Originally released a few days before September 11, 2001, Mark Lilla’s
The Reckless Mind was re-released by NYRB roughly corresponding with
his new book of essays on reactionary political thinking, The
Shipwrecked Mind. In the intervening years, these essays feel both
more and less relevant: Foucault has lasted, but the problems of his
politics have been explored more completely by the left and the right.
Revelations about Heidegger have been made deeper and more notedly
“problematic” with the translation of the black notebooks. Derrida,
the only living figure in the book when it was released, has passed
and his relevance to critical theory waned incredibly quickly. Yet
the essays in this collection on Heidegger, Carl Schmitt, Walter
Benjamin, Kojève, Foucault, and Derrida are still readable and
There are, however, some puzzling indictments in this book. Lilla’s
essay on the relationship between Karl Jaspers, Hannah Arendt, and
Heidegger is clear-eyed in its assignment of Heidegger’s politics, but
Heidegger is not the intellectual about the which the essay concerns
itself. Are Jaspers and Arendt also guilty of political recklessness?
Lilla, despite the very clear-eyed focus of the essay, does not say.
Walter Benjamin’s exact offense seems unknown as if Lilla thinks that
flirting with Marxism was in and of itself reckless even when
distancing from Soviet and Maoist forms. Is it that Benjamin was
reckless in his combining messianism and recursion to Frankfurt
Marxism? It hardly had political effect and Benjamin never made
apologetics for regimes in the way that Schmitt, Heidegger or Foucault
had done. Furthermore, while some of the digs at Derrida are
apt—particularly Derrida’s highly symbolic and affective reading of
Marx—again it is hard to see what the consequences are to these
politics. Derrida’s deconstruction seems muddled, but not reckless.
It is, now, however, largely irrelevant.
Again one suspects notices that these were essays for Times Literary
Supplement and the New York Review of books, and are excellent
profiles, but the essays connecting the key figures do not
thematically relate the figures enough. Lilla’s final essay about
Syracuse and the nature of tyrannical philosophers is excellent, but
he does not really lay out priorly exactly what was tyrannical about
Benjamin. HIs treatment of Kojeve was interesting and clarifying, but
the exact nature of the Strauss and Kojeve exchanges needed more
development as well. Furthermore, Kojeve’s correspondence has been
collected in On Authority giving a more complete view of the
exchange than when only Strauss’s On Tyranny was translated.
In short, this is an insightful but highly frustrating book. Lilla
seems more annoyed with the left than the right, even if he thinks the
right’s sins are greater. He does not make the digs at Schmitt or even
Heidegger that he does Foucault and Derrida. Lilla’s thematic unity
is merely interest in alternative and possibly totalitarian
worldviews, but any more coherent and cogent theme is resisted beyond