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Getting Past No in "Scylla and Charybdis"

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 44, Number 3, Spring 2007
pp. 501-522 | 10.1353/jjq.2008.0013

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

I

For a long time, discussion of "Scylla and Charybdis" has tended to be over-mindful of the "[n]o" that Stephen answers when John Eglinton asks him whether he believes his theory about William Shakespeare (U 9.1067). For some, in fact, it is as if the whole production had turned out to be a shaggy-dog story with a weak punchline. I question this evaluation and begin by suggesting that Joyce would not willingly have wasted his reader's time like that, especially in an episode that he considered the final curtain of his book's first half. After all, that word "believe" is one that Ulysses has invited us to fuss over ever since Haines asked Stephen, "You're not a believer, are you?" (U 1.611), and received no straight answer. In "Scylla and Charybdis," the word's chief exponent is, again, Eglinton, who uses some version of it nine times, often with significantly different senses. For instance, right after the question to Stephen, he remarks of one Herr Karl Bleibtreu that "he believes his theory" (U 9.1077). That is, he, at least, believes his theory, unlike a certain young person present whom Eglinton could mention.

Bleibtreu's theory was that Shakespeare's plays were written by Roger Manners, the fifth earl of Rutland. He had other beliefs too. He was a highly vocal anti-Semite (it was he who informed Joyce, doubtless with scorn, that the original name of the eminent Lee—JJII 411), a paranoid Teutonophile obsessed with protecting Germany's volkische literature from foreign contamination, and, by the time "Scylla and Charybdis" was being written, someone who was literally identifying with Napoleon.

Bleibtreu was, in short, a nut and is clearly to be taken as one. Indeed, the whole library discussion occurs against a background of nutty ideas about Shakespeare, all devoutly believed in by various cranks. In the episode's dialectic, this lot occupies the hard right. True believers, they correspond to the Scyllan rock-monster—the one with six maws for swallowing you up. They represent one way of getting Shakespeare wrong. At the other extreme is the woozy whirlpool represented, in "Scylla and Charybdis," by the combined forces of Eglinton, A.E., Thomas Lyster, Richard Best, and Buck Mulligan, who collectively think that anyone pretending to any belief about Shakespeare distinct from everyone else's automatically belongs with the company of those rabid rock-dwellers opposite.

This face-off helps explain Stephen's apparent quibble about the word, on hearing Eglinton compare his professed lack of belief to Bleibtreu's fast faith: "I believe, O Lord, help my unbelief. That is, help me to believe or help me to unbelieve? Who helps to believe? Egomen. Who to unbelieve? Other chap" (U 9.1078-80). The "other chap" there is surely the Eglinton who, with some help from the rest of the gang, has just elicited that "[n]o." He, and they, are one side of the dialectic. But there is another side—"Egomen"—"I, on the other hand"—in the context, clearly, Stephen, who, despite this latest setback, considers himself still in the game and who intends to continue to try to believe.

But believe what? In a theory. What theory? A theory he can believe in. Stephen's "[n]o" is really more of a "not yet." As such, it distinguishes him from the Scyllan dogmatists, Bleibtreu and the rest, who have made up, and closed, their minds for good. But it also distinguishes him from the whirlpool opposite. Stephen is trying to get somewhere. A whirlpool just goes around and around.

That is to say, Stephen's theory is a work in progress. Cast as a dramatic performance—one that begins with the beginning of Hamlet and concludes with the last lines of Cymbeline—this is a production very much in its pre-Broadway tryout stage. Mistakes, accordingly, happen. At one point, Stephen catches himself repeating a one-liner he has used already (U 9.397-99, 335). Oops. Next time, he will be sure not to do that again. Audience reaction is intently monitored. Reliable old standards, like the second-best-bed bit (U 9.681...



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