“My writing is riddled with such tics of uncertainty. I have no excuse or solution, save to allow myself the tremblings, then go back later and slash them out. In this way I edit myself into a boldness that is neither native nor foreign to me” –Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts p.98
I just finished reading Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts and now I’m doing that thing where I try to get my hands on everything she’s ever written. My Amazon cart is pretty full. I won’t take them out of the library because I know I will want to write all over the insides. And, I owe the library money for an overdue copy of My Dog Smells Like Dirty Socks. (Full disclosure: I still have it. It got packed in a box when we moved and I am too embarrassed to go there and confess. It’s been two years.)
I finished reading The Argonauts on the train. I closed it and put it in my bag. And then I took it back out and read all the praise on the back. And then her bio and acknowledgements. And then all the praise in the first pages of the book. And then the publishing information and that end page that tells you about cover design and font and whether it is printed on recycled paper. (It is thirty percent post consumer wastepaper. Yes.)
I wasn’t ready to put it away.
So I started to read it again, without waiting to fully digest what had happened. I wanted to wholly absorb it. Study it, like notes for an exam. Make them a part of my brain so I could recollect them easily. Remember the paragraphs like I would remember the chambers of the heart. I needed to repeat each passage immediately.
When we were kids, my sister and I loved to watch Bambi—the Disney cartoon with the baby deer whose mother gets shot by a hunter, and whose standoffish father, “The Great Prince,” can silence the entire forest with his presence.
In the beginning of the movie, a wobbly-legged Bambi meanders through the forest with his friend Thumper, and at one point the fawn-protagonist bends his head into a patch of flowers and takes a whiff, and his nose touches the nose of a tiny skunk. Bambi, who is just learning to talk, calls him a “pretty flower,” and Thumper rolls on the ground, laughing at Bambi’s faux pas and naiveté. “That’s not a…” he trails off, before the demure skunk replies, with his head pointed down, “He can call me a Flower, if he wants to.” There is giggling and much eyelash blinking, before Flower finally looks over his shoulder and sighs, “Oh, gosh.”
(Here’s a YouTube clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=54sZ8TFFAmY)
It is a minor scene, probably intended to introduce a new character, make a little joke, and perhaps nudge in a Shakespearean allusion to roses by any other name. But this scene was our favorite. We would obsess over it, watching it and then rewinding it over and over again, saying Flower’s lines along with him each time.
Maybe it was the sweet voice we wanted to hear again. Or it might have been the aesthetic, the soft colors of the forest and the big, overdrawn eyes of the characters. But I think it was probably the innocence of the scene that drew us in. Bambi had not yet lost his mother. The forest hadn’t burned down, and Bambi had no need to fear Man. He was just a small, shaky deer looking to make a new friend. He didn’t care about reputations. He didn’t know that skunks are reviled, avoided, the butt of jokes. Over and over, we watched this tiny moment. “He can call me Flower. If he wants to.”
In The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson delves deeply into complicated philosophies and psychology and literature theories to examine and tell the story of her life—her love affair with Harry, her role as a stepmother, their struggle to get pregnant—parenthood and motherhood both understood and misunderstood. Gender and queer theory marry feminism and child psychology. Judith Butler dances with Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Julia Kristeva with and Leo Bersani. And they all sing the songs that make up Nelson’s life. It is glorious.
About halfway through the book, Nelson makes a point about labels and identities, a point I’ve thought about before, a point I might even be guilty of myself. She is writing about Judith Butler, and when I read it my brain started tingling, remembering the first time I read Butler’s words as an undergrad after my adviser wrote, “Sex and gender are social constructs” in the margin of a paper I wrote. I remember reading Gender Trouble and thinking, “God, she is so fucking SMART.”
Nelson, who is also so fucking smart, writes about Butler’s observation about her own identity, how she wrote a book questioning identity politics and then became a token of lesbian identity, a victim of commodification. Nelson writes,
“[T]he simple fact that she’s a lesbian is so blinding for some, that whatever words come out of her mouth—whatever words come out of the lesbian’s mouth—certain listener’s hear only one thing: lesbian, lesbian, lesbian. It’s a quick step from there to discounting the lesbian—or, for that matter, anyone who refuses to slip quietly into a “postracial” future that resembles all too closely the racist past and present—as identitarian, when it’s actually the listener who cannot get beyond the identity that he has imputed on the speaker…”
When Bambi calls his new friend Flower, Thumper roars with laughter, proclaiming, “That’s not a flower.” He laughs because he sees this name as a mistake, for he simply sees him as a skunk, a creature known for a dreadful smell, an animal to be avoided, not befriended. Bambi, in his innocence, is unaware of these social constructs, understanding only that he has discovered a beautiful friend in a patch of flowers. Bambi calls him as he sees him. And don’t all children do that? So then, why not Flower?
But Thumper watches this exchange and sees only what he has learned. He sees skunk, skunk, skunk, and laughs at Bambi’s mistake.
“And then we scamper off to yet another conference …and shame the unsophisticated identitarians, all at the feet of yet another great white man pontificating from the podium, just as we’ve done for centuries” (54)
Flower is aware of his position in the hierarchy of the forest. And his response to Bambi shows it. He is pleased at this unexpected baptism, at this assertion of his beauty, so much so that his response is apologetic, submissive, bashful. That pregnant pause before he looks Bambi in the eye and says, “If he wants to” is stuffed with the hesitation and disbelief of someone who has been bullied, misunderstood, and shamed. What Flower seems to be saying is, “He can call me whatever he wants, if he’s going to be nice.”
Which brings me back to Nelson, when she examines language and gender and apologies and privilege. As we get closer to the end of her story, as she bares it all and uses all that she knows to understand her world, she writes, “Afraid of assertion. Always trying to get out of ‘totalizing’ language, i.e., language that rides roughshod over specificity; realizing this is another form of paranoia” (98).
Is that what is happening here? Flower is afraid of asserting himself, so used to being denied friendship because of how he is perceived. He is afraid to step out of the totalizing language, for he lives in a world where names denote characteristics: Bambi the baby deer, Thumper, the large-footed rabbit, Friend Owl, the wise (male) overseer to all the woodland creatures, and the countless times mothers are referred to only as “Mrs. (insert animal here).” Names are not specific; they are broad character generalizations.
Nelson goes on to explain women’s tendencies, her own tendency, to over-apologize. She describes the “gendered baggage” of writing with uncertainty. So accustomed to apologizing, so adapted to criticism, so familiar with character generalizations that we gaze up at the laughing men above us and are bashful when someone sees us as more than a stereotype. It’s brilliant.
So then we can understand Flower not as the punch line to a joke, but as a relatable character, so familiar to ridicule that he stumbles over himself when noticed. Who, for better or for worse, falls over with modesty when someone is kind, when someone sees him for who he is, not what he is. Flower apologizes not because of “gendered baggage,” but because of “species baggage.”
My sister and I were too young to see Flower as a male version of our stigmatized girl-selves. We were too young to understand the cruelty of essentializing. We could not comprehend the complexity of this scene, but we were drawn to it, insistent upon replaying it. We knew this scene by heart. It became a part of our routine.
I think repeatedly experiencing a piece of art in order to commit it to memory becomes an identity marker. Unknowingly relating to a cartoon skunk is, in hindsight, a testament to the internalization of gender (or species) roles. Instantly needing to reread The Argonauts made me realize how deeply I needed to read the life of someone who understands and lives with such markers. Who writes brilliantly about gender and literature, who is a mother, like me, and a spouse, like me, and struggles, like me. I’m sure I will read it again and again, in order to bask in the remarkable beauty of language and in order to see parts of me within it.
Seriously, she is so fucking SMART.