Listening for silence: Comic mysticism in Anthony Powell's "A Dance to the Music of Time"

Anthony Monti, Fordham University


Powell's Dance has been criticized for lacking thematic unity. Though lacking a proposition for its theme, Dance is nevertheless "about" something, comic mysticism. Dance expresses not a proposition but a process, that of finding meaning by discovering through trial and error the inadequacy and revisability of our preconceptions; we thus discern what Wittgenstein's Tractatus calls "the mystical"--that meaning and value "must lie outside the world" (71) and thus can never be put into "propositions." Dance's narrator, Nicholas Jenkins, discovers this by detaching himself from "all that happens and is the case" (71) so as to view the world comically as "a limited whole" (73); meaning thus takes the form not of "propositions" but of patterns and metaphors. Together, these constitute the Dance to the Music of Time. Dance and music express comic mysticism by existing only in time (as process) and expressing meaning non-verbally. The dance expresses the union of performer and performance in this process, while music expresses the non-conceptual and therefore "mystical" nature of this process. Dance's form is "musical," resembling a symphony. Dance's First Movement resembles the "sonata form" of a symphonic first movement, presenting the "exposition," "development," and "recapitulation" of the contrasting "first and second subjects," Jenkins and Widmerpool. Dance's Second Movement suggests a second movement "theme-and-variations" pattern in which the largely unstated "theme" is Nick's marriage while its "variations" are the marriages or near marriages of others, including Widmerpool. Dance's Third Movement resembles the dance-like ternary form of a third-movement scherzo, as a "march" suggesting a Dance of Death (as in Tchaikovsky's Sixth and Mahler's Sixth). Dance's Fourth Movement, like the finale to Mahler's Ninth, is a melancholy farewell to life that brings the music to an end in a "silence" that, because of all that has gone before, takes on "mystical" significance as part of the "music." Comic mysticism can be shown to link Powell to such Modernists as Joyce, Mann, and Proust. Yet by overcoming the distinction between subject and object, comic mysticism also touches on some postmodern concerns. It also helps to account for the difficulty in categorizing Powell, since it questions for usefulness of all categories.

Subject Area

British and Irish literature

Recommended Citation

Monti, Anthony, "Listening for silence: Comic mysticism in Anthony Powell's "A Dance to the Music of Time"" (1991). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI9127039.