KATHLEEN ROONEY StarTribune
“On Freedom” by Maggie Nelson; Graywolf Press, 288 pages, $27.
Given that Maggie Nelson is known for expanding categories and defying genre expectations, it’s perhaps unsurprising that her latest book, the subtle but expansive “On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint,” takes for subject the quality or state of being free (if defined positively), or the power or condition of acting without coercion (if defined in relation to what it is not).
Although therein lies much of the appeal of this book, for what do we mean when we say freedom? “Part of the problem is the word itself, the meaning of which is not at all obvious or shared. In fact, it functions more like ‘God’, in that when we use it, we don’t we can never really know what, exactly, we’re talking about, or if we’re talking about the same thing,” Nelson wrote in his introduction.
The author of nine previous books – including, most recently, “The Argonauts”, winner of the National Book Critic’s Circle Award in 2015 – Nelson is a broad thinker, ethically conscious and concerned with balancing emotion with intellect. Far less memorial than “The Argonauts,” “On Freedom” is more culturally critical and philosophical, exploring its broad subject matter through the frameworks of art, sex, substance use, and climate change.
People also read…
Nelson’s applications of these restrictions to her seemingly limitless subject matter seem apt because – rather than offering a polemic or manifesto on personal or political freedom – she addresses “the ways in which freedom appears bound up with the so-called no -freedom, producing marbled experiences of constraint, discipline, possibility and surrender.”
In each of the four sections of the book – “Art Song”, “The Ballad of Sexual Optimism”, “Drug Fugue” and “Riding the Blinds” – Nelson grounds this subject, which tends toward heady abstraction, in concrete detail. All the while, she expresses her skepticism “about turning more and more arenas of life (teaching, activism, art) into care and therapy.”
Characteristically, Nelson’s text is replete with references to other writers and thinkers, juxtaposing his own observations with those of Foucault, Arendt, Baldwin, Rancière and many others. Additionally, “On Freedom” has 55 full pages of notes at the end, like a hallway of doors, all waiting to be opened and entered should the reader wish to delve further into the subject with Angela Davis, Lauren Berlant, Fred Moten, and Nietzsche. as guides, to name but a few.
Nelson currently teaches at the University of Southern California and builds on his previous experience teaching at CalArts, and reading this book feels like being in the presence of an inspiring teacher, someone who has a lot to show you, but ultimately wants to show you how to think for yourself.
“If giving freedom to harmful forces is a big mistake, so is sticking to rote, unventilated concepts with a white fist,” she explains of her motivations. At the end of his theory, Nelson breathed fresh air into the notion of title and, in his open treatment, gave his readers a chance to consider freedom more freely.
Kathleen Rooney is the author of “Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk” and, most recently, “Dear Friend and Major Whittlesey”.