9. Scylla and Charybdis


In Book 12 of the Odyssey, the enchantress Circe warns Odysseus about various challenges he faces on the return to Ithaca, his home island. She explains that Odysseus has a choice of routes: he can risk the wandering rocks, a treacherous stretch of sea that only Jason and his argonauts have ever passed through and lived, or he can try to negotiate the passage between Scylla, a six-headed monster living along a cliff face on one side of a strait, and Charybdis, a dark vortex on the other. Odysseus decides to lose six men to Scylla rather than face total destruction of his ship and crew … (282)

The Cambridge Centenary Ulysses: The 1922 Text with Essays and Notes. Cambridge University Press

The original Italian of the schema Joyce gave to Linati is suggestive here: for it lists the “Sense” or “Meaning” (“Senso (Significato)”) of “Scylla and Charybdis” as “Dilemma Bitagliente.” Although Ellmann translates this as “two-edged dilemma,” Jeri Johnson points out that bitagliente means “twice cutting” so that a literal translation would read: “double cutting-edge dilemma.” … a terrible irony in Homer’s Odyssey: having passed through Scylla and Charybdis, Odysseus’s ship is later wrecked by Zeus because the sailors break a prohibition upon eating flesh from cattle belonging to the Sun God. Odysseus is forced to traverse the straits between Scylla and Charybdis a second time on his own. (282)

The Cambridge Centenary Ulysses: The 1922 Text with Essays and Notes. Cambridge University Press


(a) vampires

In “Proteus”, Stephen works on a poem:

“He comes, pale vampire, through storm his eyes, his bat sails bloodying the sea, mouth to her mouth’s kiss.
Here. Put a pin in that chap, will you? My tablets [Hamlet 1.5.114]. Mouth to her kiss. No. Must be two of em. Glue em well. Mouth to her mouth‘s kiss.
His lips lipped and mouthed fleshless lips of air: mouth to her moomb. Oomb, allwombing tomb. His mouth moulded issuing breath, unspeeched: ooeeehah: roar of cataractic planets, globed, blazing, roaring wayawayawayawayaway. Paper. The banknotes, blast them. Old Deasy’ s letter. Here. Thanking you for the hospitality tear the blank end off. Turning his back to the sun he bent over far to a table of rock and scribbled words. That’s twice I forgot to take slips from the library counter.
His shadow lay over the rocks as he bent, ending. Why not endless till the farthest star? Darkly they are there behind this light, darkness shining in the brightness, delta of Cassiopeia, worlds. Me sits there with his augur’s rod of ash, in borrowed sandals, by day beside a livid sea, unbeheld, in violet night walking beneath a reign of uncouth stars. I throw this ended shadow from me, manshape ineluctable, call it back. Endless, would it be mine, form of my form? Who watches me here? Who ever anywhere will read these written words? Signs on a white field. Somewhere to someone in your flutiest voice.”


As William York Tindall explains, Joyce is also linking himself with Shakespeare (as he is prone to do). The constellation Cassiopeia is a simple „W“ shape which is, as Stephen says, „the signature of his [William’s] initial among the stars.“ But he describes it as „the recumbent constellation“ which implies that „W“ shape is actually lying down. In that case, if the recumbent „W“ were standing up it would look like the Greek letter Σ known as Sigma which represents the „S“ sound

A Building Roam

Here is how the result of this writing process appears in Aeolus, including a last minute-change of “phantom” into “vampire” on the first placards (galley proofs) which he received shortly after 14 June 1921 from Dijon-based Maurice Darantière, who printed Ulysses for Shakespeare & Company:

On swift sail flaming
From storm and south
He comes, pale phantom vampire,
Mouth to my mouth.


Stephen’s poem is very similar to Douglas Hyde’s translation of “My Grief on the Sea” from his bi-lingual anthology Love Songs of Connacht  (1893), a collection of Irish-language songs from the western Irish province Connacht with the Irish original on one page, and the English translation on the other.

“The original Irish verse reads more literally as, “My lover came to my side, shoulder to shoulder, and mouth to mouth.” The Irish word for south doesn’t appear in the original, which means Hyde added that detail in his translation.”

Decoding Daedalus: Pale Vampire

(b) ghost writers

“Scylla and Charybdis” is known as the “Hamlet” chapter, because it includes Stephen’s extravagant reading of Hamlet,Act 1, Sc. 5 in which the ghost of Hamlet’s father reports that he was murdered by his brother Claudius, now successor to his throne and second husband to his wife. Shakespeare’s son, who died at the age of only eleven, was called Hamnet, and according to his first biographer Nicholas Rowe, “the top of” Shakespeare’s acting  “Performance was the Ghost in his own Hamlet.” Combining these two facts in a radically biographical reading of the play, Stephen argues that the Ghost’s desire for vengeance must express Shakespeare’s misery about his own wife’s adultery with his brother! 

(c) past ghosts

The chapter is also teeming with ghost’s from Joyce’s past: The entire episode is located in the National Library of Ireland, Kildare Street, Dublin. In addition to George Russell, there is Thomas William Lyster and Richard Irvine Best, both librarians at the NLI as well as William Magee (known as John Eglington), another librarian and also editor of the magazine Dana who published Joyce’s poem “A Song” in the August 1904 edition, rejected another poem, “Bid Adieu”, and also rejected  Joyce’s 1904 essay “A Portrait of the Artist”. The writers here gathered represent the Irish Revivalist movement – a literary scene that Joyce has sharply satirized in “The Holy Office”: another of his rejected early works, this time by St Stephen’s, the University College Dublin magazine.

His most recent biographer Gordon Bowker has shelved this phase of Joyce’s life under the sensationalist label “the already-racy legend of Joyce”. (185) Racy or not, the bio-narrative in question began to flourish in Dublin since around 1900, that is, after Joyce had successfully given his first important talk, “Drama and Life”, to the Literary and Historical Society of the University College Dublin, and had also published an essay on “Ibsen’s New Drama” in the April number of the renowned periodical Fortnightly Review. Often it has been remarked upon how active a part Joyce took in creating his own bohemian myth, stylizing himself as the transgressive genius whose true merits were ignored and willingly sacrificed to the philistines. From early on, Joyce cultivated his author persona in conversations with acquaintances and friends such as Oliver St. John Gogarty, Mary and Padraic Colum, John Francis Byrne as well as with members of the Irish Revival Establishment  such as Lady Gregory, George Russell (AE), and W.B. Yeats. Later in life, Joyce would successfully doctor his two biographies by Herbert Gorman (1924 and 1939), advertise Ulysses by promulgating the story of its composition through Frank Budgen’s The Making of Ulysses (1934) as well as by highlighting rare intertextual connections to Homer’s Odyssee via his schemas for Ulysses which were first distributed among a small circle of friends including Valery Larbaud and Carlo Linati and then inserted in Stuart Gilbert’s 1930 James Joyce’s Ulysses: A Study.

Joyce’s portrait of himself as a young artist, Edward Bishop has argued, was mainly geared towards “rejection, conspiracy, and exile”(186); its quintessence was emphatically proclaimed at the end of Portrait with Stephen announcing to Cranly (who in turn was closely modeled on Joyce’s friend and fellow student John Francis Byrne): 

“I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use––silence, exile, and cunning.” (P 208) 

One of the more disgraceful attempts at realizing this self-expression in all its ‘freedom’ and ‘wholeness’ was a drunken Joyce who in the evening of June 20, 1904, collapsed in a passageway outside the rehearsal rooms and makeshift home of the National Theatre Society. Before it moved into the Abbey Theatre, the companywas located at the back of a grocery shop in Camden Street, Dublin.

According to Joyce biographer Richard Ellmann’s 1955 correspondence with Vera Esposito, the directors of the theatre company – the brothers Frank and William Fay – were immediately informed of the stumbling block lying around outside their rehearsal venue:

“[t]hey crowded in with candles and identified the prostrate form. After a slight scuffle Joyce was evicted and the door slammed and bolted behind him. From outside came the sound of his heavy ashplant banging on the door and his voice shouting, ‘Open the door at once, Fay. You can’t keep us out of your bawdy house. We know you.’”

Ellmann: James Joyce, 161.

Leaving the rehearsal, one of the actresses, Vera Esposito, accompanied by her mother, tripped over Joyce, and they “had to lift their skirts to step over” him. This, at least, is the wording in which the event is pictured by Buck Mulligan in “Scylla” in which Stephen is remembered lying:

in his mulberrycoloured, multicoloured, multitudinous vomit!
— The most innocent son of Erin, Stephen said, for whom they ever lifted them.

(U9: 1192-96)

Cf. the following limerick noted down by Joyce in the same month in which the actual Camden Street incident took place:

But I angered these brothers, the Fays,
Whose ways are conventional ways,
For I lay in my urine
While ladies so pure in
White petticoats ravished my gaze.

Also in included in JJ: Poems and Exiles (Penguin)

(d) laid to rest

Immediately after his self-remark about the drunkenly stagnant “son of Erin” (1195f.), Stephen takes action and moves on, through the groundfloor entrance hall, out of the National Library: 

“The portico. Here I watched the birds for augury. Aengus of the birds. They go, they come.”  

(U9: 1205-07)

Similar to U3: 410f.,  this invokes the ghost of Stephen from Joyce’s previous novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in the likeness of an ancient Roman priest with his lituus, reading the flight of birds for tokens of his own future life. In Portrait, the library porch already marks a vital threshold for Stephen to cross. Shortly after this the novel ends with his departing for the Continent; a move emulating Joyce’s own departure from Ireland to Paris on 1 December 1902. However, as the following passage from Portrait demonstrates, Stephen’s experience in Joyce’s first novel differs significantly from how the same scene is later re-enacted in Ulysses:

A sense of fear of the unknown moved in the heart of his weariness, a fear of symbols and portents, of the hawklike man whose name he bore soaring out of his captivity on osierwoven wings, of Thoth, the god of writers, writing with a reed upon a tablet and bearing on his narrow ibis head the cusped moon. He smiled as he thought of the god’s image for it made him think of a bottlenosed judge in a wig, putting commas into a document which he held at arm’s length ….

Portait (Norton edition), 189
Cp. U9.352-54

 In “Scylla and Charybdis”, this undead specter is shaken up and shaken off. It is re-enacted and revived

“The portico. Here I watched the birds for augury. Aengus of the birds. They go, they come.”

Cp. Stephen’s “augur’s rod of ash” in Proteus (U3: 410f.)

and at the same time laid to eternal rest: once transformed into a bygone moment from the past, the episode germinates the prospect of spectacularly new beginnings:

“About to pass through the doorway, feeling one behind, he stood aside. Part. The moment is now. Where then?”


Eine Antwort zu “9. Scylla and Charybdis”

  1. I would like to take close attention to the phrase “Paternity may be a legal fiction”. For all algebraic computation of relation of Shakespeare to Hamlet, the theory rests on illusion of familial bond. At the time when Stephen says that the art of Shakespeare holds the traces of his real life – the relationship of inter-generations called into the question.  At some point, it is important for Stephen because he lost any respect to his father and distancing himself from him. The bond of the last name is the sign of legal continuity – is fiction; Stephen is really fatherless (or he is his own father in an attempt to become a self-made artist). In his connection with Bloom, he gets a different kind of paternity – paternity that is not restrained. The novel is, in general, heavily invested with paternity: Bloom has lost his son and is obviously in crisis like son without father and father without son. And here is again the question of resemblance to the father and carrying of inheritance. If we take a look from narrative level, there could be set questions like what is literary inheritance? Is there any the possibility to break away and create something new? Ulysses is the son of many fathers, carrying the nominal mark of his ancestral origin. Yet, it claims that the past can be rewritten and Ulysses can be his own “father”: it can take the family name and then expose this connection as a fictitious connection. Only literature debt are forms. And here is the question, is it rewriting The Odysseus? I would say yes and no. It wears these debts openly and at the same time cancels them be being own “father”.

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