We have been raised in a world, where limitless freedom is the ultimate value. We shrink at the possible thought that someone somewhere might forbid us to do something. We look with fear at countries such as North Korea, where freedom is almost non-existent, and we admire and revere the US and Europe where almost everything is possible. We find it difficult to understand life in the 19th century, where women were dependent on men for their survival, where marriages were arranged, and where the family you were born in determined your entire future. We believe that we have managed to conquer all of the limitations of the past generations and we now live in this perfect world, where freedom can take you anywhere you want to be. We (and I strongly include myself in that) never stop to even think that maybe too much freedom might be bad for us. That indefinite freedom might actually mean a longer rope to hang ourselves.
Jonathan Franzen is a name I have heard of for quite a long time but never actually got myself around to read anything he has written. His most famous novel, The Corrections (next on my reading list) brought him world fame and the National Book Award. Freedom, his long-awaited novel, actually received very mixed reviews. I have always been drawn to extremes. Novels that half of the people adore and the other half hate. People that provoke either passionate admiration or utter contempt. Movies that some revere and others simply detest . Anything that is able to invoke polar strong feelings in people must be well past average, must be brilliant in some way. (Un)fortunately, I have also led my life the same way – striving to be adored or hated by people. Anything but being that average person that everyone sort of likes, but doesn’t really have any strong feelings for.
Through the life of a single family, the Berglunds, Franzen exposes all the ills of the free contemporary society we live in. Freedom has brought us on the verge of extinction (although we probably do not realize that). Overpopulation, pollution, environmental contamination, national resources scarcity and species extinction, to name a few, are among the problems that will rather sooner than later endanger the survival of the smartest animal on Earth. And yet we continue to exploit what has been given to us, blind to other people and to nature, desperate to fulfil some void inside us by doing more, getting more, taking all of the chances available to demonstrate that we are free. Free to lead an amazing life or free to fuck it up as we wish:
You may be poor, but the one thing nobody can take away from you is the freedom to fuck up your life whatever way you want to.
The Berglunds are the typical American family, which on the surface has achieved the American dream. Patty, once a college basketball star, is now a stay-at-home mother, taking care of two children. Walter is a hard-working, non-drinking and attentive husband, who adores his wife and his two children. They are the perfect neighbours, who are ready to forgive anyone anything, as long as their own privilege is forgiven.
And yet, the freedom that steams from the attainment of the American dream seems not to be enough. What probably makes Freedom so powerful is that everyone can recognize himself or herself in one of the characters at some point. The prodigal son, who leaves home and becomes a Republican, wishing to differentiate from his father as much as possible. The woman who falls into a mid-life depression and wanders helplessly between the good man she married and the bad man she wished she had but never did. The husband who had the unfortunate luck to fall in love with a woman, who can make him both incredibly happy and utterly miserable. The rock star, whose self-destructive ways arise more sympathy than reproach.
Freedom is indeed a great American novel, but it is also a great universal novel. Because the problems that Franzen exposes are as valid for the US as for the rest of the developed world. The author easily jumps from past to present and through the point-of-view of different characters explores a world of infidelity, dysfunctional parent-children relationship, depression, excessive drinking, drug addictions, self-loathing and insecurity. I am inclined to believe that humanity cannot successfully deal with the excessive freedom inflicted upon it. In an ever more confusing and complex world, we are exposed to both the benefits and the burden of personal liberties:
Where did the self-pity come from? The inordinate volume of it? By almost any standard, she led a luxurious life. She had all day every day to figure out some decent and satisfying way to live, and yet all she ever seemed to get for all her choices and all her freedom was more miserable. The autobiographer is almost forced to the conclusion that she pitied herself for being so free.
Set in the years of the Clinton and the Bush administration, Freedom is an open critic of the war in Iraq and of US’s obsession to control the world and to transform it according to its own views of how one is supposed to live:
People came to this country for either money or freedom. If you don’t have money, you cling to your freedoms all the more angrily.
Nevertheless, both Republicans and Democrats fail to grasp the seriousness of the issues ahead of us. Through Walter, Franzen advocates a rather extreme and unpopular view – the population growth must be controlled. More people on the planet means more choices. And when the different choices of 7 billion selfish people collide, the result is a complete disaster just waiting to happen.
Freedom explores the shortcomings of both personal and national freedom to criticize a society that has focused too much on liberties and has come to regard constraints as evil. However, when the soul becomes overburdened with freedom, when anything is just a click away, when technological advancement allows you to be here and there simultaneously, personal relationships become obsolete. We have been focusing for too long on our own personal freedom to notice and understand that we need to coexist with 7 billion other people. Freedom in that sense must not be regarded as the freedom to do whatever you want now, just because you can or you must, but rather as the freedom to cautiously and carefully exploit the opportunities before you to lead a satisfactory life with the ones you love. Too much freedom indeed becomes detrimental because as everything is possible, nothing is really valuable.
Other favourite quotes:
…but there are few things harder to imagine than other people’s conversations about yourself.
Nice people don’t necessarily fall in love with nice people.
There’s a hazardous sadness to the first sounds of someone else’s work in the morning; it’s as if stillness experiences pain in being broken. The first minute of the workday reminds you of all the other minutes that a day consists of, and it’s never a good think of minutes as individuals. Only after other minutes have joined the naked, lonely first minute does the day become more safely integrated in its dayness.
There was nobody like you / For me. Nobody / I live with nobody. Love / Nobody. You were that body / That nobody was like / You were that body / That body for me / There was nobody like you
And this, of course, was the simplest definition of depression that he knew of: strongly disliking yourself.
Just because a person isn’t making good use of her life, it doesn’t stop her life from passing.
This wasn’t the person he’d thought he was, or would have chosen to be if he’d been free to choose, but there was something comforting and liberating about being an actual definite someone, rather than a collection of contradictory potential someones.
But nothing disturbs the feeling of specialness like the presence of other human beings feeling identically special.
The personality susceptible to the dream of limitless freedom is a personality also prone, should the dream ever sour, to misanthropy and rage.
There is, after all, a kind of happiness in unhappiness, if it’s the right unhappiness.