25 November 2020

Sailing between Scylla
and Charybdis, trying
to set the right course

The National Library of Ireland ... the venue for ‘Scylla and Charybdis,’ the ninth episode in ‘Ulysses’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

The Tánaiste, Leo Varadkar, was trying to sail through choppy waters in Dail yesterday afternoon (24 November 2020) as he spoke about Covid-19 and hinted at the government plans to lift or ease the pandemic lockdown.

He said, ‘As we all know, the Government faces difficult decisions in the week ahead, as we approach the end of six weeks of Level 5 restrictions. We sail between Scylla and Charybdis in trying to set the right course.’

‘In doing so, we know for certain that increased human interaction will result in more people getting infected thus increasing the chance of a third wave.’

Journalists discussing the debate on RTÉ’s ‘Drive Time’ later in the day feigned or boasted ignorance of the reference, and even seemed to delight in mispronouncing both Scylla and Charybdis; reports in The Irish Times today seem to miss the reference altogether.

There was a time when both media outlets had a number of staff journalists with at least a basic classical education, and a time when staff journalists in The Irish Times who did not understand the classical significance of the Tánaiste’s classical citation would at least have understood its place in the canon of Irish literature through James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Scylla and Charybdis are two immortal and irresistible monsters in Greek mythology and literature, and they beset the narrow waters navigated by Odysseus in his wanderings described in Homer’s Odyssey, Book XII. They were later localised in the Strait of Messina, between Sicily and the tip of the Italian mainland.

Scylla was a supernatural female creature, with 12 feet and six heads on long snaky necks, each head having a triple row of sharklike teeth, while her loins were girdled by the heads of baying dogs. From her lair in a cave, she devoured whatever ventured within reach, including six of Odysseus’s companions.

Charybdis, who lurked under a fig tree a bowshot away on the opposite shore, drank down and belched forth the waters thrice a day and was fatal to shipping. Her character was most likely the personification of a whirlpool. The shipwrecked Odysseus barely escaped her clutches by clinging to a tree until the improvised raft that she swallowed floated to the surface again after many hours.

Later, Scylla was often rationalised in antiquity as a rock or reef.

‘Scylla and Charybdis,’ the ninth episode in Joyce’s Ulysses, is set in the National Library in Dublin, where Stephen Dedalus delivers his much-anticipated (though sparsely attended) lecture on Shakespeare and Hamlet.

As Dedalus delivers his lecture, he navigates between various pairs of powerful forces: the ideas of Aristotle and Plato, the impulses of youth and maturity, the relationship between the artist and art, and the disciplines of dogmatic scholasticism and spiritual mysticism.

It is like, one might say, being caught between a rock and a hard place.

Leo Varadkar has shown in the past how he can out-do Boris Johnson when it comes to quoting from the Classics.

As last night’s speech by Joe Biden shows once again, the Brexit negotiations are more complicated by the position of Northern Ireland. I imagine that for Spanish negotiators, there are similar concerns about the Rock of Gibraltar.

Perhaps when Leo Varadkar is next swapping classical quips with Boris Johnson, he may remind him of what it is to be caught between a rock and a hard place.

Gibraltar has been British since 1704 … but could Boris Johnson be caught between a rock and a hard place? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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