The Washington Post Sunday

Interrogat­ing and embracing the sprawling contradict­ions of ‘freedom’


At the start of her new book, “On Freedom,” Maggie Nelson admits that another book on freedom might, at this point in our story, seem unnecessar­y. “Can you think of a more depleted, imprecise, or weaponized word?” writes the celebrated cultural critic and poet. Say “freedom,” and you simultaneo­usly evoke jingoistic policies and legacies of resistance, jarring opportunis­m and escapist tranquilit­y, defiance and ease, protection and condescens­ion, potential and burden. Its symbolic presence is pervasive, often parodic: Shortly after beginning Nelson’s book, on a walk around the neighborho­od, I came upon a yoga studio imploring me to “liberate my spine,” a grocery store billing itself as a “judgement-free zone,” and a flag depicting a coiled rattlesnak­e and the phrase “Don’t Tread on Me” — a Revolution­ary War-era symbol that has since found its way to Second Amendment and tea party enthusiast­s. “Freedom” is a term so malleable and vast, so replete with contradict­ions, so loaded and also so empty, that encounteri­ng it can sometimes feel like instant semantic satiation, that phenomenon whereby repeatedly hearing or seeing a word renders it uncannily meaningles­s, its letters devolving into unintellig­ible runes.

But it’s exactly these properties that kindle and sustain Nelson’s interest in the concept of freedom. Indeed, she’s a writer deeply drawn to in-betweens, uncertaint­ies, and the way language bends and morphs in tandem with us, materially shaping our experience of the world and vice versa. Such concerns were central to “The Argonauts,” her many-awardwinni­ng 2015 memoir about fluidity in the body and the home, as well as her other acclaimed, genre-twisting works, among them “Bluets,” “The Art of Cruelty” and “Jane: A Murder.” In “On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint,” Nelson again brings a deliberate sense of indetermin­acy to her project. While the subject might lend itself to didacticis­m, Nelson is explicit (notable, in this hyperpolit­icized time) that her words “do not diagnose a crisis of freedom and propose a means of fixing it (or us), nor do they take political freedom as their main focus.” Instead, Nelson embraces the shape-shifting nature of the concept — and its metaphysic­al, even spiritual associatio­ns — envisionin­g freedom as “a reusable train ticket, marked or perforated by the many stations, hands, and vessels through which it passes.” With this in mind, she invites readers to travel with her — and the dozens of other thinkers who enrich her prose — along the serpentine track.

Ever attuned to inversion and instabilit­y, Nelson nimbly parses the “knot of freedom and unfreedom” without reflexivel­y championin­g the former or condemning the latter. To do so, she delves into the complexiti­es of the “freedom drive” in four realms: art, sex, drugs and the climate crisis. She devotes an expansive essay to each, exploring how notions of liberation and limitation collide and commingle in the culture, “producing marbled experience­s of compulsion, discipline, possibilit­y, and surrender.”

In the book’s opening essay, “Art Song,” Nelson takes up recent debates over art deemed harmful or illegitima­te, because of the content of the work or the identity of the maker, or both; for example, White artist Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till, which incited protests at the 2017 Whitney Biennial. Nelson elegantly examines how the freedom to object to art we might deem ethnically nefarious sits beside “the homogenizi­ng logic of paranoia” that presumes a singular reading or equates a “violent” piece of art with actual violence. “Art that makes some people feel sick makes others feel sane or enlivened; art that some people find irredeemab­ly toxic, others find to be a cherished source of inspiratio­n or catharsis,” she writes, suggesting that the multitudin­ous nature of art is precisely where its freedom, both legally and emotionall­y, resides.

The essay “The Ballad of Sexual Optimism” interrogat­es similarly thorny issues, from consent and coercion to the variegated sweep of sexual preference­s. Nelson moves assertivel­y beyond much of the orthodoxy of the #MeToo era, considerin­g power as an inevitable (and often sexy) component of sex, and how freedom and agency in the sexual realm can look “nonsoverei­gn.” She describes, with particular clarity and passion, coming of age during the AIDS epidemic, when “forging a commitment to sex positivity was not about downgradin­g the feminist or queer liberatory missions of the ’60s and ’70s to a tinny, neoliberal version of empowermen­t. It was about insisting, in the face of viciously bigoted moralists who didn’t care if you lived or died (many preferred that you died), that you had every right to your life force and sexual expression, even when the culture was telling you that your desire was a death warrant.” Consequent­ly, Nelson counsels against historical­ly uninformed calls for sexual policing or narrow definition­s of “ethical sex,” which risk reinforcin­g “the flawed dichotomie­s of innocent/guilty, dangerous/ not-dangerous, disposable/worthy, upon which the carceral state depends.”

Such dichotomie­s stalk the realm of drugs, too, and in “Drug Fugue,” Nelson again seeks to complicate and destabiliz­e, scoping the canon of literature about substances for the “flickering showcase it offers of our conjoined urges toward freedom and unfreedom, self-consolidat­ion and dissolutio­n, interiorit­y and sociality, control and abandon.” From “Madame Bovary” and “Naked Lunch” to Ellen Miller’s “Like Being Killed,” whose protagonis­t embarks on an excruciati­ng regimen of drugs and BDSM sex in pursuit of “auto-exterminat­ion,” Nelson ponders the “legitimate desire to feel high” alongside the snare of addiction. Of “famous addicts who double as feminist icons,” like Courtney Love and Billie Holiday, she writes, “We don’t need to put big contradict­ory messes into a machine and extrude either liberation or failure,” an idea she underscore­s with sparing but powerful testimony about her own path to sobriety. “Drugs can grant nearly matchless access to feeling free while simultaneo­usly working, over time, to diminish the space in a life for practices of freedom.”

In the book’s last essay, “Riding the Blinds,” Nelson surveys how the climate crisis provides new opportunit­ies to contend with freedom’s paradoxes and reimagine limitation as liberatory. The language of freedom suffuses climate denialism, with modificati­ons to fossil fuel use framed as “a plot to steal American freedoms,” and repurposed slogans like “Give me liberty or give me death” implying that a suicidal course is preferable to cutting emissions. Given this rhetoric, it’s tempting to pit the drillhappy freedom-lovers against the obliging stewards of the Earth, though, as Nelson writes, “neither helps us seize the moment to shed some of freedom’s more exhausted — and toxic — tropes and myths, or to experiment with its next iterations.” We could, as Bill McKibben has argued, embrace our uniquely human capacity to truly restrain ourselves — to not extract, to do less — a terrain of freedom whose frontier we’ve yet to cross.

Throughout “On Freedom,” Nelson returns to the notion of freedom as not some future event, a day of reckoning or an “apocalypti­c showdown,” as economist Frédéric Lordon has it, after which the world will be forever changed — language that chaperones freedom across the political spectrum — but rather as a practice, current and ongoing. It’s a slant that makes possible anthropolo­gist David Graeber’s insistence on “acting as if one is already free.” If Nelson is advocating for anything, it’s that the practice of freedom should be spacious enough for its contradict­ions, its reversals, its sprawling expression­s, its ragged edges; getting comfortabl­e with this complexity is essential to finding our way through it.

Many will be soothed, nourished, even thrilled by this propositio­n, which, for a book about a term as loaded as “freedom,” is refreshing­ly flexible. Embrace ambivalenc­e! Dwell in the muck! Others, though, will find it to be a capitulati­on or an easy way out. What good is circuitous contemplat­ion and “thinking aloud with others” without taking a clear, resolute stance, especially in the face of immediate, tangible and copious assaults on basic freedoms, from voting to privacy to reproducti­on? I suspect that Nelson anticipate­s such reactions, even welcomes them, as is her style. For “On Freedom” is ultimately a book that asks us to boldly and generously enter the minefield, to pick up what we find useful, to be pushed and provoked, to polish and discard and reinvent, and then to decide, alone and, ideally, in communion, where to go next.

Meara Sharma writes about culture and the environmen­t and is the editor in chief of Adi, a literary magazine of global politics.

 ?? HARRy DODGE ?? Poet and critic Maggie Nelson explores the concept of freedom in the areas of art, sex, drugs and the climate crisis.
HARRy DODGE Poet and critic Maggie Nelson explores the concept of freedom in the areas of art, sex, drugs and the climate crisis.
 ?? By Maggie Nelson Graywolf. 288 pp. $27 ?? ON FREEDOM Four Songs of Care and Constraint
By Maggie Nelson Graywolf. 288 pp. $27 ON FREEDOM Four Songs of Care and Constraint

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