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It was June when I arrived in Northeast Los Angeles, right in the middle of Pride Month, though there wasn’t much evidence of it. In the Bay Area, where I arrived from, rainbow flags, storefront decorations and clumsy attempts at inclusive marketing were ubiquitous. But here, in Southern California’s stupefying sunlight, there were, thankfully, no billboards equating the freedom to date whom you want to the freedom to order weed via an app. Driving along Colorado Boulevard, I encountered only the confusing jumble of gentrification: mom-and-pop doughnut shops next to high-concept pet day cares. In the light, the entire city seemed to be shrugging at me.
When I did finally see a Pride flag, it was hanging from the eaves of the tidy craftsman home that the poet, critic and essayist Maggie Nelson shares with her partner, the artist and memoirist Harry Dodge, and their two children. It wasn’t the usual rainbow flag, but a variation, the Progress Pride flag, that the designer Daniel Quasar created in 2018. It was hung vertically, with the colors representing trans and P.O.C. queer communities forming an arrow that moved forward into the rainbow, as if making space for themselves.
The redesign is pointed, galvanizing — and the last thing I expected to find at the home of Nelson, whose oeuvre, if it is dedicated to any one thing, has been committed to finding all the ways a person can slip out from under identity’s firm hand.
“I’ve never been able to answer to comrade,” she wrote in “The Argonauts,” the 2015 memoir that turned her from a critically lauded poet and critic into a best-selling author, helping to earn her the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism, a MacArthur grant and a post at the University of Southern California’s English department. “The Argonauts” explores desire, identity, love and language by way of Nelson’s experiences of pregnancy and queer family-making. Nelson the narrator is a doting mother crazy over her baby Iggy’s butt — “My baby!” she exclaims in wonder. “My little butt!” She is equally enthralled with Dodge. Looking at a family photo that her mother had printed on a mug — she’s “seven months pregnant with what will become Iggy, wearing a high ponytail and leopard print dress,” while “Harry and his son are wearing matching dark suits, looking dashing” — she wonders why a friend deems it “heteronormative.” It’s true that, outwardly, her family fulfills the heteronormative order’s wildest fantasies; but inwardly, as when she calls Dodge, who is gender-nonconforming, “husband,” it covertly undermines that order, reshaping its boundaries.
Nelson considers her pregnancy and nascent family, turning her life into a case study in the elasticity of queerness. As the writer Moira Donegan has said, Nelson’s greatest contribution to contemporary conversation around sexual identity is that she “renewed an idea of queerness that is more dedicated to troubling our received categories and allegiances than it is to reinforcing them.”
So what was with the flag? I squinted at it in the harsh afternoon light. Toys were massed at our feet, and as we stepped onto the porch, Nelson waved at them apologetically. She was dressed casually in a frilly blue top, a pair of comfortable-looking jeans and sneakers, hair pulled back into a ponytail.
“I’m not a big lawn-sign person,” she admitted, and she still wasn’t sure how she felt about the flag. On one hand, she did not possess any special feeling for this flag, nor any flag that would claim to represent someone’s experience. But on the other — and there is always another hand for Nelson — she couldn’t help wondering at who might find solace in it. “There are just so many queer kids,” she said. “I just think that it probably feels really heartening to feel like they’re at home, honestly. The symbol’s meaningful for them in a certain way.”
This willingness to question herself is characteristic of Nelson’s writing too. She is obsessed with all the ways lived experience complicates our best attempts to impose order on the world. In her work, as well as in our conversation, she exhibits a mischievous mind that is always doubling back on itself, not trying to make an argument or solve a problem so much as describe it from as many angles as possible. For the writer Wayne Koestenbaum, a longtime friend of Nelson’s who advised her during her graduate studies at the CUNY Graduate Center, Nelson is unusual in her willingness to acknowledge and sustain multiple perspectives. “She’s reaching with every paragraph into all the coffers of her reading and conversation,” he told me over the phone. “There’s a hunger for citation, and a generosity and inclusiveness about how much of other people’s thinking she would acknowledge and make room for in her work. It’s very public work.”
Nelson is happy to sit in the discomfort this process might bring. The poet and literary critic Fred Moten, who has been a friend and interlocutor of Nelson’s for about a decade, described her as a thinker with little use for hard and fast rules. “She’s not trying to live her life according to maxims,” Moten said. Though she operates from a sophisticated intellectual background, he said, she’s ultimately interested in common experience — the unexpectedness of which leaves its imprint on her writing. “The ground of her sense is rolling; it’s not flat. There’s some sharp hairpins. You come across a corner, and you’re hit by a sharp pain or a burst of desire or a surprising erotic charge. You don’t know where that’s coming from or how you got there. All those emotional twists and turns are also twists and turns at the level of insight.”
‘There’s a hunger for citation, and a generosity and inclusiveness about how much of other people’s thinking she would acknowledge and make room for in her work. It’s very public work.’
In short, Nelson thrives in the intellectually murky spaces that politics wants to simplify. This willingness to linger amid uncertainty — a willingness that made “The Argonauts” so immensely popular — is the engine that powers her new essay collection, “On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint.”
As she traversed the country for her book tour, Nelson noticed that among audiences that were presumably interested in her consideration of openness and difference, an anxiety was palpable. “Someone would invariably ask, ‘But don’t you feel like without coherent, stable identities, how can we move forward in a political movement that matters?’” she recalled. “I would say, ‘Forget political movements — how can we be?’”
We were seated at the dining-room table in her brightly lit home, surrounded by a pleasant domestic clutter. As she spoke, she was casual but precise, holding and unfolding complex ideas with an ease that alternately lulled and startled. She pulled her legs up beneath her in her chair and allowed her upper body to sprawl across the table, her hands moving through the air as if she were pulling words out of the ether. Sometimes I worried that an errant gesture might topple one of the white vases that decorated the table.
“What is this anxiety, that without these things we won’t be able to do that? What is that anxiety serving? I think those kinds of questions are more interesting to me than: Do we need stable identities or not? Why does this question have so much traction for us right now?”
For her, such questions indicate a discomfort with uncertainty and nuance — a discomfort that she finds in play in current discussions around freedom. Freedom, she argues, is a word to which we have attached all kinds of prefabricated meanings, a concept we think we know so well that we might consider it empty. On the right, the word has come to signal the kind of slavish devotion to individual freedom — the permission to do as one pleases — that justifies, say, not wearing a mask; on the left, it has come to be regarded as a smokescreen for neoliberal, racist, misogynist and homophobic agendas that propped up the faux-despotism of Donald Trump. “After years of freedom fries, Freedom’s Never Free and the Freedom Caucus, the rhetoric of freedom appeared momentarily in retreat,” she writes. A sense of certainty made freedom seem suspect; beneath that certainty, however, Nelson finds an idea roiling with complications.
For Nelson, rising suspicion of freedom as a concept makes sense. As she writes, white people have long “deployed the discourse of freedom to delay, diminish or deny it to others.” But Nelson finds herself unwilling to relinquish the possibilities latent in the idea — including how they might be relevant to matters of sexual power, drug use, climate disaster and art. As with “queer,” she’s out to enunciate all the meanings and manifestations of “freedom” that our current conversation obscures.
After talking for a few hours, Nelson and I were hurtling along the 110 toward the West Side in her electric car. A little nervous at the wisdom of conducting an interview while driving at 70 miles per hour, I watched her as she sat behind the wheel. Nelson, though, had the relaxed posture of someone for whom the Los Angeles freeways have become a second home. Maybe sensing my concern, she interrupted our conversation, asking “Is my driving worrying you in any way?”
“No, I was just going to say you’re an excellent driver,” I said.
“Make sure that gets in the piece.”
We were headed to the Hammer Museum. In “On Freedom,” Nelson writes about art with a sense of its special amplitude — the questions, answers and thoughts it makes possible. That was why I suggested a trip to see the “Made in L.A.” biennial. It was only her second trip to a museum since the pandemic began, and she radiated excitement. “Do you have paper or a notebook I can use?” she asked me before we stepped into a gallery swarmed by people in masks. For note taking, of course; she wanted to record what she saw, what it provoked in her.
Eventually we found ourselves in front of a few paintings by the Bakersfield-based artist Brandon D. Landers, whose canvases portray eerie scenes of raucous Black social life. In his paintings, people’s hands bend at angles they shouldn’t, eyes sink into faces and limbs disappear into the background. In one canvas, the ghostly outline of a smiling man stands next to a smiling couple. The result is destabilizing, rife with a slow-moving, free-floating tension. But the wall text described Landers’s paintings as illustrating these figures’ “inherent warmth and values.” I took Nelson over to read it because the text struck me as incongruous with what we were seeing. “They’re not looking at the work!” she laughed.
If “On Freedom” can be boiled down to an exhortation (an exercise that Nelson would surely be wary of), it would be to look, to listen — and to get comfortable with the instability you might find upon doing so. But as those anxious audiences at Nelson’s readings indicate, instability can elicit deep discomfort, a feeling many people find intolerable. This has given rise to a rhetoric of care — the presumption, by both individual artists and institutions, that contemporary audiences are, as Nelson writes, “damaged, in need of healing aid and protection” from exploitative social forces.
The decision last fall by four major museums to postpone a retrospective for the painter Philip Guston is perhaps the most high-profile recent example. Concerned by the appearance of Ku Klux Klan figures in Guston’s paintings, the organizing museums decided to postpone the show “until a time at which we think that the powerful message of social and racial justice that is at the center of Philip Guston’s work can be more clearly interpreted.” Interpretation, the statement seems to say, can’t be left up to viewers, who require an appropriate frame through which to think about the work.
The 2017 controversy around the interdisciplinary artist Sam Durant’s “Scaffold” sculpture, which Nelson treats as a case study, is another example. A large-scale sculpture that the Walker Art Center purchased to appear in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, the piece incorporated representations of seven historical gallows, including one used in the 1862 execution of 38 Dakota men in Mankato, Minn. “Scaffold” was intended as a commentary on the history of America’s criminal-justice system, but instead garnered accusations that it irresponsibly evoked the history of Native American genocide. Activists protested the sculpture and secured its removal.
Such incidents have been fodder for stale battles around “cancel culture.” “On Freedom” tries to get beyond these conflicts. Defenders of free speech, especially in art, have tended to uphold uncertainty and discussion as values in and of themselves. For Nelson, that isn’t enough. “Words like nuance, uncertainty — they’re not an end point. You don’t land on them and then become done with the job of beholding particularity or making distinctions. The work goes on.” In the book, Nelson considers various episodes from the art world, such as when the artist and writer Hannah Black demanded that the Whitney Museum destroy the artist Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till’s corpse because in their view, Schutz, who is white, had no right to perpetuate or profit from Black suffering. Nelson uses them as case studies for pushing past the idea of art as a space of absolute freedom on one hand or a source of harm on the other. These discussions take place in a culture, Nelson concedes, that often does real harm to people of color and other vulnerable populations. But she also wants us to consider art’s status as a “third thing” that exists between people, a vital space for thinking that encourages myriad interpretations.
If ‘On Freedom’ can be boiled down to an exhortation (an exercise that Nelson would surely be wary of), it would be to look, to listen — and to get comfortable with the instability you might find upon doing so.
For Nelson, the reclassification of art as political speech, or violence, is a failure to understand what art is — a “corporal, compulsive, potentially pathetic, ethically striated or agnostic activity” that speaks to social and political questions without answering them. This reclassification also ignores what art can do for us. “We don’t have to like all of it, nor remain mute in the face of our discontent,” Nelson writes. “But there’s a difference between going to art with the hope that it will reify a belief or value we already hold, and feeling angry or punitive when it doesn’t, and going to art to see what it’s doing,” she writes.
From this perspective, art becomes a catalyst for further exploration not only of its potentially harmful effects but also whatever other thoughts and feelings it might engender in an audience. It demands a delicate dance between the freedom of the artist to think and create as she chooses and the freedom of the viewer to investigate — freedom to, as Nelson writes in the book, “find a piece of art repulsive, wrongheaded, implicated in injustice in naïve or nefarious ways, without concluding that it threatens our well-being,” and a freedom “not to be interpellated by the works of others, to pity people for making what we perceive to be bad art, and walk on by.” (And walk on by she did, when an installation that included a woman giving a live TED Talk-style speech irritated her.)
The rewards of such a risk can be great. One of Nelson’s favorite pieces of video art is titled “You will never be a woman. You must live the rest of your days entirely as a man and you will only grow more masculine with every passing year. There is no way out.” In it, two trans women alternately caress and shove each other, cooing sweet nothings one moment and cursing the next. Sometimes the border between sweetness and aggression collapses entirely. “Welcome to my home,” one of them begins as she nuzzles the other. “Won’t you feel perfectly free to demean, diminish, patronize, knock down, drag out, manipulate, beat my sorry ass down until I’m crying and gagging?” The juxtaposition of physical intimacy and verbal abuse is deeply uncomfortable to watch, but watching suggests so much: the violence to which these women will be subjected in the world outside the home, the way that performance of that violence can be repurposed as a means to agency, the pleasure to be found in degradation, and more.
This is the peculiar domain of art. “For me, it’s been so important,” Nelson told me at the dining-room table “because it’s a place where all elements — even extremities — of what it feels like to be human can be heard and find place.”
Over the summer, Nelson had been working on a contribution to a proposed volume of essays honoring the literary critic and queer theorist Judith Butler. Each contributor was asked to pick a passage from Butler’s work and write about why it was meaningful to them. Nelson’s quote came from Butler’s 2004 essay collection, “Precarious Life”: “Let’s face it. We’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something.” Grief, Butler suggests, is a measure of desire, the extent to which someone’s departure measures the strength of our care and entanglement.
Nelson is intimately familiar with the way grief and desire commingle. Her father died of a heart attack when she was 10, and her maternal aunt Jane was murdered in 1969: two deaths that have haunted Nelson’s life and work. “My dad died when I was 10, and my unconscious can summon him in dreams really easily,” she told me in the car. “There he’ll be with his voice and with his body and everything that I presume I’ve forgotten.”
Her aunt Jane’s life and death have been the subject of two of her books, “Jane: A Murder” (2005) and “The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial” (2007). In trying to address the density of the shadow that Jane’s death cast over her family, “Jane” is a shape-shifter of a book, at once a work of verse, a dream book, a memoir and a compendium of journalistic accounts and true crime. This grief-bound formal experimentation pushes against the sordid narrative of Jane’s death, yielding a kaleidoscopic portrait of a woman whose life has been reduced to “murder victim.” “I invent her, then, as a woman emerging from the sea,” Nelson writes.
I sense that, for Nelson, one thing art does is help people come to terms with the disorienting scale of loss. Through it we might learn to hold grief at a broken, dangerous world in tandem with the desire for a life within it, a life that doesn’t reduce to a constant need to resist and call out oppression.
In “The Red Parts,” Nelson narrates the trial of the man who murdered Jane, and in doing so shows us the trauma, for women, of living in a world that actively hates them. One example of how this trauma expresses itself: Nelson’s mother cannot abide films that feature violence against women. She “couldn’t tolerate scenes that involved the abduction of women, especially into cars, and she couldn’t watch women be threatened with guns, especially guns pointed at their heads.” Nelson herself, attending a screening of Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver,” is stunned after a scene in which Scorsese makes a cameo as a murderous husband who fantasizes about mutilating his wife’s genitalia.
It’s not possible for me to know the discomfort and pain Nelson felt at that scene, or what her mother feels when films remind her of Jane’s murder. I do have my own primal scenes of discomfort, though. I will never not be dismayed by an early scene in “The Godfather,” when the five families come together to discuss breaking into the drug trade. “In my city,” Don Zaluchi proclaims, “we would keep the traffic in the dark people — the colored. They’re animals anyway, so let them lose their souls.”
It’s hard to describe the distress I feel at this language, when a film I genuinely admire on an aesthetic level ventriloquizes an insult to my community. This moment evokes the history of the drug economy in Black communities, a history my family is all too familiar with. Shakespeare might not have winced at W.E.B. Du Bois’s presence, but when I encounter this moment, I cannot feel Du Bois’s boundless optimism in culture. I feel as if I have fallen through a manhole during a pleasant stroll through culture’s streets. It hurts, but for me it is impossible to ward off this experience by refusing to watch the film — not just because I adore it, but because for Black people the path through Western art’s history is fraught with such pitfalls. I feel drawn to “The Godfather” and countless books, movies and paintings like it not only because I often find them irresistibly beautiful, but also because they help me fortify myself in a world that does not always have my best interests at heart. Pain is not the end of the story.
Pain, disgust or general aversion are not the end of the story for Nelson, either; she’s too curious about what other feelings might arise. She tells another story, of a different attempted-rape scene, in the 1996 movie “Freeway,” in which Kiefer Sutherland threatens to kill and then rape Reese Witherspoon’s teenage protagonist. Nelson’s mother prepares to adhere to the old script, getting up to leave only to suggest that they give it one more minute. “Maybe something different is about to happen.” The film does indeed surprise them: Witherspoon’s character pulls a gun on Sutherland’s would-be murderer. The mother’s curiosity, her willingness to be surprised, the fortitude to stay in the world and see if something different happens, the refusal to cower, all that is also part of the experience, too. What knowledge might this optimistic and joyful stance yield?
This sense of optimism sits at the heart of “On Freedom.” What else is possible? it asks. Nelson’s political allegiances are never unclear, but the book does not privilege politics. “I don’t want to use politics as the snap trap by which we feel like we’ve trapped and understood experience, and have labeled it and mastered it,” she told me. Resisting the temptation to master experience means encountering a field where, as with my experience of “The Godfather,” pleasure, freedom, suffering, doubt, ambivalence, curiosity and, yes, even harm commingle. It’s often hard to disentangle these threads, or tell the difference among them, but one word Nelson might apply to that distinction is “freedom.”
If Nelson takes harm to be an ineradicable, unavoidable obstacle — indeed, something that we might, no matter how hard we try, often inflict on one another as a condition of our freedom — her notion of care doesn’t seek to prevent that harm so much as mitigate it. Nelson is more concerned with the quality of attention we can provide when inevitable harm does befall a person. In her own life, that quality of attention was demonstrated in her friendship with the academic and writer Christina Crosby, who died this year from pancreatic cancer. Crosby, who was Nelson’s teacher, had been paralyzed since 2003, when she snapped her neck in a bicycle accident. In her 2009 prose poem “Bluets,” Nelson describes helping take care of Crosby after the accident. “I do not feel my friend’s pain, but when I unintentionally cause her pain I wince as if I hurt somewhere, and I do,” Nelson wrote. “Often in exhaustion I lay my head down on her lap in her wheelchair and tell her how much I love her, that I’m so sorry she is in so much pain, pain I can witness and imagine but that I do not know.”
“It sounds trite, but I’m just going to miss her so much,” Nelson said as we drove along the 101, missing our exits because driving had become only an excuse for more talking, more thinking. She was relaxed in her seat, tending to the wheel with one hand, her eyes scanning the road. “When they ran the obit in The Times, I kept thinking, I can’t wait to call Christina and ask her what she thought of her obit. It was unreality, where you’re like: Wow we’re really going to have a lot to talk about. We’re going to really decompress on how that Zoom service went.” She sighed. “I guess I’m still in that mode, and not the reality mode, in the way that grief delays.”
I kept thinking about that idea of “pain I can witness and imagine but that I do not know.” The image of Nelson putting her head in her mentor’s lap recalls one from Virginia Woolf’s 1927 novel, “To the Lighthouse”: The painter Lily Briscoe sits at Mrs. Ramsay’s feet, her head resting upon the older woman’s lap. Briscoe despairs at how much love she has for Mrs. Ramsay, yet how immense the psychic distance between them is. Can her love ever hope to bridge that distance?
One problem that haunts Nelson’s writing is our inability to apprehend the pain others experience as they move through the world, no matter how much we might care about them. And how, she wonders, can we adequately care when the pain we are trying to assuage is ultimately unknowable? This problem of irreducible difference, and the ways we might practice care and attention across that difference, feels like Nelson’s long-term project. Her goal is to articulate a nondidactic sort of care, one that defers to the humbling nature of human relation.
“On Freedom” is Nelson’s most clear formulation of what that nonpaternalistic care might look like. It has to do with how closely we are paying attention, or the effort we bring to listening. Nelson tried to articulate this during our drive, her thought for once losing its characteristic fluency, taking on a quiet hesitance. Thinking about how the internet has changed the way people exchange ideas, she mourned the fact that conversation seems to have become less spontaneous, more guarded. The internet “has made a lot of people I know feel like they’re giving depositions and everything’s being recorded. I’ve always really valued this idea of a public flow of idea exchange.” She paused as she maneuvered toward an exit. “On the other hand, I also think about the way that a lot of spontaneous response can also be pathological, unthinking, larded up with defenses or unwillingness to sit in silence or not making enough space to hear what someone else is saying.”
The problem of irreducible difference, and the ways we might practice care and attention across that difference, feels like Nelson’s long-term project.
She had been reading Buddhist thought, she said, and was interested in how a necessary part of conversation was a willingness to pause, to allow for both disinhibition and restraint. Above all, this was about a willingness to be present with what is, rather than our training our attention solely on what we would like the world to be.
“On Freedom” is an argument for how we engage with objects of analysis — and one another — in a way that is principled but not rigid, that displays care for other people’s perceptions, pains and desires, and that has respect for what we cannot know. In “The Argonauts,” she makes use of D.W. Winnicott’s concept of the “good enough” mother, an acknowledgment that mothers will actively fail sometimes when taking care of their children. This occasional failure of care is to be entirely expected — children need a mother to be only “good enough” in order to live in a world in which perfection is an option for neither the mother nor the child.
I wonder, too, if such “good enough” care can apply in other contexts. Here we are, thrown into this world together, unable to save one another from the dangers that will inevitably befall us. Given that reality, how can we live in pleasure and joy, rather than a tense anticipation and clenched enmity, all while protecting ourselves and one another as best we can? As Nelson says, we have “to reckon instead with the fact that everything is not going to be OK, that no one or nothing is coming to save us and that this is both searingly difficult and also fine.” I find something comforting in the notion that being human together necessarily entails difficulty, whether it be the difficulty of moving through the world as a marginalized individual or facing a climate apocalypse in a nation full of varied interests, intellectual investments and needs. The only question is whether we have the habits of mind necessary to navigate it.
“The horse race of hope and fear has never seemed more important to resign from,” she said. “We’ve got to get on a different field and play a different game.”
Ismail Muhammad is a story editor for the magazine. He last wrote a feature article about the filmmaker Garrett Bradley. Catherine Opie is an artist who lives and works in Los Angeles. She was a 2019 Guggenheim fellow and holds the Lynda and Stewart Resnick Endowed Chair in Art at U.C.L.A., where she is also chair of the department of art.
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