Becoming liberated is the act of breaking free from constraint. Constraint may be physical, spiritual or both. Those who experience a moment of liberation usually remember it all their lives. Our art and literature celebrate that life-changing moment in the lives of many when the body and/or the spirit becomes free.
Some of the best slaveholders will sometimes give their favourite slaves a few days' holiday at Christmas time; so, after no little amount of perseverance on my wife's part, she obtained a pass from her mistress, allowing her to be away for a few days. The cabinet-maker with whom I worked gave me a similar paper, but said that he needed my services very much, and wished me to return as soon as the time granted was up. I thanked him kindly; but somehow I have not been able to make it convenient to return yet; and, as the free air of good old England agrees so well with my wife and our dear little ones, as well as with myself, it is not at all likely we shall return at present to the "peculiar institution" of chains and stripes. [Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom; or, the Escape of William and Ellen Craft from Slavery (1860).]
- Rosa Cavalleri was an Italian who who escaped from an abusive husband who had forced her into prostitution. Her life is chronicled in Marie Hall Ets, Rosa: The Life of an Italian Immigrant (University of Minnesota Press, 1970).
- Isaac Mizrahi, I.M.: A Memoir (Flatiron Books, 2019): “Isaac Mizrahi Found Freedom Through Fashion” and by being authentic.
- Amber Scorah, Leaving the Witness: Exiting a Religion and Finding a Life (Viking, 2019): “Many fundamentalists are conscious of the seeming absurdity of their position, but it is precisely the stridency of their faith, their ability to withstand the irrational, that confirms for them their exceptionalism and salvation.” “ . . . it was through an email correspondence with a man that Scorah found the courage to court apostasy, focusing on the contradictions in Witness doctrine, its misogyny, and how its promotion of ignorance and lack of education undermines any sense of personal choice, rendering the word almost meaningless.”
- Joe Meno, Between Everything and Nothing: The Journey of Seidu Mohammed and Razak Iyal and the Quest for Asylum (Counterpoint, 2020): “Seidu’s identity as a queer man and Razak’s dispute with his half siblings over inherited land could well have made their situations intolerable. But what matters just as much is that the men were willing to abandon everything that was familiar to risk the unknown, that the promise of greater opportunity became just as urgent as what was pushing them to go.”
- Wayétu Moore, The Dragons, The Giant, The Women: A Memoir (Graywolf Press, 2020): “. . . framed by her family’s harrowing escape from (Liberia's) civil war, which broke out in 1989, spanned 14 years and resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands, with millions more displaced.”
- Paulina Bren, The Barbizon: The Hotel That Set Women Free (Simon & Schuster, 2021): “. . . Bren’s book is really about the changing cultural perceptions of women’s ambition throughout the last century, set against the backdrop of that most famous theater of aspiration, New York City.”
On the dark side:
- Robert Service, A History of Modern Russia: From Nicholas II to Vladimir Putin, Revised Edition (Harvard University Press, 2005).
There is political liberation:
- René Magritte, On the Threshold of Liberty (1930)
- Eugene Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People (1830)
There is liberation of one person by another:
- Peter Paul Rubens, Perseus Liberating Andromeda (1622)
There is liberation of the self, as in Diego Rivera's painting at the top of this page.
Film and Stage
- Precious: an obese teenage girl, living with her dis-spirited and abusive mother, crawls her way to normalcy
- The Piano, the story of a gifted pianist's struggle to find her identity
- Paisà (Paisan), an Italian neorealist film of “six episodes, each elucidating upon the tenuous relationship between the recently liberated Italians and their American liberators”
- Thelma and Louise, Thelma and Louise, a tragic-comic look at personal liberation
- Zero for Conduct (Zero de Conduite): rebellion in a boarding school
- Real Women Have Curves: a young Hispanic woman navigates her way – sometimes lovingly, sometimes in exasperation – through a family experience that would hold her back, if she allowed that.
Music: Composers, artists, and major works
- Händel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt, HWV 54 (1738) tells the biblical story of a people’s liberation from its oppressors (performances conducted by Christie, Gardiner, and Cleobury).
- Charpentier, Louise: A remarkable fuss over a young woman leaving her parents’ home to embark on a new life with a man (performances conducted by Armin, Cambreling and Rudel)
- Janáček: The Cunning Little Vixen (Příhody lišky Bystroušky) (1923) escapes captivity, marries and raises a family (performances conducted by Welser-Möst, Mackerras and unidentified conductor).
- D'Indy: Symphony on a French Mountain Air (1886)
- Carulli: Guitar Sonatas, Op. 21
- Granados: 12 Danzas Españolas (12 Spanish Dances), Op. 37, DLRI:2, H142 (1890)
- Gordon Green’s arrangements and variations for digital piano free the performance from the earthly constraints of hands and fingers.
- Aho, Symphony No. 4 (1973): tragedy gives way to liberation.
- Balakirev, Piano Concerto No. 1 in F-sharp Minor, Op. 1 (1856)
- Wolpe, Sonata for Violin & Piano (1949): Wolpe described this work as “one of the first pieces which show my personal liberation, or my personal restoration.”
- Avondado, Il mondo della luna (The World of the Moon) (1750), an opera buffa in which two young women escape from their father’s heavy hand to (guess what!) marry their lovers
- Galuppi, Il mondo della luna (The World of the Moon)
- Haydn, Il mondo della luna (The World of the Moon) (Die Welt auf dem Monde), Hob. XXVIII:7 (1777): Haydn was not to be outdone by Avondado, Galuppi and several other composers who set Carlo Goldoni’s tale to music.
. . . while Rome is undergoing gradual dismemberment, Romanesque architecture dies. The hieroglyph deserts the cathedral, and betakes itself to blazoning the donjon keep, in order to lend prestige to feudalism. The cathedral itself, that edifice formerly so dogmatic, invaded henceforth by the _bourgeoisie_, by the community, by liberty, escapes the priest and falls into the power of the artist. The artist builds it after his own fashion. Farewell to mystery, myth, law. Fancy and caprice, welcome. Provided the priest has his basilica and his altar, he has nothing to say. The four walls belong to the artist. The architectural book belongs no longer to the priest, to religion, to Rome; it is the property of poetry, of imagination, of the people. Hence the rapid and innumerable transformations of that architecture which owns but three centuries, so striking after the stagnant immobility of the Romanesque architecture, which owns six or seven. Nevertheless, art marches on with giant strides. Popular genius amid originality accomplish the task which the bishops formerly fulfilled. Each race writes its line upon the book, as it passes; it erases the ancient Romanesque hieroglyphs on the frontispieces of cathedrals, and at the most one only sees dogma cropping out here and there, beneath the new symbol which it has deposited. The popular drapery hardly permits the religious skeleton to be suspected. One cannot even form an idea of the liberties which the architects then take, even toward the Church. There are capitals knitted of nuns and monks, shamelessly coupled, as on the hall of chimney pieces in the Palais de Justice, in Paris. There is Noah’s adventure carved to the last detail, as under the great portal of Bourges. There is a bacchanalian monk, with ass’s ears and glass in hand, laughing in the face of a whole community, as on the lavatory of the Abbey of Bocherville. There exists at that epoch, for thought written in stone, a privilege exactly comparable to our present liberty of the press. It is the liberty of architecture.
This liberty goes very far. Sometimes a portal, a façade, an entire church, presents a symbolical sense absolutely foreign to worship, or even hostile to the Church. In the thirteenth century, Guillaume de Paris, and Nicholas Flamel, in the fifteenth, wrote such seditious pages. Saint-Jacques de la Boucherie was a whole church of the opposition.
Thought was then free only in this manner; hence it never wrote itself out completely except on the books called edifices. Thought, under the form of edifice, could have beheld itself burned in the public square by the hands of the executioner, in its manuscript form, if it had been sufficiently imprudent to risk itself thus; thought, as the door of a church, would have been a spectator of the punishment of thought as a book. Having thus only this resource, masonry, in order to make its way to the light, flung itself upon it from all quarters. [Victor Hugo, Notre-Dame de Paris, or, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831), Volume I, Book Fifth, Chapter II, “This Will Kill That”.]
- Esi Edugyan, Washington Black: A Novel (Alfred A. Knopf, 2018): A young man imagines and achieves a new life for himself. “His urge to live all he can is matched by his eloquence, his restless mind striving beyond its own confines in tones that are sometimes overstretched, if brilliant, and then filled with calm subtlety and nuance.”
- Otessa Moshfegh, My Year of Rest and Relaxation: A Novel (Penguin Press, 2018): “ . . . Moshfegh’s darkly comic and ultimately profound new novel, also concerns itself with a miserable woman in her mid-20s seeking ‘great transformation.’ This unnamed narrator, however, takes a vastly different approach: She plans to spend a year sleeping.”
- E.J. Levy, The Cape Doctor: A Novel (Little, Brown and Company, 2021): “Learning new ways to walk, talk and think proves so liberating that abandoning the hoax, even when the opportunity arises, seems impossible.”
- Naomi Hirahara, Clark and Division: A Novel (Soho Press, 2021): “This is as much a crime novel as it is a family and societal tragedy, filtering one of the cruelest examples of American prejudice through the prism of one young woman determined to assert her independence, whatever the cost.”
One of my wishes is that those dark trees, / So old and firm they scarcely show the breeze, / Were not, as 'twere, the merest mask of gloom, / But stretched away unto the edge of doom.
I should not be withheld but that some day / Into their vastness I should steal away, / Fearless of ever finding open land, / Or highway where the slow wheel pours the sand.
I do not see why I should e'er turn back, / Or those should not set forth upon my track / To overtake me, who should miss me here / And long to know if still I held them dear.
They would not find me changed from him they knew-- / Only more sure of all I though was true.
- Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, “Learning to Read”
Music: songs and other short pieces