Sunday 10 February 2013

Ivory Towers

Unpacking cases of books prompts gloomy reflections about the poets I haven't read, and will never get around to reading; then of those poems I suppose I must have read many years ago, but have now entirely forgotten - Dryden's Absalom and Achitophel, say, which squats there on the top shelf, gazing down at me reproachfully. Who are the poets I haven't read yet, or even heard of? Where to begin? And how long have I got? 

Of course it's never been easier to catch up, what with online resources and specialist websites and even a few remaining bookshops and libraries, although I get the impression that reading serious poetry (and you'll know what I mean by that) is these days rather infra dig. It goes against the commercial and consumerist thrust of our times. More people, one suspects, write poetry than read it, and either activity is seen as an ivory tower pursuit, and who in their right minds wants to live in an ivory tower? I do, as it happens, and we'll get to that in a moment.

It was the critic Charles-Augustin Saint-Beuve who first used the phrase, and pejoratively, in his 1837 poem Pensées d’Août, à M. Villemain, comparing the poetry of Alfred de Vigny with that of the more socially engaged Victor Hugo. ('Et Vigny, plus secret, comme en as tour d’ivoire, avant midi rentrait.'). What Hugo didn't know at the time was that Saint-Beuve would later conduct an energetic affair with his wife, Adele. What Saint-Beuve didn't know at the time was that de Vigny would later inherit his mother's estate near Angoulême, take up residence in a literal tour d'ivoire and there write La Maison du berger, regarded by Proust as the greatest French poem of the 19th century. (Proust's apartment on Boulevard Haussmann was a cork-lined variant on an ivory tower, not least in its enveloping silence and hermetic enclosure, its confident denial of the metropolis.) 

Proust disagreed profoundly with Saint-Beuve's view that literature can best be judged through a knowledge of an author's personal circumstances and historical context, and to prove the point wrote Contre Saint-Beuve (published posthumously) which championed the aesthetic perspective briskly summed up by Flaubert in a letter to Georges Sand: 'l'Homme n'est Rien l'Oeuvre Tout'. This is often misquoted, and not only by the English.

Both Proust and de Vigny clearly found their private sancta productive and congenial environments and we, their beneficiaries, can hardly grumble at their retreat from the world. Before reading any further you should track down images of de Vigny's bolt-hole, the Manoir du Maine Giraud. It's a serene refuge, the tower itself attached to a spellbindingly lovely single-storey 18th century house, with views over a tree-shaded garden courtyard. Who wouldn't want to shack up in a cool and airy room, lined with books and pictures and (expanding the fantasy), a magnificent cellar and an even-tempered chef?

By the revolutionary year of 1848 Saint-Beuve's pejorative usage had become commonplace in French. The Parnassian poet Leconte de Lisle, visiting Brittany to rally support before the impending election, found himself stranded in Dinon and disowned by his faction. A contemporary described the result of this setback thus: 'The missionary returned home disgusted with action and ever after kept his revolutionary faith, with his other dreams, under lock and key in his ivory tower.' an image  here combining disillusion, loss of faith, political inaction and a retreat from reality. Residence in an ivory tower is also depicted as an evasion of one's true nature, the occupant a dissembling Rapunzle.

Saint-Beuve's phrase has, confusingly, two Biblical sources. The first comes from the Song of Solomon (7:4): 'Your neck is like an ivory tower'. This is a symbol of purity and nothing at all to do with intellectual self-absorption. (It's also a rotten image, and reminds me of those schoolboy jokes: "Your eyes are like petals. Bicycle petals".) The second source, in the First Book of Kings (7:5), describes the dead King Ahab's palace as 'inlaid with ivory' and this, lexicographers agree, is the more likely origin of the phrase as used by Saint-Beuve. 

Some hard-to-follow logic linked ostentatious architectural decoration with elective intellectual retreat from the world, and while the 'tower' makes sense as a symbol of isolation, I can't see why ivory (of all things) has to embody or express this value - it's a rather unromantic material, associated with teeth and tusks, of course, but also with such humble applications as piano keys, dice, dominoes, billiard balls and the prosthetic leg of the Pequod's captain, which explains Melville's use of the name. 

The figurative sense of ivory tower is a late arrival in English, first appearing in Brereton and Rothwell's 1911 translation of Henri Bergson’s Le Rire. Essai sur la signification du comique [Laughter: an essay on the meaning of the comic]:

Il faut que chacun de ses membres reste attentif à ce qui l’environne […] évite enfin de s’enfermer dans son caractère ainsi que dans une tour d’ivoire. Et c’est pourquoi elle fait planer sur chacun, sinon la menace d’une correction, du moins la perspective d’une humiliation qui, pour être légère, n’en est pas moins redoutée. 

[Each member must be ever attentive to his social surroundings . . . he must avoid shutting himself up in his own peculiar character as a philosopher in his ivory tower.Therefore society holds suspended over each individual member the threat, at all events the prospect of a snubbing, which although it is slight, is none the less dreaded.]

The prospect of a slight snubbing (a rather mild rendering of 'humiliation', don't you think?) seems to me a small price to pay for a timeshare in such a gorgeous cell. My current surroundings, though far from intolerable, aren't a patch on de Vigny's, which would be the perfect setting in which to re-read Absalom and Achitophel. Poetry, as we are constantly reminded in regular and jocular campaigns, is for everyone, not just a fuddy-duddy cultivated elite. Who in their senses would dare to argue otherwise? Well I would. A more thoughtful position is that poetry (like all the arts) should be for anyone

As the very idea of a private life led in a private space is assaulted by phone-hacking, CCTV, noise pollution, invasive marketing and the assumption that nobody should be left to their own devices, the ivory tower option is increasingly attractive. Like a well-appointed bedsit, it's designed for single occupation - there's no room for Connolly's dreaded 'pram in the hall' because there's no hall. In fact there's no family life at all, no distraction from the sustained interrogation of whatever arcane subject most absorbs the dweller (and one always 'dwells' in an ivory tower). The only interruption to the contemplative life would (in my scenario) be superb meals and occasional medical check-ups. No daily commute, no queues at the check-out, no mayoral elections, no coalition, no celebrity culture . . . am I selling this to you? Aspiring tower dwellers may contribute to, but will not find much fulfilment in, our cultural mainstream. A Tower would not, I think, accommodate a television. I admire The Wire but I don't need well-paid actors to persuade me that things could be better in Baltimore. And I've not read much of Henry James come to that, but I know where my cultural allegiances and priorities lie, or at least should lie, when offered a choice between Downton Abbey and Washington Square. So, not telly. James died before completing a novel entitled, as it happens, The Ivory Tower, and I may as well own up to a long-standing evasion of 'The Master' - that awe-inspiring nom de plume has put me off for decades. I await a well-earned snubbing from his readers.

The present day equivalent of the ivory tower is less exclusive and marks the place where privilege and sense of entitlement meet - the air-conditioned stretch limo, that plug-ugly symbol of success and fame available to all, briefly, and for a price. The occupants are shrieking Rapunzels, forever letting their hair down. The millionaire footballer in his gated Cheshire estate and the dodgy oligarch on his super yacht have both retreated from the affairs of the world, though without an ambitious intellectual agenda, yet their isolation (and threat of litigation) attracts general approval and admiration from our media. Academics, on the other hand, far from enjoying the productive seclusion of uninterrupted tenure, are routinely derided for their snooty and impractical other-worldliness and subjected to the bean-counting indignity of the Research Excellence Framework, measuring the 'impact' of their work on the outside world through appearances in the media. Wittgenstein wouldn't get a look-in when it comes to churning out publications or nattering to Melvyn on In Our Time. But of course he's no Professor Lisa Jardine.

A view that seldom gets an airing because, on a first reading. it seems to endorse elitism, is that ivory towers are not about isolation, they're about individual difference, about diversity - something we are enjoined constantly to celebrate. 

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