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A Literary History of the Siren

by Will Wlizlo

Tags: sirens, police cars, literary history, Cabinet, great writing, Will Wlizlo,


The siren’s wail is as pervasive and deceitful in modern life as it was in ancient literature—the nymphs that nearly ensnared Odysseus’ wandering heart are more like the caterwauling devices atop police cruisers than you might assume. Both distract to the point of danger, yet evoke a titillating allure. “The question of the nature of the siren’s face and of the siren’s true role in human affairs,” writes Cabinet’s George Prochnik in an intriguing literary history of man’s relationship with sirens, “haunts both the mythological creatures from which the mechanical sirens derive their name and the history of siren technology alike.”

sirens2Prochnik nimbly hops between disparate topics—epic poetry, acoustic science, neurology, funeral art, and crime-prevention technology—thus, it would be arduous and redundant to follow his thread completely here. But his exploration of the siren’s cultural place often barrels down unexpected paths. For example, he sees the police siren as a last-ditch urban-assault on those desperately trying to escape the din of modernity:

Source: Cabinet 

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