ON A NOVEMBER AFTERNOON, I telephoned Maggie Nelson—award-winning poet, critic, and essayist to talk about her newest book, On Freedom, a dense yet somehow expansive exploration of . . . freedom. I was nervous. I’ve loved her work for years, admired how she slams sex scenes into academic criticism, primary research into poetry, how she kicks down categories and goads her readers to do the same—to hunt for liminal spaces, to notice they are there and then trespass into them. One reviewer once aptly called the effect of her writing “narcotic.”
Her newest spell, this tome on freedom called On Freedom was the most intimidating in scope and size I had cracked yet. In it, Nelson traces how freedom dwells, is invoked, weaponized, and sometimes even attained, in four realms: sex, drugs, art, and climate.
I was in my office in Chicago, where it was snowing, and Nelson was in LA, where it was 90 degrees. As we talked, she roamed her house doing quiet chores—running the dishwasher, removing clothes from the dryer, acknowledging the environmental toll of such actions, lamenting the limited options for how to feel about one’s complicity in the destruction of the planet (“self-righteous” or “nihilistic”). One of the things I appreciate most about Nelson’s new book is her ability to wade into the heated space between political leanings and examine the complicated people and ideas that reside there. Or, not just “examine” these complicated figures but bat them around, tease them and tease at them, admire them, become annoyed with them, pinch a little life back into them. I was riveted—I mean, fist-in-the-air, grin-in-the-ear, riveted—by her section on Monica Lewinsky and sexual freedom. The questions raised during her account of the dueling art prof and art student, who each used loaded guns in their work to very different effect, are still spinning in my brain. In her climate chapter, she explores the concept of “thick time” (coined by scholars Astrida Neimanis and Rachel Loewen Walker). In short, thick time refers to the way that you can see many layers of time stacking up on one object, one face, if you squint at it right. These two words, thick time, carefully turned over and over in Nelson’s mind as her children grow, as the Earth’s temperature rises, as she writes and revises the many strands of her book, allow for a kind of euphoric plot twist that I didn’t see coming at the end. But I’ll leave that gift for you to discover. Suffice it to say, thick time, is a concept that I now take out into the world, that allows me to experience everyday objects—tree trunks, nostrils, park benches—with a new psychedelic glint.
Most narcotic for me, however, turned out to be one of her definitions of freedom. Early in the book, she cautions the reader not to mistake practices of freedom for moments of liberation (the terms are Foucault’s). Liberation is an act, a release, a moment. Freedom, on the other hand, she likens to “the morning after” liberation. It’s a slow and labored thing, the practice of freedom. Unsexy and disciplined. She calls it “patient labor,” a “buzzkill,” and (invoking Wendy Brown’s definition) “‘sober, exhausting, and without parents.’” Her point, I think, is that it can be attained within constraints. That the constraints don’t necessarily prohibit freedom but can help shape it. Practically, she offers that freedom can be attained by noticing striations—how your opinions and moods change over time, how you can shift from enthralled to weary with a topic (or person) and back again, and then shift into something new. It can lie in reading what you want, and noticing what it makes you think (more than what you think it should make you think). It can lie in noticing frogs, in waking from apocalyptic dreams, in your local train museum. In kicking out the crotch of branching dichotomies, seeing that more than two possibilities always await for how to be (politically, creatively, sexually, environmentally, and beyond). Freedom, in this very weird way, she seems to say, is drudgery. The patient labor of noticing when it strikes.
Lulu Miller: This book is such a gift, because not only does it give me a new framework to think about freedom, but it allows me to feel constraint differently. I mean, I now experience the sensation of feeling trapped really differently.
How did you get sucked into exploring this very small and simple topic of freedom?
MN: I got really interested in working on a lot of claustrophobic material. Particularly a kind of trilogy of books I wrote about sexual violence, two books about my aunt, Jane: A Murder and The Red Parts, and then The Art of Cruelty, which kind of transposed a lot of those issues about violence and representation to art and 20th-century avant-garde art history. That material had a lot of claustrophobic elements to it. And I began to realize that one of the features of cruelty or brutality is to produce an illusion that there’s no way out, to make the subject feel doomed to whatever situation of powerlessness or suffering was at hand. And I got really interested in a more political discourse about agency and constraint and the paradoxical conditions that produce subjectivity. How those intermeshed with a more spiritual discourse about surrender, radical freedom, and submission.
Then as I started tracking these keywords in the world, they seemed to cluster. They showed up in climate and drugs and addiction and sexual freedom and in the art world. I just started putting all this research together until it started making clusters that made sense to me. Clusters kind of somewhere in between cultural criticism, political thought, psychoanalysis, spirituality.
LM: I can already hear you not liking the dichotomy of the question I want to ask, but I’m going to ask it anyway. As you began to crawl into this slow “patient labor” of writing about freedom, was it the airy quality of freedom that you wanted to explore or was it the thornier stuff? That is, when you set out on something this big, are you after a refuge or are you untying knots?
MN: It’s the knots. This book was actually called Freedom Knots for a while.
MN: Yeah. We sometimes look to certain kinds of sloganeering as a way to snip through knots. “No man is free until all men are free.” But that is really different from reckoning hard with interior knots.
By interior I don’t just mean locked within individual people; I mean a communal unconscious. I don’t know if you know Jacqueline Rose. She’s a British psychoanalytic critic. She points out that the voice that tells us to be nice is not always a nice voice. It’s still a superego, still a should voice. And that’s something that we reckon with. Conversely, when autocracy is on the rise, there’s suppression of the urge to be nice. Don’t be nice to the migrants. That’s also not a nice voice. There are a lot of voices in our heads, pushing around these feelings about how to be. There is an interplay, as psychoanalytic and political critics such as Rose teach us, between these voices and a phenomenon like rising autocracy. I was really interested in that with this book. I was also interested in how we might be able to recognize the moments of freedom in our lives, and not just get bogged down detailing our constraints.
Sometimes you’re driving in your car and the windows are down and you’re driving away from a bad scene or you’re alone for the first time, and you’re euphoric. That’s one thing. There’s the freedom when you’re high on dope and nothing matters all. And to everybody else, you look like a nodded-out sad human being on the corner. Then there’s patiently working on a book for years and not necessarily always feeling free, but knowing that you’re engaging in a practice of freedom to be able to think, to write, to publish. There’s so many different kinds of freedom, and I wanted the book not to say, Here are the real ones and here are the fake ones.
LM: You’re curious about the spaces in between. You write about Catherine Millett, who both signed the infamous French anti-#MeToo letter and has written about female sexuality with a radical openness and care for underarticulated desires that you find to be “a huge, vitalizing relief.” I see you as walking the path that I think we all need to walk right now, remaining curious about ideas and people that do not neatly fit into “one side or the other,” but—
MN: I knew there was going to be a but.
LM: Here’s the but: You do it so well. So many people are curious about the space in between, but honestly, myself included, may not feel as able—as armed with references and eloquence—to make meaning of what they’re seeing. And that can feel like a dangerous space to explore. And I wonder, do you have advice for people who want to wander into that space, but might not feel as adept at talking about what they are seeing, feeling, learning there?
MN: I don’t find in my own life that I’m always good at it, at least not in the way you’re describing. It’s a daily struggle, the fact that what we say and feel and want is not necessarily coterminous with what other people say and feel and want, or how they experience the world. So, you know, you listen, you talk.
I think it’s a practice. You can get better at it, you know? I’m not a Buddhist per se, but I did, prior to the pandemic, go to discussion night at my local sangha, which I loved in part because it was so different from the politicized classroom in which I teach, or other places where there is a lot of cross talk. 12 step meetings don’t allow cross talk either, and really anything can be said in the rooms. People come in and are like, “You’re all stupid,” and “Life sucks.” And everyone’s just quiet afterward and just sits there. There, the instruction might be to take what you need and leave the rest. At the sangha, the instruction might be, every time you start judging what other people are saying or doing, ask yourself, Why do I feel this aversion, attraction, or indifference to what this person is saying? Not, Are they right or wrong? I don’t think that you get it right once and for all. You’re still going to judge and rage and so on. But I do find these forms of self-reflective practice really helpful.
I listened to this great talk by Wendy Brown yesterday on Max Weber. Brown was talking about the way that Weber differentiated between words as “plowshares to loosen the soil of contemplative thought,” and words as weapons. It’s not that one of these uses is right and one is wrong, it’s more about noticing that one can use words differently in different settings for different reasons, and that that heterogeneity—and our capacity to recognize it, to make choices about it—is a good thing, and not necessarily politically regressive.
A book like On Freedom is about loosening the soil. It’s not as interested in taking positions as it is in trying to model a way of thinking, a way of engaging with others. This is irritating to some people, I know. But that’s okay.
I try to resist the idea that we know everything about community—what it is, how it is to be found, how other people should do it—you know, not hectoring people about the kind of community they should join and how they should join and how they should be a part of it.
LM: In the beginning of the book, you write about two different kinds of freedom. One is Ta-Nehisi Coates’s description of black freedom. The other is more of a, “don’t tread on me” freedom. Can you describe the difference between the two?
MN: In this essay that Coates wrote about Kanye West, he describes black freedom and white freedom. The bifurcation is historically probably pretty accurate and useful: Coates describes “white freedom” as privileging individual liberty, treating it like a possession that can be dispensed or withdrawn from others, and “black freedom” as based in interdependency and maximizing freedom for the most people.
These are the two big schools of thought in American freedom for the past 500 years. I consider the individualistic one a psychological defense against the inevitable fact of the other. The drama of individuation can always be seen as a defense against our fundamental interdependency, even from our inception. My book takes our interdependence as a starting point and tries to look at the knot in a variety of fraught contexts, the ways in which we not only affect others but also are partnering with the material world. I mean, our brains are made of star material.
LM: There’s a lot throughout the book about interdependency. And I was thinking about my own recluse drive, my own profound love of being out in the trees, and I started thinking about it as lust, you know, this sense of freedom. It’s almost like the white, violent freedom—it’s about leaving, and there’s so much pleasure in being among the trees, who don’t judge you. There’s a real sense of being outside of humanity. And your book has been making me think twice about this impulse, which to me has always felt really peaceful, and thinking about the violence in the freedom of solitude.
MN: You weren’t alone. You were with trees.
LM: Yeah, I was. I was with trees. I was with so many trees.
MN: Forests talk. I would not be so sure that solitude from other humans means a lack of interrelation. I don’t think that’s true at all. In fact, throughout my book, I try to resist the idea that we know everything about community—what it is, how it is to be found, how other people should do it—you know, not hectoring people about the kind of community they should join and how they should join and how they should be a part of it. I do not think that is the way forward in an intensely heterogeneous society with a jillion different cultural and personal proclivities.
LM: The end of the book takes place in the future in a way. You explore the future, how people think about the future. You unearth the beautiful phrase, “the technologically sophisticated ruins of our dreams,” from Isabelle Stengers, or as you put it, “fire, fire, and fire.” Suddenly anxiety becomes this theme. How do I live a life I want to live, but knowing how my actions are related to the rest of the world?
MN: A lot of people, myself included, can get locked into this place where you become more and more aware of how everything you’re doing is not only not good enough, but would probably be thought of years from now as evil, patently wrong, patently destructive.
That’s really hard to bear. As I’m running around my house talking to you, I’ve touched 7,000 things that are you know, not good things. I’ve cleaned my dryer lint.
LM: Wait, what else? What else have you touched?
MN: Like, my computer, my gas stove. Just a million things. The amount of water that I use in Los Angeles is absurd. I’ve run the dishwasher. That kind of complicity is really hard to bear, and usually the reaction to it is either you become very self-righteous and frustrated and judgmental and maybe start shaming others; or you become kind of nihilistic and drive this huge diesel truck because we’re all going to hell in a handbasket.
My chapter on the climate is not climate activism, I’m fully aware of that. I don’t think that chapter is an example of what needs to be done, or offers a roadmap for what needs to be done. Its goal was to take myself as a kind of example, and see if I could move myself through a certain journey out of repression, away from feeling destroyed all the time, to come out in a more empowered place. It worked, in its way—which isn’t to say that I didn’t weep during the Glasgow Climate Change [in 2021]. I weep in anger and frustration and sorrow. But at least I recognize what I’m feeling. There’s more acceptance of this great challenge. And I feel like that’s enabled me. It’s also enabled me to be able to say to my son, Look, this is going to be the great issue of your time, and you are equipped to do your best with it. Every time has a great issue and a great battle in some ways to be fought, and this is ours. And it’s a time of tremendous opportunity as well—what Joanna Macy and others have called “the Great Turning.”
LM: You end with the Timothy Morton quote that he wants to “awaken us from the dream that the world is about to end, because action on Earth (the real Earth) depends on it.” And you said you didn’t know what that meant for so long, but you do now.
MN: In part what I take it to mean is that the world is not going to end. That everything is ongoing—even if the human species ends, which some day it will, things are still ongoing.
In the meantime, mitigation and amelioration remains imperative. As I note in the book, five years passed while I was writing. And then after I turned the book in, another year and a half passed. During this time, the discourse on climate has really changed. We’re probably not going to hold to 1.5° Celsius. That’s why I was weeping—the idea that all these nations would meet and try to commit to something that everyone knows is not going to meet the necessary goal. So on the one hand, it feels like, why the fuck even bother? But on the other, 2° is a lot worse than 1.5, and over 2° is even fucking worse and 3° or 5° is unlivable.
So, yeah, the world’s not gonna end. The world’s gonna get hotter. And as David Wallace-Wells has said, “no matter how hot it gets, no matter how fully climate change transforms the planet and the way we live on it, it will always be the case that the next decade could contain more warming, and more suffering, or less warming and less suffering. Just how much is up to us, and always will be.”
LM: It’s not saying it’s not urgent. It’s not saying the way climate is changing is not going to literally make tons of species—and people—go extinct. That urgency is there, but do you think calling it a complete dead-end creates inaction?
MN: I think that kind of rhetoric has its time and place, and someone like Greta Thunberg has made good use of it. But at some point, to stick with the situation, you can’t keep seeing it as a binary, like we fall of the cliff or we don’t.
LM: And at least to say that that might be an illusion does give some steam to your kid. To pat them on the head and say, “You have the resources to take this on.” It is a tiny lifting feeling, which is needed.
MN: It’s related to what we were talking about before, about power and agency and flipping constraints of freedom. Your kids are not quite school age, but having one in high school—when your brain is developing and when you already have a lot of trouble neurologically imagining the future, and when there’s this kind of drumbeat of no future coming from every quarter . . . I just think it’s horribly destabilizing.
You could say, “Oh, well, it should be.” And in a certain sense, it’s true that conditions on the planet for every human that’s ever lived has always been one of suffering and inevitable death. So in some sense, their plight is no different than anybody’s. And yet we’ve loaded them up—and ourselves—with something different, a different kind of material and mental burden, and it’s really hurting. So I do think it is incumbent upon us to try and find other ways of thinking and being and communicating.
Lulu Miller is the author of the national best seller, Why Fish Don’t Exist. She is the cohost of Radiolab, and the cofounder of NPR’s Invisibilia. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Guernica, and beyond.
Maggie Nelson is a poet, critic, and award-winning author of The Argonauts, Bluets, The Art of Cruelty, Jane: A Murder, and The Red Parts. She lives in Los Angeles, California.