Hi, I'm Becca. I'm an essayist and literary critic, a contributing editor at The Point, and a PhD candidate (albeit one on hiatus) in philosophy at Harvard. Starting in the fall of 2022, I'll also be a contributing editor at The Boston Review. At the moment, I am at work on an essay collection, tentatively titled All Things Are Too Small, to be published by Metropolitan Books. To keep up with my writing/rantings, subscribe to my substack here.
I hold a first-class MPhil in the history and philosophy of science from the University of Cambridge and a B.A., summa cum laude with high honors, from Dartmouth College, where I studied philosophy & German (and cultivated an enduring distaste for fraternities). These days I live in Cambridge, MA, with this person, whom I love.
As a writer:
I contribute essays, book reviews, and the occasional art review to publications like The New York Review of Books, The TLS, The Nation, The New York Times Book Review, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Liberties, Bookforum, Art in America, The Baffler, and more. I am the winner of the first annual Robert B. Silvers Prize for Literary Criticism (see more here).
I'm also a two-time finalist for The National Book Critics Circle's book reviewing prize (2016 and 2018), and in 2017, I was a finalist for a National Magazine Award in the essays/criticism category (my nominated essay, "Ladies in Waiting," was subsequently collected in the 2017 Best American Magazine Writing anthology, available here). In 2018, my essay "Rhapsody in Blue" was included on the Notable Essays and Literary Non-Fiction list published in the 2019 Best American Essays anthology. When I write criticism, I write mostly about "world literature," especially Eastern European or German language literature with a Jewish bent, but I also review contemporary fiction sometimes. A few authors I especially love are Joseph Roth, Italo Svevo, Henry James, Henry Green, Heinrich von Kleist, Marie de France, Simone Weil, Antal Szerb, and Norman Rush. You can read my interview with the National Book Critics Circle here and my interview with Lit Hub for their Secrets of the Book Critics series here. My wonderful agent is Anna Sproul-Latimer of Neon Literary. (You can stalk her and her agency here.)
As a philosopher:
I am primarily interested in aesthetics (especially aesthetic value and its relationship to other types of value), the philosophy of love and sex, and the history of German philosophy, especially Martin Heidegger, although I have increasingly consuming secondary interests in political philosophy. In my second-year paper, "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly," forthcoming in the British Journal of Aesthetics, I defend aestheticism, the view that aesthetic value is sometimes a partial grounds of moral value. (A draft is available upon request.) If I ever get around to writing it, my dissertation will be about some combination of the following: what it is to be a beautiful person, why evolutionary psychologists are wrong about human beauty, the ethics of exclusionary romantic/sexual/aesthetic preferences, and what role the state should play in ameliorating inequitable distributions of intimate "goods."
I receive many emails asking for advice about graduate school applications. I have answered some frequently asked questions on this page. As I note there, I do not consider myself an expert in how to write a successful graduate school application, and I urge all prospective grad students to consult resources online, as well as supervisors who have served on admissions committees, rather than me!
Before the pandemic, I followed Hegel in regarding nature as geistlos, but now, like any good Heideggerian, I am a big fan of hiking. Here I am in the Berkshires, which I love
n 2013, when people still nursed high hopes for the salvific effects of the Internet and cancellation was a fate reserved for poorly rated TV shows, a private citizen with a hundred and seventy Twitter followers was loitering in Heathrow Airport, waiting for a flight to Cape Town, South Africa. “Going to Africa,” she dashed off before boarding. “Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” By the time she landed, eleven hours later, her ill-advised missive had gone disastrously viral. She stumbled off the plane to discover that a multitude of online detractors had weighed in on her character. Now she was a globally known racist.The woman, Justine Sacco, was one of the first high-profile casualties of public shaming in the digital era, and she suffered all the consequences that have since become routine: job loss, wide-scale condemnation, and a public identity subsumed by a very public sin. Still, in the wake of subsequent disasters, her story is almost quaint. How pleasant it is to recall a simpler, kinder time when an online mobbing was an occurrence so unusual that it merited two articles in the Times. Read more here.
A malcontent in Dostoyevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov” voices a familiar complaint when he confesses, “The more I love mankind in general, the less I love people in particular.” The man speaking believes himself capable of great humanitarian feats, but he falters when it comes to the prosaic business of enduring other people. “I am incapable of living in the same room with anyone even for two days,” he whines. “In twenty-four hours I can begin to hate even the best of men: one because he takes too long eating his dinner, another because he has a cold and keeps blowing his nose.”Marriage is a kind of exposure therapy for Dostoyevskian misanthropy, and, according to the author and advice columnist Heather Havrilesky, it works—not because it erases our aversion to human particularity but because it teaches us to love in spite of our inevitable aggravation. “Our culture tends to zoom in on those first locked eyes, that first passionate kiss, and then fade out just as things are starting to get interesting,” she writes in her wise and mordant new memoir, “Foreverland: On the Divine Tedium of Marriage.” “I say skip over that stuff and show me your first conversation about recurring minor digestive issues, your first long car trip across unremarkable terrain, your first encounter with each other’s least emotionally stable relative.” In other words: show me your ability to withstand a man loudly blowing his nose, not for two days but for the rest of your life. Read more here.
In recent years, it has become fashionable to claim that a person needs special license to write about herself — that she must be extraordinarily famous, unusually rich or fantastically traumatized if she is to venture one of those embarrassing indulgences, a memoir. A person who insists on documenting an uneventful life is guilty of self-importance and so, accordingly, it has become fashionable to blame the defects of a book on the defects of its genre. Common wisdom has it that a work of autobiography is by nature doomed to insularity.
In point of fact, a book is justified by its quality, not its subject. “Home/Land,” a new book by the New Yorker staff writer Rebecca Mead, does not falter by virtue of belonging to the reviled species of memoir; rather, it flails because it is insufficiently interested in the external world. Despite its many arresting images and diverting anecdotes, it reads like a very smart person’s very well-written diary.Read more here.
You can read it all here!!
onging, we say, because desire is full / of endless distances,” writes the poet Robert Hass. What he means, I think, is that intimacy is at least as much a matter of what we cannot touch as a matter of what we can. People reach for each other precisely because they are different—and therefore distant—from one another, yet their ineluctable dissimilarity is also what keeps them apart. The photo book “Restraint and Desire,” published last fall, is a study of intimacy and its impediments: the tender images it contains portray longing (desire) when it is regulated by ritual (restraint). The book depicts perfectly ordinary exchanges in familiar, formalized settings: teen-agers dancing at prom, wrestlers writhing on the mat. Yet each of them represents an attempt to visualize the space that is both an obstacle to and a condition of love’s consummation. Read more here.
ong before her flight from occupied France in 1940, the German-Jewish writer Anna Seghers was obsessed with the impossibility of homecoming. In her strange, sprawling story “Jans Is Going to Die” (1925), the eponymous schoolboy’s mysterious and ultimately fatal ailment begins with this apprehension: although Jans’s house is “only ten minutes away” from where he is playing, he feels that there is “an agonizing homesickness … choking him”. Jans is one of many characters who cannot make themselves at home anywhere, least of all at home, in The Dead Girls’ Class Trip, a new collection of Seghers’s stories written between 1925 and 1965 and capably translated by Margot Bettauer Dembo. In the book’s amorphous title story, the unnamed narrator is a girl in a dual state of homelessness: in reality, she is an expatriate in Mexico, where Seghers took refuge in 1940-7, while in her fantasies she languishes on the threshold of a German apartment she can never re-enter and embarks on an excursion with classmates she can never see again. In both life and reverie, she cannot go home. Read more here.
with the amazing Justin Smith! [Insert obligatory comment about how much I hate my voice here]. You can listen here (if you can stomach my voice): https://whatisx.thepointmag.com/1827398/9639883-what-is-art-becca-rothfeld
WHEN SHE WAS SIXTEEN, THE FRENCH NOVELIST Anne Serre set out to induce her high school philosophy teacher to fall in love with her. Her strategy was unconventional: “I thought that writing a book, which I would then ask him to read, was the only possible way of seducing Monsieur Rebours,” she recounted in the Times Literary Supplement last year. Though Monsieur Rebours did not succumb, Serre, now sixty-one, remains convinced that books are instruments of seduction. “Fiction, realist or not, doesn’t try to convince but to seduce,” she explained in a recent interview. “A writer’s only responsibility is to seduce without cheating.” Read more here.
am not a model or a celebrity, but my image has been stolen from me. When I was 17, a high school boyfriend disseminated the nude pictures I had sent him to what felt like everyone I had ever met, as well as a number of people I hadn’t. The prurient Facebook messages that flooded my inbox were daily reminders that my body was not my own. It belonged to men on the internet; I only lived inside it.
What happened to me also happened, albeit on a much grander scale, to the famously desirable model and actor Emily Ratajkowski. As she recounts in her debut essay collection, My Body, a fashion photographer who took nude pictures of her when she was young, drunk and vulnerable persists in selling books of the Polaroids. Read more here.