Maggie Nelson is a poet, an essayist, a memoirist, a critic, and a theorist. She has written on cruelty, on murder, on the visual and literary arts, on feminist and queer theory, and, perhaps most fetchingly, on the color blue. She isn’t easy to locate by intellectual lineage, but scattered broadside through her work is Wittgenstein’s rejection of the idea that we should aim at a single correct theory of anything, and Pema Chödrön’s let’s-agonizedly-hold-differences-together school of Buddhism. Nelson is, above all, a writer of prose and poetry often startling in its aptness, precision, and unexpectedness.
Nelson was born in 1974, and she holds, for her generation, something like the position held by Susan Sontag before her. Those writing and speaking about Nelson’s work often seem awed by it (the book under review here may change that), and her range of interests already rivals Sontag’s. If you haven’t read her, you should. A good place to begin would be Bluets (2009), which is a thing of beauty from beginning to end; you might follow it with The Argonauts (2015), which is among the more careful and attentive things written in the past few decades about desire, sex, gender, family, and what it’s like to be human.
Her latest book, On Freedom, comprises four essays, one on art (particularly the visual arts), one on sex, one on drugs, and one on climate change. The essays map the terrain of current representations of, and arguments about, those matters, and the cartography that results distinguishes dead ends from paths that lead somewhere, wastelands from fertile fields, orthodoxies that bludgeon from heterodoxies that attend. Nelson is looking for freedom with respect to these matters, not as an achievement or a goal or a purpose or a condition, but as “an unending present practice”—a mode of response to the complexities evident in her four topics that opens them up rather than putting them through the meat grinder of some dogma.
Nelson wants negotiation, suffering, and work within and at the boundaries of our constraints and entanglements. She does not want resolution. Rather, she wants us to ask ourselves: If we write this kind of thing about art or sex or drugs or the climate, does what we write permit our topic to address us? Does it give us something else to say? Or do we write only what we already know, in which case there’s only repetition? Freedom means going on, having something to say next, continuing the work without seeing or knowing the goal. The alternative is to retreat into “paranoia, and despair, and policing,” which are, now, on all sides, our defaults and norms. That paranoid style takes up the bludgeon because, for its practitioners, there is no overlap between the truth and its acolytes and the lie and its servants: the only thing to do with lies, so understood, is beat them flat, salt the ground from which they grow, and force their servants into silence and exile. That is not freedom. It is the kind of victory possible only in a universe we don’t inhabit, a Manichean universe in which the divide between the good and the bad is both absolute and absolutely evident.
With respect to art, for example, Nelson resists writing that already knows, now and forever, what a particular piece of art is and does, and reacts to it on the basis of that knowledge by celebrating the right objects and disciplining the wrong ones. Nelson shows Bill Donohue of the Catholic League responding in this way in 2010 to David Wojnarowicz’s A Fire in My Belly, which depicts ants infesting a crucifix, and Hannah Black doing the same in 2017 to Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till. These pieces of work, Black and Donohue suggest, do just one thing, and it’s bad. The world would be better without them, and perhaps without their makers. Donohue and Black may agree about little else; but, as Nelson reads them, they do agree about what art does and about how to respond to it.