Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Nitzan Lebovic reviews The Shipwrecked Mind

Mark Lilla. The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction. New York: New York Review of Books, 2016.

Review by Nitzan Lebovic

In a recent piece in the New York Times—which garnered a great deal of attention, not all of it positive—the historian of ideas Mark Lilla makes the case for a new politics of unity and “the end of identity liberalism.” Pointing to the failure of identity politics to unite and defend democracy, he calls for a return to the "foundations of liberalism,” the shared desire for the freedom of speech, of worship, and freedom from want and fear that Franklin D. Roosevelt memorably spoke of in his “Four Freedoms” speech of 1941.

While the editorial provoked a firestorm—including accusations that Lilla represented a “respectable” version of white supremacy—the essay was not simply a fumbling debut of a respected scholar into the bloody war of words that is postelection catastrophe-liberalism. [1] Rather, his op-ed is better understood as another controversial attempt to grapple with the questions that have troubled Lilla throughout his career: what makes liberal democracy fail? Thinking from within the paradigmatic crises of the twentieth century, Lilla has tried to exorcise the spirits of the Weimar Republic and the rise of Nazism. Building on his previous two books, The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics (2001) and The Stillborn God (2007)—the first was concerned with the attraction of intellectuals to power and the second to political-theology—The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction explores political nostalgia as the attitude that connects the German 1920s and the American present. For Lilla’s protagonists, the sense of a crisis of democracy is linked to a sense of Edenic loss: “The reactionary mind is a shipwrecked mind. Where others see the river of time flowing as it always has, the reactionary sees the debris of paradise drifting past his eyes” (p. xiii). The reactionary minds that Lilla is referring to are Intellectuals and Authors (with capital Is and As, and all of them men) who responded to the crises of their time by writing for the future with their eyes fixed firmly on the past.

As with his previous two books, his protagonists include German and German-Jewish thinkers—opponents of liberalism such as Eric Voegelin, Franz Rosenzweig, Leo Strauss, and Jacob Taubes—as well as French thinkers and authors, critics of liberalism from the Left and from the Right: The French theorist Alain Badiou, and, in the last chapter, the columnist Éric Zemmour and the author Michel Houellebecq. Following the maxim “crisis is the mother of history,” Lilla traces the intellectual offspring of crises from 1920s Germany, through the Nazi era, the student revolutions of the 1960s, the revival of neo-Pauline thought, the rise of American neoconservatism and “the Muslim world.” The idée fixe that unites these thinkers is the “belief in a lost Golden Age” (p. 140). The danger of this thinking for democracy, Lilla believes, is the irresponsible mythologization of the past and the failure of both conservatives and progressives to listen to the call of the liberal horn.

Yet while Lilla attacks political nostalgia of all sorts—one doesn’t usually see Rosenzweig, Voegelin, and Badiou mentioned in the same breath as political dangers—he seems to have missed his own. After all, whatever the power of Roosevelt’s 1941 call to unity, looking back to it today to harness its authority is itself a form of nostalgia, and in that sense no less dangerous for it. In the words of another Weimar critic of political nostalgia, Walter Benjamin: “A Brechtian maxim: to not build on the good old days, but on the bad new ones.”[2]

Both in spite and because of its liberal nostalgia, Lilla’s book brings much-needed attention to an important lacuna in critical studies: the conservative and the progressive often share the same self-affirmative mind. Lilla shows that opposite political camps share a similar decisionist logic, by following an Axial-age-like movement from the potential to the real: “As metaphors age and migrate from the poetic imagination to social myth they harden into certainties” (p. 135). Lilla cautions that the shift from (mournful) image to (apocalyptic) myth leads inevitably to false certainty and dangerous reification. This move is typical of both the authoritative reactionary and the progressive, with his “militant apparatus of truth” (p. 95). In other words, there is a close affinity between the crisis-striken reactionary and the pessimistic progressive, between the authoritarian German and neoconservative American, between metaphor and realized myth. From a slightly different angle, a similar apocalyptic view supports the left-wing Schmittians, with their Paulanized view of the world-as-resistance, and the right-wing Schmittians, with their Paulinian reading of the law as a sovereign suspension of the catastrophe: “there even seems to be solace in thinking that we are caught in a fated history of decline, so long as we can expect a new turn of the wheel, or an eschatological event that will carry us beyond time itself” (p. 135).

Lilla argues in favor of longue durée processes, not singular events, for “apocalyptic history itself has a history, which stands as a record of human despair” (p. 136). Critical theorists need not accept Lilla’s liberal solution (nor his categorization of any particular thinker as “reactionary”) to find his analysis and many of his proposals compelling; his plea to adopt new analytical tools beyond the old-fashioned Left/Right dichotomy is even more relevant now, such a short time after the election, and he is right to show that the crisis of democracy cannot be solved by a division to identity groups and selective sets of interests. After all, the magnificent failure to defend democracy, solidarity, and critical values is ours to share; as are the lessons we need to learn from it, as we welcome our bad new world.


[1] See Katherine Franke, “Making White Supremacy Respectable. Again,” Los Angeles Review of Books, 21 Nov. 2016: blog.lareviewofbooks.org/essays/making-white-supremacy-respectable

[2] Walter Benjamin, “Conversations with Brecht,” in Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings, trans. Edmund Jephcott (New York, 1978), p. 219.