Thursday, September 23, 2010

Ivory Tower

Margaret asked about the term ivory tower. It is often used of academics who seem to be out of touch with practical reality. The pursuit of hypotheticals isolates them from the pursuit of gritty survival in the real world. They are seen as aloof, even uncaring. The same term is sometimes applied to politicians. Instead of seeing what’s in front of their noses, they live in a dream world.

It’s easy to see why a tower can be used as a symbol of isolation. A tower thrusts up and leaves the earth behind, as it were. When attached to a castle-like structure, a tower is cut off from the rest of the building. In fact, it was sometimes the place where cells were constructed to hold prisoners: think of the Tower of London. There’s nothing more isolated than a dimly-lit cell hidden away in a remote tower.

Ivory poses a bit of a problem: why ivory instead of granite or limestone tower, for instance? Compared to those materials, ivory may be seen as delicate. It has been used for centuries in carvings and decorations, not as a study primary building material. Perhaps that aura of frangibility and delicacy is the point.

We can pinpoint the first known use of ivory tower as a symbol of aloofness and removal. It occurs in the poem Thoughts of August by Charles-Augustin Saint-Beuve. In it, he contrasts Victor Hugo, seen as down-to-earth and in the middle of the fray, with Alfred de Vigny, characterized as sheltered and removed from reality. The relevant line is, “. . . and Vigny, more discreet, As if in his ivory tower, retired before noon."

The image appeared in English in C. Brereton’s and F. Rothwell’s 1911 translation of Henri Bergson’s essay, Laughter: An essay on the Meaning of the Comic. Then, in 1916, Henry James began to write a novel that he never finished, Ivory Tower, examining the aloof and uncaring millionaires of the Gilded Age.

What I find puzzling is that the metaphorical use of ivory tower started life as a compliment. I don’t know why it reverted to an insult. We find a reference to ivory in the erotic poem, Song of Solomon, Chapter 7:

  • 1: How beautiful are thy feet with shoes, O prince's daughter! the joints of thy thighs are like jewels, the work of the hands of a cunning workman. 

  • 2: Thy navel is like a round goblet, which wanteth not liquor: thy belly is like an heap of wheat set about with lilies.
3: Thy two breasts are like two young roes that are twins. 

  • 4: Thy neck is as a tower of ivory; thine eyes like the fishpools in Heshbon, by the gate of Bath-rabbim: thy nose is as the tower of Lebanon which looketh toward Damascus.

It is also used as a compliment in reference to Mary, the Blessed Mother, in a Marian litany, a portion of which reads:

  • Mystical Rose
  • Tower of David
  • Tower of Ivory
  • House of Gold
  • Ark of the Covenant
  • Gate of Heaven

Available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition

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