To attempt to define “freedom,” one must recognize its many implicit meanings and that it is mostly dependent upon context. That context isn’t limited to the rest of the sentence or work, but comprises the intricacies of history, the voice at present, and perhaps whatever hope and/or despair is being expressed. Maggie Nelson combines these gray areas with the complexities of our current moment in On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint, drifting through the realms of art, sex, drugs, and climate. Esteemed author of The Argonauts and Bluets, Nelson returns with a compelling analysis of a divisive human concept.
Acceptance seems to be a key factor in the kind of freedom that concerns Nelson here. She identifies “openness,” “nuance,” “context,” and “indeterminacy” as her “hobbyhorses,” and there’s no doubt that these concepts guide her criticism, allowing for an ongoingness that the term “freedom” often defies.
In the introduction, Nelson says what she really has produced here is a book about care, but her decision to stick with freedom has two roots: her “long-standing frustration with its capture by the right wing” and her “reservation about the emancipatory rhetoric of past eras, especially the kind that treats liberation as a one-time event or event horizon.”
One culmination is “a freedom rooted in a ‘we’ rather than an ‘I.’” So then, not only are freedom, care, and constraint ongoing practices, but they go beyond concerns of the self alone, and require relationality.
“Art Song” discusses freedom as it relates to creating and interacting with art and the canceling, so to speak, of artists who have been charged with cultural misappropriation. Bringing in the ideas of Susan Sontag, Nelson concludes that “the world doesn’t exist to amplify or exemplify our own preexisting tastes, values, or predilections. It simply exists.” The same is true of art, in which “pleasing people should never be the goal.” Artists aren’t responsible for our feelings, in other words.
Another interesting takeaway deals with how we treat artists when they exhibit bad behavior that we instinctively want to punish. Nelson muses: “It’s naïve 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.”
Nelson would perhaps ask, instead of doing away with problematic individuals, that we recognize nuance, value context, and understand that the angry-mob mentality is not the only option available to us as caring and free humans.
“The Ballad of Sexual Optimism” continues these lines of thinking as associated with the #MeToo movement, and Nelson persuasively claims that what’s missing from the narratives are women’s actual desires. “Somewhere we have to be willing to be sexual subjects,” with the ability to “articulate sexual experience outside the dyad of wrongdoer and wronged.” Judging the behavior and desire of others comes with its own set of risks, after all, including eliminating “the far more crucial and challenging question of what we ourselves do or want to do.”
Another risk of leaving out female desire from the conversation, Nelson says, is that the associated language, including objectification, horniness, or promiscuity, gets solely attributed to men, “as if they alone owned what it meant to look upon or approach other bodies with appetite and appreciation.”
In “Drug Fugue,” Nelson incorporates genre-bending works like Crack Wars, Like Being Killed, and After Claude, to discuss and illustrate what literature says about addiction in more nuanced ways than the works of rootless white men like Kerouac, Burroughs, and the like, who turned to drugs when life came up “unbearably short.” For instance, the authors she focuses on are attuned to the intersection of drugs with realities like subjection. They ask questions about double standards and stigmas attached to women and addiction, instead of affirming them. She also contemplates Eileen Myles and her conclusions that a man is not “intrinsically pathetic” like a woman is in a lot of drug writing.
She argues a bit for sobriety, a journey she has personally undertaken. While escapism via substances is certainly a kind of freedom, both felt and attained, addiction can sap actual freedom quickly. Nelson concludes: “At a certain point, it’s using that guarantees monotony, and sobriety that signifies the indeterminate of the unknown.”
In the beginning of her final essay, Nelson recounts her son’s fascination with trains, her happiness in his delight, and her simultaneous understanding that the invention of the steam engine essentially began the spiral into global warming. The dilemmas she explores in this section are common: How can we alter our impact on earth without fully “going back to the land,” as it were? What do we tell our kids about climate change? What will happen to them?
“Riding the blinds” is one way to deal, a phrase that refers to hobos’ practice of riding freight trains between cars to avoid being seen by authorities, unaware of where they’re going or what’s coming. An apt metaphor for what humans do when confronted with the fact that they’ve destroyed their own habitat.
The keys for Nelson—acceptance, nuance, context, continued exploration, ongoing work—hint at solutions to reframe freedom in a country obsessed with liberty; to address and expose harmful sex and power but to also push further to reveal new truths and voices; to allow art to be art; and to come to terms with our planet’s fate and act in more meaningful ways. One of those ways is to work together, but another is to “think aloud” as she calls it, which involves questioning how our ideas have been formed and allowing room for interpretation or release.
On Freedom skillfully illustrates that very practice, emphasizing how to recognize the choices we have and what to do with them.
By Maggie Nelson
Published September 7, 2021