Hi, I'm Becca. I am soon to be at work on an essay collection, tentatively titled All Things Are Too Small, to be published by Metropolitan Books. I'm an essayist and literary critic, a contributing editor at The Point, and a PhD candidate (soon to be on hiatus) in philosophy at Harvard. To keep up with my writing/rantings, subscribe to my substack here.
I am interested in beauty, obsession, imbalance, the novel, and the history of philosophy, among other things. I write essays, book reviews, and the occasional art review for publications like The New York Review of Books, The TLS, The Nation, The New York Times Book Review, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Bookforum, Art in America, The Baffler, and more. I'm 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. 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. 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. My agent is Anna Sproul-Latimer of Neon Literary. (You can stalk her and her agency here.)
At Harvard, I am interested in aesthetics (especially aesthetic value and its relationship to other types of value), the philosophy of love and sex, and Martin Heidegger. In my second-year paper, "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly," I argue that aesthetic value is sometimes a partial grounds of moral value. (A draft is available upon request.) My dissertation will be about the ethics of exclusionary romantic/sexual/aesthetic preferences and what role the state should play in ameliorating inequitable distributions of intimate goods. 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, where I studied philosophy & German (and cultivated an enduring distaste for fraternities). These days I live in Somerville MA.
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--I do not know why I was admitted to Harvard!--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
One afternoon in Brighton, England, wealthy art collector Adam Verver spends a small fortune on a set of precious Damascene tiles. Then, for what turns out to be a somewhat steeper price, he procures a precious wife. Charlotte Stant, soon to be Charlotte Verver, is an American expatriate of extraordinary taste and talent: her only failing is her limited means, which force her to shuttle back and forth between her rich friends’ country estates. At the beginning of The Golden Bowl (1904), Henry James’s last great novel, Charlotte is left to compensate for her material penury with her social graces. But when we encounter her after her propitious union with Adam, she is at last polished and perfected: she descends a “monumental” staircase decked out in “unsurpassed diamonds,” “with a consciousness materially, with a confidence quite splendidly, enriched.” With the benefit of Adam’s backing, Charlotte can finally gleam as brightly as a diamond or a Damascene tile, for she, too, is a “rare and special product.” Read more here.
I wrote for the Oxford Public Philosophy Journal (an exciting new journal!) about the merits of "public" philosophy
What is “public philosophy”? I am not convinced that there is any such thing. I recognize the differences between good philosophy and bad philosophy, historical philosophy and contemporary philosophy, and philosophy of math and philosophy of mind. But I am skeptical that there is any meaningful, much less necessary, difference in kind between philosophy that happens to be printed in a newspaper and philosophy that finds itself cloistered in an academic journal. Both strike me as “just philosophy.” Read more here.
A specter is haunting academia — the specter of cancellation, ghostly in part because no one can agree about what it amounts to, much less whether it even exists.
There is further disagreement over what “cancellation” would involve if it in fact existed. Some understand it as a matter of cultural boycotts targeting prominent figures with questionable views, while others are more concerned about our tendency to treat social media platforms as de facto courtrooms. Read more here.
and you can read it here: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/20/books/review/three-rings-daniel-mendelsohn-stranger-faces-namwali-serpell.html
A woman lies dead, decapitated by a passing taxi on a Paris street. Or maybe she is just dreaming. For a moment, she is window-shopping in Paris, but then she is in her lover’s bedroom in New York and her grandmother’s apartment in prewar Budapest. Dead and alive, American and European, insightful and sightless, the woman is aptly named Sophie Blind: Sophia is the Greek word for wisdom, but the surname Sophie took from her tyrannical husband is a testament to her bleary vision.
“She opens her eyes with enormous effort,” begins Divorcing, the flustered 1969 novel that the Hungarian-Jewish philosopher Susan Taubes published scarcely a week before committing suicide. The book, reissued by New York Review Classics this fall, is full of failures of sight. Even when Sophie wrenches her eyes open, “she doesn’t see a thing.” You can read more here.
You can read it here!
For a newsletter called Paragraph, to which you can subscribe here.
Here's my paragraph: In college, I developed an interest in the philosopher Karl Popper, who argued that we are not justified in extrapolating from a single instance of a phenomenon to a universal law. But, he continued, “we are justified in reasoning from a counter-instance to the falsity of the corresponding universal law.” He should have written that we are not justified in reasoning from any number of instances to the truth of the corresponding universal claim. We can never observe enough white swans to know that all swans are white; there could always be more swans, some of whom are pink or green. Yet a single mauve swan is sufficient to show that not all swans are white. We can at least relish the falsity—if never the truth—of universal principles. I dreamt up a sort of corollary: if we are never afforded the pleasure of seeing our suspicions decisively defanged, we can at least
anticipate the pleasure of seeing them decisively confirmed. The symptoms, slight as they may be, are always consistent with cancer; the wind, mild as it is, could always portend a squall. One day the disaster will arrive, and then you will know it is there. I once asked a man if he loved me so many times that one morning he let the eggs char into a crusted tar and yelled, “No! Not anymore!” And at last certainty bloomed like a bright rose in my blighted heart.
“I PAINT THE PORTRAIT OF THE AGE,” the Austrian writer Joseph Roth proclaimed in a 1926 letter to his editor at the Frankfurter Zeitung. “I’m not a reporter, I’m a journalist,” he continued. “I’m not an editorial writer, I’m a poet.”
In the English-speaking world, Roth is most often canonized as a novelist. He is known primarily as the author of The Radetzky March, a 1932 saga about an Austrian dynasty rendered tragic—and ridiculous—by the collapse of the dual monarchy. During his own lifetime, however, Roth was better known as a writer of feuilletons, and even his longer works are rich with redolent miniatures. In Job, his 1930 chronicle of Galician Jewish life and perhaps his most extraordinary book, an angry woman stands “hissing as if filled with boiling water,” and clocks tolling sound like “great heavy spoons” striking “gigantic glasses.” A flabby man in The Emperor’s Tomb (1938) has a face like “dough that has failed to rise.” A woman’s tongue in Confession of a Murderer (1936) is “a red and venomous little animal.” Read more here.
According to medieval Jewish commentaries on the Torah, heaven will be dazzling and dramatic. It will contain chambers “built of silver and gold, ornamented with pearls.” New arrivals will pass through gates guarded by 600,000 angels and bathed in “248 rivulets of balsam and attar.” The righteous will attend elaborate feasts and lounge in lavish gardens. As a rule, paintings of heaven are more vague and more amorphous than paintings of hell, but avuncular artists still stuff them with cherry-cheeked cherubs. In the New Testament, John promises his followers that God’s “house has many rooms.”
I don’t know for sure whether any of this is literal—whether the saved will have real bodies to bathe or eat with, whether the cherubs will dirty any actual diapers. What I do know is that if these are metaphors for anything, they are metaphors for novelty. Whatever life in heaven is really like, even if it does not involve winged babies and banquets, it will never be boring. The many rooms there, be they physical or figurative, will each loom larger than the last. Read more here.
In On Being Blue (1975), the philosopher and novelist William Gasslamented that we lack “a language which will allow us to distinguish the normal or routine fuck from the glorious, the rare, or the lousy one – a fack from a fick, a fick from a fock”. If we do not differentiate sharply enough between good sex and bad sex – or criminal sex and uncomfortable sex – we differentiate all too crudely between the pious and the perverts.
As JoAnn Wypijewski suggests in her daring essay collection, What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About #MeToo, the impoverishment of our sexual vocabulary is related to the simplicity of our moral lexicon. It is precisely because we are so insensitive to the convolutions of desire that we are so ready to revert to “primitive forms of social discipline” in our confrontations with abusers. To regard lust as a brute appetite, isolated from the social contexts that form and foment it, is to ignore what may explain (and even sometimes excuse) wrongdoing. But as Wypijewski argues, we are often blinded to such social subtleties in our haste to castigate. Read more here.