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Breathing Out

By Kate Greenberg

On Freedom

Maggie Nelson, Jonathan Cape, 2021

‘I have always loved this line’. When Maggie Nelson touches, even for a moment, on a work like Eve Sedgwick’s Fat Art, Thin Art, she presses it to her chest. This is what it is to read On Freedom, where sentences suddenly take the shape of talismans, of something you know you shall hold onto. After all, it is a book, at its heart, about the body: about how we might find it within us to position and reposition ourselves within our own skin, upon our own earth. A certain sobriety, heavier than I have ever before felt in Nelson’s work, attends its rigorous discussion of art, drugs, sex, and the environment. And yet, writing not in chapters, but in ‘songs’, Nelson is as feeling as ever. If The Argonauts — her most celebrated work, for which she won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2015, and a MacArthur ‘Genius Grant’ in 2016 — takes the reader on a voyage through criticism, myth, and memoir, On Freedom pushes on and on, crossing forms and genres like seas.

As it pushes through the wake of the Trump presidency, in time with the pandemic, and in anticipation of COP26, Nelson’s voice is urgent, and sometimes shaking: ‘What to say?’, ‘What now?’ Speechlessness may come as a surprise in a book whose title seems so sure of itself — even provocatively so — seeing as both historical and contemporary declarations of ‘freedom’ (‘That’s a white word’, a friend of Nelson is quoted in the introduction) have so often been simultaneous with the flagrant abuse of responsibility. But Nelson is keen to get right into the heart of that simultaneity, to sit in its discomfort, as she explores the possibility of practising a freedom which is not entirely free: one which refuses to disburden itself of care and obligation, of its ‘siblings and surroundings’. We are steered away from the illusion on the ‘horizon’, on the other, greener side of the grass: of something waiting behind the gate, if only we could open it. Instead, On Freedom studies the very gate, examining the design of its locks, testing its dimensions, and testing them again.

And so, Nelson’s analysis sets in motion the counsel of one of her lodestars, Judith Butler, about ‘working the trap one is inevitably in’: of attempting not to get outside of gravity, but into its very cogs. Giving voice to Brian Massumi’s call for ‘flipping’ constraint into ‘degrees’ of expanse, On Freedom has us understand revolution as a verb, as an ongoing revolving, in step with the earth. Indeed, as I turn the title over in my head, it strikes me how Nelson’s use of the preposition ‘On’ invokes a didactic tradition only to invert it: as to be ‘on’ is to dominate, and to depend, at the same time. It is to impress upon us the impossibility of anything like losing contact: the way in which our lives happen in each other’s lives, how we are always, inescapably abreast. And it is above all, Nelson’s intertextual dexterity — the way she reaches for other authors, like buoys, the way she lets them go — which palpably realises this sense of our own interwovenness.

On the spectrum of her work, On Freedom, with its more traditional form of analysis, feels near to The Art of Cruelty (2011). This isn't to say that there isn’t a sort of poetry preceding its arguments, occasioning their thoughtfulness. Nelson doesn’t resist the gut. Rather, her location of freedom within the limits and lineaments of the body is felt through the trajectory, through the negotiation, of a single sentence: ‘I’m writing all this with my cell phone positioned right next to the keyboard, so that if my son’s fever from yesterday returns I can drop everything and go pick him up.’ All this. Everything. It is a breathing out, a breathing in: Nelson tuning freedom, in real time, with care, with constraint.

This kind of candour cuts to the heart of the precariousness that is time given up to writing. We are present at Nelson’s very desk, as she takes us through her layering of various drafts and redrafts, the book itself enacting the ‘folded or intergenerational time’ which it analyses in its final song on the climate. After Nelson’s suggestion that we stop standing in awe of liberty, as if it were a statue, and instead try to see it as something to wrestle with, dance with, live with — it made sense to me to consider the book in line with this restlessness, this resistance to conventional narrative (the 'Afterword' remaining one its most alive and moving parts). The final song’s title, ‘Riding the Blinds’, explains its allusion to a metaphor employed by Stefano Harney and Fred Moten in their 2013 tableau, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study. An expression originating in the Blues, ‘riding the blinds’ embraces both the thrill and doom of fleeing almost certain capture, both the risk that is run and the possibility ventured in jumping on the back of a runaway train. The phrase reads also as an apt description of the twists and turns taken by Nelson as she records here a history of our feelings towards global warming. The way we cope with (or don’t cope with) rising pressures to reconsider and relinquish some of our oldest and dearest freedoms; the way that, for some bodies, these pressures are already much less metaphorical, much less deniable, than for others.

‘But what happens if we can’t arrange our thoughts exactly?’ — Nelson seems to ask. She calls upon us, at the very least, to better articulate our difficulties in coming to terms with an uncertain future: ‘It’s hard to drop the story line… when you’re staring each day at your whitening hair and bearing witness to the stunning dissolve of the polar ice caps. It’s hard when your kid is asking you point blank how we got into this mess.’ Here, and throughout, Nelson cannot help but return to the expanse, to the fragility of lyric refrain as a way of rocking along with uncertainty. I think of Ocean Vuong requesting in an interview that we don’t try to ‘possess’ his poems, nor unpick them as codes, but simply to enter and leave them. It seems a similarly small and yet herculean task, in On Freedom, to loosen our grip on what is to come, ‘to as best we can, not mind dying’. Nelson is sometimes close to sounding trite or aloof, but always closest to gentleness. I think it must be something about the rhyme of ‘mind’ and ‘dying’, which one swallows like a lump in the throat. Indeed, I feel that I most understand what Nelson is getting at about embracing the very slipperiness of words, and of a world like our own, in the moments where the most tenuous connections are completely enough: ‘when my son is explaining… how a realm differs from a world in Minecraft, and I’m distracted by noticing that his eyes look exactly as they did when he was an infant’. It is this being ‘distracted by noticing’, this zealous kind of attentiveness to detail, to a line, to a syllable — which is Nelson at her most powerful, breathing new life, new sense into the critical value of criticism.

Each of the four songs feel through the shape of ethical knots (The Art of Cruelty was where Nelson first practiced this tactility), discovering a pleasure in their texture, if not in their untying. In particular, the ‘Ballad on Sexual Optimism’ considers ‘the erotics of passivity’, our sometimes fatigue of and even aversion to ‘the long march towards emancipation and enlightenment’: how this discourse may sometimes feel too stiff to accommodate, at least on its own, what is more complicated, incongruous, or simply oceanic in us. This chapter may read controversially — and it is, especially if we understand Nelson as engaging in ongoing dialogue with herself, as turning through the various surfaces and depths of nouns such as ‘pleasure’ (‘Even as I write… Even as I argue…’). Ideas constantly refine themselves, remaining profoundly alert to the variousness of other people’s versions of liberation (I think too, of The Argonauts, when we are reminded that even ‘identical genital acts mean very different things to different people’). Probing narratives of female desire to ‘circle or enter dark rooms’, such as has been recently explored in the work of Chelsea Hodson, Katherine Angel, and Amia Srinivasan, Nelson goes further. Lending us the most tantalising images, she defines the terrible and wonderful obscurity of desire: ‘That part of our experience which refuses to be embalmed or explicated — the part that’s privately held.' I think of that shot of Frances McDormand floating stark naked down a stream in the film Nomadland — how I wept in my seat in the cinema because it needed absolutely none of us to try and understand it. What was fearlessness, what was following the script. Further on in the song, Nelson presses the freedom of allowing oneself ‘to be unafraid of the contaminations of ambivalence’ with regard to sexual politics, and the possibility — or necessity — of that ambivalence’s coexistence with ongoing, untiring feminist protest. ‘Didn’t sex always fall somewhere between manna from heaven and piles of corpses?’, she asks.

Nelson certainly makes an abundance of space for rage and grief at the institutional maltreatment of female and queer bodies, particularly in a moment which is witness to the overturn of Roe v Wade in certain American states. And she knows that: ‘It’s awfully hard of course, to stop wishing there was another now.’ But her concern is how might we strike our battle, or dream our dream, exactly where we are? Listening to Nelson speak in a recent podcast interview with Literary Friction, I was moved by her recalling, with some laughter and some sadness, herself as a teenager, approaching her mother in tears: her mother’s agonising sense of having failed to protect her daughter, this tending to end in more tears. Again, it is a tall and raw order, but the book goes on to ask how we might devote our energies towards the ‘diminishment’ of suffering, while living less heavily with that difficulty and pain which is part and parcel of being human. For sex perhaps more than anything is a reckoning with the impossibility of uncluttered, unfettered bliss — with the chance of finding something to cherish even in crisis, in entanglement, exactly where we are.

At the beginning of this review, I was thinking about the heaviness of On Freedom. And yet there is a buoyancy at the very bottom of Nelson’s voice, at the back of her throat — which I have been discovering and rediscovering, ever since I first sat down to read Bluets. That book, her 2009 kaleidoscopic biography of the colour blue, struck me in particular for Nelson’s stabbing perception of her own remove from the grief of another — and yet her proximity to it, her accompaniment, the way she stays at hand. Caring for her friend, Christina Crosby, recently rendered quadriplegic following an accident, Nelson feels herself becoming a ‘servant of sadness’: a phrase which I immediately committed to memory, to have for myself, for rainy days— though later discovering, with admittedly some deflation, that it also acts as the bio for @MaggieNelsonBot on Twitter, a platform Nelson herself has rejected. I feel that Nelson is saying something larger in that little epithet about what it means to practise as a writer-critic, what it means to have your words always just on the brink of somebody else’s. The profound need to be delicate, the terror of clumsiness: as to lift her friend in Bluets is certain to ‘cause her pain’. And On Freedom, to circle back, is no less heeding of its own ethical responsibilities, its own critical imperfection — the first chapter wrestling with notions of art which is ‘good’ and healthy for you, and art which is ‘bad’, likely to cause harm. Meticulously, and yet swiftly, Nelson pieces apart such an easy polarisation of that which is ‘problematic’ and that which is not, from behind: ‘After all, what I’ve just described is a prison.’ In the end, the only way out, she suggests, is to stay at it. To continue to carve out nooks and crannies for difficulty, for sensitivity, for awkwardness: places just loose enough to hold a ‘heart that is shaped right’. Nelson’s voice is one such place.

KATE GREENBERG is in her third year reading English at Balliol. She is passionate about raising awareness that supermarket bagels are not bagels.

Art by Alex Knighton


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