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Ulysses Blog by Ambassador Mulhall, Episode 9, Scylla and Charybidis

Ulysses Blog by Ambassador Mulhall, Episode 9, Scylla and Charybidis

Reading Room at the National Library of Ireland

“Our young Irish bards have yet to create a figure which the world will set beside Saxon Shakespeare’s Hamlet.” – ‘John Eglinton’
 
I dare say that James Joyce, after he had published Ulysses on his 40th birthday in 1922, would have believed that Ireland now had a character to match “Saxon Shakespeare’s Hamlet”, namely Leopold Bloom.   
 
Episode 9 of Ulysses, known as 'Scylla and Charybdis', an enigmatic chapter set in the National Library of Ireland on Dublin's Kildare Street, is very different from its predecessor. Whereas Leopold Bloom dominates the 'Lestrygonians'  episode, here he appears only very fleetingly as he comes to the Library to track down a copy of the Kilkenny People newspaper containing an advertisement he wishes to publish in the Freeman's Journal. 
 
The tone of these pages is elaborately intellectual, with multiple references to literature and the classical world of Plato and Aristotle. Joyce is showing off Stephen Dedalus’s talents as a thinker and a literary critic. There is a sense in which Joyce is depicting his younger self through Stephen while Bloom represents aspects of the mature man he believed himself to be by 1922.  In these pages, there are allusions to, among many others, W.B. Yeats, John Millington Synge, Goethe, John Milton and, most of all to Shakespeare, who is the presiding spirit floating across these pages. 
 
The Dubliners who inhabit these pages are very different from those whom Leopold Bloom encounters on his wanderings through the city. Their thoughts and conversation are leagues apart from the chatter of the streets and the pubs of Dublin. Here the main roles are played by Stephen Dedalus and four real-life characters, Librarian William Lyster (1855-1922), a Dublin Quaker and noted German scholar, 'John Eglinton', pseudonym of William Kirkpatrick Magee (1868-1961) a talented essayist, Gaelic scholar, Richard Best (1872-1959), and the poet/mystic George Russell, AE (1867-1935). Stephen's garrulous friend, from the book's opening chapter, Buck Mulligan (modelled on the writer, Oliver St. John Gogarty), also pops up with some irreverent interjections. 
 
This episode takes the form of an extended dialogue between these six Dublin intellectuals.  Joyce personally knew all of those he has Stephen debate with in this episode. Eglinton, for example, irked Joyce when he declined to publish a piece he submitted to Dana, a literary magazine Eglinton edited. Eglinton missed out on a winner as Joyce's piece was an early version of what eventually became A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. 
 
The relationships between the characters on show here are far from harmonious and there is an edge to their elaborate exchanges. Eglinton and AE are less than impressed with Stephen's literary theories while Mulligan, with his rambunctious personality, is a rival for the milder-mannered Stephen. We learn that Stephen, despite his precocious literary intelligence, has not been invited to an evening soirée at the home of the novelist, George Moore, but that Mulligan will be there. Nor is Stephen's work to be included in a soon-to-be-published collection of poems by younger Irish writers which AE is editing. 
 
This refined, intensely literary discussion (many would call it hifalutin) revolves around Shakespeare and especially his play, Hamlet.  For Lyster, Hamlet is an example of “the beautiful ineffectual dreamer who comes to grief against hard facts.” Stephen has his own theory of the biographical influences on Shakespeare’s play. In the late 19th century, many critics saw Hamlet as a literary incarnation of Shakespeare himself, but Stephen would have none of that. No, in Stephen's view Shakespeare was the ghost of Hamlet's father, a role Shakespeare the actor played when Hamlet was performed in London. Stephen toys with the fact that Shakespeare had a son, Hamnet, who died in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1596 at the age of eleven. This allows Stephen to draw parallels between Hamlet's mother, Gertrude, and Shakespeare's wife, Anne Hathaway, who he charges with infidelity, claiming that she had an affair with Shakespeare's brothers. There is, of course, no hard evidence to support Stephen's theories as Shakespeare's private life has always been a bit of a black hole which has prompted endless speculation about the authorship of the plays attributed to him. 
 
I am inclined to go along with AE's dismissal of Stephen's focus on how Shakespeare's life shaped his writing.
 
"All these questions are purely academic, Russell oracled out of his shadow. I mean, whether Hamlet or James 1 or Essex. Clergymen's discussions of the historicity of Jesus. ... The deepest poetry of Shelley, the words of Hamlet bring our mind into contact with the eternal wisdom. Plato's world of ideas. All the rest is the speculation of schoolboys for schoolboys." 
 
This is not AE's first appearance in the novel for we recall that Bloom has spotted him cycling along the street in the preceding episode when he pokes fun at his mysticism and vegetarianism. Here he is given a significant speaking role. While Joyce's views of literature were very different from AE's, he was clearly familiar with Russell's thinking which he reflects accurately in this episode. 
 
"People do not know how dangerous love songs can be, the auric egg of Russell warned occultly. The movements which work revolutions in the world are born out of the dreams and visions in a peasant's heart on the hillside. For them, the earth is not an exploitable ground but the living mother." 
 
Although they had their differences, Joyce was indebted to AE who had published some of his first stories in the Irish Homestead, "the pigs' paper" as Stephen disparagingly refers to it here. We discover that Stephen also owed a debt to AE, a pound he had borrowed from him five months earlier. Stephen muses that he might not need to repay the loan. "Wait. Five months. Molecules all change. I am other I now. Other I got pound." But, he resignedly concludes "A.E.I.O.U."
 
There is a density to this episode that is greater than its predecessors. It is replete with literary allusions. Take this passage. 
 
"Gaptoothed Kathleen, her four beautiful green fields, the stranger in her house. And one more to hail him: ave, rabbi. The Tinahely twelve. In the shadow of the glen he coees for them."
 
Here we have a reference to W.B. Yeats's Cathleen ni Houlihan, an overtly nationalist play first produced in 1902 and set during the United Irishmen's rebellion of 1798. The village of Tinahely in County Wicklow was one of the sites of that rebellion while In the Shadow of the Glen was a play by Synge set in the same County Wicklow. Don't be put off by this. It is not necessary to understand all of these references but there are plenty of Ulysses guides available should you wish to dive deeper into the novel. 
 
Stephen comes across here as a cocksure and exquisitely intelligent young man. Some of his observations seem pretentious. Thus:
 
So in the future, the sister of the past, I may see myself as I sit here now but by reflection from that which then I shall be." 
 
But, he also deploys some pithy remarks. 
 
"A man of genius makes no mistakes. His errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery."
 
After this, in a typical flourish, Joyce plays with Stephen's words.
"Portals of discovery opened to let in the quaker librarian, softcreakfooted, bald, eared and assiduous."
 
Buck Mulligan makes a very different impression. When asked about Shakespeare, he jokingly responds.
 
"- Shakespeare? he said. I seem to know the name.
A flying sunny smile rayed in his loose features.
- To be sure, he said, remembering brightly. The chap that writes like Synge. 
 
This is undeniably a difficult part of Ulysses, one with which many readers are likely to struggle. I confess that I have found it hard to write about. It is not easy to work out what Joyce was trying to achieve with this episode. The Homeric parallels are not much help in this case. Scylla (a rock monster) and Charybdis (a dangerous whirlpool reputedly in the Straits of Messina between Italy and Sicily) is the classical equivalent of a rock and a hard place, but that doesn't help the general reader much in deciphering this episode. 
 
So why did Joyce toss this complicated, elusive episode into his novel? It seems to me that it is designed to complete his portrait of Stephen, which began in the book's opening chapters, before he comes into contact with Bloom in the evening of this early 20th century  Dublin day. Joyce's friend from his time in Zurich, the artist Frank Budgen, records the writer's reaction when he asked why Leopold Bloom was absent from this episode. Joyce said that "Bloom's justness and reasonableness should grow in interest. As the day wears on Bloom should overshadow them all. ... Bloom is like a battery that is being recharged," said Joyce. "He will act with all the more vigour when he reappears." (Frank Budgen, James Joyce and the Making of 'Ulysses', p. 118). And so he does. The book's  remaining chapters, until its last, are dominated by Bloom and the blossoming of his adopted father/son relationship with Stephen.  Scylla and Charybdis allows Joyce to explore this father/son theme through Shakespearean literature before he does so in life. 
 
We get a forewarning of that Bloom/Stephen nexus at the very end of this episode when, as Stephen and Mulligan (Scylla and Charybdis perhaps) exit the Library, Bloom passes between them and Mulligan remarks:
 
— The wandering jew, Buck Mulligan whispered with clown’s awe. Did you see his eye? He looked upon you to lust after you. I fear thee, ancient mariner. O, Kinch, thou art in peril. 
 
Bloom will actually turn out to be Stephen's saviour, but that act of salvation will have to wait! 
 
 
Daniel Mulhall is Ireland’s Ambassador to the United States

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