It seems impossible, but Maggie Nelson’s new book On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint made me feel better about climate change. It also made me feel worse, because to get through the book, which examines the idea of freedom through themes like art and drugs, I had to read an exhaustive catalog of everything wrong with our mutilated world.
Nelson, who I think of as a critical-theory spelunker, really goes there. Climate change, she writes, “amplifies the predicament in which we find ourselves as mortal beings.” Translation: You’re going to die, along with everyone you love. Damn, Maggie. Okay.
Reading these words, I was reminded of Donald Barthelmy’s odd little fable “The School,” about children grappling with newfound knowledge of death: “We require an assertion of value, we are frightened,” they say.
“I require an assertion of value! I am frightened!” could describe my experience of the past 16 months, and probably yours, too. We are all frightened children in the face of mortality and the related fact that, as Nelson puts it, “our life spans will not allow us to take in the whole story.” And what could be a bigger death-anxiety trigger than trying to do all of our dishes and get to inbox zero at the center of the horrible Venn diagram between COVID-19 and climate change?
But Nelson, who’s written about everything from murder to abject heartbreak without (it would seem) flinching, isn’t flinching now. Instead, she commits to what Donna Haraway describes as “staying with the trouble.” (There’s a lot of Donna Haraway in On Freedom). “Staying with the trouble” is exactly that — fighting to change material conditions, but not tapping out of the struggle, or giving into nihilism, even (especially!) when it would be easy to.
This is not “Everything happens for a reason” hogwash. It’s a thorny, circuitous route to something resembling hope for the future, and it’s a difficult joy to make the journey with Nelson. It’s also deeply comforting to read someone else describe the world as it is through clear-eyed language and heady analysis, and to witness her still come away believing in a practice of “all heart, no escape.”
I also think I should warn you right now that if you loved Nelson’s previous book, The Argonauts, you may not love On Freedom. A work of autotheory on Nelson’s partnership with artist Harry Dodge, gender identity, and becoming a parent, The Argonauts is the kind of book that I don’t think happens twice; I’ve read almost everything Nelson has ever written, and it’s far and away my favorite. It also holds the rare distinction of being an indie title that made its way to the top of mainstream bestseller lists.
While The Argonauts was propelled forward on a current of ebullient, contagious queer joy, On Freedom is heavier, more contemplative — more theory, less auto.
And for good reason: Nelson began writing it during the Trump administration and finished during the COVID-19 pandemic, meaning she wrote it under material conditions in which joy often felt rare, and freedom elusive. Though she allows herself a few autobiographical passages, On Freedom is really a book about ideas, so get out your monocle emoji. There’s a lot of Foucault and Marx in here. Like, a lot.
There are also some stumbles, especially in her analysis of the #MeToo movement. Nelson is interested in what she calls “gray area” encounters, and worries that women who have experienced them play up the perpetrator-victim dynamic and minimize their own “female waywardness, transgression, desire, and agency.”
This is possible, I suppose, but talk to enough people who’ve encountered the so-called “gray area,” and you’re likely to find the opposite is true: These stories are often not very gray at all, but describe rape and assault under a comforting euphemism. There’s certainly value in scrutinizing #MeToo — for its erasure of founder Tarana Burke in favor of Hollywood surrogates, some of the reporting around it (looking at u, Babe dot net), its easy conflation with carceral feminism, or even the idea that #MeToo is a new movement in and of itself, and not, just, you know… feminism. But recasting sexual gray areas as some misunderstood zone of female agency? I’m just not sure this is the move.
Still, I’m comfortable with my discomfort — like Nelson, I’m not much into the idea of “problematic faves”, a phrase she aptly makes ridiculous through identifying the underlying implication that there are “human beings who are or could ever be ‘nonproblematic.’”
I didn’t always feel this way. I once viewed Nelson as a literary hero, but I now see her as a writer whose work I often love, which is, I think, the better compliment — and more real.
Besides, we don’t need heroes right now. We have bigger problems.
The night I finished On Freedom, every time I opened a social media app on my phone, I saw videos and images of New York flooded by Hurricane Ida’s northward trajectory. Couches floated haphazardly in apartments filled with mucky water, a man smoked a hookah on a blow-up raft in what was almost certainly raw sewage, bus drivers drove through feet of flood, and someone had been thoughtless (or hungry) enough to order takeout on a delivery app, brought via half-submerged bike.
I am glad that the day I saw these things was also the day I encountered Nelson’s description of “thick time,” a concept she finds more accessible in the indeterminacy of living with climate change, in which “other senses of time can become more palpable.” Nelson explains it through the way she sees her son. When she looks at him, she says, she “[beholds] all the selves and ages he has passed through folded atop one another.”
Caring is another way of folding time, Nelson writes, in which “one is attending to the effects of past actions, attempting to mitigate present suffering, and doing what one can to reduce or obviate suffering, all at once.”
Reading Nelson’s words, I sensed another kind of folded time: I have read nearly every book Nelson has written, and in this one, I felt I could see the shadows of the others that came before it, and the selves I’d been when I read them, an overlay of time and experience, style and repetition.
I remembered reading Bluets, her book of heartbreaking paragraphs refracted through the color blue, at a time when I was also processing the painful end of a relationship. I recalled the fierce joy of The Argonauts, a birthday surprise I read in snatches on TriMet buses before work. I could feel the park bench underneath me on an overcast day in Seattle, as I shivered and read The Red Parts, her account of a murder trial that rivals any reporter’s.
It is a privilege to follow a writer’s work like this, when the writer is still alive, and you can experience their books as markers of time in your own life. It is something that, depending on when you find a beloved author’s work, may not even be possible. Our life spans will not allow us to take in the whole story, but, writes Nelson, “Awakening to the choices we have in such matters is a practice of freedom, and one worth our time.”
You can purchase On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint by Maggie Nelson (Graywolf) now from Powell's or wherever books are sold.