The Shipwrecked Mind (A Book Review)
WHO is the Hillary voter? you have not asked. You have not needed to. If there is one, we know him, or are him. Clinton’s followers, unlike Clinton herself, are transparent, obvious, and understood.
But who is the Trump voter? Open a magazine, and you will learn that it is the essential mystery of our time, having exhausted the collective brainpower of the New Yorker. If you think he is simple, he is not. If you think he is alien, he is not. The Trump voter, as a type, is shipwrecked.
“THE revolutionary spirit that inspired political movements across the world for two centuries may have died out,” writes Mark Lilla, professor of Humanities, in The Shipwrecked Mind (NYRB 2016). “But the spirit of reaction that rose to meet it has survived and is proving just as potent a historical force.”
Yet for all the thousands of proclamations and theories and books about revolution, we have few about reaction. Mostly, as Lilla writes, we have “the self-satisfied conviction that it is rooted in ignorance and intransigence.” The reactionary, seeking to restore society to a lost golden age, is the “last remaining ‘other.’ We do not know him.”
With this gap in political scholarship, we have found ourselves ill-equipped to make sense of the reactionary movements that define our present. In the US and in Europe, from England to Hungary, the impulse to restore a glorified past has become ubiquitous without becoming legible. We see the reactionary, as Lilla notes, on both the right and the left, in the forms not only of Marine Le Pen and Viktor Orbán but also of extreme environmentalists and Sanders leftists. Yet in most cases, we do not grasp what we see.
By way of The Shipwrecked Mind, we now have intellectual discourse on reaction that is both serious and attuned to the political scene. Lilla, wary of broad strokes—the sin of both the reactionary and the errant intellectual—has produced a work that is modest in length but nonetheless illuminating. It is a collection of essays on thinkers and ideological “currents,” tied together not by an overarching thesis or historical theory, but by an acute observation: The reactionary is stranded in history. With the metaphor of time as a river, Lilla imagines the reactionary marooned on the shore, looking at the shipwreck—the lost golden age—and wondering how it could be recovered. History, as the reactionary sees it, has broken in two, and he stands stuck in time and misery.
Our dark tour of political reaction begins with Franz Rosenzweig, a German Jewish theologian, whose work Lilla uses to frame the relationship of Judaism and Christianity to reaction. Lilla writes, “Because he is an eternal pilgrim, Christian man is alienated, feeling himself divided, as Rosenzweig vividly puts it, between Siegfried and Christ, and is therefore never fully at home in the world.” Christians, awaiting their redemption, are always en route. They are a force in history. But “the Jewish people,” Rosenzweig wrote, “has already reached the goal toward which the [other] nations are still moving.” Forming a deep “blood-community,” in Rosenzweig’s words, Judaism has reached eternity and escaped time.
With Lilla’s profile of Leo Strauss, we return home to the United States. Like the other scholars profiled, Strauss was born in Germany, but he moved to America at the age of 38. Through him, Lilla offers a lucid articulation of the reactionary’s outlook: “Strauss and Heidegger shared one large assumption: that the problems in Western civilization could be traced to the abandonment of a healthier, ur-mode of thought from the past.”
Strauss never wrote an essay on American thought, but he opened his book Natural Right and History with a reference to the Declaration of Independence. Based on that opening, the media came to portray Strauss as “the master thinker behind the interventionist policy of democracy promotion developed by American neoconservatives,” his work twisted to serve the ends of both neoconservatives and those who wished to smear them. We learn from Strauss not only about reaction but also about the perils of philosophy and how it can be misinterpreted, especially in the United States. “Where but in America,” Lilla asks, “could a teacher of esotericism, concerned about protecting philosophical inquiry from political harm, find his books used to train young people to become guardians of an ephemeral ideology?”
In the second section of Shipwrecked, titled “Currents,” Lilla traces ideas rather than profiling individual thinkers. He opens with the essay “From Luther to Walmart” and returns us to the question of how Christianity relates to reaction, as he will do again in “From Mao to St. Paul.” Lilla theorizes about “mytho-histories” and rejects, categorically, the reactionary’s approach to history: “What help is it to imagine,” Lilla asks, “that ‘medieval Christendom failed, the Reformation failed, confessionalized Europe failed, and Western modernity is failing,’ as if civilizations pass through discrete periods defined by a single ‘project’?” History, Lilla asserts, cannot be so reduced.
The final section of the work comprises two essays on French intellectuals, as Lilla draws on his time in Paris in 2015 and explores the intellectual aftermath of that year’s terrorist attacks. In discussing France and concluding Shipwrecked, Lilla continues the analytical project that he began with Rosenzweig, addressing the final Abrahamic religion: Islam. Unlike the aberrant reactionary movement in the United States, modern political Islamism has an intellectual program, and—perhaps more so than any other political challenge facing Europe—has demanded an intellectual response.
In France, the multiculturalists and the conservatives, who have butted heads for years, have taken on that intellectual challenge posed. But it is a new political character, Lilla writes, whose presence is of note: the reactionary. “The new reactionaries sensed an opportunity,” he observes, “and now they are finding a public that experiences a rush of recognition when reading their books, and liberation from a sense of being misunderstood.”
AS Lilla writes, the reactionary “feels himself in a stronger position than his adversary because he believes he is the guardian of what actually happened, not the prophet of what might be.” The reactionary, in short, fancies himself a historian. Lilla is one. Suitably, then, much of Shipwrecked circles the question of what history is and how we should think and write about it.
For the reactionary, history is apocalyptic. He imagines a rupture in time and splits history into two eras: the golden age, before the rupture, and the fallen present. He seeks to pinpoint that single rupture, or in the case of the journalist Éric Zemmour, 79 ruptures, with each date, in Lilla’s words, “supposedly marking France’s decline.”
Lilla stresses how flawed this historical outlook is, for he sees that debunking apocalyptic history is key to debunking reaction. He reminds us in “From Luther to Walmart” that civilization does not consist of some “single ‘project,’” but it is in his profile of Eric Voegelin, another German thinker, that he most deeply explores the use and misuse of history.
“Crisis,” Lilla opens the Voegelin profile, “is the mother of history. Beginning with Herodotus the urge to write history has been bound up with the need to explain the seemingly inexplicable reversals of fortune suffered by nations and empires.” Unfortunately, complex histories, those closest to presenting the facts in a truthful light, have little appeal: “Historians who offer ‘multicausal explanations’—and use phrases like that—do not last.”
Voegelin, in his work up through the fourth volume of Order and History, tried, like other reactionaries, to find the precise moment when civilizational decline began. “For Heidegger it began with Socrates,” Lilla writes, “for Strauss with Machiavelli, and for Voegelin, at least until then, it began with ancient gnosticism.”
But Voegelin changes course. He steps back, looks at his own approach, evaluates the basics of history. In Lilla’s reading, Voegelin’s transition hinges on the question of time: “What is it about consciousness, Voegelin asks himself, that makes us conceive of our experience in terms of beginning and end, rupture and continuity?”
We find in the reformed Voegelin not only a cogent, measured view of history, but also an intellectual of character. “It takes a good deal of self-awareness and independence of mind,” Lilla writes of Voegelin, “to renounce the bittersweet comforts of cultural pessimism and question the just-so narratives of civilizational decline that still retain their allure for Western intellectuals.”
Lilla’s understanding of the traps and pitfalls of history has doubtless informed his own approach as a historian. In The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics (NYRB 2016, 2001), the precursor to Shipwrecked, Lilla argues that intellectual history is better served by a history of thinkers than by a history of ideas. In the former, we can find clarity. In the latter, we too easily encounter contradictions that we must then choose between, leading us to tell all-too-tidy stories.
The Shipwrecked Mind continues the format of Reckless. For each thinker profiled, Lilla offers a mechanical sentence, often to open the essay: “Eric Voegelin was born in Cologne in 1901 and left Vienna when he was nine.” “Foucault was born Paul-Michel in Poitiers in 1926.” “Walter Benjamin was born into a well-off family of Berlin Jews in 1892.” And so on, with each line reminding us that thinkers are people, too.
Lilla’s essays glow in their range of reference, as he is able to prove the improbable, to draw lines from Luther to Walmart, from Mao to St. Paul. But he always begins on the ground, with the most basic of facts. He will not let us forget that history and movements in history always consist of people born into places, families, and cultures.
THE TRUMP campaign is atypical as a reactionary movement in that it offers little in the way of an intellectual program, but its slogan, “Make America Great Again,” is the reactionary impulse distilled, pure and simple. To borrow Lilla’s terms, it embodies the “cultural pessimism” and “apocalyptic thinking” that define reactionary politics.
In turn, Clinton’s response to the Trump slogan—“America is great because America is good”—is liberal confusion distilled, pure and simple. We face Trump nonplused, finding ourselves hindered by an inability to articulate when, exactly, society is good and how we would know that.
In an interview with Lilla, WNYC’s Brian Lehrer approached the question from afar: “Russia is such an interesting case, because an American would assume that life for the average Russian is better now than it was under Communism, but apparently there’s a nostalgia that seeks to replace the authoritarian leadership, and we get Putin.”
Lilla responded, “We think in terms of well-being, how much income has gone up, and job opportunities. What the reactionary understands—and the conservative does as well, in a different way—is that people have other collective aspirations and feelings. They want to feel that they belong to some grand project.”
It remains an open question, raised by Trump and Clinton alike: When is society good? In The Shipwrecked Mind, Lilla cites a line from Ecclesiastes, “Say not, ‘Why were the former days better than these?’ For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.” But there is another line, from later in the book, that among the circular patterns of revolution and reaction may offer some truth: “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.”