Tuesday, July 3, 2012
A Note on Freedom
The act and art of improvisation consists chiefly in the exertion of one's power and will - I should say profoundly caused and overdetermined power and will - towards a creative object, by which a certain expression is given a mediated and representational form. In improvisations proper, the gust of spirit results in an object in which the process of creation is not revised or altered outside of the flow of time, say, in acts of spelling and grammar correction, or in acts of editing ostensibly unnecessary parts.
Freedom, or liberty in John Stuart Mill's meaning of the latter, is precisely such an act of improvisation. It is important to say in what this improvisation consists.
By Freedom I actually do mean license. I mean the ability to do something, not the "right thing". I don't mean the ability to accomplish or will the good. Still less do I mean the ability to flourish. All too many of us confuse freedom with social justice or with the Good in an Aristotelian or fundamentalist sense. Freedom never means the freedom to eat healthily or the ability to be kind, or at least the freedom from being coerced to be unkind. Freedom could just as easily mean the freedom to shoot heroin or devour Big Macs. The important thing about Freedom is that it is an act that emanates from the sense of an I that experiences the world, and, in turn, wants to express outwardly what has been experienced internally. If part of that Freedom resides in unhealthy and unwise conformity, that is the risk each of us takes if we are to be in any meaningful and substantive sense Free.
What is most important about any of us is that we have experiences. By experience I do not mean the ability to feel pain or pleasure or to experience aversion or attraction. Our humanity makes us more than those basic reflexes. By experience I mean the totality of all of our sensations and thoughts such that we have a sense of being an I, of being a self. Some of us will make a narrative out of a sense of an I; we will make story and myth out of all of our sensations. Others will not find the need to make a story; the sense of a coherent unity is sufficient.
When we express ourselves in the flow of time we are improvising rather than planning. Humans need to do both, but none of us can say in what proportion in what measure. Those that are the planners and those that are the spontaneous shall forever be at war. And that is as it should be. It is in the act of improvisation that the essence of Freedom is most palpable. The most calculating creature among us has to eventually act in the moment and in that moment will, in spite of all wishes and desires to the contrary, be freely expressing something of the self.
Looked at in this way Freedom will always be the most unpopular and inconvenient of things. It has such great risk to it; it almost insures a certain measure of false starts, of wasted time. Freedom might mean destruction of self and others!
We have only to consider the alternative which is a mechanistic or unfree life. Such a life can be an unqualified success. It could be very smooth and convenient. Yet it would not honor the most unique part of our humanity which is the improvised sense of being experiencing and creating beings.
If there ever comes a time when, in the interest of the overall Good, or survival itself, we have to surrender Freedom in the sense I have identified it, I suggest that we be honest about such surrender. I suggest we go through a grieving period for Freedom. I suggest we honestly say we are giving up a great good, one of the greatest goods, but that, for reasons of emergency or human disaster, we must become more administered so that we may survive. But I should pray we don't lie about such an unfortunate situation and redefine such an extreme abandoment of democracy as Freedom itself. It would not be Freedom but rather some other value like survival or even the greater welfare.
Freedom is truly its own value and is so often at odds with other values with which it is confused and misidentified.
I have no idea if we will have to sacrifice some of our Freedom in the sense of a "long emergency".
If we do give up this sense of Freedom, in daily life, then, as a compensatory move, we will be forced to give over even ever more reign to artistic creation.
We will have to, in a sense, find the space and time to improvise some jazz choruses. We would do well to have some good raw material. Johnny Green's Body and Soul would be a better starting point than most of the songs written in the past forty years. Yet if we lost all of the information from the pre-1960s era and had only Lady Gaga's Bad Romance as an artifact of the past, we would have to nevertheless try and play an improvised solo on Bad Romance the way The Bad Plus or Keith Jarrett would, with that kind of artistic commitment and integrity. And it would have to be improvised and in the fullness and stream of our time and experience as it is lived.
For we can never go back to a thoroughly unfree life: a life dictated by church, or king, and now, alas, market. Not even family is immune from criticism. For we humans have experienced the development of Freedom and it is unlikely we will want to relinquish what is so integral a part of our humanity.