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The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction Paperback – 6 Sep 2016
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Praise for "The Reckless Mind" (NYRB):
"This is important. Lilla's short, elegant and readable book is about what happens when philosophers get tangled up in the real world. It is also a matter of recognizing that the world is in the shape that it is because of the influence of the most rarefied of minds." --Nicolas Lezard, "The Guardian," Paperback of the Week
"Lilla's accessible, summary look at eight 20th-century thinkers is a compilation of cautionary tales...shrewd advice...a very canny book showing us how not to think and chew politics at the same time." -- Carlin Romano, "The Philadelphia Inquirer"
"Mark Lilla is right now America's most brilliant commentator on the European intellectuals--lucid and deep at the same time, which is no small feat." --Paul Berman
Praise for "The Stillborn God"
"If Lilla castigates liberal theology for its naivete, he also praises America and Western Europe for simultaneously separating religion from politics, creating space for religion, and staving off sectarian violence and theocracy. Lilla's work, which will influence discussions of politics and theology for the next generation, makes clear how remarkable an accomplishment that is." "--Publishers Weekly," starred review
"Riveting, engrossing reading, even though it is history-of-philosophy." --"Booklist," starred review"
About the Author
Mark Lilla was born in Detroit in 1956. He is Professor of Humanities at Columbia University and a regular essayist for The New York Review of Books and other publications worldwide. His books include The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West (2007), The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics (2001), and G.B. Vico: The Making of an Anti-Modern (1994), as well as The Legacy of Isaiah Berlin (2001) with Ronald Dworkin and Robert B. Silvers. He was the 2015 Overseas Press Club of America winner of the Best Commentary on international News in Any Medium for On France."
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Although a bit peripheral to the main thrust of the book, I particularly enjoyed his ironic descriptions of the two French intellectuals Zemmour and Houellebecq who published books coinciding with the " Charlie Hebdo" murders. The first offering an Apocalyptic vision of the decline of France since the fall of Napoleon but in which the contemptible French Muslims played a crucial part. The second , a controversial novelist who imagines in his latest novel " Submission" a France ruled by a Muslim President, leading to a progressive subtle islamisation of French society at peace with itself at long last!!
This concise but dense book is replete of unusual and fascinating insights . For instance in one of the essays he explores a parallelism between the Revolutionary qualities of Mao and St Paul ( dreamed by Badiou, the leftist French philosopher) . In another the road that leads from Luther to materialist consumerism ( according to Brad Gregory an American theoconservative). Of interest is his debunking of Leo Strauss influence on the American Neoconservatives; an intellectual elitist inspiring right wing populist politicians.
Finally I agree with one of the commentators that the author should have fleshed out some of his arguments with perhaps a more structured academic book , instead of the short essay form, meant for the reader of a literary magazine. This does not detract from its cogency and subtlety.
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Where do too many of these discontented Americans, seekers of a better society, look for answers?
According to Lilla, in their quest for answers both sides of the political divide have fallen under the spell of simplistic mythical stories. Those on the right have a proclivity for tales of unified golden pasts (Lilla uses as an example Brad Gregory's nostalgic story of a Christendom prior to the outbreak of the Reformation). Those on the left have a proclivity for tales of "become what we were meant to be" futures (Lilla uses as an example Alain Bandiou's take on revolution).
Lilla despairs that such tales bewitch the mind into believing politics is capable of marching our current society either backwards or forwards into a time and place of a unified culture and citizen. Lilla calls this "magical thinking."
What can politics achieve: it cannot unify us, humans have always been a diverse bunch with, as Lilla says, numerous ongoing projects pointing in opposing directions; there are always an endless string of problems in current society to be met, there was never and could never be a grand plan to meet such problems, there is just the politics of muddling through (everything has always been patchwork). To believe otherwise is to fall under the enchantment of simple stories with simple morals.
Lilla argues the revolutionary spirit has mostly died out while the reactionary spirit, which arose to meet it, has endured. Given this reality, Lilla's book is focused on the reactionaries sense of nostalgia. These nostalgic minds are lost minds, lost to the unreal---to tales of a golden age and its shipwreck. While such a past is not real, their longing to return is real. One cannot make sense of our current politics without beginning to comprehend such longing. To our chagrin we have discovered that, as Lilla notes, nostalgia is a powerful political motivator.
Lilla starts with an assertion going back to DeMaistre, the reactionary is NOT a conservative. The reactionary is a utopian of nostalgia as opposed to the utopian of progress. While this is not actually the clearest of definitions, Lilla is able to use it trace a variety of kinds of thought which rhyme in function and affect. Lilla starts the book with careful and highly sympathetic studies of Rosenzweig, Voegelin, and Leo Strauss. Indeed, in the case of the latter two men, Lilla goes to pains to disentangle them from the use of their work. Lilla, like Isaiah Berlin who influenced him, can't help but admire something of the vitality of counter-Enlightenment thought and may almost be too sympathetic to his case studies for many of his political allies. He is far fairer to Voegelin and Strauss than to Alain Badiou in the later chapters.
It is the series of essay in the second half of the book that are both the interesting but also the most frustrating. Lilla seems limited by the magazine form that chapters were originally published in, but almost all the arguments need to linger. Lilla's thesis on the reactionary impulse to the "road not taken"--generally in some relationship to the Enlightenment although sometimes against the entirety of post-Socratic European history--is fascinating and seems apt, but he does not fully develop it.
Lilla's assertion that "epochal thinking is magical thinking" is fascinating and feels true, but he doesn't give enough examples nor does he explicitly call back the three case study thinkers in the beginning of the book which could be used to justify the claim. Lilla is erudite, and more or less expects his reader to be as well. Yet book that makes fairly strong demands on readers, its magazine style does have the benefit of being immediately accessible in style and a joy to read. This is particularly true in the essay on Michel Houellebecq and the two opposed currents of reactionary thinking in France. Indeed, Lilla does not explore this enough, but often the reactionary impulses biggest enemy is based in a different reactionary impulse with an opposing nostalgia. Lilla is a subtle thinker and a strong writer, but one wishes he developed his thinking beyond collecting his reviews on the topic and writing some thematic essays to tie them together.
Despite these caveats, I strongly recommend the "The Shipwrecked Mind."