Nostalgia is Irrefutable: A Note on Mark Lilla’s “The Shipwrecked Mind”

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Whenever I reflect on the celebrated modern writer, Marcel Proust the thought always comes to me – seemingly out of nowhere – that his appeal to childhood memory, to his bed, is sheer nostalgia.  He is telling us that the past is always better than the present.  And if we put this in a temporal perspective, we can see that it suggests that the past is also better than the future and that nostalgia is an even greater force than hope! How could this be? What kind of world could give birth to such a passionate form of nostalgia?

Mark Lilla’s Query

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In The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction, Mark Lilla tells us, at the very outset, that he is bewildered by the fact that proper “theories about reaction” – as opposed to theories of revolution, that are covered in every which way – are lacking:

We have theories about why revolution happens, what makes it succeed, and why, eventually, it consumes the young.  We have no such theories about reaction, just the self-satisfied condition that it is rooted in ignorance and intransigence, if not darker motives.  This is bewildering.  (ix)

He is bewildered because he can’t see why anyone misses the fact that reaction may in fact be more powerful than revolution. He thinks that it’s “spirit…may have died out.”   And it is reaction that “rose to meet it” and “has survived and is proving to be as potent a historical force.”  After all, says Lilla, it is currently on the rise in the “Middle East” and “Middle America.”   He calls those who refuse to see this, smug, because they regard this irony (since one would or even should – as Lilla suggests may be behind this blindspot – think it is the other way around) with another irony:

It arouses a kind of smug outrage that then gives way to despair.  (x)

And with that despair comes a striking realization in a era when all “others” are embraced:

The reactionary is the last remaining “other” consigned to the margins of respectable intellectual inquiry.  We do not know him.  (x)

Lilla’s task is to introduce “him” to us and to make it respectable if not imperative to think about reaction.  He defends this proposition.  To this end, he starts by giving us  a genealogy of the use of “reaction” and “reactionary” after the French Revolution. And, as we can see, it has a very “negate moral connotation” which “still retains today”(xi).

After saying this, Lilla says something that – because of this negative moral connotation –  doesn’t fit within “our” frame of reference:

Reactionaries are not conservatives.   This is the first thing that should be understood about them.  They are, in their way, just as radical as revolutionaries and just as firmly in the grip of historical imaginings.  Millennial expectations of a redemptive new social order and rejuvenated human beings inspire the revolutionary; apocalyptic fears of a new dark age haunt the reactionary.  (xii)

To see something and be deeply affected by time and history, is to be, as Lilla puts it, “shipwrecked.”  He dedicates this book to understanding the “shipwrecked mind.”

The reactionary mind is a shipwrecked mind. Where others see the river of time flowing as it always has, the reactionary see the debris of paradise driving past his eyes. (xiii)

Reading this, I immediately think of Walter Benjamin and Albrecht Durer’s interest in the figure of Melancholy who is surrounded by the ruins of history.

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And, as a result of being shipwrecked, the reactionary mind turns to the past:

The reactionary, immune to modern lies, sees the past in all its splendor and he too is electrified  (xiii)

The nostalgia of the reactionary can be “militant ” and this is what makes him a “distinctly modern figure, not a traditional one”(xiii).   Lilla delves into the conditions for the possibility of such a passion for the past, for nostalgia.  He argues- by way of Marx – that it has to do with the experience of constant revolution and change, when “all that is solid melts into air.”  This creates an “anxiety” and it this anxiety is by and large greater than we could ever have imagined: it is “universal.”

It is so strong that Lilla claims that reactionaries – of our time – have discovered that nostalgia may “perhaps” be “more powerful (a more powerful motivator) than hope.”   And this leads him to the conclusion that: “Hopes can be disappointed.  Nostalgia is irrefutable.”

These last lines not only make me think about Walter Benjamin’s struggle against the tide.  It also reminds me of his favorite writer, who he wrote an essay on which took him nearly ten years to complete.  He noted that all of Kafka’s characters like to go backwards. They seem to be primordial as they turn against the flow of time we know as progress and development.

One story which puts this into perspective is Kafka’s “A Report to the Academy.”  At the end of the story, the ape, who is the first person narrator of the story, reflects on all he has gone through to become more civilized and…human.  Although he seems inspired and hopeful, he is actually really quite bored.  And when he thinks about the “half-trained little chimpanzee” he comes “home to late at night,” who he takes “comfort from” as “most apes do,” he recalls how he “can’t bare to see her”(259, Kafka: Collected Stories).

Why?

When he sees her he takes notice of her “insane look of the bewildered half broken animal in her eye.”  In other words, he sees himself.  He is a reactionary and, as Lilla would say, his mind is “shipwrecked.”

Strangely enough, after mentioning this, he covers up the fact that he sees the marks of his past life on his ape’s face….and acts “as if” everything is all right (and human), as he finishes his “report to the academy.”

In any case, I am not appealing to any man’s verdict, I am only imparting knowledge, I am only making a report.  (259)

The question we need to ask about this report is the same one Lilla poses.  What does it mean that the knowledge he is imparting is the knowledge of a  shipwrecked mind which acts as if it is not?  Who are we?  Are we in denial?  Are we trying to hide the fact that we are shipwrecked on the shores of time and that nostalgia might be greater…than hope?

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