Free Fallin’

On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint by maggie nelson. minneapolis: graywolf press. 288 pages. $27.

The cover of On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint

THE PRIMARY PROBLEM with freedom is that it’s impossible for everyone to have at the same time. Even circumscribed freedoms intersect, impose, and oppose, as conflicts about speech, masks, and vaccines remind us daily. “If and when we ascertain that our well-being is linked to the behavior of others, the desire to impugn, control, or change them can be as fruitless as it is intense,” writes Maggie Nelson in On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint, her attempt to probe the question of “how to forge a fellowship . . . that does not reflexively pit freedom against obligation.” The book was born of her desire to reclaim the word from the right wing while resisting rhetoric from the left that “condition[s] us into thinking of freedom as a future achievement rather than as an unending present practice.”

She explores freedom and care in four arenas: sex, drugs, art, and climate change. The connection between these essays is mostly theoretical, and there’s not much cross-referencing between them, no clear argument that applies to both sex and art, say, or drugs and climate change. In the introduction, Nelson suggests each essay is concerned with “methods by which we feel and know that other ways of being are possible.” Instead of prescriptions, she’s interested in what she calls the “felt complexities of the freedom drive.” If this sounds somewhat scattered, that’s part of the point. Freedom, in Nelson’s view, requires developing “a greater tolerance for indeterminacy.”

Nelson is a distinctive thinker who has proven herself capable of impressive insight about indeterminacy, as in Jane: A Murder, a book about how she and her family lived in the wake of her aunt’s long unsolved killing. So her attention to these topics may be cheering news for readers fatigued by the reductive, self-serving, dishonest nature of “cancel culture” discourse, as well as the penchant for pile-ons and ostracization that blights many social ecosystems (the internet, universities, workplaces). Prior to winning a MacArthur grant in 2016, Nelson was a poet, critic, and memoirist who made her name with Bluets, an enduringly popular book on romantic love and sexual fixation, and The Art of Cruelty, an investigation of violence in art. Her 2015 best seller The Argonauts expanded her following, and confirmed her stature as one of the most respected writers working today. In it, she revisited the subject matter of love, mutability, and generation through the lens of her marriage, an impending birth, and parenthood.

Nelson can leverage her lyric sensibility to marvelous effect when she writes about people who matter to her, as happens sporadically in On Freedom. But the general absence of autobiographical narrative in the book inadvertently reveals the trouble with her dialectical approach. Her preferred method is one of synthesis and accretion, putting quotes and observations in fragmentary conversation with one another. In Bluets and The Argonauts, Nelson could fractalize ideas and desires in a literal dialogue, an exchange between two people—herself and her lover(s)—with differing perspectives and priorities, and she held a distinct position. But in On Freedom, she is the sole source of intellectual tension and hesitant to commit to any stance without an excess of caveats and concessions. The resulting equivocation stalls her rhetoric. Rather than stating what she means, she errs on the side of caution and emphasizes what she doesn’t. The use of fragments, too, felt better suited to the emotional gravity and interiority of her more intimate work. But in this latest work of criticism, the instinct to break as often as to link works against her. A traditional essay shape would force transitions and connections; here, short sections stand alone, as if complete, yet don’t cohere.

Prevarication is especially relentless in the first chapter, “Art Song.” Nelson identifies the genesis of this section as an invitation for her to join a 2016 museum panel about “the aesthetics of care” and her subsequent reaction: “yuck.” Though she’s appalled by a world in which people are “aggressively, often punishingly uncared for,” and agrees broadly with the politics behind the topic’s framing, she writes that for her art is the wrong place to turn: “In fact, I’ve often felt that art’s not caring for me is precisely what gives me the space to care about it.” Nelson maintains that an artwork’s so-called meaning cannot—and should not—line up with our desires for it. This makes care “a much trickier rallying cry . . . than it may initially appear.” To illustrate this point, she takes two controversies from 2017 as case studies: artist Hannah Black’s request that the Whitney remove Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till’s body, Open Casket, from its Biennial show; and the dismantling of Sam Durant’s sculpture Scaffold, with his participation and consent, after protest from local Native Americans, among others.

I read “Art Song” at least a half dozen times to identify the source of my unease and dissatisfaction, which turned out to be the disjunction between these two examples and the chapter’s key points. For instance, Nelson claims that the arguments used to limit hate speech are disastrous when applied to art, in part because the audience “generally must seek it out” as opposed to being forcibly exposed to it. But as she acknowledges in an endnote, “Durant’s work was a large sculptural installation visible to the public from a distance, so it became part of people’s lives who didn’t choose to seek it out.” She also summons a hypothetical audience that is pleased Durant decided “to have a sculpture destroyed” rather than “succumb to external pressure.” Later, she clarifies that Durant “rejected the idea that he had ‘little choice’ but to acquiesce” and “casting doubt on his account of his agency. . . isn’t my wont.”

Contradiction recurs when Nelson says she sees “Durant’s engagement with the Dakota as a . . . rousing tale of the possibilities of protest, dialogue, and resolution,” only to wave that away by adding, “It also seems foolish not to acknowledge . . . the current environment is capable of putting intense, sometimes menacing pressure on individual artists.” These juxtapositions create integral chaos. If the current environment is capable of menacing individual artists—but not Sam Durant, and presumably not Dana Schutz either, whose work remained on display despite Black’s letter—why not use a more illustrative instance instead? If Durant’s engagement with his critics is a story of mutual success, why is it presented in a context of “menacing” forces? Nelson may want this situation to serve as both triumph and cautionary tale—an example of how to see deeply, with nuance—but I was unconvinced. Maybe that was because I’m also unconvinced of the benefit in abstracting possibilities that conflict with the reality of the example.

When it comes to Black’s argument, Nelson never quite explains her objections. Instead, she connects the letter to other people’s complaints, offering a tour of “certain arguments that recur in attempts to curtail” space for art, including those by conservatives like the Catholic League’s Bill Donohue. Black’s connection to these discussions is abstract, at best, but Nelson also quotes writers like Zadie Smith, who were critical of Black, without quoting Black much at all, aside from the refrain “the painting must go”—which, of course, it did not.

Nelson also suggests that protesting institutions like the Whitney could end up “reifying [their] power.” This is like saying that boycotts of stores selling Trump products reified the stores’ power, or that a corporation’s reach is increased when a union asks the general public to support their strike. The Whitney displayed the piece and Black believed the piece should not be displayed; where else should she have directed the request? Despite “Art Song”’s lip service to the right to voice “discontent,” my impression is that Nelson thinks Black’s request should not have been made at all.

Most galling, perhaps, is Nelson’s refusal to take seriously art’s role in the concentration of wealth, or of the power such wealth confirms. Such a glaring oversight, coupled with her argument that critics like Black are “holding art to a utilitarian standard [that] echoes capitalism’s own fixation on quantifiable results,” shakes the foundation of the entire chapter. This distorted perspective about who threatens whom, or what, and what that threat actually consists of, is endemic to established writers with lucrative careers and secure platforms. (Recently, and infamously, it was on display in “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate” in Harper’s Magazine.) Liberal opinions now often come with the claim, perhaps the sincere belief, that their originators are aligned with the people they rebuke—that they are anti-capitalist or anti-prison, pro–trans rights or pro–racial justice, and so on. But these gaps in analysis, which ignore the most urgent aspects of our present reality, guarantee that this isn’t so.

“No doubt [art’s protected political status] can and has been abused,” Nelson writes. “The question is whether the challenges posed by such turbulence lead us to want to whittle away at this amplitude, or continue to fight for it.” But is that the question? Neither Black nor the Dakota people’s protest of the respective offending artworks resulted in new laws or public fines or defunding of museums, nor were those the stated objectives. Durant and Schutz are still working, and the latter saw a marked increase in market demand for her work after Black’s letter. Black, for her part, was widely lambasted as a disingenuous opportunist.

Earlier in the book, Nelson asks readers to “divest from the habits of paranoia, despair, and policing.” But it’s debatable which is a better example of that paranoia: someone protesting a work of art, or Nelson writing thousands of words about the threat that could have been posed by the protest, but wasn’t. I, for one, found Black’s letter exhilarating, not because it filled me with vengeful glee but because it pushed against the status quo with exactitude and moral clarity. It expanded my sense of social possibility. It offered “magic—magic hard to come by elsewhere, and which can make life feel more worth living,” as Nelson writes of the art she implores us to leave alone. Black’s letter falls, without question, into Eileen Myles’s category of “the real and irregular news of how others around [us] think and feel,” though Nelson reserves this domain for fine art, and sets it in opposition to responses like Black’s and the Dakota people’s. So returns the familiar dilemma: one person’s freedom is another person’s frustration.

Mel Bochner, Enough Said, 2014, etching with aquatint, 22 1/4 x 30 1/4". Courtesy the artist and Two Palms
Mel Bochner, Enough Said, 2014, etching with aquatint, 22 1/4 x 30 1/4". Courtesy the artist and Two Palms

IN HER INTRODUCTION, Nelson quotes the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh’s words on attaining liberation through mindful breathing. But as I read On Freedom, I thought of a very different Nhat Hanh quote, from his conversation with Daniel Berrigan in The Raft Is Not the Shore: “If we do not rely on the people we get nowhere—but it depends on what kind of people you rely on. . . . I don’t believe in the intellectuals very much.” This comment has haunted me since I read it several years ago. As a teenager, I had an enthusiasm for trolley-problem-style “ethical” questions. One of my clearest high school memories involves being praised aloud to the class for an answer to a scenario in which a man stole medicine for his dying wife from a pharmacist who was charging an exorbitant price. (For the record, I was on the side of the husband.) As I aged, it became clearer that such ethical play was rotten: the questions it asked and those it didn’t, the conditions it accepted, the lavish attention to hypothetical examples of forces that occur with devastating specificity in the real world. Why were we treating pharmaceutical price gouging like a fantastical scenario from an imaginary universe instead of one happening daily, hourly, in our own? My concentration on “Art Song” may seem unfair—it is only one chapter of four, after all—but I dwell on it because it colored everything that came after. Once I saw this hole at the heart of the project, the rest was also undone.

It took digging to uncover the hole, though, patched as it was by what writer Patrick Blanchfield calls the “self-consciously reasonable” posture of liberals and centrists who “think ‘nuance’ simply means well-balanced clauses and appeals to their own ability to tolerate complexity in lieu of actually thinking.” On Freedom made me reflect, again, on the spell of white rationality and the fetishization of conceptual thought that swerves back into the realm of the theoretical rather than exit into the material. It is a book that leaves readers with no permissible action, only a patronizing invitation to manage their own feelings (as if their feelings are unfounded or unexamined by definition). “We have the freedom to protest works of art that we think harmful,” writes Nelson, presumably including Hannah Black and the Dakota people in her address. “We also have the freedom to find a piece of art repulsive, wrongheaded, implicated in injustice in naive or nefarious ways, without concluding that it threatens our well-being.” She uses the first-person plural frequently in the book, without clear delineation of who “we” includes. This seems like a crucial question for any discussion, but especially those about freedom and care.

It’s one thing to argue to the point of inaction as regards art, but the self-satisfied ability “to tolerate complexity” never stops there. (Earlier in their conversation, Berrigan says to Nhat Hanh, “one notices how intellectuals become servants of violence.”) For Nelson, careful deliberation is also the right choice when encountering a Nazi rally. “There seem to me legitimate arguments to be made for and against limiting the right of, say, armed Neo-Nazis to march in the streets chanting anti-Semitic slogans,” she writes in “Art Song.” (Italics added.)

Nazis come up again when Nelson expresses disapproval at “the resistance” for embracing “unprovoked physical assault,” proof of which she locates (as cited in an endnote) in anti-fascist Natasha Lennard’s essay about an anonymous person punching neo-Nazi Richard Spencer on the street. Spencer has openly, repeatedly, and unrepentantly advocated for what he calls ethnic cleansing, but Nelson sees Lennard’s pleasure in his suffering as the start of a slippery slope, one “that can lead to behaviors that mirror the disinhibited cruelty that’s come to be known as Trumpism.” Nelson warns against “taking delight in the unleashing of vitriol or bellicosity upon those whom we have deemed the appropriate bad object,” implying that this designation is capricious or misguided.

Shortly after, she borrows the words of Fred Moten to reject the “warped communal alienation in which people are tied together . . . by the bad feeling” and places her interest instead in “insubordinate conviviality and radical compassion.” She mentions this position earlier in the chapter, too, when she writes, “I remain devoted to radical compassion, and not the kind that waits for a call.” She links her stance once again to neo-Nazis, with citation of an essay about de-radicalizing white supremacists one-on-one, privately, versus responding with mass public confrontation. The author of that essay, Wes Enzinna, specifically said this approach was only intended for white supremacists already trying to escape their extremist circles; it would not work with someone like Richard Spencer. Sometimes, you actually do have to wait for the call—or, more accurately, recognize that the call for compassionate action is constant, and rarely comes from neo-Nazis.

Without action, there can be no solidarity, so when Nelson invokes the word in her climate-change chapter as a remedy for despair, it’s hard to take her seriously. Solidarity is not abstract or theoretical. It does not come into being simply through writing or speech. The other great insult of ethical acrobatics at my school was how rarely myself or my classmates were encouraged to stick a landing, to decide what we believed in and discern ways to live our lives in concert with those values. Burrowing into the effort of sprawling thought can feel laborious, but as Thich Nhat Hanh said, it’s nothing compared to organizing. For that, one must turn to those who “stick to the struggle,” the cab drivers and the “street merchants.” The intellectuals are not reliable. When it comes to showing up, “we have to count on [the] poor people.”

Charlotte Shane is a cofounder of TigerBee Press and a frequent contributor to Bookforum.