Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 29, 2009

Ulysses (1922), by James Joyce (disordered thoughts of an amateur #9)

Chapter 9: Scylla and Charybdis

Well, well, here’s Stephen Dedalus back again, and causing this reader no end of grief with his literary theories!

Actually, I knew before I started that this chapter was going to be confusing.  Flicking through the pages to see how long it was, I could see from the text layout that there are slabs of poetry, (well, doggerel on p184); a quotation from a chorus book of religious music (staves but no bar lines); play scripts; and some very long paragraphs.  Not only that, on the very first page there are references to Goethe, Milton, W. B. Yeats, and Shakespeare – and even though I’ve read and studied all of these at some time or another (except for Goethe) there’s no chance I’m going to be able to remember them well enough to recognise all but the most obvious of allusions.  (There’s even a reference to Cranly, who was a character in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, but I only know this because I wrote it in the margin when I studied Ulysses at Uni back in the 1980s.)

In Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus is caught between unpalatable alternatives.  One route leads to the perils of the seductive Sirens and the Wandering Rocks; the other involves steering a hazardous course between the six-headed monster Scylla and the maelstrom Charybdis.

Who’d have thought that squabbling over literary theory in a library could be analogous to these perils on the high seas?  Yet here is Stephen in the National Library, flaunting a cerebral organ – yes, his brain – in combat over literature.   There’s lots of parodying of Shakespeare but according to Corbin and Evans the narrative technique is dialectic, so I wandered over to Wikipedia to find out if there was more to dialectics than mere argument…  Well, of course there is, and enthusiasts may care to ponder it all, but for my purposes it’s enough to know that

The aim of the dialectical method is resolution of the disagreement through rational discussion, and ultimately the search for truth. One way to proceed — the Socratic method — is to show that a given hypothesis (with other admissions) leads to a contradiction; thus, forcing the withdrawal of the hypothesis as a candidate for truth. (Wikipedia).  

So this is what Joyce has young Stephen do, but I’m not clear about his motives.  (Needless to day I’m none too clear about the argument either.) Is Stephen just showing off how clever he is, or is he just arguing for the fun of it, like a sort of cerebral wrestling match?  He’s up against some erudite company: John Eglinton, someone called A.E. Russell, Lyster the Quaker Librarian and a Mr Best. 

So what’s the argument about?  Russell is a Platonist, and he thinks the stuff about the identity of Shakespeare is a load of rubbish and that what matters is the ‘world of ideas.  All the rest is the speculation of schoolboys for schoolboys’. (p185) (I agree with him).    Stephen – with the overconfidence of youth – sails a bit close to the maelstrom when he decries Hamlet’s musings about the afterlife of his princely soul, the improbable, insignificant and undramatic monologue as shallow as Plato’s’. (p186) The words swirl around ‘between the devil and the deep blue sea’ (p187) which had the by-now familiar Joycean effect on me: meandering through them is like wandering through a crowd, hearing snatches of conversation without making any sense of the babble around me.

Here’s an example:

Unsheathe your dagger definitions. Horseness is the whatness of allhorse.  Streams of tendency and eons they worship.  God: noise in the street: very peripatetic.  Space: what you damn well have to see.  Through spaces smaller than red globules of man’s blood they creepy-crawl after Blake’s buttocks into eternity of which this vegetable world is but a shadow.  Hold to the now, the here, through which all future plunges to the past. (p186)

Yea verily I say, let no one feel guilty about not understanding a word of it! 

And yet, there are parts which do make sense, echoing preoccupations from a long time ago in Telemachus.  Stephen is ‘prying into the family life of a great man’ because he’s bothered about his own family; he’s parodying lines about the poet’s debt (p189) because he’s short of money himself.  He skewers Shakespeare’s treatment of Anne Hathaway because he’s feeling guilty about his relationship with his dead mother, and he’s not about to forgive himself for it because ‘a man of genius makes no mistakes’ – and Stephen thinks he’s a bit of genius himself, doesn’t he?

Haines has been and gone, but Mulligan turns up, resplendent in a primrose coloured vest and Panama, promptly deflating Stephen and his pretentious speechifying:

Shakespeare? he said.  I seem to know the name. (p198)

Buck’s mockery is interrupted by the arrival of Bloom –  a momentous portent, methinks, even though they do not actually meet.  Bloom is escorted through to the provincial papers where he can search for the symbol he wants for his advert, but his arrival is noted because Buck Mulligan recognises him as an acquaintance of Stephen’s father.  And at the end of the chapter Bloom exits the library at the same time as Stephen and Buck, who stands aside to let him pass between them.  This is surely a foreshadowing of a severed relationship in chapters to come!

BTW it would be most interesting to hear an audio book of this chapter…however does one read this out loud?

Rutlandbaconsouthamptonshakespeare or honorificabilitudinitatibus? (p208-9)

There is much that is mystifying in this chapter, but I can’t be bothered hunting around online to clarify any of it.  Two chapters in one day was probably a mistake; it’s better to let Joyce percolate in the brain for a bit before pressing on.

Page references are to my battered old copy of the Penguin Ulysses, 1979 ISBN 014003000x (which uses the 1960 Bodley Head edition, which was the 10th edition and has different page numbers to its predecessors.)

PS 9.12.09 I am indebted to Jo L from the Twentieth Century Literature group for pointing out that John Eglinton, A.E. Russell, Lyster the Quaker Librarian and Mr Best were real people (or the pseudonyms of real people) and were contemporaries of Joyce.

  • John Eglinton  was the pseudonym of William Patrick Magee (1868-1961).  He was an essayist and influential figure on the Dublin literary scene;
  • (AE) George William Russell (1867-1959) was a nationalist, writer, critic, poet;
  • Thomas William Lyster (1855-1922) was Librarian of the National Library of Ireland, writer and editor; and
  • Richard Irving Best (1872-1959) was Director of the National Library of Ireland, founder of the School of Irish Learning and a translator of French literature. 

Jo also pointed out that ‘one of the important aspects of this episode is that it is illustrative of Joyce’s exclusion from the Dublin literary scene.  All the gang, including Mulligan and Haines, has been invited to a literary gathering at Moore’s and Stephen has not’.

And best of all, Jo explained that honorificabilitudinitatibus is a quotation from Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost.  It’s the ablative plural of the medieval Latin word honorificabilitudinitas, meaning “the state of being able to achieve honours”.

The Latin I did at school is lost in the mists of middle-aged memory, and I didn’t do Love’s Labour’s Lost at all, so I dug out my Shakespeare Complete Works, and can see why JJ has alluded to it.  Scene 1 is where Holofernes, a schoolmaster and Sir Nathaniel, a curate, have been having a lofty conversation, probably incomprehensible to most of S’s audience because good chunks of it are in Latin.  They are sniping about Don Adriano who is  ‘vain, ridiculous and thrasonical’ (i.e. a braggart).  Armado, Moth & Costardo enter to archaic greetings from Holofernes and Nathaniel, and Moth says aside to Costard so that the other two can’t hear him but the audience can: ‘They have been at a great feast of languages and stolen the scraps.’ Costard then says: O, they have liv’d long on the alms-basket of words.  I marvel thy master hath not eaten thee for a word, for thou art not so long by the head as honorificabilitudinitatibus; thou art easier swallowed than a flap-dragon’. (Act 5, Scene 1).

So now I’m going to buy a ticket for the next performance of Love’s Labour’s Lost when it’s on in Melbourne so that I can hear the actor get his tongue around it!

Thanks, Jo!

Links to my disordered thoughts for other chapters are below.  NB Page references to anything before Chapter 11 are to my 1979 Penguin, and after that are to my Penguin 2000 reprint.

  • Intro  
  • Chapters 1,2,3  (Telemachus, Nestor, Proteus)
  • Chapter 4   (Calypso)
  • Chapter 5   (The Lotus Eaters)
  • Chapter 6   (Hades)
  • Chapter 7   (Aeolus)
  • Chapter 8   (Lestrygonians)
  • Chapter 9    (Scylla and Charybdis) 
  • Chapter 10  (Wandering Rocks) 
  • Chapter 11  (Sirens)
  • Chapter 12  (Cyclops)
  • Chapter 13   (Nausicaa)
  • Chapter 14   (Oxen of the Sun)
  • Chapter 15   (Circe)
  • Chapter 16   (Eumaeus)
  • Chapter 17   (Ithaca)
  • Chapter 18   (Penelope)

  • Responses

    1. […] James Joyce at ANZ Lit Blog. I am enjoying her Joyce posts so much, I must start in on the Master myself. Dubliners first, then […]


    2. […] anybody goes to church anymore…  Initially it seems easy to read this chapter compared to Scylla and Charybidis.  Father Conmee strolls along, chatting here and there, the chapter looking for all the world like […]


    3. […] Chapter 9    (Scylla and Charybdis)  […]


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