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Mark Lilla’s most recent book, The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction, is a few things.

It’s a companion to his 2001 book The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics, which is also a collection of elegant, accessible essays on major intellectuals of the 20th century (more left-wing in the earlier book; more right-wing in the newer one). It’s a study of major thinkers who have questioned, condemned, or deconstructed some of the basic premises of modernity. It’s an implicit, and occasionally explicit, brief for liberalism as both a political framework and a disposition. And though it was published before Trump’s election, and mostly written before he was even a candidate, it’s an incredibly timely book.

The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction
by Mark Lilla
New York Review Books Credit:

It’s also an indirect response, I suspect, to Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin, which Lilla reviewed, with uncharacteristic venom, in the January 12, 2012 issue of The New York Review of Books.

It’s worth pausing for a bit on this last thing, because it’s important to understanding what Lilla is about, and also why the book is more significant than its brevity (158 pages) or the unassuming lucidity of its prose would suggest.

Robin’s book, which came out in the fall of 2011 from Oxford University Press, was both a series of individual studies of reactionary figures and tropes, going back to Thomas Hobbes, and more importantly―for Lilla and our purposes―one Very Big Argument about the inner essence of conservatism.

As Robin wrote, in the introduction to his book:

The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin
by Corey Robin
Oxford University Press

“Since the modern era began, men and women in subordinate positions have marched against their superiors in the state, church, workplace, and other hierarchical institutions. They have gathered under different banners―the labor movement, feminism, abolition, socialism―and shouted different slogans: freedom, equality, rights, democracy, revolution. In virtually every instance, their superiors have resisted them, violently and nonviolently, legally and illegally, overly and covertly. … Conservatism is the theoretical voice of this animus against the agency of the subordinate classes. It provides the most consistent and profound argument as to why the lower orders should not be allowed to exercise their independent will, why they should not be allowed to govern themselves or the polity. Submission is their first duty, agency, the prerogative of the elite.” [Emphasis mine]

Very much because of this very big argument, and the force with which Robin made it, The Reactionary Mind has emerged as one of the more influential political works of the last decade. Robin himself has become, since the book’s publication, one of the more aura-laden figures on the intellectual left. Paul Krugman cites him and the book periodically in his New York Times columns and on his blog. Robin’s Facebook page, which he uses as a blog and discussion forum, has become one of the places to watch to understand where thinking on the left is. Another key node of the intellectual left is Crooked Timber, a group blog of left-wing academics to which Robin is a long-time contributor, and another is Jacobin, an au courant socialist magazine that often re-publishes Robin’s blog posts sans edits, like dispatches from the oracle. The book itself, in the aftermath of November’s earthquake, is being revised, republished and re-subtitled, with Trump subbing in for Sarah Palin as the avatar of 21st century reaction.

It’s significant that The Reactionary Mind isn’t mentioned once in The Shipwrecked Mind. Not just because Robin and Lilla are leading figures in the small but august school of contemporary American intellectuals who theorize the right, but because it was their tangle over the meaning and history of conservatism, catalyzed by Lilla’s review that in many ways set Robin on this path to eminence. After Lilla’s review, they fought it out for another round in the letters section of the New York Review. It was taken up by allies of both men on the leading political intellectual sites and blogs, and finally documented for posterity by an article in The New York Times (replete with a moody photo of Robin, hair swept up by the cold winter wind, outside his Brooklyn apartment).

To leave the Robin review out of the Shipwrecked Mind—which is, after all, a curated collection of pieces of precisely the same sort from precisely the same magazine—is as much a statement as its inclusion would have been. Robin’s theory of the right, for Lilla, may have been worth assailing in a semi-monthly magazine, when there was still a chance of strangling it in its infancy. By leaving it out of his book, though, Lilla is saying something very clear about what kind of historian he believes Robin is.

“This is history as WPA mural,” as he put it in the original review.

It’s the good guys vs. the bad guys of history. The good guys are the workers, women, gays, blacks, immigrants, the whole tableau of the oppressed throughout time and space. “Their hats are white, immaculately so.” The bad guys are those who would keep them down: the corporations, the white people, the military-industrial complex, the organs of the state, and the thinkers and theoreticians who spin fancy theories to gloss over the grubby motives of the money men and the white people.

In The Shipwrecked Mind the criticism is more genetic to the whole project. In an essay on the German thinker Eric Voegelin, originally published a few years before Robin’s book, Lilla draws a contrast between his own preferred method of writing history, which takes on the sweep of human events while remaining sensitive to the irreducible complexities, and another, lesser kind, which folds and flattens all of human history into one űberthesis. He also recognizes, with an eye perhaps toward his own uncertain place in history, which approach tends to win the day. As he writes:

“Historians who offer ‘multicausal explanations’—and use phrases like that—do not last, while those who discover the hidden wellspring of absolutely everything are imitated and attacked but never forgotten.”

Mark Lilla’s personal tagline could be “multicausal explanations.” He’s a careful cartographer of the force lines of history, psychology, culture, and politics that intersect to produce the thinkers whose work he studies. Robin, by contrast, is a synthesizer and a brilliant and ruthless diviner of the hidden wellsprings of absolutely everything.

The men aren’t just natural historiographical enemies, they’re historiographical enemies who work the same beat. If it’s true, as Robin argues, that all conservative ideas and arguments, no matter their explicit content, are vehicles for preserving or restoring the privilege and dominance of the existing order over and against the claims of their subordinates, then Lilla has been on a fool’s errand for much of his intellectual career. He’s been running around taking conservative thinkers at their word, largely blind to the economic and political interests for which their ideas are useful veils.

It’s understandable, then, that Lilla went after Robin four years ago. Understandable too that he won’t give over any pages in his book to him, now that Robin’s stature is such that further attacks on him would only serve to further cement it. And yet it’s a shame, and a kind of irony. Because it’s precisely those Big Thinkers who seek out the hidden wellspring of everything, and often do great violence to the multicausality of things in the process, who most fascinate Lilla, and in relation to whom he does his richest work.

That dance is the method, in fact, of this lovely book. Take, for instance, the first essay of the book, on the German Jewish philosopher and theologian Franz Rosenzweig, who died of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) in 1929, not long before the doom of the Nazis fell.

It is the grandeur of Rosenzweig’s effort to revitalize Jewish thought and practice that attract Lilla’s admiration and affection. In Rosenzweig’s work, and his life, Lilla sees a humane and heroic response to the particular conditions of his time: the carnage of World War I: the rise of the modern state and modern science and rationalism; the deracination of Germany’s bourgeois Jewry.

Yet what Rosenzweig’s epic thinking inspires, in Lilla, is not a rival effort of equal sweep. It is, instead, a very different sort of intellectual practice that is far more self-effacing and (I doubt Lilla would disagree) smaller.

The Shipwrecked Mind doesn’t entirely escape its origins as a collection of one-off review essays written over many years.

Lilla is at his most Lilla-esque in the marvelously distilled one-paragraph summary of how the apparent triumph of the bureaucratized state in Germany produced in Rozensweig’s generation a reactionary embrace of the irrational and the subrational. He seduces his readers with his description of one of Rosenzweig’s more accessible works as a “small masterpiece of German philosophical prose, at once playful and profound,” and then tweaks us by dramatizing  Rosenzweig’s magnum opus, The Star of Redemption, as a profound but rhetorically clotted work that we’ll almost certainly avoid but will expect to feel guilty for doing so. He crafts rather beautiful prose that will very rarely be praised as such because of the second-order function it’s serving, which is to summarize what someone else has said.

Lilla is an essayist, driven to connect one paragraph and thought fluidly to the next without doing violence to the complexity of the subject, and without feeling the need for every thought to braid into a unifying thesis. He’s also a summarizer. His twenty-page chapter on Leo Strauss, the German emigre political philosopher whose influence on American neo-conservatism has spawned a thousand blog posts and conspiracy theories, is an immensely useful overview of Strauss’s thought as well as a welcome corrective both to those on the right who vulgarize Strauss’s thought for the sake of their warmongering and to those on the left who would use the vulgarities of so-called Straussians to ignore or dismiss Strauss’s actual corpus.

In his chapter on Voegelin, another refugee from the Nazis, Lilla gives the impression (surely just an impression?) not only that he’s read and digested all 34 volumes of Voegelin’s collected works, but that most of what you need to know about Voegelin’s thought is contained in Mark Lilla’s twenty pages on him.

In another chapter, “From Luther to Walmart,” we get brief accounts of the 2,000 year history of Christian “historical mythmaking,” a skeptical review of a recent declinist history of the west, and Lilla’s own brief history of the stories humans have told themselves to feel at home in the world.

Lilla ends his final chapter on the French novelist Michel Houllebecq, whose vision of the decline of Europe, as imagined in his novel Submission, has a sad and gentle beauty to it. As Lilla writes:

“[Houllebecq] appears genuinely to believe that France has, regrettably and irretrievably, lost its sense of self, but not because of feminism or immigration or the European Union or globalization. Those are just the symptoms of a crisis that was set off two centuries ago when Europeans made a wager on history: that the more they extended human freedom, the happier they would be. For him, that wager has been lost. And so the continent is adrift and susceptible to a much older temptation, to submit to those claiming to speak for God. Who remains as remote and as silent as ever.”

The Shipwrecked Mind doesn’t entirely escape its origins as a collection of one-off review essays written over many years. It’s less a single argument, of the sort that might be affirmed or attacked or easily summarized, than a series of overlapping insights and observations that are held together by Lilla’s authorial voice and his political, historical, and philosophical preoccupations.

Even the guiding metaphor, of the shipwreck, doesn’t map onto an easily explicable or unitary meaning. It suggests an alienated experience of modernity, of feeling stuck out of time as history rushes on all around you. It’s about looking back nostalgically toward that point of embarkation that was more stable and earthy, or that you imagine was that way, because in fact you were born on the ship, and have never known anything other the stormy waters of modernity. It’s about looking forward to an imagined future, and theorizing what kind of disruptive shock might break the ship free from the reef and what emergency repairs would have to be done to keep it afloat long enough to reach safe harbor. It’s about reconstructing a story of how and why the ship went off course, and what better navigational choices might have been made to avoid its present fate. And it’s about a civilization that isn’t just stuck on a rock in the middle of an expanse, but one whose hold is rapidly filling with icy water. Barring a miracle, it’s gonna slide off and sink to the ocean floor.

Lilla’s position, to the extent that it can be summarized, is that we aren’t in fact shipwrecked, but that it makes sense that so many people feel that way. The waters of modernity are fast and rough. They carry us rapidly away from home, or an imagined home, toward an uncertain future. The apparent directionlessness of the journey can be profoundly frightening and disorienting. And the task of keeping the ship of civilization from being wrecked is an immensely difficult one, particularly since there’s so many of us tussling for control of the helm.

He is also saying, and this brings us back to his beef with Robin, that the thinkers of the last few centuries who are most eloquent in their reaction to modernity are reacting to more than just the assertion of agency from the subordinate classes, and they are up to more than just the restoration or preservation of privilege and power. They’re the ones, for Lilla, who alert us to how terrifying the movement of history is, and help us appreciate the degree to which human psychology will always rebel against this chaos and unpredictability.

Make America Great Again, to give just most the recent example, is a pernicious myth on many levels. But Lilla also believes they speak to something true in the human experience of modernity, and we ignore them at our peril.

“We want comfort,” Lilla writes. “So from time immemorial we have fabricated myths to convince ourselves that we understand the underlying processes by which the world took on its present shape. Such myths begin with some remote historical Big Bang, after which life unfolds in a meaningful, if not precisely predictable, direction. It is a revealing psychological fact that the most common historical myths with which early civilizations comforted themselves were stories of fated decline, which give temporal reasons for why life is so hard. We suffer because we live in the Age of Iron, far removed from our origins in the Age of Gold. If we are good perhaps one day the gods will smile down and return us to the world we have lost.”

Lilla thinks these are false myths, and often dangerous ones. Make America Great Again, to give just most the recent example, is a pernicious myth on many levels. But Lilla also believes they speak to something true in the human experience of modernity, and we ignore them at our peril. More than that. Modern secular liberal society, of the sort Lilla prefers, will survive and flourish only if it’s able to reckon with the insights of those who critique and reject its premises. In fact it’s one of the necessary virtues of liberal society, for Lilla, that it’s capable of reckoning and sometimes even reconciling with its critics and haters. It’s also one of the responsibilities of liberal intellectuals to act as facilitators of this process.

From this perspective an intellectual like Robin, who conspicuously rejects that conciliatory role, makes sense as a villain. And yet by this standard of villainy, many of the reactionary intellectuals whom Lilla respects and even admires would count as villains. These were people who had no interest in serving modernity, or contributing to its stability, because they saw it as hollow or rotten at its core, not worth serving or shoring up. They were not, in other words, liberal intellectuals, and had no desire to be. I would guess that Robin would say the same of himself, though from a very different ideological vantage point than most of Lilla’s subjects. So why not extend to him, and to the class of left-wing intellectuals of whom he’s fairly representative, the same intellectual courtesy, the same kind of sensitive, nuanced, historically informed and emotionally reserved critical treatment that Lilla is able to give to the subjects of his book, from whom he has more distance, either in time, space or ideology?

This is a terribly unfair demand, I realize. It’s not the book Lilla wrote. He set out to do his part to ameliorate liberalism’s dangerous inattention to the calls of the reactionary wild, and he has done it well. The Shipwrecked Mind is a pleasure to read, and an exemplary model of how to engage with anti-modern and modern-skeptical thinkers from within the modern liberal mainstream.

If I ask it of him, it’s because it seems to me that the task of the moment, for liberal intellectuals, isn’t just to read between the lines of what the right is saying, but to really hear the left as well. And to do so with vulnerability and introspection. Black Lives Matter. BDS. Campus advocates for safe spaces and trigger warnings. Occupy Wall Street. Left-wing academics who write books with Big Theories on the True Nature of conservatism. These groups and people, perhaps because they share so many of our broad goals for a more just and equal society but are so different in temperament and disposition, can often infuriate us in ways that our nemeses on the right can’t. Yet they too have access, sometimes, to truths about modernity, (neo-)liberalism, political economy, and human psychology that we shouldn’t ignore, and maybe can’t afford to, just because they drive us nuts. It was in no small part the insights and influence of the left, after all, that revitalized American liberalism and capitalism the last few times it seemed like things were falling apart.

We’re in a moment right now when it feels as though it could all fall apart. I don’t think it will. I’m an optimist. We’ve been in rougher spots before, and come through, and my gut is that we’ll come through this one as well. Not into a golden age, but into some kind of equilibrium that feels a bit more humane, and generative, than the last few decades have felt. But we didn’t revitalize ourselves in the past by being complacent. We did it by being creative, resilient, and adaptive. Mark Lilla’s new book is all those things. It’s what liberalism looks like at its best. If I ask for more, it’s only because more is always needed.

Daniel Oppenheimer

Daniel Oppenheimer is a writer based in Austin, Texas. His first book, Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century, is recently out in paperback from Simon & Schuster.