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November 22, 2017

Marco Polo in Xanadu and New York

On this day in 1324 Marco Polo died in Venice, at the age of seventy. The Travels of Marco Polo, dictated by Polo around 1300, several years after his return from decades in the land of Kublai Khan, became an influential book in Renaissance Europe. So dubious were some contemporaries of a vast and grandiose empire to the East that they published Polo's account as Il Milione, meaning "The Million Lies." Some modern scholars, suspicious of what isn't in the book -- any mention of tea, or foot-binding, or the Great Wall -- also wonder how reliable the Travels is, or if it is based on first-hand observation.

Whatever its weakness for caravan-stop gossip or hyperbole, Polo's book conveys his amazement at not just imperial ostentation but day-to-day living -- yurts, asbestos, paper money, even an efficient postal system. Here is his practical forewarning to other adventure capitalists who might find themselves on the Gobi Desert stretch of the Silk Road:
    When a man is riding through this desert by night and for some reason -- falling asleep or anything else -- he gets separated from his companions and wants to rejoin them, he hears spirit voices talking to him as if they were his companions, sometimes even calling him by name. Often these voices lure him away from the path and he never finds it again, and many travelers have got lost and died because of this.... Even by daylight men hear these spirit voices, and often you fancy you are listening to the strains of many instruments, especially drums, and the clash of arms. For this reason bands of travelers make a point of keeping very close together. Before they go to sleep they set up a sign pointing in the direction in which they have to travel, and round the necks of all their beasts they fasten little bells, so that by listening to the sound they may prevent them from straying off the path.
Five centuries after Polo's return, twenty-five-year-old Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote his "Kubla Khan" fragment. Coleridge was twenty-five, the same age that Polo was when he set out, but this was armchair-travelling, inspired by opium and a reading not of the Travels but of Purchas his Pilgrimage, a travel book written in the early 17th century. From one sentence there -- "Here the Khan Kubla commanded a palace to be built, and a stately garden thereunto" -- Coleridge fashioned one of the more famous openings in Romantic poetry:
    In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
    A stately pleasure-dome decree:
    Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
    Through caverns measureless to man
    Down to a sunless sea.....
A century after Coleridge, on this day in 1928, Eugene O'Neill's Marco Millions, a satiric condemnation of western materialism, opened on Broadway. It soon closed, and has not been much seen since, though the target has proved enduring -- just as O'Neill's "Epilogue" suggests:
    The play is over. The lights come up brilliantly in the theater. In an aisle seat in the first row a man rises, conceals a yawn in his palm, stretches his legs as if hey had become cramped by too long an evening, takes his hat from under the seat and starts to go out slowly with the others in the audience. But although there is nothing out of the ordinary in his actions, his appearance excites general comment and surprise for he is dressed as a Venetian merchant of the later Thirteenth Century. In fact, it is none other than Marco Polo himself....
Marco is briefly troubled by the challenge the play presents to his millions, but by the time his limousine is edging into traffic, he has regained "a satisfied sigh at the sheer comfort of it all."

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