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In Maggie Nelson’s ‘On Freedom,’ liberation and entrapment aren’t easy to untangle

Maggie Nelson does not believe in binary thinking.

In her 10th book, “On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint,” Nelson investigates freedom as conceptualized and practiced through art, sex, drugs and the climate. Rather than attempting to resolve the essential crises of those vectors, Nelson’s essays tease out simultaneous and contradictory truths, or koans.

“Our desire to retain control over what happens to our bodies and psyches while also seeking experiences of surrender and abandon is a big koan,” she writes.

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Exploring ambiguity and paradox may not be a particularly American trait. But if “freedom gains meaning in relation to its limits,” as Nelson argues, then we must attend to the nexus between the libertarian freedom to act as one pleases and the concurrent right to be free from the negative effects of others’ actions. Mask up, folks.

With “On Freedom,” Nelson reaches for that most unruly condition — liberation — conceived not as a goal that can be attained and forfeited, but rather as “ongoing practices of freedom (which must be performed, however imperfectly, in the present and by us).” But how?

People make art, have sex, take drugs and burn fossil fuels with abandon, and still we are not free. In fact, we often do harm that is a future inheritance for ourselves and others.

As hard as it is to decide “when a strategy of liberation has flipped into a form of entrapment,” it can be useful to notice the degree to which our past choices constrain our future actions. As an example, Nelson explores how “drugs can grant nearly matchless access to feeling free while simultaneously working, over time, to diminish the space in a life for practices of freedom.” Addiction, whether to drugs, debasement or carbon-based energies, is servitude.

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A 2016 MacArthur “Genius,” Nelson is known for blurring boundaries and defying genres with such books as “Bluets,” her 2009 collection of prose poems that meditate upon grief, longing and the color blue. Urgent and yet somewhat arcane, “On Freedom” hews more closely to the dense language of theory than her best-selling memoir “The Argonauts,” which won a 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award for its lyric insights into pregnancy, the body and gender fluidity.

Rejecting slogans and dogma can be a dangerous activity, even on the page. “On Freedom” deals with thorny issues — among them, in her essay “The Ballad of Sexual Optimism,” the erasure of “female waywardness, transgression, desire and agency” by proponents of the #MeToo movement, despite how “necessary” and “heroic” it is to lodge complaints against wrongdoing. So, too, the missteps of generations of feminists who wrangled “with the fact that our sexual liberation or self-knowledge does not magically arrive via the kink shaming of others, even when their behavior apes things they’ve seen in porn, evidences flawed labor politics, stands afield from that which turns us on, or reaffirms heteronormative clichés.”

To “accept our motley selves, sexual and otherwise,” is a radical act that allows the focus to shift to what we can do: “work against noxious norms and laws that curtail sexual and reproductive freedom” — we see you, Texas — as well as “create generations of people less likely to be injured, persecuted, or driven to self-harm on account of gender or sexuality.”

Navigating the racialized politics of activism in “Art Song,” Nelson refuses the idea that art’s “meaning and function can be named and adjudicated” in service of “showing us how to live.” Instead she asserts creation as a “metabolic activity” for artists to give “expression to complex, sometimes disturbing dimensions of their psyches kept elsewhere under wraps.”

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Her subtitle posits the juxtaposition of care and constraint, whereby one shows the former by exercising the latter. Doing so depends upon the recognition that “our entire existence, including our freedoms and our unfreedoms, is built upon a ‘we’ instead of an ‘I,’ ” thereby necessitating choices that contemplate the collective. In a country founded on genocide, slavery and the subjugation of women, the ongoingness of historical injustice requires “attending to the effects of past actions, attempting to mitigate present suffering, and doing what one can to reduce or obviate future suffering, all at once.” Though she wrote those words to address the environmental devastation wrought by industrialization, they feel apropos to the realms of art and sex, which she casts as a “scene of learning.”

In her afterword, she invokes the 2020 protests against racial injustice as a practice of freedom. “The eruption of cacophonous, public assembly in service of freedom and care alike in the midst of such an intensely isolating period (i.e., life under ‘stay at home’ orders, wherein our capacity to touch has been radically constrained) has served as a reminder of the irrepressible power of the liberatory spirit, as well as of that spirit’s temporal abundance — how it links to past struggles, shape-shifts to meet the present, and has the capacity to transmogrify the future.”

Multiplicity is a feature of queer writing, which holds space for overlapping contradictions, shifting identities and wily desire. While her intellect is the driving force of “On Freedom,” Nelson decenters herself to build a canon of radical thought with reference to artists and thinkers too numerous to name here. Tapping into her own experience lightly, if at all, she gets to the marrow of being. It is impossible, she argues, to cure ourselves either of vulnerability or the yearning to be incautious as sexual beings and restless intellects. That primordial urge to fulfill bodily hungers, “purchased at the price of plausible deniability,” leads to “intentionally putting oneself in unpredictable situations in a world full of gnarly people.” Oh, humanity.

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In “Drug Fugue,” she describes the clarion call of sobriety, so like religious conversion when it arrived for her, as a release from the “negotiation between the desire for relief and abandon” and the “obsessive efforts at self-regulation and measurement” that turn into “inevitable transgression” and “self-rebuke.” Analyzing the literatures of drug use and her own decision to quit drinking, she writes that “at a certain point, it’s using that guarantees monotony, and sobriety that signifies the indeterminate or the unknown.”

In this second pandemic year, I confess a weary and horrified numbness in response to recurrent news of wildfire and flooding caused by our individual, national and global addictions to carbon-based energies. In that, I am not alone. “The inverse relationship between the scale of the climate problem and our difficulty in engaging with it emotionally isn’t just a cruel irony,” she argues in “Riding the Blinds,” her concluding essay. “It is one of the structural features of the crisis.”

In defense of what should be obvious — we are beholden to one another and the planet that sustains us — Nelson encourages readers to examine “how we negotiate, suffer, and dance with that enmeshment,” therein finding meaning, purpose and joy in an age of justifiable anxiety.

Kristen Millares Young  is a prizewinning journalist, essayist and the author of the novel “Subduction,” which won silver Nautilus and Independent Publisher Book awards.

On Freedom

Four Songs of Care and Constraint

By Maggie Nelson

Graywolf. 288 pp. $27

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