No thoughts

  No thoughts

In Brief

Throughout Scylla and Charybdis, Stephen casts grimly sardonic glances at the whirlwind of thoughts he is unleashing, either mocking them or seeking relief from their tyrannical grip. Not all of these snippets of internal monologue require explication, but the sense of strain collectively expressed in them helps to characterize the "theory" that Stephen is propounding. As Shakespeare criticism it is a desperate travesty, but he pursues it with such energy because it promises to define the very nature of literary creation. 

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Both of Joyce's schemas associate this chapter with the "brain," and by the end of the chapter Stephen's must be aching. In order to defend his view that Shakespeare's sexual life not only informs his works but represents an archetypal pattern of literary creation, he calls up supporting evidence from two dozen of the Bard's plays, both of his long narrative poems, several turn-of-the-century biographies, and a smattering of Elizabethan and Jacobean cultural history. As his listeners throw challenges at him, he responds to each one. At one point John Eglinton dares him to "Prove that he was a jew"—a contention that he has not made about Shakespeare and which his views in no way require—and he takes up the challenge, weaving a wildly analogical argument about financial avarice, incest, Jewish intermarriage, and cuckold-consciousness. A bit later, longing for the mental gymnastics to end, he thinks, in the idiom of Richard III, "My kingdom for a drink."

Early on, Stephen sounds despairing: "Folly. Persist." A bit later, he sounds more confident: "I think you're getting on very nicely. Just mix up a mixture of theolologicophilolological. Mingo, minxi, mictum, mingere." But the Latin verb mingo does not mean "mix." It means to make water, or urinate, implying that all of his logical cleverness, sustained by fancy theology and philology, may be just pissing in the wind. This mocking faux-Latin commentary underlines the brutally ironic "I think you're getting on very nicely." If his audience seems unconvinced, Stephen does too: "What the hell are you driving at?"

And why is he doing it? His amateur Shakespeare criticism is not likely to bring him either money or esteem from the Literary Revival crowd. But a strong sense of purpose sustains him, pushing against the friction of his self-doubt: "I know. Shut up. Blast you. I have reasons. / Amplius. Adhuc. Iterum. Postea. / Are you condemned to do this?" As one internal voice urges him onward another one jumps back in with more Latinate self-mockery drawn from the language of Scholastic philosophy: "Furthermore. Thus far. Again. Afterwards." He does not know exactly where he is going, but he knows that he must see it through to the end: "Speech, speech. But act. Act speech. They mock to try you. Act. Be acted on.... On."

At a crucial point, Stephen is quick to confess to a charge that his scholarship is bunkum:
     — You are a delusion, said roundly John Eglinton to Stephen. You have brought us all this way to show us a French triangle. Do you believe your own theory?
      — No, Stephen said promptly.
Seconds later, however, his internal monologue shows him clinging to some core faith in the arguments he is making: "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." He quotes from Mark 9:23-24, where a desperate father brings his sick child to Jesus for healing. Jesus says that "all things are possible to him that believeth" and the man cries out, "Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief." The allusion suggests that Stephen has some underlying faith in what he is doing, even if the point of it is not quite clear.

Belief comes from himself—ego men, Greek for "I especially"—but Gifford suggests an allusion also to The Egoist, Dora Marsden's daring literary magazine that published parts of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man beginning in 1914, giving Joyce some reason to hope that he could succeed as a novelist. Unbelief comes from the "Other chap," the not-I against which every artistic sensibility must set itself and also, Gifford suggests, another publisher, George Roberts of Maunsel & Co., who, fearing prosecution, endlessly deferred his promise to publish Dubliners, starting in 1909 and ending only in 1912 with a firm rejection. By layering these later sources of despair and encouragement atop the bardology, Joyce suggests that Stephen struggles to maintain faith in his "theory" because it is important to his own dream of becoming an artist.

There is something important at stake for Stephen, but it is not a desire to write pseudo-biographical literary criticism. He makes his arguments about Shakespeare to map an audacious aesthetic account of the dynamics of literary creation. The shamelessly tendentious particulars seem to be as burdensome to him as they are tiresome to his listeners. In one moment of charming candor he acknowledges his tendency to monomanical overgeneralization: "It is in infinite variety everywhere in the world he has created, in Much Ado about Nothing, twice in As you like It, in The Tempest, in Hamlet, in Measure for Measure, and in all the other plays which I have not read." Immediately after this, the narrative adds its own charming observation: "He laughed to free his mind from his mind's bondage."

This sentence needs no explanation, but it may at least be admired. Laughter does briefly free the mind from obsessive thoughts. So may the drinking that Stephen longs to return to after leaving the library. And so too does strong sunlight, which can render a body sentient but blissfully blank. In another line that is no less brilliant for its uncomplicated take on a common human experience, Joyce writes that Stephen steps out of his dark nook in the library into "a shattering daylight of no thoughts."

John Hunt 2021
15 July 1914 issue of The Egoist, featuring a section of A Portrait of the Artist and Ezra Pound's remarks on Dubliners. Source: Wikimedia Commons.