“We sailed on,
up the narrow strait, groaning as we moved.
On one side lay Scylla; on the other one
divine Charybdis terrified us all,
by swallowing salt water from the sea.” – Homer, Odyssey Book XII
I. “Between Scylla and Charybdis”
In the twelfth book of the Odyssey, Odysseus leaves Circe’s island and has to navigate through the strait of Messina on his journey back to Ithaca. This strait, between the island of Sicily and the Italian mainland, is a particularly treacherous area that continues to trouble sailors even today. In the Odyssey, the question of passing through the strait unscathed is nonsense. There’s no way to even conceive of passing the strait without injury.
So, Odysseus is told by Circe that he will have to choose between two terrible options: either stay close to the shore of the Italian mainland and encounter a monster named Scylla, or move closer to the Sicilian shore and risk being swallowed by a different monster named Charybdis. Scylla, the personification of a dangerous rock cliff on the Italian shore, is a six-headed, twelve legged monster with sharp teeth and a terrible attitude. Charybdis, the personification of a huge whirlpool, swallows entire ships whole. A decision has to be made as to whether Odysseus will risk the possibility of total annihilation in the jaws of Charybdis, or whether he will stray closer to Scylla, guaranteeing that most of the crew will be safe, but also that a few will definitely die. Circe advises Odysseus, before he leaves:
Make sure your ship stays close to Scylla’s rock.
Row past there quickly. It’s much better
to mourn for six companions in your ship
than to have all of them wiped out together.
Odysseus follows Circe’s advice, and each head snatches up one of his crewmen as they sail through the strait. Odysseus of course survives the ordeal, although he describes the attack like this:
Then, in the entrance to her cave, Scylla
devoured the men, who still kept screaming,
stretching out their arms in my direction,
as they met their painful deaths. Of all things
my eyes have witnessed in my journeying
on pathways of the sea, the sight of them
was the most piteous I’ve ever seen.
The story is often used as an idiom that refers to the choice between two equally distasteful options. If we think about Odysseus’ choice, we see that neither Scylla nor Charybdis are “good” in any sense of the word. If he chooses Scylla, then most people live. That is, not all, but at least some. There’s a certain kind of moral security in this option, insofar as he knows that he’ll be able to save someone. But he can’t save everyone. If he chooses Scylla then he is also certaintly choosing death for a few. This choice makes of that chosen few a kind of sacrifice to the common good, a sacrifice sanctified by the moral compulsion to save the lives of those many that will survive. This option is then one of calculated loss.
At least with Charybdis, Odysseus could entertain the possibility that everyone might be saved. It was, apparently, up to chance whether Charybdis would swallow the ship or not, so certainty of partial survival is waived in favor of an undecidable possibility. The Charybdian choice would mean that Odysseus rejects the idea of sacrifice, the idea of placing any individual on the slaughter bench of history, of making them die without their permission for another, of incurring a “calculated loss.” The Charybdian possibility reminds us of Ivan Karamazov, who asserts that the suffering of even one innocent individual for the certainty of the Scyllan sacrifice is not worth its virtues. The harmony that such a decision would indicate (that of the continued existence of the ship crew) is “not worth the tears of one tortured,” or sacrificed. Of course, this Charybdian decision would also be incredibly dangerous. In giving up the possibility of saving even a few, it admits as legitimate and even acceptable that total annihilation is possible. Homer seems to suggest that it is up to chance whether Charybdis will swallow the ship or let it pass, so the calculated response of reason is superseded by the hazardous work of the undecidable.
As an allusion, the story fell out of use in the 20th century because of its association in the public imaginary with classical literature, and therefore with an academic world increasingly removed from the world of workers and the people. In the war novel The Cruel Sea, for example, when a naval officer uses the phrase, he is chided for being too literary, too snobbish. Nevertheless, we use similar phrases to illustrate our frustration at having to choose when no good option is given. The phrase is roughly equivalent to other idioms such as “between a rock and a hard place,” “between the devil and the sea,” the choice between the proverbial “frying pan” and “fire,” &c.
I want to suggest, however, that we resuscitate this idiom to make sense of our current political situation. To thoroughly explain why this might be useful, I want to turn for a moment to some of the uses to which this idiom has been put in the political imaginary.
II. “Scylla and Charybdis” in the Political Imaginary
In a cartoon from 1793, James Gillray shows Prime Minister William Pitt navigating “between the rock of democracy (with the liberty cap on its summit) and the whirlpool of arbitrary power (in the shape of an inverted crown), to the distant haven of liberty.”
Although the six-headed beast is absent, an equally nefarious monster is perched atop the Scyllian rock: a Pileus, emblematic of the freedom of slaves in antiquity, and ubiquitous as a symbol of revolutionary France. The inverted crown of the King is submerged on the right, threatening to suck down the ship of the State in its cavernous maw. The choice here is between the sharp but stony ground of democracy and the “arbitrary” authority of monarchy.
In this context, Percy Shelley, in his A Defence of Poetry, wrote that because the State does not recognize the value of Poetry, “The rich have become richer, and the poor have become poorer; and the vessel of the State is driven between the Scylla and Charybdis of anarchy and despotism.” “Such,” he says, “are the effects which must ever flow from an unmitigated exercise of the calculating faculty.” To put it another way, the political effects of instrumentalising thought is such that we cannot conceive of a synthesis between freedom (Revolution) and authority (Monarchy), thus having to navigate this terrible dilemma instead. Poetry, with its capacity to synthesize contradictory moments, might however allow for a safe passage through the strait.
Victor Hugo uses the idiom in the final volume of Les Miserables, when he describes two barricades that for him signify the two poles of revolutionary action: “The Saint-Antoine barricade was the tumult of thunders; the barricade of the Temple was silence. The difference between these two redoubts was the difference between the formidable and the sinister. One seemed a maw; the other a mask.” Here, the former is Charybdis and the latter is Scylla.
He describes the Saint-Antoine barricade (Charybdis) as chaotic and tremendous:
“it was three stories high, and seven hundred feet wide. It barred the vast opening of the faubourg, that is to say, three streets, from angle to angle; ravined, jagged, cut up, divided, crenelated, with an immense rent, buttressed with piles that were bastions in themselves throwing out capes here and there, powerfully backed up by two great promontories of houses of the faubourg, it reared itself like a cyclopean dike at the end of the formidable place which had seen the 14th of July.”
He goes on to ask: “Of what was that barricade made? Of the ruins of three six-story houses demolished expressly, said some. Of the prodigy of all wraths, said others. It wore the lamentable aspect of all constructions of hatred, ruin.” This aspect of revolution swallows up everything in its path and piles it onto the dump heap of history, consuming all as it expresses itself. He writes that this barricade
“converted everything into a weapon; everything that civil war could throw at the head of society proceeded thence; it was not combat, it was a paroxysm; the carbines which defended this redoubt, among which there were some blunderbusses, sent bits of earthenware bones, coat-buttons, even the casters from night-stands, dangerous projectiles on account of the brass. This barricade was furious; it hurled to the clouds an inexpressible clamor; at certain moments, when provoking the army, it was covered with throngs and tempest; a tumultuous crowd of flaming heads crowned it; a swarm filled it; it had a thorny crest of guns, of sabres, of cudgels, of axes, of pikes and of bayonets; a vast red flag flapped in the wind; shouts of command, songs of attack, the roll of drums, the sobs of women and bursts of gloomy laughter from the starving were to be heard there. It was huge and living, and, like the back of an electric beast, there proceeded from it little flashes of lightning.”
The other barricade, the one at the faubourg du Temple, is Scylla according to Hugo. This barricade was not a heap of refuse, but a wall:
built of paving-stones. It was straight, correct, cold, perpendicular, levelled with the square, laid out by rule and line. Cement was lacking, of course, but, as in the case of certain Roman walls, without interfering with its rigid architecture. The entablature was mathematically parallel with the base. From distance to distance, one could distinguish on the gray surface, almost invisible loopholes which resembled black threads. These loopholes were separated from each other by equal spaces. The street was deserted as far as the eye could reach. All windows and doors were closed. In the background rose this barrier, which made a blind thoroughfare of the street, a motionless and tranquil wall; no one was visible, nothing was audible; not a cry, not a sound, not a breath. A sepulchre.
The dazzling sun of June inundated this terrible thing with light.
Like Scylla, this barricade is the calculating pole of revolution. It is coldly scientific, devoid of passion, devoid of chance, built solidly and precisely with as little opportunity for failure as possible.
These two aspects of revolution, pure excess that threatens to swallow everything and calculated risk which leaves nothing to chance, are the Charybdis and Scylla that revolt has to navigate if it has any chance of securing its ends.
During the American Civil War, the English magazine Punch published the following cartoon, showing British Prime Minister Lord Henry Palmerston navigating between the Scylla of Abraham Lincoln’s Union on the left and Charybdis of Jefferson Davis’ Confederacy on the right.
Lord Palmerston, in his official capacity, issued a decree of neutrality on behalf of Britain at the beginning of the Civil War. However, in private correspondence and in some more public statements, he expressed sympathy with the Confederates. A weak United States, either literally or figuratively divided, meant that Britain could more easily retain its position as the foremost world power. Furthermore, because the South did not have the manufacturing capabilities of the North, Palmerston also reckoned that Britain could profit from the war, writing that the Confederates “would afford a valuable and extensive market for British manufactures.” Politically, then, the position of Britain was neutrality, but from an economic standpoint, they had an interest in the conflict as such, and the success of Southern secession.
In 1884, another cartoon visualized the unmarried president-elect Grover Cleveland as sailing between “Mother-in-Law” and “Office Seekers.”
Joy Hakim explains that “before he married, Grover Cleveland was forced to steer between the Scylla of friends who wanted jobs – and the Charybdis of matrons hoping to become his mother-in-law.” This use of the idiom is, obviously, different from the others insofar as the two options are not political, but ‘personal.’ Nevertheless, it carries political content insofar as it shows a head of state navigating between two sources of alleged corruption. The greatest difference here, it seems, is that Cleveland is not in any way obliged to make a decision either way. He could very well not get married, thus avoiding Charybdis, and also not give his friends jobs, thus avoiding Scylla. Being between Scylla and Charybdis here means having the fortitude to navigate societal pressures and “keep the course.”
A more contemporary illustration shows Greece steering between the Scylla of the Eurozone and the Charybdis of a so-called “Grexit.”
Greece, saddled with debt, is here forced to choose between the neo-liberal austerity measures that would be imposed by the Troika and potentially drowning Greece’s economy and culture by allowing populist demands to remove it from the Eurozone.
There are, of course, hundreds or thousands of other instances where we might find this metaphor put to work in illustrating political decisions. But these few illustrations are helpful for thinking the particular nature of this idiom because of both their graphic nature and their situation within particular historical periods.
The first illustration arises in the context of crises resulting from a wave of revolutionary activity in the West. The American Revolution in the 1770s and 80s, and the French revolution of the 1790s, both put the rest of Europe on edge. In Germany and England, this often meant that monarchies cracked down on any possibility of popular uprising, leading to the Scylla and Charybdis illustrated in the first comic. Either the state could err to the side of popular sovereignty and risk the option of revolutionary violence, or it could err to the side of monarchy and risk the possibility of arbitrary repression of liberty. Shelley’s note reflects this particular concern as well.
Hugo’s characterization of the two communist barricades in Les Miserables is born of a commitment to revolutionary principles, but informed by the events of the so-called “Reign of Terror” in the aftermath of the French Revolution. How, Hugo wonders, can we remain committed to an anti-monarchical, liberal-democratic position without falling into, as he puts it, “a revolt of the people against itself?” The choice between Scylla and Charybdis here is, like Gillray’s cartoon, the result of a particular political question at a specific point in history, asked from within the logic of revolutionary rhetoric.
The same can be said of the Punch Civil War cartoon (articulated from a specifically British perspective) and the Cleveland cartoon (articulated from a position of cultural concern in late-Victorian America).
In all of these cases, then, we see the idiom as operating at the level of the “political imaginary.” Cornelius Castoriadis describes this term in the following way:
[the imaginary of a society] is the creation of each historical period, its singular manner of living, of seeing and of conducting its own existence, its world, and its relations with this world, this originary structuring component
The idiom of Scylla and Charybdis is, in this way, a method of orienting ourselves in contemporary political debates through reference to an image to which we have access as a society. The political imaginary fixes political questions in more or less graphic images in order to make the symbolic space of political life more explicit. Reading the characterization of political options in this particular image (calculated loss or possible annihilation) tells us much about how a contemporary society viewed their orientation in history.
This idiom functions in the imaginary as a specifically political one in a few ways. Most obviously, it assigns to each monster a particularly political signification: democracy or monarchy, revolutionary violence or scientific calculation, Union or Confederacy, Grexit or Austerity, &c. More interestingly, however, is how nicely this idiom corresponds to a deeper image in our political vocabulary: the ship of state. I’ll pick up here next time.