What Freedom Means to Maggie Nelson

The American poet and essayist Maggie Nelson explores climate change, art, sexuality, and liberty in her new book 'On Freedom'.

Credit: Tom Atwood

Maggie Nelson’s tenth book presents altogether differently from its predecessors. Almost everything about it is longer: the page count, the paragraphs, the notes. This is not of a piece with the slim, explosive volumes of The Argonauts, The Red Parts, The Art of Cruelty, and Bluets, which won her such a devoted following worldwide. On Freedom addresses that particularly American inflection of freedom, embattled and contested as its meaning may be, and explores it through the topics of art, sex, drugs, and climate change.

There is the same concern for the permutation of words’ meaning which formed the central, titular concern of The Argonauts (Roland Barthes’s exploration of the perpetual repair and reconstruction of the ship Argo, and how it still remained the same ship). ‘[O]n the pages that follow’, Nelson writes in her introduction, ‘“freedom” acts as a reusable train ticket, marked or perforated by the many stations, hands, and vessels through which it passes’. A key distinction she makes early on is ‘freedom from’ versus ‘freedom to’: freedom from big government or murderous police; freedom to not wear a mask or have sex with whomsoever one pleases.

Nelson is quick to acknowledge the link between slavery and freedom in Western thought, and how the two concepts have evolved together since the Enlightenment. ‘[W]hite people have, for centuries, cannily deployed the discourse of freedom to delay, diminish, or deny it to others.’ Ta-Nehisi Coates puts it more lyrically when he writes, in an essay on Kanye West quoted by Nelson, of ‘the freedom of suburbs drawn with red lines’. Much of what we think of as our freedom under current conditions is also a con, Nelson reminds us:

‘feeling free and empowered while, say, uploading all our personal information into a corporate surveillance state; driving fast in a gasoline-powered car whose emissions are contributing to the foreclosure of planetary life; partying hard at Pride while leaving mountains of ocean-killing plastic in one’s wake; writing a book about feeling free while corrupt, genocidal racists push us toward autocracy… could all seem the delusions of a tool.’

And, fundamentally, we are not free from one another: ‘the question is not whether we are enmeshed, but how we negotiate, suffer, and dance with that enmeshment.’ Within art, Nelson cautions, we must take care that ‘creative freedom’ does not slip into ‘white creative freedom’ (as seen in the 2017 controversies of Dana Schutz’s Open Casket and Sam Durant’s sculpture Scaffold). When it comes to sex, we must be free to face its risks (and not airbrush female sexuality from the scene, as with many #MeToo stories); drugs best exemplify the tension between freedom from and freedom to; and climate throws into sharp relief our obligation towards—our enmeshment with—other people, children, the non-human.

The quotations are longer and more numerous than her previous non-academic books (figures cited range from Donna Haraway, Guy McPherson, or David Wallace-Wells to some of Nelson’s familiar favourites, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Donald Winnicott). At times, one loses the sense of Nelson’s presence altogether. There are numbered endnotes too: a tacit statement of intent that this book is quite different from her others. The effect is to make On Freedom feel lacking in the freewheeling lyricism, the lightness of touch, the bolt-from-the-blue quality of, say, The Red Parts or The Art of Cruelty, and more like a series of lectures delivered in an academic setting – and not the kind you can later broadcast on the radio.

Her other books aren’t exactly easy, but they offer a thrilling blend of autobiography and theory which pole-vaults across registers (‘autotheory’ is a genre that Nelson is credited with developing). They enter you at one level of the mind, and then percolate over time. The first time I read The Argonauts, I felt the thrill of so much of it flying over my head; I then had the delight of feeling it settle and sift over years. With their marginal citations (Argonauts) and backmatter ‘credits’ (Bluets), her books set me onto whole new avenues of exploration and reading.

When I returned to Argonauts in preparation for this piece, I was struck by how much my own thinking had changed since, both by the text and the other texts it had put me on to. I noticed a self-centring tendency in Nelson which left the trace of a sour taste in my mouth. It was as if the book, which had made a huge impact when I first read it, had equipped me to outgrow it, or parts of it, like one of the ‘many-gendered mothers’ (Dana Ward’s phrase) it lauds – and this is always what it had intended. Today, what seizes me most about it is the liberating way it lifts the imperative of teleology—the sense of an obligation to chronological linearity, of passing on, of inheriting, of child-rearing as its means—straight out of the picture, like the spine out of a cooked fish. Nelson applies the same thinking to our ways of conceptualising climate change:

The field [of climate discourse] is teeming with narrative concerns, be they about genre (Are we living in an apocalypse? A horror story? A tragedy? A fable? A farce? A typology?), origin stories (“It was April 1784, when James Watt patented the steam engine”), the problem of not knowing how the story ends or develops […] even the value of storytelling itself.

Instead, she suggests, we might find it better to drop ‘all story lines, including progressive ones, which pin their hopes on the arc of history moving toward justice.’ None of us ever live long enough to see how the story really pans out. ‘Indeed, there may be no whole story. […] Our brains may be hardwired to produce story as a means of organising space and time, but that doesn’t mean that story is the only mode available to us in experiencing our lives.’ Sadly, this is a rare moment when Nelson appears to be allowing her immense intellect to limber up for a further exploration (what might our non-narrative imaginings be like?), but one which never comes.

There are fewer windows into Nelson’s life, too, than in her previous work, and those we do get are quite pedestrian (‘I spend about 95 percent of each day warning my kids about everything from UV rays to creepy Lyft drivers to fentanyl’). Of course, the emphasis on ‘memoir’ in work by women can limit it, be a paternalistic slap down in disguise, but all this is to say that there is a marked absence of the lucidity and honesty, of beloved earlier books. This book, by contrast, seeks to join the ranks of those it cites so densely, and falls short there too.