Taking Liberties

With On Freedom, Maggie Nelson raises complicated questions about what it means to be free.

on freedom, maggie nelson
Harry Dodge

If you’re an author and you’re very lucky, your new book arrives at the perfect time. Such is the case with Maggie Nelson’s On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint. Many of the conflicts and dilemmas it addresses are being dramatized across the world right now, as the anti-vaccine and mask-averse protest the policies of governments and institutions struggling to contain a virus that has upended our lives. Sometimes those mobs brandish signs with slogans like “My Body, My Choice”—a rallying cry stolen from the pro-choice movement.

Nelson obviously had no inkling of any of this when she began writing On Freedom in 2016. But she was already frustrated that the language of resistance had been weaponized by the right wing and fascinated by the elasticity of the word freedom. “When we use it,” she writes, “we can never really be sure what, exactly, we’re talking about, or whether we’re talking about the same thing.”

Ambiguity has never scared Nelson, who is one of the most fluid writers of our era. Dedicated to untangling intellectual knots, she scavenges from literature, academia, art, politics, and religion in books that skitter between genres. Bluets and The Argonauts mesh formal experiments and poetic autobiography, while The Art of Cruelty dissects the avant-garde’s obsession with violence.

In many ways, On Freedom picks up where The Art of Cruelty left off, following through on the earlier book’s mission to explore moral complexities by “wading into the swamp, getting intimate with discomfort, and developing an appetite for nuance.” Nelson takes on a quartet of topics—art, sex, drugs, climate change—and uses them as prisms through which to view the question of freedom. This often takes the form of a dense thicket of quotes from thinkers and activists, through which Nelson clears a path for her own ideas and analysis. Fans of The Argonauts’ intimacy may feel locked out by this new book’s more academic tilt, but Nelson does find ways to personalize and concretize abstract concepts, weaving in her son’s love of trains, her wild whiskey youth and subsequent embrace of sobriety, and her growing grief as she immerses herself in the study of global warming.

The idea of freedom that Nelson develops isn’t the heroic individual triumph or explosive effort celebrated in pop culture: it is communal work that requires patient, unending struggle. Because it is ongoing, it encompasses “contradictory sensations, such as boredom and excitement, hope and despair, purpose and purposelessness, emancipation and constraint.” Instead of seeing freedom as belonging to an idealized past or an amorphous revolutionary future, Nelson suggests that we respond to the late scholar and activist David Graeber’s call to act “as if one is already free.”

As she zigzags from contemporary art-world debates to #MeToo-era reckonings, Nelson explores how freedom rubs up against compassion. The surprise twist is that in our current cultural moment, it is the left that is often cast as repressive enforcers patrolling sexual or racial boundaries, while the right appears “newly (if hypocritically, selectively, even sadistically) enthralled by disinhibition, lawlessness, debauchery, and ‘freedom and fun.’” Yet Nelson’s experience teaching at CalArts (she is now a professor at USC) convinced her that it is possible to combine freedom of expression with care. “I contended with student work that involved (or aimed to involve) abduction, cutting, stalking, sexually explicit performance, and more,” she writes. Sometimes this felt frightening, but “because we knew we weren’t there to shut each other down, we had to learn how to communicate our pleasures and displeasures differently.”

Nelson has a counterintuitive bent, but she always rides on the side of empathy and messiness. Noting that the myth of the male outlaw artist has long served as an excuse for foul behavior, she nevertheless argues that “it’s naive and unfair to expect artists and writers to have special access to the most intense, extreme, or painful aspects of life, then to act surprised and appalled when they turn out to have a relationship to those things that exceeds that of abstract contemplation or simple critique.” At the same time, in a culture where white men still hold most of the power, “not all forms of transgression are created equal.” As she quips, “there’s a reason why Charles Bukowski remains an easier sell than Valerie Solanas.”

The case of Aziz Ansari—was it sexual misconduct or a bad date?—inspires a surprising meditation on women’s uneasiness about exploring or expressing their sexual longings. “Beyond assertions of innocence and impotence, beyond passive-aggressive perseveration on what you didn’t like,” Nelson writes, in one of her breakneck, hairpin-turn sentences, “…lies an ocean, the ocean of what you do like, what you do want, what you are able to ask for, what you need help in asking for, what you don’t know you want until you try it, what you thought you wanted but it turns out you don’t (or at least not tonight), and so on.” Young women are often bombarded by sexual attention, but they aren’t given the vocabulary to articulate the complexity of their own desires. “Determining what constitutes power or privilege in any given encounter between two consenting adults is by no means settled or easy business,” Nelson insists, but that doesn’t mean our only options are either “happy and liberated sexuality” or the harrowing trauma of The Handmaid’s Tale.

Threaded throughout the book is Nelson’s disdain for binaries such as optimism versus pessimism or utopia versus dystopia. Instead, she urges us to “reckon…with the fact that everything is not going to be OK, that no one or nothing is coming to save us.” That gets particularly explicit in the section on climate change, where she explores how our drive for freedom has led us to the brink of extinction.

Ultimately, On Freedom becomes an extended argument for sitting with discomfort. By laying down narrative pathways that are convoluted and contradictory, riddled with trip wires and tangents, Nelson nudges us toward feelings we don’t want to acknowledge. It’s as if she wants to write us the freedom to choose our own intellectual adventure.•

Graywolf Press


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Joy Press is a correspondent for Vanity Fair and a former book editor of the Los Angeles Times.
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