Septimus So the Improved Newtonian Universe must cease and grow cold. Dear me.
Valentine The heat goes into the mix.
He gestures to indicate the air in the room, in the universe.
Thomasina Yes, we must hurry if we are going to dance.
Valentine And everything is mixing the same way, all the time, irreversibly.
Septimus Oh, we have time, I think.
Valentine … till there’s no time left. That’s what time means.
Septimus When we have found all the mysteries and lost all the meaning, we will be alone, on an empty shore.
Thomasina Then we will dance. Is this a waltz?
Septimus It will serve.
What changes Septimus’s mind about the serviceability of the music for a waltz? For earlier he had used it as an excuse, a reason, to refuse to give his student the lesson she has requested: it is too slow for waltzing, he tells us. We know that this is music from without: the piano is not playing for them inside the room. So music is symbolic of the way the circumstances we find ourselves in, the conditions that rarely play according to what our hearts desire, what our minds wish. This music is being played at a remove, ill-suited to the purpose of the characters inside the room; in the same way, the world always feels outside, exterior, often contrary to our interior universe, the world within. It is party music, played for a purpose that suits the many; it is not a waltz, music for two, music for two people to dance to. The space of the intimate, that fugitive and small world big enough for only two people, moves to a beat at odds with the rhythm of the visible, the social, the ritual.
Again, what changes Septimus’s mind? Thomasina’s argument, and the realization or understanding that comes along with it: he, Thomasina, they, we have little time left. For unlike a clockwork universe — Newton’s universe — that chugs along perfectly forever in perpetual motion, the universe drawn by Thomasina is a world forever and always already is tending towards its end. The machine of the world is not just a combination of gears and cogs; it is also a body that uses up energy, fuel that is lost and will never be regained again; in the end the machine will break down. And if existence itself can end, what meaning is left? This is what Septimus is reeling from, what confronts him, when he sees all mankind as people left on an empty shore, having nothing left to look for and nothing to guide us. An empty shore: the phrase recalls the lines from Arnold’s Dover Beach:
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
What faith is now no longer there when we stand and search from the shore? Faith in the meaning of things, perhaps, or faith in things that have lasting meaning; either way, this faith is no longer what we can look to for meaning. When we have found all the mysteries and lost all the meaning: is this, the play seems to ask, what all our science, our scholarship and striving towards truth, all this human enterprise, has brought us — namely, the end of faith and meaning?
Confronted by this, Septimus makes a choice: the music may not be perfect for waltzing, but it will serve. The world, or the conditions of our existence, may no longer be tethered to our need for meaning and coherence, this machine may have turned out to have never been constructed for us at all, but that does not mean we cannot create that coherence ourselves, with what we can find. Coherence is the dance that Septimus allows himself to have, against convention, decorum and his own better judgement; an inner coherence shaped within the confines of a secret space, shared with another person. This space is lit only by the frail light of candles, and filled with music borrowed from outside — nothing seems to be fit for the purpose, nothing seems to be exactly what is needed, everything seems to be wrong; yet if these circumstances are all that we have, then all we can do is make what we can of them and craft something meaningful with them. If we are indeed on a shore that is empty, confronted by an implacable sea that laps at its borders and threatens to consume it, then all we have left are the ones we find next to us, watching it together. In the end, that may explain why the phrase “we will be alone, on an empty shore” strikes one as being not altogether despairing in tone; in fact, it betokens too the finding of a shared space, a world away from society, strife, business and parties. By the end of the play, Gus and Hannah, Septimus and Thomasina, dance without words, and in a play where words have led only to erroneous scholarship and meaningless wit, this seems pointed; perhaps being in each other’s company, in this moment and at this time, is all the meaning they need.