River Valley, Maine


John Freeman

Public Space

In the River Valley, a robust culture of “publicness,” let alone public space, seems scant at first glance. This is primarily due to the prominence of the paper mill: Its pollution, smell, optics, and noise make outdoor activities or community gatherings unappealing. For many, however, bodies cannot stay silent or still—even bodies subdued by, dispirited with, or afraid of environmental or work pressures. This two-part feature about public space by writer and literary critic John Freeman and report editor Aaron Cayer examine how bodies can express themselves in small apertures—even when they may be oppressed, restricted, or silenced.

Part I features an excerpt from Freeman’s 2019 book, Dictionary of the Undoing. As bookseller John Evans writes in LitHub, the book is “a conversational corona of essays, in alphabetical order, each building on the previous ones to construct a language with which to speak about our ability to live well together.” One needs little prompting to see what happens when we turn away from this project. “Saving language itself from the predations of party politics, corporate manipulation, and media distortion,” Evans continues, “Freeman calmly and poetically enlivens our vocabulary, accessibly restoring values, heart, and feeling back into the mix. This is the one book … I wish everyone would take some thoughtful moments to read. And then share it with friends so that we can talk differently, to act differently, to create differently, our world.” —Maine’s River Valley report editors

Read part II of the public space feature here.

Excerpted from John Freeman’s Dictionary of the Undoing (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2019).

John Freeman reads “Body.”

We only get one. That’s why it has such power. Be it large or small, freckled or tinted by the sun, black, brown, or white, your body—in a world of endlessness—is the end of you. It’s where you becomes me. We formulate this translation daily inside ourselves, taking in how the world sees us or addresses us and then speaking back with that muscle in our mouth. The flex of our eyes. The tension that curls the lips without making a sound. We create ourselves in the improvisations of address—and with the many things we do with our bodies. Agitating our vocal cords to make a sound. Oppressive power wants to end that choice, of what to do with our bodies, how we speak with them. It wants to pulverize that agency. To do this, the oppressive power has to control the body, reduce it, flatten it. You are you, it says. And I will tell you what you are, what you are meant to do.

And so, in difficult times, the body can begin to seem like simply a container for pain. Rising forms of tyranny want us to think this way. That means their sadism is working. It means we have begun to do the work for them: of reducing certain populations and certain bodies to spectacle. In our modern world there are two audiences for abuses of the body: the viewer and the person being beat, whose body is separated from them, so that its abuses entirely define them. Show this cycle of viewing often enough and the person being beaten will do the abuse for you.

Our culture has become a machine tuned to spin these images. To show us black and brown bodies being abused and women’s bodies being abused, to screen pornographies of violence constantly. We consume these images and become part of them, as if there isn’t a different way to inhabit our bodies. As if no one right now is boiling spaghetti. Or writing a postcard. Or downloading a TV show, or praying, or calling out in despair. Or driving slowly across a long, broad stretch of land in a car alone. Or boarding a bus, or memorizing a poem, or lifting a barbell, or holding a breast before kissing it, or laughing so hard they fall off a chair and fart, or sleeping, or weeping in grief, or weeping in anger, or shouting in anger, or putting their mouth after all these activities to a microphone one afternoon and saying, I am here.

As citizens, wherever we are, we have a right to the sovereignty of joy in our bodies.

Our job as citizens is to reprogram our culture as we hold our governments accountable to our needs. We vote and protest with our bodies. Meantime, we can make our culture an antidote to this poisonous cycle of images. We can choose to stop injecting ourselves with it, and we can find a new lifeblood. One that is based on truth—there is violence; we cannot turn away from it—but a truth that also acknowledges no body is made for harm, or better able to stand harm, than another. We can make a culture that has in its bloodstream the idea that a body is also a container for joy, and one of joy’s most ferocious expressions is resistance. We all know that joy is not expressed alone. Even those unbelievers among us find it hard among the fellowship of worshippers to deny the power of joy, of bodies next to bodies expressing it together. It’s why there’s such tensile power in a library, all those bodies bent over books, bending toward joy in the word. You can feel it on the street some days, the best of them, walking among one another, each body a moving planet of power and joy.

As citizens, wherever we are, we have a right to the sovereignty of joy in our bodies. That means we cannot be unduly harmed, detained, beaten, spit on, maced, pinned, or choked: any institution that is doing such things has begun to lose its power. When a government begins to rely more on the instinct to coerce to stay in power, we must resist, strongly, all of us. But we must also know such governments have shown how deeply they fear the power of the body. Bodies in the street marching in joy. Bodies showing up to protect other bodies from pain. Bodies dancing, bodies adorned, bodies undressed, bodies bucking, bodies reading, bodies praying, bodies mobilized. Each of us may get just one body, but there is a universe of complexity and intensity in every single one. Bear down hard on bodies and they will come together somewhere else, seeking joy. It wasn’t the spending contest and the missiles pointed at population centers that broke the Iron Curtain; it was the beauty of blue jeans wrapped around a body. Governments, because they tend to consolidate power in the hands of a few, behave like sociopaths and sadists. They do not have the capacity, as entities, to express joy, like bodies do. It is up to us to show how that is done, and in that redefinition—we take back our bodies, and remember how much power we hold.


John Freeman

is the founder of the literary annual Freeman’s and editor of multiple anthologies, including The Penguin Book of the Modern American Short Story, forthcoming in 2021. His other books include How to Read a Novelist, The Tyranny of E-mail: The Four-Thousand-Year Journey to Your Inbox, and two volumes of poetry, Maps and The Park. His work has been translated into more than 20 languages and has appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and The New York Times. He is currently an artist-in-residence at New York University and executive editor at Knopf.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.