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The Future Ain’t What it Used to Be

By Chris Kark.

Mark Lilla, The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction (New York: New York Review of Books, 2016)

Near the end of the third volume of Alonso de Ercilla y Zúñiga’s La Aracauna (1589), Spain’s national epic, around 200 soldiers set out on an expedition to the far south of Chile. The war-weary band of men had spent the better part of two decades waging a holy war against the Mapuche, an indigenous people who proved to be more than a match for the swashbuckling Spanish. Victorious, the expeditionaries lumbered through swamps and slashed through brambles until arriving, starving and exhausted, to what Ercilla describes as an earthbound paradise. Before them lay a yawning gulf, its waters plied by gondolas the locals used to fish and haul foodstuffs. They take pity on the armour-clad wayfarers and dole out as much fish, corn and fruit as the men can consume. They eat in peace, sated by the kindness of strangers.

For Ercilla, this is the beginning of the end. He had seen this all happen before — the peaceful first contact, the exchange of gifts, perhaps some laughter and merriment. None of it would last. A noble as erudite as he had likely read enough Hesiod and Virgil to recognize paradise when he saw it, and enough Paul and Eusebius to know that sin would soon tear it asunder:

The sincere goodness and warmth
of the simple people
made it clear that greed
had yet to penetrate these parts
neither wickedness, pillage, nor injustice
(the standard ingredients for war)
were anywhere to be found
nor was natural law violated.

But then we, destroying
everything we happen to touch,
with our usual brashness forging paths
made way for all of them;
corrupting the old ways,
by new slights devastated,
here greed planted its banner
with more confidence than anywhere else. (36.13-14)

Ercilla’s account would resonate with the thinkers in Mark Lilla’s The Shipwrecked Mind (2016), an assortment of essays on reactionary thought over the past century. Reactionaries, he writes, are marooned in the present, adrift in history after it swung off course. Like revolutionaries, they are dissatisfied with the status quo; unlike revolutionaries, they take comfort in nostalgia for a time long lost rather than a possibility still unrealized. Yet the reactionary story goes untold — in Lilla’s words “consigned to the margins of respectable intellectual inquiry”. For Lilla, a professor of humanities at Columbia University, the spirit of 1789 may have died out, “but the spirit of reaction that rose to meet it has survived and is proving just a potent a historical force”. In the age of ISIS and Trump, Brexit and #FARCxit, it’s high time that someone explain what ails us.

Explain Lilla does, albeit in ideas plucked from his “aleatory reading over the past two decades”. The Shipwrecked Mind makes a modest gesture towards a “systemic treatise” that Lilla doesn’t pretend to be writing. Instead, in six luminous chapters, most derived from essays in The New York Review of Books, he lays the groundwork of histories yet to be written. It all began when the French Revolution forever altered the meaning of revolution and reaction. In ages past, political revolutions cycled from monarchy to oligarchy to democracy to mob rule. A full revolution meant a return to monarchy. But later, once the French Jacobins had seized power, they sought to reorder the world from scratch. They revolted against history itself: “The river of time flows in one direction only, they thought; reversing upstream is impossible”. Those who disagreed were labelled “reactionaries,” who from then on became the naysayers of all utopian ambition. The label stuck.

Reactionaries, in Lilla’s political taxonomy, aren’t conservatives. Conservatives like Edmund Burke balked at revolutionaries not just for their extremism but their overdetermined reading of history. For him history was unpredictable and slow-going — what Lilla likens to “a Nile delta, with its hundreds of tributaries branching out in every direction”. Reactionaries would disagree, but with none of the revolutionary sunniness that gets clicks. Theirs is an age slouching towards Gomorrah, wracked by revolts, world wars, armageddons borne by nuke or suicide vest. History for reactionaries is a rolling apocalypse, their doomsaying also their source of inspiration. They gild the past with longing, recasting history as a protracted morality play in which people never seem to learn their lesson.

With centuries of reactionary thought to draw on, Lilla trains his attention mainly on the twentieth century. In the first three chapters, he sleuths through the works of German thinkers from the first half of the twentieth century. First among these is Franz Rosenzweig, a Jewish theologian and philosopher, who in 1913 came into his own after an eleventh-hour decision not to convert to Christianity. Thereafter he embraced Judaism with zeal, swapping out Hegel for Hebrew. Yet Rosenzweig, like so many German intellectuals of his day, built his career in reaction to Hegel’s argument that history would culminate in a rationalized bureaucratic state. Hegel believed that Christians are pilgrims passing through an ephemeral world, where they will stop at nothing to redeem the whole of humankind. So determined, they hog history’s proscenium.

Rosenzweig agrees that Christians are historical movers and shakers, their ultimate triumph manifest in the horror that “the whole of human experience had be explained rationally and historically, anesthetizing the human spirit and foreclosing the experience of anything genuinely new, personal, or sacred”. Panic set in among German intellectuals, fuelling a retreat into myths and the occult. Rosenzweig followed suit. In The Star of Redemption (1921), he claims that Jews have opted out of history, “given no historical task because they were already what they were destined to be”. Eternal and already redeemed, for Rosenzweig Jews are instead to preserve life through preserving blood ties and rituals that bind them to God. Yet if “for them history has no meaning,” then Rosenzweig is less a reactionary than a latter-day mystic. Reactionaries advocate for reversing time, not burrowing an exit through its fabric.

One possible advocate was Eric Voegelin, a German-born political philosopher who came of age in Austria and fled after the Anschluss of 1938. Just before the Gestapo burst through his front door, he published The Political Religions, a pamphlet in which he blames the secular West for the rise of Nazism. Once upon a time, as all reactionary tales begin, the divine order and political order were as one. Emperors could be gods and kings high priests. Then Christianity came, and with it “theological principles for distinguishing divine and political orders”. First mentioned in the Gospels, then formalized in Augustine’s De civitate Dei contra paganos (426 CE), this strain of thought for Voegelin led straight from Nicaea to Nuremberg. The consequences went unseen for over a millennium until the eighteenth century, when a motley group of philosophers began to worship human action as deity. “When you abandon the Lord,” Lilla quips, “it is only a matter of time before you start worshipping the Fürher”.

While Europe lay in ruins, in 1951 Voegelin published The New Science of Politics. In it he shifts the blame for modern nihilism from Christianity to gnosticism. Gnostics, now called utopians and revolutionaries, believe the earth to be a fallen place, that enlightenment came from acquiring secret knowledge (gnosis), and that “redemption would come through a violent apocalypse, led, perhaps, by those possessing gnosis”. Voegelin sees modernity as the climax of gnosticism, the monstrous brainchild of Christians who grew tired of awaiting salvation and sought to save themselves instead. This “immanentization of the Christian eschaton” he pins on Hegel and Marx, who stirred up a gnostic revolt against the divine. Ever impatient, the Christian West bargained for paradise and instead got totalitarianism and consumerist anomie. As solutions go, writes Lilla, Voegelin’s offer little more than hints — namely, that he “valued the power of religion itself as a vitalistic force shaping human society that could be directed to good ends so long as its proper function was respected”.

If Voegelin was a reactionary, he only went as far as theorizing about when Western civilization started to decline. Leo Strauss, a Jewish German and longtime political science professor at the University of Chicago, pinpointed the exact moment when the rot purportedly began and proselytized a generation of conservative thinkers into doing something about it. Strauss reacted to Martin Heidegger’s pronouncements against Socratic philosophy by defending it. Socrates, and therefore Plato, vitalized Western civilization by challenging divine revelation with human reason. All of this worked well enough until Niccolò Machiavelli’s Prince began circulating in 1532. Before then, Strauss wrote in Natural Right and History (1953), philosophy and revelation had settled into a détente founded in ciphers. Philosophy unsettles fundamental questions, and “most people, and all societies, needed settled answers to those questions”. So philosophers resorted to esotericism, penning tracts seemingly compatible with revelation, yet riddled with contradictions, lacunae and lengthy tangents noticeable only to the shrewd reader.

In Strauss’ account, Machiavelli broke the terms of the détente and so doomed Western civilization. There was, naturally, plenty of speculation about which form of government was best, but neither philosopher nor theologian dared impugn the foundation of natural right on which sovereignty rested. Machiavelli did, and in so doing unleashed the forces of modernity. Churches were set ablaze, monarchies toppled, and nihilism emerged triumphant. Strauss reads political theory like the mid-century New Critics read Ezra Pound: in an historical vacuum, where close reading and reader response allowed a generation of students to avoid the tough questions. Which is strange, because Natural Right and History is steeped in history. Had campuses in Europe and North America not erupted in protest in 1968, he might have slipped into obscurity. But Strauss and his epigons, a few of whom would become career neoconservatives, were “prepared to see the threat of ‘nihilism’ lurking in the insticices of modern life, waiting to be released and turn America into Weimar”. Only a return to classical philosophy could inoculate the American body politic against tyranny, starting, it would seem, with the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.

So ends the first part of The Shipwrecked Mind. Three intellectual biographies, two centuries of reckoning with modernity and one path forward: backwards. Lilla journeys down this path (he calls it “Currents”) in two ambitious chapters, “From Luther to Walmart” and “From Mao to Saint Paul”. Judaism and Christianity in particular, he writes, have lapsed into golden age thinking in spite of warnings not to do so. “Of that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone,” warns Jesus of trying to predict God’s plans. This did little to stop early churchmen, such as Eusebius of Caesarea, from carving up history into discrete periods, each a step towards the Second Coming. Augustine of Hippo rebuffed such prognosticating in De civitate Dei, penned in reaction to the Gothic sack of Rome in 410 CE. History was an anomaly, its flow too mysterious to predict.

Lilla correctly observes that Augustine “reoriented Christian thinking away from the flow of history towards its eschatological end,” making it unfortunate he has so little to say about eschatology elsewhere in The Shipwrecked Mind. Perhaps it’s the fault of reactionary Catholics who, from the nineteenth century onward, spent too much time waxing nostalgic about the past — what Lilla calls “the World We Have Lost narrative” that softened into tales of the “Road Not Taken”. Where that road leads Lilla doesn’t tell us. Instead, its would-be travellers “tell us that at some point in medieval or early-modern history the West took a momentous wrong turn, putting itself on the path to our modernity with all its attendant problems”. For Catholic historians like Étienne Gilson and Brad Gregory, or for philosophical converts like Alasdair MacIntyre, things went awry after Duns Scotus and William of Ockham sought to refine the “the grand Thomist synthesis” of reason and revelation. Once the doors to rational inquiry flung open, it was only a matter of time before someone started asking uncomfortable questions. So they did, from Martin Luther to René Descartes, from Charles Darwin to Ray Kurzweil. Without revelation, reason runs amok.

Absent from their account, or at least Lilla’s version of it, is the apocalypse. Yet reminiscing about the “Road Not Taken” has as much to do with the present and the future as past. Throne-and-altar Catholics like Joseph de Maistre or Juan Donoso Cortés never believed the ancien régime to be an earthbound paradise. Gilson, Gregory and MacIntyre don’t reminisce about the Middle Ages for their own sake, even if they do romanticize them. If they long for a time when “the harmony of the heavens was mirrored in Christian life and thought,” it’s because almost everyone looked forward to the same thing. In those days the sovereign, in partnership with the Church, was to shepherd his subjects safely to the end of days. Of course, problems abounded well before the Reformation — heresies and persecutions, schisms and rival popes; but few cast doubt on the Second Coming, and fewer still on the torments that would await evildoers in the hereafter.

But in “From Mao to Saint Paul,” Lilla again tiptoes around eschatology. This is an astonishing feat: Paul of Tarsus and Mao Zedong spent their waking hours attempting to rush the future into the present. The sooner, the better. In The Shipwrecked Mind, though, Paul is a caricature, lionized by leftist academics after Jacob Taubes published his lectures on Paul in 1993. Lilla makes too much of Taubes’ arguments. Paul’s expansive vision of salvation is nothing novel; nor is the claim that humanity, now redeemed in Christ, is ripe for revolt against its oppressors. “That you are not under law but under grace” (Romans 6:14) does indeed defy Moses and Ceasar, but only inasmuch as it challenges Judaic law and Roman state religion. Paul himself makes this clear a few chapters later: “Let every person be subordinate to the higher authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been established by God” (Romans 13:1). Grace alone does not a political revolution make.

Facts aside, Paul found an unlikely champion in Alain Badiou, a recovering Maoist who extols him for his message of universal redemption. In Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism (1997), Badiou sees the Epistle to the Romans, not the Gospels, as the starting point of the Christian revolution. Of the kingdom of God Paul foreshadows throughout his letters, Badiou has little to say. He instead uses Paul to savage Israeli “particularity” since 1945. Lilla bravely follows Badiou into the fever swamps of modern anti-Semitism, where he airs grievances pent up over decades about Israeli foreign policy, political correctness and the supposedly preferential treatment of Jews after the Holocaust. Lilla then says of Badiou what is true of most reactionaries:

A certain kind of European left, which has sympathizers in American universities, has never gotten over the collapse of the revolutionary political expectations raised in the 1960s and 1970s. […] All one finds on the (almost exclusively academic) left today is a paradoxical form of historical nostalgia, a nostalgia for “the future”.

Yet Paul believed in a revolution largely foreign to Badiou, “a revolution that arrives when you least expect it, like a thief in the night”. If he had wanted to, Lilla could have taken this argument much further: reactionaries of all stripes suffer from nostalgia for “the future”. For Christians among them, that future arrives with Jesus returning to sort everything out. Nowadays, in the West, there is no shared vision of the future; there is just nostalgia for it.

Nostalgia runs rampant on the far right in modern-day France, where Lilla spent a year writing a few of the essays that feature in The Shipwrecked Mind. Vichy collaborationists and the Holocaust rendered reactionary thinking anathema for French intellectuals who came of age after World War II. Over the previous century and a half, anything went. But in “Paris, January 2015,” Lilla argues that once again anything goes. The story goes something like follows: Bible-thumpers like de Maistre and royalists like Chateaubriand inveighed against revolutionaries in the nineteenth century as did Maurice Barrès and Charles Maurras, both proto-fascists, against bourgeois cosmopolitanism in the twentieth. That brief caesura ended with France’s retreat from its colonies. The concomitant influx of immigrants from the Magreb, largely Muslim, sparked a backlash that has swelled in recent years. Leftists have become their most strident defenders, labelling as racists proponents of laïcité, France’s hallowed tradition of secularism. Polarization has set in, further exacerbated by headlines about Muslim immigrants traveling to Syria to join ISIS in 2014 and a string of major terrorist attacks in the ensuing years. Grasping to make sense of events as they transpire, Lilla turns to two bête noires of the French intelligentsia: Éric Zemmour and Michel Houellebecq.

Zemmour, a rising star in the French commentariat, published Le suicide français, a jeremiad divided into 79 chapters, “each devoted to a date supposedly marking France’s decline”. He bashes the usual suspects — neoliberal bankers, bureaucrats in Brussels and Magrebi immigrants, progressive academics and activist journalists. With so much of the present and recent past to condemn, such breathless vituperation leaves no room for meaningful talk of the future. Zemmour, writes Lilla, is correct about enough that readers might be tempted to believe his outlandish claims about the Vichy regime trying to save Jews fleeing the Holocaust. Le suicide cuts to the core of French politics, their normal operations supposedly paralyzed by anti-racist policy, which for Zemmour “has stifled the will to integrate Muslims from immigrant backgrounds into French society, with disastrous results — first and foremost for Muslim youth”. The result is a slow but inexorable suffocation of the French spirit, choked by its own principles.

Were it not for the rising tide of xenophobia, Le suicide might have been forgotten like so many other political rants. The French public, says Lilla, was groomed for Le suicide long before it hit bookstores. In short order, it became a bestseller. Zemmour joins a long line of false prophets who peddle an argument by interpreting everything he sees as evidence in its favour. Lilla sees this as the shift of an ideology from the margins to the mainstream, “when every event, past and present, is taken as confirmation of it”. For Michel Houellebecq, one of France’s foremost literary figures, this ideology is as natural as rain in Paris. Arguments are superfluous; things are the way they are. So it is for François, the protagonist of Submission (2015), Houellebecq’s most recent novel. François, a journeyman scholar, walls himself off from the world, and in Lilla’s reading embodies the everyman of secularist Europe, woofing down TV dinners amidst the ruins of Christian civilization.

But Submission isn’t about doom and gloom. The year is 2022, and Mohammad Ben Abbes, leader of a moderate faction of the Muslim Brotherhood, squares off with the National Front’s Marine Le Pen in France’s general election. Abbes wins. Most everyone welcomes the result. Crime falls, as does unemployment, and Gulf sheiks funnel money into facelifting the Sorbonne. Everybody’s happy, except, of course, for François, who along with other non-Islamic scholars is forced into early retirement with a full pension. When Robert Rediger, the new president of the Sorbonne, offers him his old job back in exchange for converting, François politely declines his offer. He then embarks on a pilgrimage to southern France in hopes of kindling a Catholic faith he never had. Finding none, François returns to Paris and bumps into Rediger, himself a former reactionary Catholic convinced that Christian Europe no longer has a future. Soon after François converts “without joy or sadness” but because “his life is exhausted, and so is Europe’s. It’s time for a new one — any one”.

For Lilla, Submission has less to do with Islam than Houellebecq’s beliefs about what happens to a culture that prizes individual freedom above everything else. Rediger’s tale of conversion, for instance, starts in the 1950s on the eve of Western civilization’s demise into “a decadent culture that told people to follow their bliss as free individuals, rather than do their duty, which is to have large, churchgoing families”. This is about as much explanation as readers get in Submission. That’s no accident: by eschewing explanations, Houellebecq mirrors the exhaustion of the Western cultural imaginary. No past, no future — just stuff happening all around. François couldn’t care less, converting to assuage his loneliness. One wonders if he sees it as yet another choice as a free individual or as a bona fide paradigm shift, cashing in his freedom for bliss.

The afterword of the The Shipwrecked Mind offers readers the finest distillation of Lilla’s work. For him, there is no reactionary more ardent than Don Quijote, that crazed noble of the Castilian plain. A wannabe knight steeped in Catholic mores, he believes in humanity’s fall and future redemption in the Second Coming. The earthly paradise at Eden, though lost, foreshadowed an eternal golden age under Christ’s dominion. There, all is forgiven. Modernity, in its glitz and horror, offers no redemption — just more of itself, clickbait and all. For reactionaries like Don Quijote, there is no way back. And few actually advocate turning back the clock, a fool’s errand not even Don Quijote, Knight of the Sorrowful Face, would undertake. They give themselves over to a nostalgic brand of hope the Portuguese call saudade, “a vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist”. Pining for what we don’t have or can’t be, reactionaries are each of us, despairing of a future that ain’t what it used to be.

Chris Kark is a writer and technologist based in San Francisco. He has published widely on the histories of early modern Spain and Portugal, and is particularly interested in notions of civilizational “decline”. Chris received his doctorate in Spanish and Portuguese Languages and Literatures from Stanford University in 2014.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, January 18th, 2017.