Odradek

Thankyou for all your comments on the Albert Anker post. I have to say that I find his work deeply moving – as someone who knits and makes, as well as someone who knows what it means to recover their creative abilities following a stroke. I should also mention that I too was very interested in the technical detail of his sitters’ knitting: discovering that characteristic double-wrap around the forefinger made an enormous difference to the evenness of the fabric I produce when knitting continental (which is now my customary way of working). I was fascinated to read your remarks about the distinctly Swiss nature of this method.

As you know, I’m currently hard at work writing my book — and for the past week or so I’ve had a hard time getting something out of my head. I’ve read it and re-read it, and had various thoughts about it, and last night I woke up in the middle of the night unable to let it drop. I suspect that vaguely bothering its readers is really the whole point of this thing, which afforded me some hollow amusement in the midst of my insomnia. That thing is Odradek, and he appears in a (very) short story by Franz Kafka.

Perhaps you’d like to be bothered by him too:

“Some say the word Odradek is of Slavonic origin, and try to account for it on that basis. Others again believe it to be of German origin, only influenced by Slavonic. The uncertainty of both interpretations allows one to assume with justice that neither is accurate, especially as neither of them provides an intelligent meaning of the word.

No one, of course, would occupy himself with such studies if there were not a creature called Odradek. At first glance it looks like a flat star-shaped spool for thread, and indeed it does seem to have thread wound upon it; to be sure, they are only old, broken-off bits of thread, knotted and tangled together, of the most varied sorts and colours. But it is not only a spool, for a small wooden crossbar sticks out of the middle of the star, and another small rod is joined to that at a right angle. By means of this latter rod on one side and one of the points of the star on the other, the whole thing can stand upright as if on two legs.

One is tempted to believe that the creature once had some sort of intelligible shape and is now only a broken-down remnant. Yet this does not seem to be the case; at least there is no sign of it; nowhere is there an unfinished or unbroken surface to suggest anything of the kind; the whole thing looks senseless enough, but in its own way perfectly finished. In any case, closer scrutiny is impossible, since Odradek is extraordinarily nimble and can never be laid hold of.

He lurks by turns in the garret, the stairway, the lobbies, the entrance hall. Often for months on end he is not to be seen; then he has presumably moved into other houses; but he always comes faithfully back to our house again. Many a time when you go out of the door and he happens just to be leaning directly beneath you against the banisters you feel inclined to speak to him. Of course, you put no difficult questions to him, you treat him–he is so diminutive that you cannot help it–rather like a child. “Well, what’s your name?” you ask him. “Odradek,” he says. “And where do you live?” “No fixed abode,” he says and laughs; but it is only the kind of laughter that has no lungs behind it. It sounds rather like the rustling of fallen leaves. And that is usually the end of the conversation. Even these anwers are not always forthcoming; often he stays mute for a long time, as wooden as his appearance.

I ask myself, to no purpose, what is likely to happen to him? Can he possibly die? Anything that dies has had some kind of aim in life, some kind of activity, which has worn out; but that does not apply to Odradek. Am I to suppose, then, that he will always be rolling down the stairs, with ends of thread trailing after him, right before the feet of my children, and my children’s children? He does no harm to anyone that one can see; but the idea that he is likely to survive me I find almost painful.”

Franz Kafka,Die Sorge des Hausvaters / The Cares of a Family Man
First published 1919. Trans. Willa and Edwin Muir.

I first encountered Odradek many years ago, in the work of Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno. I remember being much persuaded by Adorno’s account of him, and I was interested to meet Odradek again, in the light of being a much more crafty and probably less intellectual sort of a person: the sort of person who uses her hands, who respects tools, and who regards use-full and use-less objects rather differently than I did eight years ago. Pursuing Odradek through the garrets and stairways of philosophical and political theory (you’d be surprised how often he pops out at you!) I’ve come across much of the kind of writing I’m happy to no longer have much cause for reading, such as the following entertainingly awful sentence by Slavoj Žižek:

“Thus Odradek is simply what Lacan developed as the lamella, the libido as an organ, the inhuman-human undead organ without a body, the mythical presubjective life substance, or rather, the remainder of the Life substance which has escaped the symbolic colonization, the horrible palpitation of the acephalic drive which persists beyond ordinary death outside the scope of paternal authority, nomadic, with no fixed abode.” Slavoj Žižek, The Parallax View (2006), p.118.

Anyway, despite Žižek’s best efforts, I remain interested in Odradek as an object, and am bothered by how he bothers us as meaning-less or meaning-ful. My hunch is that the majority of you — being familiar with a wide range of craft-y tools and processes — would see him rather differently from Kafka’s narrator. I also suspect that you’d have a different perspective on him than the vast majority of the folk I’ve recently been reading.

So here is a question for you: how do you see Odradek? Can you describe him? What would you do with him? I am very interested indeed in what you’ve got to say.

The pictures in this post are, once more, from Albert Anker. I particularly like the one of the young boy and his grandma spinning, which is known by the title “Common Work.”