To scale the highest mountain, and reach the summit, to gaze out on all sides upon the town and country below! To look down from the penthouse of a towering skyscraper and see the little people, darting right and left in absurd busy-ness! To look out from an airplane window over cities and landscapes, seeing the tiny houses, the toy cars, the vast distances as if they were inches on a map! To rise even higher, above the clouds! Or to look at our own planet from outer space!
You might see that your neighborhood, your town, that earth itself is but a small, humble part of a much larger universe, or that seemingly isolated residents are neighbors, that your garbage flows into the lake; your food comes from the fields. You might see why a bird might or might not swoop down to rest on his cross-country flight, depending upon how much fertile green beckons from below. You might be awestruck at the vastness of the everything, and glimpse the smallness of your own worries or passions. You might feel weak in the face of such immensity, or gain strength from connecting with infinity. Or, you might pompously and foolishly look down on all that you see as “beneath” you, so distant as to have no bearing on your isolated existence. Do so, however, at your peril, for even towers require foundations, basements, sewage systems.
Towers are symbols of aspiration and of hubris. They inspire us to rise to our highest ambitions and also may separate us from our origins. Can one aim too high? They may provide us with perspective and wisdom, or blind us to the limits of physical reality and reason. They may be eremitic retreats from the worldly and material, or they may, conversely (as in the penthouse), represent status in the material world.
There is the famous Tower of Babel, symbol of humanity’s arrogance in trying to reach the heavens. A jealous God punished our hubris by breaking the originally-unified language into many, many languages. Thereafter, since Esperanto failed, people could not easily communicate with each other to plan insurrections.
There is the famous ivory tower, where privileged scholars may study, unhampered by the cares of everyday, but where they may lose touch with life, real-world problems, and nature. As much as I love dry and fusty abstraction, I believe that scholarship completely separated from life, experience, sensation, is a dangerous thing. “Leben lernen” (learn life!) was the cry of the great German Romantics who broke out of the dusty dens of academe. Still, one does need a place to get away to, to contemplate what one has experienced, to test it against the words and works of others, before returning to the fray. The higher the better. As Eliot’s narrator reflects in “The Waste Land,” that exploration of the depths and heights, “In the mountains, there you feel free”.
Writers have often lived in towers (Yeats, Hölderlin, Rilke, Jung, to name a few), and people have been imprisoned in them (Write me a letter/Send it by mail/Send it in care of/The Birmingham Jail….Build me a tower/A hundred miles high/So I can see you/When you ride by…). Watchmen, of course, will perch on high looking for dangers; and astronomers with their telescopes will search for wonders; bells are in belfries, and so are the bats. People will, alas, sometimes leap from towers, and in Paris there is a theater troupe called Les Souffleurs, who stand silently at the edge of tall buildings until crowds gather below. Their silent standing calls the busy Parisians to silent reflection. But, of course, buildings are not that high in Paris, aside from the Eiffel (1062 feet), and the glass and glitz Montparnasse (most hated building in France, at 689 feet), so these roof-top whisperings may not qualify as tower-vigils.
The Tower of London, named for the White Tower built by William the Conqueror in 1078, was used as a prison from 1100 to 1952 (“To the Tower!”). The 541-feet-high Mole Antonelliana, which towers over Torino, Italy, was admired by Nietzsche, that lover of heights. He said it reminded him of his own aspiring Zarathustra, who came down from the mountains to share his wisdom with the people. The Watts Towers in Los Angeles were built by Simon Rodia, who decorated them with found objects such as colored ceramics shards and glass, seashells, and figurines, often brought to him by neighboring children. It is a monument to community and creative blossoming in the face of urban struggle and despair. The Twin Towers, monuments of capital, reminders of terror, are no more; but many other monoliths made of money and for making money are still standing, and myriad others are on the rise in our midst, promising a paradise of shopping and office space. Promising also, a sort of miraculous salvation from our suffering, for the problems of affordable housing and global warming! But who would be fool enough to believe such false prophets and snake oil salesmen selling tawdry, tinsel simulations of real aspiration? Not that we do not aspire to greatness, but we aspire to heights of another kind altogether. Pride, Developer-Speculator, cometh before the fall. Mr. Mayor, perhaps you did not study the Greeks while at Harvard. So, let me tell you, hubris is notoriously blind to dangers and warnings. And it usually doesn’t end well.