Writings about artworks and other excitements.
Because I love the little guy. He appears in Kafka’s short short story ‘The Cares Of A Family man’ (‘Die Sorge Des Hausvaters’), written sometime between 1914 and 1917. Here he comes in Willa and Edwin Muir’s classic translation:
‘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 colors. 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.’
It seems to me just now as I reread it that Kafka started writing one sort of story, in his mode of pastiche ministerial report or academic exegesis, and finds himself drawn into another, more personal and comic mode by Odradek’s oddity and cheerful vitality. The official report gives way to the bemused questioning of the family man. It seems appropriate that it is a family man - an authority figure, a breadwinner, someone who must deal practically and effectively with the outside world - who is challenged by the strange excess, the unaccountable surplus that Odradek represents, the energy of his rapid movements, his laughter and silence, his weird, possibly eternal persistence. I found myself thinking about Odradek’s persistence from time to time during the pandemic lockdowns, a period when we experienced in an unavoidable way our own facticity, or own recurrent being there. Here I am in this room again. Odradek is, in a sense, very human: seemingly broken but complete, very concretely physical and ‘senseless enough,’ verbal, light-hearted and melancholy. And at the same time he is, of course, an animate object, his inexhaustible energy like that we might impute to a work of art. I love that he frequents thresholds and out of the way spaces, staircases and garrets, and that he remains a question. He makes an excellent presiding spirit or genius loci for these pages of writing devoted to the joyful, the uncertain, the memorable encounter, the unnecessary.
Of What Will Odradek’s Joy Consist?
I will write about art and writing that has excited me - books, films, music, paintings and so on. Sometimes this will take the form of long essay-type writing, sometimes just the enthusiastic sharing of things I’ve found with a few introductory thoughts. There will also be a couple of regular features, a Youtube treasure, some truffle I’ve found in the great digital forest, and a weather diary. You’ll see my first attempts at these below.
I hope to find a community with you here, a conversation.
I intend to post once a week, at the end of the week, if I can. (I’ll find out). Odradek’s Joy will be free for a while and then I’ll look into a typical Substack-y way for people to support the project.
I learned that yesterday, 11th January, was the anniversary of Thomas Hardy’s death. Coincidentally, I’d gone to bed last night with Thomas Hardy’s collected poems, led there again by some rereading of Larkin. Next week, I think I’ll share a montage of things I think about when I think about Hardy, including Larkin, D.H. Lawrence, Tooting Common, Schopenhauer, Virginia Woolf, and fox terriers.
I also have in mind installments about Yiyun Li, Georges Seurat, a particular piece by Pierre Boulez, David Jones, a film by Michelangelo Antonioni, another by Kurosawa, maybe some photography, any exhibitions I see, and others and more.
Youtube Treasure #1
Wassily Kandinsky’s mesmerisingly fluent hand making a new world.
I started keeping a weather diary, of a sort, on January 1st, in part just as a kind of sentence sketch book, to produce a phrase or two each day. It has been surprisingly challenging at moments in part because the weather here in Toronto has been largely been cast in neutral tones, a half-lit inbetween time, a non-happening. I suppose that makes a worthwhile challenge, to keep finding words and angles. I’ll see how long I can keep it up. Here is January 1st to today. Degrees are in celsius. It might help to know that I live overlooking a small park with a children’s playground and many oak trees.
Weather Diary 2023
4 degrees. White sky. Winter half-light. Meagre rain, increasing slowly to sleet, fading to nothing. Sparrows organizing in a leafless shrub. Blue jays, out of sight, scraping their voices. With the wet, slow darkening gleam.
7 degrees. Unbroken cloud. Neutral, eventless weather. Bare trees unmoving. Brown mash of old wet leaves at the edges of the road. No energy for the eye. A breath, a blink between other days. Small children, though, with their indifferent vigour, still loud in the park.
4 degrees. Similar. Darker. A fermenting grey. Then a quiet, stealthy, barely visible rain; inward, secretive.
3 degrees. A cold, clinging rain. Later, heavy and loose, blackening the arms of the trees.
4 degrees. Gunmetal grey. Heavy air worked through by light rain.
5 degrees. Continuous cloud. A staring, mindless white.
1 degree. Finally, the wind clears the cloud away. In strong winter sun, the world is restored to distance and dimensions. Tree branches radiate, fretted with shadow and glare. The brick church tower is one side scarlet, one side dark plum. Overhead, the sky is unlimited blue with white shapes of seagulls revolving.
-3 degrees. The sky is gone again behind unbroken cloud. A null light. the grey-brown street withdrawn, enmeshed; wadded half-tones. Briefly, an interesting visual disturbance in the air of snowflakes or ice crystals forming, like scratched film; a flickering then it’s gone.
2 degrees. Cloud. The sky doing its paperwork. Administrative grey.
0 degrees. A photocopied sky. Later it wrinkles and darkens like paper under a spillage. At five pm, a red-tailed hawk, its greys and russets a compilation of the day’s colours, appears suddenly flying low over the road and turns like a car into the space of a side street.
0 degrees. Cloud. The remains of the plants on the balcony vibrate and the whole shapes of the bare oaks stir and rock. Dark eyed juncos shuttle through the nearby trees, the small flock connected by strings of high, rapid notes. Later I hear one alone in a fir tree singing its rambling, quiet, almost sotto voce, self-consoling song.
4 degrees. Morning fog gradually clearing. Slowly the park remembers where everything is. The evening steel blue, full of rain.
A Longer Piece Of Writing About Kafka, Should You Be In The Mood For More
A few years ago I was asked to contribute to a special Kafka edition of Areté Magazine. At the time I was reading Thoreau, partly through the lens of Stanley Cavell’s excellent book The Senses of Walden, and so when I started to think about Kafka I was struck by the parallels between the transcendentalist’s project and that of the unnamed creature of The Burrow. This essay was the result.
Kafka’s The Burrow and Thoreau’s Walden
Sometimes I heard the foxes as they ranged over the snow-crust, in moonlight nights, in search of a partridge or other game, barking raggedly and demoniacally like forest dogs, as if labouring with some anxiety, or seeking expression, struggling for light … They seemed to be rudimental, burrowing men, still standing on their defence, awaiting their transformation. Sometimes one came near to my window, attracted by my light, barked a vulpine curse at me, and then retreated.
This is Henry David Thoreau in the ‘Winter Animals’ chapter of Walden imagining anxious, half-animal burrowing men and in so doing whimsically, unwittingly constructing a bridge between that work and the world of Kafka’s ‘The Burrow’. He thereby allows us to add his name to Borges’s list of Kafka’s precursors, a literary tradition retrospectively realigned by his individual talent. I seriously propose this addition to Borges’s honour roll because, if the hint here is taken and the analogy pursued, it turns out that ‘The Burrow’ and Walden have a good deal in common. They are both chronicles of a period of time devoted to constructing, building, dwelling, gathering, of sensing the environment and thinking. They are preoccupied with solitude and neighbours, with food and shelter – and investigating what is really, ultimately true. The fact that their juxtaposition is at first surprising strikes me as proof of Emerson’s idea that ‘our moods do not believe in each other’. On the surface, Walden is so ruddy with healthy, clearheaded independence and productive physical work, while ‘The Burrow’ is so very much not, so full instead of the labours of anxiety, fruitless repetitions and darkness. But surfaces and what lies beneath them are complicated matters in both works and the following remarks will, I believe, reveal similarities at least as profound as the differences, similarities often disguised as differences, the two sides of one coin. Dwelling on the comparison will also, I hope, free me from the fear that besets anyone writing about Kafka that it has all been said before somewhere along the many shelves of Kafka criticism but it probably cannot free me from the fear that pretty much all writing about Kafka is anyway beside the point. To pull open Kafka’s stories, to take the material that Kafka so fastidiously stripped of its immediate connotations to get to the dense, glowing, radioactive dreamstuff of inner experience, and to reconnect them with ordinary rational thoughts and meanings is to play an endless and unlosable game of interpretation that is also unwinnable. It’s all about kabbalah. It’s all about anti-Semitism. It’s all Freud. It’s a critique of atomised urban life. And so on and so on.
1. Underground / Overground
Kafka’s title, Der Bau, is ambiguous for German readers, invoking a building as much as it does a burrow. It is used to refer to any kind of structure or construction. The burrow is a burrow and a building. This ambiguity is a corollary of that around the human or animal status of the narrator. The narrator talks (and talks) and thinks like a human, despite being an animal. The Animal is an animal and a person.
We can take these two things together and take them personally – ‘The Burrow’ is a person talking about a home. A person like Thoreau for whom burrowing and building are also linked, historically:
We may imagine a time when in the infancy of the human race, some enterprising mortal crept into a hollow in a rock for shelter.
Under the most splendid house in the city is still to be found the cellar … The house is still but a sort of porch at the entrance of a burrow.
This burrowing or building has particular dangers.
If one designs to construct a dwelling-house, it behooves [the builder] to exercise a little Yankee shrewdness, lest after all he find himself in a workhouse, a labyrinth without a clue, an almshouse, a prison, or a splendid mausoleum instead.
It becomes clear in moments like this that Walden’s determined hopefulness is asserted in partial victory over the same fears that endlessly destroy the repose of Kafka’s Animal, that Thoreau’s fear is that he could become the animal, in a labyrinth without a clue. The project of Walden is to try to construct a dwelling and live while avoiding that danger. Obversely, it reminds us that all that’s wrong with the Animal is its lack of Yankee shrewdness. Nothing ever actually goes wrong for the Animal. It is never attacked while it builds its labyrinth, prison, potential mausoleum.
2. Inside / Outside
One of the great jokes of ‘The Burrow’ (there are several) is that in order to assure itself that its underground fortress is secure and that it is truly safe inside, the Animal goes outside for a considerable time. There it experiences an expansive and healthy outdoor life:
I am no longer confined by narrow passages, but hunt through the open woods, and feel new powers awakening in my body for which there was no room, as it were, in the burrow.
Note that ‘as it were’. It’s a grace note of the dominant themes: doubt, supposition, the constant revision of thought as it’s uttered, the collapsing together of possibility and fact, and the dim recognition that everything would be alright if only the Animal could let it be. There is only no room down there ‘as it were.’ In reality there is plenty of room.
There is good hunting above ground and the chance to confront its fears, the spectres of the night ‘in actuality with the calm judgment of the fully awake. And strangely enough I discover that my situation is not so bad as I had often thought, and will probably think again when I return to my house.’ Momentarily, the Animal gets a grip on reality and has peace, the sleep that is normally functioning reason, until the questions start again.
Dare I estimate the danger which I run inside the burrow from observations which I make when outside? Can my enemies, to begin with, have any proper awareness of me if I am not in my burrow? … No, I do not watch over my sleep, as I imagined; rather it is I who sleep, while the destroyer watches.
In Walden, being outside is an easy source of joy. When he cleans his cabin, Thoreau delights in taking the contents of his burrow outdoors.
It was worth the while to see the sun shine on these things and hear the free wind blow on them.
At Walden, outside is Nature, active, lustrous, full of purpose, innocent. It thrills Thoreau and fulfils him. Contact with it is at the heart of the project of Walden. ‘I rejoice that there are owls,’ ‘No yard! but unfenced nature reaching up to your very sills,’ etc.
I suppose I should acknowledge at this point that one of the main differences between the two texts is that Walden is a real place and the Burrow isn’t. There is no Nature in Kafka, no living ecosystems, only a bestiary of (half-human) avatars – dogs, mice, cockroaches, apes, moles, jackals. They dwell mostly in human spaces, either verminously or as institutional subjects. The Animal of ‘The Burrow’ is unusual in this respect, inhabiting its own construction, what biologists would call its extended phenotype, although scientific language does nothing to illuminate this dark structure created by an unspecified, highly verbal creature. It is a psychological structure, a self-portrait in excavation, apparently modelled on memories of medieval fortresses. It is rambling, insecure, a kind of thinking to get lost in, riddled with pests and half-trashed by its owner.
With no further reassurance available or accepted from the outside world, the Animal retreats, with difficulty, into its inner space. Unlike for Thoreau, who invites the wilderness up to his window-sills and handily takes his furniture out into the free wind, transitioning between inside and outside is very difficult for the Animal. Exit is achieved after much thought, thought which is finally given up.
… is it not a dangerous, a far too dangerous stake that you are playing for? Can there be any reasonable grounds for such a step? No, for such acts as these there can be no reasonable grounds. But all the same, I then cautiously raise the trap door and slip outside…and fly as fast as I can from the treacherous spot.
The Animal can only re-enter when it has reached such a degree of exhaustion that again thought is overcome. But once back inside, the Animal experiences, momentarily, a kind of Waldenesque idyll, a present moment filled with purpose:
… inside the burrow I always have endless time – for everything I do there is good and important and satisfies me somehow.
For a moment, the Animal is Thoreau smiling in his bean field.
Of course, this doesn’t last. Shortly afterwards the Animal hears the inlocatable whistling noise that will torment him for the rest of his narration and possibly the remainder of its life. Anxiety is constant. The Animal’s inner pastoral shrinks further into a closed central space, the Castle Keep, the silence of which the Animal now contemplates from an adjoining tunnel. Peace now only exists in an innermost inside, a holy of holies, that the Animal would destroy if it were entered. This is not, one suspects, an Animal that would trust any club that would have him as a member.
3. Burrowing / Thinking
While all the rest of the burrow is the outcome rather of intense intellectual than physical labour, the Castle Keep was fashioned by the most arduous labour of my whole body … But for such tasks the only tool I possess is my forehead. So I had to run with my forehead thousands and thousands of times, for whole days and nights, against the ground, and I was glad when the blood came, for that was a proof that the walls were beginning to harden …
Thinking and burrowing are activities that are continuous with each other, extensions of each other. Both texts collapse these ideas together, merge them, just as building above and below ground are merged. As the Animal suggests, rather strangely, some tunnels are the outcome of intellectual activity only; others need physical force.
Thoreau would like to tunnel with his head as well.
I do not wish to be any more busy with my hands than is necessary. My head is hands and feet. I feel all my best faculties concentrated in it. My instinct tells me that my head is an organ for burrowing, as some creatures use their snout and fore paws, and with it I would mine and burrow my way through these hills.
In these two passages, vehicle and tenor elide, interchange. Thinking and tunnelling are equally metaphors for each other. They are figured as the same thing. But what is this thinking, this tunnelling, for?
4. Dwelling / Knowing
First of all, the burrowing is to create a habitable place. After that comes the attempt to know, to ‘investigate,’ (to use one of the Animal’s words), an effort to get to the bottom of things. For both Thoreau and the Animal, this is an existential matter. The Animal wants to be sure it’s not about to be eaten. It wants to live. Thoreau wants to lead a life worth living.
Here’s Thoreau in Walden sounding a lot like the Kafka of the letters and diaries:
I wanted to live deeply and suck out all the marrow of life … to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.
Walden is a place to live ‘deliberately,’ to work out what is necessary for a life and to get to the facts of experience, burrowing down ‘through New York and Boston and Concord, through Church and State, through poetry and philosophy and religion, till we come to a hard bottom and rocks in place, which we can call reality, and say, This is, and no mistake’.
The Animal’s investigations are apparently for less philosophical ends. All he wants to know is where the whistling sound comes from, whether it comes from a beast and therefore presages a violent death. But unlike Thoreau, the Animal cannot establish any facts. (Here again, inhabiting an inexhaustible metaphor rather than a real place probably doesn’t help). The Animal can generate out of its fear endless unstable facts, facts with a short half-life, constantly degrading, constantly replaced by others. One of the fascinations of the story is watching this process of imagined possibilities solidifying with fear and becoming actualities:
I can explain the whistling only in this way: that the beast’s chief means of burrowing is not its claws, which it probably employs as a secondary resource, but its snout or its muzzle, which, of course, apart from its enormous strength, must also be fairly sharp at the point… This indrawal of breath, which must be an earthshaking noise, not only because of the beast’s strength, but of its haste … this noise I hear then as a faint whistling. But quite incomprehensible remains …
Probably. Of course. Must be.Because of. I hear then. All this about a beast that in all likelihood does not exist, of which there is certainly no real proof. Still, the investigation has to be undertaken with this frantic tunnelling, from first principles, from whatever evidence can be adduced, because, as for the stoutly empirical Thoreau at Walden burrowing down below Concord and philosophy, in the Animal’s words, ‘one is not at liberty to make a priori assumptions’. The Animal is as committed as Thoreau to a final reckoning with reality whether it prove comforting or ‘mean’:
… truth will bring me either peace or despair, but whether the one or the other, it will be beyond doubt or question.
Interestingly, in both ‘The Burrow’ and Walden, this activity of thinking and verification is imagined as a state of being beside oneself, solitary but double, in calm self-surveillance, the Animal guarding its own burrow. Here’s Thoreau:
With thinking we may be beside ourselves in a sane sense. By a conscious effort of the mind we can stand aloof from actions and their consequences; and all things, good and bad, go by us like a torrent.
But for the Animal this experience is all too fleeting. As it loses faith in the value of the observations made from outside the burrow, it realises that it is not watching over its sleep. It becomes one frightened, lonely, limited animal again. It is instead the unseen destroyer that has the prerogative of watching over things.
For Thoreau, the establishing of a fact is thrillingly violent event, almost orgasmic, a petit mort, a consummation.
If you stand right facing and face to face to a fact, you will see the sun glimmer on both its surfaces, as if it were a cimeter, and feel its sweet edge dividing you through the heart and marrow, and so will happily conclude your mortal career.
But the Animal is always totalising possibilities into facts that won’t hold still and stay true or be proven. Endless blades swish down over the huddled and terrified creature and vanish before they strike. The Animal cannot conclude its mortal career.
5. Time and Terminus
Walden and ‘The Burrow’ are both chronicles of a period of time in their author’s lives. That time is linear and seasonal. ‘When autumn sets in,’ opines the Animal, ‘to possess a burrow like mine and a roof over your head, is great good fortune for anyone getting on in years.’ Thoreau recounts his seasons, winter and spring. Walden tells of the events of a year.
This was my first year’s life in the woods completed; and the second year was similar to it. I finally left Walden September 6th, 1847.
But in both works another kind of experiential time is active. In Walden it supervenes in moments of meditative absorption in the present. In ‘The Burrow’ it is a present tense that disrupts and destabilises the time scheme of the narration, a product of the Animal’s anxiety, its confusion, revision and lack of conclusions.
Thoreau quotes Confucius and the Bhagavad Gita through his book and declares that he wishes to ‘stand on the meeting of two eternities, the past and future, which is precisely the present moment; to toe that line’. To be fully present in the now is to live in and beyond time simultaneously, in the manner of the Daoists or Zen masters:
Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away but eternity remains.
Be that as it may, these experiences have linear durations and take place within calendrical time. When Thoreau has had enough of them at Walden, he leaves, on the date given above.
If the Animal had a calendar, it would seem that it could mark the day of the opening sentence of the story: ‘I have completed the construction of my burrow and it seems to be successful.’ But this temporal security, like all of the Animal’s facts, does not last. The present moment of the story, the point of completion of the burrow, becomes increasingly difficult to locate, as the history of its construction, maintenance and alteration, as well as the Animal’s thoughts and habits, are narrated in an urgent historical present that threatens to overwhelm the chronicle.
True, the two entrances would double the risk, but that consideration need not delay me, for one of the entrances, serving merely as a post of observation, could be quite narrow. And with that I lose myself in a maze of technical speculations, I begin once more to dream my dream of a completely perfect home and that somewhat calms me.
When is the Animal calmed? Is it in the absolute now of the chronicle or in the period when the Animal is outside the burrow? It seems to be the latter. Repeatedly, the reader can, with effort, establish when things have happened in relation to some if not all of the other things, but then one loses one’s footing again as an unfixable present tense floods into the chronicling, overwhelming clear sequence. Later, when the whistling starts, the problem gets worse.
… that beautiful dream is past and I must set to work …
So the burrow is not completed? But when did the Animal think it was – where exactly between the beginning of the narrated events and the start of the whistling is the beginning of the story? It doesn’t matter. The Animal’s activity, sensory, excavatory and ratiocinative, is endless and without issue. ‘The Burrow’ is one of the last things that Kafka wrote and was never prepared for publication. It seems that an ending for the story was discarded. As it comes down to us, the story finishes in a moment of stasis, a hollow between waves of anxiety:
… if it heard me I must have noticed some sign of it, the beast must at least have stopped its work every now and then to listen. But all remained unchanged.
In a moment, we have no doubt, the Animal will continue toiling at its defences, thinking them through in a world without facts or conclusions, dreaming of the end.
Sometimes I dream that I have reconstructed it, transformed it completely, quickly, in a night, with a giant’s strength, nobody having noticed, and now it is impregnable; the night in which such dreams come to me are the sweetest I know, tears of joy and deliverance still glisten on my beard when I awaken.
What a happy animal the Animal would have been in such circumstances, what a sturdy and proficient homesteader. Then it could have crossed the bridge back the other way into Walden, a world that is as similar to, as different from its own as a mirror image.
 Of course I don’t know for a fact that this hasn’t already been said. Perhaps I’m the fourth person to make the comparison, perhaps the ninth or the nineteenth.
 A better generic description might be found in Kierkegaard’s ‘The Seducer’s Diary,’ a text Kafka certainly knew:
A person who goes astray inwardly has less room for manoeuvre; he soon finds he is going round in a circle from which he cannot escape … I can imagine nothing more agonizing than an intriguing mind which has lost the thread and then turns all its wits upon itself … It is to no avail that he has many exits from his fox’s earth; the moment his anxious soul thinks it sees daylight appearing, it proves to be a new entrance, and like startled game, pursued by despair, he is thus constantly seeking an exit and forever finding an entrance through which he returns into himself.
 To play the unlosable, unwinnable game for a moment, imagine that the source of the ceaseless whistling sound is a tubercular lung.
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