“Taking Liberties”: Four Views of Maggie Nelson’s On Freedom, a review by Ben Lewellyn-Taylor

1. What It Is

In her 2011 book The Art of Cruelty, Maggie Nelson argued that “true moral complexity is rarely found in simple reversals. More often it is found by wading into the swamp, getting intimate with discomfort, and developing an appetite for nuance.” Her latest, On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint, acts as a spiritual successor to The Art of Cruelty, grappling with multiple configurations of freedom, unfreedom, and between, in pursuit of “a greater tolerance for indeterminacy.” Exploring four categories—art, sex, drugs, and climate—Nelson contends with ideas about each through a discursive model that often finds her wading through others’ ideas in search of her own.

One ethos of criticism might be to treat a work for what it is: what are its aims, and how well does it hit them? But Nelson’s newest foray into criticism, and the subsequent critical response to it, proves that criticism doesn’t exist in a vacuum. There are other voices to tend to than the work at hand. Ignoring them is not the end of all discourse: we each have reactions to what we consume (influenced as they are by a range of factors outside of ourselves) and the reviews that arrive alongside a book’s publication date weren’t traded between critics before populating the Internet. But inviting other voices in may serve to deepen the work or the critic’s own voice, a sense of oneself as a thinker in the world. Thus, this “review” may be better seen as several views of Nelson’s work in relation to one of her longtime readers.

2. Don’t Stop the Music

Like The Art of Cruelty, On Freedom only occasionally treats Nelson as a subject, with pockets of personal narrative shining through in glimmers. In her essay on climate, Nelson understands that surrendering in the face of global warming is an ever-present temptation that she is not immune to, but that her “desire for the bad news—‘give it to me straight, Doc’—reflects my own craving for an end to indeterminacy, an end to negotiating the interregnum between being born and dying—an end, that is to say, to the problem of living.” Giving up on an unsolved—and likely unsolvable—problem is one form of freedom, Nelson concedes, but it is nothing like the freedom of trying anyway.

Admissions like this one, steeped in the confessional mode, have made Nelson’s name practically synonymous with the critical form popular today, wherein an author moves between and often blurs the personal and analytical voice. Nelson is most known for her 2015 hybrid work of memoir and criticism, The Argonauts, as well as her 2009 hybrid work of lyric and philosophy, Bluets. Those books are likely what we talk about when we talk about Nelson.

But On Freedom only dabbles in this realm, often far more content to stick with analysis. Critics have already pointed to its almost singular academic tone, which occasionally finds Nelson flattening the voices she invites to the page. As noted in Charlotte Shane’s Bookforum review, the subtitle’s reference to the essays as “songs” is curious, given that Nelson’s previous work is far more lyrical.

Here, Nelson seems more inclined to play others’ songs, plinking keys to test out sounds, if only to decide she likes this note but not that one. Criticism isn’t one thing, and Nelson is obviously free to diverge from her résumé. Treating the book for what it is might preclude one from mourning the lack of hybridity or memoiristic voice, since it does not aim at those targets. But Nelson’s canon is another voice in conversation with this one, and its echoes left me wishing she had given that voice more room to sing.

3. True Stories

And yet.

Although Nelson’s four essays don’t explicitly link to one another, a key aim of each is to trouble the notion of a single story. “We tend to grow tired of our stories over time,” Nelson writes, “we tend to learn from them what they have to teach, then bore of their singular lens.” This quote, from “The Ballad of Sexual Optimism,” problematizes the societal push for women coming forward with allegations of sexual abuse to appear as pure victims without desire. But it could just as well relate to “Drug Fugue,” where Nelson argues that the tendency to demonize drug use comes at the expense of a range of experiences: drugs can be freeing, and so can sobriety. Nelson relates that she has experienced both freedom and unfreedom through each.

“Interpretation is never a static activity,” Nelson argues in the essay on sex. Over the span of our lifetimes, “we often find the stories we have been telling ourselves don’t work any longer; we find we need to change them, so that they can do different work for us, accommodate new sets of knowledge and insight. It is in this sense that there is no such thing as a true story.” Nelson doesn’t mean there aren’t facts we can weigh in the consideration of consent and non-consent, but that we don’t have to make our identities, desires, and relations simple or singular in order to understand them. Beyond binaries we find freedom.

Later, in her essay on climate, Nelson goes further: “Maybe there’s no story at all. Our brains may be hardwired to produce story as a means of organizing space and time, but that doesn’t mean the story is the only mode available to us in experiencing our lives.” If the planet is indeed doomed, the idea of a future freedom that will never arrive doesn’t help us to face the problem of living today and taking some action toward reducing our carbon footprints. Losing sight of a narrative arc might free us to become more active in the here and now.

4. 2+2 = 5

In pushing against static interpretation, Nelson points to another facet of criticism, that of the dynamic experience of thinking. Once these words go to print, they are the ones that will be crystallized as my impression of Nelson’s book. But even as I write, I find I’m unable to settle on one impression. While I wish for more personal musings from Nelson, my rereading reveals more of them than I initially remembered. While I agreed with certain of Nelson’s propositions, Andrea Long Chu’s critiques of Nelson as misreading her interlocutors lessened my trust. Nelson often argues that we’re having the wrong conversation, while some of her critics argue that Nelson herself is staging the wrong conversation. Where to go?

Capital-D Discourse around anything today can be frustrating, an endless cycle of Internet hot takes that can make one feel adrift from one’s own perspective, scrolling through Twitter threads sent by friends to try to understand, What am I supposed to think about this? But it shouldn’t be an easy answer, handed down by others.

Nelson writes of freedom not as some single future event, but an “unending present practice, something already going on.” As she states in her intro, criticism itself is a “patient labor” that offers opportunities to vacillate between “emancipation and constraint.” I wrote with the intent of freeing myself from a traditional book review. I conclude with the knowledge that I did and did not succeed, that I’m talking with myself now and in some unpromised future when I might feel free to change my mind all over again. With On Freedom, Nelson continues to trouble my thought process. That’s at least one thing I’m sure she gets right.

On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint, by Maggie Nelson. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Graywolf Press, September 2021. 288 pages. $27.00, hardcover.

Ben Lewellyn-Taylor lives in Dallas, TX. He is an MFA student in Antioch University’s low-residency program. His essays and reviews appear in New SouthNo Contact, and New Critique, among others.

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