Fasting would surely come into fashion again at some future date, yet that was no comfort to those living in the present. What, then, was the hunger artist to do?
—Franz Kafka, The Hunger Artist (1922); translated by Will and Edwin Muir.
Fasting has come into fashion. Today it’s called dieting.
In moderation, it’s vaunted as a healthful activity. Taken to an extreme, it’s a debilitating mental illness. Either way, dieting is usually triggered by peer pressure, and since our bodies are our visible, measurable exteriors, all those peers will have an opinion which will affects us.
To put it bluntly: losing weight quickly becomes a performance art.
Kafka’s Hunger Artist explores what this performance art means without going into the physical aspect. Sure, bodies existed in the early 20th century, but calorie-counting, bodybuilding, and pilates weren’t the fad. So instead, the premise is entirely absurdist à la Kafka, but the debilitation, the existential angst, and the struggle of the protagonist with the world (and with himself) are all recognisably modern.
The story recounts the life of an unnamed hunger artist who’s lived through the heyday of his profession and suffered through its decline. To begin with, his act was a successful attraction that sold tickets and provided entertainment for the curious sceptics. They would watching him as he sat locked in a cage on a bed of straw, fasting.
For forty days straight.
They taunted him, ate in front of him (at his expense), and sought to discover how he managed to sneak nourishment under the eyes of all the guards. Except he didn’t; no food passed his lips except for an occasional allowed sip of water. Their continual disbelief was a source of great indignation for him. Since no single person could monitor his fast uninterruptedly, no one could verify the truth—the hunger artist himself was the only one who knew how honestly he worked.
What’s more he never wanted to break his fast.
If forty days, then why not forty-one, forty-two? The reason was practical: more than forty days and the audience got bored. So in the end, his manager would have to drag the artist out of his cage so that he could be feted by cheering crowds. His manager would also have to force him to eat.
Then came the lean years. As the quote above suggests, fasting went out of fashion. Age having only enhanced his fasting skills, the artist hired our his act to a circus. There he was allowed to fast for as many days as he wished. And he did. He fasted and fasted in his cage, sometimes observed by people on their way to view the beasts nearby, but hardly ever appreciated.
One day, years later, just before expiring, he revealed the secret of his trade:
Because I hadn’t found the food I liked. If I had found it, believe me, I would have made no fuss and stuffed myself like you or anyone else.
So was his performance an art if it was for real?
This is Kafka. The reader is expected to get into a clinch with the paradox and grapple for dear reason.
Kafka is known for his parables. His writing invites alternative explanations because the insanity depicted therein is hard to accept at face-value. The Hunger Artist too lends itself to a number of allegorical interpretations: the struggles of a starving artist to live off his art, the relationship of an artist and his art, the sanctity of the artistic endeavour, the contrast of the caged artist and the caged animals around him.
But why look that far for a relevant interpretation?
In the modern day, dieting has become part of a movement that involves photographing your food, counting your steps, picking out the sexiest gym clothes, and spreading the word not only to your neighbours and your gym buddies, but to whole online communities where self-presentation is paramount. That’s when the act of dieting becomes the art of dieting, and the diet itself a performance.
Against this backdrop, Kafka’s story comes into focus. Can an artist live without his art (and lose the audience)? Can an artist create art if there is no audience? Or indeed, is art not art if it is a necessary mode of behaviour?
Perhaps some reimagining of Kafka’s story would take the absurd situation further and ask: what happens when the hunger artist looks out of his cage and sees that his audience consists of other hunger artists in similar cages?
Oh, and I wonder, just casually, what’ll happen to the real world when gluttony comes back into fashion?
This post is part of series on the fantastic grotesque.
- Judging a Book by its Quirk Words: on Léon Bloy’s Tarantula’s Parlour and Other Unkind Tales (1893–4).
- Diabolical Framings: on Jules Barbey’s Diaboliques (1874).
- Urns as Hearts: on Jean Lorrain’s Soul-Drinker (1890s).
- Alone (With Only Your Demons for Company): on Michel de Ghelderode’s Spells (1941).
- Various articles on Henri Michaux’s Life in the Folds (1949): Fearing Fate; Fearing Change; Fearing Pain; Terror-Horror-Revulsion; Hiding Fear Behind Scientific Words; Writing Helplessness; Dangerous Associations; Paralipsis and Ironic Process; Zeus in the Attic.
- Unsaid Goodbyes: on Gabrielle Wittkop’s Exemplary Departures (1998).
- Siren, Man, Mandrake Stem: on mixing metaphors in a quote from Exemplary Departures.
- Wittkop’s Necrophiliac: On Gabrielle Wittkop’s Necrophiliac (1972) and the questions in raises.
- Kafka’s Harrow: On the creeping terror of the slow reveal in Kafka’s short story In the Penal Colony (1919).
- Kafka’s Hunger Artist: