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with the real world; he or she doesn’t walk the streets and talk the talk; they’re devoid of passion; their work is out of date and ultimately irrelevant.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.

The power of literature to alter your state of mind

Shoes and hand-bag

Not shoes to want to walk a mile in perhaps.

There’s an article on BBC News today discussing the effect of music on people who are grieving or depressed. Which works better, they ask, cheerful music to try to alter your mood, or sad music which reflects your mood? It made me think about literature in the same context.

Reading is a more cerebral and less visceral activity than listening to music. Its influences are more on the conscious level and can be more complete and detailed. It follows that the ways in which it works are more complex.

Let’s think of the medium which is possibly closest to music in the context: poetry. A poem can speak to the inner, quiet, individual mind like nothing else can, throwing up images in a similar way to song lyrics. It can also meet us on an intellectual plane, and sometimes it’s through the intellect that comfort is derived or the spirit is uplifted.

Small volumes and pamphlets of both poetry and prose exist to address the different emotions and situations which people struggle with during their lives. Mostly a rational mind tries, through their pages, to reach another mind which is trying to be rational. But sometimes it isn’t straightforward advice that breaks through to a person but a saying or ‘mantra’ which speaks to them and alters their life, or a desire to imitate a character, or personal identification with a hero or a villain.

“Never criticise a man till you’ve walked a mile in his shoes,” goes the saying. This could in theory change one person’s way of thinking about another. I personally prefer the rebuttal: If you’ve got his shoes and you’re a mile away, you can say what you want!

Literature can present a complete world for immersion and hence distraction of the troubled mind. Stories and novels lighten a humdrum life, relieve boredom or inspire hope. Dark tales of tragedy soothe through harmless schadenfreude.

Music stirs our entrails with irrational feelings but literature introduces us to other realities in which we can live, and heal. I would say that the primary value of much of literature, and certainly of fiction, is its power to alter your state of mind.