To Create is to be Free

by Ed Simon

I am condemned to be free. —Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness

Well, I wish I could be like a bird in the sky,
how sweet it would be if I found I could fly,
Oh, I’d soar to the sun and look down at the sea,
and then I’d sing ’cause I’d know, yeah,
I’d know how it feels
I’d know how it feels to be free. —Nina Simone, “I Wish I Knew How to be Free”

First mixing the grounds of red and yellow ocher with water so as to make a viscus, sticky gum which she puts between her cheek and whatever teeth she may have had, the woman placed her rough, calloused, weather-beaten, sun-chapped hand against the nubbly surface of the limestone cave’s wall, and then perhaps using a hollow-reed picked from the silty banks of the Rammang-rammang River she would blow that inky substance through her straw, leaving the shadow of a perfect outline. This happened around forty thousand years ago and her hand is still there. A little over two dozen of these tracings in white and red are all over the cave wall. What she looked like, where she was born, whether she had a partner or children, what gods she prayed to and what she requested will forever be unknown, but her fingers are slim and tapered and impossible to distinguish from those of any modern human. “It may seem something of a gamble to try to get close to the thought processes that guided these people,” writes archeologist Jean Clottes in What is Paleolithic Art?: Cave Paintings and the Dawn of Human Creativity. “They are so remote from us.” Today a ladder must be pushed against the surface of the cave’s exterior, which appears as if a dark mouth over the humid, muddy Indonesian rice fields of South Sulawesi Island, so as to climb inside and examine her compositions, but during the Neolithic perhaps they simply cleaved alongside the rock face with their hands and feet. Several other paintings are in the complex; among the earliest figurative compositions ever rendered, some of the sleek, aquiline, red hog deer, others of chimerical therianthropes that are part human and part animal. Beautiful, obviously, and evocative, enigmatic, enchanting, but those handprints are mysterious and moving in a different way, a tangible statement of identity, of a woman who despite the enormity of all of that which we can never understand about her, still made this piece forty millennia ago that let us know she was here, that she lived.

Whether these hand stencils are shamanistic perhaps, maybe a way of communicating to others, or just a way to pass the time – impossible to know. Naturally we look for some instrumental purpose, but as Paul Bahn and Michael Lorblanchet write in The First Artists: In Search of the World’s Oldest Art it’s “true that for a long-time art had primarily utilitarian function… [but] at the same time it has always had aesthetic content. It would be simplistic and utterly wrong to deprive early people of aesthetic feeling. It is even probably that art arose from the pleasure of the perception of shapes and colors… essentially an aesthetic game.” And it’s true, there is a ghostly beauty to the Sulawesi composition, the warmth of the red ochre, the intimate shape of fingers and palm, the way that two hands placed only inches across from each other look like they’re grasping, as if one is reaching to pull up another. The way that the paintings look like they were just made. Hand stencils aren’t uncommon in paleolithic illustrations; just as every continent save for Antarctica has cave art, so too do these sorts of hand stencils join the more celebrated depictions of boars and bears, rhinoceroses and lions, aurochs and wolves that seem to move in the flicker of candle light at Lascaux Cave in France or the Bhimbetka rock shelter in India, at South Africa’s Blombos Cave and the Arnhem Land Plateau in the Australian Outback, in Brazil’s Serra de Capivara National Park and at Big Sur, California. From Altamira, Spain to Argentinian Patagonia, for thousands of years humans have traced their hands by methods not dissimilar to our Indonesian artist. Ambiguous as they are, hand stencils are still a tangible connection to those who created them, arguably the first “self-portraits.” There was a clear sense of intentionality here, where hands that had dressed a rabbit or iguana using a chipped flint or that had swaddled a baby now accomplished something less immediately practical. She created something and she was free.

“Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains,” wrote the Enlightenment-on-the-cusp-of-the-Romantic-period philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau in The Social Contract. An infamous proposition, Rousseau’s understanding has often been contrasted with that of the Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan, where he claimed that without the protections of authority life is bound to be “Solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” For Hobbes the purpose of the state is to ensure freedom from danger, for Rousseau freedom means to live absent of constraint. According to Rousseau’s anarchic counter-politics, or at least the potted version of it that most of us know, civilization was a mistake. From that simplistic reading of the philosopher comes his supposed ideal of the “Noble Savage,” even though that phrase appears in none of Rousseau’s writings. Nevertheless, it’s most associated with him, and what the romanticism of that phrase presumes is that we must reject the alienating bureaucracy of the state, the body-breaking realities of capitalism, the soul-denying machinations of organized religion, in favor of the freedom experienced when blowing red ochre against a cave wall. A fallacy here, not to mention a risk. The former because for so many of the examples given of “Noble Savages,” from Australian Aborigines to American Indians, there was a condescending ignorance of the complex social organization within those cultures; a risk because once you’ve made human beings part of nature, you make it mentally as easy to clear them as if they were trees, to redirect them as if they were rivers. But the painter of Sulawesi was free, for the reason that you are free, and I am also free, even if we don’t always understand that.

I’m not necessarily speaking of freedom in a political sense, nor making an argument about the innate nobility of the paleolithic life, even while hunter-gatherer cultures did tend to suffer less disease and live a higher standard of living than did those in the earliest agricultural societies. Certainly, the distribution of power is often more equal, a pre-requisite to any type of political freedom. As David Graeber and David Wengrow write in The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, hunter-gatherer cultures often “apply principles of equality to just about everything it is possible to apply them to: not just material possessions, which are constantly being shared out or passed around, but herbal or sacred knowledge, prestige… and so on.” None of this means that most of us would prefer to live in hunter-gatherer societies, though of course few of you reading were probably raised in one. We’re partisans of Rousseau in revery, but Hobbesians the moment we need antibiotics or even to just use the toilet. Undeniable that there is a romance to the sort of freedom we stereotypically associate with those paleolithic humans making their way across the rice paddies of Sulawesi, the freedom of being able to sleep in the cool of the evening, to work only to feed your tribe and yourself, to range over thousands of miles, to press your hand to the cold limestone wall of a cave. Freedom is the central political problem of this century because freedom has always been the central political problem. What it is, who is allowed to enjoy it, how to ensure it, where it is best expressed, why we should desire it. If it even exists. What interests me is how we talk about freedom, especially in the United States where it’s more often than not used as a magic word rather than as a political concept with a clear definition, a nation where cliches like “Freedom isn’t free” or “They hate us for our freedoms” are unthinkingly mouthed, ironically a mantra for social cohesion more than anything.

Crucial to remember that freedom meant various things to different thinkers and during different periods of history, often contradictory things. “Our current conception of freedom must be understood as a deliberate and dramatic rupture with long-established ways of thinking about liberty,” explains Annelien De Dijn in Freedom: An Unruly History. “For centuries Western thinkers and political actors identified freedom not with being left alone by the state but with exercising control over the way one is governed.” More democratic than libertarian, the early modern revolutions in America and France weren’t fighting for the “Freedom to quietly enjoy their lives and possessions” but rather for “the freedom to govern themselves.” Still, these were circumscribed revolutions, especially in America, limited to certain classes and categories of people, and at their core about property relations. What De Dijn’s observation demonstrates is that whether or not freedom is never free, it’s at the very least not always clear. In the classical world, freedom implied self-mastery; for Christians it meant metaphysical free-will; during the Enlightenment, it was phrased in terms of inalienable human rights. All of these are well and good and interesting and worth considering, but for anyone who has ever labored under the flickering fluorescent lights of the call-center cubicle or behind the wheel of the Amazon delivery truck or stocking the shelves at a Target these are abstract definitions, whether or not you technically have the right to vote. Karl Marx gets close to the feel of the word, writing in The German Ideology that freedom means it being “possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic,” a type of liberty we associate with the bum and the billionaire, which is maybe his point.

Examine Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia or John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice all you want, but see how well they describe the fragrance of magnolia during a calm spring moonlight, the roar of the Atlantic against the rocky shore of East Matunuck, the look on a bulldog’s face as she sleeps in the sun, the laugh of a toddler pushing a basketball up the hill, the breeze of through an open car window on a Pennsylvania summer night, the sense of walking down the long finger of Broadway past neon marquises, the feel of gently floating in warm Caribbean waters, the immersion of reading and the concentration of writing. Is all of this sentimental? I don’t care –these things are everything. Consider the metaphors we use to describe freedom, of being a bird in flight or of a dolphin swimming, of driving down a lonely highway or setting out to sea. Whatever intellectual abstractions like the “social contract or the “veil of ignorance” or the “minimal state” have to tell us about freedom – and maybe they do, maybe they don’t – they still don’t have as much as an unscheduled afternoon does to inform us of what freedom is, of sleeping in, or staying out late, or eating too much, or of being able to “loaf and invite my soul” as Walt Whitman writes in Leaves of Grass. Let’s not disenchant the word “freedom,” lest it become arid and moribund – let’s remember the score here. All abstractions, definitions, and axioms aside, to the prisoner, being able to take a walk outside is precious freedom; it’s not mere sentimentalism to recall that. To disenchant freedom, to forget that it’s about something both mysterious and personal, ineffable and individual, transcendent and mundane, is to reduce that concept into which oligarch-funded politician you will vote for, or what brand of toothpaste you’re going to buy. So, what does freedom mean if we risk the maudlin, if we acknowledge what we all know and that we’ve often felt? What would it mean to take freedom seriously?

That so often our dreams of freedom take recourse to the same images – flying, swimming, running – evidences that inviolate core of ourselves, that which the secularists call human rights and the mystics call the soul. Something transcendent and universal, innate and metaphysical. Note that when Rousseau wrote that “Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains,” there’s a contradiction. It’s impossible to take Rousseau literally, lots of people are born without political rights, are raised in slums and on reservations, in refugee or prison camps; for that matter lots are born without any chains, actual or figurative, growing up in penthouses and brownstones. When the philosopher says that we’re born free, he is speaking of a metaphysical reality; when he says that everywhere we’re in chains, he’s describing a political one. Utility to this myth about our innate freedom and how society constricts it. Consider, then, the Boss. A reading of Bruce Springsteen vis a vis Rousseau, for the New Jersey rocker’s lyrics, especially during his string of mid-80s albums, were often brilliantly stupid, evocative of the sheer, giddy, beautiful ridiculousness of what freedom feels like, and more over what it’s like to want it when you don’t have it. “Just wrap your legs ’round these velvet rims/And strap your hands ‘cross my engines” is a line that Springsteen knows is simultaneously teenage dumb and genius. Freedom isn’t dumb, but it’s simple, which is why so often adolescence is a repository of those memories, of drinking beer at sunset on salt-drenched beaches and driving down single-lane backcountry roads with the windows down. On the titular track to Springsteen’s Born to Run innocent yearning is intertwined with shaky anxiety, an awareness of freedom’s precarity. “Together we could break this trap/We’ll run ’till we drop, baby, we’ll never go back/Oh, will you walk with me out on the wire? /’Cause baby, I’m just a scared and lonely rider/But I gotta know how it feels/I want to know if love is wild/Babe, I want to know if love is real.” In Springsteen’s early oeuvre, there’s an expression of what’s frightening and sublime about freedom, about what’s intangible about it, how the feel of wind in the hair expresses more of what freedom feels like than either Nozick or Rawls.   

When the artist of South Sulawesi Island pressed palm to limestone, it was an action that lacked an obvious, prosaic utility. Hannah Arendt writes in The Human Condition that freedom is marked by our “never wholly successful attempts to liberate… [ourselves] from necessity.” Compulsion, whether by some outside force, or addiction, or mental affliction is an obvious example of bondage. That there are things we often have to do because of necessity, though we may detest such things (much work is a prime example) is also such. To be free means that you do something because you want to, not because you have to. Now, there are plenty of things that we both wish to do and need to do, and a happy congruence that is, but whether or not something has a point, that which manifests from freedom we do for love. True freedom rejects practicality, the great bulwark against the tyranny of necessity, instrumentalism, positivism, rationality, profit-motive, utilitarianism. This is perhaps even more true when doing something that we need to do. “The glory in the doing. The break of the doing,” writes poet Naomi Shihab Nye from her collection Voices in the Air. Describing something so mundane, so prosaic, and clearly so necessary as cleaning, and Nye shows how complex the relationship between freedom and responsibility can be. “Work was a shining refuge,” Nye says in the first line of the poem, an acknowledgement of how often much of what freedom means has less to do with some prescribed list of activities than it does with our perspective. She describes how “you could sweep this stretch of floor, /this patio or porch, gather white stones in a bucket, /rake the patch for future planting, mop the counter/with a rag.” The prosaic liturgy of simple doing, a sacrament of focused intentionality. “Sometimes the simplest move kept fear from/fragmenting into no energy at all,” writes Nye, “or sorrow from/multiplying, or sorrow from being the only person/living in the house.” Work in the poem is an antidote to the absence of meaning, it’s an expression of freedom and a rebellion against all of that which is unspoken that threatens to consume us.  

Of course, it’d be a cynical and convenient gambit to have me, comfortable working in my wooden colonial chair at my boho-bougie distressed wood desk with wrought iron legs purchased (at discount) from Pottery Barn to wax theoretical about just how free somebody can be in their mind when they’re not free in their body. George Orwell warned about idealistic armchair radicals such as myself in a 1944 column for the socialist newspaper The Tribune, writing about the fallacy that “under a dictatorial government you can be free inside.” He not unfairly accuses the “number of people [who] console themselves with this thought” that “Out in the street the loudspeakers bellow, the flags flutter from the rooftops, the police with tommy-guns prowl to and fros, the face of the Leader four feet wide, glares from every hoarding; but up in the attics the secret enemies of the regime can record their thoughts in perfect freedom.” Arguably Nineteen Eighty-Four, as misquoted and misinterpreted as it often is (ironically proving Orwell’s point) is a brilliant rejoinder to that bourgeois sentimentalism. Being free in your mind means only so much when you’re imprisoned, tortured, indentured, enslaved, starving. Orwell’s not wrong to say that we placate ourselves, we soothe and anesthetize ourselves, if we valorize the dignity and endurance of the human spirit as a way of obscuring the raw and brutal realities of what it means when the human body itself is caged.

Part of what it means to truly believe that every where humans are born free, however, is to feel the flint-spark of individuality that’s given off when any soul resists oppression. Theodor Adorno infamously argued in Cultural Criticism and Society that “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Poetry as a saccharine affectation is surely barbaric in such contexts. But to capitulate, to refuse to write poetry which acts as a strike against cruel power, is to capitulate to the fascists. It can be more barbaric not to write poetry after Auschwitz. “He doesn’t know the world at all/Who stays in his nest and doesn’t go out. /He doesn’t know what birds know best/Nor what I want to sing about, /That the world is full of loveliness,” writes an anonymous child from the Terezin concentration camp, their poem anthologized in Hana Volavkova’s I Never Saw Another Butterfly: Children’s Drawings and Poems from the Terezin Concentration Camp, 1942-1944. The poem entitled “Birdsong” is in one sense an act of psychic resistance against the Nazis, an expression and acknowledgment of the world’s beauty from a child who would be murdered. In another poem from Volavkova’s collection with the paradoxical title of “On a Sunny Evening,” a child describes how the “sun has made a veil of gold/So lovely that my body aches. /Above, the heaven shriek with blue/Convinced I’ve smiled by some mistake… I want to fly but where, how high? /If in barbed wire, things can bloom/Why couldn’t I?” The simplicity of the rhyme scheme, the meter – it’s worthy of Blake. So is the message, and all the more so considering who wrote it, where they wrote it. When it comes to the freedom of the soul when the flesh is held in bondage, it’s a naïve critic who would say that a poem like this means everything, but a cynical and cruel one whom would say that it means nothing.

Freedom’s currency is always imagination before anything else. Prior to material circumstances, prior to living arrangements, prior to social conditions, freedom begins and ends with the capability of being able to imagine alternate worlds, the medium of any authentic liberty. “Imagination! who can sing thy force?” asked the seventeenth-century poet Phillis Wheatley in her Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral:


Or who describe the swiftness of thy course?

Soaring through air to find the bright abode,

Th’ empyreal palace of the thund’ring God,

We on thy pinions can surpass the wind,

And leave the rolling universe behind:

From star to star the mental optics rove,

Measure the skies, and range the realms above.

There in one view we grasp the mighty whole,

Or with new worlds amaze th’ unbounded soul.


Wheatley’s mystical perspective on the freedom of imagination is made all the more poignant by the brutal reality of her own status as an enslaved woman. Notice all of the characteristic metaphors of freedom Wheatley engages, of “Soaring through the air,” of being able to “surpass the wind/And leave the rolling universe behind,” of the ability to “range the realms above.” This is, of course, a purely interior type of motion, it is the “mental optics” which “rove,” nothing seen with her own physical eyes in her actual life. But in the focus of that interior eye, she can traipse from “star to star,” she is able to “grasp the mighty whole” in a vision of the soul’s ascent towards that divine realm. Not just a theological understanding, but a specifically literary one. If what’s being grasped are “new worlds,” it’s fair to see these as not just discovered dimensions, but created ones as well. These visions of “mental optics” that espy “new worlds” might as well be the beautiful and heart-breaking fantasies conceived by Miguel Cervantes in Don Quixote, the delightful levels immeasurable of Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World, the phantasmagorias of Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics and Jorge Luis Borges’ Ficciones. “Freedom stretches only as far as the limits of our consciousness,” writes Carl Jung in Paracelsus the Physician. Literature is the speech which is commensurate with freedom because it’s the only form that allows us this omnipotence of imagination.

We can’t fly as if we were birds, walk on the sun, or survive death in this fallen world, but we can conceive of it in imagination, we can traipse among those ideas as if they were real in the garden of literature, and in the process, we create universes, albeit ones that are purely mental. Lest this only appear as if so much navel-gazing, consider James Baldwin’s axiom from Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems whereby “Imagination/create the situation/and, then, the situation/creates imagination.” Endlessly reciprocal, there’s no changing conditions without first imagining it, our political freedoms radiating out from that kernel of freedom which defines what it means to be human, what it means to be alive. Should freedom mean anything, it means the ability and the right to create, which is why independence of thought and speech are so central. Often arguments in favor of freedom of speech come in one of two varieties; the first asserts that if we avoid regulating speech, then when our enemies take power, they’ll be less likely to censor us, which is the logic of Stockholm Syndrome. The second argument in favor of free speech is the romantic and demonstrably false claim that through reasoned discourse we’ll approach an understanding of the truth which has the reasoning of somebody who has never been in an actual debate with another human being. The reasons for free speech are far simpler – we are humans, and the imagination is our realm, and as citizens of this republic it is our right to range where we wish, no matter how stupid or wrong. Imagination is the only realm in which the individual can self-fashion themselves, in which the soul itself can be engaged in an act of creation; or as theologian James Cone writes in Black Theology and Black Power, that people a person must be “free to become what he is – human.” Freedom is this ability to self-create, this ability to become human.

Freedom means being able to pray and think and say and do, of being able to discover and to create. Those last two are the freedoms of God, which is just another way of saying that our inviolate rights. Explaining Medieval Scholasticism, Terry Eagleton writes in The Meaning of Life that “God is not a celestial engineer who created the world with some strategically calculated goal in mind. He is an artist who created it simply for his own self-delight, and for the self-delight of Creation itself.” To act freely as a human, insomuch as we’re capable of doing so, is to take part in divinity beyond any fantasies of omnipotence. Eagleton’s point is crucial; God is not a businessman in bondage to profit and efficiency, nor is he a bureaucrat indentured to regulation, Creation serves no practical purpose which is why it’s an expression of freedom. Should freedom be anything, it’s as a type of play. That activity is non-instrumental, non-utilitarian, non-pragmatic, non-productive. Like God and Creation, play exists only for itself. Far from being a trifling thing, it’s the only activity commensurate with the full dignity of the free person. The idiosyncratic Dutch historian Johann Huizinga argued as much in his classic Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Western Culture, arguing that freedom and play are identical, for “You can deny, if you like, nearly all abstractions: justice, beauty, truth, goodness, mind, God. You can deny seriousness, but not play.” If play is freedom than literature is also play, for what can be more sublimely ridiculous than concocting complex fictional worlds, of placing words in a line like a child places blocks on a table. Pretend all we want that literature has some practical purpose, that it makes us more productive or sensible or democratic, but ultimately it is simply play. As Huizinga writes approvingly, “poetry will never rise to the level of seriousness. It lies beyond seriousness, on that more primitive and original level where the child… and the seer belong. In the region of dream, enchantment, ecstasy, laughter. To understand poetry, we must be capable of donning the child’s soul like a magic cloak and of forsaking man’s wisdom for the child’s.” Stringing word after word at my desk, and my son sits playing in a corner of my office, putting all of his blocks in a line or placing his tiny hand on the walls near my bookshelf. On a glacial plateau near the base of the Tibetan Himalayas, a quarter-of-a-million years ago, in an epoch far more distant from the Sulawesi artist than she is even from us, and two children, around ages five and seven, pressed their hands into the soft clay coating a limestone wall, moving them in alternating, rhythmically spaced patterns. So ancient are these handprints that anthropologists are unsure if they were humans, Neanderthals, or Denisovans. More debate concerns whether or not what they produced is the earliest example of art, though this seems to be a semantic issue. They were, undoubtedly, fashioning something, creating something, imagining something. They were playing. And they were free.