Lord Elgin’s dream

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In his History of Persia and the Mongols, the 14th century Persian statesman and historian, Rashid-ed-Din, tells the story of how Kublai Khan, the Mongol ruler over China, had a vision of a palace in a dream. Waking up he decided to construct its material equivalent at his summer retreat in Chengde. This was the city Europeans knew as Xanadu.

In 1796 the English poet Samuel Coleridge took opium and dreamed of Kublai Khan’s palace. The poem he wrote about the place is a masterpiece of English Sturm und Drang. It’s images are violent, sexual and narcotic. The strange thing is that Coleridge didn’t know about Kublai Khan’s dream. The History of Persia and the Mongols was translated only in the middle of the 19th century.

Writing about this coincidence Jorge Luis Borges talks about the dream as eternal and the palace as temporal. Over time different people can participate in the same dreaming.

the similarity of the dreams hints of a plan; the enormous length of time involved reveals a superhuman executor… Such facts raise the possibility that this series of dreams and works has not yet ended. … Perhaps this series of dreams has no end, or perhaps the last will be the key… Perhaps an archetype not yet revealed to mankind, an eternal object, is gradually entering the world.

I know who the next dreamer was. I’m writing about him in my new book. It was James Bruce, the Eighth Lord of Elgin. He was a great fan of Coleridge’s and participated in his dreams of the exotic East. But Elgin was a vandal. He was responsible for burning down the Emperor’s palace on October 18, 1860.

This barbarian act made a joke out of the European plan to “civilize” the uncivilized Chinese. From the point of view of the dream, however, it might not have mattered. Elgin simply liberated the dream from its material foundations. Things last a short time but dreams go on for ever. The dream of the Emperor’s Palace is now waiting for its next dreamer.


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