Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Why Is “Kubla Khan” Important?

A week ago I’d decided to put an end to my quest to find a poetic grammar centered on Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan”. The intellectual landscape has changed so much since I’d embarked on that quest that I needed to reconceptualize the undertaking and set new goals. Two days later I described some that landscape and ended up suggesting that the binary oppositions so beloved of structuralist and post-structuralist thinkers be reconceptualized as low-dimensional projections of events a very high-dimensional neural space. That’s where we’re going to find “Kubla Khan”, and, of course, other poems as well.

My aim in this post is to explain why understanding “Kubla Khan” in particular is important and thus worthwhile. That question is, of course, a very specific version of a much more general question: Why is literature important? And there are two very different ways of answering that question.

Why Study Poetry?

We could be asking: Why do people care about literature at all? Why does a culture support literary activity? Shelley gave one answer, a grand answer, to that question in his well-known text, A Defense of Poetry. Here’s the last two lines:
Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present; the words which express what they understand not; the trumpets which sing to battle, and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not, but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.
I believe that, or something like it. And whatever justification that statement may give for poetry in general, or indeed for art in any medium, I’m not sure how useful it is as a justification for studying “Kubla Khan” or the handful of other Coleridge poems I’ve put alongside it. After all, those poems are two centuries old. Any unacknowledged legislating they did is long past.

Or we could look to Kenneth Burke’s more modest formulation in his essay, “Literature as Equipment for Living” from The Philosophy of Literary Form (1941). Using words and phrases from several definitions of the term "strategy" (in quotes in the following passage), he asserts that:
... surely, the most highly alembicated and sophisticated work of art, arising in complex civilizations, could be considered as designed to organize and command the army of one's thoughts and images, and to so organize them that one “imposes upon the enemy the time and place and conditions for fighting preferred by oneself.” One seeks to “direct the larger movements and operations” in one's campaign of living. One “maneuvers,” and the maneuvering is an “art.”
Through the symbols and strategies of shared stories, members of a culture articulate their desires and feelings to one another thereby making themselves mutually at home in the world.

As Burke imposes no time limitations on a text’s usefulness, this more modest formulation is useful in a way that Shelley’s grander formulation is not. In a desire to “organize and command the army of one's thoughts and images” one is free to seek out any suitable text, including a bit of Romantic verse over two centuries old.

Still, that formulation won’t do for my purposes here, though it would be well to keep it in mind. For I am asking a different question. Why, I am asking, should a student of the human mind, in particular, a student of the newer psychologies, undertake to study “Kubla Khan” or any other literary text? What can students of the cognitive sciences, of evolutionary psychology, or of neuropsychology learn through the study of literature?

That’s a different kind of question from the first, and demands a different kind of answer. Psychological investigation can be very difficult. Understanding how the mind and brain deal with simple visual perceptions, or not so simple ones (such as faces), or the sounds of a human voice or an oboe, or sentences and phrases, such problems as these tax the investigative capacities of modern psychology. What can we possibly learn by investigating poetry?

The Search for Ecological Validity

Back in the third quarter of the previous century J. J. Gibson argued that academic psychology has a problem with what he called ecological validity. Most of the laboratory tests psychologists used for investigating perceptual phenomenon were unnatural. Gibson argued for experimental tasks that more closely resembled those we naturally encounter and thereby instituted a very fruitful school of perceptual psychology.

But what about psychology in the large, not only perceptual, but physiological, motor, cognitive, affective, the whole mind? How do you look at the mind whole in a natural, that is to say, ecologically valid context? Here’s what I said in Deep Learning, the Teleome, and Description:
Well, let me assert that, to a first approximation, writing a poem or telling a good story engages a wide range of human capabilities in an integrated fashion. Keith Oatley argues that literary texts are simulations, in the computer science sense of the term, of living life—and a half century ago Susan Langer (Feeling and Form) talked of the arts as providing virtual (her word) experience. Whatever the mind’s mechanisms are, a whole bunch of them are in use when making or comprehending art.

That’s not a trivial observation, though just how one capitalizes on it is another matter, which I’ll get to in a moment. Experimental psychology necessarily observes highly circumscribed behaviors, pressing buttons in response to carefully crafted visual or auditory stimuli and such. But you aren’t going to figure out how the whole mechanism works, as a whole, in that way. But there’s really no way to make closely controlled and highly detailed observations of how people live their lives.

So, how’re you going to figure THAT out? What’s the teleome for that, Jack?

I suggest that we use artistic activity as a proxy for that. We CAN study novels and poems, paintings and sculptures, songs and symphonies, and so forth. Not only can we study the works themselves, we can study people comprehending them, we can even image brain activity while they’re doing. We can do, and are doing, all of that.
That’s why the study of the arts, including poetry, is important to the general disciplines of psychology. It is an ecologically valid way – a “royal road”, to borrow a phrase from Freud – to study the mind’s various powers interacting with one another.

To be sure, figuring out what the mind is up to when it is engaged with a work of art IS difficult. But it seems approachable in a way that following a person’s daily life in the course of a year is not. It is what we’ve got, so let us figure out how to work with it.

But why choose Coleridge, his conversation poems and “Kubla Khan” in particular? For one thing, as works of literary art go, they are relatively compact. One has a sense that one can grasp them, e.g. through description. My descriptive work on “Kubla Khan” and “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison” is certainly not complete, but it is full and, if I may say so, rich. One can readily imagine extending it in various ways (e.g. Reuven Tsur has worked with recorded versions of “Kubla Khan” and so has acoustic work on their sound).

In contrast, getting that kind of descriptive control over a Shakespeare play seems daunting. I’ve done some descriptive work on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which has a similar word count (low tens of thousands). It would be quite a stretch to cover the whole work at the level of detail I’ve managed in the two Coleridge poems.

What’s important is scale. Works of art are organized simultaneously on several scales, from the smallest components to the whole work. We need to understand what’s going on at every scale so we can track the interactions. In a small-scale work like “Kubla Khan” one can do the whole thing, more or less (see also the descriptive work of Haj Ross and Richard Cureton). But even with works of larger scale, such as a Shakespeare play, Heart of Darkness, or even a Victorian triple-decker novel, one can judiciously sample the smaller scales and thereby gain a descriptive sense of the whole.

“Kubla Khan” in the Canon

But there are many lyrical poems to choose from, all on the same scale as “Kubla Khan” and “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison.” Why choose those among many others?

To some extent it doesn’t matter. In the long run, 1000s of poems will be described in appreciable detail. As for these particular poems, well, there are the accidents of my personal history that led me to those poems. But they’re irrelevant. There are better reasons.

“Kubla Khan” is one of the best-known and most anthologized poems in the English language. You can, if you wish, take that as in index of its quality. But I’m interested in something a bit different, something we might call shareability. Though it took awhile for the poem to find a public, it did find one, perhaps even because people trained themselves to comprehend it. Lots of minds have been honed on this poem, suggesting that whatever we learn of the mind through investigating this poem will generalize fairly gracefully.

That poem has had a small but noticeable effect on our culture. If you google the word “xanadu” you’ll get millions of hits – I just got 11,100,000. Those web pages contain the word “Xanadu” because the poem cemented it into the language, a history I’ve looked at in One Candle, a Thousand Points of Light: The Xanadu Meme. Orson Welles used the opening five lines in Citizen Kane (1941). Back in 1969 Ted Nelson named his hypertext software project Xanadu (and lots of those web hits are for that project). More recently, Olivia Newton-John had a hit song, in a cult movie, which still more recently became a Broadway musical, all named “Xanadu”. The movie quoted the opening five lines of the poem, spoken by Gene Kelly; I don’t know whether the music quoted the poem. Rush, a group of Canadian art-rockers, used fragments from “Kubla Khan” in their anthemic “Xanadu” – I’ve quoted the lyrics, indicating the Coleridge grabs, in this post.

Whatever one thinks of the poem’s quality – I think it very fine indeed – one can’t help but believe that at least some of this cultural action is a consequence of the claim Coleridge made in the poem’s preface, that he’d fallen asleep from having taken an “anodyne” (believed to be tincture of opium, a common cure-all of the time):
The Author continued for about three hours in a profound sleep, at least of the external senses, during which time he has the most vivid confidence, that he could not have composed less than from two to three hundred lines; if that indeed can be called composition in which all the images rose up before him as things, with a parallel production of the correspondent expressions, without any sensation or consciousness of effort. On awakening he appeared to himself to have a distinct recollection of the whole, and taking his pen, ink, and paper, instantly and eagerly wrote down the lines that are here preserved.
Did that story make the poem more compelling than its intrinsic qualities warrant?

It’s hard to say. For hardly anyone knows the poem apart from that story. That story is as much a part of the poem as the text itself – and that, incidentally, is how I treated it in “Kubla Khan” and the Embodied Mind.

As I recall – it’s been awhile – the scholarship on whether or not this poem has the marks of an authentic opium vision has been inconclusive. But I’m not sure that it matters (cf. some remarks on the poem in an essay review of Benny Shanon, The Antipodes of the Mind: Charting the Phenomenology of the Ayahuasca Experience, Oxford 2002). The important point is that it is sharply different from any other of Coleridge’s lyrics.

That difference requires an explanation; if opium is that explanation, that’s fine. But that in itself doesn’t tell us much. Why did opium, or whatever, produce THAT kind of poem? Just what kind of poem is it anyhow? Given its difference from Coleridge’s other poems, we need to get a purchase on at least two different states of mind, one conducive to the conversation poems (such as “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison”) and the other conducive to “Kubla Khan.” The later state of mind seems, on the face of things, to be somewhat rarer and more esoteric than the first.

Assuming these two different states of mind, and that we’ve arrived at some understanding of them, that tells us about Coleridge himself. What about his audience? Does one go into a trance when reading “Kubla Khan” but not “Lime-Tree Bower”? Should one? Surely when one approaches either poem “cold” one is in much the same state of mind. How then does one and the same the mind “wrap itself around” each of these two different poems?

We know that Coleridge’s conversation poems were well received in his time, but not “Kubla Khan”. That suggests that the contemporary audience wasn’t ready for it, that the culture had to change and grow in order to appreciate this poem. That suggestion puts us once again in the territory Shelley laid out at the end of his well-known defense of poetry: “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”

Coleridge seems somehow to have slipped into the future when he wrote “Kubla Khan”. I am reminded of Kenneth Burke’s essay on the poem; his title says it all: “Kubla Khan,” Proto-Surrealist Poem. He says (p. 218):
But “Kubla Khan” was the kind of poem that Coleridge’s own aesthetic theories were not abreast of. His very attempts to distinguish between “Imagination” and “Fancy” at the expense of the latter serve to indicate my point. “Fancy” wouldn’t come into its own until the time of Rimbaud, when it would take on dimensions that Coleridge never explicitly attributed to it.
Rimbaud worked and published half a century after Coleridge had published “Kubla Khan” in 1817 (and we’ve got good reason to believe that Coleridge had written the poem well before then). Burke ends his essay by remarking (p. 222) that “poetic structures” such as those in “Kubla Khan” have an “obvious bearing upon the very rudiments of poetic genesis.”

I don’t recall exactly when I first read Burke’s essay, whether it was in the academic year 1968-1969 when I took a course on Romantic literature with Earl Wasserman or a bit later when I began working on my master’s thesis on the poem. Just when makes little difference. It became my bedrock essay about “Kubla Khan”. And while I believe that Burke was wrong in taking the three stanza division at face value – the poem only has two movements regardless of how its broken on the printed page (two, three, and four stanzas have been used) – he was correct in seeing that the poem somehow bears on poetic genesis.

Just how, that remains to be determined. Back in those days I foolishly believed that, as the poem is about poetry, an adequate account of the poem thereby becomes an adequate account of poetry in general. That’s nonsense. Given that poetry varies from place to place and changes over time I’m not sure just what a general theory of poetry would be, and I’m not particularly interested in catching one.

But an adequate account of “Kubla Khan,” that would be something worth having. That’s becoming more approachable by the year. We’ll see.

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