Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Anthony Powell and the occult

In an otherwise very appreciative and insightful short essay on A Dance to the Music of Time in his new book, Latest Readings, Clive James writes:
New readers should be warned, however, that there is the occasional dull stretch. At the opening of volume 6 (The Kindly Ones) there is far too much about servants, ghosts, and the occult. Defending himself against charges that he was too interested in Burke's Peerage, Powell said that he would have been equally interested in a book called Burke's Workers* But the truth was that the toffs, or would-be toffs, were what he was best at. And no writer dedicated to showing life as it is should give even fleeting acknowledgment to the occult. The real reason why Scorpio Murtlock, the sinister, hippie-ish cult leader in the last volume, is such an unlikely figure is that Powell gives him a measure of the telepathic power that he claims, whereas in fact the typical counterculture hero was fake. Evelyn Waugh would not have been fooled for a minute. Nor, probably, would Olivia Manning.
Though I think James is wrong, I'll start by saying that a man who is openly, publicly facing his own impending death is allowed to be a bit dogmatic about whichever side of the spiritual divide he comes down on. How one harrows or hallows one's own soul--or determined lack thereof--in the face of oblivion is a personal decision, and I could see how a determination in one direction or the other could easily inflect other areas of analysis. (All of which, of course, is the rankest speculation. It's entirely possible, even likely, that James has always found Powell's occult subjects objectionable.)

But I think James is wrong here, not just about Powell, but in general, when he says there is any specific way that a writer "dedicated to showing life as it is" must handle the occult. For the reality is that occult interests, feelings, ideas, and tendencies are all around us--and were far more so in Powell's youth and young adulthood, as the post-WWI spiritualist craze rippled through society. By presenting people engaging in fortune telling, playing planchette, or hinting at telepathic powers, Powell is very much presenting "life as it is."

What seems to rankle James isn't so much that Powell includes these elements--though one senses that he'd prefer Powell hadn't--but that he seems to lend them credence. Mrs. Erdleigh is most likely a fraud, but she does say one or two things that stick, and, interpreted broadly, seem to come true. Billson, the parlourmaid, has a breakdown after seeing a ghost. And, yes, Murtlock does appear to have, if not telepathy, some sort of psychic magnetism.

In none of those situations, however, is Powell (or his narrative stand-in, Nick Jenkins) definitive. All these are interpretations that could be put on events--but their opposites remain entirely in play. The ambiguity is deliberate, and is of a piece with the ambiguity that Powell allows to shroud so many of the important moments in Dance: while we see some crucial events directly, through Jenkins's eyes, we more often are the recipients of stories retailed at second or third hand, with the lacunae and hazy interpretations of motive and outcome that such distance engenders. Powell is using the occult in the same way he uses coincidence, or patterning, or repetition: it's a fact of our world that events present themselves in these ways, and while we tell ourselves we can plumb them, we rarely achieve anything like certainty. We live in a fog that we interpret as best we can. You can view these instances as James does, with disapproval of Powell's seeming approval of an occult interpretation, or you can see them as simply more furniture in the mostly realistic fictional mansion that Powell is kitting out.

Or, to put it another way, by bringing it back to coincidence, that kin of the occult that is one of Powell's favorite tools, and one that also has earned him complaints about unlikeliness or the tax it levies on our credulity, we can take what James himself writes in that same essay:
He is sometimes accused of overdoing the device of coincidence, but life does, too.
You can interpret the string of coincidences (or the occult moments) in the books as having meaning, as Powell himself certainly seems to do at times--making it, as Marvel Comics hero Doctor Strange once put it, a sign that "the universe is tugging at our subconscious." Or you can see them as yet another attempt by our pattern-making brains to impose order on the universe, in which case, we can let E. F. Benson have the last word: "The nature of coincidence is to be odd. . . . Unless coincidences are startling they escape observation altogether."


  1. Very good points. One might also point out that, if James is so interested in rationality, he might be well advised to give up his climate change denialism.

  2. I finished reading _A Dance_ several months ago, so it is quite fresh in my mind. I remember the occult part,and I have to disagree with James, both about the "dull" parts and the occult parts.

    I found no dull parts in the series. If James did, then that's his problem.

    As for the occult part, I had no problem with that or with Mrs. Erdleigh. Those things happen, and one is free to interpret them as one chooses, as a manifestation of the supernatural or fraud or coincidence. .

    In Thomas Mann's _Magic Mountain_ is a part dealing with seances, one of which includes some very startling events which bring all such experiments to an end. It's another example of a writer who explores the varied nature of reality in which strange and inexplicable things do happen. I wonder if James would complain about that also.

  3. Very interesting analysis and argument. You (and Fred) persuade me that Powell's work must be moved up to a higher position on my "must read" list, especially since my recent "literary inquiries" are preoccupations with agons (struggles with selves, others, and the Divine) and death. Perhaps I am reading too much into your posting (and Fred's earlier recommendations to me), but the Powell works seem more than ever appropriate to my obsession. All the best from R.T. at the revived and revised blog --