cover image On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint

On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint

Maggie Nelson. Graywolf, $27 (288p) ISBN 978-1-64445-062-8

Critic Nelson (The Argonauts) traces the limits of liberty and the call to care in this expansive and sharp-eyed study. Exploring “structural questions” about freedom, Nelson exposes instances where conventional uses of the term—for instance, the “intensely American” idea “that liberty leads to well-being”—clash with the contradictions of human nature. Skillfully reading the works of such critics as Eve Sedgewick and Hannah Arendt, Nelson outlines the complexities at the heart of her subject: the paradox of sexual freedom, for example, means “many of our most basic and hard-earned sexual freedoms... are legally dependent on principles of individual liberty.” On climate change, she probes the costs of personal liberty when humans are changing the planet in “genocidal, geocidal” ways. Patient and “devoted to radical compassion,” Nelson turns each thought until it is finely honed and avoids binaries and bromides. While the literary theorizing is rich, this account soars in its ability to find nuance in considering questions of enormous importance: “We tend to grow tired of our stories over time; we tend to learn from them what they have to teach, then bore of their singular lens.” Once again, Nelson proves herself a masterful thinker and an unparalleled prose stylist. (Sept.)