Mark Lilla argues convincingly that the creed of the reactionary mind can be just as radical (and disturbing) as any revolutionary ideology.
The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction by Mark Lilla. New York Review Books, 168 pages, $15.95.
By Matt Hanson
In his engaging and lucid new study The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction, essayist Mark Lilla argues that “reactionaries are not conservatives. This is the first thing to be understood about them. They are, in their way, just as radical as revolutionaries.” At first, this might seem counter-intuitive, but Lilla argues convincingly that the creed of the reactionary mind, often belittled by scholars, can be just as radical (and disturbing) as any revolutionary ideology.
The reactionary mentality is “shipwrecked” because it sees itself marooned within the flow of history, “with the debris of paradise drifting past his eyes.” But a true reactionary, though adrift within history’s currents, doesn’t merely hoist up the white flag. Lilla examines how this displacement energizes the reactionary mentality, reinforcing its militant nostalgia, leading to redouble its efforts to bend history towards a version of an idealized past when God was in his Heaven and all was right with the World.
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.” For Lilla, these kind of mentalities include the postwar European and American right wing, the anti-globalist far left, and perhaps most of all “radical political Islamists, whose story of the secular West’s decline into decadence, and the inevitable triumph of a vigorous, renewed religion, has European fingerprints all over it.”
The point is perceptive, but remains somewhat problematic, given that corralling these different ideologies under the catch-all term “reactionary” blurs significant differences among these ways of thinking. The American right wing harbors plenty of theocratic fantasies, but VP Mike Pence’s idea of a godly nation isn’t the same as Al-Qaeda’s. Reactionary ideologies might share some characteristics, but reassuring fantasies of the past inevitably differ. Ironically, Lilla explores the diversity of reactionary ideas throughout the rest of The Shipwrecked Mind, which makes his thesis a hasty generalization.
The volume contains vivid portraits of the lives and works of three relatively obscure (at least to the mainstream) philosophers, Franz Rosenzweig, Eric Vogelin, and Leo Strauss, whose various political and religious visions were about returning to an idealized version of the past, though in very distinct ways. Lilla writes accessibly about the intricacies of their lives and ideas and examines the compulsions and complications that accompany their rejections of the modern world in the name of returning to ancient, supposedly purer, modes of thinking.
Particularly relevant to recent history is the case of Leo Strauss, a University of Chicago academic who has floated in the cultural ether since his post war heyday. Some of the advocates for the Iraq War were students of his (including Paul Wolfowitz), but Lilla downplays this interesting connection, arguing that the Bush-era vogue for fingering Strauss’s influence on the neocons was less about understanding his essentially apolitical scholarship than looking for an evil genius lurking behind their foreign policy.
But it also bears mentioning that Strauss’s elite followers, such as Allan Bloom, were horrified by the countercultural ’60s, seeing the era’s social upheaval as the inspiration for a nihilism and moral relativism that signaled the immanent demise of Western civilization. Thinkers in this vein began to coalesce, forcefully arguing that “however vulgar, right-wing populism and religious fundamentalism contribute to the nation’s recovering its basic sense of right and wrong.” We all know what this ‘clash of values’ turned into — the sociopolitical psychodrama still fills our TV screens and news updates every night.
In one chapter, amusingly titled “From Luther to Wal-Mart,” Lilla gives a provocative account of how, at least in some right-wing philosophers’ eyes, western culture is still recovering from the individualistic shockwaves triggered by the Protestant Reformation. Instead of inspiring reform in church dogma, this rebellion in the name of individuality “bequeathed to us not a coherent set of moral and theological doctrines but the corrosive pluralism that characterizes our age…leaving the rest of us to sink ever deeper into the confusing, unsatisfying, hyper-pluralistic, consumer-driven, dogmatically relativistic world of today.”
This jeremiad should cue a rebuttal from the left. Yes, the chaos of the postmodern world has its drawbacks (take the 2016 election, for example) and, at times, it is inviting to take refuge in the old certainties. But this blanket condemation is just where the reactionary mind fatally misses the point — challenging the false assumptions of the past is about embracing new political possibilities that strengthen human potential. Tolerance isn’t relativism; it’s an affirmation of its opposite. Atheism isn’t nihilism. There are principles one can and must defend without having to refer to an all-encompassing ‘absolute’ system in order to establish unquestionable authority and supremacy. The reactionary mind falters when it mistakes historical isolation for ipso facto legitimacy and insists that dissatisfaction is proof of righteousness. Lilla pointedly compares the reactionaries of today to two of literature’s most delusional characters: Madame Bovary and Don Quixote.
The idea that America, and by extension western culture, has lost its moral and spiritual marbles still retains its potency in some quarters. As certain American and global political trends have shown, it’s often easier (and more politically useful) to rally people around nostalgia rather than infuse them with hope. Hope, after all, is a fickle thing; optimistic goals can be dashed, but the comforting dream of returning once again to an idealized past lives on forever. Given how the irrational sloganeering about returning America to a hazy image of lost national greatness has gone farther than anyone expected, it is imperative that we swim away from the carnage that the shipwrecked mind has left (and is leaving) in its wake.
Matt Hanson is a critic for The Arts Fuse living outside Boston. His writing has appeared in The Millions, 3QuarksDaily, and Flak Magazine (RIP), where he was a staff writer. He blogs about movies and culture for LoveMoneyClothes. His poetry chapbook was published by Rhinologic Press.