Projection and Reflection


“Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster… for when you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”
― Friedrich W. Nietzsche

One of the many surprisingly candid quotes shared on the internet through which Joseph Goebbels revealed at once his Machiavellian perfidy and his admirable artlessness, is this one – invariably shared in meme form with the Bad Doctor waggling his pointing finger heavenwards to emphasise his inspiration.

“Accuse the other side of that, of which you yourself are guilty.”

Of course, like most of the epigrams attributed to the Alastair Campbell of the NSDAP, Goebbels said no such thing. At least, not in the context of providing a cheat list of his own insights after ten years as an influencer and disruptor. He may have been evil incarnate but he wasn’t stupid.

Goebbels didn’t go around admitting that everything he uttered was projection, a skein of calculating lies. He did not fall into the trap of appearing on Late Night with Nazis and explaining his cunning wiles, while steepling his fingers like some hubristic Bond villain who feels a little self-revelation might safely be indulged before his helpless adversary is despatched into the Killer Roach tank.

In fact, the closest quote of Goebbels to that reproduced daily on a million credulous desk tops, is this, from the Nuremberg rally in 1934:

The cleverest trick used in propaganda against Germany during the [First World] War, was to accuse us of what our enemies themselves were doing.

Which, you have to concede, if this example is anything to go by, he seems to have a point.

However, I am already drifting from my point. This is my first article for Country Squire Magazine, and I must not scandalise the horses, however deliciously, by giving it over entirely to an apologia for the comms strategy guru of the Third Reich. That is not the point I want to make, or the grassy knoll on which I want to die. And I’ve already come dangerously close to humanising him with the Alastair Campbell comparison (just kidding).

The point I want to make, is that it is remarkable how often this sort of thing happens now. It is the defining spirit of the age. Politics resembles not so much a battleground of ideas or even an Upper Sixth debating chamber, as the mirrored interior of an inescapable, hypothetical hypercube. At once infinite, and scarcely a metre across. Nothing lands, objectively, nothing sticks, but all is immediately reflected back and forth, gradually accruing a queasy sea green hue but otherwise getting nowhere except smaller and smaller and smaller.

From Partygate to Beergate, from the manifest diversity of the respective front benches to the rainbow bootlaces not being intercepted at Qatar customs and the ambassadorial interventions of David Beckham on behalf of a tourist offer that The Dead Kennedies would have balked at. From the economic policies of “the Tories” (as if that’s still a meaningful category) being revealed by successive prime ministers to be not so much a broad church as a dismal featureless multi-faith prayer room in an under-funded provincial hospital, that also has to double as storage for unusable (Size M) PPE equipment and a broken snack vending machine… to Labour’s pitch being essentially “We’re Managerial 2! Exactly like them, but without the sour taste of despair and a now unshruggable fug of failure, corruption and disgrace. Yet.”

Meanwhile, the characteristics, modus operandi and shrillness of tone of the Commentariat, Left or Right, activist as well as pro, seem to criss-cross back and forth, offering no reliable indication of their actual values at all. Like some political allegory for quantum entanglement, they bear no fundamental connection to the stated axioms of the party, no “realness”, local or otherwise, and reflect only the requirement that they cancel one another out.

What has happened? How might we know?

I agree (as usual) with Kenneth Clark (pictured), who quoted Ruskin as his overture to Civilisation:

“Great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts. The book of their deeds, the book of their words and the book of their art. Not one of these books can be understood unless we read the two others, but of the three, the only trustworthy one is the last.”

“On the whole [continued Clark] I think this is true. Writers and politicians may come out with all sorts of edifying sentiments, but they are what is known as declarations of intent. If I had to say which was telling the truth about society, a speech by a Minister of Housing or the actual buildings put up in his time, I should believe the buildings.”

Clark was standing just across the Seine from Notre Dame as he spoke those words, but no doubt his inner vision was, back then, leaden with images of dismal high rise blocks and municipal concrete brutalism. Now however, the most telling architectural statements made, at least by those who can afford it, are not really statements at all. They are evasions. Predominantly reflective surfaces of steel and glass, these do not, paradoxically, give the impression of a willingness to listen, respect, and reflect the society in which they are grateful to be accommodated.

Rather, they suggest an alien presence capable of shape shifting to conceal its intent and achieve its ends, but not really present in this dimension at all. They remind me of the cloaking device used by the space craft parked next to Lords’ Cricket Ground, in Douglas Adams’ Life, The Universe and Everything.

Anyone who uses the motorways, meanwhile, will have noticed a cheaper out of town equivalent, the graded blue-to-grey used to minimise the vast bulk of the distribution cargo hubs that define this iteration of consumer atrophy. These remind me of my son, Edward, whose technique for playing hide and seek when he was young was to sit very still, hold eye contact and say “Pretend you can’t see me.”

Well, perhaps in the age of materialism it was inevitable that idealism and vitality would wither and die. We live in An Age Without Qualities. And when one reflects on the flower of certain earlier, clearly defined visions, especially those cultivated by the arch messaging skills of the individual with which I began these musings, perhaps that’s just as well. And perhaps this is the essential preparatory stage while we reduce our souls to the necessary degree to be able to move into the next phase of humanity, and upload ourselves into the Amazon Cloud.

Still, I do miss the confidence, the cheerful, Chestertonian, belly-led ebullience of the old stone domes. And I don’t think I’m alone. You get Brexit (imho) partly because millions of people that no one has been listening to for years got one chance to chuck a brick through one of those plate glass fasciae. I don’t think they’d have done it to a stained-glass window.

It was very droll of Stalin, to ask how many divisions has the Pope? But the truth is that the Catholic Church’s sustained ability to transcend the need for a standing army, to project power far beyond natural borders, across oceans and mountain ranges and entirely different populations, has been unmatched over the last two thousand years. Soviet communism lasted barely a lifetime. Seventy years? You can’t build a decent Cathedral in that time. You’d barely even break the ground.

You have to give people a story, yes, but you also have to give them something they can see. People trust beauty, and rightly so. Even while they obscure cruelty, misery and pain, and a thousand uncompensated workplace injuries, the Great Cathedrals – very much like the Stadia of Blood in Qatar – tell you something very real about the project at hand. It’s a language we all understand. And sooner or later, one must stop listening and have the courage to speak.

Simon Evans is a well-known Comedian. This article is taken from Country Squire Magazine’s December 15th 2022 print edition. The print edition can be subscribed to here.