Is an Ivory Tower a des res?

Ivory Tower - 1It’s an evocative image, a tower made out of milky white ivory, too high and too slippery to assail and with a distant and distorted view of the world below it. A great many writers have inhabited one or perhaps, more to the point, been accused of inhabiting one. But what effect does residence in an ivory tower have on a writer’s output?

It would be tempting just to look at the negative. A writer in an ivory tower is out of touch with the real world; he or she doesn’t walk the streets and talk the talk; they’re devoid of passion; their work is out of date and ultimately irrelevant.

So what do they actually write about? The answer is: all kinds of things. The human imagination is immensely fertile and some of the best works of literature have very little to do with mundane reality. No writer, not even one whose writing desk is behind ivory crenellations, is devoid of experience, feelings and opinions. If he or she writes about lofty matters it may not be that they’re incapable of understanding the current concerns of fellow humanity.

Writing isn’t necessarily a newspaper. Very often inspiration springs from cold, pure sources and is subsequently crafted to aesthetic perfection. This is particularly true of poetry, one of whose functions is to be uplifting.

It’s probably true to say that the smaller, sharper and least wide-reaching of works are the easiest to produce from an ivory tower. A great sprawling novel, depicting the best and worst of humanity and the setting within which they interact, is of its very essence an excrescence from the world’s surface.

But what about fantasy novels? Inventing a whole world in all its details is a cerebral activity, well suited to a state of isolation. But as soon as it has red-blooded, human characters, the walls of the tower begin to crumble.

Labelling someone as living in an ivory tower is usually an insult. But there is certainly a place, and a hallowed place, for works written in such circumstances. Sometimes writing ought not to reflect reality but instead should imitate the ideals for which we strive with our most exalted faculties.