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: […]
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