Thinkers like Joseph de Maistre and the attitudes they embody are the subject of Mark Lilla’s new book, The Shipwrecked Mind, an important and timely study of political reaction. The fantasy of returning to a bygone era is, Lilla argues, the crux of reactionary thought: “Where others see the river of time flowing as it always has,” he writes, “the reactionary sees the debris of paradise drifting past his eyes.” Whether the goal be monarchical restoration, a new caliphate, or to “make America great again,” the reactionary mind is, more than anything, haunted by nostalgia—the longing for those “fresh Eden[s]” that arise during periods of disorienting social upheaval. Yet to indulge such fantasies, Lilla believes, is to succumb to “magical thinking.” In every reactionary, he thinks, there lies a bit of Don Quixote, pining for the Golden Age—and making a fool of himself in the process.
Most of the volume’s essays first appeared in The New York Review of Books and were composed without political reaction as their explicit theme. They are written with enviable clarity. Lilla has an uncanny knack for distilling complex ideas to their intuitive essence in lucid, jargon-free prose. Yet while these essays are illuminating to a fault, one wonders if it is always on the reactionary mind that they shed their light.