Inspired by Myth: Modernising

On giving a modern flavour to a retelling of an old myth, specifically Kafka’s “Poseidon”.
Sea view by Moonlight by Ivan Aivazovsky (1878)


“The sea anemones need counting.”

“May I be assigned the Mediterranean section?”

“Same as every year. Here’s the conch. Put one white speck of sand for each healthy specimen, and one black speck for each diseased specimen. You have two days to bring back the conch to the records department.”

“Yes, sir.”

“No frolicking about with Triton.”

“Certainly not, sir.”

Poseidon watched the nymph swim off, giggling. Poseidon envied her—all he ever did was sit in his throne room, at the big rock slab of a desk tallying numbers and writing up reports. He sighed. Better get on with it.

“Give me some more ink, will you?” he said.

The squid perching on his shoulder filled his pen.
Travel of Poseidon by sea by Ivan Aivazovsky (1894)


Ancient Greeks did surveys and accounting, sure, but my little window into Poseidon’s daily life sounds modern because it is so unbecoming of a mythological figure. A god of the seas and oceans, no less. It’s not so much the incongruence of my language that jars, as Poseidon’s attitude: he is treating his underwater kingdom as a boring managerial job.

Who’d want to read about that? With some ingenuity, there are stories to be told within the framework of a modernised, angsty myth.

Peeking into Poseidon’s troubled mind wasn’t my idea, though.

In his short text Poseidon, Kafka looks at a philosophical aspect—the absurdity—of such an important, unique role. Kafka’s Poseidon is nitpicky, hands-on, and incapable of delegating work efficiently; his assistants are of little use because he insists on checking their work. He does the work because he has to; he has applied for more cheerful work, but other suggested jobs suited him less (no water) or were beneath him (he couldn’t possibly be put in charge of one particular ocean).

So far, so ordinary, if thought of allegorically. Now for the Kafkaesque ending.

What annoyed [Poseidon] most—and this was the chief cause of discontent with his job—was to learn of the rumours that were circulating about him; for instance, that he was constantly cruising through the waves with his trident. Instead of which here he was sitting in the depths of the world’s ocean endlessly going over the accounts…

Naturally Poseidon hardly had time to sail the oceans.

He used to say that he was postponing this until the end of the world, for then there might come a quiet moment when, just before the end and having gone through the last account, he could still make a quick little tour.

(Translated by Tania and James Stern; found in Vintage Kafka.)

Because he is writing about a god, Kafka can afford to think on an end-of-world timescale, but he might as well have said end-of-life, or end-of-career, end of anything that was hard work or drudgery. Patience and delayed gratification are key to success, that’s well-known, but what Poseidon does (or is forced to do by dint of his position) is unhealthy.

He’s one model of the modern multitasking, always-busy man.

Kafka does so much in so few words—especially when it comes to this week’s three texts on Greek myths (and last week’s on imaginary creatures). His work shows that volume isn’t needed to achieve depth, relevance, or interest, and that indeed you don’t have to embark on a grand project, like James Joyce’s Ulysses, to take advantage of myths and their reinterpretations as a framework to say something.

(You do, however, have to have something to say.)
Poseidon and Athena battle for control of Athens by Benvenuto Tisi (1512) — “Those accounts aren’t going to get done on their own, now are they?”


This post is part of series on the fantastic grotesque, specifically a sub-series on Kafka (all stories taken from Vintage Kafka).

Author: A Quiver of Quotes

Jousts with words, jaunts through all genres. In favour of hendiadys, synaesthesia, and the transferred epithet. Books, books, books. Writing. Author of

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