OCTOBER 23, 2016
MIDWAY THROUGH Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, Owen Wilson’s character, Gil Pender, an unfulfilled Hollywood screenwriter desperate to finish his first novel, travels back in time and shows his manuscript to Gertrude Stein. The novel’s protagonist works in a nostalgia shop. “Out of the Past was the name of the store,” Stein reads from the opening, “and its products consisted of memories. What was prosaic and even vulgar to one generation had been transmuted by the mere passing of years to a status at once magical and also camp.”
Stein is intrigued. But back in present-day Paris, Pender receives a less-favorable response from his fiancée’s friend Paul, a pedantic professor at the Sorbonne. “Nostalgia is denial,” Paul says. “Denial of the painful present.” Those who idealize the past suffer from a delusion he calls “Golden Age thinking: the erroneous notion that a different time period is better than the one one’s living in. It’s a flaw in the romantic imagination of those people who find it difficult to cope with the present.”
Paul’s diagnosis could easily apply to many of the people profiled in Mark Lilla’s The Shipwrecked Mind, an astute collection of essays exploring reactionary ideas and the thinkers drawn to them. “Many have attempted to understand the revolutionary mind,” writes Lilla, a professor of humanities at Columbia University, “yet few have studied the reactionary one.” But the two are not so different. Both feel adrift in the present. Yet while the revolutionary sees the promised land in the future, the reactionary locates it somewhere in the past — in a Golden Age that man, to his detriment, has chosen to forsake. “The reactionary mind is a shipwrecked mind,” Lilla writes. “Where others see the river of time flowing as it always has, the reactionary sees the debris of paradise drifting past his eyes.”
The term “reaction,” borrowed from science, entered the political vocabulary in the 18th century. “But after the French Revolution,” Lilla writes, “the term acquired the negative connotation it holds today; the Jacobins used it to dismiss anyone who refused to acknowledge the forward march of history toward human emancipation.” Reactionaries, Lilla notes, are not conservatives: in their desire to radically uproot the current political order, they share more in common with revolutionaries than with those who seek to preserve the status quo. So it should not be surprising that alongside right-wing reactionaries, such as the journalist Éric Zemmour, Lilla also profiles leftists, such as the Maoist-Leninist philosopher Alain Badiou. (Badiou is a reactionary who wants to return to an age of revolutionaries, a member of a class of European leftists who have “never gotten over the collapse of the revolutionary political expectations raised in the 1960s and 1970s.”)
Lilla’s reactionaries are united in their political nostalgia. Each yearns for a past era, a time before everything went wrong. Writing after World War II, for example, the German-American political philosophers Eric Voegelin and Leo Strauss sought to explain the rise of totalitarianism as the result of a “calamitous break in the history of ideas.” For Voegelin, the West veered off track in late antiquity, with the birth of Gnosticism, a heretical movement whose followers harbored a dangerous fantasy: that they could build paradise on earth — a messianism that led, eventually, to Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin. For Strauss, everything was going fine until Machiavelli published The Prince, which lionized man’s mastery of nature and sowed the seeds for the 20th century’s descent into relativism and nihilism.
Reactionaries may disagree about when, exactly, history went off the rails, but they all have a date in mind:
The expulsion from Eden, the destruction of the First and Second Temples, the crucifixion of Jesus, the sack of Rome, the murders of Hussein and Ali, the Crusades, the fall of Jerusalem, the Reformation, the fall of Constantinople, the English Civil Wars, the French Revolution, the American Civil War, World War I, the Russian Revolution, the abolition of the caliphate, the Shoah, the Palestinian Nabka, “the Sixties,” September 11 — all these events have been inscribed in collective memories as definitive breaches in history.
Once he or she settles on a lost Golden Age, the reactionary is unsure what to do next. “Should he simply withdraw and become an inner emigrant, a secret resister?” Lilla writes. “Should he lead the charge back to the past in all its glory? Or should he strive for a future that will be an even more glorious version of it?” Lilla devotes part of his afterword to a study of radical Islamism, whose followers belong firmly in the second camp; it is in the Muslim world that reactionary thinking is “most potent and consequential today.” Before Muhammad, according to radical Islamists, the world foundered in jahiliyya, an age of ignorance. But then Muhammad and the first caliphs constructed a new society based on divine law — Islam’s Golden Age. When the colonial powers arrived in the 19th century, however, they ushered in a new jahiliyya: one based on secularism, individualism, and consumerism. Just as Muhammad delivered the world from its fallen state, so, too, must today’s radical Muslims overthrow the shackles of liberalization and restore the splendor of the past.
In France, the rise of radical Islam, itself a reactionary movement, has provoked another reactionary strain in opposition, one that says that recent events — the massacre at Charlie Hebdo, the killings at a Parisian kosher supermarket, the exodus of young people to wage jihad in Syria — cannot be explained simply by reference to “this or that government policy, this or that reform.” For the French novelist Michel Houellebecq, for example, the roots of the crisis stretch much further back, to a point two centuries ago, when Europe embraced the “single-minded pursuit of freedom — freedom from tradition and authority, freedom to pursue one’s own ends.” But more freedom has not made people happier, and in their search for alternatives, many have been tempted “to submit to those claiming to speak for God.”
In his writing about Houellebecq, and throughout the entire collection, Lilla displays a keen eye for detail, a facility for language, and an impressive ability to write authoritatively on subjects as far-flung as 19th-century Jewish theology and French postmodernism. Perhaps his strongest essay is his last, a meditation on radical Islam that manages to weave in Emma Bovary, Don Quixote, and a history of apocalyptic thinking. Both Emma and Don Quixote are benign reactionaries, suffering, “as we all do, from the fact that the world is not as it should be.” While Emma’s suffering is Platonic — she searches for an ideal that does not exist in the real world — Don Quixote’s is Christian. He searches for a lost chivalric Eden, but “his quest is doomed from the start because he is rebelling against the nature of time, which is irreversible and unconquerable.”
One wonders what Don Quixote would make of Donald Trump, who makes no appearance in this collection. “Make America Great Again!” encapsulates a reactionary idea, a desire to restore a Golden Age — before political correctness, perhaps — that American politics has left behind. Trump himself cuts a Quixote-like figure, happily living in his own reality (and, in December, losing a protracted legal battle against a Scottish wind farm).
In the end, however, Don Quixote diverges from the Donald, as much as from radical Islamists. “A triumphant, avenging Quixote is unthinkable,” Lilla writes,
The Knight of the Sorrowful Face is absurd but noble, a suffering saint stranded in the present who leaves those he meets improved, if slightly bruised. He is a flexible fanatic, occasionally winking at Sancho Panza as if to say, Don’t worry, I’m onto myself. And he knows when to stop. After being defeated in a mock battle arranged by friends hoping to wake him from his dreams, he renounces chivalry, falls ill, and never recovers. Sancho tries to revive him by suggesting that they retire to the countryside and live together as simple shepherds, as in the Golden Age. But it’s no use; he meets death humbly.
When the delusion falls away, all that remains is what’s real: the present, with all its flaws — and all its possibilities.