Odradek is one of the strangest creatures ever imagined.
“At first glance it looks like a flat star-shaped spool for thread,” the narrator claims in “The Cares of a Family Man,” Franz Kafka’s brief, haunting story in which Odradek appears. But as the narrator’s hesitant, circuitous description continues, it becomes clear that Odradek, in fact, has no intelligible shape whatsoever. He can speak, but he and the narrator are capable of carrying on only a sort of halting, half-conversation; the narrator seems unsure whether to treat him as a polite acquaintance or a child. “One is tempted to believe” that Odradek used to be part of some greater, coherent whole, of which he now remains as a “broken-down remnant.” But, the narrator admits, this does not really seem to be the case, and “the whole thing looks senseless enough, but in its own way perfectly finished.”
Over the years, philosophers and cultural theorists have interpreted Odradek in many ways: as a metaphor for the alienation of workers under capitalism, for instance, or as a symbol of the world’s guilt. Today, however, I think Odradek can stand for just one thing: Theresa May, the prime minister of Britain.
There was a time when Mrs. May felt invincible. The early months of her premiership saw her Conservative Party riding high in the polls; newspapers reported her Brexit plans with jingoistic bombast. Mrs. May, with heaps of political capital to spare, was the new Iron Lady.
Not any more. As the final Brexit deadline inches closer, both the prime minister and the process of leaving the European Union seem utterly drained of purpose. This week, Mrs. May will, after a long and damaging delay, put her Brexit deal before Parliament.
Mrs. May has urged Parliament to support her deal on the basis that anything less would be, as she wrote in the Sunday Express this weekend, “a catastrophic and unforgivable breach of trust in our democracy.” The prime minister endured a barrage of ministerial resignations and a confidence vote in her leadership after shelving the original vote on the deal in a bid to secure further concessions from the European Union, but the gamble has not paid off. Last week the government suffered a number of embarrassing defeats in the run-up to the vote. Now, the deal will almost certainly be rejected. It is unclear if any better deal — one in which, for example, Britain’s leaving the European Union would actually benefit anyone — is possible.
At this point, it would make sense for Mrs. May to resign and for her government to collapse, precipitating a general election. Indeed, there remains a residual sense that this is what the normal rules of politics would require. But that seems almost as unlikely as the hopes of Mrs. May’s deal actually passing. The Labour Party will most likely respond to the defeat of the Brexit deal by scheduling a confidence vote that could bring down Mrs. May’s government — but few in her party seem inclined to risk an election that could result in the triumph of an opposition they see as unacceptably left-wing. In fact, if recent reports are correct, some Conservatives would prefer to seize control of the legislative agenda.
Mrs. May has urged Parliament to support her deal on the basis that anything less would risk damaging Britain’s democracy. But in truth, anti-democratic sentiment is common on all sides of the debate. The prime minister never wanted her deal to be subject to parliamentary scrutiny and has consistently acted in a way that disrespects Parliament’s sovereignty. Extensive reporting has indicated that the Leave campaign cheated its way to winning the referendum. The Remainers have been persistent in their demand for another referendum — but only, let’s face it, because they didn’t like the result of the first one.
Frankly, it is unclear if the basic conditions for any sort of democratic decision over Brexit are even in place: The news media has been hugely irresponsible. With Brexit such big news, every tiny development is hectically live-blogged. The result is that if you turn away for a second, it becomes impossible to tell what is going on.
All this would be bad enough if Brexit were the only problem facing the country. But it’s not. The effects of austerity have, in many parts of the country, been crippling; recent chaos produced by the rollout of a benefits plan called Universal Credit has been just one of the more obvious ill effects of a government that rules with an iron fist of maliciousness and a padded mitten of incompetence. In fact, one way of understanding the whole Brexit phenomenon would be precisely as a distraction from talking about any of Britain’s real problems — a result of a vote that went the way it did only because enough people felt they were being denied a say on anything that actually matters.
And so, as she presses ahead with her terrible solution to a problem no one ever needed to have, Mrs. May has become a haunting figure. Like Odradek, there seems to be no point to her — and yet, in her very pointlessness, she can seem at times to form something like a coherent whole. Perhaps with Mrs. May, the role of prime minister has ceased to be that of the head of the legislative branch of British government. She has reinvented the office as a repository for the sins of a system too dysfunctional to even collapse, neutralizing the anger the public ought rightly to hold toward the government by seeming too useless even to warrant it.
In the final paragraph of Kafka’s story, the narrator asks himself what is likely to happen to Odradek. “Can he possibly die?” or will he continue to haunt the narrator’s house — and that of his children, and his children’s children? “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,” the narrator says.
Rumors of Mrs. May’s imminent demise continue to be reported with regularity. But if she were going to go, wouldn’t she have done so already? If Mrs. May really is Odradek, maybe Britain will be stuck with her forever.
Luckily, there is another way of looking at the creature. For the philosopher Theodor Adorno, Odradek was also a symbol of hope — for him, the creature gives us, as though in negative, an image of a happiness that our present surroundings deny us. What we must then see in Odradek is the possibility of a world in which he does not stalk our halls.
What Britain needs is genuine democracy, a politics genuinely receptive to the needs of its citizens. Theresa May’s intractability must be an occasion to demand her impossibility.
Tom Whyman is a philosopher and freelance writer.