More, more, more: ‘All Things Are Too Small,’ by Becca Rothfeld

Marius Sosnowski

Hunger is a need. Desire is a need stylized, like hunger filtered through the imagination. But where hunger feeds function, desire seeks expression. Ever since Montaigne invented the form, great essays revel in their attempt to express desires and their ability to articulate the revelatory. Accordingly, great essays become food for the imagination. And a well-fed imagination, it follows, is good for all.  

Full of verve, wit, and no shortage of voluble passion, Becca Rothfeld’s debut collection of essays, All Things Are Too Small (Metropolitan Books; $27.99), investigates today’s conditions of love and desire and suggests what it might take to achieve more egalitarian ones. Amid all the stuff and noise of modern life, we are suffering from a parsimony of spirit and an overabundance of sanctimony, both of which are anathema not only to the production of art but to the prospect of a more equitable future. Rothfeld, winner of prestigious awards for her criticism, nonfiction book critic at The Washington Post, and “possibly eternal PhD candidate in philosophy,” is well-versed and well-positioned to offer a voice of reason in this muddled age.

“The moral philosopher is expected to take a stand,” mused William H. Gass in his essay “The High Brutality of Good Intentions.” “He is expected to pronounce upon the principles of value.” Rothfeld has made good use of her philosophy background to emphasize the distinctions that tend to get confused, like morality (or the ethical considerations that guide our quest to be good) versus moralism (the stringent application of one interpretation of goodness on large groups of people—willing or unwilling), and she has caught flack for her unwavering commitment to nuance. An adherent to John Rawls’s egalitarian political philosophy, she points to an ass-backward interpretation of the logic of justice, where economic disparities continue to define our existence, yet love and art and other subjective hierarchies are policed for proper proportions. “In less sober terms,” she writes in her opening essay, “economic justice is a prerequisite for humanity because it is a prerequisite for the pursuit of superfluity. … In a world of absolute equality, there would be no place left for derangements of disproportion [i.e., art] … And of course there would be no place for love, which is nothing more or less than favoritism par excellence.”

By probing the opaque depths of such subjects as longing, sexual pleasure, and love among equals (which she considers anything else to be “unworthy of the name”), Rothfeld dares to invite a more value-based approach to cultural assessments. “At every turn, we are inundated with exhortations to smallness… . All things are too small, but some things are less small than others.” Her book, she states, “is an argument in favor of a careful interrogation of the proper limits of the egalitarian project—limits that keep attitudes proper to the political sphere from crossing over into the aesthetic and emotional realms.” And vice versa, one might add. What makes Rothfeld’s work so rewarding—and so vital—is her ability to find everywhere symptoms of the great malady of our age: the material deprivation driving inequality is “an especially stupid sort of smallness.” (Indeed, no one said greed was smart.) 

Rothfeld has an effortless flair for insights that come from varied and unexpected places. Opening (and titling her collecting) with a poem by Hadewijch of Brabant, the 13th century Dutch mystic, she soars through explorations of minimalism, lust by way of David Cronenberg, online stalking and Bergman’s Persona, the works of Sally Rooney, Éric Rohmer and the suspense of chastity, and more; her two central works—on the paucity of the mindfulness movement (“Wherever You Go, You Could Leave”) and an orgiastic manifesto on sexual liberation (“Only Mercy”)—are feats of herculean scrutiny. Her sources reach far and wide, and while occasionally cumbersome, they point more toward an overabundance of diligence than vanity. For if her subtitle—“Essays in Praise of Excess”—is anything to go by, hers is a hungry and eager mind, with a prose style equal parts assured and grasping, like three-point shots taken confidently from beyond the arc. While she’s handy quoting Marx, she’s not here to push the radical line. Her qualms and concerns appear too fundamental to be radical. After her opening essay that advocates for economic reform so we may more keenly critique the world around us, Rothfeld picks apart the suffocating trend of minimalism/declutter culture. With surprising ease, the thread leads to the fragment novel, which Rothfeld deems “less a novel than a gesture at a novel.”

All this skimping on this and that, all these ways to shed the baggage of being human. Ah, to be clean, simple, and streamlined like … the Amazon Prime pipeline. “A life so shriveled weighs very little,” she suggests. “When the time comes, it will prove easy to shed.” But where minimalism feeds off Americans’ predilection for “peddling enlightenment” so that “decluttering becomes like dieting,” the contemporary fragment novel seems born of a mind under the influence of so much austerity. Fragment novelists, whose works include Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation (2014), Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts (2016), Offill’s Weather (2020), and Kate Zambreno’s Drifts (2020), seem to brood on the significance (or insignificance?) of their brooding in what amounts to a “performance of profundity.” But art, Rothfeld argues, is a defiance to the utilitarian edict. “Divested of [excess] and extravagance, [the fragment novel] is … an artwork from which the art has been removed.” With pith and feeling, she adds, “it is only via accumulation—of friends, of fears, of phobias, and of the myriad paraphernalia that accompany any life—that we graduate from schema to soul.” 

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Not only here but throughout All Things Are Too Small, Rothfeld argues for more, more life, more love, more enthusiasm for the messiness of the self—“we often need what we want more than we need what we need.” “Whatever gets you through the night,” John Lennon sang, “it’s alright, it’s alright.”

Rothfeld’s two central works are central not only because they’re strong, or because they comprise a third of the book’s page count. They’re central because Rothfeld manages to encapsulate the pettiness undergirding so much resistance to practicable economic reform: It’s always your fault, not the model’s. In her exploration of the world of mindfulness gurus and their assorted books and courses, “Wherever You Go, You Could Leave,” Rothfeld hits on the free market’s remarkable ability to absorb alternative ways of seeing and being in order to sell its own shortcomings back to us in the form of tactics for self-improvement, to be purchased with our very own short-changed wages.

Rothfeld traces the journey of marketable self-help tactics starting from the late 19th century’s New Thought and “mind cure” movements, which featured such figures as Mary Baker Eddy and Norman Vincent Peale, stopping at the Buddhist/Hinduist-inflected New Age of the midcentury, and focusing on modern figureheads like Jon Kabat-Zinn, Eckhart Tolle, and podcaster Sam Harris. Throughout, the key to a happy life in America, we learn, is to cease thinking and suspend all judgment. Quoting Mark Williams and Danny Pendman’s Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World

“Negative thoughts often come in the guise of harsh questions that beg answers … They nag. Grind away at your soul … Why am I unhappy? What’s up with me today? Where have I gone wrong? When will it end?”

Perhaps when the daily feeling of being imprisoned by gaslighting grifters isn’t so provoking. So thorough does this assault on thinking and appraising the world around us seem, Rothfeld either jestingly chastises herself for thinking or else quotes liberally from the varied texts reprimanding thought and judgment a remarkable seventy times. 

“But if we aren’t thinking, judging, or attaching,” Rothfeld retorts, “what exactly are we doing?” What then, she seems to beg of these yogis, does it mean to be human anyway? Steadily, she unveils, corporations start to take note, finding a convenient way to shift the burden of disgruntlement back onto the employee. Again. (Pointing toward quasi-sociopathic billionaires as testimonials never hurts, either.) Just past midway, we read:

“By far the most revolting point of contact between mindfulness and mind cure is that both take mental gestures to constitute adequate interventions into the material world. The case studies in popular mindfulness books almost uniformly describe people in unendurable working conditions—then urge the people in question to simply improve their attitudes… We might suspect, then, that the solution is for [“Lucy”] to unionize her workplace and agitate for better hours—or at least seek a less oppressive job. It turns out, however, that the solution is meditation.”

Meditation, certainly, will “allow her to remain a maximally productive employee … That [her job] may in fact be demoralizing is never even countenanced as a possibility.”

“Only Mercy,” meanwhile, offers the reader a thorough examination of the “new puritanism” and “post-liberalism” movements and their contributions to the discourse around consent. Rothfeld spends a more than commendable amount of time giving “at least one version of conservative sexual morality a hearing,” with all their waxing on the moral life, the pure life, “the good life,” to dissimulate the constricting and transactional nature of their platform. I never once glimpse in any of Rothfeld’s ample quotations of the movements’ primary figures the words “thoughtfulness,” “conscientiousness,” or “generosity” (three words I personally find instrumental to living morally). Her sixty-page essay is a careful dissection of such sticky topics as consent, eroticism, sexuality, pornography, fetishes, marriage—monogamous and polyamorous—and, importantly, the journey of self-discovery for which sexual exploration is a prerequisite. But what Rothfeld again so precisely reveals is that “a restrictive ethic of personal restraint is the stopgap that takes the place of institutional reform.” 

Whether your sex is raunchy or milquetoast, it would seem apparent in a modern, supposedly democratic society that the affairs between our legs ought not fall within the reach of the long arms of the law. Yet, sexuality—and its repercussions—are very much on trial in public life. But for something so “natural” (the nuclear family fast-track), conservatives spend an awful lot of time and effort propping it up as though it were the Wailing Wall on the verge of collapse. Here’s Rothfeld:

“But it is no accident that “breadwinner conservatism,” as the historian Robert Self deems the American Right’s bid for a monopoly of “family values,” developed alongside viciously free-market economics … It is because the family blunts the blow of political and economic abuses—because women step in to perform the childcare and domestic labor that the state does not subsidize and the market does not remunerate.”

Indeed, we are back to this “especially stupid sort of smallness,” the miser’s offering, that we refer to when we think of the failures to implement sustainable causeways out of the quicksand of generational poverty, including, say, a female’s right to control her own organs. Clearly, begging and pleading for one small act of selflessness is beyond the pale. So much for the moral life. As for my search for that lovable, spry little word “generosity,” here’s Rothfeld: “Sex for its own sake involves a jubilee of generosity. Puritanical sex is at best an obligation and at worst the first step of a transaction… . Sex is not a matter of affording someone else a pleasure but of fulfilling one’s end of a mutually beneficial bargain.” 

At times, Rothfeld’s explorations of sex and eroticism can feel borderline like the work of a master of the arcane. Perhaps her cerebral explorations of physical-sensual exploits wouldn’t be as necessary were its enjoyment not so continually threatened, weaponized, or exploited. Sometimes, with topics as murky and subjective as beauty or physical desire, she flits from quotation to quotation like a hummingbird, as disorienting to witness as it is admirable. But not one essay leaves me cold. 

Instrumental to her supple approach to advocating for more is the warmth that radiates from her pages—love for the subject matter, love for the counterparts, love for the game. Near the end she asserts that “it is essential to love that we believe it will [endure], because an orientation toward eternity is part and parcel of what it is to have faith in the inexhaustibility of another person.” It is in this bigness of spirit that I was reminded of the inexhaustible Guy Davenport, even if the contents differ. Like Davenport—whose Geography of the Imagination reissue she recently reviewed—Rothfeld’s writing is often “a rigor and a riot.” 

Every first book is, first and foremost, a declaration of intent. Rothfeld manages a collection precise in its desire for the right kind of excess, a longing for more we actually need. What will follow from her, I can only hope, will be long and artful seductions extolling the virtues of the mad ones, brimming with passion, unafraid of the honesty of uncertainty. “Each need has an eye,” wrote Gass, “and in this way desire defines its nature.” Even amid our spoils, Rothfeld reminds us that “the ‘democratization of culture’ is a consolation prize, offered up in place of a political order in which people could exert meaningful control over the circumstances of their lives.” And so we remain desirous. 

Marius Sosnowski is the managing editor of Dispatches, a California literary arts and culture magazine.

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