LILLA IS A particular favorite of mine. The Stillborn God is brilliant intellectual history of the old kind (A. O. Lovejoy, Erich Auerbach, above all Isaiah Berlin), and his essays on the careers of various thinkers have the swiftness, assurance, and clarity of the Edmund Wilson of To the Finland Station and Patriotric Gore. His being skeptical about Marxism and respectful of certain conservative thinkers may explain, I'm guessing, why he does not have the cachet of, say, George Scialabba, the same way Berlin does not have the cachet of, say, Raymond Williams. I have to confess, though, that that skepticism and that willingness to entertain other perspectives are exactly what I appreciatre about him.
Superficially, this book has a lot in common with the Corey Robin book I wrote about a couple of weeks ago. It consists mainly of republished pieces, aims to create a kind of collage map of the intellectual right by examining the careers of crucial figures, and uses its introduction and conclusion to sketch an argument that unifies the book's various individual pieces.
Lilla finds (in spots) a greater integrity and coherence on the right than Robin does, though. Robin sees the right's arguments as inescapably founded on making cases for threatened or vanished privileges. Lilla sees them as founded on nostalgia. "Every major social transformation leaves behind a fresh Eden that can serve as the object of somebody's nostalgia," he writes (xiv); each right-wing thinker he examines "believes that a discrete Golden Age existed and that he possesses the esoteric knowledge of why it ended" and thus of how it might possibly be restored (xx-xxi).
I wonder, though, whether the Robin and Lilla summations of reaction do not so much oppose as complement each other, as in the old vase-or-two-profiles optical lllusion, in which you could see one or the other but not both at once. May one describe Trump's "Make America Great Again" campaign as nostalgic? Yes--hazily articulated, not necessarily even sincere on his part, but probably authentic enough as regards many who voted for him. Was Trump also appealing to a sense that male privilege and white privilege and straight privilege were crumbling? Well, yes. But do we have to choose which analysis is more true? Is there a way to think about both of these ideas at once?
A wide stream in my 2017 reading has been trying to understand the advent of Trump, and both Lilla and Robin helped. Next stop--Arlie Hochschild?