Monday, April 28, 2014

X: Xanaduism, Xenia, and Xenophanic #AtoZChallenge

X-1: Xanaduism and the Utopian Ideal:

I'm looking for a utopia. Perhaps the best place to search is Xanadu, which is the mythic place Samuel Taylor Coleridge describes in "Kubla Kahn"

In Xanadu did Kubla Kahn 
Astately pleasure dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
     Down to a sunless sea....

In the utopia Coleridge imagines, flowers bloom, trees emit fragrant scents. But as is often the case with utopias, imagined or otherwise, a dystopia lurks. In Coleridge's imagination, Kubla hears the echo of war.

Coleridge imagines building the pleasure dome in the air and ends the poem 

For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise. 

I stopped trying to understand "Kubla Kahn" years ago and instead read it in the moment. I tell students this is my suggestion for them, too. I just can't worry about what an unfinished masterpiece means. The romanic idea is enough to create a utopian moment for me. 

Xanaduism, a literary term I just learned, asks: "What is the source for a work of imaginative literature?" The source of xanaduism is a 1927 book by John Livingston Lowes titled The Road to Xanadu. I suspect this is at least in part because academics have had such vigorous debates about the poem for over a hundred years, and Lowes seeks to answer the seemingly unanswerable question: What is Coleridge's source for "Kubla Kahn?"

Yosemite National Park
X-2: Xenia, a Traveler's Utopia: 

What if we lived in a world in which travelers were welcomed into our homes without question? Would we willingly welcome strangers without concern for our own safety? Could travelers count on us to protect and provide for them along their journey? 

Xenia existed in the world of Ancient Greece and in other classical cultures. Simply, in a world without Hilton, Sheraton, Weston, etc. travelers relied on the largesse of strangers as they traveled. This meant that on one's journey, one had a reasonable expectation that strangers along our route would provide food, shelter, and provisions to help weary travelers. Hosts literally had the responsibility to provide for the safety and comfort of travelers. These Laws of Hospitality incurred Zeus's (Jupiter in the Roman) wrath when broken. 

I like to teach students about Xenia when I teach classic texts such as The Odyssey, The Epic of Beowulf, The Canterbury Tales, etc. I don't know the extent to which xenia existed in Anglo-Saxon culture. The question, How did we go from xenia to xenophobia? is one I want to explore. 

In my utopia, we'd have more xenia and a lot less xenophobia.

X-3: Xenophanic Poets and the Rise of Satire:

Satire seeks to criticize in order to reform. Thus, I think of xenophanic poets as those who seek a utopia. Dr. L. Kip Wheeler, whose website of literary terms is a go-to for me, defines xenophanic thusly: "This adjective refers to itinerant poets who make use of satire and witticism."

My passion for modern satire began when "Saturday Night Live" debuted, but my literary love of satire might have begun when I met Jonathan Swift and his contemporaries. John Dryden's "Mac Flecknoe" is one of my favorite xenophanic poems. 

In "Mac Flecnoe" Dryden takes aim at a poet he identifies only as T.S. Here are a few of my favorite lines from the poem:

Shadwell alone my perfect image bears,
Mature in dullness from his tender years.
Shadwell alone, of all my sons, is he
Who stands confirm'd in full stupidity.
The rest to some faint meaning make pretense, 
But Shadwell never deviates into sense.
Some beams of wit on other souls may fall,
Srike through and make a lucid interval; 
But Shadwell's genuine night admits no ray,
His rising fogs prevail upon the day:
Besides his goodly fabric fills the eye, 
And seems design'd for thoughtless majesty: 

Imagine the name Shadwell replaced by Christie or G. W. Bush. Dryden seems very relevant when the character names change. 

When we study satire in my classes, I share satire from popular culture, such as "The Colbert Raport," "The Daily Show," "Saturday Night Live," The Onion, and/or "The Borowitz Report." Of course, these satirists and the issues they target offer a nice segue into the classic satirists, including Chaucer, Mark Twain, Joseph Heller, and others. 

In the dystopia my students often call school, xenophanic poets and satirists offer a little utopian vision. 


  1. Xanaduism is such a great word. I had not heard it before. Good stuff.

    1. The term was new to me, too. I try not to get too hung up on lit terms in my classes, but these three I really like.

  2. Xcellent word choices for such a difficult letter. I found your description of the meaning of Xenia really interesting. It reminded me of a story my parents tell of when as students they hitch-hiked in southern France and were offered one day a lift in a Rolls-Royce by an elderly lady who offered them a free meal and a night's stay in her beautiful villa. The kindness of strangers to travellers existed it would appear well into the 20th century!

    1. Love the story. Of course, there are wonderful examples of strangers aiding travelers and others, but we don't have quite the same code as so long ago.

    2. The Greeks still take hospitality seriously even if not as lavishly as offering a night's rest. Local water and a teaspoon of jam.

  3. We Texans are inclined to think TeXenia is alive and well in our Utopian State....after all we are know for our Southern Hospitality. A very interesting and literary look into these three X words. Well done. Thanks for stopping by...nice to meet you.
    Sue at CollectInTexas Gal