Umberto Eco and why we still dream of utopia

Visions of ideal societies have recurred throughout history but such societies were nearly always placed in an irretrievable past.

An idle Eden: The Land of Cockaigne (1567) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Photo: Bridgeman

The Book of Legendary Lands
Umberto Eco
MacLehose Press, 432pp, £35

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.

Among the legendary places human beings have dreamed up, those that Eco calls “the islands of utopia” have exercised a particular fascination in recent times. As he reminds us, “Etymologically speaking, utopia means non-place” – ou-topos, or no place. Thomas More, who coined the term in his book Utopia (composed in Latin and only translated in 1551 after More had been executed for treason in 1535), plays on an ambiguity in which the word also means a good or excellent place. Using a non-existent country to present an ideal model of government, More established a new literary genre, which included Étienne Cabet’s A Journey to Icaria (1840), in which a proto-communist society is envisioned, Samuel Butler’s Erewhon (1872, an anagram of “nowhere”) and William Morris’s News from Nowhere (1890).

Visions of ideal societies have recurred throughout history but such societies were nearly always placed in an irretrievable past. The paradise of milk and honey of which human beings dreamed – a land of perpetual peace and abundance – belonged in religion and mythology rather than history or science. Yet by the end of the 19th century, the fiction of an ideal society had been turned into a realisable human condition. Already in the second half of the 18th century, Rousseau was writing of an egalitarian society as if something of the kind had once existed – a move repeated by Marx and Engels in their theory of primitive communism, which they believed could be recreated at a higher level. More’s non-existent land was given a veneer of science and situated in a non-existent future. Having been a literary genre, utopia became a political legend.

The Book of Legendary Lands covers a vast range of non-places, including a flat and a hollow earth, the Antipodes, the lands of Homer and the many versions of Cockaigne (where honey and bread fall from the sky and no one is rich or poor). A fascinating chapter deals with the far more recent invention of Rennes-le-Château, a French village near Carcassonne that has been hailed as a site of immense treasure and of a priory established by descendants of Jesus, who supposedly did not die on the cross but fled to France and began the Merovingian dynasty.

Presented by Eco in light and witty prose, these legendary places are made more vivid by many well-chosen illustrations and historic texts. Yet this is far from being another coffee table book, however beautiful. As in much of his work, Eco’s theme is the slippage from fiction to illusion in the human mind. Rightly he sees this as a perennial tendency but it is one that has gathered momentum in modern times. So-called primitive cultures understood that history runs in cycles, with civilisations rising and falling much as the seasons come and go – a view of things echoed in Aristotle and the Roman historians. The rise of monotheism changed the picture, so that history came to be seen as an unfolding drama – a story with a beginning, an end and a redemptive meaning. Either way, no one believed that history could be governed by human will. It was fate, God or mere chaos that ruled human events.

Legendary lands began to multiply when human beings started to believe they could shape the future. Non-places envisioned by writers in the past were turned into utopian projects. At the same time, literature became increasingly filled with visions of hellish lands. As Eco puts it, “Sometimes utopia has taken the form of dystopia, accounts of negative societies.”

What counts as a dystopia, however, is partly a matter of taste. Aldous Huxley may have meant Brave New World (1932) as a warning but I suspect many people would find the kind of world he describes – genetically engineered and drug-medicated but also without violence, poverty or acute unhappiness – quite an attractive prospect. If the nightmarish society Huxley imagines is fortunately impossible, it is because it is supposed to be capable of renewing itself endlessly – a feature of utopias and one of the clearest signs of their unreality.

Whether you think a vision of the future is utopian or not depends on how you view society at the present time. Given the ghastly record of utopian politics in the 20th century, bien-pensants of all stripes never tire of declaring that all they want is improvement. They assume that the advances of the past are now permanent and new ones can simply be added on. But if you think society today is like all others have been – deeply flawed and highly fragile – you will understand that improvement can’t be inherited in this way. Sooner or later, past advances are sure to be lost, as the societies that have inherited them decline and fail. As everyone understood until just a few hundred years ago, this is the normal course of history.

No bien-pensant will admit this to be so. Indeed, many find the very idea of such a reversal difficult to comprehend. How could the advances that have produced the current level of civilisation – including themselves – be only a passing moment in the history of the species? Without realising the fact, these believers in improvement inhabit a legendary land – a place where what has been achieved in the past can be handed on into an indefinite future. The human impulse to dream up imaginary places and then believe them to be real, which Eco explores in this enchanting book, is as strong as it has ever been.

John Gray is the lead book reviewer of the NS. His latest book, “The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths”, is published by Allen Lane (£18.99)