Aunt Sybil the Taoist Sage

Aunt Sybil is no relation but a character in a novel by Charles Williams: 'The Greater Trumps' that I finished yesterday as part of my plan to read all of Williams' novels (hopefully within the year).

Sybil is the maiden aunt who lives with her widowed brother, Mr Coningsbury, and his two children, Nancy and Ralph, both now entering adulthood. She is the unassuming centre of the novel. Loy Ching-Yuen in his masterly 'The Supreme Way: Inner Teachings of the Southern Mountain Tao' says, 'True followers of the Tao do so without ambition'. Aunt Sybil is a woman completely devoted to embodying the truth of love, who has worked at disposing herself to it all her life yet with no one, until now, consciously noticing. She has no ambition beyond surrender. Meanwhile, everyone has drunk at the well her life has made manifest but without ever regarding it as in anyway 'special'. Her good has been done with 'wu wei' - the incisiveness of 'no effort' and done in 'minute particulars'.

But now the life of the Coningsbury family has been disrupted. A friend of Mr Coningsbury has died leaving him his collection of antique playing cards amongst which is a set of Tarot cards. Meanwhile, Nancy has fallen in love with Henry, a young barrister of Gypsy heritage, who bears a family secret intimately connected with the Tarot cards.

At Henry's home, presided over by his grandfather, in a secret room is a miraculous 'table' across which magical figures representing the Greater Trumps of the Tarot continuously dance. They are archetypal figures whose dance is the cosmic dance, the mystery pattern of the whole creation. The cards are the key to interpreting the dance and potentially offer power to guide the cosmos into patterns sympathetic to the person manipulating them.

The temptations are great.

This being Charles Williams this magical scenario unfolds within a frame of utmost naturalness. The Coningsburys are a 'normal' middle class family (of the 1930s) and the fabulous events of the novel unfold as if nothing could be more natural than this world was the mirror of, and penetrated by, the reality of the supernatural.

Henry seeks to bring the two together - cards and table - and the consequences are nearly disastrous. The temptations of power twist the intentions of the good and only purity of heart can navigate power without yielding to temptation. Henry does not possess this.

Purity of heart and the intentions of love are borne in the novel by the women - Nancy and, most of all, Sybil. It is they in concert that heal the breach in the world's patterning opened up by Henry's misguided actions.

The portrayal of Sybil is, I think, one of the most remarkable achievements in the literature of seeking to depict the saintly (a challenge to many, greater artists, one thinks immediately of Dostoyevsky repetitive failures).

Why does Williams succeed? First, he succeeds because he realises that the good never belongs to the person through whom it flows. It is not a character of good that one needs to show but the effacement of character. Goodness flows through, it is never possessed. Second because it is never insistent. It acts along the contours of opportunity, taking the path of least resistance yet, as a result is remarkably strong. Third because paradoxically, from without, the channeler of the good appears wholly self-possessed: what else is there to do than manifest what needs to be shown forth or done.

It is the very opposite of 'hagiography' (and it carries a sense of humour - Sybil possesses it herself and is surrounded by it). If it were no laughed at, it would not be 'Tao'!

This brought me naturally to the analogy with Taoism (though Williams himself, of course, was explicitly a Christian novelist) and Lao Tzu's understanding that as soon as one begins to talk of (or characterise) the good, it is an indication of its absence.

There is a beautiful moment that illuminates this. On their way to Christmas at Henry's home, the family (being driven by Henry) are confronted by Joanna, Henry's deranged great aunt. All the characters present take up an attitude of 'resistance' (including that of wanting to 'do good' for Joanna). Only Sybil instinctively knows what to do - to mirror Joanna's pain and to act in such a way that Joanna's best potential meaning in her derangement can come forth and be understood. Sybil kneels before Joanna and accepts her blessing and Joanna turns away consoled: a glimmering break in the armour of her condition.


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