The Freedom of the Not-Free

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4 July 2009

On this Independence Day, I’m thinking — no kidding — about freedom.  Toni Morrison’s A Mercy has me thinking about the cost of independence and self-sufficiency; Dan Baum had me thinking about it a few weeks back when he wrote about life after the New Yorker; and now, this from DH Lawrence’s “Studies in Classic American Literature” (thanks to Sarah for passing this along):

Men are less free than they imagine; ah, far less free.  The freest are perhaps least free.

Men are free when they are in a living homeland, not when they are straying and breaking away.  Men are free when they are obeying some deep, inward voice of religious belief.  Obeying from within.  Men are free when they belong to a living, organic, believing community, active in fulfilling some unfuilfilled, perhaps unrealized purpose.  Not when they are escaping to some wild west.  The most unfree souls go west, and shout of freedom.  Men are freest when they are most unconscious of freedom.  The shout is a rattling of chains, always was.  

Men are not free when they are doing just what they like.  The moment you can do just what you like, there is nothing you care about doing. Men are only free when they are doing what the deepest self likes.

Food for thought (after you’ve digested your hot dogs and hamburgers and potato salad).

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One Response to “The Freedom of the Not-Free”

  1. Eric Says:

    I disagree twice with Lawrence–once viscerally and again after a little thought. I’m one of those who goes west when I have the time and I’ve never felt, or thought I’ve felt, more free and alive than when faced with a great open expanse of land, and still never more humble than when in front of the Grand Canyon.

    But that argument goes only as far as Lawrence’s: pretty words, a mercurial truth.

    When I was younger and in the depths of religion a youth pastor once told me that a person is more free when they obey the law than when not. Who going 55mph worries at the sight of a cop, that sort of thing. But regardless of that person’s state of mind, they are still less free than without the existence of that cop, that law. And if we’re discussing freedom, not happiness, then it is that person running west who is most free, and I think Morrison would agree. There are sacrifices to be made for absolute freedom, just as there are for happiness, and I think at times one has to choose between the two.


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