Review. Maggie Nelson, On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint. McClelland and Stewart, 2021. 

In August 1998, then-President Bill Clinton contributed one of the most cynical and self-serving linguistic misdeeds in, well, history, when he uttered before the Grand Jury: “it depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.”

I remember the scandal and those words as though they were uttered yesterday because he said them the very week that I was to be married. Their content became fodder for a debate so intractable between me and my future husband’s best man, who was so determined to stand by his man, Clinton, that he literally spoke not one word to me the next day, the day of our nuptials, or ever since.  Apparently standing up for Monica Lewinsky in 1998 (even in Canada) was a crime against those who believed themselves to be the guardians of liberal politics, such as my ex-husband’s best man. Today, over twenty years later, Monica and I have been somewhat vindicated, thanks to the #MeToo Movement. I am still awaiting my ex-husband’s best man to catch up. But a far more painful separation has occurred for me, and that is I have reluctantly decided to part ways on this issue with my beloved Maggie Nelson. Nelson’s reading of Monica Lewinsky in her new book, On Freedom, returns Lewinsky to the wilderness of the confused and erring woman, who is now caught in mid-life, in the dark wood of sexual pessimism. 

First of all, I must begin by confessing that I love Maggie Nelson with my whole heart. I was that reader who fell into a sublime month-long melancholy with Bluets, who re-read its most pained passages at every turning of personal heartbreak. I was the reader who re-thought mothering and gender and love like a devoted deckhand of The Argonauts. I continue to find her writing so captivating that I do not wish to add a single jot or a tittle to her feminist insight. But I fear that she gets Lewinsky’s recent awakening woefully wrong. Situated within a chapter on sexual freedom titled, “The Ballad of Sexual Optimism,” Nelson contends that, while #MeToo has given Lewinsky a new sense of empowerment, her insight might well need revising further on up the road. Let’s begin with Lewinsky’s words:

Now, at 44, I’m beginning (just beginning) to consider the implications of power differentials that were so vast between a president and a White House intern. I’m beginning to entertain the notion that in such a circumstance the idea of consent might well to be moot.

Nelson’s response to this change of heart on Lewinsky’s part is striking. Her consideration of Lewinsky is part of a much larger analysis that wrestles with the equally impossible alternatives of pure pessimism (such as the feminist anti-pornography movement and certain iterations of the #MeToo movement) and the exuberant optimism of sexual liberation. Nelson comes down most decidedly in favour of the latter, for she is, rightly, all too aware of the deadly ways that the prohibition and policing of sexuality that have been weaponized against LGBTQ+ persons. Her verdict on Lewinsky’s change of heart is ambivalent, to say the very least. Writes Nelson:

… [W]ho is to say that, after a few years of living with the ‘I was actually a victim of Bill Clinton’s disgusting abuse of power, and I realize now that whatever desire or agency I felt or thought was ‘my own’ was actually manufactured, contaminated, and illusory,’ narrative, Lewinsky might feel different once again? We tend to grow tired of our own stories; we tend to learn from them what they have to teach, then bore of their own singular lens (p. 120-121).

According to Nelson, understanding female desire as inevitably “bad faith”—an illusion that springs wholesale from the contaminated narrative of patriarchy—does an injustice to women’s own accounts of their sexual experience. Yet might we not, with the mature Lewinsky, wish to pause and consider the way in which Lewinsky’s desire and her vulnerability at that time may have caused her to misapprehend her own degree of autonomous agency? Is not the power differential—which includes the subsequent and relentless shaming that Lewinsky was subjected to by Clinton and the public—the precise opposite of the kind of sexual liberation that Nelson envisages? In other words, are there not recurring structural coordinates to women’s stories under hetero-patriarchy, even when (especially when) they appear tired and boring? 

Nelson is rightly seeking an account of sexual freedom that is liberated from the totalizing lenses of judgment and shame.  She imagines sexual liberation (following artist Carolee Schneemann) as “the firm expectation of great times to be won together” (p. 126).  But perhaps heterosexual desire needs a prior liberation to prepare it for such adventures. First it needs to call out abuse, and then it must refuse its thrall. And then, and only then, can the “great times” be won.   

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