After I read the last page of Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, I closed it and put it in my bag. And then I took it back out and read all the praise on the back cover. And then I perused her bio and acknowledgements and all the praise in the first pages. I even read the 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 started to read it again. 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.
I wasn’t ready to put it away.
When we were kids, my sister and I loved to watch Bambi—the classic 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. The fawn 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.” 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. Finally Flower looks over his shoulder and sighs: “Oh, gosh.”
A minor scene, but it was our favorite. We would rewind it over and over, saying Flower’s lines along with him. We wanted to hear the sweet voice again, and see the soft colors of the forest and the big, overdrawn eyes of the characters.
It was the innocence of the scene that drew us in. Bambi had not yet lost his mother. The forest hadn’t burned down. 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. Over and over, we watched this tiny moment. “He can call me Flower. If he wants to.”
In The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson delves into philosophy and psychology and literary theory 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 are both understood and misunderstood. Gender theory and queer theory marry feminism and child psychology. Judith Butler dances with Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Julia Kristeva with Leo Bersani. 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. 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 my paper. I remember reading Gender Trouble and thinking, “God, she is so f’ing SMART.”
Nelson, who is also so f’ing smart, writes about Butler’s observations of her own identity, how she wrote a book questioning identity politics and then became a token of lesbian identity, a victim of commodification.
[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: “That’s not a flower.” He laughs because he sees this name as a mistake; he sees Flower solely 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?
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.
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 is going to be nice.”
Flower’s hesitant reply brings me back to Nelson, as she examines language and gender and apologies and privilege. Near the end of the book, 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.”
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 a punchline, but as a relatable character, so familiar to ridicule that he stumbles over himself when noticed. For better or for worse, he 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 version of our stigmatized 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 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 see parts of me within it.
Amie Reilly is a writer, wife, and mother from Connecticut. She earned her MA in English Literature from Fordham University, and her work has also been published in Mothers Always Write. She can be found on Twitter @smidgeon227.