• Ben

MAGGIE NELSON IS RIGHT - about this at least

Updated: Oct 13, 2021

My essay, Asylum, for Aeon, ends with this paragraph:

“We are all subject, to a greater or lesser extent, to the deadening, separating effects of day-to-day fascism: in our workplace hierarchies, our state bureaucracies, our interactions with strangers, even our friends. But [the story of] Saint-Alban shows us that this is neither necessary nor inevitable. If they could bring antifascism to life at a medieval castle in rural southern France under occupation, then what’s stopping us here and now? If we have the courage to try, it’s never too late to set ourselves – and each other – free.”

Even as I wrote this, as a last-minute adjustment before submitting the final draft, I was aware that I was cutting some intellectual corners for the sake of affect. I wanted to reach out to the reader, to make sure they understood that what they had just read was not intended as a work of history alone. I wanted to end on a call to action.

A few days after publication, having read my post about Paul Éluard, a friend sent me a photograph of a page from Maggie Nelson’s new book, On Freedom:

The passage reads:

“I’ve long had reservations about the emancipatory rhetoric of past eras, especially the kind that treats liberation as a one-time event or event horizon [… many of these] depend heavily on mythologies of revelation, violent upheaval, revolutionary machismo and teleological progress.”

These mythologies, she says “can be crucial to helping us imagine futures that we want. But they can also condition us into thinking of freedom as a future achievement rather than an unending present practice, something already going on.”

Reading this, I wondered if in my hasty final paragraph I’d allowed myself to be seduced by my own attraction to the revelatory. The phrase ‘set ourselves - and each other - free’ is exactly the language of sudden emancipation Nelson is cautioning against. The image is of a bird escaping a cage, a shackle being broken from a wall.

I think the ‘unending present practice’ Nelson refers to is what Francois Tosquelles called ‘permanent revolution’: the process of continuous questioning and revision, the willingness to revisit any and every decision and tradition, in order to prevent the build-up of disproportionate power in any quarter of a community’s life.

Nelson says this idea of mundane practice might sound like a ‘buzzkill’ compared to the excitement of violent upheaval. And this is exactly why it doesn’t get much airtime. Nine out of ten stories about freedom are about revolution, or about a sudden act of self-liberation. They are very rarely about the steady, potentially exhausting work of practicing freedom in daily life. This was, in large part, why I wanted to tell the story of Saint-Alban: because it gives us a compelling picture of day-to-day freedom work in a setting where the stakes are clear.

There were definitive moments of liberation at Saint-Alban - the demolishing of the hospital walls, the rejection of uniforms. But perhaps these were secondary to some degree. They seemed to arise almost as unavoidable outcomes of the wider practice. If psychiatric patients are already free to come and go from a hospital, if they are daily going out to work on neighbouring farms, then prison walls become absurd.

I guess I’ll stand by my final paragraph in the trust that readers can see the difference between rhetoric and report. But, yes, I do want to qualify it. We can and must set each other free. But doing so may more often be like washing the dishes than tearing down a wall. Here’s a drawing of Maggie Nelson:

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