the rigorous m

bits and bobs, quotes and catching up

quotes: on mythology

Posted by rigorousm on January 19, 2011

THE SILENCE OF THE SIRENS
Evidence that even inadequate, indeed childish means may serve to save one.
In order to be safe from the Sirens, Odysseus stopped his ears with wax and had himself chained to the mast. All travelers, from the very beginning, could of course have done something of the kind, but it was common knowledge throughout the world that this was simply of no avail. The Sirens’ song penetrated through everything, and the passion of those who heard its magic would have snapped more than chains and a mast. But Odysseus did not think of that, even though he may have heard tell of it. He relied solely on the handful of wax and the network chains, and in innocent delight over his little stratagem he voyaged on towards the Sirens.
Now the Sirens have a weapon even more terrible than their song, namely, their silence. True, such a thing has not happened, yet perhaps it is thinkable that someone might have escaped from their singing; but from their silence certainly never. Nothing earthly can withstand the sense of having overcome them with one’s own resources, and the overwhelming arrogance resulting from it.
And in fact, when Odysseus came, the mighty singers did not sing, either because they believed the only way of tackling this opponent was with silence, or because the sight of the utter bliss on Odysseus’s face, as he thought of nothing but wax and chains, caused them quite to forget their singing.
But Odysseus—let us put it like this—did not hear their silence, he thought they were singing and that only he was safe from hearing it. Fleetingly he saw first the poise of their necks, their deep breathing, their eyes brimming with tears, their half-open mouths, but he believed this went with the arias that were resounding, unheard, around him. Soon, however, everything slid away from his gaze, which was fixed on the far distance, the Sirens simply vanished in the face of his resolutions, and in the very moment when he was nearest to them he had already forgotten them.
But they—more beautiful than ever—stretched and turned, letting their dread hair float free upon the wind and tightening their claws upon the rocks. They no longer wanted to entice anyone; all they wanted was to catch a glimpse for as long as possible of the reflected glory in the great eyes of Odysseus.
If the Sirens had possessed consciousness, they would have been annihilated at that time. As it was, they remained; only Odysseus escaped them.
For the rest, tradition has a note to add to this. Odysseus, it is said, was a man of so many wiles, was such a cunning fox, that even the goddess of destiny could not penetrate into his inmost being. Perhaps, although this is beyond comprehension by the mind of man, he really noticed that the Sirens were silent, and confronted them and the gods with the pretended trick described above only, so to speak, as with a sort of shield.

— Franz Kafka, Blue Octavo Notebooks, Third Notebook

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