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What does it mean to be free?

Freedom, Maggie Nelson suggests, is not achieved by getting out and leaving behind but rather staying with and moving through

Maggie Nelson is the author of “On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint.”harry dodge

In “Drug Fugue,” the third of four “songs” that make up Maggie Nelson’s “On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint,” Nelson quotes philosopher Brian Massumi: “Freedom always arises from constraint — it’s a creative conversion of it, not some utopian escape from it.” Freedom, Nelson suggests here and elsewhere in the book, is not achieved by getting out and leaving behind but rather staying with and moving through. “On Freedom” tests this very stance: rather than define freedom in exact terms or declare what it is for, Nelson moves through knots of ideology on freedom via “songs” of art, sex, drugs, and climate, drawing conclusions — some wild, some that readers might find regressive — that obliterate the binary of freedom vs. constraint.

Nelson has had a steady career as a critic, though her readership exploded with “The Argonauts” largely for its confessional content and the liquid manner in which her personal narrative slid in around Nelson’s theory on gender and parenthood. Her also-beloved poetic text “Bluets,” much like “On Freedom,” took on a seemingly simple idea — the color blue — that she promptly detonated; its most exciting moments were those in which her autobiography emerged from the color. There are few such moments in the decidedly critical “On Freedom.” Four cerebral essays comprise a text that the reader must stay with in order to allow any personal consensus on freedom to coalesce.


Nelson’s final “song” on climate, “Riding the Blinds,” gives “On Freedom” its clearest ring in terms of message: as our current and future states of climate emergency make plain, when given unfettered freedom to satisfy its immediate, unexamined desires, humankind may well destroy itself. Some constraint during the early awareness of climate change would surely have yielded more freedoms for more people with a healthier, longer planetary health; this point is inarguable to those of us who believe in science. Leaving off on this note clearly marks “On Freedom” as a rallying cry for constraint, the shadow of which then falls backwards over the previous chapters.

Nelson’s discussions of art and sex land with less finality, and in these chapters Nelson’s irritation with the current discourse is difficult to ignore. In “Art Song” and “The Ballad of Sexual Optimism” Nelson falls back on a pattern of syntax that acknowledges the current “woke” position on an issue followed by “but” or “and yet,” and I imagined her rolling her eyes every time she typed out a current talking point to prove she was caught up on the script before advancing her own more nuanced analysis.


In contrast to even a decade ago, when most calls to limit freedom of artistic or sexual expression came from the right, we are in the midst of “a discourse about when and how certain transgressions in art [or sex] should be ‘called out’ and ‘held accountable,’ with the twist that now the so-called left is often cast — rightly or wrongly — in the repressive, punitive position,” Nelson argues, while the right has claimed freedom as their rallying cry. This is a problem for freedom. Nelson doesn’t disavow the current ideology of the left, but does decry its absolutism as a flattening of the discussion that prevents us from seeing ideas all the way through. Art, as Nelson reminds us via Susan Sontag, “doesn’t exist to amplify or exemplify our preexisting tastes, values, or predilections…there’s a difference between going to art with the hope that it will reify a belief or value what we already hold, and feeling angry when it doesn’t, and going to art to see what it’s doing.” Nelson makes a strong case for recalculating our positions on freedom with her own guiding principles of “openness,” “nuance,” “context,” and “indeterminacy” as a more genuine path to progress.


These lessons are well received, but not until the third song, “Drug Fugue,” did I recognize the joyous version of Maggie Nelson with her deliciously reckless-seeming record of thought. In “Drug Fugue” Nelson tests unlikely stances: What if we considered self-obliteration in the form of willful addiction to a drug (be it heroin or testosterone) a fruitful practice of freedom? Nelson gathers addiction and drug theory along with sleepers from the canon of the “literature of intoxication,” including novels “After Claude” by Iris Owens and “Like Being Killed” by Ellen Miller, and passes along to the reader the theorist’s pleasure of herding contradictions into lucid argument. In a rare generalization, Nelson declares that “The urge to transgress, to stray from normative boundaries of self, law, and society — to ‘allow the emancipation of the subject,’ up to and including self-resistance and the annihilation of ego — are enduring and legitimate human desires, shared by all people of all kinds, in all places, throughout time.” Transgression is clearly a practice of freedom dear to Nelson’s heart.


“On Freedom” proves that Nelson continues to do us a great service as a critic, which is to herself digest, and sometimes wrestle with, copious amounts of literature and theory, some of which is infuriating to read (Paul Preciado, Jacques Derrida, et al.), and to integrate this material into a relatively short book, in an accessible, felicitous voice all Nelson’s own. There are no hot takes in “On Freedom.” While hot takes are satisfying, they rarely finish the job. If you want to get your hands around something as vast and slippery as freedom, you are going to have to get comfortable moving through an ideological briar patch. “On Freedom” offers navigation tips, but Nelson’s call to action is a journey that readers must take on their own.

On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint

By Maggie Nelson

Graywolf, 288 pages, $27

Alden Jones’s most recent book is The Wanting Was a Wilderness: Cheryl Strayed’s Wild and the Art of Memoir.