Nostalgia for the Present

By Pappin, Gladden J. | Modern Age, Spring 2017 | Go to article overview

Nostalgia for the Present


Pappin, Gladden J., Modern Age


The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction

By Mark Lilla

(New York: New York Review Books, 2016)

The "spirit of reaction" is back and more active than ever, says Mark Lilla in The Shipwrecked Mind. "Reactionaries are not conservatives," he explains, for reaction is a political category outside the usual division between progressives and conservatives. "They are, in their way, just as radical as revolutionaries and just as firmly in the grip of historical imaginings." Both revolutionaries and reactionaries, Lilla suggests, identify currents in the course of history: revolutionaries claim to see where history is going and insist on bringing it about, while reactionaries survey rhe course we've come and identify only a shipwreck. Yet the real shipwreck, Lilla suggests, is in the mind of the reactionaries themselves.

Lilla identifies the core of the reactionary worldview in the nostalgia he ascribes to thinkers such as Joseph de Maistre, writing in the wake of the French Revolution. Faced with what they perceived to be a catastrophic end to the existing political order, the original counterrevolutionaries "became adepts at telling a sort of horror story." The harmonious order that existed once upon a time was damaged from within by some transformation, whether intellectual, religious, economic, or otherwise. In Lilla's view, reactionaries deployed the "post hoc, propter hoc" fallacy to conclude that bad events of recent years occurred because of preexisting rot. And who are the reactionaries? "Today," Lilla says, "political Islamists, European nationalists, and the American right tell their ideological children essentially the same tale."

Lilla's argument has a reactionary character of its own. Though he admits that historical writing began "with the need to explain the seemingly inexplicable reversals of fortune," he says that his own book arose from the need to explain a new force that came on the scene especially in the twentieth century: nostalgia. Though nostalgia has been present as long as human memory, political nostalgia has, in Lilla's story, fogged modern political vision, settling on Europe "like a cloud." Nostalgia has little to recommend it to Lilla's eyes. It shines up the past into an idealized form and erroneously assumes that it may be easily recovered, if only we reject the forward march of history that has been wrongly imposed on us. Other commentators such as Yuval Levin have been quick to identify nostalgia in the antiestablishment American political movements of 2016, particularly that of Donald Trump. "Make America Great Again" is, they would say, the very slogan of that nostalgia.

Whatever role nostalgia may play in human society, it is a strange concept to pick as the unifying explanation behind the political positions of the thinkers Lilla discusses. The Shipwrecked Mind gathers Lilla's reviews and essays on Franz Rosenzweig, Eric Voegelin, Leo Strauss, Alasdair MacIntyre (and his latter-day admirers, such as Brad Gregory), Alain Badiou, Michel Houellebecq--and political Islam. Writing as a sort of psychoanalyst to philosophers and his fellow intellectuals, Lilla identifies their dissatisfaction with the modern world as their shared starting point for inventing a better and idealized past.

When Lilla presents the revolutionary and reactionary attitudes as two stances toward what is called "history," the two approaches seem to cancel one another out. If the revolutionary sees human history about to go in a certain direction and seeks to bring it about, how is his basic view--that history is an aspect of human existence--any different from that of the reactionary who knows and wants to restore the past? Lilla appears to escape this dilemma by blaming the revolutionary's vision of the future as well. But in effect, criticism of reactionaries simply plays into the hands of revolutionaries: if avoiding the pitfalls of revolution and reaction means we instead have to favor the present, this often means merely adjusting to the world as created by revolutionaries. …

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