By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Silence of the Sirens’ is a very short story by Franz Kafka (1883-1924), written in 1917 but doomed, like so much of his work, to languish in his notebooks before being published after his death. This retelling of a famous myth from classical antiquity is idiosyncratic and worthy of closer analysis.
In the original version of the myth, which appears in Homer’s Odyssey, the Sirens are famed for their seductive song. Any man who hears them singing cannot resist going towards the direction of the sound. If you’re a sailor steering a ship past the dangerous rocks where the Sirens sit and serenade you, this is obviously bad news: you’ll be overcome by a desire to steer your ship onto the rocks, to get closer to the Sirens, and your ship will be dashed to pieces and you, and your crew, will perish.
How did Odysseus manage to steer his ship past the Sirens without succumbing to their song? He ordered his crew to stop their ears up with wax so they couldn’t hear (and thus be influenced by) the sound of the Sirens’ song. But he wanted to hear it, and survive the experience. So he got his men to tie him to the mast of the ship. That way, he could hear the Sirens’ song but he wouldn’t be able to steer the ship off-course and to destruction on the rocks.
That’s the conventional version of the story. But in ‘The Silence of the Sirens’, Kafka turns this on its head in every conceivable way. First, it is Odysseus who stuffs wax into his ears, rather than his men. Second, the Sirens don’t sing their enchanting song: for some reason, they remain silent as Odysseus and his men sail past. Third, it is the Sirens who become fascinated by Odysseus, rather than vice versa.
To analyse all this in terms of gender, the seductive female is thus robbed of her powers to enchant the male, and instead it is the female gaze which becomes the focus of Kafka’s story: the male becomes the object of desire and allure, rather than the females.
Kafka offers two possible reasons for the Sirens’ silence. Either they took the measure of Odysseus’ crew and determined that their silence would be a more potent weapon than their song against such men; or they saw the look of bliss on Odysseus’ face and completely forgot how to sing their song.
But Odysseus’ bliss, Kafka tells us, was not caused by the sight – or sound, or silence – of the Sirens. Instead, he was thinking only of the wax in his ears and the chains binding him to the mast.
How should we interpret Kafka’s retelling of this classic myth? Odysseus was known for his cunning, so it’s perhaps hardly a surprise that thinking about his cunning plan to withstand the Sirens (the wax and the chains) would have caused a look of bliss to appear on his face.
Odysseus was so busy patting himself on the back for his clever ruse, so self-absorbed in his own sense of ingenuity, that he simply assumed the Sirens were singing when they weren’t. He saw their throats rising and falling, but, as Kafka puts it, he did not hear their silence: i.e., he wasn’t aware that they were being silent.
This is a neat little paradox, almost metaphysical in its construction and implications. What does it mean to fail to hear a person’s silence? Silence, of course, can be both heard and not heard. If I have earplugs in and my cat comes up to me and meows, but no sound comes out because the cat has lost its voice, did I ‘hear’ that silent meow or not? Technically I didn’t, because I assumed a sound had been made (so no silence) which I failed to hear, because of the earplugs.
This paradox is central to this little fable, because Kafka tells us that the Sirens’ silence is the one weapon they possess that is more potent than their song. The implication is that, if Odysseus had not stopped up his ears with wax and had thus heard the sound of the Sirens’ deathly silence, he and his crew would have been doomed.
But what does this mean? Why should their silence be more powerful than their singing, which, after all, can entice men onto the rocks? What can their silence achieve, then, that their singing cannot?
There is perhaps nobody who can answer this question for sure apart from Franz Kafka himself, and he never answered it, as far as we know. And it’s possible he didn’t know himself. However, perhaps we might productively compare ‘The Silence of the Sirens’ with another modernist text of 1917.
In his poem ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, which was published in the collection Prufrock and Other Observations in 1917, the American-born poet T. S. Eliot (1888-1965) has Prufrock cast himself, in his dramatic monologue, as a kind of feeble latter-day Odysseus: Prufrock tells us that he has heard the mermaids (which we might interpret as ‘Sirens’) singing but ‘I do not think that they will sing to me.’
Unlike Kafka’s Odysseus, Prufrock knows that he is not going to hear the Sirens’ song: they will withhold it from him. But because he has not stopped his ears with wax, he can hear the deafening silence of the female failing to view him as an object worthy of seduction. Odysseus, wrapped up in his own little world, has no such failure of self-confidence, and that is how he is able to ‘defeat’ the Sirens at their own game.