In One-dimensional Man, Herbert Marcuse argues that technological change undermines the true substance of art: the easy availability of its products and their subsequent manipulation, universality of access, the general dumbing down of processes, the seeming ordinariness of ‘how to do it’, crowd mentality, psychological analysis…
And the concrete manifestations of technological effect might be: background music in the kitchen, a million Internet sites for the posting of indifferent ‘poetry’ and short stories, a swamp of things that sucks sensible choice under, Mahler in a advert for some motor oil, Nessun Dorma at a football match, ‘opera without the boring bits’ (advert for a concert in a newsagent’s window), juicy musical snippets on Classic FM, a regular half-witted celebration of the suggestion that the ‘classics’ have been made to leave some imaginary mausoleum and have been brought to real life re-vamped, an absurd belief that the presentation of ‘juicy snippets’ (or ‘bleeding chunks’ as Bernard Shaw called them) will inspire a ‘love of the classics’m the commercial exploitation of something as essentially subtle as ‘Mindfulness’ for example, the dumbing down of ‘haiku’ and so on…
Pre-technological images, whose truth depended on ‘an uncomprehended and unconquerable dimension of human-beings & nature… and on an insoluble core which resisted integration’ into ‘normal’ channels, give way to the rational urge of one-dimensionality (‘this is for sure how it is – there’s no other possibility…’), and the ‘conquest of transcendence’.
A one-dimensional thinker would no doubt dismiss this analysis as a defence of elitism, for instance, an arrogant dismissal which could be said to level the analysis downwards and entirely misses the point: one-dimensional thinkers make a fetish of missing the point.
The Alienated Artist and Ordinary Alienation
There was once a clear distinction between the world of the constitutionally alienated artist, and that of those for whom daily ordinary things took place, the world of mundane work, the majority so consumed by focus on survival tasks that they were alienated from the ‘things that matter’. But all the time the alienated artist was willingly so, aware that for them ordinary alienated existence was always capable of being transcended by the demonstration of another universe of ‘elevated’ being. Artistic ‘alienation’ is the conscious transcending of ordinary alienated existence; a double alienation which sets the proper artist well apart from commitment to stock exchange, polling booth and daily commuter run.
In modern times there exist those who call themselves ‘artists’– clever jerks who join up with the system having discovered a rather clever way to make lots of money. Real artists who refuse to be drawn into the ordinariness of things find themselves considerably out of step with the world of ‘progress’; but they persist, against all the odds, in the exploration of lost dimensions that can still haunt certain kinds of consciousness.
What are the ‘lost dimensions’?
They come from areas of the spirit that seem to have no place in the one-dimensional world which brooks no opposition to the prevailing way of seeing things. Still proud artists engage in what Marcuse calls ‘the Great Refusal’ to fall in with ‘technological reality [which] undermines not only the traditional forms but the very basis of artistic alienation – it tends to invalidate… the very substance of art…’
What is it that can still haunt the established universe of discourse and change one’s notion of it so it becomes, by reverse, strange and distant and irrelevant – not irrelevant to anything, just existentially irrelevant? Marcuse quotes Paul Valéry: ‘Poetry performs the great task of thought; it is the effort that brings to life in us that which does not exist…’ He comments that ‘naming things that are absent is breaking the spell of the things that are… the ingression of a different order of things into the established one…’ One-dimensional society achieves the ‘conquest of transcendence’ and, even worse, suffering from such a conquest, the mental organs for grasping contradictions atrophy – ‘happy consciousness’ comes to be the norm. ‘One man can give the signal that liquidates hundreds & thousands of people and then declare himself free from all pangs of conscience to live happily ever after…’
Poetry can convey the way thought moves around namelessness with singular adroitness.
Technological Sanitation & Abridgement
Herbert Marcuse presents a devastating analysis of the way in which technological sanitation fails to allow for discrepancies and contradictions, eschews alternative points of view resulting in consequent abridgements of meaning in the recipient’s mind. The names of things become synonymous with function and the quest for meaning is closed down; the philosophy of medieval realism rules – words really are the things they are supposed to represent: ‘self-validating, analytical propositions appear which function like magic ritual formulae. Hammered & re-hammered into the recipient’s mind they produce the effect of enclosing it within the circle of the conditions prescribed by a formula…’
The very few concrete examples that Marcuse provides of how all this works out in practice come as something of a relief after page after page of close abstract analysis which seems to require so much of the reader in an effort to relate it to ‘real life’. He all but apologises when he provides three great personal examples of how a negative cast of mind turns into a positive one without any reconciling. The result in each case is the flattening out of honest experience, a loss of cognitive tension.
1. I ride in a new automobile. I experience its beauty, shininess, power, convenience—but then I become aware of the fact that in a relatively short time it will deteriorate and need repair; that its beauty and surface are cheap, its power unnecessary, its size idiotic; and that I will not find a parking place. I come to think of my car as a product of one of the Big Three automobile corporations. The latter determine the appearance of my car and make its beauty as well as its cheapness, its power as well as its shakiness, its working as well as its obsolescence. In a way, I feel cheated. I believe that the car is not what it could be, that better cars could be made for less money. But the other guy has to live, too. Wages and taxes are too high; turnover is necessary; we have it much better than before. The tension between appearance and reality melts away and both merge in one rather pleasant feeling.
2. I take a walk in the country. Everything is as it should be: Nature at its best. Birds, sun, soft grass, a view through the trees of the mountains, nobody around, no radio, no smell of gasoline. Then the path turns and ends on the highway. I am back among the billboards, service stations motels and roadhouses. I was in a National Park, and I now know that this was not reality. It was a ‘reservation’, something that is being preserved like a species dying out. If it were not for the government, the billboards, hot dog stands, and motels would long since have invaded that piece of Nature. I am grateful to the government; we have it much better than before…
3. The subway during evening rush hour. What I see of the people are tired faces and limbs, hatred and anger. I feel someone might at any moment draw a knife – just so. They read, or rather they are soaked in their newspaper or magazine or paperback. And yet, a couple of hours later, the same people, deodorized, washed, dressed-up or down, may be happy and tender, really smile, and forget (or remember). But most of them will probably have some awful togetherness or aloneness at home.
With a bit of effort, any reader can multiply examples of the way that, maybe just for a certain peace of mind, contradictions and discrepancies get flattened out into bland acceptance: it must be just the way things are and have always been. It could simply be the result of weariness at the attempt to first tolerate and then work towards temporary reconciliations of ambiguities. Perhaps this can only be done in poetry.
Via Paul Valéry, Marcuse alludes to the way poetry manages contradiction in metaphor & movement. I look for examples in my library of how it does this.
A Book of Magic
Hermann Hesse’s Journey to the East is a book I read quite often: it both presents a metaphor of exultant transcendence in itself and talks about how it works. The story-teller, who ultimately turns out to be HH himself, strives to recall the details of a remarkable journey he undertook but he seems to be under some kind of mental constraint as to what he can say because his duty to the ‘League’, which accepted him for the journey, forbids him to reveal its secrets.
It was shortly after the Great War, and the beliefs of the conquered nations were in an extraordinary state of unreality. There was a readiness to believe in things beyond reality even though only a few barriers were actually overcome and few advances made into the realm of a future psychiatry. Our journey at that time across the Moon Ocean to Famagusta under the leadership of Albert the Great, or say, the discovery of the Butterfly Island, twelve leagues beyond Zipangu, or the inspiring league ceremony at Rudiger’s grave – those were deeds and experiences which were allotted once only to people of our time and zone…
Belief in things beyond ordinary reality is what characterises multi-dimensional thinking; that there is only one way of seeing things is, as I understand Marcuse, a consequence of one-dimensional thinking. One-dimensional thinkers would regard the fantastic Journey to the East we’re presented with as a silly tale way beyond the realms of possibility. They’d probably find it totally out of step with shop and office life especially if they got as far as reading that, for the journey, ‘…the common place aids of modern travel such as railways, steamers, telegraph, automobiles, aeroplanes, etc., were renounced…’ but that even so ‘…we penetrated into the heroic and magical…’
Indeed one traveller who had taken the oath of allegiance to the League suddenly announced, well along the way, that
…he had had enough of this ridiculous expedition which would never bring us to the East; he had had enough of the journey being interrupted for days because of stupid astrological considerations; he was more than tired of idleness, of childish wanderings, of floral ceremonies, of attaching importance to magic, of the intermingling of life and poetry; he would … return by the trusty railway to his home and his useful work…
Multi-dimensional thinkers are happy to contemplate life in any way that seems appropriate so that ‘…the intermingling of life and poetry…’ is not a problem; in fact life can be seem as the construction of a grand poetic fiction which enhances its apprehension by offering multiple perspectives. I am briefly reminded of Gurdjieff’s observation that ‘every stick has two ends’. His whole teaching is in line with this. It’s never a question of either/or – it’s always both/and… Not either your idea or my idea but both your interpretation and mine which opens up opportunities for some creative reconciling in between. All events and phenomena have at least two possible interpretations. Sticks have two ends but there can also be an infinite number of notches along a stick. This is forgotten or not noticed at all.
For other members of the League the young man who wished to return to ‘civilisation’ constituted
…an ugly and lamentable sight. We were filled with shame and yet at the same time pitied the misguided man. The Speaker listened to him kindly… and said in a quiet, cheerful voice which must have put the blustering man to shame: “You have said good-bye to us and want to return to the railway, to commonsense and useful work. You have said good-bye to the League, to the expedition to the East, good-bye to magic, to floral festivals, to poetry. You are absolved from your vow…”
There’s a clear distinction between the poetic interpretation of life and ‘commonsense and useful work’. To live successfully in both worlds requires what, in Fourth Way terms is called ‘divided attention’ – that which is fundamental to the process of self-remembering.
Gurdjieff said, “Not one of you has noticed the most important thing that I have pointed out to you. That is to say, not one of you has noticed that you do not remember yourselves. You do not feel yourselves; you are not conscious of yourselves… [Without this] you yourselves do not exist in your observations. In which case what are all your observations worth? …
This is a very important realization. People who know this already know a great deal. The whole trouble is that nobody knows it. If you ask somebody whether they can remember themself, they will of course answer that they can. If you tell them that they cannot do so, they will either be angry with you, or think you an utter fool. The whole of life is based on this, the whole of human existence, the whole of human blindness. If you really know that you cannot remember yourself, you are already near to the understanding of your being.”
In In Search of the Miraculous Ouspensky writes that first of all
…attempts to remember myself or to be conscious of myself, to say to myself, I am walking, I am doing, and continually to feel this I, stopped thought. When I was feeling I, I could neither think nor speak; even sensations became dimmed. Also, one could only remember oneself in this way for a very short time.
I had previously made certain experiments in stopping thought which are mentioned in books on Yoga practices… And my first attempts to self-remember reminded me exactly of these, my first experiments. Actually it was almost the same thing with the one difference that in stopping thoughts attention is wholly directed towards the effort of not admitting thoughts, while in self-remembering attention becomes divided, one part of it is directed towards the same effort, and the other part to the feeling of self.
This last realization enabled me to come to a certain, possibly a very incomplete definition of “self-remembering,” which nevertheless proved to be very useful in practice. I am speaking of the division of attention which is the characteristic feature of self-remembering.
I represented it to myself in the following way:
When I observe something, my attention is directed towards what I observe – a line with one arrowhead:-
I —————–> the observed phenomenon, whatever it might be.
When at the same time, I try to remember myself, my attention is directed both towards the object observed and towards myself. A second arrowhead appears on the line:
I <—————-> the observed phenomenon, whatever it might be.
Having defined this I saw that the problem consisted in directing attention on oneself without weakening or obliterating the attention directed on something else. Moreover this ‘something else’ could as well be within me as outside me. The very first attempts at such a division showed me its possibility. At the same time I saw two things clearly.
In the first place I saw that self-remembering resulting from this method had nothing in common with ‘self-feeling’ or ‘self-analysis’. It was a new and very interesting state with a strangely familiar flavour.
And secondly I realized that moments of self-remembering do occur in life, although rarely. Only the deliberate production of these moments created the sensation of novelty. Actually I had been familiar with them from early childhood. They came either in new and unexpected surroundings, in a new place, among new people while traveling, for instance, when suddenly one looks about one and says: How strange! I and in this place; or in very emotional moments, in moments of danger, in moments when it is necessary to keep one’s head, when one hears one’s own voice and sees and observes from the outside.
I saw quite clearly that my first recollections of life, in my case very early ones, were moments of self-remembering. This last realization revealed much else to me. That is, I saw that I really only remember those moments of the past in which I remembered myself. Of the others, I know only that they took place…
All these were the realizations of the first days. Later, when I began to learn to divide attention, I saw that self-remembering gave wonderful sensations which, in a natural way, that is, by themselves come to us only very seldom and in exceptional conditions.
The task is to self-remember more and more often. To be able to engage with verve in multi-dimensional thinking and being, rigorous divided attention is required. The young man who wished to quit the Journey to the East and return to ‘civilisation’ lacked such verve; without the capacity to self-remember he himself did not exist in his observations; what he did observe was only the surface of things out there. It was later reported that he had been observed wandering about trying to relocate the members of The League – too late, one chance only…
Just for the moment, given the option of useful work or floral festivals, we might wonder which way we would choose now…
I know which course I’d follow when HH continues to describe his journey like this:
…My tale becomes even more difficult because we not only wandered through Space, but also through Time. We moved towards the East, but we also travelled into the Middle ages and the Golden Age; we roamed through Italy or Switzerland, but at times we also spent the night in the tenth century and dwelt with the patriarchs or the fairies. During the times I remained alone, I often found again places and people of my own past. I wandered with my former betrothed along the edges of the forest of the Upper Rhine, caroused with friends of my youth in Tubingen, in Basle or in Florence, or I was a boy and went with my school-friends to catch butterflies or to watch an otter, or my company consisted of the beloved characters of my books; Almansor and Parsifal, Witiko or Goldmund rode by my side, or Sancho Panza, or we were guests at the Barmekides.
The ‘journey’ starts off in the reader’s mind as a group of people specially selected by a tour company, as it were, on a kind of lengthy hiking trip but it turns by degrees (so we are taken by surprise) into something far more special – a spectacular journey though all space & time arranged by a mystery organiser.
I realised that I had joined a pilgrimage to the East, seemingly a definite and single pilgrimage – but in reality, in its broadest sense, this expedition to the East was not only mine and now; this procession of believers and disciples had always and incessantly been moving towards the East, towards the Home of Light. Throughout the centuries it had been on the way, towards light and wonder, and each member, each group, indeed our whole host and its great pilgrimage, was only a wave in the eternal stream of human beings, of the eternal strivings of the human spirit towards the East, towards Home…
Things keep shifting here without our quite knowing what’s going on mirroring HH’s own feeling of wrestling with words to set down with studied precision something that was by now fading from memory. ‘The East’ ceases to be a place somewhere vaguely towards India; the physical journey ends somewhere in Switzerland at Morbio Inferiore, a deep gorge into which all aspiration plummets with the apparent defection of Leo, the baggage handler. But the East…
…the East was not only a country and something geographical, but it was the home and youth of the soul, it was everywhere and nowhere, it was the union of all times. Yet I was only aware of this for a moment, and therein lay the reason for my great happiness at that time. Later, when I had lost this happiness, I clearly understood these connections without deriving the slightest benefit or comfort from them. When something precious and irretrievable is lost, we feel we have awakened from a dream. In my case this feeling is strangely correct, for my happiness did indeed arise from the same secret as the happiness in dreams; it arose from the freedom to experience everything imaginable simultaneously, to exchange outward and inward easily, to move Time and Space about like scenes in a theatre. And as we League brothers travelled throughout the world without motor-cars or ships, as we conquered the war-shattered world by our faith and transformed it into Paradise, we creatively brought the past, the future and the fictitious into the present moment…
HH is terrified lest, forgetting himself, he come to accept the normal flattened out conventional view of reality so that his momentary vision
…should again be lost in the soundless deserts of mapped-out reality, just like officials and shop-assistants who, after a party or a Sunday outing, adapt themselves again to everyday business life! In those days none of us was capable of such thoughts. From the castle’s turrets of Bremgarten, the fragrance of lilac entered my bedroom. I heard the river flowing beyond the trees. I climbed out of the window in the depth of the night, intoxicated with happiness and yearning…
But ‘mapped-out reality’ requires putting pen to paper and reducing live & startling experience to a serial treatment that cannot possibly capture things as they really were with all the fragrance & intoxication of lilac and the gleaming turrets.
How does one convey the magical quality of over-whelming experiences? How depict the quality of their original nameless life-force when the energy they contain is a purely interior phenomenon? Words in sequence scarcely scratch the surface of things; they are poor things. You have only to summon up some cherished event in your life and contemplate putting it into words emanating from a dictionary to realise the impossibility of making anything much out of them. Words create a different universe from the one you try to convey – raise issues in themselves quite unconnected to what you now imagine to have been the original experience.
If it is so difficult to relate connectedly a number of events which have really taken place and have been attested, it is in my case much more difficult, for everything becomes questionable as soon as I consider it closely, everything slips away and dissolves just as our community, the strongest in the world, has been able to dissolve. There is no unit, no centre, no point around which the wheel revolves. Our Journey to the East and our League, the basis of our community, has been the most important thing, indeed the only important thing in my life, compared with which my own individual life has appeared completely unimportant. And now that I want to hold fast to and describe this most important thing, or at least something of it, everything is only a mass of separate fragmentary pictures which has been reflected in something, and this something is myself, and this self, this mirror, whenever I have gazed into it, has proved to be nothing but the upper most surface of a glass plane…
In order that something like cohesion, something like causality, that some kind of meaning might be revealed and that it can in some way be told, the historian must invent units, a hero, a nation, an idea, and he must allow to happen to this invented unit what has in reality happened to the nameless.
And so the writer must somehow transcend the happening to get to a meta-position where invention clusters around what cannot be depicted in connected-up prosaic sentences. Paragraphs mangle the essence of things.
In Xanadu – Pure Enchantment
Elsewhere in my library I locate Coleridge’s Kubla Khan – a good example of a text that requires much in the way of careful handling. You must climb into the text for yourself and stand on the banks of Alph, the sacred river.
So long ago Charles Lamb alerts us to the way in which the effort involved in sustaining a necessarily complex ecstatic-transcendent, response to Kubla Khan, might easily collapse historically into pedestrian one-dimensionality; he begins with a very personal response which I can easily identify with: the poem operates, he says, ‘…so enchantingly that it irradiates and brings heaven and elysian bowers into my parlour while [the poet] sings or says it; but there is an observation: ‘never tell thy dreams,’ and I am almost afraid that Kubla Khan is an owl that won’t bear daylight. I fear lest it should be discovered by the lantern of typography and clear reducing to letters, no better than nonsense or no sense…’ So the personal response is dashed by the thought of how linear mentality might seek to construe Coleridge’s words. The words on the page can work two ways: on the one hand to convey, in themselves, enchantingly, a sense of profound Otherness; on the other hand to appear to dull minds to be a disconnected string of words whose associated images just don’t add up – it depends on the commitment and sensibility of the reader.
In his brilliant book The Road to Xanadu, John Livingstone Lowes says: ‘Kubla Khan is as near enchantment, I suppose, as we are like to come in this dull world. And over it is cast the glamour, enhanced beyond all reckoning in the dream, of the remote in time and space – that visionary presence of a vague and gorgeous and mysterious Past which brooded, as Coleridge read, above the inscrutable Nile, and domed pavilions in Cashmere, and the vanished stateliness of Xanadu.’
I’m rather pleased that the ‘person from Porlock’, presupposing that such a one existed, came just in time to cause Coleridge to choose to put his pen down from recording his dream in full: though the quasi-narrative is interrupted the poem is complete in itself in the sense that the whole leaves a consummate vision in the mind; nowadays, for some, with consciousness transformed by having read books with alternative endings or having watched films that just peter out leaving you to experience a tension or having heard music that just stops as though as though the composer had come to the bottom of a page, apparent incompletion has become a kind of aesthetic norm; fragmentariness becomes artistic possibility and stands as a profound metaphor for multi-dimensionality – first one view of things then another and a third on and on without dwelling on any one for very long. A combination of a ‘vague and gorgeous and mysterious Past’ and the ‘vanished stateliness of Xanadu’. Which gives rise conceptually to something akin to the sentiment of Shelley’s
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said – ‘Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.’
Current masters of the universe like Cameron & Clegg, Putin & Obama, Bush & Bliar, with their magisterial pronouncements, behave as though they are destined to live forever. Living their one-dimensionality, the Ozymandias Syndrome never occurs to them otherwise they might well shut up shop tomorrow. Never mind the so-called practical implications…
Looking strictly at the ‘words on the page’ of Kubla Khan, without delving into ‘Background Notes’ or Schoolboy Cribs, the poem awakens one mood then a contrasting one consistently throughout as the words themselves take us back & forth between visionary ecstasy and a parallel sense of doom. The pleasure-dome is also a doom. Together with the Ozymandias Syndrome, this is a perspective that one-dimensionality denies or refuses to contemplate. Or just cannot afford to consider lest the world crumble before its very eyes.
Holding what’s called Kubla Khan in mind for contemplation as a complete whole, or gestalt, having both ‘drunk the milk of paradise’ and been assailed by the ‘voices prophesying war’, you can decide to find yourself at the bottom of a pendulum swing in a quiet no-place, so that the twin characteristics are both merged and held apart – magical juxtaposition – and the felt way out at the nadir of the pendulum swing is a gripping tension in a self-remembering moment, transcendence decorated with ‘symphony & song’. Maybe this is no more than a kind of Webernish wisp of sound, fragment of musical allusion, enough to punctuate the tension. Music, by its very nature non-linear, multi-dimensional, is capable of building both ‘sunny domes’ and ‘caves of ice’ simultaneously. thereby sustaining the double aspect, the pendulum of the real world, horror and beauty, for good & all. But the artist/composer, capable of conveying such a double vision, who has once fed on honey-dew and ‘drunk the milk of paradise’, transfixes you with ‘flashing eyes’ & ‘floating hair’ – we are advised to beware such weirdly capable people, set them aside in a triple circle, so they can’t get out, like Gurdjieff’s Yezidi boy; this is the fate of all who presume to express a vision of a multi-dimensional world: they are to be kept in check, derided, not allowed to infect sensible people with their vision; any ‘normal’ person would refuse to have any truck with such as they are. But once the visionaries have chosen to lift the heavy curtain of normality to glimpse what’s beyond it, life is never the same again; there’s something about them that conveys Otherness so that to the feuilletons and the providers of the TV moment they are to be depicted as incomprehensible figures of fun.
Coincidentally, last night on the gramophone I listened to the piano music of Giorgio Federico Ghedini (1892-1965) The sleeve note tells us that ‘…it was not until his fifties that the fiercely independent Ghedini came to be acknowledged as one of the finest Italian composers of the 20th century… [The CD] begins with the fresh and spontaneous early works composed between 1908 and 1916. These world premiere recordings use manuscript sources donated to the Conservatory of Turin by the composer’s daughter Maria Grazia Ghedini. who writes, ‘As I listened to these pieces… I was reminded of something my father once said: This is my credo: music is not a passing fashion, it is everlasting… As society becomes ever more technical, there is a great need for genuine sentiment, which is why music too must be animated, at its core, by a dramatic, romantic impulse… only thus can all its magic be conveyed.’ My emphasis.
Anyway, the diligent inquisitive raker-over of possible interpretations, aiming to reduce Kubla Khan to normality and ordinariness, can discover all kinds of interesting things about the significance of its names & images. Such misplaced curiosity kills the sensation of the poem; to get that it is only necessary to enter the territory of its magic spells, unquestioningly, suspending disbelief, to let the words on the page hit the brain-pan where they can dance. An abstract curiosity which is not based on a personal response is not worth exercising, as Gurdjieff points out; first engage in subjective ponderings…
So, to the words on the page…
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.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round;
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.
But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced:
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail:
And mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.
Five miles meandering with a mazy motion
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean;
And ’mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!
The shadow of the dome of pleasure
Floated midway on the waves;
Where was heard the mingled measure
From the fountain and the caves.
It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!
A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw:
It was an Abyssinian maid
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight ’twould win me,
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
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.
The first sentence is poetically convoluted – if it wasn’t intended to gain a mysterious effect, it certainly does so: ‘In Xanadu’… (Where? asks the innocent reader… It sounds exotic wherever it is – some magical mental place, full of poetry and curiosity. We are immediately pitched into unspecified remote foreign territory. You can decide either to exercise ‘curiosity , craving precision, and rummage in some old atlas or, preferably, relishing lawful inexactitude, to just leave its outlandishness to reverberate inside your Being…) ‘…did Kubla Khan…’ (some regal oligarch, sufficiently loaded to be able to develop ten miles of pleasure grounds to order…). The colon represents an ellipsis: this is the place where ‘Alph, the sacred river…’ (no ordinary river, this – ‘sacred’, of ‘measureless’ extent, building the sense of mystery), ‘…ran…’ (= used to run, perhaps, and does so no more – that it once ran ‘…down to a sunless sea…’ suggests a possible cataclysmic local disturbance, maybe brought about by some planetary disaster – as nowadays we might relate it to the result of the imminent irruption of the Nevada Desert which will apparently install at least a hundred years of global darkness…)
This pleasure dome – its surroundings so sensually enticing that we imagine, or desire, it to be real now – its pleasures are all in the imperfect tense: ‘…here were gardens bright…’ where used to blossom ‘many an incense-bearing tree’ and there used to be ‘…forests ancient as the hills…’
But even in its heyday, when it flourished, when its ‘sinuous rills’ could be heard and when one might laze around in its ‘sunny spots of greenery’ it comes as rather a shock to be told that, while being ‘holy and enchanted’ it was a ‘savage place’. A chilling juxtaposition of enchantment and some kind of misery, under a waning moon, where there is a haunting ‘…by woman wailing for her demon- lover’. And then the cataclysm: it’s what sounds like an earthquake, fragments of rock thrown up by a huge fountain of water so that Alph’s sacred course was disrupted, severely flooding wood and dale before sinking ‘in tumult to a lifeless ocean’ – sunless and lifeless in contrast with the once fertile ground of the pleasure-dome.
Not only is the pleasure-dome no more but there are also from a long way off ‘ancestral voices prophesying war…’
The dome, image of perfect completion, ‘miracle of rare device’, is now a mere shadow: it floats on the flood and crashes down broken up into the measureless ice-bound caves before our very eyes.
As though to escape the awful consequences of all this, the poet is reminded of a ‘damsel with a dulcimer’ (mate, maybe, of Wallace Stevens’ ‘sort of shearsman with a blue guitar’). If her song could be revived the poet might look again on ‘that sunny dome’ balancing it with ‘the caves of ice’ so as to achieve a pendulum purchase on the world as it is. But he would be suspect and locked away as all visionaries are.
How Can We Make the Return to Xanadu – the Enchantment ?
In the Good Old Days (for that’s exactly what they were) there was a sedate programme on the radio called ‘Children’s Hour’. It nurtured a cosy notion of childhood I grew up with as something really special and worth preserving; it was not necessary to think then that childhood was nothing but an adult imposition that had to be got through so that you could get on with all the adult things that the advertisers kid you that you’d like to embrace as quickly as possible. As far as I remember, based on my own suburban middle-class upbringing there were no advertisers then who’d learned the trade of working their insidious way into the fabric of your being; I was nearly at the end of formal schooling when ‘independent’ television hit the world (1953 was it? Shortly after the first bout of Tory Capitalism began destroying the very nature of things?) I remember arguing against it in a school debate for reasons based on the kind of gut reaction that still keeps me immune to all attempts to make me part with my money.
Children’s Hour seeded beautiful things in my being. Nowadays its tone would be dismissed as being condescendingly protective and avuncular (‘Uncle Mac’) but when I think back over its regular offerings that provided a strong pattern to a week I remember only its neat quality and my absorption of it: it did not grab you by the scruff of the neck and scream at you; in some way it had a ‘take it or leave it’ kind of stance – I took it without question and I think it must have been from this early experience that I learned to teach in a ‘take it or leave it’ kind of way. One chance only…
One of the offerings on Children’s Hour was a haunting rendering of How Many Miles to Babylon?
How many miles to Babylon?
Three score and ten.
Can I get there by candle-light?
Yes, and back again.
If your heels are nimble and light,
You may get there by candle-light.
I was reminded of this recently when somebody on a course I attended said that he wanted to get this ‘rigmarole’, as he called it, out of his mind where it had festered for many years. My interior reaction was a huge explosion: why on earth would anybody in their right mind regard this as a festering ‘rigmarole’ and want to expunge it from consciousness? I kept my own counsel.
‘Babylon’ – just the word itself, as captivating as ‘Xanadu’: it seemed so far away in my mind and yet you could get there (and back) before the candle lighting your way sputtered and went out. It requires lightness of touch, nimble foot – that’s all. One must not suffer from the sin of seriousness.
An Educational Imperative
The educational imperative for nurturing multi-dimensional thinking would somehow have to encompass the teaching of a strategy for helping young people to make a regular journey to a universe alternative to that which we have now with its promulgation of the ‘stop-me-and-buy-one’ mentality, full of zingy e-blandishments. At least until one could understand their uses from within oneself, they would all have to be thrown on the scrap-heap in favour of a simple bit of candle-light; learn first, my children, to make your way by candle-light.
Babylon, Xanadu, Samarkand – magic words carrying a meaning located in the Beyondness of Time & Space.
I have been to Samarkand, the actual place with its blue domes & crowded markets. Admittedly I went by train & plane twenty years ago rather than by candle-light but I remember the thrill which came up to meet me as the plane landed down in the lights of a second night-time that twenty-four hours, having taken off just before dawn in England. To get to Samarkand proper you must take Proust and James Elroy Flecker, as I did – that compensates for going by train & plane to a city maybe past its best.
with Monsieur Proust to Samarkand
– a supernatural place like Balbec
for which he said his soul thirsted;
from knowing which he felt it would
derive an immense profit:
Samarkand! unknown different in essence
from all other places we had ever visited
because of the sound of its name —
a name that magnetised our desires;
construction of the arbitrary delights
of the imagination – aggravating
the disenchantment in store for us
when we set out one bright November day
with our accumulated stock of dreams;
names he says are whimsical draughtsmen;
the enforced simplicity of the images
conjured account for their beguiling hold;
we made Samarkand into calendar days
and overnight its streets emerged
from the abstraction of space-time
to become people queuing on icy kerbs
and small boys begging for pens and sweets
and when we returned as it were to Combray
jesting that we had not been in Samarkand
but that Samarkand was inside us we put
the word back where it belonged – it promptly
worked its old magic again – we saw
long caravans & silver bells – and turned
to dismantling awe in other words
(Colin Blundell: Svetlana of Urgench 1994)
Proust had a thing about the magic of the names of places – the way they encapsulate the whole experience of place. It seems that we contain within ourselves every lost moment of our lives relating to place. But we must become aware that they are lost before we can regain them with a word or two. Music informs us of this loss but without specifying the nature of what it is we have relinquished.
Had my parents allowed me, when I read a book, to pay a visit to the region it described, I should have felt that I was making an enormous advance towards the ultimate conquest of truth. For even if we have the sensation of being always enveloped in, surrounded by our own soul, still it does not seem a fixed and immovable prison; rather do we seem to be borne away with it, and perpetually struggling to transcend it, to break out into the world, with a perpetual discouragement as we hear endlessly all around us that unvarying sound which is not an echo from without, but the resonance of a vibration from within. We try to discover in things, which become precious to us on that account, the reflection of what our soul has projected on to them; we are disillusioned when we find that they are in reality devoid of the charm which they owed, in our minds, to the association of certain ideas; sometimes we mobilise all our spiritual forces in a glittering array in order to bring our influence to bear on other human beings who, we very well know, are situated outside ourselves where we can never reach them.
To go to Samarkand was perhaps, for me, something to do with the ultimate conquest of a truth, the coming to terms with a mighty projection of the soul. It was a pilgrimage beguiled by Proust & Flecker. In his poem The Golden Journey to Samarkand, the latter acknowledges himself part of a company of poets capable of beguiling one’s pilgrimage through life towards the death of time while pointing to the essence of things which persist in spite of change and clinging ivy.
We who with songs beguile your pilgrimage
And swear that Beauty lives though lilies die,
We Poets of the proud old lineage
Who sing to find your hearts, we know not why, –
What shall we tell you? Tales, marvellous tales
Of ships and stars and isles where good men rest,
Where nevermore the rose of sunset pales,
And winds and shadows fall towards the West:
And there the world’s first huge white-bearded kings
In dim glades sleeping, murmur in their sleep,
And closer round their breasts the ivy clings,
Cutting its pathway slow and red and deep.
And how beguile you? Death has no repose
Warmer and deeper than the Orient sand
Which hides the beauty and bright faith of those
Who make the Golden Journey to Samarkand.
And now they wait and whiten peaceably,
Those conquerors, those poets, those so fair:
They know time comes, not only you and I,
But the whole world shall whiten, here or there;
When those long caravans that cross the plain
With dauntless feet and sound of silver bells
Put forth no more for glory or for gain,
Take no more solace from the palm-girt wells.
When the great markets by the sea shut fast
All that calm Sunday that goes on and on:
When even lovers find their peace at last,
And Earth is but a star, that once had shone.
How does a poet beguile us? I think it has to be in such a take-it-or-leave-it kind of way. Poets don’t know the Why? of it – they just spend their energy on telling ‘tales, marvellous tales/ Of ships and stars and isles where good men rest…’ always bathed in light.
True poets tell of hidden wonder; they conceal in their lines inscrutable secrets that you have to pause over, taking time out from the daily grind, whatever that might be for you, to imagine some kind of meaning. Those endowed with arcane wisdom, ‘the world’s first huge white-bearded kings’ are buried in the West in ‘dim glades’, ‘murmuring in their sleep’ about all the things that might have been had the world not been taken over by the sordid Power Possessors and money-grubbers.
Rising above the money-making scumbags of the sordid world remains the ‘bright faith of those/Who make the Golden Journey to Samarkand…’ of those who still make the journey and continue to ask the virtual question ‘how shall the beguiling be done?’ Flecker beguiles us with the notion that his kind are the ‘conquerors’, knowing both peace now and the absurdity of all human pre-occupations. Poets are able to rise above participation in the ‘long caravans’ putting forth for glory & gain – they ‘know time comes…’ Perhaps ‘they know their time will come’ lodges momentarily in the mind of the reader, a time when things will improve, when everybody will become convinced that making the Golden Journey is a worthwhile activity. No such luck! And no second chance! The markets have too much of a stranglehold; the Power Possessors are the heirs of the first white-bearded (philosopher-poet) kings and they don’t give two hoots either for people or poets – they don’t make money except as wage-slaves whose time will never come. The Power Possessors occupy a separate universe which unfortunately impinges on this one here & now.
Flecker’s poem is a strange complex of alternating exalted hope & expectation mingled with the very final end of space & time where neither hope nor expectation will play a part.
This I felt in Samarkand: blue domes up against a seedy decaying hotel where there was never any heat. It was so different in Urgench where the beautiful Svetlana was our always faintly amused guide.
Svetlana of Urgench
Just the Names…
Babylon, Xanadu, Samarkand and Lyonesse …
Flecker’s Samarkand works its way along with a lugubrious rhythm akin to that of the first part of Kubla Khan. Hardy’s When I set Out for Lyonesse, by contrast, is more lyrical in tone and picks up from the ‘deep delight’ inspired by Coleridge’s damsel with a dulcimer.
Hardy’s own ‘lonesomeness’ is lit by starlight; the poem lilts along on waves of what seems like hope but he’s no idea why he’s going or what to expect when he gets to Lyonesse, obscure in legend… Not even prophets or wizards (or white-bearded kings, come to that) could predict the outcome of such a pilgrimage. The last stanza keeps you in a marvellous state of guesswork: because Hardy comes back ‘with magic in my eyes’, it’s probably best not to ask the question “How come?” The poem itself asserts the necessity of Lyonesse working its magic and that’s all we need to know.
When I set out for Lyonnesse,
A hundred miles away,
The rime was on the spray,
And starlight lit my lonesomeness
When I set out for Lyonnesse
A hundred miles away.
What would bechance at Lyonnesse
While I should sojourn there
No prophet durst declare,
Nor did the wisest wizard guess
What would bechance at Lyonnesse
While I should sojourn there.
When I came back from Lyonnesse
With magic in my eyes,
All marked with mute surmise
My radiance rare and fathomless,
When I came back from Lyonnesse
With magic in my eyes!
Only a one-dimensional thinker would want to have curiosity satisfied; satisfaction destroys magic. To balance music and mortality is the job of the poet; ours it is to gaze in at the open doorway, ‘marked with mute surmise’, endowed with ‘radiance rare & fathomless’ if we can discover what that might feel like.
For me, James Elroy Flecker (1884-1919) fulfills the job of a poet, as I understand it, very well:-
To A Poet A Thousand Years Hence
I who am dead a thousand years,
And wrote this sweet archaic song,
Send you my words for messengers
The way I shall not pass along.
I care not if you bridge the seas,
Or ride secure the cruel sky,
Or build consummate palaces
Of metal or of masonry.
But have you wine and music still,
And statues and a bright-eyed love,
And foolish thoughts of good and ill,
And prayers to them who sit above?
How shall we conquer? Like a wind
That falls at eve our fancies blow,
And old Maeonides the blind
Said it three thousand years ago.
O friend unseen, unborn, unknown,
Student of our sweet English tongue,
Read out my words at night, alone:
I was a poet, I was young.
Since I can never see your face,
And never shake you by the hand,
I send my soul through time and space
To greet you. You will understand.
Flecker’s message to one only a tenth of 1000 years ahead is loud & clear. I understand him only too well. I don’t care about the technological advance that ‘undermines the true substance of art’ as Herbert Marcuse asserts. Of course, I know quite clearly that it’s somewhat bizarre that I should be using this bit of e-tackle to say so, but, harnessing ‘divided attention’, one has to make a very conscious choice about what’s useful to one’s life-story and what’s not so. Keep the technology in check. Awaken Consciousness, dividedly.
So I don’t care about massive ocean-going liners or rich men’s yachts, and I can see that the sky really deserves Flecker’s curious epithet ‘cruel’ when it becomes the venue out of which Obama organises drones that massacre wedding parties in Afghanistan.
I wonder what Flecker would have thought about these lines from Hassan being inscribed on the clock tower of the barracks of the British Army’s 22 Special Air Service regiment in Hereford as ‘an enduring testimony to his work’:-
We are the Pilgrims, master; we shall go
Always a little further; it may be
Beyond that last blue mountain barred with snow
Across that angry or that glimmering sea.
What sacrilege! Imagine vicious thugs as pilgrims…
I don’t care about vicious thugs or the new monsters of metal & masonry that have destroyed the London skyline, living quarters for the rich, rich offices of profit.
So long as there’s wine & music & love & philosophy, who cares? And the prayer is to the God within – nothing sits above…
How shall a poet make conquest?
Not with ‘weapons of mass destruction’ or entering poetry competitions or popularising chat shows or any other money-making ventures spurred on by technology but in the manner of ‘a wind / That falls at eve…’ By something that accompanies the soul ‘through time & space’… Take it or leave it…
Whatever the ‘something’ might be, one-dimensional thinking will never get it. One chance only.