The Dispassionate Sybil and the Cosmic Dance

Almost forty years ago I read my first novel by Charles Williams. I do not recall why I chose it. It was not the first or even the second novel that he wrote, nor is it one that most readers of Charles Williams would recommend as an introduction to his fiction. Perhaps the title itself intrigued me. I do not know. All I know is that the story—or perhaps more accurately, the mystical vision—immediately grasped me. Since that first reading, The Greater Trumps has remained my favorite. Descent into Hell may be Williams’s best novel, but in my opinion The Greater Trumps best expresses Williams’s mythopoeic imagination. Weaving together elements from the Kabbala, occult esoterica, Egyptian and Jewish mythology, sprinkled with intimations of Trinity and Incarnation, Williams sings a tale of the archetypal dance of the cosmos. The figures of Tarot—Emperor and Empress; Hierophant and High Priestess; Sun and Moon; the Lovers and Death; Juggler, Hermit, and Hanged Man; and the Fool—enact the rhythms and patterns, unities and chaos of creation (but why is the Fool stationary?).  God is rarely mentioned in the narrative, yet his veiled presence is intimated throughout—“the mystery of Love.”

I picked up The Greater Trumps this past weekend and on this rereading was particularly struck by the character of Sybil. Her name evokes the female oracles of the ancient world, of whom Heraclitus wrote: “The Sybyl, with frenzied mouth uttering things not to be laughed at, unadorned and unperfumed, yet reaches to a thousand years with her voice by aid of the god.” Yet how different is the Sybil of the novel from the ancient sybyls. Not only does her life exhibit the exact opposite of frenzy—Sørina Higgins describes her as “the still point of the novel”—but she is remarkably incurious about knowing what the future may hold for her. When offered the opportunity to foretell the future using the original Tarot cards, she courteously, but firmly, declines:

“O, aunt, do!” Nancy said, feeling that if her aunt was in it things would be safer.

“Really, Nancy. I’d rather not–if you don’t mind,” Sybil said, apologetic, but determined. “It’s–it’s so much like making someone tell you a secret.”

“What someone?” Henry said, anger still in his voice.

“I don’t mean someone exactly,” Sybil said, “but things…the universe, so to speak. If it’s gone to all this trouble to keep the next minute quiet, it seems rude to force its confidence. Do forgive me.” She did not, Nancy noticed, add, as she sometimes did, that it was probably silly of her.

Henry Lee, fiancé to Sybil’s niece and a lifelong student of Tarot who hopes to master time, is puzzled by her indifference. “You sound,” he says, “on remarkably intimate terms with the universe. Mayn’t it cheat you? Supposing it had something unpleasant waiting for you?” “But,” replies Sybil, “as somebody says in Dickens, ‘It hasn’t, you know, so we won’t suppose it.'” Her secret is her faith in Omnipotent Love. She has surrendered herself to Love and trusts utterly in its providence. Hence she does not fear the future nor seek to know it before its time. Henry, on the other hand, knows much about the dance, but as he does not know Love, he cannot fathom its logic. He later explains to his father: “She’s got some sort of a calm, some equanimity in her heart. She—the only eyes that can read the future exactly, and she doesn’t want to know the future. Everything’s complete for her in the moment. It’s beautiful, it’s terrific—and what do we do about it?” But of course there’s nothing to be done about it. Sybil lives beyond their manipulation. She has, as Henry astutely observes, found her desire (though he does not comprehend what it might be) and now “stands within it, possessing it perfectly.” “You’re strange, you’re maiden, you’re a mystery of self-possession,” he tells her. The Eastern ascetics would call it dispassion.

Glen Cavaliero describes Sybil as “Williams’s most elaborate portrait of achieved sanctity: she lives in a condition of joyous calm, ironic, affectionate, secure, beholding ‘the primal nature’ (the nature of co-inherent triune Godhead) ‘revealed as a law to the creature'” (Charles Williams: Poet of Theology, p. 77). She is a true sybil—not like the ancient oracles but as one who is given over completely to the service and adoration of God. When Nancy and Henry accidentally unleash an apocalyptic blizzard, Sybil confidently goes out into the storm to search for her elder brother, Lothair. She is staggered by the force of the wind, but instead of fighting it, she surrenders “herself to the only certain thing that her life had discovered; she adored in this movement also the extreme benevolence of Love. She sank before the wind, but not in impotence; rather as the devotee sinks before the outer manifestation of the God that he may be made more wholly one with that which manifests.”  She recovers her balance and proceeds with her search in serenity and faith. “That she should be walking so lightly through the storm didn’t strike her as odd, because it wasn’t really she who was walking, it was Love, and naturally Love would be safe in his own storm. It was, certainly, a magnificent storm; she adored the power that was displayed in it.” In union with the Creator, she apprehends “the laws of the dance” and thus exercises a measure of sovereignty over the primordial elements.

By the time we meet Sybil, she has achieved, by grace, a high level of spiritual perfection. Those in the Western tradition might describe her as living the unitive way; those in the Eastern tradition, as enjoying theosis. She makes her sanctity look almost effortless. As Sybil’s brother complains to his son: “I have never known your aunt not be interested in anything, my boy.” The following passage, also from the storm chapter, alludes to her earlier ascetical struggles:

She was intensely aware of her brother; she drew up the knowledge of him from within her, and gave it back within her. In wave after wave the ocean of peace changed its “multitudinous laughter” from one myriad grouping to another. And all, being so, was so.

Such a state, in which the objects of her concern no longer struck upon her thoughts from without, recalled by an accident, a likeness, or a dutiful attention, but existed rather as they did in their own world—a state in which they were brought into being as by the same energy which had produced their actual natures—had not easily been reached. That sovereign estate, the inalienable heritage of man, had been in her, as in all, falsely mortgaged to the intruding control of her own greedy desires. Even when the true law was discovered, when she knew that she had the right and the power to possess all things, on the one condition that she was herself possessed, even then her freedom to yield herself had been won by many conflicts. Days of pain and nights of prayer had passed while her lonely soul escaped; innocent joys as well as guilty hopes had been starved. There had been a time when the natural laughter that attended on her natural intelligence had been hushed, when her brother had remarked that “Sybil seemed very mopy”. She had been shocked when she heard this by a sense of her disloyalty, since she believed enjoyment to be a debt which every man owes to his fellows, partly for its own sake, partly lest he at all diminish their own precarious hold on it. She attempted dutifully to enjoy and failed, but while she attempted it the true gift was delivered into her hands.

When the word Love had come to mean for her the supreme greatness of man she could hardly remember: one incident and another had forced it on her mind—the moment when her mother, not long before death, had said to her, “Love, Sybil, if you dare; if you daren’t, admit it”; the solemn use of the name in the great poets, especially her youthful reading of Dante; a fanatic in a train who had given her a tract: Love God or go to Hell. It was only after a number of years that she had come to the conclusion that the title was right, except perhaps for go to—since the truth would have been more accurately rendered by be in Hell. She was doubtful also about God; Love would have been sufficient by itself but it was necessary at first to concentrate on something which could be distinguished from all its mortal vessels, and the more one lived with that the more one found that it possessed in fact all the attributes of Deity. She had tried to enjoy, and she remem­bered vividly the moment when, walking down Kingsway, it had struck her that there was no need for her to try or to enjoy: she had only to be still, and let that recognized Deity itself enjoy, as its omnipotent nature was. She still forgot occasionally; her mortality still leapt rarely into action, and confused her and clouded the sublime operation of—of It. But rarely and more rarely those moments came; more and more securely the working of that Fate which was Love possessed her. For it was fatal in its nature; rich and austere at once, giving death and life in the same moment, restoring beyond belief all the things it took away—except the individual will.

Sybil’s self-possession in Christ did not come easily. It required years of prayer, self-denial, and repentance. Both “innocent joys” and “guilty hopes” had to be crucified to make possible the sacred exchange. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (Jn 12:24-25).

We are given a glimpse of Sybil’s remarkable gifts midway through the story when Henry and his father Aaron show the Coningsby family their collection of golden figurines. The figurines correspond exactly to those pictured in the Tarot cards. They have long been kept hidden from the world and reside now reside in a room in the elder Lee’s home. The description of the room suggests a temple, the holy of holies, separated from its antecham­ber by curtain and locked door. The figures move perpetually in an ever-changing dance that cannot be exactly charted or predicted. All move, that is say, except one—the Fool, whose number is nought. He is the inexplicable wild card. When Mr Congingsby asks why the fool does not move, Aaron replies, “Nobody knows about the Fool.” This is why Henry and Aaron are so anxious to recover the original Tarot cards. They hope the cards will explain the dance and thus enable them to divine the future and control history.

The Fool remains stationary while all the other figures dance around him. At least, that is what everyone sees and perhaps has always seen since the figures and cards were first made. Yet when Sybil looks at the place on the table where the Fool is supposed to be, she cannot see it.

“I can’t see this central figure,” she said. “Where is it exactly, Mr. Lee?”

Aaron, Henry, and her brother all pointed to it, and all with very different accents said, “There”. Sybil stepped slightly forward, then to one side; she moved her head to different angles, and then said apologetically, “You’ll all think me frightfully silly, but I can’t see any figure in the middle.”

“Really, Sybil!” her brother said. “There!”

“But, my dear, it isn’t there,” she said. “At least, so far as I can possibly see. I’m sorry to be so stupid, Mr. Lee, because it’s all quite the loveliest thing I ever saw in the whole of my life. It’s perfectly wonderful and beautiful. And I just want, if I can, to see where you say this particular figure is.”

But as Sybil gazes at the figures, she finally catches a glimpse of the Fool.

“Yes,” she said at last, “there–no, there–no–it’s moving so quickly I can hardly see it–there–ah, it’s gone again. Surely that’s it, dancing with the rest; it seems as if it were always arranging itself in some place which was empty for it.”

Henry and Aaron are astonished. Everyone has always seen an immobile Fool, until now. But in Sybil’s enlightened vision, the Fool moves so quickly within the dance that he only appears to be stationary. Sybil sees the Fool because she is partnered with him in the “mystical dance”: she sees because she loves within the God who is Love. “‘Wordly’ eyes, no matter how informed,” Thomas Howard comments, “cannot see that it is Love that is speeding through all things, enabling and encouraging and making up the blank spaces. To the eye of the saint all the absurdities and pain and imponderables turn out to be, somehow, the motions of Love” (The Novels of Charles Williams, pp. 192-193).

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One Response to The Dispassionate Sybil and the Cosmic Dance

  1. Matthew Hryniewicz says:

    “…“Love, Sybil, if you dare; if you daren’t, admit it”; the solemn use of the name in the great poets, especially her youthful reading of Dante; a fanatic in a train who had given her a tract: Love God or go to Hell. It was only after a number of years that she had come to the conclusion that the title was right, except perhaps for go to—since the truth would have been more accurately rendered by be in Hell.”

    These lines really stood out to me. They get to the heart of a deeply felt tension that I think we all face at some level. Namely, that Love is difficult and often presents itself as a risk; that only the brave lay hold of it, and yet the sole alternative is hell. We lie to ourselves if we think we can stake out some middle ground.

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