yet to receive input from any one of the nine, this writer can but perch o'er aonian streams, pawing at dregs of genius as they pass her by. 

Relax, don't Xanadu it (When you wanna Khan)

Relax, don't Xanadu it (When you wanna Khan)

When yesterday I caught myself throbbing to the revolving folds and pulsing modulations of the world’s second-greatest seafood themed pop track, [1] the notion struck that its particularly sub-primal bassline and sonic pleasures are founded, however remotely, upon 700 coiled years of cultural and historical mimesis. Even if Frankie’s vessel plays host to aged inspiration with the barbed assistance of Holly Johnson’s pop-theorist irony, the alleviating force is superficial at best. Frankie and their sexual shock-jockeyisms are as beholden to the fanciful flights of a certain M. Polo as they are dismissive of the standard pop-fan and his intellectual capacity. The worn fact that all art is iterative yields no less truth for its age - even such provocation as Relax swearing blind to its own originality can be but merely another layer of life oozing from the metropolitan cultural petri dish that fostered it. From the imaginings held in a certain set of 13th century Travels[2] there runs an arrow-line through history to 80s pop-prog provocateurs and Eastern European automobile manufacturing. Whether or not Marco’s marvels have anything but specious foundations is a question irrelevant to the Dacia SupeRnova and its undoubted impact upon the Xers who could barely afford better. Society has been inhaling itself since society achieved self-awareness[3] - and though its breathing speed has been amplified by deregulation and population growth, what formative sediment resides in the furthest recesses is far from superseded or overwritten.

Welcome to the Pleasuredoom: Frankie frolick in the underworld.

Welcome to the Pleasuredoom: Frankie frolick in the underworld.

‘This is the greatest palace that ever was.’

So wrote Italy’s foremost tagalong from a pair of misty eyes and an extended prison sentence. ‘The roof is very lofty,' he continued, 'and the walls of the palace are all covered with gold and silver. The hall is so large that it could easily dine 6,000 people. The roof is vermilion, yellow, green and blue, the tiles fixed with a varnish so fine that they shine like crystal…’ Abandoning for a passage his traditional fireside prose, Marco cast an awestruck glance across his mind’s eye in the hope that we might join him in doing so. Falling foul of the impetus to play at the eastern exoticism so prevalent among his countrymen, he douses the hereto unassuming salad in hyperbole, raising the spice at the expense, perhaps, of a little palatability. The case would-be sleuths have spent the better part of a millennium constructing against our hyperbolic merchant certainly holds this tendency amongst the most virile in its pool of evidence.[4] Despite his flagrant tendency to delectare, Marco failed to mention tea-drinking, foot-tying or even the Great Wall anywhere amongst his grand raft of shocking revelations.[5] Time - as is its wont - has woven a storied path through various historiographical fashions, each holding the Travels in its own shade of skepticism. In 1995 Frances Wood put to print a mighty tome with its skeptical crosshairs aimed squarely at the long-dead Ser Marco.[6] As mystifying as such zealous skepticism may be, the conclusions reached are certainly not unfounded. Much archaeological evidence supports their assertions[7] and - irregardless of the effusive adulation in which much of the populace holds ole’ Polo - we must at least stoop to admit that his account may fall a bone or two short of unified veracity.

Thus ‘the greatest palace that ever was’ represented, perhaps, ‘the greatest’ only within imagined bounds. For the staggered opium junkie pawing his candle-lit library in narcotic-endrudged stupor on a dark 1797 night, this fact was neither known nor obstructive to the arcs of inspiration about to flash like lightning across the centuries. While an empirical link between Coleridge’s evening reading material and the Travels has been impossible to draw, a general historical consensus tells that most alternatives are possibilities highly dubious at best. As Samuel slept it off, Marco’s glorious captatio benevolentiae wound its way along his exposed synapses to form composition - ‘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 conscious effort.’[8] Can we, then, presume the Anglosphere’s quintessential symphony and song - the closest our language has to a codification of creativity’s subconscious mechanics - to have its foundation in fictional falsehoods? The ‘man from Porlock’ and the lines he denied birth were cooked in a soup inspired not by the Khan’s palace itself, but the second hand fancy of our illustrious Ser. The elusive chain of thought flowing like some paper dragon through his mind was apparently sourceless - certainly Samuel himself was incapable of identifying its leading fount.[9] Yet by its existence, the chain exercises its birth. Outside the workaday sparkings of the unconscious mind itself, Coleridge was clearly influenced by workings and sources far outwith the pedestrian. He conjured the prosody in three parts - first from a particularly crushing dream state, second from his imbibed pre-sleep opiate and third by way of Marco’s Xanadu. Not Kublai’s Shangdu, nor that reduced to indecipherable ash in the wake of its Ming destruction, but Polo’s own ‘greatest palace’. That Marco claimed in a fit of his most treasured superlatives ‘this is the greatest palace that ever was’ has the net result of leaving Coleridge beholden to the very same belief. Samuel could not escape Kubla’s creative geniture if he tried: the parameters of his creation are predefined. Does, then, everybody’s favourite 13th century Venetian wanderer form the base DNA structure upon which Kubla Khan’s genome is constructed?

The poem itseelf reposes in an untold sanctity within my heart - not to mention its cosmic sac of large-scale general significance - but to question Kubla Khan’s source in such a manner is hardly to blaspheme. As the testament to creativity and inspiration, do not the poem’s 50-something lines only lengthen in significance if seen to stem from a tertiary imagination themselves? The process of fabrication-to-fabrication even more closely typifies the nature of human exploration than would the supposed arbitrary explosion of artistry. Art - and, indeed, design - bursts from art. The nerves which hum as de-plasticked wires in the flash or crack of creativity speak to their fellows across generations, millennia and continents. Polo’s work of fireside fiction grabbed a fellow shaman with the glitter in his eyes and the narrative flourish of his imbued digits.

The Ming climb into the Mongol sack

The Ming climb into the Mongol sack

Such it is that Citizen Kane’s invocation of Coleridge ushers in not just one folk hero, but two. As most are aware, Welles and Toland opened their masterwork to a televised report announcing the recent passing of a media magnate. The coverage makes pains to demonstrate the grandiosity of its subject by invoking a scale extant only in the realm of mythopoetics. With its mythologising tendency the media unconsciously imports a secondary tradition. Encoded into the lines of Coleridge’s poem - and thereby the televised obituary - is the Poloist notion that this is the greatest palace that ever was.. Equally, the broadcast’s audience are to infer, must Kane’s preposterous edifice have been the greatest - perhaps, equally, its roofing was vermillion and its walls were gold. In Kane’s case, however, the syntax is morphed so Coleridge’s ‘In Xanadu did Kubla Khan / A stately pleasure dome decree’ becomes ‘Legendary was the Xanadu where Kubla Khan decreed his stately pleasure dome.’ This spectacular inversion not only has the effect of turning the news into poetry and poetry into prose - so goes the life of a newspaperman - but also serves symbol to the conflict and inherent antagonism present within the reporter’s troubled life. A man who could afford anything, but wanted what money could not buy; a man whose success in business was matched only by his failure in life, et al.

Poetry is called upon a second time in Welles’ masterpiece when the titular character finds himself in the office of The New York Enquirer. Kane’s former guardian Walter Thatcher has taken exception to the nascent socialist slant of Kane’s paper, harsh as he has been on corporate fraud. The two meet and, while they are conversing, Kane’s personal business manager Bernstein brings a telegram. He is reticent to read aloud its contents, but Kane insists. The exchange passes as follows:

Kane: We have no secrets from our readers, Mr. Bernstein. Mr. Thatcher is one of our most devoted readers. He knows what’s wrong with every copy of the Inquirer since I took over. Read the cable.

Bernstein (reading): GIRLS DELIGHTFUL IN CUBA STOP COULD SEND YOU PROSE POEMS ABOUT SCENERY BUT DON’T FEEL LIKE SPENDING YOUR MONEY STOP THERE IS NO WAR IN CUBA STOP. Signed Wheeler. Any answer, sir?

Kane: Yes: “Dear Wheeler, You provide the prose poems, I’ll provide the war.”

Bernstein: That’s fine, Mr. Kane.

Kane: Yes, I rather like it myself.

The prose poem or ‘poemulation,’ as Sinclair Lewis termed it[10] had become a mainstay of the daily news. In Kane’s line-spanning chiasmus lies not only a dazzling rhetorical flourish, but the crux of the entire film condensed into a single greatest line. Playing once more on its 18th century progenitor, Citizen Kane exercises its second inversion. In opening, anti-prosody was created with the inversion of poetry into prose and prose into poetry, but on the second act’s cusp, media itself is seen to play the ultimate poet - despite its inescapable marriage to prose. ‘Symphony and song’ is no longer relegated to the abstract - Kane (or the New York Inquirer) can conjure ‘wars’, pull a monstrous pleasuredome from the ground and populate it with all their minds might envision. Kane has antiquated the poet: his fancies are at his fingertips and rather than be confounded by reality, his dreams are reality. Where the man from Porlock blew over the abstract, darkened collection of firing inspiration it was beyond Coleridge’s mind to re-conceive fully formed, the twentieth century holds up an amused hand to wave reality into poetry. The twentieth century has no need for the abstractions of the past and, indeed, in Kane’s provision of this ‘war,’ has begun toying with the concept as a form of amusement. Poetry and the man from Porlock have coalesced and so cannot affect one another. In this Floridian Xanadu is embodied at once poetry and its death. Just as Polo lurks in Coleridge’s marrow, so Kubla Khan alters Kane’s message as the film tears apart the Romantic cry. ‘Make it new!’ say the Lake Poets. No, replies Kane, ‘Make it news.’

The early-modern poet created diaphanous works confounded by the rigours of mortality. Kane’s desires and impulses - his nature as a poet - are an unstoppable force in the real world. He conjures and transforms almost arbitrarily and even does so to service the ‘prose poem’ of a distant correspondent - whether to prove a point or entertain himself is never entirely clear. That Kane dies dissatisfied is Welles’ ultimate proclamation regarding the nature of genius: frustration runs far deeper than the man from Porlock. Even given the ability to obfuscate his influence entirely - make him dance for a hundred years if you wish - resolution will have it that the telos of your Rosebud is her uncapturability. The greatest palace ever built remains frustrated even in Kane’s poetry. No matter how vermillion your tiling or golden your decor, the ability to obfuscate the vitiating influences of either Porlock or Rosebud shall remain ever distant from your grasp.

Joining the cultural freight train combusting its way through history are the dual antagonistic carriages of Xanadu 1976 and Xanadu 1980. The former a seminal Rush track of soaring musical morai, the latter a 1980 Olivia Newton-John vehicle (I hesitate to wave the title ‘film’ anywhere close to this liposuction leech), as mutual counterpoint the two form a conclusive argument. Coming to define the group’s struggle with the rationalisation of ol’ Ayn’s objectivism against their own ethos, Rush’s song is an intricate carpet of synthesisers and soft guitar which plumbs Kubla Khan for its exploration of immortality and the danger of excess. The ELO-soundtracked 1980 vehicle is an abomination of glistening plastic rendered utterly vacuous by its committee backbone and demographically-targeted heart. A cinematic atrocity whose every beginning gives the false impression that it should be an end, Xanadu is among the least watchable disasters ever to hit the can. Greenwald’s ‘bitter triumph’ represents all that Rush were excoriating with their namesake song. Chasing a portion of that decade-turning Grease ‘milk and honey’, Universal built a frozen ‘cave of ice’ - a vehicle emotionally dead and suffocated with commercialism. Xanadu must suffer for eternity as a ‘mad immortal man’. Neil Peart (the creator of Rush’s Xanadu narrative) undertook to understand Coleridge at his most literal, arriving at a conclusion similar to Wells’. The greatest palace that ever was can be nothing but the second-hand imaginings of a human mind. Floundering in a pit of over-many ideas and sapped of energy, it is clear that 1980’s Xanadu was, at the very least, paid a visit by the man from Porlock - certainly no Rosebud was captured in the filmmaking process.

There's no Rush with post-industrial cityscapes

There's no Rush with post-industrial cityscapes

Four years later, Holly Johnson - Blighty’s premier pop-music seafood allusionist - exploded with a disco ball of innuendo and anti-Thatcherist excision to provoke, outrage and indulge. He was undisputed commander of a monumental record derided over the years as a ‘swollen pustule of glossy style over little substance…’.[11] ‘…outrageously over-the-top, bizarre’[12]. A victim of ‘tabloid headlines… perceived arrogance,’ its true status as ‘a manifesto, a satire, a historical document and a masterpiece,’[13] has been hidden from history. An obscene takedown of all that cankered in 80s Britain, its glorious horn section, leering vocals and grody, Ben Elton-esque sex paranoia have aged with surprising grace. It drove forth on consumerism - a historically unprecedented multiple millions of pre-orders were registered before its release - even as its satire was registered against the same Boomer craze. Perhaps, at last, the greatest palace had hulked from the creative fringes into material reality. A pair of singles blazed with the fervour of the repressed. Relax flew from the shelves under a cloak of BBC censorship and Two Tribes snuck biting social criticism into a 3-minute synth-bedded pop anthem. All signs pointed away from antiquity towards an era-defining album that might hold cultural relevance for decades to come. Perhaps, the thirsty, Relaxed millions believed, genius was finally to reach earth un-Porlocked. Perhaps here was an album sufficiently gilded and vermillion to resurrect ‘symphony and song’ for a right-wing pharmaceutical post-paradise. Upon arrival, however, it became clear that the beast had lumbered free from somewhere very distant to the sparking creative fringes. A hulking wreck of indulgence supported by spaces between spaces had emerged from either of Holly Johnson’s misaligned mind’s eyes and, though merit resides in its preposterous structure, it arrived much as a deceased whale might upon a beach. The musicians whom liner notes claim recorded the work fell victim to their frontman’s paradomania: Holly excised their work to the tune of session musicians or, often, himself. Nor are you to be served your disparagement with any ease. Behind a teasing 1-minute–30 of operatic rise and fall sits the track to which Relax and Two Tribes had built. An underlying jungle soundscape plays across dual stereo planes as we are treated to a Kane-parallel: the ‘world is my oyster’. Ever-changing social priorities have rewritten the poet’s role in life’s list of dramatis personae once again. Now, as before, he is master of the immaterial, but in a post-oil crisis reality his object is to hold in rapture the shimmering currents of cultural dominance. Millions of pre-orders cannot lie: the shaman/merchant/poet/reporter is reborn as pop culture icon primed to print money and feature on MTV. The world is Holly Johnson’s oyster, as far as he can tell, as long as that world extends vaguely to the borders of the Anglosphere and does not include raising real-life palaces from the ground. ‘…Did Kublai Khan in Xanadu / a pleasuredome e-RECT!’ the gleeful vocalist finally exclaims, throwing such schoolboy force into the last syllable that it cracked his voice and sent shivers down the spines of teenagers giggling across the country. By now the bassline has set itself into high groove. A staggering 13 minutes long, the track is so utterly symptomatic of the album that I’m surprised they didn’t name the one after the other. The irresistible synths are pushing in waves across the ears. With arrogance sneering forth from every high-strung syllable the record makes every attempt to alienate the listener. The undercurrent of low-frequency backing vocals wrestle control of the track’s flow and resound like so many tribal drummers beating out a primal rhythm. With wanton disregard for widely accepted norms, the rule of prog is imported into a pop setting and launched upon an unsuspecting audience. Not only that, but prog’s foggily distant cousin has been invited to the launch party - and he’s a 17th century Romantic. Pleasuredome dares to challenge the cultural literacy of its audience even as it indulges their basest desires, managing to rest in that Orphean gully of antinomy which imprisons many less capable works. At once both attempted art and wilful trash; a work of great import whirled through the wry, eddying fancies of its creator. Like Ser before him, Johnson fell victim to the greatest palace and its cocaine charms - only to find the person from Porlock blocking his path. How much he owes to Marco Polo is a question which can never find an answer. How much his self-obsessed superiority, his message and his success owe to Coleridge, to Marco Polo, to Citizen Kane, to Rush and to Olivia Newton John in one of history’s most egregious cinematic atrocities is no question at all: his explosion of preposterous excess, didacticism and ostensible immortality is constructed over it all. Ever the consummate pop theorist, our seafood allusionist had assimilated the present, the past and his vision for the future. Pleasuredome is a musical Xanadu, and from its own paradise it cannot escape.

Johnson seen here masking his biting anti-Thatcherism

Johnson seen here masking his biting anti-Thatcherism

The other week a mutual acquaintance asked why vampires sparkle. Naturally I knew which pop culture object was being referred to, but my overweening pride made feigning ignorance unavoidable. ‘In what context?’ I asked. ‘In a Western context,’ they replied, somewhat puzzled. ‘In a Wes…’ I trailed off, eyes narrowed against the sudden about-face in expectation. When finally I crested the wave of confusion it was to one of those in-context realisations especially warm because they confirm your beliefs. Based on their reading of the Meyer novels, my acquaintance had extrapolated that vampires must sparkle generally in the Western tradition. Far from ignorant, the assumption was built on watertight logic, for in storytelling there is almost nothing without link to some tradition, superstition or precedent. As our greatest poet propounded, ‘What’s past is prologue’[14] - and a great poet should know. Far from being insulting to the artist, uncovering and discussing the collage of ages that resides in his genome is a process actively laudatory. For Polo’s imaginings to have fired Coleridge’s own, for his poem to have supercharged minds across the boundaries of time and space is a notion of heady beauty, encompassing in a single image all the interlocking collaborative mechanics of this fractious species. Perhaps the only Xanadu golden enough to be the greatest is our very own human collective.

N.B. From my research after the fact, it would appear that Stephenie Meyer’s vampires sparkle simply because she decided they would.


  1. Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Welcome to the Pleasuredome  ↩

  2. Polo, Marco, and Manuel Komroff. The Travels of Marco Polo: Liveright Pub. Corp., 2002.  ↩

  3. See: Durkheim Émile, et al. The Rules of Sociological Method: and Selected Texts on Sociology and Its Method. Free Press, 2014: thinking ‘sociologically’; Mauss, Marcel, and Ian Cunnison. The Gift … Translated by Ian Cunnison, Etc. (Reprinted.). Cohen & West, 1970. ‘conscious personality,’ ‘category of self’.  ↩

  4. Haeger, John W. (1978). “Marco Polo in China? Problems with Internal Evidence”. Bulletin of Sung and Yüan Studies.  ↩

  5. Haw, Stephen G. Marco Polo’s China: A Venetian in the Realm of Khubilai Khan. Routledge. p. 1.  ↩

  6. Wood, Frances. Did Marco Polo Go to China? Westview Press, 2010.  ↩

  7. Squires, Nick. “Historians Cast Doubt on the Story of Marco Polo’s Travels in China | Latest News & Updates at Daily News & Analysis.” Dna, Sept. 2011, www.dnaindia.com/scitech/report-historians-cast-doubt-on-the-story-of-marco-polo-s-travels-in-china–1574335.  ↩

  8. Coleridge quoted from Youngquist, Paul. Monstrosities: Bodies and British Romanticism. University of Minnesota Press, 2003. P.99  ↩

  9. See Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Christabel, Kubla Khan, and the Pains of Sleep, 2nd edition, William Bulmer, London, 1816. Reproduced in The Complete Poems, ed. William Keach, Penguin Books, 2004.  ↩

  10. See: Lewis, Sinclair, and J.H Pauls. Babbit. Van Holkema & Warendorf, 1924.  ↩

  11. “Features | Anniversary | 25 Years On: Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s Welcome To The Pleasuredome.” The Quietus, thequietus.com/articles/04077-frankie-goes-to-hollywood-welcome-to-the-pleasuredome–20th-anniversary.  ↩

  12. Ned Raggett, Allmusic  ↩

  13. “Features | Anniversary | 25 Years On: Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s Welcome To The Pleasuredome.” The Quietus, thequietus.com/articles/04077-frankie-goes-to-hollywood-welcome-to-the-pleasuredome–20th-anniversary  ↩

  14. Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. Penguin Books, 2001. P.31  ↩


  1. Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Welcome to the Pleasuredome  ↩

  2. Polo, Marco, and Manuel Komroff. The Travels of Marco Polo: Liveright Pub. Corp., 2002.  ↩

  3. See: Durkheim Émile, et al. The Rules of Sociological Method: and Selected Texts on Sociology and Its Method. Free Press, 2014: thinking ‘sociologically’; Mauss, Marcel, and Ian Cunnison. The Gift … Translated by Ian Cunnison, Etc. (Reprinted.). Cohen & West, 1970. ‘conscious personality,’ ‘category of self’.  ↩

  4. Haeger, John W. (1978). “Marco Polo in China? Problems with Internal Evidence”. Bulletin of Sung and Yüan Studies.  ↩

  5. Haw, Stephen G. Marco Polo’s China: A Venetian in the Realm of Khubilai Khan. Routledge. p. 1.  ↩

  6. Wood, Frances. Did Marco Polo Go to China? Westview Press, 2010.  ↩

  7. Squires, Nick. “Historians Cast Doubt on the Story of Marco Polo’s Travels in China | Latest News & Updates at Daily News & Analysis.” Dna, Sept. 2011, www.dnaindia.com/scitech/report-historians-cast-doubt-on-the-story-of-marco-polo-s-travels-in-china–1574335.  ↩

  8. Coleridge quoted from Youngquist, Paul. Monstrosities: Bodies and British Romanticism. University of Minnesota Press, 2003. P.99  ↩

  9. See Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Christabel, Kubla Khan, and the Pains of Sleep, 2nd edition, William Bulmer, London, 1816. Reproduced in The Complete Poems, ed. William Keach, Penguin Books, 2004.  ↩

  10. See: Lewis, Sinclair, and J.H Pauls. Babbit. Van Holkema & Warendorf, 1924.  ↩

  11. “Features | Anniversary | 25 Years On: Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s Welcome To The Pleasuredome.” The Quietus, thequietus.com/articles/04077-frankie-goes-to-hollywood-welcome-to-the-pleasuredome–20th-anniversary.  ↩

  12. Ned Raggett, Allmusic  ↩

  13. “Features | Anniversary | 25 Years On: Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s Welcome To The Pleasuredome.” The Quietus, thequietus.com/articles/04077-frankie-goes-to-hollywood-welcome-to-the-pleasuredome–20th-anniversary  ↩

  14. Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. Penguin Books, 2001. P.31  ↩

Works Cited:

Chang, Na. “Marco Polo Was in China: New Evidence from Currencies, Salts and Revenues.” Reviews in History, 2014, doi:10.14296/rih/2014/1667.

Durkheim Émile, et al. The Rules of Sociological Method: and Selected Texts on Sociology and Its Method. Free Press, 2014.

“Features | Anniversary | 25 Years On: Frankie Goes To Hollywood's Welcome To The Pleasuredome.” The Quietus, thequietus.com/articles/04077-frankie-goes-to-hollywood-welcome-to-the-pleasuredome-20th-anniversary.

Gungwu, Wang, and John Winthrop Haeger. “Crisis and Prosperity in Sung China.” Pacific Affairs, vol. 50, no. 3, 1977, p. 496., doi:10.2307/2757183.

Lewis, Sinclair, and J.H Pauls. Babbit. Van Holkema & Warendorf, 1924.

Mauss, Marcel, and Ian Cunnison. The Gift ... Translated by Ian Cunnison, Etc. (Reprinted.). Cohen & West, 1970.

Polo, Marco, et al. The Travels of Marco Polo. Sterling Pub., 2012.

Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. Penguin Books, 2001.

Squires, Nick. “Historians Cast Doubt on the Story of Marco Polo's Travels in China | Latest News & Updates at Daily News & Analysis.” Dna, Sept. 2011, www.dnaindia.com/scitech/report-historians-cast-doubt-on-the-story-of-marco-polo-s-travels-in-china-1574335.

Vogel, Hans Ulrich. Marco Polo Was in China: New Evidence from Currencies, Salts and Revenues. Brill, 2013.

Wood, Frances. Did Marco Polo Go to China? Westview Press, 2010.

Youngquist, Paul. Monstrosities: Bodies and British Romanticism. University of Minnesota Press, 2003.

 

The Bacchanalia of Belonging: Bukowski's Fun Fun Fun

The Bacchanalia of Belonging: Bukowski's Fun Fun Fun

Political Charleatans: <i>Arcana Imperii</i> and Internecine Inevitability

Political Charleatans: Arcana Imperii and Internecine Inevitability