Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Scylla and Charybdis

My favorite image from the classical Greeks is that of Scylla and Charybdis [pronounced sille and keribdis according to my dictionary, but I began pronouncing them wrong in childhood, and no one has ever corrected me]. Scylla was a rock, usually with a man-eating monster atop it. Charybdis was a whirlpool of sufficient size to suck in an entire ship of mariners. Together they were the hazards of a strait of ocean, the only possible passage between two land masses.

The most common comparison we have in American is between a rock and a hard place.
But Scylla and Charybdis is not about just any ordinary two bad choices. It is about running between two terrifying, deadly choices, with no real hope of survival. Why not just go some other way? Because, presumably, there is either a terrifying third choice chasing behind (say pirates, or a 160 foot squid), or something very important beyond the strait, like the Golden Fleece or Holy Grail or eternal life.

According to most environmental scientists, the big-picture Scylla and Charybdis of our era is a global catastrophic environmental meltdown caused by technology and overpopulation that will leave billions of humans, perhaps all humans dead of starvation on an almost-dead planet. Or ramping back the use of carbon-based energy (and other enviro-destructive technology) so severely that billions of humans will starve, but leaving a healthy planetary ecosystem. So you can feed either Scylla or Charybdis, but very few humans will make it through the straits.

Even more big picture is the state of the universe itself. According to Astrophysicists either the Universe is contracting or it is expanding. They are not sure which, they keep getting different answers over their decades of study. In the Charybdis of contraction the Universe will compact itself back into one big ultra-high-temperature fireball of the type that started the Big Bang to begin with. The other choice is the Scylla of slow cooling, stars and galaxies cooling and spreading out until the Universe is a really, really big dust bin. But don't worry, in either case you'll be dead, and your descendents will be dead, long before one of these happens.

The Greeks were a cheery lot. Homer has the hero Odysseus survive the ordeal. Having returned from a trip to Hades, he is apt to be put there permanently if his ship is sucked down by Charybdis. Following the advice of Circe, he steers clear of Charybdis and lets Scylla grab and devour six of his sailors, so that he and the others might escape. We remember Odysseus to this day, but not the extras, who are not allowed even a parting word lest they force the film over budget. For the survivors it is worth it as they "soon came to the fair island of the god."

Some humor in it can be found in Shakespeare, who uses the metaphor for familial relations. In The Merchant of Venice [Act III, Scene 5, line 17], Launcelot tells Jessica, "Truly then I fear you are damned both by father and mother: thus when I shun Scylla, your father, I fall into Charybdis, your mother."

Most people think the American economy, and even more so the Economy of Europe, is in a Scylla and Charybdis type of peril. Without fiscal and monetary stimulus it could be sucked into the whirlpool of depression, but that very stimulus will increase the size of Scylla, the national debt. Conservatives want to throw the old and the poor to Scylla to make a more efficient ship. Liberals would prefer to sacrifice to Scylla a few nice fat rich people instead. Neither side seems willing to make serious cuts to the military and homeland securities budgets, that make the ship so heavy in the water it is about to sink of its own accord.

The reality is that when confronted with only two choices, both of which are very bad, most of us just freeze and drift. It is no worse of a strategy than choosing one side or trying to run the rapids. The 19th century choice of starving on a farm or starving in a "Satanic Mill" has given way to the 21st century choice of getting fat and diabetic while on welfare or getting fat and diabetic at a desk job. Then there are the choices of old age: chemotherapy that is more likely to kill you in the short run than cancer, but that, if you survive it and the cancer does not, gives you almost enough years to work off the medical bills you ran up.

No one gets out alive, and all other things are never equal (guaranteed by the laws of Quantum Mechanics).
I like to think of Ferdinand Magellan, who is said to be the first man to circumnavigate the world. Actually the he was killed by natives of the Philippine Islands in 1521. I kind of like the idea that occasionally, at least, Odysseus dies and some of his sailors escape. Later the Spaniards enslaved the Filipinos. Just when the Filipinos defeated the Spanish and gained independence the United States marched in, bringing apple pie, a different version of Christianity, and a campaign of genocide that left 2 million Filipinos dead. The Japanese liberated the Philippines during World War II and granted them independence. The U.S. re-subjugated the Philippines in 1945, but then, trying to get some good propaganda going to pry loose the colonies of Britain, France, and the Netherlands, finally granted the Philippines independence on July 4, 1946. Follow the survivors and it seems like a happy tale.

The real lesson of Scylla and Charybdis is don't be greedy. Greed feeds on itself until it no longer can squeeze between the Law and Angry Victims. A person only needs so much to be happy. There is already enough trouble in the world to keep everyone busy who wants to be.

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