Kublah Khan and the Scientific Method

by A. F van der Meijden

copyright 7.12.05   3082 words.

The theme of this paper will be that method and the use of evidence varies by context. This cross compares a poem with science to show ideas can be pickled in various modes. Coleridge's Kublah Khan is descriptive, using historical references as done by antiquarians, yet it is about science. Antiquity did not write up its science, it was thought of as a craft, taught by apprenticeships. Nor do we find much of specialisation in myths and epics. A similar example is when German linguists started to translate Sanscrit and finding much incomprehensible dismissed it as mythical nonsense, confusing mysticism with mystification. Mystae means peerers into mysteries. Since then experts in various specialised fields have found much previously incomprehensible material which fits their own domain of knowledge. This has led to cross-synergy among specialised fields. One example is the Antikythera clock, found in 1901, left in a museum until studied by Derek J. de Solla Price, named as an an information scientist, which shows it to be a clock of time for various planets and stars. See: June 1959 Scientific American p.60-7 for a write-up. Called ooparts, for out of place artefacts. I contend Kublah Khan is such an oopart. Up to the age of print one could read up the entire knowledge of a period in a short time thus being a Renaissance style man.

Charles Fort told us that around 1850 AD, same date as the Education Act, prestigious journals stopped publishing antiquarian materials. The synchronistic connection between those two events comes as the start of an era of teaching "facts". Another such connection occurs as the break between myth and the arrival of monotheism by which Akhnaton, about 1250 BC, sought to impose the idea that one truth fits all as a retrieval of what was archaic even to him. He sought to refer the centre of our universe back to the sun. Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) can be thought of as the last of the antiquarians and the first romantic. He had inveterate curiosity and never finished anything as his mind forever found new connections between things. This, I suggest, is a typical feature of a creative mind which relies on how the unconscious operates to constantly update and maintain our world model.

"When Kubla Khan was first printed in 1816, it spawned powerful emotions deep ... Most of the poem was never written down, and Kubla Khan has forever been ...".

http://www.sesk.org/Aesthetics/Literature/English/Romantics/Coleridge/KublaKhan.htm  reports literary commonplace from STC's own statement that he was interrupted by a Man from Prufrock, which arose over much pejorative criticism resulting because people could not understand it so condemned his poem. Nevertheless it has been in continued focus of critical literary analysis. The poem was conceived in an opiate vision, which was a common soporific until about 1945 over our inability during WWII to find enough tranquillisers for the troops. That helped the rise of drug houses, like the arrival of the refrigerator spawned supermarkets. Wikipedia tells us that Xanadu or Shangdu (pinyin Chinese) was Kublah Khan's Summer Palace in inner Mongolia, about half the size of the Forbidden City in Beijing. Like all sacred buildings it was a square shaped plot of land with an outer and inner city with the Palace at its geographic centre. The layout of Solomon's Temple will serve as a typical model. Google has 1260 items with the aitch and 257,000 items without the aitch. I keep the aitch because the a in Kublah is long and the rhythm more euphonious.

I append the poem at the end. The poem is impossible to understand without the context from which it derives. That context occurs as to how antiquity mapped the earth. When Napoleon visited the Pyramid of Cheops it was to find an accurate and general measure of the meter. Contrariwise antiquity knew that the earth has an irregular shape, called a geoid, which during its rotation humps several feet up and down by its axis of spin, being basked by the sun, as well as stretches longitudinally. It also collects cosmic dust up to meteors from its environment that over the period of its existence comes to a large amount. So it does not have a constant shape in both space and time. The Egyptians, being the most commented on culture, I use to name a type example of what nowadays is accepted as an earth global approach to this issue of accuracy today again replaced by a guesstimate, from an intermediary phase of "the exact value".

I shall follow the advice of Livio Catullo Stecchini, metrologist, who adopts an utterly pedestrian style, avoiding, as I will too, metaphysics and theory that accrues on what was an engineer's approach to the problem for which meta-physics resembles the warts on a warthog, the protective mimicry on certain shellfish, a monkey tree and a Freudian projection of our ideas. In essence a theory is a metaphysical context or trope composed of some observables, padded out by speculative or hypothetical facts expected or hoped to be "proven" by further testing. This never happens as by the time enough anomalies or discrepancies accrue there is material for a new theory. I refer the reader to T.S. Kuhn and followups who opened this can of worms. A trope names a metaphoric container or model, nowadays called a paradigm. Genesis serves as a nice example in its seven days of Creation about how to choose a metaphor by how this follows our game of is it mineral, vegetable, animals, and human as the four         corners of its universe not to ignore three added metaphysicals as plasma, aether and let us called it the void or plenum. A cloud makes an example of a plasma formed in the air. It does not have to be a regular shape as we can see from galactic formations. My contention here is that given evidential rules vary by context so will method. I 'define' the scientific method as self correcting, transmitted experience

The method used by antiquity consists of using pre-dawn heliacal rising stars and planets. With moonlight we can see linear light patterns, whereas the sun does no such thing. To do this during daylight one has to dig tunnels at a correct angle to observe a transit of a heavenly body. On a 144 acre plot a number of such lines were drawn in order to derive a centre, not neccesarily in the centre of that square,  called a navel of the universe, for a strictly locally produced system of measures. The Egyptians used the rising of Sirius to herald the arrival of spring when the Nile floods its borders. From that a triple schema of references results, still found in astrology and feng shui. The Zodiac, our galaxy, revolves around an unstable centre, being in turn affected by other galaxies. In its turn this charming dance decentres the sun's centre of gravity from its geometric centre and affects both the bouncing around of earth round the sun and its spin. Recent observation now knows that our solar system contains some 20,000 odd objects ranging from small to large in orbits ranging between somewhat regular and highly irregular. Our day is slightly less than 24 hours which further varies by microseconds every day. The 144 acre plot is enshrined in pre-medieval Law as what a Church is alloted to build on.

It follows all this forces compromises that occupied millenia of refinement which led from a lunar  to a solar calendar. In fee simple there is no absolute centre nor an unarguable constant for our UNI-verse. Geometry can, by dropping perpendiculars from elected crossings, produce along the periphery of the square whatever size measures one elects consistent with longitude and latitude patches. The aim was to make measures of time, space, weight and volume mutually consistent. Plato in "Meno", makes Socrates explain what Aristotle later called the universal, as what applies consistently for every particular. Socrates called this feature 'virtue' (Egyptian ma'at) akin to what Keats called "Truth Beauty is and Beauty Truth, that's all ye need to know". In effect we need to know much more as Keats construed an intellectual truth only, still in vogue in math as beauty when everything fits neatly together like any work of art. The above paragraph also explains the relation of squaring the circle or adapting timed cycles to fixable measures. A piece of cake geometrically done by using Vaihinger's method of fictions, decimally (addicted to precision) the fictions peer out of the woodworks. The underlying idea to this method is that 'action at a distance' governs local events. The elementary datum used is that the sun's cycle traverses an equal distance in time whereas it makes a different length on earth by location. However, as it will, even the equal distance in time turns out to be a variable with limit parameters. No matter how parochially we begin the notion of consistency ends up in the galactic.

Without first electing a fictional schema, made up of assumptions, we cannot proceed to impose any kind of order. A paradigm names a specific set of assumptions, adopted as a belief that works in an engineer's sense. The universe is chaotic, as is any system, because it constantly re-adjusts itself to every action of every part. Not even our best computer can model the behaviour of every object in our solar system. Will a meteor or whatever, graze or hit the earth? That depends on angle, speed, relative to respective E.M. fields involved which may either hit or deflect that object and thereby altering its orbit, speed and angle to earth as well as earth itself or even cause it to break up. Indeed the cosmic mill grinds finer than dust. The Victorian dominance of precision has failed. So has Akhenaton's attempt to force us into one theory fits all. The sun wobbles on its own centre, not being a perfect sphere either. Since nowadays we are taught the facts without being told how it is being propped up by fictions we are bereft of notions about how to impose order on our universe since that order is meta-physical. Our body is not equipped to tackle relations whereas our mind cannot function without. Reshuffling our well known, acceptable assumptions won't work. 

Now somewhat armed with a somewhat fuzzy model of antiquity's method, gleaned from many sources, we can now read Kublah Khan knowing that one can hardly expect to interpret this poem, supposedly literary, without a grasp of how science works. The version presented is proofed by the 1927 edition of the original, autumn of 1797 and republished in 1816, 1828, 1829, 1834. Coleridge did not have enough science  which was at his time still in progress, at least, as we know it now. The data which have come to light since then may help. My abstraction has to be tentative, its completion requiring, as per usual, more research. It is easily obvious that even its typographic layout does not match its logical units. My surmise about the poem's incompleteness is that even Coleridge's overstuffed memory was unable to extract a clear pattern. This understandable when the method deployed was refined many times.

The original begins with shadows cast by the sun on the ground in front of one's cave, shifted into mounds with Maypoles on to to overcome the limit of 7km, being the edge of the world for a person standing up, to act as a clock by shadows cast. This continues until lastly the entire Galaxy is encompassed in the intent to find a fixed reference. The woman wailing for her demon lover is poetic personification of music portraying the irregularities of solar system behaviours by syncopation geometry can regularise. The sacred river is Greek Alpheus, which is a partly underground river, symbolic image of how this archaic knowhow went underground in Greece as occultism during the reign of Alexander. What Coleridge read was historicised data, in places pickled in pop imagery with additive biographical details. Opium induces visualisation. I shan't go into the vagaries of editors seeking the Ideal copy, though it is much the same in tenor as here written up. There is no such beast as an ideally perfect textus copy. Poets, like scientists, are inveterate tinkerers up into a perfection they never achieve.

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. 5

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, 10

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 15

    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 20

    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 25

    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 ! 30

    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, 40

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, 45

    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, 50

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 ! 55

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.

A later addendum is a kind of confessio amantis, quite curious in its way. Coleridge confesses his inability when he writes that "the visions will return", they did not but they do for us as we accumulate more data to decypher the riddle of antiquity. Inevitably his mind will have changed. The pool, as done over by Walther von der Vogelweide, tells us that a pebble thrown in it will produce waves. Patanjali tells us to use it by waiting for the mud to settle, mud meaning obscuring details. Coleridge here implies a scrying tool.

 Then all the charm

    Is broken--all that phantom-world so fair

    Vanishes, and a thousand circlets spread,

    And each mis-shape the other. Stay awile,

    Poor youth! who scarcely dar'st lift up thine eyes--

    The stream will soon renew its smoothness, soon

    The visions will return! And lo, he stays,

    And soon the fragments dim of lovely forms

    Come trembling back, unite, and now once more

    The pool becomes a mirror.


In a more enlarged time bound perspective of our knowledge that world model is indeed: "with ceaseless turmoil seething, As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,...". Chaitin and others tell us that our knowledge, language and culture is incomplete. Chaitin's best definition is: " "1:  Mathematics is the part of science you could continue to do if you woke up tomorrow and discovered the universe was gone." I do not know the author of this elegant definition put on the web by Dave Rusin.". Our exo-senses cannot sense relations that make patterns though our unconscious nor the universe can do without them. So there is a foundation to be dug up out of our intuition and unconscious mereological fashion. Relations are internally provable but cannot be made to 'perfectly' match the material world. The UNI-verse is a self-maintaining, self stabilising chaotic system. This points towards FTL as the only means explicable for this to happen.

Quantum Physics, so far, only points the way. If we remove its statistical metaphysics we arrive at an infinity of individually similar feedback loops that can, from point of origin (a) match our intent, (b) fail to do so by some other non-included event or (c) does not complete, or put logically, we can get the expected, an unexpected opposite or nothing seems to happen at all. This appears to imply that either the context is malconstrued or it is not. When it is not we may suspect action at a distance to affect events as a reasonable cause of malconstruction. We can construe this as a universal, which, if indeed it applies for all occasions, then that feedback loop is bi-directional, as it can only be so iff the universe is self stabilising. Traditional but non-standard theory suggests a non-detectable medium, affected by thought, perhaps it is thought, which enables that to happen. If so Coleridge's vision argues for an access mode he could not know about but which his unconscious incorporated. This stability is then a dynamic one in which yesterday is not necessarily like tomorrow. An easy image for this is walking. To walk we destabilise the body, lean forward, its angle deciding a speed, wile rhythmically preventing a fall with our legs, at a same time keeping this movement balanced turning corners, carrying a weight and all that. Such an action is, at a same time, both stable in time for the duration and unstable in space. By that the sense of squaring the circle comes up as making what is stable in time also stable in space by means of a Vaihinger fiction. By all this one may define myth and poetry as synchronistic data, pickled in significant images that transcend space and time rules of location, although, of course, not all poetry will meet that standard.