Umberto Eco and Why We Still Dream of Utopia


John Gray reviews Umberto Eco's The Book of Legendary Lands in New Statesman:

Eco thinks it is not too difficult to explain why humankind is so drawn to legendary places: “It seems that every culture – because the world of everyday reality is cruel and hard to live in – dreams of a happy land to which men once belonged, and may one day return.” Nowadays everyone believes that the ability to envision alternate worlds is one of humankind’s most precious gifts, a view Eco seems to endorse when, at the end of his journey through legendary lands, he describes these visions as “a truthful part of the reality of our imagination”. Yet Eco highlights a darker side of these visions when he describes how the Nazis drew inspiration from legends of ancient peoples, variously situated in ultima Thule (“a land of fire and ice where the sun never set”), Atlantis and the polar regions, who spoke languages that were “racially pure”. Himmler was obsessed with ancient Nordic runes, while in an interview after the war the commander of the SS in Rome claimed that when Hitler ordered him to kidnap Pope Pius XII so he could be interned in Germany, he also ordered the Pope to take from the Vatican library “certain runic manuscripts that evidently had esoteric value for him”.

The Nazi adoption of the swastika began with the Thule Society, a secret racist organisation founded in 1918. Legends of lost lands fed the ideology of Aryan supremacy. In 1907, Jörg Lanz founded the Order of the New Temple, preaching that “inferior races” should be subjected to castration, sterilisation, deportation to Madagascar and incineration – ideas, Eco notes, that “were later to be applied by the Nazis”. Legendary lands are idylls from which minorities, outsiders and other disturbing elements have been banished. When these fantasies of harmony enter politics, a process of exclusion is set in motion whose end point is mass murder and genocide.

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