I’m writing about myth this week, that collective delusion that there is something bigger out there watching our every activity, guiding our movements. It’s the story of who that something or somethings are, but really it’s stories about who we are, or rather, who we think ourselves to be.
I thought I would shake things up a bit and start with something that is the opposite. I know that Xanadu existed as a fable before Coleridge wrote about it in his drug induced, artistic delirium, but I think what he wrote was his own fable particular to himself.
In French, the word “idiot” does not just mean someone who is stupid, it is someone who is so completely singular that he does not understand the common rules, or refuses to recognize them as necessary to follow, instead forges his own unique path divergent from society’s. They cannot fathom someone who would insist on his own rules for living, someone who cannot be guided the social rules laid out for him; he must be stupid, thus the term idiot.
But the question is, can it be called a myth is the story being told is one of a legend, or an explanation of how the universe works, but only for one person? Isn’t it required that a myth is multifarious? That it does not carry the face of one person or even one generation, but is made up of the collective hearts and minds of many, not simply the Kings but the ditch diggers and farmers in the field and their slaves (captors from other nations, blending a new ingredient into the mix of the mythological soup). Can one man in a drug induced delirium dictate the movement of the universe? Or even better, can one man’s dictation of a personal myth burgeon into a myth adopted by the Kings and the ditch diggers and the farmers in the field and their help?
Are our movements still dictated by the letters of the old world which we know still courses through our blood? Or can we surpass the ancient gods, invent new ones? Is that idea a delirium? Or are the old superstitions the delirium?
In Coleridge’s Kubla Khan (or Kubla Khan: A Vision; The Pains of Sleep), there are many images painted: a pleasure-dome, a sacred river that runs through caverns measureless to man, a woman wailing for her demon-lover, an Abyssinian maid on a dulcimer. He paints a picture of this world and tells a story from the depths of his fevered imagination of the doomed Xanadu, that meant something unique to him, even though he claims that he’d forgotten it’s meaning when someone knocked at his door and interrupted the writing of the poem. I always thought that if I’d ever gotten a hold of a time machine, the first thing I’d do is head that malicious visitor off the path to that door (let him finish for crying out loud!).
But until that time, we simply have to read the poem ourselves to figure out what the story was meant to be. Perhaps in doing so we’ll find our own myth, or be inspired to create our own. In this world of television, movies and internet memes, where we are fed someone else’s myths, how rare and beautiful would it be then to form our own inner vision of the universe, to tell the rest of the world that we are unique to it as much as we are a part of it.
by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
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 here were gardens bright with sinuous rills
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
And folding 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 turmiol 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 voice 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 symphoney 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 drank the milk of paradise.’