Trump’s Pleasure Dome (with Caves of Ice)

Trump Tower in Chicago

Trump Tower in Chicago

Monday

I can think of few political slogans that capture the heart of a presidential campaign as well as “build that wall.” While the literal wall that Donald Trump wants to build would supposedly keep undocumented workers out of the country, the slogan also works metaphorically. It is a wall between “us” and “them,” with “us” as whites and “them” as people of color. There’s a reason why Trump’s crowds chant it. Increasingly, so do race-baiting students, in class and at sporting events.

I still think the best literary exploration of walls is Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (see my post on that here), but another powerful meditation on “walls and towers” is Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan.” The poem is particularly applicable to Trump as Kubla Khan is also a builder of impressive buildings, the “stately pleasure-dome” being his version of Trump Tower.

Kubla Khan’s decision to wall in the magnificent gardens and ancient forests appears to be a hubristic assertion of control:

So twice five miles of fertile ground 
With walls and towers were girdled round; 
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills, 
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree; 
And here were forests ancient as the hills, 
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery. 

It becomes clear, however, that Kubla Khan doesn’t actually control the gardens and forests. To psychologize using Trump, the need to dominate reveals an underlying insecurity, as do boasts of manly prowess. Kubla Khan’s walls and towers are nothing compared to “that deep romantic chasm” and its “mighty fountain.”

But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced:
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail:
And mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river. 

The river has the potency that Trump claims for himself. But because Kubla Khan has sought to assert his dominance, the potential life affirming forces of nature turn sterile. The sunny pleasure dome, for all its appearance of solidity and triumph, is undercut by the waves and the lifeless ocean/caves of ice that underlie it.

Put in Freudian terms, Khan has sought to impose his will by repressing the forces of the unconscious, and the result is sterility and psychosis:

Five miles meandering with a mazy motion
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean;
And ’mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war! 

The more Donald Trump tries to bully and subdue, the more all becomes dead and corrupt. Trump Tower may appear as an object of desire, but at its core are sterile caves of ice.

   The shadow of the dome of pleasure 
   Floated midway on the waves; 
   Where was heard the mingled measure 
   From the fountain and the caves. 
It was a miracle of rare device, 
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice! 

Put another way (to quote from Bob Dylan), Trump “took whatever he wanted to and he laid it all to waste.”

The poem ends with the poet trying to articulate the contradiction that he sees, an apparently powerful figure who is, at his core, empty. I don’t know if it will take a poet with flashing eyes and floating hair to expose the Trump’s hollow core, but somebody needs to do it fast.

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  • I’ve been trying to figure out which class of humans does the most damage to humans. It’s not necessarily the empty-headed ones like Kubla Kahn. It’s politicians. They have caused millions of deaths, and in our time for example, 5 million orphans in Iraq. I think Wordsworth figured it out, and dear old Ez when he gave up Italian radio, and Byron (although he mostly blamed catastrophe on monarchs, who, of course preceded politicians as mass murderers.) Has any poet or thinker come up with an alternative to politicians? Alas, no……well, not yet…..so, let us go then, you and I, when the evening is spread out against the sky, like a hope etherised upon the table. And hope!

  • Robin

    We should applaud all those who step forward to take the heavy responsibility of public office and hold to account those who put self above country. My sense is that most politicians start off as idealists. Money, unfortunately, corrupts a number, which is why the Citizens United decision was so awful. And why we need public financing so that people aren’t beholden to lobbyists.


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