, and recommended the nonfiction of poets like Simone White. I veered into a discussion of Zach Braff and attached an interview between John D’Agata and Anne Carson in which she responds to some questions with silence (I had not yet read The Argonauts, lest this sound like a weird way to bring up Nelson's shame/awe regarding Carson's brackets). Amar alluded to the "many branched hydra of cognitive colonization" and we called it a day.

Before we knew it, we were beaming at the front of this black theater space on the CalArts campus. Amar read from his beautiful book, American Canyon (2014), while playing film footage from his travels to India. I nattered on about Lisa Bonet. Brian released a story so charming, so scintillating and suddenly poignant, that Maggie began to wipe her eyes (we all did), worried about the clock, not sure if she should even read. We explained to her that she was the reason that everyone had come.

She read from The Argonauts. Our time together was over before we had the chance to discuss the reading’s title, which points to this collective feeling of vague resistance, the impulse behind the word “don’t.” So the conversation we never had still hangs in space like happy anticipation. Like brackets. Like Anne Carson staring coyly at John D’Agata in an act of revolt, or as it turns out, divination. In lieu of that chat, now that I have finished this book that felt very much like a friend (I may not be the only one who waves at Maggie Nelson from across crowded rooms), I am hungry to know what would have filled the space. Though I wouldn't call it empty.

Aisha Sabatini Sloan

Aisha Sabatini Sloan is originally from Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in The Sierra Nevada Review, Ninth Letter, The Southern Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Callaloo and Guernica, where she is a contributing editor. Her book of essays, The Fluency of Light: Coming of Age in a Theater of Black and White was published by University of Iowa Press in 2013.