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The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction Paperback – September 6, 2016
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“The most impressive and the most enjoyably stylish book I read this year … Lilla is a superb commentator on politics and society. A wise and cautionary volume." —John Banville, The Irish Times, "Our Favorite Books of the Year"
"The Shipwrecked Mind showcases Lilla’s gift for sketching out such long histories — and historical mythologies — with a few artful brushstrokes, covering centuries of thought and politics in a few pages. (His chapter titled ‘From Luther to Walmart,’ channeling academics such as Alasdair MacIntyre and Brad Gregory to describe the post-Reformation descent into today’s rapacious capitalism, is a minor classic all on its own.)" —Carlos Lozada, The Washington Post
"Mark Lilla’s graceful, elegant, and concise appraisals of a variety of reactionary figures could not be more timely." —Andrew Sullivan
"Mark Lilla is one of America's foremost intellectuals and he has written an essential book. He argues that we live in an age when revolutionary ideas have lost their allure but reactionary ideas—that protest and reject core elements of the modern world—are gaining strength. As you read these essays, you will be reminded that ideas matter. John Maynard Keynes once explained that 'madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.' To make sense of the madmen, you need first to understand the scribblers." —Fareed Zakaria
“Mark Lilla leads us on a fascinating tour of the modern reactionary mind, shining a fresh light on the ideas and beliefs of a wide range of thinkers, both famous and forgotten. Engagingly written and impressively erudite, this is intellectual biography at its finest.” —Robert Kagan
"Lilla has assembled this brief but far from lightweight volume from essays….Taken together they have new force, sketching a cast of mind that has shadowed European thought for a century, and one that may seem disturbingly familiar to students of American politics today….as compact and elegant as they are erudite.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Lilla, a professor of the humanities at Columbia, skillfully untangles the apocalyptic 'mytho-histories,' 'just-so narratives,' and 'political bedtime stories' favored by the modern right, in Europe and America…The best pages in The Shipwrecked Mind are elegant, concise portraits of refugees from Weimar Europe who fled to America after the Nazi takeover and brought with them 'some very large and very dark ideas about the crisis of the age.'” —Sam Tanenhaus, The New Yorker
“Critical theorists need not accept Lilla’s liberal solution…to find his analysis and many of his proposals compelling; his plea to adopt new analytical tools beyond the old-fashioned Left/Right dichotomy is even more relevant now, such a short time after the election, and he is right to show that the crisis of democracy cannot be solved by a division to identity groups and selective sets of interests.” —Nitzan Levbovic, Critical Inquiry
"Timely—and illuminating...Lilla’s book offers a fascinating framework for making sense of our contemporary political landscape." —Sean Illing, Vox
"At a time when the United States is dealing with radical populism and Europe is beset with a new far right, Mark Lilla’s The Shipwrecked Mind is the book to read for a more profound understanding of what ails us." —E.J. Dionne
“Mark Lilla is the model of an engaged intellectual. These essays brilliantly explore the unhappy present in the light of history and philosophy.” —George Packer
“Philosophically timely and politically urgent.” —Avishai Margalit
"Lilla’s fascinating exploration of political conservatism shows how various so-called reactionaries have helped shape history….In revealing the mechanics of political reaction, Lilla approaches the subject through a unique religious lens. He is a fantastically gifted essayist, and this short volume collects the best of his recent work—not simply on political reaction or revolution, but on subjects including Judaism, Gnosticism, Islam, and Don Quixote.” —Publishers Weekly
"Though the revolutionary impulse has been analyzed to the point of overkill, Lilla suggests that its opposite pole has been all but ignored….Lilla provides a welcome corrective in restoring analytical balance.” —Kirkus
“In trenchant prose, [Lilla's] work combines a shrewd assessment of French current events with an impressive command of French history and literature—a rare example of commentary that is at once journalistic and scholarly, and deeply informed.” —Overseas Press Club citation for Best Commentary on International News
About the Author
Mark Lilla is Professor of Humanities at Columbia. With New York Review Books he has published The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction (2016), The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics (2nd. ed., 2016), and, with Robert Silvers and Ronald Dworkin, The Legacy of Isaiah Berlin (2001). His other books include G.B. Vico: The Making of an Anti-Modern (1994), The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West (2007), and, most recently, The Once and Future Liberal: On Political Reaction (2017). He was the 2015 Overseas Press Club of America winner of the Best Commentary on international News in Any Medium for his New York Review series “On France.” Visit marklilla.com.
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Lilla starts with an assertion going back to DeMaistre, the reactionary is NOT a conservative. The reactionary is a utopian of nostalgia as opposed to the utopian of progress. While this is not actually the clearest of definitions, Lilla is able to use it trace a variety of kinds of thought which rhyme in function and affect. Lilla starts the book with careful and highly sympathetic studies of Rosenzweig, Voegelin, and Leo Strauss. Indeed, in the case of the latter two men, Lilla goes to pains to disentangle them from the use of their work. Lilla, like Isaiah Berlin who influenced him, can't help but admire something of the vitality of counter-Enlightenment thought and may almost be too sympathetic to his case studies for many of his political allies. He is far fairer to Voegelin and Strauss than to Alain Badiou in the later chapters.
It is the series of essay in the second half of the book that are both the interesting but also the most frustrating. Lilla seems limited by the magazine form that chapters were originally published in, but almost all the arguments need to linger. Lilla's thesis on the reactionary impulse to the "road not taken"--generally in some relationship to the Enlightenment although sometimes against the entirety of post-Socratic European history--is fascinating and seems apt, but he does not fully develop it.
Lilla's assertion that "epochal thinking is magical thinking" is fascinating and feels true, but he doesn't give enough examples nor does he explicitly call back the three case study thinkers in the beginning of the book which could be used to justify the claim. Lilla is erudite, and more or less expects his reader to be as well. Yet book that makes fairly strong demands on readers, its magazine style does have the benefit of being immediately accessible in style and a joy to read. This is particularly true in the essay on Michel Houellebecq and the two opposed currents of reactionary thinking in France. Indeed, Lilla does not explore this enough, but often the reactionary impulses biggest enemy is based in a different reactionary impulse with an opposing nostalgia. Lilla is a subtle thinker and a strong writer, but one wishes he developed his thinking beyond collecting his reviews on the topic and writing some thematic essays to tie them together.
Despite these caveats, I strongly recommend the "The Shipwrecked Mind."
Where do too many of these discontented Americans, seekers of a better society, look for answers?
According to Lilla, in their quest for answers both sides of the political divide have fallen under the spell of simplistic mythical stories. Those on the right have a proclivity for tales of unified golden pasts (Lilla uses as an example Brad Gregory's nostalgic story of a Christendom prior to the outbreak of the Reformation). Those on the left have a proclivity for tales of "become what we were meant to be" futures (Lilla uses as an example Alain Bandiou's take on revolution).
Lilla despairs that such tales bewitch the mind into believing politics is capable of marching our current society either backwards or forwards into a time and place of a unified culture and citizen. Lilla calls this "magical thinking."
What can politics achieve: it cannot unify us, humans have always been a diverse bunch with, as Lilla says, numerous ongoing projects pointing in opposing directions; there are always an endless string of problems in current society to be met, there was never and could never be a grand plan to meet such problems, there is just the politics of muddling through (everything has always been patchwork). To believe otherwise is to fall under the enchantment of simple stories with simple morals.
Lilla argues the revolutionary spirit has mostly died out while the reactionary spirit, which arose to meet it, has endured. Given this reality, Lilla's book is focused on the reactionaries sense of nostalgia. These nostalgic minds are lost minds, lost to the unreal---to tales of a golden age and its shipwreck. While such a past is not real, their longing to return is real. One cannot make sense of our current politics without beginning to comprehend such longing. To our chagrin we have discovered that, as Lilla notes, nostalgia is a powerful political motivator.