Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Road to Xanadu

I have arrived at a surprising and surprisingly unanticipated stage of intellectual life that might be summarized in the following terms.  I can read any book I want to read but there is none I must feel obliged to read.  That is a wonderfully liberating feeling.  At the same time I am acutely aware that though the element of choice is theoretically absolute and the options nearly infinite, in actual, practical reality I face a narrowing and constriction.  There is only a certain amount more I’ll ever be able to read, and that decreases daily.  I suddenly feel obliged to make my reading count, so to speak.  I am surprising myself with some of my choices.  I am especially surprised to find myself revisiting with enthusiasm a scholarly book already a half century old when I first encountered it in graduate school: The Road to Xanadu: A Study in the Ways of the Imagination (1927) by John Livingston Lowes.

As the eighteenth century came to its end S. T. Coleridge, still not yet thirty years of age, wrote what are probably his three most famous poems—“The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner,” the most famous of them all, and two extraordinary unfinished fragments, “Kubla Khan” and “Christabel.”  Anyone reading these pieces will immediately be struck by their technical brilliance, their boldness of imagery, and, quite frankly, their weirdness.  There are certain poets whose works fairly scream out a question: “Where did he come up with this wonderful stuff?”  Milton is one such poet; and the student of Paradise Lost knows the answer.  The poet immersed himself in years of intense post-graduate study to prepare for his epic labor, for he subscribed to the ancient belief that the writer’s first task was knowing something to write about.  Coleridge was among the most intellectually brilliant of all English poets and, so far as one can judge, he read as close to everything that had come off European presses since the Age of the Incunable as it was possible for an Enlightenment intellectual to read: science, philosophy, political economy, history, philology, theology, the vast new literature of travel and discovery.  The “Ancient Mariner” is on the surface a very bizarre story deployed at length in the form of a sing-song ballad; but it is absolutely brimming with arresting images of closely observed marine life and lore.  A reader simply knows intuitively that there is not a word in the poem that Coleridge had not pondered and fussed over, as when he describes the strange undulations of water snakes as differentially observed in the sea beneath the moonlight or within the huge, dark shadow cast by the ship itself: “blue, glossy green, and velvet black, / They coiled and swam; and every track / Was a flash of golden fire.”

Had landlocked Coleridge ever seen such a sight?  Had anyone?  Had the poet simply made it up, as poets are supposed to do?  Blue, and glossy green, and golden fire?  Snakes?  For a variety of good reasons Lowes was convinced that although Coleridge had never himself actually seen such things, his poetic imagination was being directed by his mind-boggling reading among authors who did claim to have done so: “travel writers” first among them, but also Enlightenment scientists of every stripe, navigators, marine biologists, zoologists, geographers, astronomers, botanists, theoreticians of optics, the surveyors of universal moral and mythical systems, biblical exegetes, naval architects—you name it, Coleridge had read it, mostly, it seems, by the time he was twenty-five years old.

Lowes was sixty when he published The Road to Xanadu, in which he tried to reconstruct the voracious reading that Coleridge had completed before 1800 and on which he drew—partly with scholarly intention, partly in inspired artistic intuition—in writing his extraordinary early poems.  “Kubla Khan” is a dope-fuelled fragment of less than sixty lines.  The Road to Xanadu is a plump book of 180,000 words plus about 150 dense pages of footnotes, many of them lapidary monuments to an awesome erudition.   And of course Lowes was doing nothing so crude as rummaging around for “sources”.  He had taken upon himself the far more subtle task of trying to retrace a powerful thinker’s “ways of the imagination.”

John Livingston Lowes (1867-1945)

Lots of aging professors of my generation are unhappy with the direction “advanced” literary study has taken in our colleges and universities.  You don’t need to hear me rehearse my tiresome complaints about the jargon, the tedious politicization, the obeisance to dubious theoretical models, the narrowness, the rampant aesthetic relativism, the indifference toward or even contempt of cultural traditions.  Dismiss this, if you choose, as the grousing of the superannuated.  But I will say one thing that is a simple objective fact.  While today many English professors may be “brilliant,” there are precious few who are truly erudite in the way my own graduate teachers were erudite.  These men (and one woman) were already the superstars of a second and third generation of great American literary scholars.  The true golden dawn, typified by Lowes and others on the graduate faculties at Harvard or Johns Hopkins, was about 1900-1920.  These giants were all multilingual polymaths.  Many, like Lowes himself, had had at least some of their training in Germany, the true nursery of the modern research university.  And, my God, did they ever know a lot!  

When, like Lowes, they were also confident writers whose prose was as daring, allusive, and challenging as that of Thomas Brown or a Walter Pater, they could produce works of literary scholarship barely distinguishable in aesthetic satisfaction from some of our most enduring masterpieces of imaginative fiction.  The Road to Xanadu is a trip, as the students used to say: a trip about a trip, to be more exact.  The cultivated American readership of the late Twenties recognized that fact.  The book was not exactly a New York Times “bestseller”, but the original runs were large enough that it’s still easy to snap up a copy on the second-hand market.  There are not many ninety-year-old learned tomes bristling with Latin and German footnotes of which you can—or for that matter would want to—say that.