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.”

40 thoughts on “Odradek

  1. Reading about Odradek reminded me of a passage from The Marriage Of Cadmus and Harmony by Roberto Calasso, page 283-4, in which he describes the eiresione,an olive branch decorated with strips of white and purple wool ,and fruit. Woolen strips were also tied around any items that held significance and demanded a meaning.
    Nike, goddess of Victory, always carried a bunch of coloured woolen strips to hand out to her chosen favourites, and athletes wore them at the games. I’m reminded of having to wear woolen coloured team bands at school . Sacrificial bulls were also decorated in the same way ( also a reminder of netball ! ).
    I quote from Calasso
    ‘ All these woolen strips, these vain, winged tassels, were nerves of the nexus rerum, the connection of everything with everything else, which alone gives meaning to life. We live every moment of our lives swathed in those ties, white because white is the colour the Olympians like, or red because blood ties us to death, or purple, yellow and green. But we can’t always see them, indeed we mustn’t, because then we would be paralysed, trapped. We feel them blowing about us the minute something happens to dispel our apathy, and we become aware of being carried along on a steam that flows toward something unknown. and just sometimes, but very rarely, those ties twist and turn and weave around us, until one loose end becomes knotted to another. Then, very softly, they encompass us, form a circle, which is the crown, perfection.’

    I can see the woolen strips as a metaphor for the neural pathways, and would be interested to know what others think of that connection.

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  2. Ah yes, I know Odradek, though I didn’t realize it until reading your post. I work at a small local historical society and museum. It is not an old or dusty place and yet, when I delve into our archives, I meet Odradek frequently. He takes many forms…sometimes hiding in the corner of a box of donated items, inscrutable and inexplicable, and yet obviously significant. Sometimes he lurks in an archived collection, without records or reason to be there. He’s the agent of entropy in our collection room, moving things into the wrong place and occasionally creating moments of fresh discovery and synchronicity. We always keep him, in all of his forms, carefully packed and documented as fully as possible because that’s what we do, though we all know that he’ll turn up in a new place next time. Our objects, even the most modest ones, have lives and stories to tell; it is part of my job to ensure that they will outlive us. I find it reassuring, not menacing, that Odradek will be around forever.

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  3. Odradek — a thing which appears to have a use, but you don’t know what it is, but you don’t throw it away because it’s useful, although you don’t know how to use it, or where it should go, or why it exists. So it stays, and lasts, always out of place.

    Also (reading more freely): how people (men?) feel when they seeing others (women?) doing things which they cannot comprehend. A thing that represents exclusion, and yet is meaningless. A symbol of the mystery of domesticity. An anger that they are not central, that Odradek shows them a process of which they are never a part.

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    1. This is not likely. You miss the significance of the painting. The woman makes, the boy writes. The old lady is unlikely to be literate.

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      1. yet one of the really interesting aspects of Anker’s work is that he paints so many women (of all ages) writing and reading. Literacy among the ordinary women he depicts seems entirely commonplace.

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  4. To me, as a Czech, Odradek´s (unclear, for sure!) meaning has always been very much influenced by his name, which I perceive to be a noun derived from the verb “odradit” (to discourage), as there is, similarly, an archaic noun “úradek” (decision) and a verb “uradit se” (to decide together). So, “úradek” being the product of “uradit se”, Odradek for me is the (by)product of “odradit”. What is left or what you get when you decide not to do something. Also, there is a similar noun, “odpadek” (unused singular of “odpadky” — garbage). No wonder he´s so elusive and seems broken…

    P. S. I also knit the way you talk about, as taught by my mother and grandmother, and we are definitely not Swiss :-)

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  5. I love this, thank you. As an academic (a female academic), I’m greatly amused by the lit crit you quote – good lord, can some people obfuscate!
    I am interested by the title of this short story, too – The Cares of a Family Man. Reading the physical description of Odradek, I could see it clearly, and it seemed to me to be a very useful object for keeping bits of thread for use later – we all know that spinning thread is no small feat, who would waste something that took time and effort to create and that might be useful later? But it was when Kafka described the natural history of Odradek that I got really interested, and fell in love with Odradek. It seems to me to capture something about the nature of small, daily, mischievous chaos – the stuff that happens all the time and feels sentient. Why do my keys go missing only on the days when I’m running late? – that kind of thing. In that sense, I think the title of the short story really relates: Odradek captures one of the cares of the family man – the need to cope with chaos. But at the same time, I’m a intrigued by the attribution of male gender to Odradek, and also the maleness of the title character. There’s something about the relationship between the domesticity implied by the thread and the wayward nature of Odradek that it seems to me would be linked to women in the minds of men of Kafka’s time (and our own); so what’s up with that? And don’t family women have to deal with the same kinds of chaos – perhaps even more frequently? As someone who appreciates the humor in life’s mischievous mysteries, I am delighted to have discovered Odradek. I’m guessing he’s going to stick in my head for a long time, too! Will you share with us any additional thoughts you have after reading all of the comments?

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  6. Sounds like a Turkish drop spindle to me! I like the idea of these sort of things never being destroyed but always turning up in people possessions through the generations. They are kept because they seem precious even if you don’t know what they were originally for.

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  7. Oh, I have met him so many times but he never told me his name. There is power in knowing someones true name. Maybe this will keep him in his place?

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  8. Odradek if the spell check will eventually let me type it, represents craft supplies in my stash that I cannot find. If I want to mend a hole in my sock and I cannot find the matching wool Odradek has it and is being elusive. Actually, Odradek seems like the young immature Terrior that I am looking after at the moment too. Ha ha

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  9. I, too, immediately saw Odradek as a device for storing left over bits of yarn. Im my case it is most defenitely sewing yarn – all the odd ends long enough to sew on a button or so something similar, but since that is not what I am doing that very moment, I wind it on Odradek for later use. Only to discover the moment I need one of those ends of yarn, Odradek is nowhere to be found and I have to cut a new piece of yarn, while every other time Odradek shows up all over the house…
    So maybe he represents that certain every day bit of chaos I face when trying to put everything in ordrr – a little bit annoying, but none the less something I regard with fondness…

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  10. To me, Odradek seems to be a flat-packed object, waiting to be assembled (I would say from Ikea, but we don’t have these stores in New Zealand!); all unrealised potential, but so often what you end up with bears no resemblance to what it’s supposed to be (or you give up in exasperation before that goal is reached…)!

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  11. I think one of your blogs written one year after your strokes was so very interesting. It explained exactly what you felt when the stroke happened that day while wa;lying to the bus for work and it was very profound. I believe it was called 1 year later and it was a february 2010 blog. As a nurse I found it so revealing. You should repost that blog.

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  12. Odradek – reminds me of detritus. Can’t be pinned down, but you encounter it every day, and wonder what is to be done wih it.
    Also makes me think of the poem – One Art – by Elizabeth Bishop

    “The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
    so many things seem filled with the intent
    to be lost that their loss is no disaster.”

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  13. On the double forefinger wrap…. If done to put more drag on the working yarn, a wrap around the ring finger accomplishes same. Plus creating an option for simple clasp and release moves. Many many ways to tension – and everyone seems to extemporize in some way or other!

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  14. If Odradek represents things that have no use or purpose then it is our salvation, for a life which is stripped back only to tangible, useful necessities is a grim life.

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  15. Wow! Thank you Kate! So fun. I find Zizek’s paragraph to be what is most compelling about Odradek – as an object which has been described with detailed specificity, yet one that remains visually elusive. It’s set up to be such. If one were to assemble the pieces in order to understand it (say if one went to construct such a thing, or make a drawing), one would render it inanimate and it would lose its paradoxical nature all-together. This paradox, to me, is a stand in for the uncanny – the beautiful yet repellent deep state of humanness.

    Life is beautiful, yet the thought of this imperfect world simply carrying on without a ‘me’ is so disturbing it is almost inconceivable.

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  16. A continuity of Being, that Odradek. That rustle, that spark of life, that path to and fro. That star on the tree. Ordeal appears at the best and worst of times to the human but the spark of life is timeless. And life is creativity, the Essence.

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  17. I too am allergic to Zizek (about whom I have heard little, but that little has been incomprehensible), but I was startled by his describing Odradek as having escaped paternal authority. My thoughts about Odradek (of whom I had never heard until now) were that he was better understood by women, was more useful to women, and indeed I was surprised that he was male. The careworn householder in Kafka’s story is male, I presume, and he certainly cannot see the point of Odradek even while he feels obscurely threatened by him, but I suspect that Mrs Careworn Householder has more respect for him, and asks him better questions.

    Thank you, Kate, for this!

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  18. I can’t describe him but after reading the text I have a feeling, which is that he is creativity. There are the tools of creating things, which tell a story, but without the person with the creativity within them, the tools are simply objects. They only come alive when in the process of creating, although they retain some of the magic of that process. Crikey you have really made me think. I so enjoyed my English degree which made me read and decipher stuff like this. Yours is not the average blog Kate, you do us all a service posting questions like this. Brilliant.

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  19. My Odradek is a plastic shopping bag filled with loom waste and knitting ends. It is bound for the nearest elementary school teacher once I fill it. The kids will work magic with it.

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  20. Odradek is the essence of what is striven for but doesn’t make it into a finished poem or other work. Odradek is an elusive presence that is always just within reach but always unattainable. Its elusive nature pushes the maker of whatever it may be to push on to the next piece of work.

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  21. Odradek = Confusion. Sorry, I have no idea what anybody is talking about & could never make sense of Kafka. Oh, well.

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  22. The description makes me think of a turkish spindle. Is the author saying as time goes by do things become obsolete and unknown but still exist?

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  23. The confusion starts – it’s a word, no, it’s a creature, it has a physical shape & size; then it can talk, it can hide, it can laugh; then it can have the last laugh too, outliving the narrator, and the narrator’s children!
    You ask what Odradek looks like – I’ve always struggled with writers’ descriptions when they involve size, shape, direction, angles, north, south – reading sentences such as “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” is mind boggling to me. I cannot visualise it from these words!
    So for me, Odradek is something that has had a use in his own time and place, and yet makes no sense to anyone who hasn’t used him. A mystery. Like a red phone box. Or a steel pen nib. Or a glass milk bottle – all things that you’d have to explain to your grandchild, were he or she to come across them.
    And what an interesting short story, thanks for sharing the translation!

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  24. I suspect that Odradek is much seen on ebay, these days, bobbing in and out of house clearances and auctions to puzzle people interested in the history of crafts but without much hands-on experience. Sometimes he is sold as a lamp stand, sometimes as a spinning wheel (working – or at least, the wheel goes round…), sometimes as a loom or a pirn winder or a swift, and sometimes as a jumble of all the yarn craft keywords the seller can retrieve from the depths of their memory – or google.

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  25. I find it interesting that Kafka begins with a discussion of the origin of the name Odradek. The juxtaposition of Slav-German for someone living in the remnants of the Austro-Hungarian Empire must have had a special resonance. What did it mean to write in German in Bohemia in 1919? Odradek can not be defined any more than the fluid identity of the place Kafka resided in–Czech, Bohemian, Austrian, even Moravian? The sense of spiritual dislocation must at least partially emanate from the geographical temporal dislocation. And threads of all these half-formed identities trail behind; even if you stay in the same place, there would be no fixed abode.

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  26. I was an English major in college (US) and I had a momentary flashback of being at the library poring over journals of literary criticism, looking up and going “what the heck did he just say?” Zizek has a mastery of gobbledeegook, that is for sure.

    +++

    What is Odradek? To me (someone who tries to be intellectual but is much happier when working with my hands as I knit or weave or tat or make lace or) … …

    Odradek is the question mark of life: that quiet, deep-but-not deep thing in the corner of our mind that makes us wonder if what we do is use-full or use-less. I ride horses and I love the companionship of my equine friends. My brother sees my pursuit as a useless waste of time. Ah, there is Odradek… sitting there, questioning the validity, the usefulness of my pursuit. I don’t need to ride horses, do I? Why do I do this anachronistic thing? Then I respond: Yes, indeed it is anachronistic. But it is to me one of the deepest wonders of life, that I can work in partnership, on the same plane, with a 1000-pound beast. Yet, there are those that see this as a bunch of nonsense.

    I love to work with textiles. Ah, there is Odradek again… but you are a man, says he. Most men do not work any more with textiles. They do manly things like wage war and build things with hammers and saws. Are you really a man? Women are the ones who should knit and make dainty things. Odradek has caused me much grief in the past over this. But yet, he has helped me, through my own self-doubt, to understand myself and respect myself better for the person that I am and have become.

    When Odradek is questioning us, what should the response to him be? Stuffing him back in his corner? No, for then he will come back again, rolling his messed-up hodgepodge of a thread spool at us with a vengeance. Defense may be useless. Stuffing him in the sewing basket of our mind will only cause more chaos.

    Rather, perhaps a simple realization on our part that he is there and that it is ok that he is there is what is called for. Acknowledge him without judging him and then allow our mind to move on to other thoughts. And realizing, eventually, what he offers us, that messed-up spool of self-questioning, actually also is star-shaped, and if we allow ourselves the grace to see what he is really offering us, we will be the better for it.

    Thanks for giving my mind a chance to express itself.

    Allen

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  27. Žižek engages my ire like few other academics. I remember having a shouting match with a fellow (male) graduate student once about whether he could imagine a female academic who could bot write so opaquely and self-present so shambolically and still have a career at all, let alone Žižek’s career. He could not of course.

    Anyway, to the point, I see the Odradek as the living memory of craft and labor, retaining the creative powers of the person who made it, the person/people who crafted the thread that wrapped it, and the person/people who made the projects that used that thread. I’m not well-versed enough in spinning to know if this is a particular object used by spinners, but to me it speaks to the endurance of female labor in particular; if Kafka is haunted by it it’s because of the generations of humans who have lived off that labor without recognizing its value.

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  28. I agree with Sarah R. I think Odradek is a useful tool for storing the leftover bits after weaving ends in–“pieces of string too short to be saved” in other words. (The possibly apocryphal label on a box of string said to have been found in someome’s attic after their death.) He might spin nicely, too, to amuse children or defuse difficult meetings. All “women’s magic” enabling daily life. I like that A. Anker picture, too–at the behest of my eldest grandchild, I am knitting strips to sew together for a “story blanket” for her to use while she reads. She occasionally contributes to the knitting, but mostly she reads companionably beside me.

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  29. Odradek seems engagingly useful, a way to store the ends of thread (which I have difficulty throwing out) in such a way that they become more than the sum of their parts, and animate the wood on which they are held. This isn’t surprising – spun thread has power in all sorts of folk belief; it’s used in magic and medicine and it’s always women’s magic and always what is known as folk magic to distinguish it from the learned and more dangerous magic of the alchemists and sorcerers. Which is, perhaps, while male intellectuals are so disturbed by it.

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  30. Ha ha ha, I have no idea how to describe Odradek, but Zizek’s paragraph and your comments are hilarious. Especially considering my morning has been spent reading about and trying to implement simple friendly writing styles for web content.
    Odradek, a friendly wooden pole with fancy shoes, awaiting coat, wig or fleece?

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