Has your office job got you down? Feeling as if you cannot enjoy the simple pleasures of life as time passes you by? Would it provide some perspective to know that an all-powerful, mighty deity understands your pain?
Franz Kafka pondered about this concept in his posthumously published story “Poseidon.” Kafka imagines what life would be like for Poseidon if he was not simply a God of the waters, but an administrative manager of them all. Rather than spending his time traversing the oceans and seas, cascading over their waves and plundering into their depths, he contrarily is overwhelmed with the mundane tasks that come with a managerial desk job — burdened with administrative paperwork and worried by the conditions of all the waters, and whether his employees are keeping a close eye on them.
There’s a wonderful sense of humor applied to this short story — a sense of humor that is too often misrepresented for tragedy when discussing Kafka’s works (as entailed by David Foster Wallace in his essay “Some Remarks on Kafka’s Funniness from Which Probably Not Enough Has Been Removed” from his anthology Consider the Lobster). While the story is still tragic, using a God-figure for the representation of the common (wo)man working a 9-to-5 administrative office job — the futile means of searching for another job, one that he might be unqualified for, the inability for a manger to complain about the workplace and the job itself, the ideation and romanticization of retirement, the annoyance that others believed he did nothing but sail the oceans every day, playing about rather than getting any work done, or the casual daydreaming and feigning personal interest of a life beyond work — and finding little worth to their daily production, the tragic realism of life is masked by the humor of imagining a God figure stuck in such a similar role. Similarly, it makes for a perfect mirror of Greek mythology, whether in its characterization as these Gods being the embodiment of the human spirit or for the tragic downfall of these Gods, now destined to an eternity of sedentary paperwork.
What is revealed about our character, Poseidon, is that his life is one of monotonous mundanity. The life of a God is an idea that has been fostered by others. In reality, he wishes for a more exciting, adventurous life, but it is one that he can never attain. Instead, he is bound to a job that he has been given, simply because it is a job that seems as if no one else is fit for. In the end, he has been labeled as a deity of a “department” that he cannot experience or cherish, for its upkeep is nothing more than work. Figure that — a God who wants more out of life because the role he has attained (and been groomed for) brings him little to no joy in life.
The following version of “Poseidon” is the translation of Tania and James Stern.
Poseidon sat at his desk, going over the accounts. The administration of all the waters gave him endless work. He could have had as many assistants as he wanted, and indeed he had quite a number, but since he took his job very seriously he insisted on going through all the accounts again himself, and so his assistants were of little help to him. It cannot be said that he enjoyed the work; he carried it out simply because it was assigned to him; indeed he had frequently applied for what he called more cheerful work, but whenever various suggestions were put to him it turned out that nothing suited him so well as his present employment. Needless to say, it was very difficult to find him another job. After all, he could not possibly be put in charge of one particular ocean. Quite apart from the fact that in this case the work involved would not be less, only more petty, the great Poseidon could hold only a superior position. And when he was offered a post unrelated to the waters, the very idea made him feel sick, his divine breath came short and his brazen chest began to heave. As a matter of fact, no one took his troubles very seriously; when a mighty man complains one must pretend to yield, however hopeless the case may seem. No one ever really considered relieving Poseidon of his position; he had been destined to be God of the Seas since time immemorial, and that was how it had to remain.
What annoyed him most — and this was the chief cause of discontent with his job — was to learn of the rumors 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, an occasional journey to Jupiter being the only interruption of the monotony, a journey moreover from which he invariably returned in a furious temper. As a result he had hardly seen the oceans, save fleetingly during his hasty ascent to Olympus, and had never really sailed upon them. 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.