Kirby Farrell Ph.D.

A Swim in Denial

Tourist Psychology

The leaning tower of life

Posted Jun 26, 2016

With time to spare before a flight out of Pisa, I recently looked in on the Piazza dei Miracoli, where the famous tower of Pisa leans. The Piazza is the size of a football stadium. A medieval wall encloses a cathedral, a baptistery, the tipsy bell tower, a green lawn, and a humungous crowd. At first glance it’s sacred Disneyland. But there’s much more going on than meets the eye.

We depend on habit and familiarity to make overwhelming reality user friendly. Like a factory, habit uses repetition to make us productive—you don't have to think about tying your shoelaces. But habit also imprisons us. To grow, to solve new problems, you need to “break” clunky old habits. The ultimate problem, that everything changes and dies, can make your everyday life feel like a lifeless habit.

Wonder opens an escape tunnel out of the prison of routine. The use of "awesome" or "fabulous" as an all-purpose grunt of approval shows how important wonder is. Slang is trying to force amazement and awe into everyday life. Tourism likewise organizes wonder to be a handy product. The trouble is, escape from habit into amazement or wonder can mean blowing your mind, which may feel ecstatic—or terrifying.[1]  So tourism usually promises that you'll experience "awe" from a comfortable mental couch—like TV. 

If you're really amazed or awestruck, you're at a loss for words. Ordinary thought begins to look like formulas and dead habits. Wonder presents too many meanings for the mind to process all at once. You can't grasp it. It's unthinkable. Traditionally people categorize the unknown as supernatural, and make it thinkable by turning it into stories or images, or associating it with a feeling or intuition.

For tourists on a tight budget, a Piazza of Miracles is one-stop shopping, as if you enter and are immediately zapped with awe. In fact the place is amazingly ordinary. The edifices are admirable but unlikely to strike you dumb with awe. And the leaning tower is interesting but familiar from a thousand calendars and pizza boxes. How can a tipsy tower attract a huge paying audience from all over the planet?

You can think of the tower as a fascinating trick akin to a circus stunt. You could analyze the physics and engineering that keep the tower balanced. You can gush at the beauty of its architecture. But if you let your gut respond, you start to experience something like awe.

Because the tower makes you aware of falling: the force of gravity pulling everything down.  And down is the direction of destruction and the grave. The tower leans. Things fall apart. Nations and fortunes go kaput. Living things expire. The whole planet is leaning into climate change and resource depletion. The tower reminds you that in the safe prison of habit, your life is precariously balanced and someday doomed to fall.

A tower reaches for the heavens, which makes it a symbol of human aspiration to godlike perfection, power, and immortality. The height of ambition, alas, also arouses the terror of falling and death, as in the collapse of the Tower of Babel and the World Trade Center towers.

But again: why would tourists trek from all over the planet to see this particular tower?

One answer is the amusing photo tourists take. In it, one person leans forward in the foreground, hands positioned to create the illusion in the photo that you’re holding up the leaning tower in the background. The joke is about playing hero to miraculously hold off doom. [2]  The illusion is play: it teases us with wish-fulfillment and builds up morale while winking at our pretensions. Check it out.

It’s a potent illusion. In myth, Atlas holds up the world. Great leaders and con men continually pretend to be holding up the world. At the moment people are fascinated by a rich demagogue who brags about holding up fabulous Trump Tower by bravado, bluffing, and chicanery. In the funhouse of advertising and propaganda, Mr Clean promises to wipe away all dirty chaos. In the Piazza, a few Italian soldiers with red berets and automatic weapons dramatize the effort to hold up a civilization that terrorists are bent on tearing down.   

No wonder the leaning tower illusion has a comic quality. The joke recognizes that illusion may trump realism—better not take it too seriously.  After all, everybody knows tourism is partly a racket: a crowd-moving machine with naive souvenirs and a cash register. Engineers have finessed the tower’s foundation with concrete. The deeper problem is that wonders are always wearing out. After a walk on the moon, the pyramids are monumental clichés. The entertainment industry is trying to re-enchant them with illusion, claiming that brainy space aliens built them.

Most wonders have a quality of play about them. They invite you to pretend you're in their strange world. But here’s the twist: play does real work. In an era when spectacular photos of deep space are on your screen and science tells you that a rogue asteroid could ruin your lawn, the ancient aliens fairy tale makes exploration less scary.

As a form of play, tourism opens you to possibilities. In play, you can be enchanted yet also aware that it’s only play.  The tourists playing at superheroes holding up the leaning tower may have had a similarly tongue-in-cheek attitude toward the sacred grandeur of the cathedral. They’re exploring, but wary of touristy illusion and also of their own hopes and fears.

Spectacular sports events are also forms of play. They too arouse heroic dreams —and pass the corn chips, please. But where a game tries to sum things up in climactic victory, wonder is open-ended. Win at football and you “rule.” Lose and start training for next season. But wonder has no natural limits. It can panic as well as edify us. Nobody really knows why we’re alive and annihilated tomorrow.

Yet the tourists I saw in the Piazza were grazing respectfully. Maybe their capacity for wonder is limited. Maybe they’re suspicious of their own enchantment. My guess is that they  were playing. And a good thing too. Play is a delicate balance for high-strung creatures like us. Nobody was fainting or seeing visions; nobody was trampled underfoot as in a soccer stampede or during the haj in Mecca.

The wish to be larger than life—and death—is built into us. It can be good for morale or demented. But keep in mind that the self is not a thing, but a social process that needs continual confirmation to stay healthy. Even as adults, we have a childlike need for attention to keep us feeling real. This is why the punishment of solitary confinement, which destroys the self, is a vicious form of judicial murder. It’s also one reason why tourists gather in crowds, with others, to explore the unthinkable.

In the Piazza dei Miracoli, the human need to be substantiated shows up in the costumes and ornaments tourists wear to catch each other’s attention. The need is in the photos and mementos that will wow the neighbors and someday prove that you really were there once upon a time. And don’t forget all the anonymous individual tourists trying to feel more real by posing for selfies with the sacred Disneyland behind them.

It’s tempting to see in the illusion of holding up the leaning tower a pop version of the mysteries that fascinated Pisa’s hometown boy Galileo. I’m thinking of the paradox of order in chaos that teases cosmologists. The Second Law of Thermodynamics says that heat energy always flows toward the uniform dead end that scientists used to call “heat death.” More recently, the picture’s turned paradoxical, because science has discovered that gravitational energy counters that one-way heat-doom.  As things fall apart, gravitational energy is evolving new order out of chaos, and in biology new life out of the wastebasket. Gravity pulls things down but it also pushes back.

Most of the time we live every day as if we’re going to live forever, as if the touring human imagination can buy a ticket to the leaning tower of wonder that isn’t just a season pass. Tacitly we know better. At this point you hear the tour guide Plato explaining to us gawkers that “Life should be lived as play.”

The urge to defy gravity is deeply built into us.  Don’t take my word for it. Have a look at this dance on a leaning tower.


1. For a more about “blowing your mind” as a cultural style, see The Psychology of Abandon (Leveller's Press), now also available as an ebook:

2. The leaning tower pose is a form of heroic rescue fantasy.  See “Life,Love, and Heroic rescue,” at