Reimagining Excess

Becca Rothfeld on love, desire, and the quest for more


in Books • Illustrated by Esther Lee


All Things Are Too Small” declares the title, borrowed from a 13th-century Dutch mystic, of the new collection of essays by Becca Rothfeld, one of the most prolific and versatile critics working today. The claim initially confused me. Too small? Casting a weary glance at the way we live now — visual excess blaring from massive omnipresent screens, heaping piles of fast food on offer, great gobs of money coursing through the upper strata of society — it doesn’t seem like things are particularly small. Admittedly speaking as an American, maybe we have too much of everything, which is why nothing ever seems to be enough. But that is what Rothfeld so brilliantly argues: Let’s revert back to a culture of excess so that we may refeed ourselves mentally and physically. 

In an unexpected way, maybe this leads to what Rothfeld’s title is really getting at. Maybe it’s that we don’t necessarily lack material goods (though, no doubt, many do) but it’s our inner lives, the various ways in which we think and feel, that go underfed. “Plates, cups, books, bodies, and all the rest are too small, not contingently but constitutionally. There is no way around the sense, lodged hard in the throat, that the greatest human longings exceed any possible fulfillment. To want something with sufficient fervor is to want it beyond the possibility of ever getting enough of it,” writes Rothfeld.  

We begin with a thorough deconstruction of the inanities of the ever-grinning neatness guru Marie Kondo, who famously advocates, “the life-changing magic of tidying up.” Rothfeld took up the unenviable task of digging through stacks of bestselling self-help books (maybe “manual” is the more accurate term) with tellingly moralistic titles like Lose The Clutter, The Minimalist Way, SHED Your Stuff, Change Your Life, and The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. In one mortifying scene in Kondo’s Netflix show, after a father dies, Kondo encourages the grieving family to get rid of the deceased’s belongings: “Cheers to new beginnings!” croon the widow’s children in incongruously upbeat tones. Out goes most of the material testaments to their father’s existence.  

The scrupulous slightness of these manuals speaks volumes about how little they really say. “In place of full paragraphs and complete sentences, they tend to opt for sidebars, acrostics, and diagrams . . . language is a vehicle for the transfer of information, never a source of pleasure in its own right.” Always a bad sign. Promising to guide the reader towards a quasi-Protestant obsession with organization and cleanliness, it taps into a very American tradition of distrusting “frivolous” things and the traditional pioneer virtues of simplicity and practicality. “Americans have always viewed frills and flounces with suspicion.” Art is, in many ways, useless, ambiguous, ambivalent, and contradictory—which might be its greatest strength, precisely because you get more of what life is really like that way. Asking an artist how much money they make or what “the point” of their work is or insisting that it get shoved into a neat little categorical box can certainly stunt the impulse to create it or revel in it or ultimately value it at all.  

So maybe things are too small in proportion to our willingness to embrace possibility and risk the glorious human messiness of fascinations, obsessions, and anxieties. We ignore the potential of living more fully because we allow ourselves to be corralled by insipid thoughts and language, with a social structure that disincentivizes indulging in what Elvis Costello once called “all this useless beauty.”  Rothfeld makes close reading and rigorous analysis unexpectedly fun, even poetic. It’s a relief to see someone readily quote some of the greatest philosophers and poets without being boring or didactic.     

In a move that scandalized booklovers everywhere (and which she later recanted), Kondo also advised to keep no more than 30 books around the house to avoid the dreaded “clutter.” This arbitrary number isn’t just weird; it’s obliviously, studiously weird, like demanding that the only way to truly eat a sandwich is with the crusts cut off. As any reader knows, books are worth keeping around for any number of reasons. They are either postcards from places that you’ve visited or tickets for places you hope to visit one day. Clutter they are not. Having a well-thumbed, teetering, existentially personal library of anything that you take pride and joy in collecting is a good sign that you still have a pulse.  

In a quest for spiritual minimalism, we Mario Kondo-ed the hell out of our homes and our material bits and bobs, but what of love, desire, and sex?  It’s hard to paraphrase how much Rothfeld has to say in her 60-plus page discussion, but she gives a suitably epic treatment of many of the world’s most fraught topics. Her vivid, poetic description of falling in love doesn’t just celebrate the joys of good sex, which is by no means a bad thing. It suggests something more transformative: “I had been smashed and reconfigured, rendered lavishly naked beneath my flimsy clothing, in short: I was in love . . . the object of any erotic fervor is always outrageously other, an anomaly on the outside clamoring to squirm in.”  

I wouldn’t necessarily have picked David Cronenberg’s movies as a metaphor for the transformative power of love and desire— “Do we want more of it or not? This is the question that Cronenberg’s oeuvre poses relentlessly” — but that’s just me. For Rothfeld, here’s a reason why the director of The Fly and Shivers speaks of how “the oozing oddity of embodiment, in particular, requires hyperbole. The sliming, swelling, and secreting involved in even the most everyday bouts of lust are already the stuff of horror movies.”  

True enough. The various aches and pains of being encased in a body, especially when your desire is to be entangled with another person, is a rueful part of the raw deal of being human, mostly confined to the acute ache of distance. “The flesh, it makes you crazy” as one character in a Cronenberg film puts it. Who can’t relate to that? Another one of art’s greatest consolations: if you can’t explain your deepest, rawest feelings in everyday life, there’s always poetry and music to do it for you, an experience that stretches from Sappho to Taylor Swift.  

The part that resonated the most for me was Rothfeld’s insistence on love and desire as a form of transformation, of emotional metamorphosis. “The cycle of me changing you, the changed you changing me, the changed me changing the changed you, and so on.” It’s scary to be changed or transformed, by love or anything else. Which, I wonder, might reveal the difference between love and sex. I’ve noticed that love, the real thing at least, tends to have that transformative effect. It usually makes people want to change, to grow, either to improve themselves or to better support their loved ones. This might be less true with sex, where people mostly tend to settle.  

But why settle? Rothfeld has a good time debunking the contemporary “neo-Puritans” tut-tutting about how “sex without love is a danger to human hearts” with a devastatingly accurate return serve: “as if sex with love, or love itself, posed no danger.” Maybe that danger is the fear of what might happen once love starts to change you. Sex, Rothfeld argues, is worth pursuing for its own sake, whether done in love or otherwise, and we shouldn’t judge what we, or others, desire and enjoy, because that may lead us to something that we didn’t know we wanted.  

Rothfeld reminds us that consent is crucial, precisely because without it there is no reciprocity: the rapist doesn’t change, because they are imposing their will onto the other person, and only that. Therefore, they aren’t really engaging in the kind of erotic fulfillment she’s advocating. The incel clods who whine about not being allowed to be alpha males who dominate women are showing exactly why they can’t measure up to the standard that Rothfeld sets. Whether you wish for your lover to dominate you or not, they will first need to learn how to seduce you, which requires more than just pounding your chest and wearing Axe body spray.   

It’s a rare treat to see that she’s genuinely funny, an atypical and underrated skill in literary criticism. There’s a wonderfully deadpan self-deprecation to her way of talking about herself, playfully undermining her authority as an obviously tremendously erudite and accomplished person. Being brilliant doesn’t mean you’re not as neurotic and insecure as everyone else. “Amidst all your philosophy,” advised David Hume, “be still a man.” Pardon the 18th-century terminology, since he probably does mean “person,” and savor that humanism.  

She describes obsessing over the social media images of a woman her ex had left her for, which is, of course, not the healthiest action to take but who can’t relate to that feeling? Ditto the way she agonizes while waiting for a text response after leaving someone’s bed, which is winningly compared to the ladies in The Tale of Genji awaiting morning-after poems from their lovers. She wittily refers to herself as “defiantly mintless” after sitting with a clueless guidance counselor during a dark period in college. I appreciated her frankness about struggling through a weekend in a cabin with her boyfriend where she couldn’t bear the idea of him hearing her take a shit. These are the kinds of all-too-human anxieties that tend to get discarded in heady discussions of literature and philosophy.   

I’m glad that Rothfeld noticed the tendency of people, particularly her fellow leftists, who are denied access to genuine political and economic equality, and instead insist on a kind of egalitarianism of taste. No one, the thinking seems to be, should be so elitist as to judge what anyone else likes, be it Citizen Kane or Troll 2, which is amusingly explained as not featuring any actual trolls, let alone any from the original film. The recent flapdoodle over the aesthetic value of Marvel movies might be a case in point. It’s always struck me as silly for people on Rotten Tomatoes or whatever to deny the value of critics (often portrayed as no more than snide, irrelevant haters) and then be outraged over their opinions not supporting their tastes.  

Denigrating the idea of criticizing a work of art and assuming a relativistic stance, saying that there’s no such thing as good or bad art, doesn’t really move the discourse anywhere meaningful or liberate anyone. If anything, it just makes the debates, discussions, and, yes, disagreements about art less juicy than they should be. It’s not for nothing that Rothfeld’s models for the symbiosis of erotic and intellectual gratification are the ever-bantering Mr. Darcy and Lizzie Bennett in Pride and Prejudice and Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant in His Gal Friday. It’s all about the marriage of true minds verbally vaulting over impediments, enjoying the volley of one-liners and witticisms, turning each other on by outwitting each other. “Our true entertainment was arguing” as Rothfeld puts it.  

Toward the end of the collection, Rothfeld confesses how her adoration of Norman Rush’s acclaimed 1991 novel Mating “springs from the same source as the compulsion to show friends a love letter, in a futile effort to relive the experience of receiving it, or the urge to force a cherished artwork on every possible admirer . . . I want to be reading Mating constantly; I want to have been reading Mating forever, but always for the first time; I want everything in my life to be Mating nothing but Mating, including this essay.” Whether or not you’re sufficiently moved to pick the novel up, it’s downright inspiring to see that unabashed aesthetic enthusiasm hasn’t vanished from our hyper-ironic, self-conscious, anxious world.  

If anything, the most useful thing about art is that it can (if it’s good enough) always be further investigated, analyzed, debated, loved, hated, and revisited over and over. Keats was right to proclaim that “a thing of beauty is a joy forever.” That’s why. The more you engage with it, the more you’ll see that discussions have a funny way of getting away from the art itself and inevitably veer into questions of value, of reality, of imagination, and of truth. Ideally, it makes you question who you are and how you are and may guide how you move through the world. The debate is, of course, endless and probably unresolvable, and all the better for it. After all, as Rothfeld puts it: “a lifetime is not enough for all we have to tell each other.” Long may it be so.•


Matt Hanson lives in New Orleans and is contributing editor at The Arts Fuse and American Purpose. His work has also appeared in The American Prospect, The Baffler, The Daily Beast, The Guardian, LARB, The Millions, The New Yorker, and elsewhere. He Tweets at: @MattHansonAF. He can usually be found in the nearest available used book store.