Scylla’s Perilous Strait: Tragedy of Choice
Hug Scylla’s crag — sail on past her — top speed! Better by far to lose six men and keep your ship than lose your entire crew.
— Circe, Homer’s Odyssey
If Homer ever had a singular voice, it was through the character of Odysseus. The pragmatic captain — who also moonlighted as a drifting lover, liar and orator, to name a few — set out from the blood-stained shores of Troy on his way back to Ithaca, an Ithaca symbolically much like The Lighthouse of Virginia Woolf. In relatively short order, it becomes abundantly clear that Odysseus’s crew were mostly Red Shirts, usually lacking a backstory and doomed to perish as one in a number of nameless victims of gods and monsters. Prior to the approach of Odysseus’s ship on the Strait of Messina, the sorceress Circe had warned him to sail closer to Scylla, since the whirlpool of Charybdis would take the ship entirely. Both cursed creatures were an arrow’s shot apart from each other in the narrow strait, leaving no choice but to choose. Long before, Scylla had been cursed by Circe in a jealous rage, leaving Scylla transformed into a monstrous form with a dozen tentacles, shark’s teeth and six rabid dogs at her waist, to name a handful of her grim attributes. To sail into the whirlpool of Charybdis would be certain doom, while drawing near Scylla is like going for a walk through No Man’s Land, death at large, or a half-dozen at a time… Every writer faces these metaphorical choices when writing a book, consciously or not. The greatest tragedy in the course of writing is choice, since by choosing, all the other possible choices are devoured or drowned.
In vain she offers from herself to run
And drags about her what she strives to shun.
— Ovid’s Metamorphoses
The above words concern Scylla after she bathed in the poisonous waters and tried to run from her own hounds grafted about her waist. Jealousy is famously ‘the green-eyed monster’, but these two lines are perhaps some of the most tragic in jealousy’s long literary history, as exquisite as they are horrifying. As a literary totem, Scylla represents the multifarious ‘choice’ on the writer’s horizon, one that seems to hold many faces in one, but to draw too close to these faces — be it hounds’ or Scylla’s — is to be devoured in the writer’s own too much. Imagine Odysseus and his doomed crew sailing just out of reach of the Whirlpool, feeling the raging waters fish-tailing the stern of the ship, while the great devourer called Scylla beckons them closer, like the song-less mother of the Sirens, tempting by necessity, rather than seduction. Only dreams can be what Scylla is, consisting of a list of marine and animal attributes that baffle the imagination, but still woman, whereas dreams have no temporal space and function beyond and between three-dimensions. Choices must be made by the writer while she sails past the Scylla of the character or plot-line she’s imagining. In that brief glance, while the Whirlpool throttles her cognitive ship from behind, she must gather what she can of Scylla from a distance. Perhaps this is a feeling, an atmosphere the cursed creature exudes, a sound of her six barking dogs in discord with the waves, a briny smell with a touch of ambergris, a half-smile from Scylla, a wink…but never Scylla in her entirety, no matter the nature of the Scylla the writer is facing.
gasping as Scylla swung them up her cliff and there
at her cavern’s mouth she bolted them down raw…
— Homer’s Odyssey
Choices propel the ship onwards, sacrificing much of the crew, that doomed bunch of Red Shirt intentions. Writers, like captains, must be decisive when there’s no way around it. To draw too close to Scylla, to choose All — this All being the many possibilities of plot and character imagined by the writer — is to sink the ship that’s suddenly made of stone. Choice brings a flow to the story, a flow that can petrify at any moment. Scylla, her tragic whole self, is never a choice. Such hubris on behalf of the writer is a sin against monsters and the laws of literary physics, a sin against the sea, not to mention impossible, since choices must be made and such a Scylla, the Scylla, is beyond exhausting lists or metaphors. Without choice, there is no progression, since far more than Time and revolutions eat their own children. Not even the Scylla of Homer and Ovid is Scylla, a tragic truth beyond choice.