Umberto Eco and why we still dream of utopia

Places that have never existed except in the human imagination may find an incongruous afterlife in the everyday world. Umberto Eco tells of how an attempt to commemorate the brownstone New York home of Nero Wolfe, Rex Stout’s orchid-loving fictional detective, runs up against the resistance of fact. Wolfe’s house cannot be identified because Stout “always talked of a brownstone at a certain number on West 35th Street, but in the course of his novels he mentioned at least ten different street numbers – and what is more, there are no brownstones on 35th Street”. Using Eco’s typology, a fiction has been transmuted into a legend: “Legendary lands and places are of various kinds and have only one characteristic in common: whether they depend on ancient legends whose origins are lost in the mists of time or whether they are in effect a modern invention, they have created flows of belief.”

Because they involve the belief that they existed, exist or can be made to exist – whether in the past, the future or somewhere off the map – legendary places are illusions rather than fictions. The distinction may sometimes be blurry, as the example of Nero Wolfe’s house shows; but the difference is fundamental to this enriching and playfully erudite exploration of the fabulous lands that human beings have invented.

Fictions we know to be neither true nor false and paradoxically this gives them a kind of absolute veracity that historical facts can never have: “The credulous believe that El Dorado and Lemuria exist or existed somewhere or other, but we all know that it is undeniably certain that Superman is Clark Kent and that Dr Watson was never Nero Wolfe’s right-hand man ... All the rest is open to debate.” Unfortunately, humans have an invincible need to believe in their fictions. So they turn them into legends, which they anxiously defend from doubt – even to the point of attacking and killing those who do not share them.

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.

A metamorphosis of fiction into legend occurred when some Nazis took seriously a picture of the world presented by the Victorian novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton. In his novel The Coming Race (1871), Bulwer-Lytton tells of the “Vril-ya”, survivors from the destruction of Atlantis who possessed amazing powers as a result of being imbued with Vril, a type of cosmic energy, living in the hollow interior of earth. He intended the book as an exercise in fantasy literature but the founder of the Thule Society, who also founded a Vril Society, seems to have taken it more literally. Occultists in several countries read Bulwer-Lytton’s novel as a fictional rendition of events that may actually have happened and the legend was mixed in the stew of mad and bad ideas we now call Nazism.

The process at work was something like that described in Jorge Luis Borges’s story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”, in which an encyclopaedia of an imaginary world subverts and disrupts the world that has hitherto been real. The difference is that in Borges’s incomparable fable the secret society that devised the encyclopaedia knew it to be fiction, while 19th-century occultists and some 20th-century Nazis accepted Bulwer-Lytton’s fiction as a version of fact. Among the marks that Bulwer-Lytton’s Vril-ya left in the real world, the most lasting was reassuringly prosaic: the name given to Bovril, the meat extract invented in the 1870s.

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