I am reading Anthony Powell’s woolly mammoth of a novel, Dance to the Music of Time, which some people adore and others don’t. I remember hearing of some old literary gent, it might have been John Julius Norwich, who re-reads the entire 2,0000-page book every year, such is their veneration for it.
The book has its faults – it is claustrophobically social, trapped in the drawing room, like J. Alfred Prufrock, with none of the heights or depths of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, or DH Lawrence. Humans, in Powell’s account, are little more than hyperactive monkeys, endlessly trying to clamber higher up the social tree.
There are occasional moments, however, and these are what raises the novel above mere drawing-room farce, when the narrator seems to intuit some hidden mystical order behind the whirl of social and political events. The trigger for these moments tends to be the abrupt re-appearance of one of the many characters in the book, who after a long absence suddenly returns into the narrator’s life, perhaps at a key moment, or just as he is thinking of them.
The narrator feels almost vertiginous at such moments, as if dream and reality have merged, as if he hears, for a brief moment, the hidden harmony that governs our chaotic and random movements, so that it seems as if we are figures dancing to a higher tune, our movements and relations part of an intricate and coordinated pattern, even if we are unconscious of this pattern.
It is one of the capacities of art and philosophy to raise us up briefly to this mystical vantage-point, to lift us beyond our own immediate egotistic concerns and anxieties, to a glimpse of the cosmic dance of which we are part. Art is like the benevolent adult who lifts us up onto their shoulders so we can glimpse the parade going past.
Stoicism and Platonism both try to raise us to this cosmic perspective, in which we can perceive the Logos, the divine order into which all our lives are weaved like threads in a great tapestry. Thus Marcus Aurelius wrote:
‘Always think of the universe as one living organism, with a single substance and a single soul; and observe…how all play their part in the causation of every event that happens. Remark the intricacy of the skein, the complexity of the web.’
Tragedy can likewise guide us from an individual and egotistical perspective, in which life seems grim and not worth the candle, to a cosmic perspective in which we perceive that, in the over-quoted words of Hamlet, ‘there is a divinity that shapes our ends, rough hew them how we will’. We discern the higher pattern at work, both its justice and its beauty, and this gives us the ability to accept our misfortunes, our suffering, our humiliations, and to carry on living.
The genre of the novel is, perhaps, particularly well-fitted to bring us to this cosmic perspective on time and human agency, because novels are able to follow people’s lives over a long period of time (particularly if they are 2000 words long like Powell’s book) and they can follow a large number of characters, and show how the the fate of characters weave together, creating point and counter-point, uncanny parallels, correspondences and ‘elective affinities’.
Tolstoy’s War and Peace is the greatest example of this. There is a cosmic ‘elective affinity’, for example, between Prince Andrei Bolkonsky and the vain society rake Anatole Kuragin. Bolkonsky is engaged to the lovely Natasha Rostova, but when he is away from Moscow, she is seduced by Kuragin, who ruins their love and drives them apart.
Bolkonsky falls into a deep nihilistic gloom, and then is seriously injured on the battlefield of Borodino. He is carried to a medical tent, and hears the pitiful cries of a soldier next to him who is having his leg amputated.
‘My God! What is this? Why is he here?’ said Prince Andrei to himself.
In the miserable, sobbing, enfeebled man whose leg had been amputated he recognized Anatole Kuragin…
‘Yes, it is he! Yes, that man is somehow closely and painfully connected with me’, thought Prince Andrei.
The memory of who Anatole is and what his connection is with him, and the sight of his enemy so pitifully weak and wounded, suddenly releases within Andrei a well of compassion and pity, a love for both friend and enemy, which redeems him from his former spiritual drought.
Later on, the mortally-injured Andrei is carried on a cart through Moscow, a piece of flotsam on the raging waves of history, and the cart happens to stop next to the carriage of the Rostovs, who are fleeing the city before Napoleon invades. Andrei awakes from his fever to see the girl he was dreaming about:
‘When he came to himself, Natasha, the same living Natasha whom of all people he most longed to live with this new pure divine love that had been revealed to him, was kneeling before him. He realized that it was the real living Natasha, and he was not surprised, but quietly happy…
‘You?’ he said. ‘How fortunate!’
Russian novels are full of such coincidences. Are they contrived? Is the novelist creating a comforting illusion that there is a higher pattern to our seemingly random lives?
Milan Kundera argued, in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, that actually, a good novel makes us aware of the existence of such ‘coincidences’ in real life. He writes:
Our day-to-day life is bombarded with fortuities or, to be more precise, with the accidental meetings of people and events we call coincidences. “Co-incidence” means that two events unexpectedly happen at the same time, they meet: Tomas [the novel's hero] appears in the hotel restaurant at the same time the radio is playing Beethoven. We do not even notice the great majority of such coincidences. If the seat Tomas occupied had been occupied instead by the local butcher, Tereza [the novel's heroine] never would have noticed that the radio was playing Beethoven (though the meeting of Beethoven and the butcher would also have been an interesting coincidence). But her nascent love inflamed her sense of beauty, and she would never forget that music. Whenever she heard it, she would be touched. Everything going on around her at that moment would be haloed by the music and take on its beauty.
Early in the novel [Anna Karenina] that Tereza clutched under her arm when she went to visit Tomas, Anna meets Vronsky in curious circumstances: they are at the railway station when someone is run over by a train. At the end of the novel, Anna throws herself under a train. This symmetrical composition — the same motif appears at the beginning and at the end — may seem quite “novelistic” to you, and I am willing to agree, but only on condition that you refrain from reading such notations as “fictive,” “fabricated,” and “untrue to life” into the word “novelistic.” Because human lives are composed in precisely such a fashion.
They are composed like music. Guided by his sense of beauty, an individual transforms a fortuitous occurrence (Beethoven’s music, death under a train) into a motif, which then assumes a permanent place in the composition of the individual’s life. Anna could have chosen another way to take her life. But the motif of death and the railway station, unforgettably bound to the birth of love, enticed her in her hour of despair with its dark beauty. Without realizing it, the individual composes his life according to the laws of beauty, even in times of greatest distress.
It is wrong, then, to chide the novel for being fascinated by mysterious coincidences (like the meeting of Anna, Vronsky, Tomas Tereza, and the cognac), but it is right to chide man for being blind to such coincidences in his daily life. For he thereby deprives his life of a dimension of beauty.
But the question Kundera skirts around here is – is the cosmic pattern actually and objectively ‘out there’, as Plato thought, or do we manufacture it ourselves (‘an individual transforms a fortuitous occurrence…into a motif’)? These are two very different views.
Personally, I’ve had occasional moments when I have felt (and it can only ever be a feeling or intuition) that a greater hand than mine is writing the story of my life, and not just my life, but all our lives, that the conventional reality in which we live, in which we are all separate little egos pursuing our own separate goals, is an illusion, and a greater and in fact somewhat terrifying reality exists beyond this illusion, in which there is no separation between self and other, dream and reality, but we really are one cosmic mind becoming aware of itself.
I say ‘terrifying’ because one feels vertiginous in such moments. One is no longer sure of the boundaries governing one’s life, between self and other, dream and reality. Reality seems to ripple, like a wave. At its most acute, this terror can lead to schizophrenia.
But the majority of us, fortunately, only rise to such vertiginous moments very occasionally. We look up from the book we are reading in a cafe, we look around the room or the street in a sort of reverie, and we seem for a moment to see through everyday life and to sense that some pattern is at work in our lives, some intricate web of destinies and energies…but then a spoon is dropped or a car honks its horn, and the reverie is broken, and we are pulled back into the foaming current of everyday life.