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.

A G20 reading list

June 25, 2010 by · 2 Comments 

If you’re like me, you’re likely reading the morning news these days with a mixture of horror, disgust, and sinking despair. The past two weeks have seen Toronto – a safe, clean, happily multicultural city – turned into a fortress-like police state. Fences have gone up downtown. Military helicopters have been buzzing the skies continuously. Toronto police, OPP, RCMP, and police from forces across the country – armed with riot gear, plastic bands to handcuff troublemakers, long-range acoustic devices (so called “sound cannons”), water cannons, and other weaponry – have converged on the south end of the city and seem determined to flex their newly acquired muscle. This includes a bylaw, quietly passed by the Ontario provincial government – without debate – on June 2, that allows police to detain and arrest anyone coming within five metres of the G20 security fence and refusing to provide ID or submit to a body search. (The bylaw will expire on June 28, but won’t be officially published until July 3: this is what “democracy” looks like in Ontario these days.) Across the downtown core, windows have been boarded up, offices and streets abandoned, schools closed, and the homeless have been forced out of their regular neighbourhoods. All in the service of a contingent of capitalist leaders descending on the city to enjoy a specially constructed fake lake while they hold financial discussions that are guaranteed to be more beneficial to BP than to you and me.

You may be so sickened by the way in which downtown Toronto has been transformed into a militarized zone that you are compelled to join one of the many mass protests that are scheduled for the next three days in the city. Or, you may feel compelled to hole yourself up in your room until the whole thing blows over. Either way, you may want to do some G20-related reading this weekend; TSR has put together the following list of texts that recent events have called (sometimes uncomfortably) to mind. If you do go down to protest, you could do worse than taking one of these books with you. If nothing else, it will provide some reading material when the cops haul you into their makeshift Gitmo on Eastern Avenue for, you know, just walking around your own city.

Fight the power. But, please be safe this weekend. With luck, we’ll all make it through this relatively unscathed. To this point, I’m not hopeful.

A G20 Reading List

Animal Farm by George Orwell – Orwell’s 1945 dystopian allegory about Stalin’s rise in Russia and the concomitant crackdown on individual rights and freedoms seems scarily appropriate in the face of the draconian security measures that have been invoked for the G20 weekend in Toronto. The well-meaning “Seven Commandments of Animalism” that are instituted for the good of all eventually get reduced to just one edict: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” Indeed.

The Land of Green Plums by Herta Müller – The winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize for Literature, Müller is a Romanian by birth who ran afoul of Ceausescu’s government when she refused to cooperate with the Romanian secret police. Her 1993 novel tells the story of a group of young people living under the thumb of the Ceausescu regime and the way in which the totalitarian government influences each of them, either forcing them to bend to its will or perish.

The Rebel by Albert Camus – Published in 1951, Camus’ book examines the nature and genesis of rebellion, synthesizing the thought of figures such as Lucretius, de Sade, Nietzsche, and Breton. Camus suggests that humanity turns to revolution when it becomes sufficiently disenchanted with the justice that has been meted out to it, when a quest for order and clarity abuts the essential absurdity of life. However, Camus also drafts a moral framework that makes clear the idea that the impulse toward revolution implies a value system that opposes murder and suppression of others. An essential text for any would-be protester.

The Trial by Franz Kafka – The terrifying story of Josef K., who “without having done anything wrong … was arrested one fine morning.” A horrifying allegory of an individual subsumed and ultimately destroyed by a faceless bureaucracy.

Invitation to a Beheading by Vladimir Nabokov – A surrealistic story about Cincinnatus C., a man imprisoned and sentenced to death for the crime of “gnostical turpitude.” His crime, and the accompanying sentence, make no sense; although Nabokov’s book is ultimately more hopeful than Kafka’s, it carries with it the same force of creeping terror brought about by an individual’s enslavement to a shadowy political system that he neither understands nor is responsible for.

Germinal by Émile Zola – One of his best-known works, Zola’s 1885 novel about the horrific conditions suffered by miners in 1860s France became such a sensation in the author’s home country that when he died, his funeral cortege was followed through the streets by 50,000 people, including a group of miners chanting, “Germinal! Germinal!” One of the great workers’ novels.

Globalization and its Discontents by Joseph E. Stiglitz – “[R]ecent advances in economic theory – ironically occurring precisely during the period of the most relentless pursuit of the Washington Consensus policies – have shown that whenever information is imperfect and markets incomplete, which is to say always, and especially in developing countries, then the invisible hand works most imperfectly. Significantly, there are desirable government interventions which, in principle, can improve upon the efficiency of the market.” Nobel winner Stiglitz lucidly explains where globalization goes wrong; he provides G20 antagonists with the bedrock for a cogent argument and could provide the delegates with a roadmap forward, were they to pay him any attention.

The Cult of Impotence: Selling the Myth of Powerlessness in the Global Economy by Linda McQuaig – The woman who Conrad Black famously said “should be horsewhipped” provides a compelling argument in favour of financial regulation that could benefit humanity as a collective rather than simply making a few fat cats even fatter. Jumping off from the Chrétien government’s deficit-slashing program of the mid-1990s, McQuaig argues that we have the tools at our disposal to create jobs and a viable social safety net if only we would recognize them.

(With thanks to Oliver Pocknell.)