In Hans Christian Andersen’s so-called tingseventyr often translated into German or English as his Dingmärchen or object tales – in the object-world as such is regularly animated, i.e. the objects in question are in a demonstrative manner provided with their own independent life and likewise quite often with the power of speech. Simultaneously their behaviour – wherever they happen to find themselves – in a curious way reminds us of what we know quite well from the human world. In Franz Kafka’s Dingmärchen, however, the objects frequently represent a decisive threat to human beings as well as to established norms of behaviour or modes of understanding.
However that may be, this type of story had been a well-known subgenre – making its appearance mainly in children’s books – for a very long time, when Hans Christian Andersen took it up and perfected it in his own way quite early in his career as a writer. In England Mary Ann Kilner (1753-1831) thus published Memoirs of a Peg-Top (1782) and The Adventures of a Pincushion (issued late 1783 or early 1784), and both works were reprinted quite a few times in the following years. On the title-page of The Adventures of a Pincushion the attentive young reader might notice the following epigraph: “Imagination here supplies, / What Nature’s sparing Hand denies; / And, by her magic powers dispense, / To meanest objects, thought and sense”. In this case the animation of “meanest objects” is thus explicitly on the agenda, such as it happens to be the case a few decades later in Hans Christian Andersen’s famous Dingmärchen.
But two other precursors within this field are actually the Grimm Brothers, whose Kinder- und Hausmärchen (1812-1857) were familiar to a widespread readership all over Europe and certainly also to Andersen himself. In fairy tales like “Straw, Coal, and Bean” (“Strohhalm, Kohle und Bohne”) and “The Spindle, the Shuttle and the Needle” (“Spindel, Weberschiffchen und Nadel”) these selfsame items come alive. As a matter of fact, the first story focuses primarily on precisely the straw, the coal and the bean themselves, trying to make their fortune in the world at large; but in this case only the bean manages to escape from all the dangers befalling them en route: and even the bean must rely on outside, i.e. human help to pass the test in that respect. On the other hand, the second story (“The Spindle, the Shuttle and the Needle”) is first and foremost about a poor girl attempting to lay her hand on a rich prince; and the spindle, the shuttle and the needle in that respect merely act as helpers in her inventive and ingenious pursuit of such a matrimonial happiness.
In “Straw, Coal, and Bean” we thus notice that all three agents are capable of speaking up for themselves, but whereas the straw and the “glowing” coal die in the attempt to cross a small brook, “[t]he bean who had cautiously stayed behind on the bank had to laugh at the event [where both the straw and the coal fall into the water and give up the ghost]. He [i.e. the bean] could not stop [laughing], and he laughed so fiercely that he burst. Now he too would have died, but fortunately a wandering tailor was there, resting near the brook. Having a compassionate heart, he got out a needle and thread and sewed the bean back together. The bean thanked him most kindly. However, because he had used black thread, since that time all beans have a black seam”.
According to Mikhail Bakhtin in Rabelais and His World (1965, 1968), “[n]o meal can be sad. Sadness and food are incompatible (while death and food are perfectly compatible)”; but this may be said to apply equally well to the dangerous liaison between laughter and death, and in this case the bean (who at the beginning of the story barely escaped from an old woman’s cooking pot) fits in perfectly well within this whole tangled relationship between food, laughter, and death. At the same time the story offers a kind of etiological explanation with regard to the “seam” to be found in present-day beans, follow ing on the heels of the single surviving protagonist of the narrative (who has earned his own black “seam” the hard way).
Anyway, the seam can possibly also be identified as the narrative thread that links together all the somewhat heterogeneous thematic elements of the story, in the process making up a kind of extraordinary compound, characteristic of this particular Dingmärchen. In Shakespeare’s words in his King Lear (written sometime between 1604 and 1606), “[t]he worst returns to laughter”; but in its turn laughter itself may play havoc with a susceptible organism, in this case the bean, and thus plunge the organism into a situation that is definitely worse than it was to begin with.
In Hans Christian Andersen’s object tales most of his animated, thingish agents – wherever they happen to find themselves – are usually placed in the homely atmosphere of a domestic space of some kind, even if intrusive, disturbing elements occasionally disrupt the peace and calm of these localities. As I already pointed out, the objects in Kafka’s Dingmärchen rather tend to imperil and destabilize the very integrity of those human beings they come across. The human-all-too-human characteristics of things in object tales like Andersen’s “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” (“Den standhaftige Tinsoldat”, 1838) and “The Sweethearts (Top and Ball)” (“Kjærestefolkene”, 1843) can thus be contrasted with the more or less uncanny qualities of objects in Kafka’s fiction, e.g. in tales like “In the Penal Colony” (“In der Strafkolonie”, 1914, revised in 1918, published in 1919) and “The Cares of a Family Man” (“Die Sorge des Hausvaters”, probably written in 1920). At the same time a short prose piece like “The Top” (“Der Kreisel”, in all likelihood also written in 1920) foregrounds the bizarre activities of a philosopher, intent on catching a top in the very act of spinning (which of course turns out to be impossible). And in the end these pursuits make the philosopher himself totter “like a top under a clumsy whip” – which is exactly what happens, when the screams of the children, whose toy he has stolen, suddenly pierces his ears. Thus the object-world itself turns out to be able to take revenge on its human manipulators, in casu inadvertently turning the protagonist himself into the very object of his own futile desire, i.e. a top in its own right, but unable to spin and turn as it should under a “clumsy” whip – whose owner is by definition unable to do his job properly.
In Hans Christian Andersen’s Dingmärchen it may be argued that what Karl Marx (1818-83) himself – and since then quite a few latter-day Marxists – has or have termed reification plays an implicit, structural role in these selfsame stories. In the French-Rumanian literary theorist Lucien Goldmann’s (1913-70) recapitulation of the Marxian point-of-view Marx’s thesis may be set forth as follows: “In the structure of the liberal society analysed by Marx, reification … reduced to the implicit all trans-individual values, transforming them into properties of things and left as essential, manifest human reality only the individual, deprived of all immediate, concrete, and conscious links with the whole”.
According to Goldmann, what subsequently characterizes the objectdominated world of late capitalism – such as we come across it, for instance, in the French nouveau roman, i.e. in Alain Robbe-Grillet (1922-2008), Nathalie Sarraute (1900-99), et al. – is precisely “an autonomous world with its own structuration which alone enables the human being to express himself, occasionally and with difficulty”. It may be argued, however, that in object tales like those we come across in the Grimm Brothers and in Hans Christian Andersen, what is carried out is actually a kind of counter-move vis-à-vis the type of alienation or reification, that is characteristic of both nineteenth-century – and subsequent versions of bourgeois culture; for making things or objects speak up for themselves or turning them into self-conscious agents on the global – or at least on a local – scene certainly points in another direction.
In “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” (1838) the non-human protagonist does not literally speak up for himself or become involved in conversation with others, but what is characteristic of the title character (the tin soldier) is rather his ability to reflect on his own situation and on the perilous experiences he undergoes: in this respect what we come across is what the French critic Jean Pouillon in his Temps et roman (1946) calls a vision “avec” (vision “with”), where everything is seen from the main character’s point-of-view, through his or her eyes, so to speak. And that provides this selfsame character with a consciousness, which in all so-called Dingmärchen in a decisive manner contributes to the selfsame object’s animation …
Pouillon presents this literary strategy as follows: “You choose a single character, who will become the centre of the narrative, in whom you are particularly interested or at least in a different way from your interest in the other characters. You portray this character from within; we penetrate into this character’s behaviour, as if we maintained such a comportment ourselves”.
In “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” we are presented with a love story that definitely ends unhappily: the title character has fallen in love with a little maiden cut out of paper, who stood in the open doorway of a castle likewise made of paper: “ʽNow there’s a wife for me!’ [the tin soldier] thought. ʽBut she looks rather refined, and she lives in a castle. I have only a box, and it has to hold twent-five of us [including all the other tin soldiers]. That’s no place for her! Still, I have to see about making her acquaintance.’ And then he stretched out full-length behind a snuff-box that stood on the table”.
In this manner we become acquainted with the tin soldier’s thoughts in what amounts to an interior monologue. At the same time we recognize in the dancer cut out of paper an example of what has been termed the femme fragile – a female prototype that we come across quite frequently during the Victorian era, e.g. in writers like Edgar Allan Poe (1809-49), William Morris (1834-96), Thomas and Heinrich Mann (1875-1955, 1871-1950), Hugo von Hofmannstal (1874-1929), and the young Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926), as well as in the portraits of ethereal females presented to the viewer in the paintings of the so-called Pre-Raphaelites. This ideal type of woman is discussed at some length in Ariane Thomalla’s study: Die femme fragile. Ein literarischer Frauentypus der Jahrhundertwende (1982).
Thus we are from the very outset presented with a thematic polarity, where the “steadfast” tin soldier is contrasted with the fragile heroine made of paper. At the same time the male protagonist is hampered by what looks like a severe disability: “He had only one leg because he was the last to be cast, and there wasn’t enough tin left. Yet he stood as firmly on one leg as the others did on two, and he’s the one that turned out to be remarkable”.
Like so many other characters in Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales the steadfast tin solider is thus cast as an outsider from the very beginning. He is also confronted with what the Canadian literary theorist Northrop Frye has termed a “blocking” antagonist, namely a little black troll, that suddenly jumps out of the snuff box and apparently does his best to spoil the tin soldier’s happiness and peace of mind. Anyway, after the troll has forbidden the tin soldier to even look at the female dancer, a series of misfortunes occur, throwing him out of the window and afterwards seeing him shipped in a flimsy paper boat by naughty boys – down a torrential stream in a heavy downpour, afterwards being swallowed by a fish and finally ending up in the very same house he came from, i.e. after the fish has been caught, brought to the market, sold, and cut up: and he is freed from his host’s belly precisely in the same place where he first fell out of the window.
However, after this miraculous escape from the maws of death, his luck has apparently run out, for “[at] that moment one of the little boys picked up the soldier and tossed him right into the stove, giving no explanation at all. The troll in the box was most certainly to blame”. And the dancer fares no better, for a little later “the wind seized hold of the dancer [as a door opens], and she flew like a sylph into the stove to the tin soldier, burst into flame and was gone”. Thus both characters remain true to their nature, such as it has previously been determined, and in this manner fulfil their destiny – she as an archetypal femme fragile (a “sylph”) and he as the steadfast figure he has been all the way through the plot; but in this case his very solidity leaves him, as a matter of fact, with nothing more than “the shape of a little tin heart”: at this point all his bravery and military bravado is gone! Male and female have both regressed into the tohuwabohu of a sexless vacuum. Their would-be Wagnerian Liebestod (avant la lettre) appears to have been for nothing.
Things can possibly speak up for themselves; but for various reasons they usually appear to prefer not to address human beings, while they are at it (in “The Old House” [“Det gamle Huus”, 1848], however, the boy does communicate directly with the tin soldier): anyway, the steadfast tin soldier in our story deliberately avoids being involved in any kind of verbal exchange with humans, however much he might need their help; for when he has fallen out of the window, the servant girl and the little boy (his owner) try very hard to find him, in the process nearly stepping on him on the cobblestones in front of the house; but the two of them are simply unable to see him where he has landed. Nevertheless, “[i]f the tin soldier had shouted ʽHere I am!’, they probably would have found him, but he didn’t think it was proper to yell when he was in uniform”. This appears to be a matter of honour to him; but the soldier’s strict code of honour certainly entails disastrous consequences, leading up to a long series of misfortunes.
Anyway, at the end of the tale both would-be lovers are transferred deep down into the realm of what the French-Bulgarian semioticist Julia Kristeva (born in 1941) has aptly termed the abject, where all differences tend to be abolished, and the material world manifests itself in its lowest, most despicable shape. The tender tin heart at the bottom of the stove cannot compensate for such a degree of degradation.
According to Finn Hauberg Mortensen (1946-2013) in an instructive article in Nordica (2006), entitled “Things and Fairy Tales” (“Ting og eventyr”), things or objects “can …, among other things, be agents on a par with adults, children, animals, and plants. In these texts [i.e. in Andersen’s Dingmärchen] things may be provided with an animated life [of their own] and be experienced empathetically by author and reader, and such a shift to the perspective of the thing implies a displacement of position, which is later developed [further] in modernist art. Things in these fairy tales are likewise separated from children, plants, and animals, insofar as they possess a specific materiality and therefore cannot restlessly be reduced to something alive by virtue of animation. This, too, points forward from Romanticism to Modernism”.
In “The Sweethearts”(1843, 1844) we come across another erotic triangle (similar to the trio of soldier, dancer and troll in “The Steadfast Tin Soldier”), for in this narrative a love relationship between a top and a ball, positioned in the same drawer, is blocked on the basis of a purely imaginary love affair between the ball and a swallow: according to the ball, “[every] time I fly up in the air, he [i.e. the swallow] sticks his head out and says, ʽWill you?’ And now I’ve inwardly said yes, and that’s as good as an engagement. But I promise that I’ll never forget you”.
The would-be love relationship between the ball and the swallow turns out to come to nothing, for the next day the ball leaps too high and falls into the eaves, where it remains for five years, seeping water, which has a decidedly negative effect on its whole appearance.
And when the top and the ball after this prolonged period of time finally meet in the trash bin – into which the top has accidentally jumped – there is no love lost between them: as the top the next day is brought back to the parlor with great ceremony, “the [gilded] top never [afterwards] said another word about his old love, which fades when your sweetheart has lain in the eaves for five years, seeping water. Why, you wouldn’t even recognize her if you met her in the trash bin”.
In the top’s infatuation with the ball we can possibly also recognize certain masochistic elements, which have somehow been toned down in Tiina Nunnally’s translation of the story into English; these elements make their appearance in the passage where the top swears that what he tells the ball about his own early history or his origins is strictly true: “ʽMay I never be spun again if I’m lying!’ replied the top”. But actually a more correct translation of the passage would be: “ʽMay I never be whipped if I lie!’ replied the top” (“ʽGid jeg aldrig faae Pidsk om jeg lyver!’ svarede Toppen’”).
The Italian philosopher Mario Perniola (born in 1941) refers to what he calls the sex appeal of the inorganic: “… out of the union between philosophy’s speculative extremism and sexuality’s invincible power something extraordinary is born in which our age recognizes itself, and which after Walter Benjamin we can call the sex appeal of the inorganic”. According to Walter Benjamin the world exhibitions of the nineteenth century “build up the universe of commodities … Fashion prescribes the ritual according to which the commodity fetish wishes to be worshipped … Grandville [the pseudonym of the nineteenth-century French caricaturist and illustrator, whose real name was Jean Ignace Isidor Gérard, 1803-47] extends fashion’s claims both to the objects of everyday use and to the cosmos … It couples the living body to the inorganic world … Fetishism, which is subject to the sex appeal of the inorganic, is its vital nerve. The cult of commodities places it in its service”. Thus the very thingishness of the world of objects may be directly linked up with an erotic sphere, and this can certainly be applied to Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Sweethearts” as well – even if the sex appeal of the object in question (the ball) is eventually downgraded to be placed at the very bottom of the cosmic ladder, as an abject thing in its own right. In this manner any object may become a fetish – fascinating the onlookers, including its co-objects, wherever they are positioned, far and wide.
As I have pointed out earlier, Franz Kafka takes up the so-called Dingmärchen in a manner that differs considerably from what we come across, for instance, in Hans Christian Andersen’s object tales, where human-all-to-human elements and attitudes tend to abound. What we contrariwise encounter in Kafka’s Dingmärchen is rather a striking emphasis on uncanny plot elements, particularly in tales like “In the Penal Colony” (“In der Strafkolonie”, 1914) and “The Cares of a Family Man” (“Die Sorge des Hausvaters”, probably written in 1920).
“In the Penal Colony” might, on one level of meaning, be read as a kind of early version of what has more recently been termed postcolonial fiction. Insofar as the penal colony by definition belongs to a colonized space, allegedly placed somewhere on the outskirts of Western civilization, what takes place within this space cannot avoid being brought to bear on the process of colonization itself, its success or its failure, and the very breakdown of the colonial régime thematized in the novella must be said to have far-reaching or even global consequences. The penal colony bears a certain resemblance to a place like the French Devil’s Island (Île du Diable), a prison island positioned near the coast of French Guiana. In an article published some years ago, however, I rather focused on the way in which the ingenious torturing- and executionary apparatus in the narrative may be regarded both as what the Croatian-Canadian literary historian Darko Suvin (born in 1930) calls a novum and as a kind of phantasmatic topos.
Suvin characterizes the novum as follows: “My axiomatic premise … is that SF [i.e. science fiction] is distinguished by the narrative dominance or hegemony of a fictional ʽnovum’ (novelty, innovation) validated by cognitive logic”. Even if Suvin does not categorize the majority of Franz Kafka’s fictional works as belonging to science fiction, he makes an exception as far as “In the Penal Colony” is concerned, for [even if] “most of the works of Kafka or Borges cannot be claimed for SF[,] … I [i.e. Darko Suvin] would argue that In the Penal Colony and ʽThe Library of Babel’ would be among the exceptions …”
In Kafka’s narrative an explorer is guided around a penal colony by an officer and is made to witness an execution, where the victim is going to be submitted to the tortures and later to the killing mechanism of the apparatus in question: “ʽThis apparatus,’ [the officer] said, ʽwas invented by our former Commandant … It consists, as you see, of three parts. In the course of time each of these parts has acquired a popular nickname. The lower one is called the “Bed”, the upper one the “Designer”, and this one here in the middle that moves up and down is called the “Harrow”’ … ‘Yes, the Harrow,’ said the officer, ‘a good name for it. The needles are set in like the teeth of a harrow, although its action is limited to one place and contrived with much more artistic skill …’”
Insofar as the machine is actually invented and built by the former, at present deceased Commandant of the penal colony, it might be more adequate to call the apparatus a vetum (an item belonging to the past) than a Suvinian novum. However that may be, the very presence of the explorer and his profound dislike of everything that goes on in front of him (i.e. the torture and the execution) in the end prevents the officer’s plan from being carried out; and instead the officer puts himself in the position of the condemned man (who has by then been set free) and starts the apparatus, placing himself under the murderous harrow.
The apparatus is contrived to inscribe the very verdict on the criminal’s body, illustrating in this spectacular manner what Jacques Derrida has termed the violence of the letter (la violence de la lettre). But the convoluted writing makes it very difficult for an external observer to read this inscription: “ʽYes,’ said the officer with a laugh, putting the paper [with the verdict] away again, ‘this is no calligraphy for school children. It needs to be studied closely. I’m quite sure that in the end you would understand it too. Of course the script can’t be a simple one; it is not supposed to kill a man straight off, but only after an interval of, on an average, twelve hours; the turning point is reckoned to come at the sixth hour. So there have to be lots and lots of flourishes around the actual script; the script itself runs round the body only in a narrow girdle; the rest of the body is reserved for the embellishments …’”
According to the officer the peripety occurs, when the condemned man begins to understand what is written on his body, which takes place at the sixth hour: “… how quiet he grows at just about the sixth hour! Enlightenment comes to the most dull-witted. It begins around the eyes. From there it radiates. A moment that might tempt one to get under the Harrow oneself. Nothing more happens than that the man begins to understand the inscription, he purses his mouth as if he were listening. You have seen how difficult it is to decipher the script with one’s eyes; but our man deciphers it with his wounds”. The point made here thus appears to be that suffering leads to understanding.
However, when the officer fails to convince the explorer of the postulated justice carried out by the penal colony’s judicial system by means of the torturing- and executionary apparatus – invented and installed by the ancient (now deceased) Commandant – the officer decides to place himself under the Harrow, such as he had already more or less felt tempted to do: an elaborate, necessarily suicidal operation on his part. But here things begin to go really wrong, for at this point the machinery simply breaks down: “The explorer … felt greatly troubled; the machine was obviously going to pieces; its silent working was a delusion; he had a feeling that he must now stand by the officer, since the officer was no longer able to look after himself … The Harrow was not writing, it was only jabbing, and the bed was not turning the body over, but only bringing it up quivering against the needles … this was no exquisite torture such as the officer desired, this was plain murder … [the apparatus stops in the middle of all these operations, failing to carry out its task, and instead it instantly kills off the officer]. And here, almost against his will, [the explorer] had to look at the face of the corpse. It was as it had been in life; no sign was visible of the promised redemption; what the others had found in the machine the officer had not found.; the lips were firmly pressed together, the eyes were open, with the same expression as in life, the look was calm and convinced, through the forehead went the point of the great iron spike”.
We notice at this moment in the development of the plot that the would-be mystique of the object-world – the latter represented by the skillfully contrived torturing- and executionary apparatus – is dismantled, insofar as the machine’s postulated redemptive power is no longer on the agenda. Instead we are simply confronted with a whole series of cogs and wheels, gradually falling listlessly to the ground, and the subject – in this case the officer – is no longer able to control it.
When the explorer, the soldier and the condemned man finally leave the barren valley, where the execution was earlier planned to have taken place, it is apt that the explorer wishes to visit the old Commandant’s tomb. It turns out that the Commandant had been banned – for what reason we are not informed here – by the local priest and had not been allowed to be buried in the churchyard. As a matter of fact, he is buried in a teahouse: “[The soldier and the condemned man] led the explorer right up to the back wall, where guests were sitting at a few tables. They were apparently dock laborers, strong men with short, glistening, full black beards … They pushed one of the tables aside, and under it there was really a gravestone. It was a simple stone, low enough to be covered by a table …” The inscription on the gravestone promises that sometime in the future the Commandant will rise from the dead and together with his adherents re-conquer the colony. But apparently very few people believe in this prophecy. Anyway, the Commandant’s humble burial site likewise appears to contradict such a foolhardy, grandiloquent prediction … The everyday universe seems to have got the better of the boisterous, now silenced tycoon as well as of his omnipotent apparatus.
Machines frequently play an important thematic or conceptual role in the discursive universes of various kinds of madness, such as it has been pointed out by one of the founding fathers of psychoanalysis, the Austrian-Hungarian-Croatian scholar and physician Viktor Tausk (1879-1919) in his seminal article entitled “On the Origin of the ‘Influencing Machine’ in Schizophrenia” (published in 1919): “The schizophrenic influencing machine is a machine of a mystical nature. The patients are able to give only vague hints of its construction. It consists of boxes, cranks, levers, wheels, buttons, wires, batteries, and the like … All the discoveries of mankind, however, are regarded as inadequate to explain the marvelous powers of this machine, by which the patients feel themselves persecuted … The machine serves to persecute the patient and is operated by enemies … The manipulation of the apparatus is … obscure, the patient rarely having a clear idea of its operation. Buttons are pushed, levers set in motion, cranks turned. The connection with the patient is often made by means of invisible wires leading into his bed, in which case the patient is influenced by the machine only when he is in bed”.
However that may be, Viktor Tausk starts “with the assumption that the influencing apparatus is a projection of the patient’s genitalia”, and thus it becomes clear that such a machine represents a highly eroticized vision of the world. In Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony” we likewise notice the obvious erotic under- and overtones presented to the reader in the portrayal of the apparatus. In a certain sense the extraordinary torturing- and executionary device in the story may be regarded as a kind of “influencing machine”, tormenting any condemned man strapped to it with what resembles convoluted persecutory fantasies, even if they are supposed to take place in the real world, and inscribing word by word or wound by wound what amounts to something like the apocalyptic punishment of the damned on Judgement Day.
In erotic terms the Harrow simultaneously represents male or phallic sexuality, whereas the Bed on the other hand embodies female or vaginal submissiveness; and thus the male prisoner is willy-nilly placed in a kind of inadvertently feminized position. Anyway, we notice that in this context the would-be animation of the object world – characteristic of the Dingmärchen as such – here apparently leads to the sexualization of the latter as well. But the officer’s death seems to demonstrate that in the long run an orgasmic – or any other kind of – release is out of the question. The metaphysical “comic discovery, anagnorisis or cognitio” – to quote Northrop Frye in his Anatomy of Criticism (1957), representing a somewhat belated, but nevertheless ultimately satisfactory turn of events – has definitely been cancelled. The real returns with a vengeance.
A similar turn is carried out in Kafka’s story “Die Sorge des Hausvaters”. In what follows I shall draw rather extensively on materials taken up in my recent study Walking Shadows. Reflections on the American Fantastic and the American Grotesque from Washington Irving to the Postmodern Era (2015). In the story in question the supernatural is stripped of its would-be metaphysical aura – and it is de-familiarized in a thoroughgoing manner: “At first glance it looks like a flat star-shaped spool for thread, and indeed it does seem to have a 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 …”
Apart from that – i.e. apart from its status as a kind of weird composite being or a sort of animated collage – “Odradek is extraordinarily nimble and can never be laid hold of”. At the same time “… the whole thing looks senseless enough, but in its own way perfectly finished”. However “senseless” this creature looks, it is nevertheless provided with the power of speech, and when the first-person narrator of the story encounters it, he feels inclined to take up a dialogue with such a tiny interlocutor: “ʽWell what is 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’”. What we encounter here is thus in no way a whole-hearted, joyful Bakhtinian laughter, but rather a kind of subliminal outburst, somehow associated with a kind of withering, abject underground (here one may consult my earlier reference to Julia Kristeva’s reflections on abjection and the abject in her Powers of Horror [in note 18 in the present paper]). However that may be, we notice that communication – unlike what we find in Hans Christian Andersen’s object tales – also includes a linguistic interchange between human beings and the world of objects (even if the family man addresses Odradek in the manner he would communicate with a child). And Kafka’s first-person narrator argues in the last resort against the very idea of coming to terms with this strange being: “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 … He does no harm to anyone that one can see; but the idea that he is likely to survive me I find almost painful”.
The supernatural is no longer decipherable in terms of a metaphysical system or a cosmic, hierarchical order – even if it is still capable, to a certain degree at least, of disrupting the normality of the empirical world. It is, however, only a ripple on the surface of the pond, as it were – and nothing like the black hole of the abysmal “tarn” in Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839). But on a deeper level such phenomena or anomalies do put in question the validity of our inherited beliefs, the metaphysical underpinnings of the modern world.
According to the earlier New York-based scholar Erica Weitzman (born in 1970, now employed by Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois), it does no harm to anyone to consider “that what [the Hausvater] so fears to lose to Odradek’s outliving of him is not something he truly possesses but something he has projected and subsequently assumed as his subjecthood, thereby covering up the trace of his immanent too-muchness that is comical, not in its distance from some ideal, but in its suspension of the categories that make up at once the worry and the interpretability of existence. Odradek is the name for the uncanny, unpredictable obstacle that is this immanent too-muchness, the one that reminds us that beyond sovereignty, what remains, free from care, may be laughter”. Once more the worst returns to laughter. And uncanniness rules where the animated object world turns against its human manipulators.
Furthermore, the quasi-immortality of Kafka’s Odradek (an artificial being that does not seem to belong to the animal kingdom in any respect whatsoever) certainly reminds us of the classic characteristics of fantastic fiction in general – which often appears to be deeply transgressive. In a comment on Kafka’s “Die Sorge des Hausvaters” the well-known Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek points out how “[Kafka’s anomalous creature] as an object which is transgenerational (exempt from the cycle of generations), immortal, outside fin[i]tude (because outside sexual difference), outside time, displaying no goal-oriented activity, no purpose, no utility, is jouissance embodied: ‘Jouissance is that which serves nothing,’ as Lacan put [it] in Seminar XX: Encore … The Kafkan Thing is either transcendent, forever eluding our grasp (the Law, the Castle), or a ridiculous object into which the subject is metamorphosed, and which we can never get rid of (like Gregor Samsa, who changes into an insect). The point is to read these two features together: jouissance is that which we can never reach, attain, and that which we can never get rid of”. Thus the notion of jouissance definitely also establishes a link to a sexual thematic, which on the other hand is usually underplayed in narratives like “In the Penal Colony” and “The Cares of a Family Man”.
Let us return once more to Kafka’s spinning top, mentioned briefly in my introduction to the present paper. What Kafka appears to offer to his readers here, may at least on one level of meaning be categorized as a satirical portrayal of the spirit of positivism as such, for the protagonist of the story, the philosopher, “believed that the understanding of any detail, that of a spinning top, for instance, was sufficient for the understanding of all things. For this reason he did not busy himself with great problems, it seemed to him uneconomical. Once the smallest detail was understood, then everything was understood, which was why he busied himself with the spinning top”. The kind of induction practiced by the philosopher does not, however, lead to satisfying results, and in the end the sheer materiality of the object in question (the top) only unleashes a profound disillusionment in the observer, for “when he held the silly piece of wood in his hand [after having stolen it from the playing kids he has spied on], he felt nauseated”.
If we compare Kafka’s spinning top to the one we find in Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Sweethearts”, we notice that Kafka in no way attempts to animate the object in question or at least only indirectly, and the revenge taken on the philosopher by the top is making use of a much subtler strategy, for here the top gets the better of its manipulator by making him imitate itself in a decidedly clumsy manner – and it turns the self-same philosopher into a kind of spinning top, which indicates that the world itself is turned upside down in an awkwardly rotating gyre. In this manner a philosophical whirlpool is turned into an abject cesspool. And thus the philosopher appears to be transformed into a mere replica of an object usually placed far below him in the Great Chain of Being or the cosmic hierarchy.
Observing things closely is not such a pleasant business as it was reckoned to be, and it may lead to a quasi-Sartrean nausea and possibly also compel us to reconsider the would-be antinomies of classical physics, such as they manifest themselves after the rise of quantum mechanics (Mach), the theory of complementarity (Bohr) and Werner Heisenberg’s reflections on the so-called Unbestimmtheitsrelation – all somehow related to the development of physics in the twentieth century. The whole set-up and the very position of the person perceiving what goes on “out there” by definition makes a significant impact on the perceived material. Observation can never be wholly neutral. In this perspective the relationship between any observer and any observed object has become very complicated.
But that is another story …