A conversation with Maggie Nelson
On freedom, persuasion, and whether the pursuit of liberation can be joyous
I loved this conversation so much. The other day, I got to chat with a writer I profoundly admire, Maggie Nelson, author of such books as The Argonauts and, most recently, On Freedom. We were invited by PEN America and Cooper Union to talk about her freedom book and my book on persuasion and organizing, The Persuaders.
It quickly became a conversation about so many other things, tributaries acquiring their own tributaries, a flood of ideas.
It’s rare to be able to exchange thoughts with a writer who, on one level, works and thinks completely differently from me and, on another level, has been pursuing so many of the same themes and questions and explorations. I hope you enjoy this edited, tightened version of the conversation as much as I enjoyed having it.
Anand: I think what's so powerful about your book [On Freedom] is that no one disagrees with freedom. I mean, everyone disagrees about everything right now, but no one disagrees about freedom. Everyone thinks that's good. Yet it's the fundamental fault line on virtually every issue. I want to start by asking you something a little more personal about the idea of freedom. I wonder, for you, how have the most important freedoms evolved over the course of your life? The freedoms that you’ve valued most at different stages of life.
Maggie: As for all of us, I'm sure, experiences of feeling confined or feeling free have clearly been very important to me throughout my life. A lot of times I have been around with this book and people say, What about freedom is so important to you? I've kind of felt like a deer in the headlights, like you say, Here we are, I dressed myself, I have a million freedoms. I've convening with you, I'm talking with you, you guys were free to come here. There's so many things.
The book is divided up into art, sex, drugs and climate. Though it's not super autobiographical, I guess there was a journey in each of those chapters that I took thinking about different forms of freedom. I think they go a little bit in progression of freedoms that were important to me coming up — with the sex and art reversed. Then maybe the climate chapter has most of my later-age thoughts about freedom in it.
In the afterward of my book, I talk about freedom and time. We imagine that you feel free in the moment and you know you feel free and it feels good or something like that, but, actually, the older I get, the more I can look back over say the process of writing a book and appreciate the freedom that I had to do it and to think and to publish it and to be in conversation about it, no matter how free or constrained I felt. I guess I would say that retrospective acknowledgement of freedom feels more important to me now.
I really think the climate chapter, in some ways, is about an excitement, which is, I think, something that you and I — I don't want to project too much, but from reading your work — that we share about the idea that there are things to be excited about in the future and that the forms of freedom that wouldn't be built on our experience of carbon and burning oil are ones we don't know a lot about.
As I quote someone in the book saying, new forms of energy production are a way of making a collective future. The more we think about that, the more we can plan what that would be. I think, even though a lot of people were like, I don't want to read the climate chapter. I can't touch it, It's too depressing, I was like, Oh, no. This is actually one of the places where I felt the most excited about things. As you say, we could have nice things, and one has to get in a little bit of a mindset of that, as opposed to, as you write, about the problem, the problem, the problem, the problem, which is emotionally deranging for most people.
Anand: I'm obsessed with that topic of why the fight for — actually, let's not call it climate; let's call it the fight for a world where we can all thrive and kids can drink water safely and breathe and important things like that — how that got associated with dourness and a kind of homework/broccoli vibe. Why the fight to thrive somehow didn't end up in the lane of being a super-exciting collective pursuit that could give all of us purpose. I've asked a lot of the younger climate activists, and they have this beef with some of the older climate activists coming out of sixties and seventies. The Gen Z activists have told me that a lot of those older activists were quite privileged, they were quite comfortable in their lives, many of them. So a rhetoric of sacrifice was appealing to them, because they were comfortable. I'm fascinated by the idea of the freedom to thrive on a habitable planet as a thrilling invitation that we've somehow failed to make to people.
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