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.


  1. This is an interesting piece. But the way you define freedom as the right to be unhealthy and say that freedom is never about the right to be healthy is the way that most people would define freedom actually. Most people equate freedom with doing bad things to their health by drinking excessively or taking drugs for instance, or with being rude as a release or committing any and every sort of transgression of what are considered to be oppressive social rules. But there's another kind of oppression, and that's the slavish devotion we have to negating and rejecting everything we feel we're supposed to do and be. In that sense we may be enslaved to an abstract "idea" of what freedom is or is not more than we think, even if we think we are acting in total freedom. What would we do without the prior thought, without the prior idea of what is forbidden? I don't think that it's possible for anyone to be either totally systematic or totally spontaneous, and I suspect that often people who seem spontaneous are often quite rigid and vice versa. For instance, there is no meaningful jazz improvisation without a deep knowledge of chordal and harmonic structure, concrete tunes, and music history, which all requires careful systematic learning of rules. Of course you're right to suggest that freedom is a highly personal and individual thing, but too often today the only kind of freedom people recognize seems so reactionary and unimaginitive.

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  3. Life is all about making choices. Ultimately none of them are 'wrong' or 'misguided.' Many choose not to choose and are borne along passively in life, reacting rather than acting.

    But true freedom involves responsibility. Only when we take responsibility are we truly free. This is an example of polarity, as I described in this excerpt from a letter I wrote to you Mitch, back in '97 (my, how time flies):
    "An essential point about polarity is that the two poles depend on each other to exist. You bring up the subject of opposites in comparing the political Left with the Right. Without the Left there would be no Right and vice versa. As you said, the resolution is in the merging of the two--a synthesis--resulting in their forming a unity... Much of Jung's work dealt with the integration and unification of the opposites; he pointed to the ouroboros, the snake that eats its own tail, as the archetype of this alchemical process."

    Anyway, good example you gave Anna, of the knowledge of music required to improvise it meaningfully. Although, I've improvised stuff on the piano that I've been told was pretty good, and I have little formal music training. But who knows, maybe in a past life... ;)

  4. postscript:

    Most people aren't really ready for true freedom.
    They just want to be more comfortable within their restrictions. More money at their jobs, stability and security in general. But freedom of the soul - nope.