The View from the Tower: Origins of an Antimodernist Image

The View from the Tower: Origins of an Antimodernist Image

by Theodore Ziolkowski

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Setting out to locate modern turriphilia in its cultural context and exploring the biographical circumstances that motivated W.B. Yeats, Robinson Jeffers, R.M. Rilke and Carl G. Jung to choose unusual retreats, the author traces the emergence of a variety of symbolic associations with the proud towers of the past, ranging from spirituality and intellect to sexuality


Setting out to locate modern turriphilia in its cultural context and exploring the biographical circumstances that motivated W.B. Yeats, Robinson Jeffers, R.M. Rilke and Carl G. Jung to choose unusual retreats, the author traces the emergence of a variety of symbolic associations with the proud towers of the past, ranging from spirituality and intellect to sexuality and sequestration. 25 halftones.

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The View from the Tower

Origins of an Antimodernist Image

By Theodore Ziolkowski


Copyright © 1998 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-05907-5


The Proud Towers

* 1 *

The vogue of tower habitation in the years immediately following World War I surely constitutes one of the more remarkable phenomena in the history of poetic ecology. Like Simeon the Stylite and his ascetic followers, who sought refuge from the temptations of late antiquity atop their pillars in the desert, these modern "turrites" took to their towers as strongholds of security in what they regarded as the wasteland of Western civilization. In 1919 William Butler Yeats and his family spent the first of several summers in Thoor Ballylee, a Norman castle twenty miles inland from the Atlantic coast of Ireland. The following year, on a bluff overlooking the Pacific near Carmel, Robinson Jeffers laid the first stones of Hawk Tower, where he was to live and write for the next forty years. In 1921 Rainer Maria Rilke moved into the Chateau de Muzot, the step-gabled thirteenth-century tower in the Swiss canton of Valais where he passed the remaining five years of his life. In 1923 Carl Gustav Jung built the squat tower on the upper Lake of Zurich that became the cornerstone of his compound at Bollingen and for four decades his private sanctuary of introspection.

Other artists and thinkers of the twentieth century also fancied towers. When Gerhart Hauptmann commissioned his villa in 1901 at Wiesenstein near Agnetendorf, he specified a corner tower, with a view of the Silesian forests, to which he liked to withdraw for meditation. But towers play no conspicuous role in his writings, and in any case he always went downstairs to the library to dictate his texts. Paul Hindemith lived from 1923 to 1927 in the "Cow-Herd's Tower" ("Kuhhirtenturm") on the city walls of Frankfurt-Sachsenhausen, but the opera and song cycle that he composed there offer no resonance of his abode. Similarly, off and on from 1927, when he became headmaster of the Beacon Hill School, until 1937, Bertrand Russell maintained his study in the tower of Telegraph House on the Sussex Downs—again with no discernible impact on his thought.

What distinguishes Yeats, Jeffers, Rilke, and Jung is the fact that they not only spent years living in towers; towers play a constitutive role, both literal and symbolic, in their writings. Whether these writers share any characteristics that might account for their common turriphilia, and whether by moving into towers they reified an image already prevalent in their works or, alternatively, by writing about towers internalized the reality of their lives—these are some of the questions to be addressed in the following pages.

* 2 *

Let us begin by asking precisely what we mean when we say "tower." The standard architectural definition—a structure whose height is disproportionate with reference to its base—does not get us very far. The towers inhabited by our four writers have spiritual dimensions rather than architectonic ones. In this respect they exemplify an ancient tradition. Joseph Campbell once suggested that "the most striking symbolic features of the earliest high culture centers of both the Old World and the New were the great temple towers and pyramids rising high above the humble rooftops clustered about their bases." All these towers—from the storied pagodas of the Far East and the stupas of Southeast Asia to the obelisks of Egypt and the great stepped temples of Central America—occupy a similar place in their respective cultures: they represent the cosmic mountain regarded as the home of deity and thus reunite symbolically a heaven and earth that were originally one. Just as the ancient Hebrews imagined Jehovah on Mount Horeb in the Sinai, the Greeks located their gods on Mount Olympus; the Indians situated Siva's earthly retreat on the mythic Mount Meru at the center of the world; Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims alike venerated Adam's Peak in Sri Lanka; the Japanese regarded Mount Fuji as the habitation of the supreme Shinto deity; and Buddhist temples in Korea still feature a small shrine to the indigenous mountain god.

To the extent that upward-striving towers exemplify the human desire to transcend the restraints of temporal existence and restore the contact between heaven and earth that was shattered by the Fall, they differ profoundly in their religious function from the great pyramids of Egypt, whose stereometric mass invites our attention not upward but inward, where they enclose bodies and treasures. (Pyramids evolved in the fifth millennium B.C. from the dwarf walls that originally surrounded the sunken burial chambers of the inhabitants of the Nile Valley.) In its original religious capacity, therefore, the tower stands alone as the embodiment of pure vertical structure: its space neither contains nor functions. Fortress towers, which are not independent structures, came later, as did such functional forms as lighthouses, bell towers, watchtowers, guard towers, water towers, radio towers, and other modern adaptations.

* 3 *

Of the various towers that punctuated the landscape of the ancient world the oldest and, for Western civilization, most influential were the terrace temples of Mesopotamia. The great stepped tower that the Hebrews saw in Babylon when Nebuchadnezzar brought them there in 587 B.C. marked the high point of a tradition reaching back three or four thousand years. Why the early inhabitants of the Mesopotamian basin began building their temples on terraced elevations is still a matter of debate. According to one theory the Sumerians migrated to the plains of southern Mesopotamia from a mountainous land where they had been accustomed to worship their deities on heights; the terrace temples represented their effort to reproduce by artificial means the elevations that their spirituality required. Another view, taking the climatic conditions of southern Mesopotamia into account, proposes that frequent floods necessitated locating the temples on earthen elevations which, as they were repaired and improved, grew higher and higher. In any case, excavations have shown that the earliest strata go back to the fifth millennium. In the course of the fourth millennium, great terrace temples were erected in Eridu, Uruk, Nippur, Ur, and other centers of southern Mesopotamia—centuries before Babylon became a city of any importance.

At the peak of Sumerian civilization it was the function of these towering ziggurats to symbolize, as Campbell puts it, "the graded stages of a universal manifestation of divinity." As the worshiper climbed past the seven stepped terraces, he not only moved through the levels between earth and heaven as represented by the seven planetary deities but also advanced through the seven grades of human consciousness, until he reached the sanctuary containing the inner shrine that constituted the seat of whichever supreme deity was worshiped locally. At the same time, these spatiotemporal models of heavenly and earthly life also provided excellent observation posts for the priests, whose astronomical investigations caused the ziggurats, especially in the course of the first millennium B.C., to acquire a reputation as places of intellectual activity.

If the tower originally possessed an essentially religious or spiritual meaning and provided the locus for the encounter of god and mortals, the rituals symbolizing the reunification of heaven and earth had implications that led to two other important associations. According to Herodotus (1.181–82), who visited Babylon around 460 B.C., the spacious temple on the summit held a richly adorned couch of unusual size. "There is no statue of any kind set up in the place, nor is the chamber occupied of nights by any one but a single native woman, who, as the Chaldaeans, the priests of this god, affirm, is chosen for himself by the deity out of all the women of the land." Herodotus also reports, though he disclaims any belief in the story, that the god reputedly comes down in person and sleeps upon the couch with the priestess—a legend that probably goes back to an early stage when the ruler and the priestess reenacted ritually the symbolic reunification of heaven and earth. Good comparatist that he is, Herodotus relates this account to stories about the priestesses of the temple of Theban Zeus in Egypt and the temple of Apollo at Patara. In all these cases the woman is prohibited from intercourse with mortal men. We note, therefore, that the tower, initially a religious site, soon acquired connotations of sexuality as well as sequestration—connotations that have persisted down to the psychoanalytical theories of Freud and his followers.

The origins of Etemenanki, the great tower of Babylon located next to the ancient sanctuary of Marduk, are still obscure. According to prevailing opinion, construction of this largest of the Mesopotamian ziggurats may well have been undertaken during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar I (1123–1101 B.C.), who defeated the Elamites and recovered the great statue of Marduk that had been taken away as booty earlier in the century. In an effort to surpass all existing terrace temples, Nebuchadnezzar planned an edifice that rose to a height of ninety-one meters on a base of ninety-one by ninety-one meters. For five centuries, however, the massive structure remained uncompleted until Nebuchadnezzar II (605–562 B.C.) made it his great obligation to the god Marduk as well as his ancestors to complete Etemenanki.

The tower of Babylon was not identical with the Tower of Babel that entered Western consciousness through the text of the Old Testament. Chapter n of Genesis was written by the scribe known as J sometime in the tenth century B.C.—several hundred years before his descendants in the Babylonian Captivity toiled at the completion of Nebuchadnezzar's great project. Whether he was inspired by the sight of actual ziggurats and ruins or knew them only from literary tradition is not certain. In either case, the Hebrews of the tenth century would have been dumbfounded by the massive towers of Mesopotamia. Although the notion of the encounter with deity on great heights was not unknown to them—witness the story of Moses' ascent of Mount Horeb to receive the Tables of Law—the idea of erecting artificial mountains for that purpose was totally alien to them. Moreover, the Bible often depicts mountain heights as places of evil or temptation. According to Ezekiel (20.28–31), who was contemptuous of the fertility cults associated with high places, God was angered because the early Hebrews offered their sacrifices on mountaintops and "presented the provocation of their offering." In the New Testament, too, Satan takes Jesus to lofty places—the pinnacle of the temple and a very high mountain—in order to tempt him (Matt. 4.5–9). Failing to appreciate the religious significance of the Babylonian edifices, the Hebrews saw in them a manifestation of human arrogance—a view that might have been reinforced by the intellectual pretensions of the Babylonian astronomers. Certainly the Hebrews could only have been offended by the notion of a god who lowered himself to couple with an earthly priestess.

Accordingly, the exalted Sumerian view of the tower as an image for the ascent of consciousness and the locus for the encounter with the divine was completely inverted by the Hebrews, in whose moralistic imagination the ruined or uncompleted ziggurats suggested not the humble approach to one's god but an act of titanic arrogance punished by the god with destruction. "Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth" (Gen. 11.4).

The appeal of this notion to the Hebrew mind is attested by the fact that this story, unlike many other legends in Genesis, such as the Garden of Paradise or the Flood, has no parallel in Babylonian myth and shows many signs of having been originally composed by a non-Babylonian writer. That a ziggurat should have been destroyed by a Babylonian deity whose cozy sanctuary it provided is much less likely than that it should have been shattered by the wrathful Jehovah of the early Hebrews. Most Babylonian texts evince pride in the building of cities and towers. The use of brick and bitumen as building materials would have seemed unusual only to an observer accustomed, like the residents of Palestine, to stone as the basic unit of construction. Finally, the biblical etymology—"Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the LORD did there confound the language of all the earth ..." (Gen. 11:9)—makes sense only for a speaker who does not understand the Sumerian meaning of the name ("gate of god") and derives it instead from Hebrew balal ("to confuse"). In short, the legend was presumably invented by Hebrews emerging from the simplicity of nomadic existence as an account of the fragmentation of primitive unity into separate communities, as their response to the technological achievements of the more advanced Babylonian civilization, and as an indictment of human superbia vis-à-vis the divine.

* 4 *

By the time of the Babylonian Captivity and Herodotus's visit to Babylon, the tower—specifically in the form of the ziggurat—had accumulated several distinct associations that were to play a significant role in its cultural apprehension. Foremost among these was the tower as a place of religious or spiritual experience, to which was attached a secondary association of intellectual insight. Where the Hebrew mind saw the haughty aspiration to power, the Greek imagination detected evidences of sexuality. For centuries, however, these associations lay as dormant as the ruins of the Mesopotomian ziggurats themselves.

It is one of the oddities of architectural history that the tower, after having occupied such a prominent place during several millennia of Sumerian history, played virtually no role in classical antiquity. The Greeks, in accordance with their general aesthetic principles, rejected for their own purposes any structure as asymmetrical as the tower. Even in the Alexandrine period the great lighthouse of Alexandria, the Pharos, was regarded as such an idiosyncrasy that it was numbered among the seven wonders of the ancient world. While the Romans had towers, they lacked any appreciation for the freestanding, functionless tower and built only structures that had a practical purpose, such as lighthouses or watchtowers on fortresses. (These may have been modeled in part on the Minoan nuraghi, squat round defensive towers from the second millennium B.C. that they could see in Corsica, Sicily, and Southern Italy—but especially in Sardinia. These primordial towers, often erected on ancestral graves, also embodied a magical link to the dead.)

In their literature and folklore, however, both Greeks and Romans were acquainted with certain symbolic aspects of the tower. While Lucretius does not specify a tower, in De rerum natura he created an unforgettable image of the serene temples from which the wise may look down upon the tribulations of the world:

sed nil dulcius est bene quam munita tenere edita doctrina sapientum templa serena, despicere unde queas alios passimque videre errare atque viam palantis quaerere vitae....


(But there is nothing more pleasant than to inhabit lofty and serene sanctuaries, well fortified by the teachings of the wise, from which you may look down upon others and see them everywhere wandering astray and seeking in their erring the path of life.)

Evidences not of the tower but of the sacred mountain are conspicuous at the beginning of the story of Cupid and Psyche, as related by Apuleius in his second-century novel The Golden Ass (Metamorphoses). Psyche's parents, perplexed because their beautiful daughter has received no suitors, consult the oracle of Apollo, who tells them to expose her on the summit of a nearby mountain ("montis in excelsi scopulo, rex, siste puellam," 4.33), where she will be taken by a husband not of mortal seed ("nee ... mortali stirpe creatum").

Yet another example is evident in the story of Danaë, as we know it from Horace (Odes 3.16), where Acrisius, the king of Argos, confines his daughter in a bronze tower—"inclusam Danaën turris aenea"—because he has been informed by an oracle that a son borne by her would put him to death. His efforts to prevent Danaë from bearing a child turn out to be in vain because Jupiter, smitten by her beauty, enters her bed in the form of a shower of gold, and they conceive Perseus (who in fact fulfills the fateful prophecy years later). A secularization of the story of Danaë is evident in the widespread fairy tale of Rapunzel, who is shut up in a tower by a witch but nonetheless succeeds in getting herself pregnant by the handsome young prince who uses her golden tresses as a ladder on which he climbs up to her room. A similar combination of sequestration and the encounter with deity—this time without the motif of sexuality—is evident in the early Christian legend of Saint Barbara. The daughter of a heathen who kept her confined in a tower with two windows, she had a third window added to complete the Trinity and, for her Christian faith, suffered the resulting martyrdom. She is represented iconographically as holding, or standing in front of, a tower with three windows.


Excerpted from The View from the Tower by Theodore Ziolkowski. Copyright © 1998 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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