Xanadu, GPT, and Beyond: An adventure of the mind

Cross posted from New Savanna.

I’ve posted a new working paper. Title above; links, abstract, table of contents, and introductory material below.

Download at:

Academia: https://​​www.academia.edu/​​106001453/​​Xanadu_GPT_and_Beyond_An_adventure_of_the_mind

SSRN: https://​​ssrn.com/​​abstract=4553351

ResearchGate: https://​​www.researchgate.net/​​publication/​​373433939_Xanadu_GPT_and_Beyond_An_adventure_of_the_mind

Abstract: This article recounts an intellectual journey that began in curiosity about the structure of Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” in the late 1960s and has led to an interest in large language models at the present time. A close analysis of the poem revealed its two parts each to have a nested structure (think of a matryoshka doll) that suggested the operation of an underlying computational process (nested loops). That led to the study of computational linguistics (semantic networks), followed by neuroscience (Karl Pribram’s neural holography), and cultural evolution. In the 2010s I began following work digital humans had been doing with machine learning. When GPT-3 was released in 2020 I was ready, though it took me awhile to establish a link, however tentative, between that conceptual universe and that of “Kubla Khan.”

Encountering Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” 3
Romantic states of consciousness 3
Matryoshka dolls and the escape from Xanadu 5
Semantic networks and a Shakespeare sonnet 8
Karl Pribram, neural holography, and the brain 10
The wandering years 11
Through GPT to the future 13
Mind and world in text 15
The Text of “Kubla Khan,” including Coleridge’s prefatory note 17
A note about the cover image 19

Encountering Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan”

I became hooked on Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” in the Spring of 1969, my last semester as an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins. Three years later “Kubla Khan” had become the standard against which I measured my understanding of the human mind. That is why I am telling a story about how my interest in the mind has evolved through “Kubla Khan” to include, most recently, ChatGPT. Strange as it may seem, that poem is the vehicle through which I am coming to terms with this new technology and arriving at a sense of its potential.

There is a sense in which the story of that great poem can be traced back to the 11th century invasion of Britain by the Norman French, for that culture-crossing is what gave rise to the English language. A century or so later that story encountered a tale born of an encounter between an Italian merchant, Marco Polo, and a Mongolian warlord, Kubla Khan, which, when enlivened by the East India Company’s trade in opium, set fire to the mind of Samuel Taylor Coleridge in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. We need not trace that trajectory in any detail. I mention it only to give a sense of the scope of this 36-line poem, which is one of the best-known poems in the English language, and is perhaps unique in the annals of Western literature. It has made its mark on popular culture, from Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, where it names Kane’s estate, Xanadu, thereby establishing the matrix for the whole film, to a hit song and film by Olivia Newton-John, Xanadu, subsequently made into a Broadway musical. It even provided that most vulgar of real-estate barons, Donald Trump, with the name for the nightclub, Xanadu, in his now defunct Atlantic City casino.

Romantic states of consciousness

I may well have read the poem prior to taking Romantic Literature with Professor Earl Wasserman in 1968-1969. But I have no memory of that. Though we didn’t study Coleridge until the second semester, it is probably best if I start my story with the first semester.

The course started with Keats. I decided to write my paper about a minor poem, “To–[Fanny Brawne],” and had delayed writing until the night before it was due. I was tired and my mind snapped. All of a sudden, I was typing a passage from one of Keats’ letters to Fanny, but I experienced the act of typing as though the words were my own. When I finished that passage, my mind was astir and found its way to the second stanza of “Ode on a Grecian Urn” – you know “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard Are sweeter...” I read those words as though they were my own.

I finished the paper, turned it in, got a grade, and...

I had a problem: What was that!? I didn’t know. But this was the 1960s and altered states of consciousness were all the rage, drug induced, but also meditation, and now it seems, the influence of late-night poetry on a tired mind.

Next up: Percy Bysshe Shelley, he who had declared poets to be “the unacknowledged Legislators of the world.” Again, I delayed writing my paper until the last minute. I was tired. The damned paper wrote itself, through me. But I didn’t experience anything of Shelley’s as though I had written it. It was different from the experience I had writing about Keats. The words just lined themselves up, one after the other and flowed down my arms, through my fingers, from the typewriter and onto the page. It was easy. No sweat. It was a good paper too.

Wordsworth was up in the Spring semester. That was the best paper I’d written as an undergraduate. Wasserman remarked that it “was a mature contemplation of the poem” – though I forget just what poem it was. There were no mental hijinks. I wrote it with the standard task-assemblage of a sentence or three here, a paragraph there, pace the room a bit, make a note or three, look up something, back to the typewriter, rinse, repeat, and so forth....it’s done.

And so it went with my “Kubla Khan” paper. The poem itself presents a number of problems. The first is: What is it about? There is no narrative. It has often been dismissed as word music. Word music it is, but that is no ground for dismissal.

Then we have Coleridge’s preface. He said the poem was incomplete. He had become lost in an opium reverie when two or three hundred lines came to him – “all the images rose up … as things, with a parallel production of the correspondent expressions, without any sensation or consciousness of effort” – which was dashed when he was interrupted by a man from Porlock. When the Porlockian had gone, so had those two or three hundred lines. All that was left were the 54 lines of this, one of the most extraordinary poems in the world. In fact, nothing is obviously missing. If it weren’t for that preface, no one would even suspect that the poem was incomplete.

Critics have had various ways of dealing with the disparity between the poem itself and Coleridge’s claim. I invented another solution to the problem. It is easy and natural to interpret the second part of the poem as asserting that the poem is incomplete (I’ve appended a complete text to the end of this essay). The speaker says “Could I revive within me” (l. 42), clearly implying that he can’t, but if he could he would “build that dome in air” (p. 46). The dome is assumed to be Kubla’s pleasure-dome from the first part and is here being used as figure for the poem itself. That’s a perfectly respectable reading of those lines.

I pushed it a step further. I asserted that the poem paradoxically completes itself by asserting that it is incomplete. That kind of reading has it all. The wealthy English of Coleridge’s time were fond of placing newly built but incomplete or dilapidated structures in their gardens – “follies” they were called. An exquisitely dilapidated poem fit right in with that aesthetic. Moreover, such paradoxical readings fit right in with the rising tide of structuralist, post-structuralist and deconstructionist readings in American literary criticism. Despite all that that, Wasserman, who was more traditional in his conceptual leanings, Wasserman loved it.

A note about the image

The portrait of “Kubla Khan” was made by Araniko, a Nepalese artist, shortly after Kubla’s death in 1294. The image is from Wikimedia Commons and is in the public domain.

Araniko: https://​​en.wikipedia.org/​​wiki/​​Araniko.
Image: https://​​commons.wikimedia.org/​​w/​​index.php?curid=4126240.

I have overlaid it with an image I made in MacPaint on a Classic Macintosh in 1985.

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