A follow-up to The New York Times bestseller “The Argonauts,” Maggie Nelson’s newest release, “On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint,” explores freedom through four unexpected lenses: sex, art, drugs and the climate.
More academic than Nelson’s previous works, “On Freedom” opens up new ways of thinking about and understanding the complex meanings behind the concept of freedom, offering a “third way” in a world that has been exceptionally polarizing of late, with fluid prose and fresh energy.
The author spoke with The Seattle Times about freedom, anxiety, life during the pandemic and her new release, out Sept. 7 from Graywolf Press.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Seattle Times: “On Freedom” is your 10th book and your first in five years after the success of “The Argonauts.” How does it differ from, and how is it related to, your previous books?
Maggie Nelson: To a lot of people, my books all seem really different. But to me, I see a lot of their similarities very clearly. So to me, this book comes both directly out of “The Argonauts” and “The Art of Cruelty,” which was before that. It’s more similar to “The Art of Cruelty” in that it’s a critical book, not a memoir-ish book. But I think it’s a meditation on issues of freedom and obligation and care. I mean, the last line of “The Argonauts” says something about “our care is an ongoing song,” and both of those words reappear in the title of this book. So to me, it’s literally an extension.
In “On Freedom,” you think critically about both care and freedom, including the habit of opposing them to each other. Why is this important, especially now?
I started the book before the pandemic began and finished it in the last year of it. But during the pandemic, you only have to crack open any newspaper and see kind of an explosion of what the discourse looks like when freedom and care get polarized and put against each other. So neither hectoring some people about not caring about others, nor insisting on a kind of individualistic freedom that’s menacing and toxic to others is a useful approach, in my opinion. So the book, again, is pre-pandemic, but trying to find not a blueprint for a third way that can be done by public health officials or individuals talking to their family, but more of a thought experiment about staying in a third way for the course of a long writing project.
Unlike many other books that have come out in recent years about political freedom, your book intentionally explores other realms — the social, spiritual, emotional, artistic and so on. Why is that?
On the most pragmatic level, I’m not a political theorist, so it’s not my wheelhouse. But I also think that the tendency to only think about political freedom neglects where a lot of us live. Political freedom shapes all those aspects of our lives, but our lives don’t reduce to political freedom. So it’s an interesting dialectic. Since there were a lot of books, as I talk about in the introduction, blooming all over the scene to deal with the problem of political freedom and hypocrisy and democracy at present, I thought as someone who works a lot more in the realms of culture, especially in these realms — sex, drugs and arts, and kind of an emotional landscape of talking more about the climate — it seemed more of what I had to offer to the discourse than trying to impersonate a philosopher, whom I am not.
You also bring up that focusing on freedom got you thinking about anxiety, which you mentioned in your afterword, and in your introduction, that it got you thinking about time. Why do you think those two concepts emerged when thinking about freedom?
The kind of freedom discussed in the book has a lot more to do with, not, “Get your hands off my body,” or, “I’ll do what I want,” it focuses more on the indeterminate, which is if we don’t have indeterminacy, then we don’t have freedom. Meaning if we knew what was going to happen everything would be foreclosed. But living with the indeterminate produces anxiety. But we all already know that we are going to be born and then die, and that our loved ones will be born and then die. We know the basic contours, but we don’t know the shapes and forms that our joys and sufferings will come in — and that produces anxiety. So I think that the thing that’s most integral to freedom, which is the indeterminacy, is the same thing that produces so much worry.
And then time — I go through this thing in the introduction about moments of liberation and how they interact with practices of freedom. How moments of liberation, which are often not just a moment, but nonetheless, more finite pushes that are liberatory. Those moments, whether large or small, they are very important, but they’re also kind of adjudicated by what comes next. Which is why most revolutions tend to be haunted by the morning after. There are a lot of books that focus on how to make big moments of liberation happen. This particular book is more focused on how to bear the ambiguities of the morning after.