The Varieties of Travel Experience   /   Summer 2024   /    Book Reviews

Eros Further Unbound

The Case for Keeping the Marital Door Open

Catherine Tumber

Between love and interests (Entre l’amor i l’interès), 1926, by Antoni Alsina i Amils (c.1863–1948); Museu Diocesa d’Urgell, La Seu d’Urgell, Spain; © Paul Maeyaert, all rights reserved 2024, Bridgeman Images; background: The Garden of Earthly Delights (detail), c.1490–1510, by Hieronymus Bosch (c.1450–1516); public domain, Wikimedia Commons.

It must be dismal to come of age in an era so drenched in utility as ours. What was once called soul hunger is now relentlessly thwacked aside by engines of ever greater efficiency, from effective altruism to generative AI. Even the animating realms of art and sex appear to have contracted to the merely serviceable, functional, and fair-minded.

With her new essay collection, Becca Rothfeld has launched a spirited campaign to reverse this state of affairs. Its title, All Things Are Too Small—drawn from the writings of a spiritually enthralled thirteenth-century mystic—is misleading, though, for her soundings do not apply to all things. As troubled as she is by growing wealth inequality and other policy offenses, Rothfeld steers away from political-economic affairs. Her intent is to revel in the shameless precincts of want and to protect its extravagances from a rising tide of minimalism, prudery, and justice seeking. Democracy has its place, Rothfeld argues, but nowhere near the wilds of erotic love or art.

If you don’t wince at cultural criticism framed almost entirely in the first person, Rothfeld is a pleasure to read. She fully inhabits her writing, which is fitting given the underlying theme of her essays: embodiment. Yet her take on the body also narrows her field of vision, not because it excludes the polis but because it elevates youthful carnality over other bodily truths embedded in the arc of life. Rothfeld is at her best when, putting all the personal sex talk on pause, she laments cultural forces arrayed against the spiky demands of thinking, judging, and creating. In “Wherever You Go, You Could Leave”—a title that sends up “mindfulness” maven Jon Kabat-Zinn’s best-selling Wherever You Go, There You Are—she describes her treatment for an early-college bout of suicidal depression as “letting go of judgmental and critical thoughts,” which led only to further alienation. Although its adherents claim that mindfulness has origins in ancient Buddhist monastic discipline, Rothfeld argues that it is actually rooted in the late-nineteenth-century, oh-so-American mind cure movement, whose hyper-rationalistic “spiritual” quest for mental healing fast descended into mere positive thinking. We don’t know precisely how young Rothfeld turned the corner, though heavy moviegoing was involved, which led to her work as a film critic. More decisive, it seems, was a conscious effort to dismiss “non-judgmental awareness,” which sounded to her to be “indistinguishable from depression or desolation.” The self and “its plans, its memories, and its obsessions,” she concluded, are not, as Kabat-Zinn would have it, “costly superfluities” that flatter “the feeling that we call ‘I.’”

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