Of friendly bondage: Eno (left) and Perry won't relinquish their fascination with pushing boundaries. Image: Muir Vidler
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Brian Eno and Grayson Perry on how the internet taught us we are all perverts

Creativity, popularity and pornography – and why great art always involves losing control.

When the musician Brian Eno spoke to the New Statesman in May, he seemed to be irritated about the art world, its inflated prices and its critical language that so few people understand. When the potter and painter Grayson Perry began giving his Reith Lectures last month he paid tribute to Eno’s 1995 “sabotage” of a Marcel Duchamp urinal in New York (Eno siphoned his own urine into the artwork to explore whether the piece might be more valuable if it had been “worked upon” by two people). They had never met before but it made sense to try to bring them together in the New Statesman. They met at Perry’s studio in Islington, north London. Eno came with a Dictaphone and a magazine about electronic music; Perry was dressed as a man.

Brian Eno [Looking at Perry’s new kiln] That’s a big machine, isn’t it!

Grayson Perry Yes, if you want to make a big pot, you’ve got to have a big kiln.

BE So, what shall we talk about today?

GP That’s up to you. I have many well-travelled pathways in interviews, and in many ways I’d rather not go down any of them.

BE Me, too. I did have one idea, coming over, and that’s why I brought this keyboard magazine. I was thinking about the differences between the music and art worlds, and one thing that strikes me is that professional musicians are quite happy to share things with each other – their ideas and techniques, the tricks that made them famous. Is that something more characteristic of music than art?

GP Well, music is more collaborative. In the art world, originality is seen as a precious commodity and it’s increasingly difficult to get because the territory of art is so trampled. I always think that painters are fighting over the last original brushstroke. To find your own voice is incredibly hard. There’s very few people who have a revelatory, original thought; I think they’re almost mythical. Most people start off being someone else and then they make mistakes.

BE I find it interesting that artists are expected to be able to talk about their work in critical art language now – they have to have “personal statements”.

GP As someone who uses words a lot in my work, I’ve always enjoyed that aspect of it; but I’ve always been one for clarity, you know. As for the language of the art world – “International Art English” – I think obfuscation was part of its purpose, to protect what in fact was probably a fairly simple philosophical point, to keep some sort of mystery around it. There was a fear that if it was made understandable, it wouldn’t seem important.

BE Do you think it was primarily economic – in the sense that if you want to charge very high prices for things, you somehow have to make them appear very valuable?

GP Well, intellectual importance is directly linked to financial value in the art world. I mean, that’s the thing you really want – museum quality. You want to go down in the annals of art history.

BE I’ve been thinking recently about artists who were huge stars in their day who disappeared, like Sir Frank Brangwyn.

GP Or Thomas Kinkade. At one point he was the richest artist in the world. He made schmaltzy pictures of woodland scenes with cottages but he never sold the originals. He had a massive print thing going, and they reckon at one point one in six houses in the States had a Thomas Kinkade print. But he’s never going to feature in any art history.

BE It’s funny, because in pop music that kind of career path would be completely acceptable. First of all, we deal only in reproductions and the original doesn’t matter – there’s no difference between the master tape and what you hear on the CD.

GP No. I find myself thinking quite often that the art world has no equivalent of the popular, really. People always mention Jack Vettriano or Beryl Cook. Even Banksy, to a certain extent, is a very popular artist who’s not necessarily welcomed into the fine art world. But they’re exceptions, and they are not the people who line up their paintings on the railings in Bayswater.

BE The problem with fine art is that in most cases people have to make a special excursion to go and look at it: they can’t afford to own it. So it isn’t really part of their life in the way that music can be.

GP Well, in these sorts of conversations, the phrase “3D printer” always comes up – you know, musicians, authors and journalists have all been shat on by the software companies so it’s the artist’s turn soon, and people will just start downloading your works for themselves. I don’t see it happening just yet . . .

BE But even if it did happen, would it really matter? It just means you make work in a different way. People said that making records would take the life out of music, but then recording became a new kind of art. Now, of course, we’re in a slightly different phase where people are so unfascinated by recording that festivals are on the increase like nobody’s business.

GP Yeah, and I think that the art world benefits from the digital natives, too, because they want a live experience – to go to an art gallery, to be in the presence of an object. I think it goes right back to relics and idols. We learned how to look at art from religion. [The German art historian] Hans Belting thought our whole idea of “fine art” started about 1400, when objects weren’t just seen as religious artefacts any more and started to be appreciated as works themselves.

BE I think one of the big sources of confusion in any discussion about art is the difference between “intrinsic” value and conferred value. Nearly all art criticism is based on the idea that there’s such a thing as intrinsic value –

GP No, I would disagree with that. I think beauty’s a constructed notion, and it’s cocreated in the same way as conferred value. It goes back to that idea of looking at something as fine art: why does everyone think “that is a lovely thing”? Because they’ve been conditioned to do so. Different cultures have different ideas of what is beautiful. I’ve never been to China, but whenever I see Chinese art there’s something about their sense of colour, composition, texture, that for me is always slightly off – and I’m thinking, why don’t I just dive into that artwork and completely love it? It’s because I grew up as a westerner and we were completely separate We might as well have been on the moon for most of history.

BE Our experience of any painting is always the latest line in a long conversation we’ve been having with painting. There’s no way of looking at art as though you hadn’t seen art before.

GP Yeah – that’s why I have the rubbish dump test. When I was at college, one of the tutors used to say, “Oh, that won’t pass the rubbish dump test,” which is, if you throw your artwork on a rubbish dump, would people, members of the public, pick it up, thinking it was an artwork? It’s quite a cruel test but, you know . . .

BE I tried this with my friend [the South African artist] Beezy Bailey: we’d been doing some paintings together and we decided just to put some out on the street and see what people did. It was very funny. We hid behind a wall and watched people. Most of them didn’t pick them up.

GP With a lot of art, people wouldn’t! But I do think the Duchampian magic of bringing an outside object into a gallery seems fairly thin these days – what he did was amazing but at the same time, a hundred years later, I want something more. I always come back to the fact that all the urinals you see in the museums around the world, the so-called Duchamp urinals, they all had to be remade by a skilled potter.

BE Because they couldn’t find the original, could they?

GP Exactly! [Sing-song] Nah-nah-nah-nahnah! BEGood point.

GP I was talking to the curator Hans Ulrich Obrist and he said, “When you appropriate something, you have to be smarter than it.” You’ve got to say, “I’m going to make that more rich, more complex, more elaborate . . .” you’ve got to do better with the thing you’re dragging into the gallery.

BE Well, some ideas don’t actually have that much extension left in them. There’s a whole branch of conceptual art that I was very much immersed in at the end of the Sixties and early Seventies, and it kind of petered out. A lot of things that are being done now I call “onelinerism”, where really the description of the work is as good as the work itself.

GP The YBAs did to a certain extent rehash the work of that late-Sixties, early-Seventies period, but what they did on top of it was make it very appealing, very sensual, and sort of covetable. They put it through an advertising agency, almost.

That said, I called it Theme Park Plus Sudoku. People wanted spectacle – they wanted big, shocking, engaging art, colourful and funny – but they wanted a little puzzle, too: “Hmm, what’s this about?” The problem is, the worst of that kind of art leaves you with a feeling of: “Is that it?”

BE One of the messages of contemporary art has been that, well, anyone could do it . . . GP Well, that’s something I would refute. But I was thinking about this – how do you become a contemporary artist? Well, you could just say you are one and start doing something, and in a purely literal sense you’ll be right. But you’re never going to have a career that way. As Constable said 200 years ago, the self-taught artists were taught by a very ignorant person. You have to go to art school. You don’t meet an artist in the art world who’s not been to art school. There will be undiscovered geniuses out there in Mali or Brazil or China because they’re not cultures that have been strip-mined by dealers and curators yet. But in the west [phone starts ringing] – Oh my God, sorry about this, it’s so rare for my phone to ring . . .

BE I’m interested that you don’t have a phalanx of assistants.

GP No. I have an assistant who fights email for me, but there’s not a lot I could delegate, really. I toy with the idea . . .

BE I’ve never been able to delegate either. I’ve tried so often to have somebody who can help me do music, and I just have to look over their shoulder too much, so it’s not comfortable for them, and it doesn’t save me any time.

GP My wife has this theory that the happiest people are people who say, “That will do.” Today, I went to buy a bin, just for the fricking kitchen here in the studio, you know, but the ones they had in the hardware shop I didn’t like, so I’m still without a bin and I’ll waste another hour trying to find the right bin somewhere.

Somebody who goes “that will do” is probably the happier person in the long run.

BE I do have one good working relationship at the moment, with a guy called Peter Chilvers, who’s a software code writer. We’ve been making apps together for iPad and iPhone, and that’s been a good collaboration because there are quite large areas of nonoverlap.

GP Yeah. I’m working on an architectural project where we’re building a house in Essex, and that’s been a pretty collaboration, too. I’d always wanted to make a place of pilgrimage. So I was looking at religious buildings, but I had to be talked down from some of my more kitsch fantasies by the architect, who had a better handle on the dignity of an object in the landscape.

BE Is it a private house?

GP It’ll be a holiday let. It has an altar and will have tapestries and sculptures, and the outside is going to be completely clad in tiles. I’m fascinated by the idea of pilgrimage, again going back to that idea that in a virtual world you want to experience the real thing. I think pilgrimage is more popular now than ever, whether people know it or not. When I rocked up at Santiago de Compostela on my bike, they gave me a form and it said, “Is your purpose spiritual, cultural or sport?” If you put “spiritual”, you got a really elaborate certificate, but I put cultural and sport so I got a much cheaper, more prosaic one. I loved the fact that it was so banal.

BE If you’re making a new place of pilgrimage, how do you make it seductive enough for people to want to go and spend time there? What do you call upon if you haven’t got religion?

GP I think one of the things people always do is have their photograph taken in front of something now. You’ve got to kind of think about what is realistic behaviour for modern people. When we were on the road to Santiago, I saw loads of people who were more likely to be there because of Paulo Coelho’s book than the Bible. I said, “I bet when we get there, you can get a bong with a Santiago St James shell on it” – the logo –and you could. Increasingly, contemporary art overlaps so much with religion. If you look at all the art centres being built over the past 20 years in Britain, they’re all trying in a way to build pilgrimage sites so they can get the tourists in. It’s a good tourist dollar, in a middle-class, organic-quiche-eating way.

BE But so many of the things we like doing really fall under the umbrella of surrender. That’s sort of what a pilgrimage is, isn’t it? We like putting ourselves into situations where we let go of some control and we’re swept along by something. You’re told what to do and you’re told that when you get there – or in the process – something will happen to you. If you think of sex, drugs, art, religion, they all actually offer you the chance to be taken over, or to let go.

GP Yes, because I think there’s a whole horror of not knowing what to do. But I think conservatism is quite a damaging mental health condition. Anybody worth their salt is up for a challenge. If you’ve got lots of things going and you’re willing to branch out, you’re more likely to survive dementia and all sorts of things. The major influence on me in the last 20 years has been psychotherapy. We look at all human activity through the lens of our emotions. The most brilliant people are often the most difficult, because they try and talk themselves out of this the whole time. But all problems need cleverness, and emotional intelligence is something different.

BE This is why the idea of surrender is so interesting to me, because surrendering is what we are most frightened of doing. Everything is telling you to stay in control. One of the really bad things that’s happened in the art world recently is the idea that a piece of work is as valuable as the amount it can be talked about. So these little pieces of paper you see beside every artwork, in every gallery: if you watch people, they look quickly at the painting, then they read for a long time, then look quickly at the painting again. The analytical mind always wants to say, “OK, I understand this. It’s no problem, it’s no threat.”

GP Well, it’s the classic result of the fact that we hate not knowing. I feel it in myself. I want to tidy things up in my mind. My ideal artwork is one where I have the complete idea, it’s watertight, it’s going to look beautiful: all I’ve got to do is craft it; I can relax and put the radio on. And that would be a dream for me, my own tradition. I’m jealous of those artists who rock up in the studio every morning and do a version a tiny little bit different from what they did the day before.

BE Albert Irvin. I love his work, and I look at it and think: “How nice to go into your old age knowing what you’re going to do every day.”

GP One of the things I really enjoy doing is drawing with only half my mind on it – so I’ll have a couple of beers and get my pens out, and I’ll sit in front of X Factor, and I’m half watching the telly and half drawing. I don’t give a damn; I’m really free. And at the same time I’m operating because I’ve got my lifetime of experience to bear on it.

BE Yes, sure – in a way, you liberate that experience.

GP Yes. I wish I’d stop having fricking ideas and trying to make work that’s got somehow socially applicable.

BE Do you finish everything?

GP Not everything, not nowadays. I used to.

BE I finish so few of the things I start. A lot of the stuff that I’m doing is just seeing how new tools work. So, in order to do that, I try to make a piece of music with it. And often it produces a notebook sketch, really.

GP Yeah, I am loath to make a cock-up! But creativity is mistakes and if you can’t accept that, don’t get involved.

BE So that’s a way of saying creativity is letting yourself lose control?

GP Yeah, you’ve got to do risk. When I was young, I smashed a lot of my early pots because they were crap. In your twenties, you’ve got all that energy, and it’s wild and uncontrolled; in your thirties, you corral it somehow; then in your forties you make the money out of it, and in your fifties, you’re suddenly confronted with being secure. And you’ve got your reputation and you suddenly think, “Well, I could just churn out this work.”

BE I want it to keep me alive, actually, I don’t want to be the person keeping it alive.

GP That’s a lovely thought. I was thinking about Henry Darger the other day. Do you know him?

BE Yeah. Fifteen thousand pictures, they found, when he died?

GP Yes, he never lived to see his work selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars but it gave him a rich life. And I thought, “Wow, nobody even knew he did it, pretty much.” You look at his paintings, and he’s obviously got some art-historical knowledge, he’s not completely innocent. But I don’t think any outsider art is completely isolated.

BE I always had the impression it was probably a totally hermetic, personal thing for him. Like someone generating their own pornography; they don’t particularly want to show it to anyone else. Another very interesting area of outsider art now is drawn pornography. God, there’s some amazing things going on. They’re using semi-real images, but they’re just extending the bits they want more of, you know – or much further than that. I’ve started collecting them.

GP Careful! Speaking as a pervert myself, what the internet did was tell you that you weren’t alone. And it was shocking. When I was young, when I was about ten years old, I used to have this fantasy, which used to turn me on greatly, of being in a body cast – lying in hospital, motionless, unable to move. And then when the internet came along, one day I just thought, “I wonder,” and then I just googled “plaster casts” and like – eugh! There’s websites called things like Cast Your Enthusiasm. It’s an offshoot of bondage.

BE It’s an offshoot of surrendering, as well – the same thing. You’re deliberately losing control.

GP And it’s kind of a loving thing, I think. It has to be. If you think about giving up to God, God is always there and is a parental presence, a parental projection. In bondage, there is always somewhere in the fantasy the loving but cruel parent figure.

BE The loving dominator.

GP Yes, we’re all gimps to a certain extent. Often when we look at perversions, you’re seeing an extreme, ritualised version of what everyone else has latent in them.

I see a lot of religious practices as offshoots of kinky sex. If you look at Catholicism and elements of Islam – well, I’ve got quite a thing about headscarves and I’m certainly not alone there. And I remember once, very early on in the age of the internet, I googled “headscarf fetish”, you know, and woohoo! It all comes out.

The fourth and last of Grayson Perry’s Reith Lectures will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 5 November (9am)

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A nervous breakdown in the body politic

Are we too complacent in thinking that the toxic brew of paranoia and populism that brought Hitler to power will never be repeated?

The conventional wisdom holds that “all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”, in Edmund Burke’s familiar phrase; but this is at best a half-truth. Studying the biography of a moral monster triumphantly unleashed on the political and international stage points us to another perspective, no less important. What is necessary for the triumph of evil is that the ground should have been thoroughly prepared by countless small or not-so-small acts of petty malice, unthinking prejudice and collusion. Burke’s axiom, though it represents a powerful challenge to apathy, risks crediting evil with too much of a life of its own: out there, there are evil agencies, hostile to “us”, and we (good men and women) must mobilise to resist.

No doubt; but mobilising intelligently demands being willing to ask what habits and assumptions, as well as what chances and conditions, have made possible the risk of evil triumphing. And that leads us into deep waters, to a recognition of how what we tolerate or ignore or underestimate opens the way for disaster, the ways in which we are at least half-consciously complicit. If this is not to be the silly we-are-all-guilty response that has rightly been so much mocked, nor an absolution for the direct agents of great horrors, it needs a careful and unsparing scrutiny of the processes by which cultures become corruptible, vulnerable to the agendas of damaged and obsessional individuals.

This can be uncomfortable. It raises the awkward issue of what philosophers have learned to call “moral luck” – the fact that some people with immense potential for evil don’t actualise it, because the circumstances don’t present them with the chance, and that some others who might have spent their lives in blameless normality end up supervising transports to Auschwitz. Or, to take a sharply contemporary example, that one Muslim youth from a disturbed or challenging background becomes a suicide bomber but another from exactly the same background doesn’t. It is as though there were a sort of diabolical mirror image for the biblical Parable of the Sower: some seeds grow and some don’t, depending on the ground they fall on, or what chance external stimulus touches them at critical moments.

If what interests us is simply how to assign individuals rapidly and definitively to the categories of sheep and goats, saved and damned, this is offensively frustrating. But if we recognise that evil is in important respects a shared enterprise, we may be prompted to look harder at those patterns of behaviour and interaction that – in the worst cases – give permission to those who are most capable of extreme destructiveness, and to examine our personal, political and social life in the light of this.

***

It would be possible to argue that the anti-Semitism of a lot of German culture – as of European Christian culture overall – was never (at least in the modern period) genocidal and obsessed with absolute racial purity; limited but real possibilities of integration were taken for granted, converts to Christianity were not disadvantaged merely because of their race, and so on. Yet the truth is that this cultural hinterland offered a foothold to the mania of Adolf Hitler; that it gave him just enough of the permission he needed to identify his society’s problems with this clearly definable “alien” presence. In his new book, Hitler: the Ascent, Volker Ullrich compellingly tells us once again that no one could have been under any illusion about Hitler’s general intentions towards the Jews from his very first appearance as a political figure, even if the detailed planning of genocide (lucidly traced in the late David Cesarani’s recent, encyclopaedic Final Solution) took some time to solidify. Yet so much of the German public heard Hitler’s language as the slightly exaggerated version of a familiar trope and felt able to treat it as at worst an embarrassing overstatement of a common, even a common-sense, view. One of the most disturbing things about this story is the failure of so many (inside and outside Germany) to grasp that Hitler meant what he said; and this failure in turn reinforced the delusion of those who thought they could use and then sideline Hitler.

To say that Hitler “meant what he said”, however, can be misleading. It is one of the repeated and focal themes in Ullrich’s book that Hitler was a brazen, almost compulsive liar – or, perhaps better, a compulsive and inventive actor, devising a huge range of dramatic roles for himself: frustrated artist, creative patron, philosopher-king (there is a fine chapter on the intellectual and artistic circle he assembled frequently at his Berchtesgaden residence), workers’ friend, martyr for his people (he constantly insinuated that he believed himself doomed to a tragic and premature death), military or economic messiah and a good deal else besides. His notorious outbursts of hysterical rage seem to have been skilfully orchestrated as instruments of intimidation (though this did not exactly indicate that he was otherwise predictable). Ullrich devotes a fair measure of attention to the literal staging of National Socialism, the architectural gigantism of Albert Speer which gave the Führer the sophisticated theatre he craved. In all sorts of ways, Hitler’s regime was a profoundly theatrical exercise, from the great public displays at Nuremberg and the replanning of Berlin to the various private fantasies enacted by him and his close associates (Göring above all), and from the emotional roller coaster he created for his circle to the dangerously accelerated rate of military-industrial expansion with which he concealed the void at the centre of the German economy.

Theatre both presupposes and creates a public. In the anxiety and despair of post-Versailles Germany, there was a ready audience for the high drama of Nazism, including its scapegoating of demonic enemies within and without. And in turn, the shrill pitch of Hitler’s quasi-liturgies normalised a whole set of bizarre and fantastic constructions of reality. A N Wilson’s challenging novel Winnie and Wolf, a fantasia on Hitler’s relations with Winifred Wagner, culminates in a scene at the end of the war where refugees and destitute citizens in Bayreuth raid the wardrobe of the opera house and wander the streets dressed in moth-eaten costumes; it is an unforgettable metaphor for one of the effects of Hitlerian theatre. Ullrich leaves his readers contemplating the picture of a vast collective drama centred on a personality that was not – as some biographers have suggested – something of a cipher, but that of a fantasist on a grand scale, endowed with a huge literal and metaphorical budget for staging his work.

All of this prompts questions about how it is that apparently sophisticated political systems succumb to corporate nervous breakdowns. It is anything but an academic question in a contemporary world where theatrical politics, tribal scapegoating and variegated confusions about the rule of law are increasingly in evidence. On this last point, it is still shocking to realise how rapidly post-Versailles Germany came to regard violent public conflict between heavily armed militias as almost routine, and this is an important background to the embittered negotiations later on around the relation between Hitler’s Sturmabteilung and the official organs of state coercion. Ullrich’s insightful account of a de facto civil war in Bavaria in the early 1920s makes it mercilessly plain that any pretensions to a state monopoly of coercion in Germany in this period were empty.

Yet the idea of such a state monopoly is in fact essential to anything that could be called a legitimate democracy. In effect, the polity of the Third Reich “privatised” coer­cion: again and again in Ullrich’s book, in the struggles for power before 1933, we see Nazi politicians successfully bidding for control of the mechanisms of public order in the German regions, and more or less franchising public order to their own agencies. A classical democratic political philosophy would argue that the state alone has the right to use force because the state is the guarantor of every community’s and every individual’s access to redress for injury or injustice. If state coercion becomes a tool for any one element in the social complex, it loses legitimacy. It is bound up with the rule of law, which is about something more than mere majority consent. One way of reading the rise of Hitler and National Socialism is as the steady and consistent normalising of illegitimate or partisan force, undermining any concept of an independent guarantee of lawfulness in society. It is the deliberate dissolution of the idea of a Rechtsstaat, a law-governed state order that can be recognised by citizens as organised for their common and individual good. Rule by decree, the common pattern of Nazi governmental practice, worked in harness with law enforcement by a force that was essentially a toxic hybrid, combining what was left of an independent police operation with a highly organised party militia system.

So, one of the general imperatives with which Hitler’s story might leave us is the need to keep a clear sense of what the proper work of the state involves. Arguments about the ideal “size” of the state are often spectacularly indifferent to the basic question of what the irreducible functions of state authority are – and so to the question of what cannot be franchised or delegated to non-state actors (it is extraordinary that we have in the UK apparently accepted without much debate the idea that prison security can be sold off to private interests). This is not the same as saying that privatisation in general leads to fascism; the issues around the limits to state direction of an economy are complex. However, a refusal to ask some fundamental questions about the limits of “franchising” corrodes the idea of real democratic legitimacy – the legitimacy that arises from an assurance to every citizen that, whatever their convictions or their purchasing power, the state is there to secure their access to justice. And, connected with this, there are issues about how we legislate: what are the proper processes of scrutiny for legislation, and how is populist and short-view legislation avoided? The Third Reich offers a masterclass in executive tyranny, and we need not only robust and intelligent counter-models, but a clear political theory to make sense of and defend those models.

***

Theatre has always been an aspect of the political. But there are different kinds of theatre. In ancient Athens, the annual Dionysia festival included the performance of tragedies that forced members of the audience to acknowledge the fragility of the political order and encouraged them to meditate on the divine interventions that set a boundary to vendetta and strife. Classical tragedy is, as political theatre, the exact opposite of Hitlerian drama, which repeatedly asserted the solid power of the Reich, the overcoming of weakness and division by the sheer, innate force of popular will as expressed through the Führer.

Contemporary political theatre is not – outside the more nakedly totalitarian states – a matter of Albert Speer-like spectacle and affirmation of a quasi-divine leader; but it is increasingly the product of a populist-oriented market, the parading of celebrities for popular approval, with limited possibilities for deep public discussion of policies advanced, and an assumption that politicians will be, above all, performers. It is not – to warn once again against cliché and exaggeration – that celebrity culture in politics is a short route to fascism. But a political theatre that never deals with the fragility of the context in which law and civility operate, that never admits the internal flaws and conflicts of a society, and never allows some corporate opening-up to the possibilities of reconciliation and reparation, is one that exploits, rather than resolves our anxieties. And, as such, it makes us politically weaker, more confused and fragmented.

The extraordinary mixture of farce and menace in Donald Trump’s campaign is a potent distillation of all this: a political theatre, divorced from realism, patience and human solidarity, bringing to the surface the buried poisons of a whole system and threatening its entire viability and rationality. But it is an extreme version of the way in which modern technology-and-image-driven communication intensifies the risks that beset the ideals of legitimate democracy.

And – think of Trump once again – one of the most seductively available tricks of such a theatre is the rhetoric of what could be called triumphant victimhood: we are menaced by such and such a group (Jews, mig­rants, Muslims, Freemasons, international business, Zionism, Marxism . . .), which has exerted its vast but covert influence to destroy us; but our native strength has brought us through and, given clear leadership, will soon, once and for all, guarantee our safety from these nightmare aliens.

***

This is a rhetoric that depends on ideas of collective guilt or collective malignity: plots ascribed to the agency of some dangerous minority are brandished in order to tarnish the name of entire communities. The dark legacy of much popular Christian language about collective Jewish guilt for the death of Jesus could be translated without much difficulty into talk about the responsibility of Jews for the violence and poverty afflicting Germans in the 1920s. (Shadows of the same myths still affect the way in which – as recent reports suggest – sinister, vague talk about Zionism and assumptions of a collective Jewish guilt for the actions of various Israeli politicians can become part of a climate that condones anti-Semitic bullying, or text messages saying “Hitler had a point”, on university campuses.)

Granted that there is no shortage of other candidates for demonic otherness in Europe and the United States (witness Trump’s language about Muslims and Mexicans), the specific and abiding lesson of Nazi anti-Semitism is the twofold recognition of the ease with which actually disadvantaged communities can be cast in the role of all-powerful subverters, and the way in which the path to violent exclusion of one kind or another can be prepared by cultures of casual bigotry and collective anxiety or self-pity, dramatised by high-temperature styles of media communication.

Marie Luise Knott’s recent short book Unlearning With Hannah Arendt (2014) revisits the controversy over Arendt’s notorious characterisation of the mindset of Nazism as “the banality of evil”, and brilliantly shows how her point is to do with the erosion in Hitlerian Germany of the capacity to think, to understand one’s agency as answerable to more than public pressure and fashion, to hold to notions of honour and dignity independent of status, convention or influence – but also, ultimately, the erosion of a sense of the ridiculous. The victory of public cliché and stereotype is, in Arendt’s terms, a protection against reality, “against the claim on our thinking attention that all events and facts make by virtue of their existence”, as she memorably wrote in The Life of the Mind. Hitler was committed to the destruction of anything that challenged the simple self-identity and self-justification of the race and the nation; hence, as Ullrich shows in an acutely argued chapter of Hitler: a Biography, the Führer’s venom against the churches, despite their (generally) embarrassingly lukewarm resistance to the horrors of the Reich. The problem was that the churches’ rationale entailed just that accountability to more than power and political self-identity that Nazi philosophy treated as absolute. They had grounds for thinking Nazism not only evil, but absurd. Perhaps, then, one of the more unexpected questions we are left with by a study of political nightmare such as Ullrich’s excellent book is how we find the resources for identifying the absurd as well as for clarifying the grounds of law and honour.

The threats now faced by “developed” democracy are not those of the 1920s and 1930s; whatever rough beasts are on their way are unlikely to have the exact features of Hitler’s distinctive blend of criminality and melodrama. But this does not mean that we shouldn’t be looking as hard as we can at the lessons to be learned from the collapse of political legality, the collective panics and myths, the acceptance of delusional and violent public theatre that characterised Hitler’s Germany. For evil to triumph, what is necessary is for societies to stop thinking, to stop developing an eye for the absurd as well as the corrupt in language and action, public or private.

Hitler: a Biography – Volume I: Ascent by Volker Ullrich is published by the Bodley Head

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism