THE DISSOLUTION OF MYTH IN KAFKA'S PROMETHEUS AND THE SILENCE OF THE SIRENS
Humanities 18 (1984) pp. 97-119 [pictures added]
In five sketches, The New Advocate, The Hunter Gracchus, The Silence of the Sirens, Prometheus, and Poseidon, Kafka uses motifs of classical mythology but, as Dietrich Krusche has pointed out, in all of them "the classical motif is alienated from its mythic or historical background, it is changed, transformed, deformed."1) This is particularly conspicuous in Prometheus, where "together with the unequivocal meaning of the classical motif the classical myth as such is completely dissolved."2) This does not mean, however, that Kafka demythologizes the myth. As I shall try to show, it is rather a radical reversal of the historical process that has led to the modern idea of demythologization.
Theo Rombouts (1597-1637) - Prometheus
1. Prometheus (1918)
There are four legends concerning Prometheus:According to the first he was clamped to a rock in the Caucasus for betraying the secrets of the gods to men, and the gods sent eagles to feed an his liver, which was perpetually renewed.According to the second Prometheus, goaded by the pain of the tearing beaks, pressed himself deeper and deeper into the rock until he became one with it.According to the third his treachery was forgotten in the course of thousands of years, forgotten by the gods, the eagles, forgotten by himself.According to the fourth everyone grew w•eary of the meaningless affair. The gods grew weary, the eagles grew weary, the wound closed wearily.There remained the inexplicable mass of rock. The legend tried to explain the inexplicable. As it came out of a substratum of truth it had in turn to end in the inexplicable.3)
a. The Problem of the function of myth in Prometheus
[What follows is a very detailed analysis of the text. To see just the results go to the concluding part (section d.) or read the shorter version in this article.]
In this sketch Kafka refers only to one part of the classical myth, namely to the one dealing with Prometheus' punishment. He gives four versions of it which all have two motifs in common with the Greek myth: that the gods punish Prometheus for having betrayed them and that they send eagles to feed an his liver. The first version is still in line with the classical tradition when it states that Prometheus was "clamped to a rock in the Caucasus" and that his liver was "perpetually renewed". Kafka's second version, however, is quite different: the idea that Prometheus, "goaded by the pain of the tearing beaks, pressed himself deeper and deeper into the rock until he became one with it". A similar idea can no longer be found in the classical tradition. Though there are cases of petrifaction in Greek mythology, they always occur suddenly and by the will of the gods.4) In Kafka's third and fourth versions the classical myth is completely dissolved. As Prometheus' case ends in oblivion and weariness so the myth seems to vanish. What remains in the end is the "inexplicable mass of rock" and the "substratum of truth" from which the myth comes and in which, as in the inexplicable, it has in turn to end.
Yet the myth is not superseded by the deeper insight or enlightenment of a post-mythological age nor is it, by a rational process of demythologization, reduced to the rationally explicable elements in it. What happens instead is, according to Krusche, the following: "By dissolving the myth as a traditional illustration of truth, by blurring the contours of the naive imagery of the personifications, allegories, symbols, the condition of the world is created in the substratum of truth, which is a condition of inexplicability . . . The classical motive as an element that illustrates, that stimulates cognition, that carries cultural-historical information takes over, in Kafka's world, the function of obscuring, of blurring, of disorientation."5)
Krusche rightly emphasizes that the traditional myth of Prometheus is completely dissolved in Kafka and can no longer serve as a means of illustrating or revealing truth. One could also refer here to the fact that, in contrast to the myth which points beyond human reality towards the realm of the gods, Kafka's sketch, starting with the action of the gods, in the end can only point to the "inexplicable mass of rock". But do the dissolution of myth and the inexplicability of truth necessarily imply, as Krusche maintains, that mythological motives and symbols in Kafka take over "only the function of obscuring, of blurring, of disorientation"? Krusche emphasizes mainly the contrast between the mythological motives in Kafka and the traditional function of myth. In doing so he disregards other aspects of this sketch that appear to be at least of equal importance.
b. The four legends
Besides differences of content Kafka's dissolution of the classical myth is caused mainly by the fact that he apparently gives four different versions of the same story. This is a technique which Kafka frequently uses where he aims at demonstrating the inexplicability or ambiguity of a phenomenon. An example of this are the different interpretations of the parable Before the Law that are given in The Trial. At least an the level of logical analysis they contradict and mutually exclude each other. Similarly, in The Burrow, the reflections of the animal are characterized by contradictory positions and assumptions which create a situation of extreme ambiguity and uncertainty.
Compared to these examples the four legends in Prometheus do not appear so clearly as parallel, as contradictory and mutually excluding. The second version could almost be a continuation of the first. It describes the reaction of Prometheus of which nothing is said in the first legend. Only if we think strictly logically, the fact that the liver is " perpetually renewed " and that nothing is said of a limit to the punish-ment in the first legend seems to force us to assume that it continues for ever. In this case the second version which speaks of an end to the punishment, or rather an escape from it, would contradict it. However, the word "perpetually" refers only to the verb "to be renewed". The term in German is "wachsen" (to grow). Normally we would expect here the verb "nachwachsen" (to grow again). That Kafka does not use it indicates that he obviously did not want to emphasize the connection with the punishment. Also, if we assume that the two legends are not so much parallel stories but rather different aspects of the same, we need no longer conclude that the punishment in the first is endless since nothing to the contrary is said. In the case of the Greek myth, too, there are two different versions which speak of an end to Prometheus' agony.6)
Kafka's third and fourth legends, too, describe the end of Prometheus' suffering, but in different ways. Logically, therefore, they and the second version mutually exclude each other. However, Kafka has done nothing to emphasize differences or even contradictions between them. The third legend, which says that Prometheus' "treachery was forgotten", and the fourth, where "everyone grew weary of the meaningless affair", could be combined, especially since the punishment may have become "meaningless" because of the fact that the treachery had been forgotten. Also we notice a development in the four legends from activity to passivity and from individual existence to a stage where (in the fourth legend) no longer Prometheus himself but only "the wound" is still mentioned. Therefore, in spite of the fact that Kafka refers to four different legends, it appears to be impossible to regard these simply as parallel accounts which contradict and exclude each other, thus creating ambiguity and obscurity. Rather they seem to be related, pointing to different aspects of the same phenomenon or stages of a process, like different versions of a mythological motif. If we read the text carefully we realize that the four legends describe a development that leads from the initial conflict between the gods and Prometheus to the "mass of rock" in the end.
The first version is the most dynamic, characterized by contrasts, by a clear, logical construction, by explicit references to the classical tradition, and by a precise and unequivocal terminology. The sentence, in the German original, consists of two main clauses connected by "and". The two subjects are Prometheus and the gods, who appear here clearly as opponents. Both parts of the sentence have a subordinate clause, in case of the first a causal, in case of the second a relative clause. In this way the structure is lucid and the relations of the various elements are evident. The causal clause clearly names the reason for Prometheus' punishment. In it, gods and men appear again as opponents. Prometheus' deed is castigated as treachery, which presupposes the existence of a law, written or unwritten, that he has broken. The severity of the punishment thus seems to be sufficiently justified. The violent and inflexible way in which it is executed is emphasized by the fact that Kafka has chosen the term "festgeschmiedet " (clamped fast) instead of "(an)geschmiedet" (clamped). The place where this occurs is given according to the classical tradition. The active role of the eagles as well as their subordination is emphasized by the fact that they are the subject of the relative clause.
The second legend is considerably shorter than the first. It consists of only two clauses. The last, short one is, in terms of grammatical definition, a subordinate clause, but this subordination is not strongly felt since the sentence describes the final stage of the process in the main clause and the conjunction "bis" (until) comes dose to an "und dann, schließlich" (and then, finally) at the beginning of a main clause. In this version the gods do not appear, and concerning the eagles only their beaks are mentioned. What remains are Prometheus and his agony which is expressed by the words "pain" and "tearing", and indirectly by his pressing himself deeper and deeper into the rock. In the first clause Prometheus is the subject and his action of pressing himself into the rock is described. This, however, comes dose to a passive process, in so far as he yields to a superior power. There is no indication in it of the defiance and rebellion which we find already in the Greek myth, and which then is expressed in an extreme form in Goethe's poem Prometheus. The second clause describes the final stage, his becoming one with the rock, as a kind of natural process. He ceases to exist as an individual being, but this seems to be not simply a negative process, as the term "to become one with" indicates and also the connection of the "rock" with the "inexplicable mass of rock" at the end of the sketch, which will be discussed below.
In the third and fourth legends the gods and the eagles, too, are involved in this process. The first clause of the third version is in the passive voice with no subject of the action being given. The subject is then added in the second clause. It is the gods, the eagles, and Prometheus himself, who are united here in one action, whereas they had been clearly distinguished or even opposed to each other at the beginning of the sketch. The same construction we find in the fourth legend, except that the indefinite pronoun "man" (one) now is the subject of the first clause and that, instead of Prometheus, only the wound is mentioned. The third legend is again shorter than the preceding one and this same process of reduction can also be found in the sentence itself whose four parts become shorter and shorter, like something gradually subsiding. By the words "in the course of thousands of years" this version refers to the endless flow of time compared to which even dramatic events like those related in the ancient myth of Prometheus (referred to by the words "his treachery") appear unimportant and without lasting effects.
Whereas the term "to forget" in the third legend refers to a mental process, in the fourth legend a physical process, the gradual disappearance of all activities is described. This version is slightly longer than the third, which is due to the fact that the words "grew weary" are repeated three times. The monotonous repetition again points to the endless flow of time and thus has a function similar to the expression "in the course of thousands of years" in the third version. The words "des grundlos Gewordenen müde", rendered in English as "weary of the meaningless affair", literally mean "weary of what had become groundless / without foundation". The same word "Grund" appears again in the last sentence, in the term "Wahrheitsgrund" ("sub-stratum of truth "). This seems to indicate at least a connection be-tween both.
c. The concluding part of the sketch
The first sentence of the last part of the sketch is particularly im-portant: "Blieb das unerklärliche Felsgebirge." ("There remained the inexplicable mass of rock."). Since it stands at the beginning of a new paragraph and since its contents refer to something clearly different from those of the four legends it seems to be, an the face of it, the beginning of a comment or conclusion following the presentation of the four legends and accordingly is clearly detached from the preceding part. But if we have carefully read the text up to this point it is obvious that in this sentence we actually reach the last stage of a movement that began in the first version. It leads from the dramatic individual events there over various reductions to the point where only the "mass of rock" remains. Furthermore, the term "mass of rock", in German "Felsgebirge" (literally: "rocky mountains"), refers back to the Caucasus and to the rock mentioned in the first two versions. The German text sets off this sentence by a dash at the end, which indicates that it stands somehow in the middle between the four versions of the myth and the last part of the text after the dash.
This is also corroborated by the verb form "blieb" ("remained") at the beginning of the sentence. Since the subject follows the verb we normally need an "es" (corresponding to the English "there") instead of the subject at the beginning of the sentence. The ellipsis of "es" is possible, however, after an enumeration in the sense of "There remains (as a problem to be solved, as a task to be done, etc.) . . . ". This meaning and the fact that the verb is in the past tense would relate the sentence to the preceding text and almost make it a kind of fifth version of the myth. But the phrase (" Blieb . . .") usually requires a continuation indicating how the problem could be solved, what action should be taken, and the like. That this does not follow (the next sentences are in the present tense, which is not correctly rendered in the English translation) and that, as mentioned above, the sentence is set off from the preceding text makes one hesitate to interpret the verb in the said sense.
This would, however, be possible if it were in the present tense. Then it would relate to the following sentences and these could be the continuation normally required for the phrase. The verb would be in the present if its form could be explained as subjunctive ('unreality' form). The correct form would normally be "bliebe", but a final "e" is often left out in German, especially in spoken language. It should normally be replaced by an apostrophe, but Kafka may have deliberately not done so to leave the word ambiguous.
These are only possibilities. Our analysis does not lead to a clear conclusion and the exact meaning of "Blieb" remains uncertain. Yet even without analysing the different possibilities of interpreting it one feels that it is somewhere in the middle between a past tense which relates the sentence to the preceding text and a present tense that relates it to the following. This corresponds to what I have emphasized before with regard to the whole sentence. Furthermore, one could point out that whereas the "mass of rock" relates to the preceding text, as mentioned above, the term "inexplicable" is taken up twice (if we include the verb "explain", three times) in the last sentences. It therefore seems that this sentence has a central position in the text. But before we consider this further it will be necessary first to analyse the last two sentences.
These are now clearly detached from the four legends and contain comments and general considerations. The repetition of the word "inexplicable" and its contrast to the attempt "to explain" is particularly conspicuous. By it the last stage of a line of development is characterized which leads to the destruction and dissolution of the myth and finally ends in the inexplicable. But even in the case of the sentence "The legend tries to explain the inexplicable." one feels that Kafka does not simply state the senselessness of such an attempt. As the following expression "As it comes out of a substratum of truth . . . " shows, he even emphasizes that the myth is related to truth. What he denies is that it can explain what is fundamentally inexplicable. The movement described in the last sentence is obviously circular. It comes out of a "substratum of truth" —which, as the following " wieder ("again, in turn") implies, is something inexplicable— and it ends again in the inexplicable. It is a negative process in so far as the attempt to explain is concerned. This is also indicated by the verb " enden" (to end) which sounds rather negative. However, this seems not to imply that it is a vicious circle or senseless movement. As it comes out of "a substratum of truth" so it seems to lead back to it. True, Kafka says a and not the " substratum of truth", yet it is still truth and that means much in Kafka.
This interpretation is confirmed, in my view, if we now consider again the result of our analysis of the four versions of the myth. In them, the process referred to at the end as emergence from "a substratum of truth" is disregarded and only the return to the "inexplicable" is described. It appears as a negative process in so far as all forms of individual existence, all activities and distinct phenomena, everything that can be explained, related, distinguished, are gradually dissolved and disappear. It is a positive process in so far as this reduction does not result in a total destruction but leads to the emergence of some-thing obviously indestructible, almost beyond time, something that remains as that which has always been there. It is the "inexplicable mass of rock" towards which the process of reduction in the four legends leads, which, however, stands outside of these, not affected by the gradual dissolution of the various elements of the myth. It also stands outside of the circular movement in the last two sentences. This as well as its position in the text, its being inexplicable and apparently indestructible, and also the association of " rock" with "ground" or "foundation" ("Wahrheitsgrund") closely relate it to the "substratum of truth" and make it appear as a concrete manifestation of it.7)
Heinrich Füger: Prometheus bringt der Menschheit das Feuer (ca. 1817) https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/5b/Heinrich_fueger_1817_prometheus_brings_fire_to_mankind.jpg
d. Kafka's reversal of the tradition
Now what does this mean with regard to myth in general? That mythological traditions and motives are deformed and dissolved is, of course, not a new phenomenon. Modern demythologization could be regarded as the last stage of this process. But Kafka's use of mythological motives is not in line with this development; on the contrary, it implies a radical reversal of this tradition. Where modern demythologization regards myth as too irrational and tries to reduce it to a residue or kernel that can be explained rationally, Kafka considers myth as already too rational, as too eager to explain what is inexplicable.8)."8)
The same reversal also occurs with regard to a development which has been one of the main currents of European culture since ancient times, namely the growing emphasis on the individual and his own rights, on independence and freedom, and on the creative energy which this process sets free. In Greek mythology these elements were particularly stressed in the Prometheus tradition, though largely with a pessimistic outlook. They were then expressed in an extreme form in Goethe's poem Prometheus where the poet, with the youthful vigour of the time of 'Storm and Stress', makes Prometheus a personification of the titanic hybris of the genius. He has him mock Zeus and his vain attempts to frighten men with thunder and lightning and boast of his own strength, independence, and creative power, culminating in the claim that he can even make men in his own image. This is another example of the destruction of myth, but how different it is from Kafka's Prometheus! Goethe's poem is representative of the tendency in European culture to emphasize the critical and enlightened, self-reliant and free individual, a tendency which we find already in the myth of Prometheus and which eventually resulted in the rejection and dissolution of the mythological tradition.
A similar destruction of myth we can find in Kafka's sketch, but otherwise he points to exactly the opposite direction of Goethe's Prometheus. Already his starting point within the mythological tradition is quite different. Whereas Goethe refers only to Prometheus' achievements and does not mention his punishment at all, Kafka desribes only the punishment and its end without mentioning his achievements. In strong contrast to Goethe's poem Kafka's Prometheus is completely passive. In the end he becomes one with the rock, he is forgotten, and disappears as do apparently all other activities in the general weariness that seems to envelop the whole cosmos. What remains in the end is not the 'I' which now becomes the center of productive activities, but the inexplicable truth of the "mass of rock" to which everything appears to eventually return.9)
It seems to me that these contrasts are due to two different basic attitudes or modes of living and thinking, which are related to the polarity or contrast between what is traditionally regarded as 'masculine' and 'feminine'. If one tries to define them one could roughly say that the former emphasizes the individual, action, achievement, tension, creativity, rationality, whereas the latter is characterized by receptivity, flexibility, passivity, mutual dependence, oneness, acceptance of reality as it is, sensibility.10) To this corresponds the contrast, in ancient religion, between matriarchal and patriarchal religions and societies. Greek mythology obviously marks the transition from the former to the latter. We still find in it for instance Gaia, the Earth Mother, who gives birth to all living creatures and to whom they all return after death. But she has to yield power to the gods around Zeus who incorporates the new and victorious masculine qualities. Against this, Kafka stresses 'feminine' modes. His Prometheus is no longer a symbol of rebellion, of the fight for independence, but he passively accepts his destiny. He is saved from his torments by becoming one with the "mass of rock" to which, at the end of the development described in the four versions of the myth, everything seems to return. Truth, in this context, is not something that emerges as the result of a process of analysis and reflection, but it is what has always been there like the "mass of rock", something which we can only accept as it is. This does not mean that 'masculine' elements are completely lacking. Besides the first and partly the second version, one could refer here to the fact that Kafka distinguishes four different legends and that, in the last two sentences, he reflects on the possibility of explaining "the inexplicable". Also, the "mass of rock" ("Felsgebirge"), to which everything seems to return, clearly represents 'masculine' qualities (unlike the image of 'mother earth '). Together with the "substratum of truth", to which it is related, it might be understood as an attempt by Kafka to integrate 'feminine' and 'masculine' elements.
With regard to the history of religions this means that Kafka points back to a pre-mythological stage, a time where the sight of mountains, old trees, and other extraordinary natural phenomena filled man with a deep feeling of awe and veneration. Myths and legends emerged when man began to reflect on these phenomena. Typical among them are aetiological legends which try to explain the origin of peculiar pheno-mena, names of places, and so on. By reversing the whole tradition that began there Kafka draws our attention to a basic human possibility that modern man often is no longer aware of. This may be related to Kafka's experience in Zürau (where he wrote Prometheus), as his letters and diaries of that time suggest.11) To discuss this problem here would take us beyond the scope of the present paper, but it is interesting to note this connection since also our next text, The Silence of the Sirens, was written in Zürau a few months before Prometheus.
Odysseus and the Sirens. Detail from an Attic red-figured stamnos, ca. 480-470 BC. From Vulci.
2. The Silence of the Sirens (1917)
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 awesome hair flutter free in the wind, and freely stretched their claws on 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.12)
a. The deformation of traditional motifs
In this short piece of prose, as in Prometheus, classical motifs are transformed and dissolved. By almost reversing some of the central elements of the homeric tradition, Kafka destroys the farniliar idea we have of Ulysses and his encounter with the Sirens. Already in the first sentence we notice with astonishment that Ulysses, famous for his cleverness, according to Kafka relied on "childish measures". We then learn that unlike Homer's Ulysses Kafka's hero had himself not only clamped fast ("festschmieden") to the mast of the ship but also stopped his ears with wax. Almost unbelievable and a definite break with the homeric tradition is the fact that Ulysses, who is supposed to have travelled far and wide and to know more than others, did not know what "was known to all the world", namely "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." The highpoint of the distortion of Homer's story is reached when we learn that the Sirens actually did not sing when Ulysses approached them. On the other hand, the most important element of the tradition that Kafka retains is the fact that Ulysses escapes the Sirens. This is quite remarkable, especially compared to Prometheus where Kafka does not mention Prometheus' achievements but concentrates on his punishment.
This indicates already that, as we shall see, Ulysses is an exceptionally positive figure among Kafka's protagonists,13) a fact which is often not realized by interpreters who concentrate on the contrast to the homeric tradition and the way in which Kafka distorts and destroys its motifs or apparently plays with various possibilities of interpretation. Krusche speaks of a "childish-complacent weakness of the hero".14) Klaus Ramm finds in the story a process of reduction, comparable to the one we analyzed in Prometheus, which leads towards the "fundamental, on principle inexplicable 'essence' of the narrative "15) and he particularly emphasizes the term "pretense" in the last sentence.16) The German term "Scheinvorgang" means an apparent (not real) process or event. According to Ramm this refers to the whole narrative, but actually the word relates only to the possibility that Ulysses may have done consciously what apparently he did unconsciously. Even less convincing is Heinz Politzer's interpretation of the story, to which I shall refer below after having analysed the text.17) Both here and in Prometheus the deformation and dissolution of the mythological motifs have not simply a negative function. They rather create, in my view, an 'alienation effect': They destroy our preconceived ideas and traditional patterns of thought and, therefore, enable us to discover new possibilities or dimensions of reality. Thus a new image of Ulysses emerges which is almost a reversal of the old familiar one.
b. The emergence of a new image of Ulysses
The first sentence of the story already destroys the traditional image of Ulysses as a clever man who by well-calculated measures and ingenious tricks escapes all perils and proves superior to his enemies. His measures are called "inadequate" and even "childish". The latter implies the total destruction of the homeric hero, but at the same time it marks the gradual emergence of a new and even greater Ulysses whose superior qualities seem to be related to the fact that he appears to be childlike in a sense. This one can realize, of course, only after having read the whole text. The word "Rettung" in the first sentence does not only mean "rescue from peril", as in the English translation, but can also be used in the sense of "salvation", which indicates already that the story describes not only the escape from a concrete danger but deals with a fundamental problem of human existence.
The second paragraph explains what constitutes Ulysses' "inadequate, even childish measures". Kafka's protagonist takes even more precautions than Homer's Ulysses by also stopping his ears with wax. This is no longer the image of a courageous hero who deliberately exposes himself to a dangerous situation and takes a calculated risk, but it is at best the image of a clever and carefully circumspect man. Even this, however, is destroyed immediately by the following remarks which make him appear almost silly since he seems not to know what "was known to all the world", namely that these measures are completely useless. At this point, where the last trace of the traditional image of Ulysses is destroyed the first positive traits of a different figure appear. We learn now that Ulysses had "perhaps"18) heard of the uselessness of all measures, but whether this is true or not, what matters is that he "did not think of that". This, too, is normally something negative. However, the words "nicht denken an" could also have a different meaning as in the phrase "Ich denke nicht daran!" (I wouldn't think of it). Thus they would be an expression of strength and self-confidence. This corresponds to Ulysses' attitude as it is later revealed. In the present context we can only say that they hint at such a possibility.
This is also confirmed by the following expression "He trusted absolutely to his handful of wax and his fathom of chain". The way his devices are described here they appear as ridiculously inadequate. All the more so is Ulysses' absolute trust in them astonishing,19) especially compared to other protagonists of Kafka whose lack of trust in others and most of all in themselves is their fundamental problem.20) They may be confident as long as they are alone with themselves but once they have to face a concrete situation this usually becomes impossible. In The Silence of the Sirens, however, just the opposite happens. The closer Ulysses comes to the Sirens the more his confidence increases, a confidence which is basically self-confidence, trust or even faith in himself.21) This is also pointed out by the last clause of the paragraph. The term "Mittelchen" (little devices) emphasizes again how ridiculous these are; childlike we may also say since the ending "-chen" of the word (meaning "little") is used mainly in children's speech. This could also be said about his "innocent elation" or better "joy", but we feel that the latter has a much more positive meaning. Together with his absolute trust it seems to be, like the innocent trust of children, what really protects and saves him.22)
But before this theme is further developed Kafka inserts a paragraph in which 'masculine' elements are strongly emphasized, corresponding to the traditional image of Ulysses. This is indicated by terms like "fatal (or: horrible) weapon", "one's own strength", "having triumphed", and "exaltation (or : presumption) that bears down everything before it (or better: that carries everything with it, like a torrent)". Even silence and the Beauty of song become weapons here. It is a deadly fight for superiority. Ulysses must either win or perish. To this corresponds the later statement that the Sirens "would have been annihilated" if they "had possessed consciousness". Even if Ulysses should escape the Sirens, the exclusive emphasis on 'masculine' modes of existence is self-destructive. The very feeling of triumph and the consequent exaltation inevitably lead to destruction. So there is no escape as long as these modes dominate.
But this gradually changes in the next paragraph. The words "potent", "enemy", and "vanquish" still indicate a conflict between Ulysses and the Sirens; however, they are more moderate than the expressions in the preceding passage. "Potent" refers to the power of their song; "enemy", "Gegner" in German, is better rendered by "opponent" or "adversary"; and "vanquish" (in German: "beikommen"), better translated as "to get at" or "to get the better of", is weaker than "to triumph over" or "to defeat". The following expression: "the look of bliss on the face of Ulysses, who was thinking of nothing but his wax and his chains" now again takes up the motifs of "absolute trust" and "innocent joy" at the end of the second paragraph. Before, it was said that he "did not think" of the uselessness of his measures; now he is "thinking of nothing but his wax and chains". He resembles a child who is so preoccupied with his toys that he forgets everything around and plays, sheltered in the world of his innocent bliss. The strength he gains by this is indicated in the first half of the paragraph by the fact that the Sirens have to resort to their silence as their last means. The second possible explanation of their silence no longer refers to a conflict between Ulysses and the Sirens. The latter, fascinated by the "look of bliss" on his face, simply forget their song, similar to the general oblivion in the third legend of Prome theus.
The following paragraph leads this development to its climax. The first sentence makes a last attempt to explain why Ulysses was saved, but the paradoxical statement that he "did not hear their silence" seems to indicate the senselessness of any rational explanation. And so does the vague expression "und nur er sei behütet, es zu hören" rendered in English simply by: "and that he alone did not hear them". Freely translated it could mean: "that he alone was allowed to hear it (i.e. their silence), and yet was protected against it". But actually the Sirens no longer seem to matter to him. Only for a fleeting moment he looks at them. "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." The last words apparently resemble those of Kafka's Up in the Gallery where "the visitor to the gallery lays his face on the rail before him and, sinking into the closing march as into a heavy dream, weeps without knowing it."23) What is similar is the fact that both protagonists "do not know", but whereas the visitor to the gallery lays his head on the rail, sinks into something like a dream, and weeps, Ulysses fixes his gaze on the distance and is immune to the Sirens because of his resolution. Whereas the visitor to the gallery seems no longer to exist as an independent individual, having become one with the whole,24) Ulysses is one with himself, self-confident, and therefore unassailable. Even the Sirens are now happy "to hold as long as they could the radiance that fell from Ulysses' great eyes".
The Sirens have changed now. Since their relationship to Ulysses is no longer characterized by conflicts and rivalry they can now be what they really are.25) So they appear "lovelier than ever",26) but they also no longer hide their "awesome hair" and "their claws" which they now let "flutter free in the wind" or freely stretch on the rocks. "They remained as they had been", because they do not possess consciousness; otherwise "they would have been annihilated". Ulysses, too, would not have been saved if he had acted consciously, if he had thought of what was known to all the world, if he had left the world of his innocent joy, if he had thought of anything other than his devices, if he had still known of the Sirens when they were nearest to him. Therefore, it is impossible to maintain, as Politzer does, that Ulysses' victory is a triumph of calculating reason or that he avoided the encounter with the mythical powers because he was too clearly conscious of them.27)
The last paragraph is not easy to understand. Jörgen Kobs relates it to what Kafka regarded as the "perhaps saving comfort that there is in writing",28) the "Tat-Beobachtung",29) a condition which cannot be re-enacted by the reader and is far superior to that of being a conscious subject, and in which vita activa and vita contemplativa are completely one".30) Kobs rightly points out this connection and demonstrates well the importance of the last paragraph.31) However, his interpretation is not quite convincing. Whereas, at first, he regards activity as a "Scheinvorgang ", he later maintains that contemplation has the function of a shield, which, according to the text, is the function of the "Scheinvorgang".32) Also, the terms "Tätigkeit" and "Kontemplation" seem to be not appropriate to characterize the two attitudes which Kafka obviously tries to integrate here.33)
In my view, these attitudes are expressed, on the one side, in the traditional image of Ulysses referred to in the last paragraph by the words "full of guile" and "such a fox", of the man who knows, calculates, reflects, who acts consciously and fights, and, on the other side, in the new figure of Ulysses which Kafka has created in this story and which is almost the opposite of the former, as we saw. The unity of both is something which the human mind can no longer grasp ("obwohl das mit Menschenverstand nicht mehr zu begreifen ist"). It would mean that Ulysses acts like a naive, innocent child, unconscious of everything around, and at the same time knows what he is doing, observing himself detachedly, from a higher position.34) It is remarkable that Kafka considers such a possibility at all, which is far beyond what his other protagonists could ever hope for. In this sense The Silence of the Sirens differs considerably from Prometheus. In the latter the dissolution of myth and the transformation of the mythological motifs point to a pre-mythological stage. In The Silence of the Sirens the destruction of the traditional image of Ulysses makes it possible for Kafka to create a new, contrasting figure of Ulysses and, in the end, point to a possible unity of both, though this seems to transcend human possibilities.
- D. Krusche, Die kommunikative Funktion der Deformation klassischer Motive: 'Der Jäger Gracchus'. Zur Problematik der Kafka-Interpretation, in: Der Deutschunterricht 25, (1973), p. 130: "Das . . . klassische Motiv ist seinem mythischen bzw. historischen Hintergrund entfremdet, ist verändert, umgestaltet, deformiert." (my translation hexe and elsewhere). Cf. D. Krusche, Kafka und Kafka-Deutung: Die problematisierte Interaktion, München, 1974, pp. 92-107; K. Stierle, Mythos als 'bricolage' und zwei Endstufen des Prometheus-Mythos, in: M. Fuhrmann (ed.), Poetik und Hermeneutik 4. Terror und Spiel. Probleme der Mythenrezeption, München, 1971, pp. 463-467; P. U. Beicken, Franz Kafka. Eine kritische Einführung in die Forschung, Frankfurt, 1974, p. 316.
- Krusche, Die . . . , p. 130: " . . . wird . . . mit der Eindeutigkeit des klassischen Motivs der klassische Mythos als solcher völlig aufgelöst".
- F. Kafka, The Complete Stories, ed. by N. N. Glatzer, New York, 1971, p. 432 (translation by Willa and Edwin Muir). The German text is quoted from F. Kafka, Sämtliche Erzählungen, ed. by P. Raabe, Frankfurt a. M., 1970, p. 306. [According to the Critical Edition (Fischer, 1982ff.) the last two sentences should be at the beginning of the text.]
- Cf. Krusche, Die . . . , p. 131 and Kafka . . . , p. 99.
5. Krusche, Die . . . , pp. 131 f.: "Indem der Mythos als tradierte Veranschaulichung von Wahrheit aufgelöst, die Naivität der Bilderwelt der Personifizierungen, Allegorien, Symbole entkonturiert wird, geschieht die Herstellung des Weltzustands im Wahrheitsgrund, der ein Zustand der Unerklärbarkeit ist . . . Das klassische Motiv als Anschaulichkeit vermittelndes Element, als Erkenntnisstimulans, als kulturgeschichtlicher Informationsträger übernimmt in der Welt Kafkas die Funktion der Verundeutlichung, Entkonturierung, Desorientierung."; cf. Krusche, Kafka . . , pp. 99 f.
6. Cf. Krusche, Die . . . , pp. 130 f. and Kafka . . . , pp. 98 f.
7. Cf. Krusche, Die . . . , p. 131 and Kafka, p. 99: "Unerklärlicher Wahrheitsgrund des Felsengebirges, der alle Ausformungen von Mythen und Mythenabwandlungen überdauert . . . ".
8. F. Nemec (Kafka-Kritik. Die Kunst der Ausweglosigkeit, München, 1981, pp. 39 f.) and R. Thieberger (Das Schaffen in den ersten Jahren der Krankheit, in: H. Binder (ed.), Kafka-Handbuch in zwei Bänden. Das Werk und seine Wirkung, vol. 2, Stuttgart, 1979, p. 360), in my view, both misunderstand Kafka's text completely when they speak of the narrator being "aufgeklärt" (Nemec, op. cit., p. 39) or of "Entmythologisierung" and of the author appearing "unter der Maske des gelehrtenKommentators" who analyses ("zerlegt") the legend (Thieberger, ibid.).
- Both Goethe's and Kafka's Prometheus, at the beginning, refer to Zeus or the gods, but whereas Goethe's poem ends with the strongly emphasized word "I" the last words in Kafka's sketch are: "to end in the inexplicable", which relates to the "inexplicable mass of rock" as well as to the "substratum of truth".
- Cf. G. Schepers, Masculine and Feminine Aspects of Creativity—with an analysis of Kafka's 'Up in the Gallery', in: Humanities 16, (1982), pp. 105-124.
- In a later letter to Milena Jesenská he teils himself: "Remember also that perhaps the best time of your life were those 8 months in a village about two years ago where you thought you'd finished with everything, where you confined yourself only to that which, within yourself, was unquestionable, where you were free ... " (Letters to Milena, ed. by W. Haas, trans. by T. and J. Stern, New York, 1974, p. 68; cf. Briefe an Milena, Frankfurt, 1965, p. 68).
12. Kafka, The Complete Stories, pp. 430-432 (translation by Willa and Edwin Mull). The German text is quoted from Kafka, Sämtliche Erzählungen, pp. 304 f. (s. note 3).
- Cf. W. H. Sokel, Franz Kafka. Tragik und Ironie. Zur Struktur seiner Kunst, Frankfurt, 1976, pp. 239-252; M. Walter-Schneider, Denken als Verdacht. Untersuchungen zum Problem der Wahrnehmungi mWerk Franz Kafkas, Zürich, 1980, p. 138. Both point out the contrast to The Knock at the Manor Gate (Sokel, p. 243; Walter-Schneider, p. 137) and Before the Law (Sokel, passim). It is also interesting to note that (unlike in most of Kafka's works) in Prometheus as well as in The Silence of the Sirens the standpoint of the narrator is different from that of the protagonist and that the name of the latter is not related to Kafka's name, which both indicates a greater distance between the author and his protagonist. Cf. Krusche, Kafka . . . , p. 70.
- Kafka . . . , p. 95: "einer kindlich-selbstgefälligen Schwäche des ' Helden' "; cf. pp. 93-95.
- K. Ramm, Reduktion als Erzählprinzip bei Kafka, Frankfurt, 1971 ( = Literatur The Dissolution of Myth in Kafka und Reflexion, vol. 6), p. 137: "das zugrundeliegende prinzipiell unerklärliche Wesen' des Erzählten".
- Ibid., pp. 136 f.
- H. Politzer, Das Schweigen der Sirenen, in: Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte 41, (1967), pp. 444-467.
- "vielleicht "; "probahly" in the translation is not correct.
- D. Eggenschwiler ("Die Verwandlung," Freud, and the Chains of Odysseus, in: Modern Language Quarterly 39, (1978), pp. 363-385) relates this to the Samsas in Metamorphosis who "with their . . . inadequate, childish means . . . confound the Sirens by their simplicity and escape temptations to despair and death" (379 f.). Krusche (Kafka . . . , p. 95) speaks of "einer fast kleinbürgerlich-spießig anmutenden Vorliebe für ' Mittelchen' zur Sicherung des eigenen Ich". Though there seems to be an element like this in the attitude of Ulysses at the beginning, and accordingly a connection to the "simplicity" of the bourgeois, on the whole and particularly in the later parts of the story Ulysses' attitude is far superior to the one described by Eggenschwiler and Krusche, as we shall see.
- Cf. Walter-Schneider, op. cit., p. 138: "Odysseus ist eine atypische Kafkafigur. Von den typischen Kafkafiguren unterscheidet ihn, daß er vertrauen kann."
- Cf. ibid., pp. 138 f.; Sokel, op. cit., pp. 240 f.
- Cf. J. Kobs, Kafka. Untersuchungen zu Bewußtsein und Sprache seiner Gestalten, ed. by U. Brech, Bad Homburg, 1970, p. 534. Sokel (op. cit.) emphasizes with regard to Ulysses: "Die unbesiegbare Verbindung von Vertrauen und Unschuld bringt die Macht hervor." (241) and: "Vertrauen, Unschuld und Macht, so lautet die Dreifaltigkeit des Segens bei Kafka." (140). Problematic, however, is Sokel's statement that Ulysses is "die Vater-Machtgestalt" (241), for he possesses neither "rücksichtsloses Selbstvertrauen" nor is he "der Richter" (242).
- Kafka, The Complete Stories (s. note 3), p. 422.
- See Schepers, op. cit., p. 123.
- In a letter (Briefe 1902-1924, Frankfurt, 1975, p. 362) Kafka emphasizes that the Sirens did not want to allure: " ... sie wußten, daß sie Krallen hatten und keinen fruchtbaren Schoß, darüber klagten sie laut, sie konnten nicht dafür, daß die Klage so schön klang." (Cf. "their eyes filled with tears" in the preceding paragraph)..
26 A. P. Foulkes (An Interpretation of Kafka's "Das Schweigen der Sirenen", in: Journal of English and German Philology 64, (1965), pp. 98-104), however, claims that the Sirens had, according to Kafka, "no real charms at all" (104).
27. Politzer, op. cit., pp. 447, 445.
28. The Diaries of Franz Kafka 1910-23, ed. by M. Brod, Harmondsworth, 1972, 406; cf. Tagebücher 1910-23, ed. by M. Brod,Frankfurt a.M., 1954, p. 563.
29. Tagebücher, p. 563. This term, also written "Tatbeobachtung" in the same Passage, is usually understood as meaning "a seeing of what is really taking place" (The Diaries . . . , pp. 406 f.) but Kobs' interpretation, given in the following, appears more convincing.
30. op. cit., p. 533: "ein für den Leser nicht nachvollziehbarer, dem bewußten Subjektsein weit überlegener Zustand, in dem vita activa und vita contemplativa völlig eins sind".
31. This is not realized by R. Thieberger (op. cit., p. 359), who regards The Silence of the Sirens as a typical example of Kafka's "Schwanken zwischen verschiedenen Möglichkeiten", especially in the last paragraph, and by Politzer (op. cit., p. 445), who maintains that Kafka intimates in this paragraph "daß auch das von ihm konstruierte Mißverständnis ein Mißverständnis sei". 32. Kobs, op. cit., pp. 534, 535.
33. S. ibid.
34. Cf, ibid., p.533.