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Like Love by Maggie Nelson review – music, passion and friendship

Like Love by Maggie Nelson review – music, passion and friendship

“As a child I had so much energy I’d lie awake and feel my organs smolder,” Maggie Nelson wrote in 2005’s Jane: A Murder. She was a dancer before she was a writer and you can feel the commitment to the fire of bodily motion in her masterpieces: the shimmeringly brutal excavation of girlhood and violence in Jane, the story of her aunt’s killing at the hands of a rapist; the clear-headed yet ecstatic celebration of the transformations of pregnancy and top surgery, and the new kind of family she and her trans partner brought into being in The Argonauts (2015). Her dedication to the material finds the forms it needs; I don’t think she sets out to bend genres. Instead, her high-stakes eviscerations of body settle into radically new forms.

Is this the energy of the rebel or the valedictorian? For decades, Nelson has parted her hair, fastened her top button, won the right grades and grants while throwing herself voluptuously into the counterculture, dreaming of being an “electric ribbon of horniness and divine grace” like one of her inspirations, Prince. It’s an American energy – expansive, new, full of power, pleasure, change and motion; a frontier energy, even when she’s writing about New York. We can hear Whitman behind her, and Emerson. “Power ceases in the instant of repose,” Emerson pronounces in Self-Reliance; “it resides in the moment of transition from a past to a new state, in the shooting of a gulf, in the darting to an aim.”

A decade after The Argonauts became the bible of English graduates everywhere, the essays in Like Love arrive to help us understand Nelson’s place in a culture where, to her half-delight, she has become such a powerful voice. Spanning two decades, they range from appreciations of influences including Prince and Judith Butler, to wild, freefalling conversations with figures such as Björk, Wayne Koestenbaum and Jacqueline Rose. There is a passionate, wondering account of her formative half-erotic friendship with the singer Lhasa de Sela. The writing isn’t consistent, any more than her books are. But I like to take my thinkers and writers whole, as she does. The essays offer a kind of composite self-portrait, and illustrate how she thinks, sometimes painstakingly, sometimes with casual jubilance, about some of the central dilemmas of our time.

In the face of the climate crisis, how to avoid “giving in to the narcissistic spectacle of the slo-mo Titanic going down”? In the face of the crisis in feminism, how and whether to move beyond sexual difference? The written exchanges show her interlocutors thinking it through, too. “You dare to step into the future like no one else atm,” Björk says. It’s true. This is where all that restless energy is leading. This is why she’s an Emersonian, shying away from nihilism. “There are new lands, new men, new thoughts,” Emerson wrote in Nature, discarding the “dry bones” of his ancestors; “Let us demand our own works and laws and worship.”

In her powerful piece on the artist Carolee Schneemann, Nelson posits her as a female incarnation of Emerson’s self-reliant man. But it’s Nelson herself who proffers new laws and worship – whose project amounts to a practical philosophy of contemporary American culture. In The Argonauts she offers the gift of a future we can somehow share; one that acknowledges the miseries of the present, that has space for dreams, but is obstinately material and in our world. Here, in dialogue with Jacqueline Rose, she proposes that “Everybody deserves the kind of non-stultifying internal breathing space of fluidity or instability that is attributed to queers, or to women, or whatever.”

Like Love’s title comes from theatre critic Hilton Als’s vision of a group on the subway not as white women or black men but as mouths that need filling “with something wet or dry, like love, or unfamiliar and savory, like love”. Nelson, too, is drawn to mouths – to orifices in general – as organs of pleasure and pain, and as portals enabling a radical openness.

Because Nelson likes writing about her friends, there’s a kind of homogeneity to much of the book that cumulatively left me feeling a little claustrophobic, longing especially for the roominess of time travel. With the exception of 2009’s Bluets, Nelson’s writing is so located in the postwar world that the past can feel entirely absent. This is her affinity with Emerson and Whitman again – her song to the future – but I wonder if I’m alone in wishing that, alongside those two often acknowledged ancestors, her future could have artists, activists and libertines from earlier centuries informing it, too.

Which is not to say that she’s wrong to write about the people in her circle. The brutality of the present moment may require us precisely to batten down the hatches and commit to extreme solidarity. At a time when institutional life is collapsing, when the pandemic privileged family over friends, when work expands in ways that leave many too exhausted to socialise, Nelson demonstrates what it means to dedicate yourself to a cohort with seriousness and strenuousness. “You, to me, quickly became an inspiration,” she tells the poet Brian Blanchfield, “a brother, a support in times of seriously dark waters, an editor, a lender of excellent and pivotal books, a cheerleader, a colleague, a couch sleeper (and couch mover), a fellow swimmer … a corrupting gambler, (queer) family.” Like Love may be one of the most movingly specific, the most lovingly unruly celebrations of the ethics of friendship we have.

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Source: theguardian.com