Maggie Nelson (Dan Tuffs/Alamy Stock Photo)

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.

Whenever we respond to a work of art without nuance and doubt and reserve, we’ve abandoned both looking and thinking.

This is a crudely paranoid style of response. It allows a piece of art just one contextless meaning, based largely on what it depicts, and responds to it accordingly. Nelson’s style is different, as here:

It remains our charge to be able to distinguish between the feelings produced by, say, reading a scene in a novel in which someone berates a character by calling her a cunt, from stepping out into the street to get some milk and being called a cunt by a passerby, from a bunch of guys holding Tiki torches surrounding you chanting cunt, from being called a cunt in a sex game with your lover, from being called a cunt by your boss during a meeting, from seeing the word cunt spray-painted on a wall as you’re walking by, from calling your own cunt a cunt, from reading a paragraph like this one, and so on.

It’s hard to say anything to this other than, yes, of course it’s right; and the penultimate phrase, “from reading a paragraph like this one,” makes it luminously so. Use is not mention, mention is not use, and there’s a great deal between. To think that the difficult word in question is a piece of dark magic that does the same work in every context is obviously fatuous.

Does this approach mean that distinctions aren’t possible, that it’s always appropriate to use the word “cunt,” or that objects containing and deploying the word may never be disciplined, constrained, or removed? No. Does it mean that it’s never proper to demand that a painting representing a lynched Black boy be removed from public display? No. But it does mean that neither the word “cunt” nor paintings of lynched people nor depictions of Jesus drenched in urine or crawling with ants should always be responded to in just one way, as if the work of those artifacts was always and everywhere the same and self-evident. Work, thought, negotiation, mistakes (these are inevitable: Nelson is very good on that point), generosity, and trembling attentiveness are all required before and as we respond to art, especially when our response involves the demand that it be removed or destroyed. The bar for that is high, very high. Donohue and Black and their like do not, in Nelson’s depiction of them, do the work: they set the bar low by exhibiting paranoia, together with an inclination toward the violence that such an attitude easily prompts. Denunciation and coronation, as Nelson nicely puts it, should not exhaust our responses to art-objects. I’d add that whenever we respond to a work of art in either way, without nuance and doubt and reserve, we’ve abandoned both looking and thinking. That is among the reasons why Christians have wanted to distance icons from the category of art.


Another example: talking and writing about climate change. Nelson’s essay on this is called “Riding the Blinds,” which, she tells us, is “the hobo practice of riding between cars on a moving freight train” in order to avoid detection by the railway police. When you do that, you ride blind: you can’t see where you’re going. It’s a phrase common in the blues, and, as Nelson reads it, it involves not only spatial but also temporal complication. Time thickens, folds, and pleats; the future and the past both become opaque.

One result of traveling in this way is that simple storylines get dropped. The straight story, the one that tells how things really are, loses its attractions. Nelson opposes, therefore, meta-stories about climate change that tell us we can fix it by getting the story right, or by identifying the right principle and hewing to it. Attempts to come up with those kinds of rightness generate and fertilize their opposites. Such meta-stories are fantasies. Some of them are etiologic and some prognostic. There is, for example, the story that we can solve the climate crisis only by appealing to reproductive futurism: getting people to see that we must change our greenhouse-gas-emitting lives because of the responsibilities we have to generations yet unborn (do it for the children). That generates a queer-theoretic response that refuses the idea of futurism, especially futurism based on procreation, and affirms instead solidarity as the story that must be told if we’re to act rightly in the face of climate change (make kin not babies). Each side then becomes heavily invested in its story being the right one, the one that identifies what it’s really like, why we’ve really come to the pass we have, and how, really, we can now learn to do the right thing. Always the emphasis on really, elegantly stiff-armed by Nelson: lurking in the background here is Wittgenstein's allergy to the German word eigentlich, and still more to the sternly heavy abstract noun Eigentlichkeit (authenticity).

Nelson advocates modesty about our capacity to find and tell the straight story.

Against all this Nelson advocates modesty about our capacity to find and tell the straight story, and about our need for one if we’re to pay the kind of careful attention that makes action possible. “When it comes to care,” she writes, “there is no such thing as getting it exactly right.” And the appetite for getting it exactly right is among the principal causes of our tendency to replace action with stories about action, attentively passionate response to particulars with investment of our symbolic capital so that it’s well-ordered and bears maximal interest, funding our contempt for those whose shibboleths aren’t ours. Better to care half-blindly for the world we live in, from within the pleated time given us by riding the blinds, and act, when we can, for small things in a small way.

Nelson cites, as an example of what she means, an ecological dispute about logging in Indonesia that brought together in shared opposition to the practices of a logging company people with different, even incompatible, stories and theories about what forests are and how humans should live in and with them. The opponents of the logging company agreed on almost nothing except that this particular kind of logging should be stopped, which it was. She generalizes the point to suggest that climate-change deniers and climate-change affirmers might be able to work together in mitigating and adapting to particular local conditions (floods, fires, mudslides, sea-level changes, and so on) even when they share no theoretical or narrative account of these conditions. And significantly: “They [the climate-change deniers] may also have things to teach us [the climate-change affirmers] about freedom, care, and constraint that we don’t already know, even—or especially—when we already think we do.”

Nelson tries to occupy that sliver of rhetorical and conceptual territory between averting our gaze from the horrors of climate change because there’s nothing we can do about it and the desire to finally fix it, which, as she points out, is intimate with our desire not to be part of the thing we aim to fix. For the most part, she succeeds. It’s a territory marked by difficulty, ambiguity, and complexity, in which neither we nor our opponents, whoever they happen to be, can avoid difficult trade-offs, imperfect remedies, and brutal outcomes. It will all end badly, of course; our task is to find a way of saying and showing this that will nurture the small amounts of mitigation and adaptation of which we might be capable.

There’s an important analogy here with individual human lives, which Nelson draws on, even if not as deeply or as often as she might have: those, too, all end badly. No one now living will be alive in a century or so, and most will suffer unpredictable and uncontrollable horrors in the course or at the end of their lives. We can attend and care and mitigate and adapt, confusedly and blindly, to some very small extent. But we can’t win. We can’t get it right. Rightness is not the thing to want. Just so with the planet and our contributions to the change in its climate. Nelson shows that something is not nothing and doesn’t need to be everything. She shows, too, how to write as if that were so; and how writing as if it were not so—as if we need the unimpeachably straight story—is a principal contributor to the evils it tries to avoid.


This is a subtle and elegant book. I found it occasionally frustrating, however, in its mosaic-like use of quotations from the work of others. Nelson is fond—too fond in this book—of moving her prose along by writing about what x says in interpreting the work of y, who in turn appeals to z’s construal of.... It’s good, of course, to show gratitude for the work of others, to acknowledge your own dependence on it, and to encourage your readers to seek out that work for themselves. But when you’re as good a writer as Nelson is, and as unusual a thinker, overstuffing your prose with this sort of thing obscures the line of beauty.

The paranoid style Nelson identifies and opposes throughout On Freedom is by now powerful and widespread, perhaps especially among those who might read this book. To suggest that modesty, work, and attention to context are what we need before we move to the barricades and light the bonfires, and that none of us has access to, or should want, the straight story about anything remotely complex, is unlikely to endear her to anyone, right or left.

While reading this book Simone Weil and Susan Sontag were often in my mind. When she learned of the German invasion of Paris in 1940, Weil wrote in her journal that it was a great day for the people of Indochina because it would bring about the end of French colonialism. Sontag wrote after 9/11 that “if the word ‘cowardly’ is to be used, it might be more aptly applied to those who kill from beyond the range of retaliation, high in the sky, than to those willing to die themselves in order to kill others…. [W]hatever may be said of the perpetrators of [the 9/11 attacks], they were not cowards.” Neither response is unproblematic; neither is free from complexity; each calls for comment, elucidation, and argument; each is idiosyncratic, transverse to the usual lines of argument, the opposite of a cliché, disturbing. All that is also true of much of what Nelson writes in On Freedom. What is important about this book is not only its argument but also that it is an excellent example of the practices it commends.

On Freedom
Four Songs of Care and Constraint

Maggie Nelson
Graywolf Press
$27 | 290 pp.

Published in the January 2022 issue: View Contents

Paul J. Griffiths is a longtime contributor to Commonweal and the author of many books, most recently Regret: A Theology (University of Notre Dame Press) and Why Read Pascal? (Catholic University of America Press).

Also by this author
© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.