Author: Joseph Epstein

“Freedom’s just another word,” a popular song from the 1960s had it, “for nothing left to lose.” The idea behind that line is a very ’60s one: Steer clear of all commitments, personal entanglements and cumbersome possessions, and freedom, that magic land, utopia right here on earth, is yours. In the 1960s, freedom, personal freedom, implied freedom to experiment in all sorts of ways, from sex and drugs to communal living, and included freedom from all responsibilities and constraints. It didn’t, I think it fair to say, quite work out.

Eight or nine years ago, I was in the Haight-Asbury neighborhood of San Francisco, once the Paris, Saint Petersburg and Rome of 1960s consciousness. The spectacle of various aging hippies was on display: tired old guys with guitars, once beautiful girls with long blond hair who were now rather weather-beaten women with long gray hair, all of them, men and women, waiting for a bus into the past that is never going to arrive.

Most of us are waiting for our own bus, if not into the past, then into the future toward freedom, in whatever version we imagine it. Some have freedom arriving with retirement from a job that has not been, to put it gently, all champagne and peanut butter. Some in aspirations for a job that carries freedom as one of its perks, or so we imagine it as doing. Some in breaking free of the bonds of relationships that have gone sour. (In a bad old joke, an elderly man says to his wife, “I’ve been thinking: If one of us dies, I’m going to Paris.”) Some envision a freedom hopelessly vague in shape yet are no less intense in their yearning for it. Freedom of one kind or another, in one way or another, is the name of just about everyone’s desire.

Personal freedom pivots on two prepositions: freedom for and freedom from. Thirty or 40 years ago one might have said that women were most concerned about freedom from: from loneliness, economic worry, anxiety generally. Men wanted freedom for: travel, pleasure, adventure generally. Men may have been the greater fantasts.

In his book Enemies of Promise, the literary critic Cyril Connolly noted that “the perambulator in the hall” can be a great discouragement to writers. But not to writers alone. Most of the freedom mongers I have known have been bachelors, men who saw in marriage the true enemy of freedom. The old cliche about men getting cold feet before their weddings surely has to do with the fear of the loss of masculine freedom that marriage is thought to bring. Men like to travel light. Marriage means traveling heavy: not only the perambulator in the hall, but the bassinet and stroller in the trunk, and let’s not forget the videocam, the potty chair, the diapers and the rest of it.

Yet, with one exception, the men I have known who have chosen to elude the responsibilities of marriage and family seem not to have done much with their freedom. In place of responsibility, they seem to have cultivated hypochondria, extreme fussiness, high anxiety. The exception is a man who, because of his unrelenting energy—he mountain-climbs, bicycles across Greece, has several times been to Katmandu—is impossible to imagine married in any case.

Now it is less than clear if the two freedoms— for and from —divide so neatly by the sexes. One of the results of the rise of feminism, for good and bad, is that women can now, as a perfume ad not so long ago had it, share the fantasy. At first labor-saving appliances—washers and dryers, microwave ovens, now cell phones—helped free women from the full-time burdens of the home. The washout of old dangers through technology (birth control) and of old social attitudes have allowed women, if they wish, to be quite as free as men in the sexual realm. Equal opportunity laws have made them direct competitors in the marketplace.

With both husband and wife working, with the woman sometimes bringing in as much or more money than the man, divorce, which represents another kind of freedom, has been made more readily possible and divorce laws have made it more easily available. Certainly greater numbers of people are availing themselves of it, not to mention availing themselves of what are euphemistically called radical lifestyle changes, of cosmetic surgery (representing the promise of freedom from aging), even of sex-change operations (the ultimate cosmetic surgery). For all this, one doesn’t sense that the GNF, or Gross National Freedom, has risen much over the years.

Money has long been thought to represent freedom. Certainly it enhances possibility. More important than the luxuries it can buy, many people feel, money gives one a measure of freedom, a little more room to maneuver. I was charmed when I first heard the phrase “Go-to-Hell Money.” It meant that one had set aside enough money to be able to tell one’s boss, should the occasion require it, to go to hell—enough money, that is, to weather three or four months search for another job. That was freedom, though of a limited sort.

But I’m not sure that money offers much freedom beyond allowing one to turn down certain kinds of work. Most of the people I know who have accumulated a lot of money spend a good deal of time worrying about it: about losing it, about its not bringing in more through investment, about its being taxed away from them. I’ve also known people who have been given trust funds when fairly young, and it seems to have done very little for them apart from rendering them hopelessly ineligible for serious work.

I once had a neighbor, a young M.D. who was studying for his surgery boards. He had three children and bought a fairly expensive apartment in our building. One day his wife told me that he was one of 16 nieces and nephews who, at age 21, had been given a trust fund that paid them each an annual sum of roughly $60,000. Her husband, she said, was the only one of the 16 who finished college. The rest took up drugs, made foolish investments and one way or another contrived to fall apart. The money created such a disastrous orgy of freedom that the trusts had to be withdrawn.

Had I been given a trust at 21 paying me $60,000 a year I believe that today, 40-odd years later, I should still be in France, working on the poems to go into my not-yet-completed slender first volume of verse. As I look back on my rather fortunate life, what little I can claim to have accomplished was achieved less under freedom than under genuine financial constraint, admixed with lots of worry about meeting small bills. Just lucky, I guess.

Many people connect freedom with certain jobs. Being in business for oneself has always been thought admirable, not merely because one felt one’s destiny was in one’s own control, but because one wasn’t beholden to anyone for one’s own freedom of movement. And it is, I think, admirable. Yet, as anyone who has had the courage to strike out for himself or herself well knows, the burdens (of being responsible for the people who work for you, for one large thing) come close to outweighing the exhilaration of being one’s own man or woman. Freedom may not be what being one’s own boss is really about; what being one’s own boss is about is independence, which isn’t quite the same thing.

One of the things that must seem most attractive about being one or another kind of artist is the freedom implicit in the very word. But one wonders if this freedom, too, isn’t exaggerated. The truly free artist—whether in literature, visual art or music—is free only if he is willing to take large risks: to create precisely as his instinct instructs him to do, not to follow but to lead his audience, to set aside as best he can all thoughts of money and the marketplace in order to concentrate on solutions to the problems presented by his art. Historically, most original artists—James Joyce, Henri Matisse, Arnold Schoenberg—put in long years of neglect, public misunderstanding, financial difficulty. Their freedom came at a heavy price.

I recently read a biography of Count Harry Kessler (1868–1937), the German cultural impresario who, along with being an important patron of modernist art during its difficult early years, was also a figure on the edge of German politics. A man born to great wealth, Kessler, toward the end of his life, realized he had spread himself too thin. His explanation of why he did so is, I think, instructive in the light of the kind of personal freedom our own age so highly values without ever quite being able to achieve.

“But no one can live out all the personalities he contains,” Kessler wrote in his diary, “which is why no person (aside from quite primitive ones) is entirely happy. The more complicated he is, the more souls he contains, the more personalities he can and must be in order to live out his life fully, the more unhappy he is, at least relatively. Only for the very superficial or very primitive is it possible to exhaust all the contents of one’s soul in a short life span; for one must necessarily neglect a part of one’s potential fulfillment.”

For all his wealth, talent, connections, Kessler could not achieve the fulfillment for which he longed. Like so many other worshippers of freedom, before and after him, Kessler finally “drowned,” in the phrase of Soren Kierkegaard, “in the sea of possibilities.” The desire for fulfillment, for seeking an outlet for all one’s potentialities, in the end comes to little more than another version of the search for personal freedom—in this case, the freedom for complete self-development.

Personal freedom may, alas, ultimately be a fantasy. As soon as one thinks about one’s happiness or one’s freedom, one senses that one is neither happy nor free. Freedom may even be one of those words, happiness is another, that one has only to think about in a concentrated way and— _poof!— _it disappears.

My own lately arrived at, rather dour view is that there is no genuine freedom without constraint. Freedom is available, I have come to believe, only after one has lived through and conquered constraint. From Paul Valery to Robert Frost to W.H. Auden, the most impressive of modern poets have insisted that the achievement of poetry is in surmounting, not abandoning, the difficulties of complex verse forms. Valery defined the poet as “a man who is given ideas by the difficulty inherent in his art; not the man for whom difficulty dries them up.” Putting the same point more obliquely, the Russian novelist Dostoevsky said that anyone not clever enough to elude the tsars censors deserved to be censored.

Freedom, in this view, is not something one is given, or buys, but earns. The way one earns it is not through eluding difficulties but through rising above them. One is free, genuinely free, I suspect, only when one has met all the challenges life has confronted one with and, in the effort, has got the best out of oneself. It must be a marvelous feeling. Most of us never get to know it. Should I ever experience it, I promise to get back to you directly.

Joseph Epstein is the author of two forthcoming books: Fabulous Small Jews, A Collection of Stories, and Envy.