the ivory tower

“We were then living in a strange period, such as usually succeeds revolutions or the decline of great reigns. It was no longer the gallant heroism of the Fronde, the elegant, dressed-up vice of the Regency, or the scepticism and insane orgies of the Directoire. It was an age in which activity, hesitation, and indolence were mixed up, together with dazzling Utopias, philosophies, and religious aspirations, vague enthusiasms, mild ideas of a Renaissance, weariness with past struggles, insecure optimisms – somewhat like the period of Peruginus and Apuleius. Material man longed for the bouquet of roses which would regenerate him from the hands of the divine Isis; the goddess in her eternal youth and purity appeared to us by night and made us ashamed of our wasted days. We had not reached the age of ambition, and the greedy scramble for honors and positions caused us to stay away from all possible spheres of activity. The only refuge left to us was the poet’s ivory tower, which we climbed, ever higher, to isolate ourselves from the mob. Led by our masters to those high places we breathed at last the pure air of solitude, we drank oblivion in the legendary golden cup, and we got drunk on poetry and love. Love, however of vague forms, of blue and rosy hues, of metaphysical phantoms! Seen at close quarters, the real woman revolted our ingenuous souls. She had to be a queen or goddess; above all, she had to be unapproachable.”

(Gérard de Nerval, “Sylvie: Recollections of Valois,” trans. Geoffrey Wagner, pp. 74–75 in the Exact Change Aurélia & Other Writings.)

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