September 23: Happy Birthday, Kublai Khan!
Xanadu, poets, pop singers, and a day devoid of significance
From a Chinese emperor to Olivia Newton-John
If you are of a certain age, you will remember Olivia Newton-John singing Xanadu in one of the worst movies of the 80s. Xanadu, the movie, takes its name, incongruously, from one of the most famous poems in English language, Coleridge’s Kubla Khan (personally, I’d choose Olivia over Sam Taylor any day, but that’s the vagaries of taste for you). And both of them take their inspiration, ultimately, from Kublai Khan’s famed summer capital Xanadu (also Shangdu), described magnificently by the first notable Western traveller to China, the patron saint of long-haul tourism, the Venetian trader Marco Polo. And so we arrive at the man who built the first, the original, the true Xanadu, that dazzling capital of the East: the Mongol Emperor of China, Kublai Khan. And if you’re asking yourself why a site called Daily Philosophy would deal with a Chinese emperor, well, there are two answers.
The inspirational one is that everything in the universe is kind of connected and everything somehow helps to promote wisdom, which is, after all, what philosophy is about. I’m sure there is wisdom in entomology, as there probably even is in metaontology, even if it’s sometimes hard to find. The other, rather more truthful answer, is that I couldn’t find anyone even remotely connected to philosophy who’s been born on September 23. The day seems to be a bleak, featureless slab of useless time, as far as philosophers are concerned. So we can fill it with something lighter instead.
In a world where letter-writing has been replaced by social media updates, it is nice to see how people in old times communicated over the course of whole lifetimes, crossing boundaries of space and war in the process. For all lovers of the history of physics, these letters are funny, intimate and passionate, all at the same time. Affiliate link: if you buy through this link, Daily Philosophy will get a small commission at no cost to you. Thanks!
For instance, did you know that aforementioned Olivia Newton-John is the granddaughter of the famous physicist Max Born, one of the two people who claimed to have discovered the uncertainty principle in quantum mechanics? Today we tend to attribute the discovery to Werner Heisenberg, but Born spent much of his time complaining to his friend Albert Einstein (with whom he exchanged letters all his life) that the famous formula had actually been his idea. When he died, he made the point in an even less subtle way by having the formula written onto his gravestone.
And so, from Kublai Khan we come to Marco Polo and Coleridge, to Einstein and Max Born and the contested formula at the heart of modern physics, and from there to Max Born’s granddaughter Olivia and her charming song Xanadu, which refers back to Coleridge’s poem and to Kublai Khan’s splendid summer palace, thus elegantly closing the circle of references. And this should be enough excitement for a day so empty of significance as September the 23rd.
Happy Birthday, Kublai Khan!