Saturday, January 5, 2013

Scorpio Murtlock: Anthony Powell’s Spot-On Cult Leader

As noted in my last post, Hearing Secret Harmonies, the final book in Anthony Powell’s twelve-novel cycle “A Dance to the Music of Time,” focuses on a New Age cult. The eternally unlikable prig Kenneth Widmerpool, first seen as an awkward schoolboy in volume one, has become in volume twelve the unhinged follower and would-be competitor of cult leader Scorpio Murtlock. The image at left is from a British TV adaptation in which Simon Russell Beale plays Widmerpool—having a bowl of sugar dumped on his head. 

I thought that a cult—offering “Shortcuts to the Infinite, Wisdom of the East, Analects of the Sages”—was a particularly striking place for this series to end, as though all of the twentieth century’s cultural history had led to alchemical craziness in the ancient woods of Olde England, men and women running around in blue smocks and chanting arcane formulae, when they aren’t cavorting in the nude.

Having lived through the late 1960s myself, I found Powell’s characterization of Murtlock chilling. He is a “dark young man” with a “gift of authority.” His “run-of-the-mill outlandishness certainly comprised something perceptibly priestly about it. . . . His eyes, pale, cold, unblinking, could not be denied a certain degree of magnetism.”

So much about him is mysterious: “How Murtlock lived seemed as unknowable as his sexual proclivities.” Murtlock has initially positive impact on his followers. Nick’s niece Fiona, under Murtlock’s influence, becomes “sober, honest, and an early riser, not to mention meditations.” But Murtlock himself can be creepy and spooky while exerting an uncanny control over his followers, including Fiona, a gay man named Henderson, and a loose young lady named Rusty.

“The objection to him, if objection there were, was the sense that he brought of something ominous. No doubt Murtlock’s chief attraction was owed to this ominousness, something more sexually persuasive than good looks, spectacular trappings, even sententious observations. It might be assumed that Fiona and Rusty were ‘in love’ with Murtlock. Probably Henderson shared that passion. Murtlock himself showed no sign of being emotionally drawn to any of them.” 

Murtlock, who “rarely laughed” had “an ability to impose on others present the duty of gratifying his own whims.”

Powell wrote each of his twelve books at two-year intervals from 1971 to 1975, and it may just have been fortuitous that when he was completing volume twelve, the hippie era of cannabis, communes, and esoterica was fresh in his memory. Using subject matter right under his nose would have been an easy way to finish off the series.

But so much of this “Dance” seems choreographed in advance, and Murtlock is not the first character in the “Dance” with mystic powers. Dr. Trelawney is a sort of Theosophical health nut seen in early volumes; narrator Nick Jenkins calls Murtlock’s cult “a revival of Trelawneyism.” Myra Erdleigh, a ladyfriend of Nick’s Uncle Giles, was a fortune-teller. There is also a secondary character in Harmonies, Canon Fenneau, who was an Anglican cleric but is now an alchemist: “Fenneau’s signature would appear from time to time under reviews of books about Hermetic Philosophy, the Rosicrucians, Witchcraft, works that dealt with what might be called the scholarly end of Magic.”

Whether Anthony Powell meant this or not, his “Dance” seems to say that modernism in literature, art, and music (a central theme in volumes one through eleven) stripped Western culture of transcendent values so completely that by the late 1960s and volume twelve, esoteric mumbo-jumbo was all we had left.

In Murtlock’s cult, “Harmony, Power, and Death are all more or less synonymous.” Of course, they are.


  1. Good article. I am rereading HSH at the moment. It is probably one of my favorite in the cycle, precisely because Powell captures the New Age menace so presciently.

    Many on the Left do not like this book because of it. They do not want to acknowledge its veracity.

    A Question of Upbringing the first in the series of Dance was published in 1951.

    Fenneau was still an Anglican.

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