Review The Shipwrecked Mind by Mark Lilla (NYRB Press, 2016)

While some will read this as a ‘history of reaction,’ this insightful and easily digested volume of essays is more like several essays on the subject. Generally, following a format related to book views and discussions in the history of ideas, collected around the central theme. I was little surprised to find that Lilla had published most of the chapters in New York Review of Books. While this is a limiting factor to the book, it does not make it un-insightful or particularly dross, or even repetitive as like some similar books. In fact, the obvious comparison is to Corey Robins The Reactionary Mind, which while also being largely a series of essays as review, had a more coherent thesis but was far more repetitive in its assertion and conflated conservatism with reactionarism. Still as Lilla points out, the reactionary impulse may be more dominant in political thinking these days even on the left, but far more ink as been spilt on the revolution mind. Indeed, even I can only think of Berlin and Robins as clear precursors to Lilla’s focus here.

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.


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