To Fear, Seduce, or Master?: Remembering the Siren’s Song

By Carrie Bailey

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Like a love bomb with shrapnel made of satisfaction guarantees, the Siren’s song pops. And, like a customized Pandora’s boombox with the listener, as the artist, genre and track, it blasts a powerful force. Classic translators of Homer’s Odyssey, for centuries, have earned their academic laurels in rendering the blandishment and flattery of the Greek Sirens’ song and the rest of the Odyssey into English verse and prose. The Sirens woo ruthlessly, through the friendly fire that proves to be terminally complimentary to anyone hearing it.

What You May Not Know About the Song of the Sirens

Sirens are everywhere. Their song calls familiar and true, 24-7. On the world wide waves of the Internet, sailors are constantly serenaded by similar seductions, the urge of a sense to “act now” with temptations and come-ons that will never be fully consummated, but play on the strings of desire, directly to each and every listener. Today, one can even “siren” oneself with a mixed media discourse specially spun by Google and Facebook in a custom-blended algorithm of libido, impulse, attention, and self-reflexivity. The Book of Beasts, a bestiary from the Middle Ages, describes these “pretty voices” as “indelicacies, ostentations, and pleasures” (134). One need no longer travel far to find them. Web surfers are the new sailors.

Grandson of Famous Poet and Muse Exposes Temptations in Scholarship

Even before the waves of the Internet hit, many casualties were left in the wake of this torch song. In a comprehensive dissertation on representations of the Sirens in literature from 1983, Siegfried de Rachewiltz, Ezra Pound’s grandson, whose mother was the product of Pound’s affair with his muse, Olga Rudge, identifies literary scholarship as siren-ing itself.  Of this practice, De Rachewiltz warns, “Most explicators have not resisted the temptation of ‘listening to themselves,’ that is, they have set up a theory—which very often was quite valid for one aspect or, more precisely, for one particular context within which the Sirens appeared—-and have then proceeded to reduce all the known instances of Sirens to that single theory” (5). In other words, De Rachewilitz observes a literary scholarship clear-channel for filtering other voices, viewpoints, and interpretations. And, are not we all, today, a little complicit in listening to ourselves as supreme merchants and curators of knowledge—and less of others? For example, it is a common practice on the Internet to post first and read later, if at all. Then, there is what’s called “the selfie paradox: Nobody seems to like them yet everyone has reasons to take them” (Diefenback, & Christoforakos). In this diffuse and inchoate reservoir of human knowledge traditional boundaries between author, audience, and content have eroded into the digital artifact that is the selfie—a primary example of this dissolve.

The sheer number and types of messages encountered in a few hours on the Internet, through social media, or email accounts, usually more than one, reflects a high volume of attempted Siren calls at work every day. Many of these are styled for a consumer, with codified, Siren-like “airs” like “Shhhh exclusive only to our most loyal friends [% member:name_first default=”Ulysses” %]…”/“ or “A lot has happened on Facebook since you last logged in [% member:name_first default=”Ulysses” %].” Adding modern social apps like Periscope, WhatsApp, and many others that have already become obsolete, like Vine, since I first started this composition, the list grows with every update. Personalized for the recipient, just like the song to Ulysses, these messages offer the same style of pandering. Submersion into the Sirens’ song happens at home, at work, and all places in between. Seduction and awe are common, with the call coming through multiple channels, captivating sailors through the unusual, monstrous, (shockingly) sensual sounds, leaving hearts throbbing “to listen longer” in an ecstatic state of now (Fagles, 12.209). Unlike Shock and Awe, the military stratagem, the song of the Sirens does not wear the captive out by inundation and revulsion, breaking a person down, leading to self-destruction; rather it works by filling one up with sweet talk: intoxication.

Ironically, the side effect of this mixture of self-objectification is voicelessness. Ask anyone who has ever unwittingly been critiqued, bullied, or gone viral as a meme, the process through which some representation of a person is copied, often altered, and rapidly spread through digital shipping lanes of the Internet in a semiotic sea. In the age of mechanical reproduction, when one objectifies part of his or her individuality, it becomes potential material for others to use. This context collapse leaves one open to his or her representation being shanghaied. If an individual is taking hundreds of “selfies” a day, the odds of one entering the chorus line of popular culture increases with every snap. The most loving of tributes or self-representations can virally transform into an involuntary burlesque with a global stage.

Once upon a time, the counterfeit magic that we see in social media was even perfected, in a sense, in the literary blazon, which reached its apex in the Renaissance: the practice of taking physical attributes of a beloved (usually a her) and breaking them down into words through the form of a sonnet or poem. Some people still write about lips like rosebuds. What remains similar is how, like in the blazon, a person fractures, often at one’s own hand, and is repurposed with photo filters, selective angles, and avatars that pass as some version of the self. This is not just objectification, which is complex and politically charged. Confusing or believing that the self represented is the self is the new trend. The tradeoff is of getting trapped, not even in one’s belief, but in oneself. In a world of songs, the 21st century version is pop without a composer, but several DJs. In addition to popular music, the song echoes through virtual halls and digital realms with frequent trips through Mayfair, Valencia, Nashville, and Walden filters via Instagram. The intimacy with these devices is even passed down to the next generation, as Vanity Fair magazine begrudgingly reported in an article whose title sums it up: “People are Naming Their Babies After Instagram Filters.”

In the musing of the Information Age, it might be useful to draw on the insights of the Classics: Classic Rock this time. Radio was one of the first world-wide media for social movements that sang praises to popular culture muses. Patti Boyd, the former wife of Beatle George Harrison, and guitarist, Eric Clapton, who was, perhaps most memorably, the inspiration behind popular rock that rolled through those airwaves—in an era in which radio was the main global network. Boyd experienced the effect of being immortalized and disseminated globally through media before globalization, in songs in the early 1960s and afterward. In her biography, Wonderful Tonight, named after one of those songs, Boyd confides that

                        being the muse of two such extraordinarily creative musicians and having
                        beautiful, powerful love songs written about me was enormously flattering but it
                        put the most tremendous pressure on me to be the most amazing person they
                        must have thought I was—and secretly knew I wasn’t. I felt I had to be flawless,
                        serene, someone who understood every situation, who made no demands but
                        was there to fulfill every fantasy; and that’s someone with not much of a voice.
                        It’s not realistic: no one can live up to that kind of perfection. (306)

In Boyd’s reflection, the beauty and power were synthetic, while, at the same time, draining her of the ability to embody those qualities in her own life, authenticity, outside of the songs dedicated to her. What’s important to remember about Boyd’s story is that she was objectified in song for being a source of artistic inspiration, but rendered powerless through the process. How often do we participate in a similar process through social media, video, upvoting, and other applications, by clicking yes and never really feeling affirmed? Boyd was an early casualty and pioneer of the 21st century Sirens’ song.  She used a tripod for her selfies.

Franz Kafka was one of the first to consider that the song itself might be a simulation. In his 1931 posthumous, short story interpretation of the myth, “The Silence of the Sirens,” the Sirens fake the song.  Kafka’s lip synced version makes Ulysses appear unaware and puerile. The Sirens, admiring his naïveté, decide not to sing, but are charmed by the hero’s false consciousness, his belief in their powerless power. What Ulysses sees, he believes. This becomes his reality. For the skeptical Kafka, knowledge is power but not very accurate. Familiar with Kafka’s work, one can see how the absurdist concept for which he is familiar is apparent in his portrayal of the Sirens, yet he exposes the same blind spot that De Rachewiltz identified in the Siren scholarship. Kafka’s interpretation is creative and decades ahead on the lip-syncing trend, which is no longer as scandalous as it once was. Originality is no longer as common, but it seems to be expected.

The Sirens have been portrayed as sacred and profane, to everything down the stream in between, always with a tincture of hermeneutic reflection in the mixture, left from each Siren captor who archives their tale. In Dialectic of Enlightenment, the Marxist-leaning Frankfurt School theorists, Adorno and Horkeimer, depict the Sirens as part of an economic allegory for labor, domination, and myth, with Ulysses, the administrator of the voyage, in his social role of oppressor and as a “perpetual presence of mind,” which separates “from sensuous experience in order to subjugate it” (28). With a Jungian spin, Joseph Campbell finds that, for Hellenic philosophers, the Sirens represented the power of the spheres: “It is the song of the mystery of the universe that makes it impossible to go with mere phenomenal work….identified with the spheres of the heavens, and their song is the music of the spheres, the music of the universe, which can so enrapture you that your earthly past is forgotten” (169). The Jesuit tradition would be less forgiving and slut-shame the Sirens for being part of the cult of Aphrodite from the waves, which redefined the backdrop of the Sirens from air to sea. According to Isidore of Saville in his etymologies from the early medieval period, “They were harlots, who, because they would seduce passers-by into destitution, were imagined as bringing shipwreck upon them. They were said to have wings and talons because sexual desire both flies and wounds. They are said to have lived amongst the waves because the waves gave birth to Venus” (245). This interpretation inaugurates the mermaid evolution.

The popular culture genealogy of the Sirens moves from bird, to mermaid, to Disney. What was once a creature that threatened dominating the will is now sensually available on the cup of a coffee beverage: virtual reality so close to reality. The original bestiary siren is now iconic, abstract, open, universal, airbrushed, and politically correct. Yet, coming from the other side of political correctness, perhaps my favorite interpretation of the Sirens comes from the reported, blasé reaction from, none other than, Christopher Columbus, pioneer of our brave, less-new world. As reported by Las Casas, when Columbus “saw three mermaids standing high out of the water, they had faces, like those of human beings, but were not as handsome as it was customary to represent them” (192). If Columbus had a Twitter account, he might have been able to reduce his reaction to just a hashtag: #unimpressed. While Columbus’ Sirens were likely dugongs, his lackluster reaction could be attributed to his own ongoing vanity project. It’s hard to find myth in your life when one is in the process of making it for oneself: #selfie. Regardless, the 15th century marks an important turning point, in which the mythological blends with the human along with the pound of the printing press, and first waves of the Information Age.   

Watch What Happens When These Men Are Seduced

On the open seas, one can never be sure what one will find. Fellow sailors, this journey is not without precedent. There are at least three well-known literary Siren showdowns. In the Argonautica, we find two contestants from Jason’s crew. The first, falls victim immediately: “Boutes, his spirit melted by the Sirens’ high clear call,/before they could stop him, vaulted from his polished bench overboard into the surging breakers, and struck out for the shore,/poor wretch—they’d surely have robbed him, there and then, of his/homecoming” (4.913-916). Spoiler Alert: The goddess Aphrodite saves him. Boutes‘ reaction is an immediate, yes! This reflexive and impulsive reaction might be the most common and obvious example of that happens when one is confronted with desire. Were Boutes to self-evaluate on the critical thinking scale, he would be sure to rank low. He falls into the trap of looking for something without looking at oneself first. Were he to surf the Internet, he might become bejeweled or candy crushed in an app game, always prone to fall for clickbait. Boutes is a mere footnote in mythology. The second Argnonaut, Orpheus, has a much higher level of visibility and SEO in the Google of mythology and a different reaction to the song: no, just no! When the Argonauts hear the song, Orpheus jams on his lute, defensively. He saves the sailors by “quickly seizing and stringing his native lyre,/thrummed out a sprightly theme, all galloping rhythm,/to confuse their listening earns with the buzz and twang/of plucked chords, so that his lyre drowned out the Sirens’ singing” (4.905-909). Orpheus’ musical execution is sloppy, especially when considered in relation to his talent. He reacts with a counter-song to block the impact, saving the Argonauts by playing interference. He represents a happy, practical medium, a step up from Boutes, but not quite perfect: applied science.

Now, loyal readers, we have finally arrived with our hero. Ulysses masters the Sirens’ song. His reaction is so epic that he is often cited as one of the heroes par excellence of traditional Western literature. He receives double billing in Bulfinch’s Mythology, indexed as “hero of Homer’s Odyssey, and a prominent character in the Iliad” (952). Keats, Milton and Tennyson, all authors who have traveled first-class through the English literary tradition, often on just a last name basis, comment on Ulysses’ odyssey in just this one encyclopedic collection of tales. Unlike the polar reactions of the two Argonauts, Ulysses brings the sirens game next-level. With the high production value put into his preparation, he is able to cognitively take the song, make it his own, and go. He plugs his ears with wax and ties himself to the mast while his oarsmen row. This challenge and others in The Odyssey form the ultimate strategy for reason to win: hear the call, violently resist, focus, and move on. Stay on course. Do not lose the way, or you become prey.

Some People Just Sang Their Song, And What Happened Next Will Shock You

Despite the quay of defense built up around the song of the Sirens, it remains uncertain exactly what they do with their admirers, besides sing to them. Some versions of the myth show sailors lured tragically onto rocks; other versions just depict the afterglow of young, wanton bodies lingering to the point of decay, shipwrecked or having brought shipwreck upon themselves, depending on one’s point of view. The Book of Beasts warns that they pose a threat to “mental vigor” (134). Yet, part of Siren allure roots from a visceral compulsion to be closer, calling sailors to navigate toward the voice of an other, in all its rapture and melancholy. After all, one of the primary online activities is to search. Curiosity drives surfers to the depths of unknown realms beyond one’s current store of knowledge. In the context of knowledge as power and the quest to fulfill it, more may be at stake. The late philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas, identified this type of encounter with an Other and the drive toward making others into knowledge as a crucial ethical point. When we reduce others to our own comprehension, we lose their voice and something of them. Patti Boyd might agree. In “thinking” that we know them, we cognitively thematize them, losing something in the process. While it would be impossible to be inclusive, the cost of his epic exclusivity reduces the diversity of his experience and perspective to just his own. Ulysses guards himself by navigating, fearfully past others, but taking what they have as his own to master and appropriate. Ulysses hears the Sirens’ song as a song about himself, but it is, after all, the Sirens’ song. How could a hero miss it?

                        You’re on your own But once your crew has rowed you past the Sirens/
                        a choice of routes is yours. I cannot advise you/
                        which to take, or lead you through it all—you must decide for yourself—- (12.61-64)

Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor W., and Max Horheimer. Ed. Gunzelin Schmid Noerr. Trans. Edmund Jephcott. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002. Print.

Boyd, Pattie. Wonderful Tonight. New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2007. Print.

Bulfinch’s Mythology. New York, Gramercy’s Books, 1979. Print.

Campbell, Joseph. Goddesses. Novato: New World Library, 2013. Print.

Columbus, Christopher. [Bartolomé de las Casas]. Personal Narrative of the First Voyage of
Columbus to America: From a Manuscript Recently Discovered in Spain. Trans. Samuel
Kettle. Boston: T.B. Wait and Son, 1827. Print.

Diefenback, S. & Christoforakos, L. :The Selfie Paradox: Nobody Seems to Like Them Yet Everyone Has Reasons to Take  Them. An Exploration of Psychological Functions of Selfies in Self-Presentation.” Frontiers in Psychology. 17 January 2017. Web. 

Etymologies of Isidore of Seville. Trans. Stephen A. Blarney et al. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. Print.

Homer. The Odyssey. Trans. Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin, 1996. Print.

Lawson, Richard. “People Are Naming Their Babies After Instagram Filters.” Vanity Fair. 1 Dec. 2015. Web.

Levinas, Emmanuel. Basic Philosophical Writings. Eds. Peperzak, Adriaan T, Critchely, Simon, & Robert Bernasconi. Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1996. Print.

Rhodios, Apollonios. The Argonautica. Trans. Peter Green. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007. The Book of Beasts. Trans. T.H. White. New York, Dover, 1984. Print.

Carrie Bailey

Author’s Note: “To Fear, Seduce, or Master? Remembering the Siren’s Song” is an unusual piece, a bit like a bookend, so it has found its literary territory here. Like the mythological sirens, it is unstable in form (a bit academic and pop). Sometimes, it is easier to associate with the monsters than the heroes because the monsters seem closer to nature and in art, that means the territory of the muses.