Xanadu

O Xanadu, our home and native land…

No, that’s not how it goes, is it? Something more like this:

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

Yes: a magnificent edifice, riparian on a flow with a name of beginning and an end in dark obscurity, the unconscious hollows of the planet’s inner mind. A dome like a giant igloo;

It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!

Yes, a smiling sunny outside, and a frozen inner chamber. Welcome to the Pleasuredome, the ultimate pipe dream.

We think of Xanadu as like Shangri-La. But Shangri-La was invented in a 1933 novel (The Lost Horizon) as a mythical reflex of Shambhala. Xanadu was a real place.

Well, not with the river and ice caverns. Those were dreamed up by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. One comes up with what one wants to come up with, and one’s visions are conditioned by one’s experience and expectation – and one’s condition. It is all conditional, and culture-bound.

Xanadu, for instance, said with an initial “z,” is a repronunciation and modification of Xandu, which used x to spell a sound an Englishman would normally spell as sh. Coleridge found it in a 1614 work called Purchas his Pilgrimes by Samuel Purchas. It had this:

In Xandu did Cublai Can build a stately Pallace, encompassing sixteen miles of plaine ground with a wall, wherein are fertile Meddowes, pleasant Springs, delightfull streames, and all sorts of beasts of chase and game, and in the middest thereof a sumpuous house of pleasure, which may be moved from place to place.

He expanded his description in the 1625 edition. He was drawing on Marco Polo, who wrote in 1298 of his 1275 visit to the city, which Polo rendered as Ciandu and had been translated to English as Chandu (modern Italian versions make it Giandu). The X is of course more exotic-looking. We would, in modern transliteration, call it Shangdu; it means ‘upper capital’. It was the capital of Kublai Khan’s empire until he moved to the city that today is called Beijing. He was, after all, the first emperor of the Yuan Dynasty of China – the first non-Chinese ruler of China. Shangdu remained his summer capital, as the weather was cooler there.

Kublai Khan died in 1294. Shangdu was destroyed in 1369 by the Ming Army, but there’s still a historical site you can visit, mostly mounds of earth. It’s about a 7-hour drive north of Beijing, in the autonomous region of Inner Mongolia (which is the part of China next to the country of Mongolia).

Kublai Khan did have two lovely palaces there. One was a beautiful marble palace with gilding and paintings. The other was a cane palace, made of lacquered cane lashed and nailed, well designed, well built, and able to be taken down, moved, and set up again fairly quickly. It was set up there each summer. Marco Polo was so impressed with it, he dedicated much of his description of Ciandu to structural specifics of the cane palace.

Naturally, nothing of the cane palace has survived the ages. But in the late 1800s a British visitor reported that there were still remains of the marble palace. They have since been taken up, apparently for use by people living in nearby Dolon Nor to use in building their houses. Fragments of artwork can be seen in some structures. Well, why leave a beautiful old thing just lying around if you can make it part of your life? Otherwise it was just a broken, forgotten dream.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge had a dream. His dream led to a reality… of sorts. After smoking a pipe of opium while staying in the southwest English village of Nether Stowey in 1797, he awoke with the plan for a great poem in his head. But he was interrupted, he tells us. An importunate visitor from the nearby town of Porlock, who detained him for more than an hour on a small matter of business. Afterwards, the remaining lines of the poem were shattered, blown to the wind or drained to the unconscious again; he had kept a poor lock on the door of his mind. Drat that man from Porlock! Assuming there actually was one – Coleridge may have been making excuses for just not being able to finish the work.

So. An Italian visited a Mongol emperor of China and found a lovely town with a marble palace and a cane palace. The emperor was dead by the time the Italian wrote of it. More than three centuries later, an Englishman wrote of the Italian’s travels and slightly changed the name of the place. Nearly two centuries after that, another Englishman digested that report into his own pipe dream, and awoke with visions of a glorious dome and a gorge and icy caverns and subterranean seas, and started to paint it in words. It evaporated with the first interruption, leaving barely more to the ages than an Ozymandias, just some lovely lines and images traced and broken. Meanwhile, the marble of the original Mongol palace is used in quotidian functions, fragments of beauty in walls here and there. The cane is long gone but not forgotten.

Our past crumbles but we keep it and reshape it. Memories go and come, deform and reform. We make our present and break our present. We blame others for our problems, rightly or wrongly. Nothing stays the same, but while our dreams evanesce, beautiful fragments still peek from our walls. All is conditional and conditioned. It was a dream and yet it’s still there, where we live; it dwells deep inside us and in fragments around us and, when we find it, we dwell in it. Our home and native land.

Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

And so it ends without ending, at Paradise, our world without end: a mostly-faded pipe dream, glittering fragments of memory, interrupted by daily business.

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