On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint by Maggie Nelson - review by Joanna Kavenna

Joanna Kavenna

In Defence of Ambivalence

On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint


Jonathan Cape 277pp £20

The last book I read with ‘Freedom’ in the title was a novel by Jonathan Franzen. I read it because I’d been jolted by one of Franzen’s previous novels, The Corrections, in which the protagonist nips out just before lunch, leaving his parents with a poached salmon. Then he gets distracted for a hundred pages, which made me very worried. What about his parents, waiting to eat the fish? His freedom was clearly not theirs; at least, his freedom to wander the streets of New York was highly incompatible with their freedom to eat lunch at a reasonable time. Maggie Nelson’s book is quite different. There is no salmon. It is a very serious and beautiful book about why ‘freedom’ has become such a vexed term, deployed so often in scenarios where it really means the opposite.

Nelson is an award-winning essayist and poet, whose previous works include a collection of aphorisms mainly about the colour blue, Bluets; two books about the murder of her aunt, Jane: A Murder and The Red Parts; a meditation on violence and art, The Art of Cruelty; and perhaps her best-known book, The Argonauts, about love, pregnancy and motherhood, among other things. People often say that Nelson’s work defies genre but this is the least interesting aspect of her writing – since around 1910 (with apologies to Woolf), defying genre has been a genre in itself. More interesting is the boundlessly inventive way Nelson deals with questions of authority and fragility, or how to say anything at all when reality has gone AWOL.

Nelson asks: what do we mean when we speak of freedom? ‘Positive freedom? Anarchist freedom? Marxist freedom? Abolitionist freedom? Libertarian freedom?’ All or none of the above? She wonders if people are losing their appetite for freedom, citing James Baldwin: ‘I have met only a very few people … who had any real desire to be free.’ She is opposed to ‘criticizing, refusing, or vilifying the discourse of freedom’ simply because ‘bigots and thugs’ use the term as well. Yet her book does not ‘diagnose a crisis of freedom and propose a means of fixing it’. Instead, she wants to discuss the ‘complexities of the freedom drive in four distinct realms – sex, art, drugs, and climate – wherein the coexistence of freedom, care, and constraint seems to me particularly thorny and acute’.

In fact, ‘thorny and acute’ is a good description of the book, and this is Nelson’s fundamental point. She wants to free herself – and the reader – from ‘today’s tinny stereotypes of bully and snowflake, target and troll, defender and supporter, perpetrator and victim’. She asks us to be ‘unafraid of the contaminations of ambivalence’, to go beyond the ‘dead-end binaries of like/don’t like, denunciation/coronation – what Sedgwick called the “good dog/bad dog rhetoric of puppy obedience school”’. Nelson’s subtitle is ‘Four Songs of Care and Constraint’, but it might have been ‘In Defence of Ambivalence’ – though this would probably have caused her publisher to have a small nervous breakdown. For Nelson, the notion that everything must have a single meaning ‘echoes capitalism’s own fixation on quantifiable results’. While big tech companies seek to simplify our desires, ostensibly to fulfil them, Nelson finds reality a lot more complex and inchoate:

Each of us has our own particular body, mind, history, and soul to get to know, with all our particular kinks, confusions, traumas, aporias, legacies, orientations, sensitivities, abilities, and drives.

This is Nelson on sex, but it applies to all the themes she approaches. ‘One has to find one’s way,’ she writes, and ‘if one is so vulnerable to what others say or think in a world drunk on scapegoating, virtue signaling, and public humiliation that one cowers, overcompromises, or petrifies, that’s a problem.’ Equally, ‘if one cultivates a habit of righteously disparaging or ganging up on others in the name of justice or the reparative, that’s a problem.’ She recalls teaching at CalArts, where the stated ethos was that no work could be censored, no one ‘shut down’ and ‘we had to learn how to communicate our pleasures and displeasures differently’. She adds:

Many of the artists and thinkers I’ve drawn on in these pages have experienced some sort of ‘takedown’ or another; in fact, this book has taken so long that some have moved through their takedown phase into the category of ‘problematic fave,’ a term I despise … because it presumes there are human beings who are or could ever be ‘nonproblematic.’

Nelson takes a broadly similar view on drugs, quoting Emerson to argue that we can empathise with the desire to ‘forget ourselves, to be surprised out of our propriety’ without actively urging everyone to head off to the nearest crackhouse. And, while acknowledging the dire effects of climate change, Nelson wonders if the environmental movement can find a ‘space in the middle’ between ‘the binary of “fucked” or “not fucked”’. Throughout, she urges us to dispense with utopian and dystopian absolutes, to let go of our hopes for the ‘big night’ and instead ride ‘the blinds’, not knowing precisely where we are going, most of the time.

I don’t agree with everything Nelson says in this book: for example, I wonder if at times she accords artists more non-negotiable freedoms than ‘normies’ (in other words, non-artists). Artists are mostly the rich in any given era, people who can afford to ‘do art’. Then again, Nelson doesn’t agree with everything she says either: she equivocates dynamically around each argument, illuminating grey areas and uncertainties. Her further point is that the reader, all readers, will disagree with her at times: we are wildly different and our words are neither fixed nor mathematical. Freedom, by the way, shares the same root as ‘friend’, and I kept thinking about this as I read, because Nelson is such a friend to her reader, such brilliant company. Her book is a nuanced, exhilarating rallying cry for all those who are tired of the drab norms of our tech-topia and who long for another conversation.

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