Rosebuds and Sinuous Rills: The Romantic Fragment of Orientalism in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” and Citizen Kane by Orson Welles

March 13, 2019 by Essay Writer

The debate over the fragmentary nature of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan” has continued from the time the poem was written in 1797 to the present day. Some critics believe “Kubla Khan” to be a complete work in its totality, while others argue that it is merely an unfinished fragment, a curiosity. The reductionist view of “Kubla Khan” as an incomplete novelty does Coleridge grave disservice. On the other hand, Coleridge’s own description of his poem as a fragment, as well as the chaotic disconnectedness of the poem itself, makes it difficult to call the work finished in any conventional sense. Instead, “Kubla Khan” may represent the author’s own understanding of the mysterious and fractional world of the Orient. The Romantics were deeply fascinated with the Orient, and always depicted it as a dense and elusive myth rather than an actual location. The Western Romantics depicted Orientals as primitive, morally undeveloped, and changeless, but they were intensely drawn to the Orient precisely because it provided an alternative to the West. In this ‘otherizing’ of the Orient, Romantics fashioned a view of Orientals that mirrored their own culture, rather than basing their perceptions on any legitimate truth about the Orient. The Orient became the paradoxically attractive symbol of the darker, more sinister elements of Western society-a conflated fragment based upon Western projection and desire. The Orientalism evident in “Kubla Khan” is still relevant today as a lens through which to view Modern texts such as the film “Citizen Kane.” Modern interpretations of Orientalism have been expanded to include not just the racialized and different Other, but aspects of the Self as well.The fragmentation of the Orient is twofold. First, filtered through the subjective lens of Orientalism, Occidental knowledge of the Orient will always be incomplete. And secondly, though the Orientalist attempts to write about the Orient, he deliberately and conscious separates himself from it as well, so that he is inherently separated from the object of his text. Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” is a poetic incarnation if the Romantic Fragment, what E. S. Shaffer calls an “epic fragment.” In his poem, Coleridge includes a Preface titled “Of the Fragment of Kubla Khan.” The word “fragment” refers to the poem itself, which he considers a “psychological curiosity” rather than a finished work, but it also refers to Coleridge’s own inability to capture the entirety of the images which “rose up before him as things…without any consciousness of effort.” While asleep in an opium trance, Coleridge’s mind, as if possessed, composes for him “two or three hundred lines,” so that when he awakes, the poem exists already as a whole-“what had been originally, as it were, given to him.” His duty as a poet, therefore, is merely to recollect and record what was already a complete composition. However, the perfect vision which appears to the poet while he is unconscious mysteriously dissipates once he attempts to capture it, like the Fragment of which the Romantic Artist has a subconscious understanding but whose completion will invariably elude possibility. Just as the poet decrees and then creates the verses in his poem, so “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan/ a stately pleasure-dome decree.” Fred L. Milne states, “If indeed ‘Kubla Khan’ became…a poem about the creative process set in the general context of the mind and its activities, then where…is the creative power to be found? In the poem, that function is best fulfilled by Kubla Khan himself, for it is he alone who creates in the mind-landscape.” The Orientalist studies the Orient to distinguish himself from it, and his writings are the proof that he exists outside of his text. Coleridge enters the fantastical world of Xanadu but establishes within the poem’s first line that it is Kubla Khan the Muslim leader of the Mongol Empire, not Coleridge the Occidental poet. Coleridge is merely a visitor of a world already decreed for him; he consciously fragments himself from the subject of his work. The tone of the poem reflects its wonderstruck, disconcerted narrator, who finds himself in a bizarre and foreign land which fascinates him simply because he cannot fully comprehend it. The poem consists of images that emerge, and the reader is supposed to allow the imagery to speak for itself. Attempting to analyze or explain the outlandish and mystifying Oriental world would yield nothing in translation, for the rational Western observer cannot, by merit of his rationalism, understand the emotive, occultish, and spiritualist Orient. The “caverns measureless to man” reflect the immeasurability of the Xanadu’s chimerical scenery, and the poet’s continued use of contradictory language, like “sunny…caves of ice” and “I would build that dome in air,” calls to mind the difficulty that rational, deductive Western language encounters when endeavoring to describe the alien East. Occidental language must resort to using logically incomprehensible paradoxes to evoke the logically incomprehensible Orient. Kubla Kahn says he “would build that dome in air;” Coleridge the poet builds his own because he presupposes the symbolic meaning of the Asiatic images he represents. The England in which Coleridge lived had designated meanings for images like the Oriental harem, rife with women who play dulcimers, odalisques who wail for their demon lovers, and Abyssian virgins who sing of Paradise. The poem which arose under Coleridge’s eyelids in slumber was built in the air of his imagination. Despite its outlandish and extravagent images, the Western reader legitimizes this groundless work because he had already dismissed the Oriental as inherently different – and inferior to – the rational, virtuous European. Because the Oriental lived in a world completely of his own, and because such a world was by definition paradoxical to the principles of the West, Oriental images did not need to be understood or even tolerated by the West. Coleridge asks readers of “Kubla Khan” to act as spectators like himself rather than as participants. He invites readers into Xanadu by relying on the “air-built” clichés and conventions already a part of the Occidental vocabulary used to denote and signify the Orient. The use of paradoxical but corresponding opposites in his poetry is what Richard Harter Fogle calls the Romantic ‘picturesque,’ a combination of paradoxical images which resolve themselves through a process of signification that relies upon the mind of the reader-the interpreter of symbols. The paradoxical picturesque reappears in its modern form in Orson Welles’ seminal film Citizen Kane, which shows visual fragments of Charles Foster Kane’s life-from childhood until death-with the purpose of conveying a sense of his character to the audience. Of course, by the end of the film the moral of the story is that Kane’s life is still a mystery despite being played out in full on the silver screen, and that perhaps it is impossible for any person’s life to be fully explained. Thompson, the journalist who embarks on the quest to discover the meaning of “Rosebud,” concedes by the film’s end that he has failed to unlock the mystery. “Charles Foster Kane was a man who got everything he wanted, and then lost it. Maybe Rosebud was something he couldn’t get or something he lost, but it wouldn’t have explained anything. I don’t think any word explains a man’s life. No-I guess Rosebud is just a piece in a jigsaw puzzle-a missing piece.” Charles Kane is the American Kubla Khan, a man with the power to control public opinion through his empire of newspapers, and just like the Khan in Coleridge’s poem, the Kane in Welles’ film is shrouded in mystery and contradiction. Kane is a bundle of binary oppositions: he is a capitalist tycoon who monopolizes the newspaper industry while fighting to bust the monopolies of big businesses, a steadfast champion of liberty and progressivism who feels it is his duty to control the masses through propagandist journalism, a man who did not know the meaning of love but above all wanted to be loved by others. The movie conveys Kane’s persona through the juxtaposition of opposing images, similar to the way Coleridge conveys Xanadu. The Romantic Fragment also appears in Citizen Kane, in both senses as it appears in “Kubla Khan.” First, the movie makes a point of showing the impossibility of ever truly knowing Charles Kane because his life is shown to us through the fragmented images of others’ recollections. He is brought back to life through the memories and accounts of his contemporaries, but their reports are deeply influenced by their personal experiences and the reliability of their narratives is questionable. Citizen Kane is also fragmented in the second sense, in its fragmentation and distinction between viewer and subject. Like the reader of “Kubla Khan,” the viewer of Citizen Kane is a spectator rather than a participant. Compounding this distinction is the fact that the character of Kane is meant to be distinguished by his difference from the viewer, rather than his similarity. Kane is an anomaly, a man who led an extraordinary life and who provided no explanation or justification for any of his actions. Viewers are not meant to relate to Kane; rather, they are supposed to relate to those characters in the movie who recall Kane with a sense of puzzled bewilderment. Like those characters, the viewer is meant to be left in the dark. Citizen Kane opens with the camera focusing in on dark, smoky, and shrouded shots of Xanadu, and the movie ends with the same sequence of shots in reverse, as the camera pans out away from Xanadu. The movie comes full circle, and the viewer ends up in – literally – the same place.It is not surprising that the same Oriental elements that evoked Kubla Khan in Coleridge’s poem resurface in different guises in Modern works such as Citizen Kane. Orientalism more accurately reflects the dominant culture’s own psychology than it does any actual Oriental cultural or geopolitical awareness. Orientalism is a fragmented concept, a conflated grouping of otherized traits into an “ism” with its locus in the East, a place that Ezra Pound called a vortex of epiphany and which T. S. Elliot associated with hope, peace, and sympathy. As long as it exists as a Romantic Fragment, a concept intended to assume the unknowability of all things, it will continue to be conventional ‘Orientalism’ as we know it. If the Orient remains a myth rather than a place, the West will continue to maintain a sense of false supremacy through the subjugating attitude fortified by a view of the Other as a mirror of the undesirable, dark, or taboo aspects of the Self. Orientalism is indeed an epic fragment-one that must be repaired, bridged, and closed before it can disappear.

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