Scylla & Charybdis (Chapter 9)
First, the usual brief summary of the Homeric basis for this year’s episode. In Book 12 of The Odyssey, Odysseus and his men are forced to choose between sailing a course that passes near Scylla, a six-headed monster that will claim one member of the crew for each of its heads, or Charybdis, a massive whirlpool that will engulf the entire ship. Odysseus chooses the lesser evil but makes the mistake of battling the indestructible Scylla (which he was advised not to do) thereby losing far more than six members of his crew. When we say we are stuck “between a rock and a hard place” or “the devil and the deep blue sea” we are recalling Odysseus’ impossible choice. In Ulysses, the choice is between two great world views: the lofty idealism of the Platonists and the grounded analysis of Aristotelians—Big Picture versus Small Picture; Micro versus Macro; Idealism versus Materialism, and so on.
The central action of Chapter 9, set in the National Library, is a sprawling debate about Shakespeare between Stephen Dedalus and a shifting cast of actual figures from Dublin’s literary scene, including the poet George Russell (better known by his pseudonym AE). These literary lights are the whirlpool Charybdis of the chapter, quasi-Platonist members of the Irish Literary Renaissance that, in Joyce’s view, too often wallowed in silly mysticism and sentimental nationalism. Adding to the sense of Platonic abstraction, each figure appears in the novel under their pen name—these are not the men in question, only a depiction of their own ideals of themselves. In a surprising, witty touch the chapter’s Scylla, Jesuit-trained in the art of Artistotelian thinking (and sniping), is Stephen himself.
As Declan Kiberd writes in Ulysses & Us “this is the wisdom offered by the story of Scylla and Charybdis—the healthy mind must not submit to either extreme, but entertain both possibilities in a mode of openness.” Stephen’s mind, however, is not healthy. Indeed he is of many minds (like the six-headed Scylla) all of them apparently dedicated to lashing out at others and himself. He is consumed by guilt at his behavior during his mother’s death (he refused to pray with her), by anger with his father, by envy of the success of other literary Dubliners, by frustration at his failure to deliver on his own promising talent . . . and on and on. All these resentments become manifest as he tries to impress and outduel Russell and company in a sort of intellectual battle royal by trotting out his elaborate theory (which he later admits he does not actually believe) about the relationship between Shakespeare’s life and his plays.
As a result, Chapter 9 is a challenging episode filled with allusions and references not only to Shakespeare but to Greek philosophy, the mystical jargon of Theosophy, the Boer War, Irish literature, French poetry, and even American songwriter Stephen Foster, to name only a few. One could easily follow any (or all) of these ideas down countless intellectual rabbit holes—or should I say whirlpools? One could also engage in equally endless pedantic bickering over the origins and interpretations of these myriad allusions and references. Many Joyce scholars and academics have, in fact, done both. At one point, dismissing the ethereal neo-Platonism of his adversaries, Stephen reflects, “the life esoteric is not for ordinary person”—a remark that could be applied to much of what is said in Chapter 9. Which is not to say the episode is an outright condemnation of either philosophy or of the characters in the chapter. There is much wisdom to be found in Shakespeare, Plato, Aristotle, and the many other writers and thinkers referenced by Stephen and his rivals. The fault lies in clinging too strictly to any one idea or school of thought, a common mistake made by those who, like the men in this chapter, are enamored of the life of the mind.
But where is our modern Odysseus in all this? Where is Leopold Bloom? The lesson of the chapter is not a lesson that Bloom needs to learn, so we see him only briefly: first in silhouette as he speaks (unheard by us) to the librarian about tracking down an old advertisement and later as he passes between Stephen and his spiteful friend Buck Mulligan, thereby symbolically underscoring Stephen’s decision to end their friendship. Bloom avoids Odysseus’ fate by leaving Scylla and Charybdis to do battle with each other. Stephen, though, despite all his knowledge, still has a lot to learn. Early in the chapter he reflects on the temptations of books and libraries, comparing libraries to cemeteries and books to coffins: “Coffined thoughts around me, in mummycases, embalmed in spice of words.” Of books he thinks: “an itch of death is on them.” And yet Stephen is an aspiring writer, a teacher, someone who is well and widely read. And Ulysses is a book. So what are we to make of this bookish condemnation of books, this chapter that uses erudition to condemn itself?
Often in Ulysses Joyce attempts to create a first-hand experience for the reader. The Scylla and Charybdis episode is a striking example of this. Like the characters we, as readers, are forced us to make our own imperfect choice: do we pore over the references and try to track down down each allusion or do we ignore them altogether and deny ourselves the wisdom they contain? In order to fully understand what you are reading, you must make the effort but in order to follow Bloom’s example you should avoid them. Bloom, after all, is precisely the sort of person who would abandon reading Ulysses after a few pages—if he attempted it in the first place.
This is a lesson for bookish people, for people who run the risk of adoring literature and the arts at the expense of their lives. Coffined thoughts may be a dusty replacement for the living minds of their creators but they remain our only means of gaining some slight victory over death. Coffined thoughts bridge the gaps of time and space that exist between ourselves and others; between our current selves and our past selves. It would be a grave error to ignore those tombish tomes. Yet we shouldn’t fetishize them either, mistaking the enjoyment of those ghostly records of someone else’s lapsed life for living itself.
Having said that, here’s an excerpt from Chapter 9. May it enrich your life!
This section, which comes fairly early in the chapter, gives a taste of the debate, of Stephen’s biographical reading of Shakespeare (Hamlet, in this case) and also of his guilty conscience over, among other things, the fact that he owes AE/George Russell a pound (which he misspent at a brothel). That guilt culminates in one of the more famous puns in Ulysses: AEIOU. As usual, I’ve also included an audio clip of the the excerpt from the 1982 RTE full-cast production of Ulysses.
—What is a ghost? Stephen said with tingling energy. One who has faded into impalpability through death, through absence, through change of manners. Elizabethan London lay as far from Stratford as corrupt Paris lies from virgin Dublin. Who is the ghost from limbo patrum, returning to the world that has forgotten him? Who is king Hamlet?
John Eglinton shifted his spare body, leaning back to judge:
—It is this hour of a day in mid June, Stephen said, begging with a swift glance their hearing. The flag is up on the playhouse by the bankside. The bear Sackerson growls in the pit near it, Paris garden. Canvasclimbers who sailed with Drake chew their sausages among the groundlings.
Local colour. Work in all you know. Make them accomplices.
—Shakespeare has left the huguenot’s house in Silver street and walks by the swanmews along the riverbank. But he does not stay to feed the pen chivying her game of cygnets towards the rushes. The swan of Avon has other thoughts.
Composition of place. Ignatius Loyola, make haste to help me!
—The play begins. A player comes on under the shadow, made up in the castoff mail of a court buck, a wellset man with a bass voice. It is the ghost, the king, a king and no king, and the player is Shakespeare who has studied Hamlet all the years of his life which were not vanity in order to play the part of the spectre. He speaks the words to Burbage, the young player who stands before him beyond the rack of cerecloth, calling him by a name:
Hamlet, I am thy father’s spirit
bidding him list. To a son he speaks, the son of his soul, the prince, young Hamlet and to the son of his body, Hamnet Shakespeare, who has died in Stratford that his namesake may live for ever.
—Is it possible that that player Shakespeare, a ghost by absence, and in the vesture of buried Denmark, a ghost by death, speaking his own words to his own son’s name (had Hamnet Shakespeare lived he would have been prince Hamlet’s twin) is it possible, I want to know, or probable that he did not draw or foresee the logical conclusion of those premises: you are the dispossessed son: I am the murdered father: your mother is the guilty queen. Ann Shakespeare, born Hathaway?
—But this prying into the family life of a great man, Russell began impatiently.
Art thou there, truepenny?
—Interesting only to the parish clerk. I mean, we have the plays. I mean when we read the poetry of King Lear what is it to us how the poet lived? As for living, our servants can do that for us, Villiers de l’Isle has said. Peeping and prying into greenroom gossip of the day, the poet’s drinking, the poet’s debts. We have King Lear: and it is immortal.
Mr Best’s face appealed to, agreed.
Flow over them with your waves and with your waters,
Mananaan, Mananaan MacLir…
How now, sirrah, that pound he lent you when you were hungry?
Marry, I wanted it.
Take thou this noble.
Go to! You spent most of it in Georgina Johnson’s bed, clergyman’s daughter. Agenbite of inwit.
Do you intend to pay it back?
I paid my way. I paid my way.
Steady on. He’s from beyant Boyne water. The northeast corner. You owe it.
Wait. Five months. Molecules all change. I am other I now. Other I got pound.
But I, entelechy, form of forms, am I by memory because under everchanging forms.
I that sinned and prayed and fasted.
A child Conmee saved from pandies.
I, I and I. I.
—Do you mean to fly in the face of the tradition of three centuries? John Eglinton’s carping voice asked. Her ghost at least has been laid for ever. She died, for literature at least, before she was born.
—She died, Stephen retorted, sixtyseven years after she was born. She saw him into and out of the world. She took his first embraces. She bore his children and she laid pennies on his eyes to keep his eyelids closed when he lay on his deathbed.
Mother’s deathbed. Candle. The sheeted mirror. Who brought me into this world lies there, bronzelidded, under few cheap flowers. Liliata rutilantium.
I wept alone.
John Eglinton looked in the tangled glowworm of his lamp.
—The world believes that Shakespeare made a mistake, he said, and got out of it as quickly and as best he could.
—Bosh! Stephen said rudely. A man of genius makes no mistakes. His errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery.
Portals of discovery opened to let in the quaker librarian, softcreakfooted, bald, eared and assiduous.
—A shrew, John Eglinton said shrewdly, is not a useful portal of discovery, one should imagine. What useful discovery did Socrates learn from Xanthippe?
—Dialectic, Stephen answered: and from his mother how to bring thoughts into the world.