To Last and To Burn: Maggie Nelson’s Queer Marriage Plot

Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts (2015) reflects new possibilities for the recognition of queer and trans marriage and family life. At once a memoir, a non-fiction novel, and an essay, the book borrows its textual form from Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments (1977). The key difference is that, while Barthes defines the lover as “the one who waits,” Nelson allows the queer couple at the center of her narrative a happy ending. The Argonauts begins with a casual sexual encounter that turns out to have a future: “What’s your pleasure? You asked, then stuck around for an answer.”

Barthes writes, “Someone tells me: this kind of love is not viable. But how can you evaluate viability? Why is the viable a Good Thing? Why is it better to last than to burn?” Barthes’s writings can be understood as part of a queer tradition of seeing love as impossible—and as all the more beautiful for it. In contrast to Barthes’s encomium to love as fatality, Nelson imagines queer love as sustainable, and subject to public recognition: long-term. She finds evidence in Barthes to support such a vision, namely his reflections on the rebuilding of the ship the Argo in Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes. Nelson invokes this passage to reflect on accidentally blurting out “I love you” to her trans lover Harry in that early sexual encounter:

A day or two after my love pronouncement, now feral with vulnerability, 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.’

The fantasy brokered by The Argonauts is of a love that burns and lasts. To this end, Nelson brings to bear the representational resources of a queer tradition of impossible love as well as a feminist tradition of critical engagement with domesticity, reproduction, and the everyday. At times, this struggle is thermalized explicitly, as in ambivalent reflections on inhabiting heteronormative marital and family structures. At the same time, it is negotiated as a question of genre and form: through textual reassembly, Nelson attempts to preserve unviability at the heart of a new queer marriage plot.


Part of panel Longterm: Love, Duration, Change
October 2, 2016, 14:15–16:00