Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Kafka, The Silence of the Sirens

Proof that inadequate, even childish measures, may serve to rescue one from
peril.

To protect himself from the Sirens Ulysses stopped his ears with wax and
had himself bound to the mast of his ship. Naturally any and every
traveller before him could have done the same, except those whom the Sirens
allured even from a great distance; but it was known to all the world that
such things were of no help whatever. The song of the Sirens could pierce
through everything, and the longing of those they seduced would have broken
far stronger bonds than chains and masts. But Ulysses did not think of
that, although he had probably heard of it. He trusted absolutely to his
handful of wax and his fathom of chain, and in innocent elation over his
little stratagem sailed out to meet the Sirens.

Now the Sirens have a still more fatal weapon than their song, namely their
silence. And though admittedly such a thing has never happened, still it is
conceivable that someone might possibly have escaped from their singing;
but from their silence certainly never. Against the feeling of having
triumphed over them by one's own strength, and the consequent exaltation
that bears down everything before it, no earthly powers could have remained
intact.

And when Ulysses approached them the potent songstresses actually did not
sing, whether because they thought that this enemy could be vanquished only
by their silence, or because of the look of bliss on the face of Ulysses,
who was thinking of nothing but his wax and his chains, made them forget
their singing.

But Ulysses, if one may so express it, did not hear their silence; he
thought they were singing and that he alone did not hear them. For a
fleeting moment he saw their throats rising and falling, their breasts
lifting, their eyes filled with tears, their lips half-parted, but believed
that these were accompaniments to the airs which died unheard around him.
Soon, however, all this faded from his sight as he fixed his gaze on the
distance, the Sirens literally vanished before his resolution, and at the
very moment when they were nearest to him he knew of them no longer.

But they--lovelier than ever--stretched their necks and turned, let their
cold hair flutter free in the wind, and forgetting everything clung with
their claws to the rocks. They no longer had any desire to allure; all that
they wanted was to hold as long as they could the radiance that fell from
Ulysses' great eyes.

If the Sirens had posessed consciousness they would have been annihilated
at that moment. But they remained as they had been; all that had happened
was that Ulysses had escaped them.

A codicil to the foregoing has also been handed down. Ulysses, it is said,
was so full of guile, was such a fox, that not even the goddess of fate
could pierce his armor. Perhaps he had really noticed, although here the
human understanding is beyond its depths, that the Sirens were silent, and
opposed the afore-mentioned pretense to them and the gods merely as a sort
of shield.

(for Tempest)

2 comments:

Mandy said...

Perhaps the Sirens thought "Well, you can't win them all?". :>)

Not sure I am getting the moral of the story Dave. Is it that ignorance is bliss? Or that earwax is useless if you don't believe it will work?

The hero got away..Hoorah! and the Sirens continued in their quest to lead seafarers astray. A win win situation. Ha! ha!

Tempest said...

Thank you for that - I've never heard the story expressed that way before! I wonder if the subtle point of the encounter between Ulysses and the Sirens was to show that, though powerful, the inevitability of the Siren song was not so, well, inevitable? At any rate, I hadn't thought of the story that way until reading your post, and I thank you for helping me to make yet another connection ... one that will help me during the time to come :-)