“Everything indicates, Madame, that I will never again leave this country. I found it delicious when I was but a bird of passage here; but ever since I have been forbidden from looking elsewhere, it no longer offers me the same delights. Men never find pleasure in a ‘never’; yet how terrible it is when it falls on fatherland, friends, and the spring! In certain circumstances, memories are dreadful; beyond them, I see nothing but remorse.”1
Maistre’s musings were, at one level, purely personal: After the armies of revolutionary France forced him from his native Savoy in 1792, he was ultimately sent by Piedmont-Sardinia’s king on an extended diplomatic mission to Russia that became a kind of exile. Yet Maistre’s letter also encapsulates the spirit of his political philosophy: the conviction that modern times were out of joint, and that the world of yesteryear, however desirable, was increasingly out of reach.
Thinkers like Maistre and the attitudes they embody are the subject of Mark Lilla’s new book, The Shipwrecked Mind, an important and timely study of political reaction. The fantasy of returning to a bygone era is, Lilla argues, the crux of reactionary thought: “Where others see the river of time flowing as it always has,” he writes, “the reactionary sees the debris of paradise drifting past his eyes.” Whether the goal be monarchical restoration, a new caliphate, or to “make America great again,” the reactionary mind is, more than anything, haunted by nostalgia—the longing for those “fresh Eden[s]” that arise during periods of disorienting social upheaval. Yet to indulge such fantasies, Lilla believes, is to succumb to “magical thinking.” In every reactionary, he thinks, there lies a bit of Don Quixote, pining for the Golden Age—and making a fool of himself in the process.
Most of the volume’s essays first appeared in The New York Review of Books and were composed without political reaction as their explicit theme. They are written with enviable clarity. Lilla has an uncanny knack for distilling complex ideas to their intuitive essence in lucid, jargon-free prose. Yet while these essays are illuminating to a fault, one wonders if it is always on the reactionary mind that they shed their light.
This is particularly true of the first section, devoted to three German thinkers who rose to prominence during the interwar years. Revolting against the rational historicism and liberal theology of the nineteenth century, Franz Rosenzweig proposed a bold reinterpretation of Judaism as a redemptive faith that could reconcile the finitude of human existence with divine transcendence. Whereas Christians are always “en route” to redemption, Jews, Rosenzweig maintained, live in a “timeless, face-to-face relationship with their God,” in which redemption is symbolically prefigured through the religious calendar. In this way, Jews “already live an eternal life.” One might well reproach Rosenzweig for embracing a philosophy that was disturbingly apolitical at a time when politics had seized hold of Europe with a vengeance. Yet the sense of a lost Eden which Lilla sees as constitutive of the reactionary mind is missing from Rosenzweig, precisely because he saw Judaism as connecting past and present in a living eternity.
At first glance, Eric Voegelin would seem to be a better embodiment of reactionary thought. An historian of political philosophy who left Nazi Austria for Louisiana, Voegelin developed an influential critique of modernity in response to the totalitarian ideologies whose rise he witnessed in his homeland. Modern political thought, he contended, was rooted in the Christian heresy of Gnosticism. Its core belief was that human beings had to force God’s hand, ushering in the millennium on man’s schedule—“immanentizing the eschaton,” as he famously put it. Yet as Lilla notes, Voegelin reconsidered this claim in a book published in 1966 entitled Anamnesis, which maintained that the basic categories of time are rooted in human consciousness. The immanent eschaton cannot be dismissed as a modern conceit, since it is ultimately hardwired in the way the human mind functions. Once again, the poignant nostalgia that obsesses the reactionary seems largely absent from Voegelin’s thought; at the very least, his work offers an effective antidote to it.
Leo Strauss’s status as a reactionary is equally ambiguous. While acknowledging that he embraced an “aristocratic understanding of the philosophical life” during a long career teaching in the United States, Lilla does not see the German thinker’s anti-modernism as particularly virulent. The philosopher, he notes, “passed a quiet, modest life teaching American students and writing his scholarly books, never engaging in politics.” Lilla’s real concern is with the American reception of Strauss. His 1953 book Natural Right and History provided conservatives with a script, showing how “modern liberalism has declined into relativism.” This was the narrative they would invoke when inveighing against the social upheavals of the 1960s, which they branded, with Strauss in mind, as “nihilistic.” While such views have led thinkers steeped in the Western philosophical tradition to sympathize with right-wing populists and religious fundamentalists, the story, in Lilla’s account, is ultimately an ironic one: that of a European thinker whose ideas were granted a prophetic significance completely out of proportion with their original intention. It is, as it were, the “exoteric” Strauss—a watered down, vulgarized version of his thought—that has lent itself to reactionary ends; Strauss himself, in Lilla’s account, remained quietly impervious to the tossing and tumbling of the shipwrecked mind.
The book’s middle chapters bring us a little closer to the simmering passions of reactionary thought. Both consider radical critiques of the contemporary life that draw upon earlier religious ideas. In “From Luther to Walmart,” Lilla examines a trend in contemporary Catholicism that judges modern society from the standpoint of what Lilla calls “the wrong turn.” He dwells in particular on a book by the historian Brad Gregory called The Unintended Reformation, which blames the chaos of modern value pluralism on Protestantism. Lilla sympathizes with Gregory’s despair about contemporary morals, but doubts that we can attribute our woes to the fact that (as Gregory claims) “medieval Christianity failed.” “Life,” Lilla warns, “does not work that way” and “myths” like these merely fuel the “insidious dream” that “political action might help us find our way back to the Road Not Taken.” Perhaps. But how many divisions has Gregory? And does every instance of the cultural pessimism he represents lend itself to political reaction?
The same point applies to Lilla’s discussion of the French philosopher Alain Badiou, who has recently risen to intellectual superstardom, notably for contending that Saint Paul was a kind of first-century Lenin. Badiou’s significance, Lilla persuasively argues, lies in his revival of the revolutionary fervor of earlier periods in an age when deep misgivings about capitalism have resurfaced. Yet when Lilla suggests that, in betraying a “nostalgia for the ‘future,” Badiou is a leftist reactionary, one suspects that he may be pushing the envelope a little too far. Is Badiou backward-looking? Romantic? Unquestionably. But to suggest that regretting the day when socialists still dreamed of the future is “reactionary” is to use the term far too elastically—and to suggest the limits of viewing reaction solely through the lens of nostalgia.
The most compelling pages in The Shipwrecked Mind are found in the sweeping final chapter, which connects the terrorist attacks against Charlie Hebdo in Paris in January 2015 to the work of two French cultural pessimists. At last, we are firmly on reactionary terrain. Lilla argues that the Islamist ideals that fueled the attacks partake in the politics of reaction as much as a number of contemporary, quasi-Spenglerian critics of French society. He presents an intriguing portrait of Eric Zemmour, the right-wing journalist who has recounted France’s long decline in a bestselling essay entitled Le Suicide français. But the heart of Lilla’s book lies in his analysis of Soumission, a novel by French writer Michel Houellebecq that happened to be released on the day of the January attacks. This coincidence is all the more ironic in that the book is a work of political fiction that imagines the victory of a moderate Islamist candidate in the French presidential elections of 2022.
Lilla displays a visceral understanding of the unsavory anxieties that haunt Houellebecq’s fiction. He recognizes that, accusations of Islamophobia notwithstanding, Houellebecq’s quarrel is not primarily with Muslims. The problem is that for all its sensitivity, Lilla’s analysis tries to square Soumission with his argument that nostalgia is reaction’s defining feature. François, the lonely professor who is the novel’s protagonist, displays little concern for the past (other than his academic specialty, the nineteenth century writer Joris-Karl Huysmans). Even the civil war pitting Muslim radicals against right-wing gangs that is unfolding along Paris’s outskirts leaves him largely indifferent. What paves the way for his conversion to Islam—and his acceptance of the new order that Islamist president represents—is his gradual realization that contemporary France offered him little he really cared about. Indeed, his conversion depends on a recognition—“slouching toward Mecca,” in Lilla’s pitch-perfect formulation—that his previous life had been defined by loss and dispossession. It is in these sentiments, far more than nostalgia, that the essence of reaction seems to lie.
But what exactly have Houellebecq’s characters lost? After all, they are typically white middle-class men—with five weeks paid vacation, to boot. The answer, while it may sound reductive, is pretty clear: Houellebecq’s protagonists invariably see themselves as the victims of the sexual revolution. In his first novel, the lead character has an epiphany that is key to understanding Houellebecq’s worldview. He realizes that sex, like economics, is now founded on laissez-faire principles. Yet the free market and the sexual revolution have each produced their winners and losers. “Like unrestricted economic liberalism, and for analogous reasons, sexual liberalism produces the phenomenon of absolute pauperization. Some make love every day; some five or six times in their lives, or never . . . . In a perfectly liberal sexual system, some have an exciting and varied sexual life; others are reduced to masturbation and solitude.” 2
Houellebecq is a reactionary, but not primarily because he looks back nostalgically on an earlier era. It is because he feels dispossessed; society, he believes, has made choices that leave some fulfilled, while others lead lives of quiet desperation and internet porn. The connection between Houellebecq and Maistre is not nostalgia, but a keen sense that events beyond their control have deprived them of a situation that, save for the wiles of history, would rightfully have been theirs, whether it be a landed title or a “companion in bed.”3 Maistre and Houellebecq—one from his quarters in Saint Petersburg, far away from revolutionary France, the other alone in his Paris apartment, cut off from the city’s sexual marketplace—both write from a standpoint of resentment and exile.
Lilla’s beat is political ideas and passions and the disasters they cause—specifically, when ideas become passions. In an important earlier volume, The Reckless Mind (published in 2001), Lilla examined the fate of intellectual “tyrannophiles” in recent European history. Twentieth century ideologies drew in the likes of Martin Heidegger, Walter Benjamin, and Michel Foucault, Lilla argued, not simply as vehicles for their ambitions, but because they were ideologies, which “appealed, slyly and dishonestly, to the sense of justice and hatred of despotism that thinking itself seems to instill in us and which, unmastered, can literally possess us.” In this way, the “shipwrecked mind” of reaction is next of kin to the “reckless mind” of tyrannophilia: Both are cautionary tales in which the illusions to which human thought is invariably prone obscure the pragmatic virtues—moderation, skepticism, responsibility—upon which politics, in Lilla’s view, inevitably depends. Indeed, Lilla’s recent controversial op-ed in the New York Times, which presents Hillary Clinton’s defeat as evidence that identity politics is a dead-end, is part and parcel of Lilla’s campaign against seemingly noble ideas that distort political judgment.
The conceit that is specific to the reactionary mind, for Lilla, is the belief in a Golden Age. Yet what seems striking about many contemporary reactionaries is their thin historical sense, their failure to engage in the kind of “epochal thinking” that Lilla sees as their trademark. As many have noted, the dark pronouncements made by Donald Trump in his convention speech last summer were made in an historical vacuum, with virtually no reference to American history or the ideals it is supposed to embody. The historical consciousness of such contemporary nationalists as Marine Le Pen and Nigel Farage is similarly anemic. These movements harp on the need to take their countries “back” and to make them great “again,” but their historical reference points are more postmodern bricolage than grand vision. Nostalgia, as Simone Signoret once said, is not what it used to be.
Reaction may be fueled by nostalgia, but it seems to be something more than a passion of the mind, a conceit that distorts reality. It articulates, rather, an all too real sense of deprivation: it may rest on deeply misguided premises, but it is nonetheless visceral and personal. What motivates Houellebecq and laid-off factory workers who voted for Trump is not primarily nostalgia for a Golden Age, but the feeling that they have been cheated—a sense that they have lost what they were due, and are worse off for it.
Reactionaries, Lilla maintains, share the dilemma of Don Quixote: “His quest is doomed from the start because he is rebelling against the nature of time, which is irreversible and unconquerable. What is past is past; this is the thought he cannot bear.” Yet this way of thinking, while undoubtedly judicious, also risks partaking in what E. P. Thompson called “the enormous condescension of posterity”—or, for that matter, of better-off contemporaries. Speaking of the British working class, Thompson wrote that while their protest against industrialism might seem “backward-looking” and “foolhardy,” their “aspirations were valid in terms of their experience; and if they were casualties of history, they remain, condemned in their own lives, as casualties.” Lilla is a powerful and sobering analyst of political illusions. But can the troubling allure of reactionary thought in our time be reduced entirely to “magical thinking”? Are reactionaries simply—to use that trite and tired mantra of self-help literature and corporate-speak—“afraid of change”? The world we have lost may have not been all that it was cracked up to be. But its disappearance remains, for some, very much a loss, and it is to the reality of this loss that reactionary thought, however disingenuously, has managed to appeal so profoundly.