The Ivory Tower


THE phrase ‘The Ivory Tower’ was first used, in the literary sense, by Sainte-Beuve, when he was examining the work of his friend and contemporary Alfred de Vigny. De Vigny had led an active life, but he was aloof and fastidious, rather disdainful, prone to mysticism, and when he took to writing he tended to withdraw from the hurry, noisiness, muddle, and littleness of the world, and contemplate action from the heights like a god, or from within a fortress where he remained unscathed. To hit off this tendency, Sainte-Beuve borrowed from religion the phrase la tour d’ivoire, the tower where the poet retreats avant midi, before the heat and the weariness of the battle have developed. The phrase had been used for centuries as a symbol of the Virgin Mary, and it occurs in the Song of Solomon, but Sainte-Beuve first applied it to literature.

It has come in again lately in a derogatory sense as a synonym for ‘escapism.’ ‘Escapism,’ like most words ending in -ism, is abusive, and prejudges the issue it professes to define. There is much to be said for escaping from the world, when it is the world of 1938, so that, if we are to discuss the problem dispassionately, ‘The Ivory Tower’ in Sainte-Beuve’s sense seems the better title. It is noncommittal. Is there such a thing as an Ivory Tower? And if there is, shall we fortify it and make it stronger, or shall we try to pull it down? To put the problem in other words: Can books be an escape from life, and if they can be, ought they to be? Do writers (all or some) escape from life when they write? Do readers (all or some) escape when they read? And when we speak of ‘life’ here, what meaning do we attach to that much belabored word? The subject strays into philosophy and politics, but its main line is literary: the proper function of books.

Let us start with a generalization upon human nature.

Man is an animal, but a queer one. He possesses the herd instinct, so that he readily forms tribes, gangs, nations. But, unlike other gregarious animals, he has the instinct for solitude as well. Consequently he is always contradicting himself in his conduct and getting into muddles — one of which we are examining now. He wants to be alone even when he is feeling fit. That is one of the differences between a man and a chicken. A chicken wants to be alone only when it is feeling poorly. When a hen withdraws herself from her female companions and even from her gentleman friend and walks about in solitude with a glassy eye, making sad little noises, you know she is probably ill. The other hens think so too, and give her a peck in passing, to show how different they are feeling themselves.

But a man who goes about alone is probably not ill, but trying to enter his Ivory Tower. He needs the Ivory Tower just as much as he needs the human chicken-run, the city. Both are part of his heritage — solitude and multitude. He is the gregarious animal who wants to be alone even when ho feels well, and his glassy eye and sad little noises are often symptoms of something important. He may be getting a clearer view of the world, or thinking out a social problem, or developing his spirit, or creating a poem. He may be bored with the life around him, which is regrettable, and, worse still, he may be afraid of it. But, whatever his motive, he has an incurable desire to be alone. The instinct may not be as old as his gregarious instinct, but it goes back to the beginning of civilization, and has a particular bearing on the development of literature, philosophy, and art. As far back as history stretches, we can see men trying to retire into their Ivory Towers and there to resist or to modify the instincts which they possess as members of the herd. There young John is to be happy and wise, and his descents into human activity, when he makes them, are no more than visits to a country dance; the muddles and the cruelties of daily life never entangle him, nor its poverty, nor disease.

If we look back nearly two thousand years, at the country which was recently Czechoslovakia, we shall see there a general conducting military operations. The general is thoroughly competent, but when he has a spare moment he takes out his pen and begins to write philosophy. His name is Marcus Aurelius. He had, and knew he had, an Ivory Tower. It was to him the more important side of his heritage; the public side, when he worked with the herd and was regarded as their emperor, meant nothing to him.

If we look back four hundred years we can see a tough, unscrupulous politician, who loves bits of Italy, his country, and is merciless in his methods of serving them. He is also a practical farmer, who runs his own estate, so when the evening comes he is covered in mud in both senses of the word. Then he washes himself, puts on a nice suit of clothes, has candles of the best-quality wax lit in fine candlesticks of silver, and sits down to read about the heroes and the virtues of antiquity. His name is Machiavelli. Machiavelli too had an Ivory Tower, though it was to him the less important side of his heritage: he needed to retire into it after getting the better of his fellow men.

A third example. Sixty years ago there lived a great revolutionary, who did more than anyone else to put his fellow men against the existing structure of society. All his life was devoted to this — he worked for the herd and through the herd. And yet he could not stop himself from occasionally writing a poem, a lyric poem. He had no illusions about the merits of his poems, yet he says: ‘The best of them made me see what Poetry is — an unattainable fairy palace, at the sight of which my own creations fell to dust.’ The name of this yearning writer is Karl Marx. To Marx the Ivory Tower was not at all important, and he will be surprised at being assigned one. He would dismiss it as a regrettable bourgeois weakness, and his followers have developed some important arguments against it. But he illustrates my point — that it is part of the human heritage, that it pops up in the most unlikely landscapes, and that to deny its existence is false psychology.

A fourth example is Milton. Milton understands our problem, and his life illustrates it perfectly. He began in seclusion: he was a scholar and a Cambridge intellectual who knew himself to be a poet, and deliberately planned his æsthetic career. Il Penseroso is a manifesto of that early faith; it invokes the delightful sadness which exists in the globe of its own shade, and is untainted either by regrets or by fears, and it looks forward — at the age of twenty-five — to an old age which will attain ‘to something like prophetic strain.’ Wisdom is to come to the poet through seclusion, and in the Ivory Tower itself: —

Or let my lamp, at midnight hour,
Be seen in some high lonely tower,
Where I may oft outwatch the Bear,
With thrice great Hermes, or unsphere
The spirit of Plato . . .
These pleasures, Melancholy, give,
And I with thee will choose to live.

That is the Milton of the first period, and then — while he is finishing off his education in Italy (a necessary step, for Il Penseroso is bad Italian) — the civil wars start, and his plans have to be scrapped. He is obliged to take sides, as intellectuals all over the world are doing to-day; he has to come down from his tower and take service under the Commonwealth, and ’write with his left hand’ for nearly twenty years. One would have expected that to be the end of him, but he has a third phase which makes him very valuable as a specimen: he returns to the Tower and writes Paradise Lost and Samson in it. His side has lost, but the seventeenth century, unlike the twentieth, did not kill intellectuals who fought on the losing side, and Milton is allowed to work out his poetic plan. We know how the plan was carried out, and how once more — aided this time by his blindness — he detached himself from the world. But Melancholy — what has become of her in the interval? She is no longer the bringer of pleasures, but one of the Furies, the sister of Fear and Remorse; she presides over the lazar house and the punishment of dissolute days: —

... In fine,
Just or unjust alike seem miserable,
For oft alike both come to evil end.

That is the ‘prophetic strain’ which he promised himself when he was twentyfive, and it’s a terrible sort of tower to be shut up in, brass for ivory; still it does recall the architecture of his youth, and so is significant for us. It suggests that there are some types who naturally prefer solitude to multitude, and revert to it if they can. In many cases the man is worn out by the business of daily life before he can get back, but the normal tendency is to get back.


These examples suggest that ‘escapism’ is not new, not a bourgeois weakness or an economic by-product, but is to be deduced from the queer nature of man, who gathers together in groups like his cousins the monkeys, or his distant connections the chickens, but who also wants to build up a private life of his own. Both these tendencies contribute to civilization. They also distract it. We are troubled to-day, each of us, because we can lead neither the private nor the public life with any decency. I cannot shut myself up in a Palace of Art or a Philosophic Tower and ignore the madness and the misery of the world. Yet I cannot throw myself into movements just because they are uncompromising, or merge myself in my own class, my own country, or in anyone else’s class or country, as if that were the unique good. We are in a muddle. We veer from one side of human nature to the other: now we feel that we are individuals, whose duty it is to create a private heaven; and now we feel we ought to sink our individuality in something larger than ourselves — something which we can only partially like and partially understand, just as Milton only partly liked or understood the cause of the Commonwealth.

Although this restlessness of man has always existed (he will never build Utopia because it would cease to be Utopia when built), it is specially obvious to-day because of his increased resources. To-day politics are more insistent than ever before. We can’t get away from Nationalism, Fascism, and Communism, — three isms, — nor from armaments, their result, nor from moral rearmament, their dreary and ineffective counterpoise. The world is frightening. It is also boring, because the tragic march of events seems to be accompanied by no tragic splendor. Public taste declines, the countryside is being destroyed, the towns vulgarized.

When I walk in the town I know best — London — and see the architectural changes in Regent Street or in St. James’s Square, which were once so dignified, I realize that we have indeed no abiding city, even when that city is the capital of an Empire. And when I go into the country and find it gashed with arterial roads, spattered with advertisements and spiky with pylons and screeching with bombers, Isay with the Psalmist, though in another sense, ‘If I go up into Heaven, thou art there; if I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, I still cannot escape from politics, from commercialism, or from the science that has been harnessed in their service.’ Fifty years ago one could escape — by moving away. A hundred years ago Browning’s Waring could give all civilization the slip and vanish from the midst of his friends into the unknown. They wonder where he has gone, explore one romantic possibility after another, and come to the quaint conclusion that he must be in Spain.

Ay, most likely ’t is in Spain
That we and Waring meet again
Now, while he turns down that cool narrow lane
Into the blackness, out of grave Madrid.

These lines bring out with brutal force the contrast between that old world, where a man could escape from men, and our world, where, in the physical sense, escape is impossible. Waring, to-day, could n’t slip off in his little boat. He would require a passport, duly visaed and endorsed, and if he got lost there would be a Police SOS for him in the nine o’clock news. The last person to attempt escape of this physical sort was the late Colonel Lawrence. He failed, although he had influential friends who gave him their help and tried to hide his tracks. He went down to the depths of the Tank Corps and into the uttermost parts of the sea, but it could n’t be done, because this is the twentieth century and the clock says no.

Now, because it is impossible for the body to escape, a good many people — many of the best, critics of the younger generation among them — have come to the conclusion that it’s wrong for the mind to escape. They argue that the duty of everyone, be he an engineer or a statesman, a creative writer or a mere reader, is to the community, and to the community as a whole; they condemn the private life as selfish, and they would pull down all Ivory Towers, whatever their architecture. I think that they are mistaken, and that their mistake arises from their taking too simple a view of human development, but they have much that’s interesting to say.

In England we don’t theorize much, but the two most theoretical countries in Europe — Russia and Germany — are working out a faith which is in the interests of the herd, and against those of the individual. Russia calls the herd the proletariat, Germany calls it the nation or the people (das Volk), but from our point of view their conclusions are the same. Herr Hitler, in an interesting speech about Art which he delivered in 1937 when opening the House of German Art at Munich, says, ‘No doubt the Nation is not eternal, but so long as it exists it constitutes a stable pole in the whirling flight of time. The individual must rally to support that stability. If he is an artist, he must set up a monument to his people rather than to himself; if he is an ordinary citizen, he must not indulge in the luxury of a private universe. For the Nation is more real than any of the men and women who make it up.’

Lenin, in one of his earlier manifestoes, says the same, though he does not mention nationality or race, and though his tone is non-mystic. ‘Literature,’ he says, ‘ought to be Party Literature. No individual ought to get rich on it, and it ought not to be an individual affair. Down with non-party writers. Down with the literary superman. No more hypocritical talk about individual freedom! If the proletariat is free, the individual will be free, but not otherwise.’

Words are confusing, and Nazi and Communist use different words just as they make different shapes with their hands. But this must not mislead us from realizing that neither of them has any use for the Ivory Tower. They deny to the individual the right to escape from the community of which he forms part. He cannot, of course, withdraw from it in the body, and they try to communize his mind also; and since the mind is the source both of creative art and of personal religion, and often functions best in solitude, both Nazi and Communist encounter trouble. The fight extends much deeper than political slogans, into the double nature of man.


Now the issue gets confused at this point by a sloppy and misleading use of the word ‘life.’ Escapism, we are told, is a retreat from life, a denial of life, a spiritual suicide. I read the other day in a left-wing paper that ‘Art should be an expression of life in all its aspects, not a means of escape from life.’

This sounded convincing. But when I considered it carefully I realized that, while the first half of the sentence meant something, the second half was meaningless. For how can a living being escape from life, whether he’s an artist or anyone else? Death is the only escape from life, but once dead he produces no art. Of course we often say a poem’s dead, a picture’s dead, and there’s no harm in using these phrases as long as we know they are metaphorical and do not muddle ourselves. But the human mind is easily muddled, and the slinging about of ‘life’ and ‘death’ in a semi-mystic sense, as was often done by D. H. Lawrence, lands us in infinite confusion.

Marcel Proust is said to have ‘escaped from life’ when he shut himself up all day in a cork-lined room and would not let the sunshine in — sunshine being held, for some mystic reason, to be less unreal than cork; Racine to have escaped when he withdrew from the French court to Port Royal and wrote plays for schoolgirls, one of these plays being Athalie; Edward Fitzgerald when he retired into the country and became a valetudinarian. All that is meant is that these people changed one sort of life for another — a busy for an inactive or contemplative. So we must amend that left-wing diction into sense: ‘Art should be an expression of life in all its aspects, and so should include an escape from what officials call life and artists hold to be officialism.’

The idea that escape is, per se, wrong, is a bureaucratic idea. It has no basis in either ethics or æsthetics, and it comes to the front only in an age like this, when the community is highly organized and tries to boss the individual at every turn, educating him, taking his fingerprints, paying him if he produces children, punishing him if he does n’t vote at its precious elections, refusing him a passport if he has n’t been a good boy or is not accompanied by a good girl, controlling him at birth, death, work, and play. Run on such lines as these, a community runs easily, but if in this bureaucrat’s paradise an individual sidesteps, there’s instantly a jam, the traffic’s held up, and the Five-Year Plan, or whatever it is, is retarded, no one knows for how long. An escape from the machine causes so much inconvenience to the operator that it is condemned as an escape from life, and the offender is accused of committing some spiritual crime. The offender may be merely a wastrel, but he may be a great artist, like Milton or Troust, who works best in solitude, and he may be and often is a quiet ordinary person who has to withdraw into his little fortress and build up a small private universe before he can see where he stands.

Of course the bureaucrat is neither a villain nor a fool. His trouble is everyone’s trouble — the twofold nature of man, that gregarious animal who sometimes wants to be alone and is not necessarily sick when he mopes. If man could be split into two halves, the bureaucrat’s problem would be simple: one half would render unto Cæsar what is Cæsar’s, and, as part of a herd, consent to be organized into a community. And the other half would render unto God what is God’s, and retire into that sanctum where religion and contemplation and the creative force all have their home, and where the individual, according to his capacity, constructs his private universe. There would be no friction between the two halves then.

Christ, out of touch with the complexities of civilization, evidently thought such a division possible, but man does not seem to be made like that. He is not in two halves, he is twofold, and hitherto all attempts to harmonize the civilization produced by the convoluted creature have failed. There was a great attempt in the Middle Ages. The theory of the Mediæval World State was evolved, according to which the Emperor, as representing Cæsar, was to rule men’s bodies, and the Pope, as representing God, their souls. The theory broke down, much to the bewilderment of Dante, and the Emperor and the Pope fought.

And we, in our trouble to-day, again look for a division which will render unto the community what is the community’s, and to the self what is the self’s. We have not found it, and the New Jerusalem cannot be built until we do. When the public and the private can be combined, and place can be found in the industrial and political landscapes for those symbols of personal retreat, Ivory Towers, the foundations of a New Humanity will have been laid.


We retreat from the terrors and the boredom of the world. Here are the two chief reasons for escapism. We may retire to our towers because we are afraid, or we may retire because we’re bored and indignant.

Though it’s never safe to generalize, fear seems wholly bad. One’s in a bad state while it’s on — stupid, wretched, unreasonable, undignified, and moaning, ‘Oh, oh, what will become of me!’ Like other people, I am sometimes in a terror over the state of Europe. ‘Oh, oh, what will become of me if there is a war!’ I think, and remain like that until I can switch off, like someone who has got stuck on to an electric current. While in that plight, I am of no use either to myself or to Europe, or to anyone or anything. Presently the current’s switched off and I go rather sheepishly on with my job, feeling that I’ve wasted some strength and some time.

Certainly fear is worse than no use. For while we are under its power we behave so badly to other people. We become heartless and cruel. We strike lest the other fellow strike first. Most of the misery of mankind, both in their political and social relations, arises from fear — it has done more harm than even greed. It breeds not only cowards but bullies, and between them they drag down civilization.

If, then, fear is the motive for our retreat, there’s little to be said for the Ivory Tower, and little peace to be found inside it. We shut ourselves up there, trembling, doing nothing, afraid to face danger, and waiting from moment to moment for the blow that’ll shatter our fragile fortress. This is escapism in the bad sense and deserves all the hard things that can be said against it. There’s no release through it, and no creation.

But there’s another motive for retreat: boredom; disgust; indignation against the herd, the community, and the world; the conviction that sometimes comes to the solitary individual that his solitude will give him something finer and greater than he can get when he merges in the multitude. This is how Wordsworth puts it.

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away. . . .

This is the sound argument for escape. Wordsworth retreats, in his case from the world of commercial competition, because it blinds him to the loveliness which he believes to exist in natural scenes, and because he has wasted on it something which it cannot value — namely, his heart. He retreats to the world of a vanished mythology, which is gone as a creed, but relives because he brings it passion.

. . . Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

‘ So might he ’ ? But so he does, and so do we. We do have sight of Proteus and Triton, thanks to Wordsworth’s imagination. He finds them because he has retreated from vulgarity and boredom to his tower. If he had begun the sonnet ‘The world is terrifying,’ he would have weakened the emotion as well as impaired the poetry. A frightened Wordsworth would not have caught sight of the sea gods, but they may well reveal themselves to an indignant one. He and his readers have chosen the legitimate path of retreat.

The mystics are still more uncompromising. They believe that retreat is imperative and our sole duty. ‘Let us flee to the Beloved Fatherland,’ counsels Plotinus, defining the Fatherland as ‘There, whence we have come, and There is the Father,’ and we get there not by moving our feet from land to land, but by ‘refusing to see’; we withdraw into ourselves and strain our sight until we catch a glimpse of the inner vision, which is the human birthright. That is to say, Plotinus believes not only that the individual is more real than the community, but that it is absolute reality. The motive of his flight, however, is the same as Wordsworth’s: indignation and disgust, not fear.

Granting that there is this good motive for escape, what uses can be made of the Ivory Tower in 1938?

Practical conduct can be learned only by contacts with our fellow men, but when it comes to mysticism, to abstract thought, and to the detailed contemplation of events, we certainly need solitude. Mysticism is out of favor for the moment, and abstract thought is not much approved either. But the detached contemplation of events is the aim of every public-minded person. We all want to know what civilization is doing, what it is developing into, whether the present economic system will hold, whether the discovery of flying will transform the world abruptly or gradually, and so on. But in daily life we are so involved in these things that we cannot focus them properly. We desire to withdraw and behave as if they don’t concern us, and then we have a better chance of seeing what they are up to.

Then as to literature. I don’t want to overstate a case. Some writers — like Milton, or Matthew Arnold, or Proust, or Henry James, or Siegfried Sassoon — convey the impression that they have had to escape from the world before they could describe it. They have shut themselves up in the spirit, and perhaps in the body too. So that one is tempted to say that until a writer escapes he cannot create. That is probably true of meditative and of analytical writing. But there is some writing that reads as if it had been composed in the midst of the hum of affairs — Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and a good deal of Shakespeare. Chaucer and Shakespeare throb with the power that comes not from contemplation but from moving freely among men. Fielding’s Tom Jones is another example of this, and an interesting one, because Fielding tries both methods. Most of his novel has the hum of affairs about it, but at the beginning of each book he has a philosophic chapter where he retires into himself and attempts to meditate. These prefatory chapters make detestable reading — horrid little leathern receptacles that lead nowhere and keep us away from the gayety, bustle, and decent carnality which make up the rest of the novel. Who wants to read what Fielding thinks about Avarice or the Stage when he can hear how Molly Seagrim fought in the churchyard and sent all the other trollops flying over the tombstones? Here’s where Fielding’s good, and he can also give us the gentleness and the spirit of Sophia Western. But he can’t reflect, because he has a non-reflective mind. His place is in a west-country pub, amongst tankards of ale and an occasional bloody nose, not in a tower, where he just becomes a bore.


The more one reads, the less one can generalize on the creative impulse. It is obvious that Fielding and to a large extent Chaucer and Shakespeare were not escapists, and did not shut out the world when they composed, either consciously or unconsciously. And it is obvious that Marcus Aurelius, Wordsworth, Shelley, Proust, did shut it out. They dealt with contemporary problems, but they saw them through a veil of detachment. All one can do is to indicate two classes of writers, extroverts and introverts, and to say that the former seldom enter their towers, and write badly when they do, whereas the latter write best in their towers.

One cannot generalize over readers either, so I will just indicate my own experience. I find that when I’m reading for information I’m not in a tower: I keep in touch with the outside world and connect what I’m reading with what I know of it. If I read about China, I think of what I know of China. If, on the other hand, I’m reading creative literature, I am in a tower, shut up with the author, and only aware of him.

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree.

These words don’t make me think about China. All that I m conscious of is Coleridge’s vision. I have escaped with him from the outside world. And if my experience is usual it follows that for the reader, as for the writer, literature is sometimes a retreat, sometimes not. Are you shut off from the world or not when you read? Can you hear the dinner bell? Can you hear the telephone? These questions are worth putting, for there are various degrees of absorption. The most extreme was that of Archimedes, who was so absorbed in a problem that he refused to answer the questions put to him by a Roman soldier, and got killed.

There is, by the way, one obvious criticism that must be answered, and it is ‘Oh, how selfish! The writer or reader who shuts himself up is a traitor to the community.’ To which the reply is: ‘Quite true. But it is equally true that the community is selfish, and, to further its own efficiency, is a traitor to the side of human nature which expresses itself in solitude. Considering all the harm the community does to-day, it is in no position to start a moral slanging match.’ And we can also reply that the individual can be selfish in two ways, and that if he is selfish in the good way he wins a little victory not only for himself but for other individuals all over the world. It is a bad selfishness to cry, ‘Oh dear, what will happen to me if there is war or if my investments go wrong!’ It is a good selfishness to cry, ‘Great God! I’d rather be a Pagan suckled in a creed outworn,’ because the escape here is into poetry, and blazes a path which others can follow.

Let me recall, in conclusion, the career of Milton. Milton is anything but a perfect character. Prim and bitter, one would never choose him for a friend. But he did perform the great feat of coming out of his tower and going back into it again, and performed it with a fullness that makes him an example for our race. Milton wobbled; and it is in wobbling that the chief duty of man consists. We are here on earth not to save ourselves and not to save the community, but to try to save both.