31 Days of Stories 2011, Day 13: “A Hunger Artist” by Franz Kafka

May 13, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

From The Complete Stories

The century since Franz Kafka was born has been marked by the idea of “modernism” – a self-consciousness new among centuries, a consciousness of being new. Seventy years after his death, Kafka epitomizes one aspect of this modern mind-set: a sensation of anxiety and shame whose center cannot be located and therefore cannot be placated; a sense of an infinite difficulty within things, impeding every step; a sensitivity acute beyond usefulness, as if the nervous system, flayed of its old hide of social usage and religious belief, must record every touch as pain. In Kafka’s peculiar and highly original case this dreadful quality is mixed with immense tenderness, oddly good humor, and a certain severe and reassuring formality. The combination makes him an artist; but rarely can an artist have struggled against greater inner resistance and more sincere diffidence as to the worth of his art.

– John Updike

The tortured relationship that Kafka had with his own art – his inability to believe in its worth, his despair at finding a vehicle to adequately (in his mind) convey his artistic vision and his unease with the world – is everywhere in his correspondence, particularly in his direction to Max Brod, his friend and literary executor, that the bulk of his work should be destroyed upon his death. In his foreword to The Complete Stories, an essay that originally appeared in The New Yorker, Updike quotes one of the notes that Kafka left for Brod:

Of all my writings, the only books that can stand are these: The Judgment, The Stoker, Metamorphosis, Penal Colony, Country Doctor and the short story: Hunger-Artist. … When I say that those five books and the short story can stand, I do not mean that I wish them to be reprinted and handed down to posterity. On the contrary, should they disappear altogether that would please me best. Only since they do exist, I do not wish to hinder anyone who may want to, from keeping them.

The author’s own ambivalence notwithstanding, the titles he mentions in his note have indeed stood the test of time (along with other works, The Trial and The Castle among them, that Brod allowed to be published against the wishes of his late friend). Indeed, many critics suggest that structurally and thematically, “A Hunger Artist” is among the finest short stories ever written.

The story begins with an unnamed narrator looking back from the present on a time when hunger artists – those who willingly starved themselves for the public’s amusement – were widely popular. The general description of hunger artists that opens the story slides almost imperceptibly into a description of the specific (but unnamed) hunger artist who is the story’s focus, a man who is locked in a cage in the public square for weeks on end, a crowd of observers around constantly to ensure that he does not eat. (Even some of the watchers, we are told, disbelieve that he is not secretly taking sustenance.) Over time, public fancy moves on and the hunger artist’s audience begins to shrink. When he is eventually dropped by the impresario who acts as his manager, he takes up with a circus, but finds that the crowds pass by his cage en route to the menagerie. The hunger artist dies alone and ignored, and is replaced in his cage by a panther that is virile, healthy, and eats voraciously. The panther is a huge hit with the circus crowds.

Kafka wrote “A Hunger Artist” late in his life, his own body wracked by the tuberculosis that would soon claim him. It is perhaps possible to see the hunger artist’s wasting away as representative of the depredations of the disease that was ravaging the author’s own body, and critics have suggested that the story is a cri de coeur from, as Updike puts it, “a dying man who was increasingly less sanguine … about dying.”

Others have suggested that the story is about the transience of art, and the futility of trying to create great works of art for an audience of philistines incapable of appreciating them. The public that so enjoyed watching the hunger artist waste away in his cage is quickly bored; by the time the hunger artist joins the circus, the crowds of attendees long for the spectacle of the animals in the menagerie, they are no longer satisfied with the quieter spectacle of a man’s physical wastage. It is significant that the hunger artist’s death goes unnoticed by both the circus audience and the employees: it is only when the circus overseer notices the “empty” cage that they remember the hunger artist – now dead – is inside. The panther that replaces him has “a noble body, furnished almost to the bursting point with all that it needed” and it “seemed to carry freedom around with it.” In other words, it is the complete antithesis of the hunger artist, who famously deprived himself of what he needed to stay alive and remained locked in a cage for up to 40 days at a time.

Forty days is the outer limit the hunger artist’s impresario would allow him to go before being released from the cage, the idea being that any longer than 40 days and the crowd would become bored. The arbitrary time limit angers the hunger artist, who wants to push his limits and starve himself for longer and longer periods of time, but who remains at the mercy of his audience’s attention span and demands.

The obvious biblical reference in the time span of 40 days points to the other critical analysis of the story: that the hunger artist is a Christian ascetic, and the story is a religious allegory. In this conception, the hunger artist is representative of self-denial, while the panther represents the gluttony the crowds eventually succumb to.

Whichever conception one subscribes to, it seems inescapable that the story is about adherence to a personal vision in the face of public indifference. In the age of reality television and YouTube, it is increasingly difficult to evade the notion Kafka’s titular figure is a stand-in for all serious artists today.

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