A Hunger Artist Essay - Essays and Criticism

Essays and Criticism

Kafka's Life as Seen in A Hunger Artist

‘‘Kafka’s Hunger, Kafka’s Art’’
Kafka was a master of the enigmatic. In his book, Everyone’s Darling: Kafka and the Critics of His Short Fiction, Franz R. Kempf states that, ‘‘Kafka critics only agree on one thing, and that is that they are not in agreement.’’ Kempf points out that Kafka valued this resistance in his work to specific interpretations, as he ‘‘understood writing to be a consciously created ambiguity.’’ Walter Benjamin has even asserted that Kafka ‘‘took all conceivable precautions against the interpretation of his writings.’’ Even Kafka himself, Kempf explains, ‘‘found his work to be incomprehensible.’’

Yet, while Kafka’s work resists definitive interpretation, there has been no end to the critical material written about Kafka and his work. In his book Introducing Kafka, David Zane Mairowitz claims that, ‘‘no writer of our time, and probably none since Shakespeare, has been so widely overinterpreted and pigeonholed.’’ Kafka’s work, interpreted and over-interpreted by countless critics over the decades is described by Kemp as ‘‘the kaleidoscopic carnival of Kafka criticism.’’ A brief discussion of some of the possible interpretations of ‘‘A Hunger Artist’’ in light of Key themes in Kafka’s life will provide a glimpse of several of the many patterns of meaning created by this ‘‘kaleidoscope.’’

As ‘‘ambiguity’’ is ‘‘the very core of Kafka’s art,’’ his stories invite us to speculate about possible meanings or interpretations, without providing a sense of certainty that any one reading is the reading. Kafka’s work, therefore, is best interpreted while keeping in mind this built-in ambiguity. Entertaining several possible interpretations, without having to choose one as the definitive ‘‘meaning’’ of a Kafka story, produces the richest and most meaningful way of discussing his work.

Kafka’s Hunger
As an allegory, ‘‘A Hunger Artist’’ employs many symbolic motifs which, although interrelated, may be examined separately. The motif of ‘‘hunger,’’ for example, takes on a highly symbolic, yet ambiguous, significance in the story. Surprisingly, however, this story is also based on the real historical phenomenon of ‘‘professional fasting.’’ While most critics have failed to note this, Breon Mitchell, in his article, ‘‘Kafka and the Hunger Artists,’’ has brought to light the history of a world famous ‘‘hunger artist’’ whose coverage in local newspapers may have inspired Kafka’s story. Mitchell points out that ‘‘almost every detail’’ of Kafka’s story corresponds to ‘‘the actual profession of fasting for pay.’’

The phenomenon of ‘‘professional fasting’’ lasted from 1880 to 1922, roughly the years of Kafka’s life span (1883-1924). The first professional fast was accomplished by Dr. Henry Tanner, an American who was said to have gone for forty days under medical supervision without food. The most famous of his European imitators was Giovanni Succi, on whom Kafka’s story was most likely based. Giovanni ‘‘performed’’ fasts at least 30 different times, for periods of up to 30 days, in various European cities. Although not in cages, these hunger artists were generally displayed in some form of confinement. Mitchell states that, ‘‘The correspondence with reality is, in fact, so close that Kafka could not possibly have written the tale without some direct or indirect knowledge of the best-known hunger artists of his time.’’

But the fact that ‘‘hunger artists’’ were a real historical phenomenon does not lessen the legitimacy of the story’s allegorical meanings. Rather, it adds depth to our understanding of the richness of Kafka’s story. As Mitchell suggests, ‘‘A Hunger Artist’’ is both ‘‘the powerful literary testament to an inner world,’’ and a means of ‘‘linking his own sense of spiritual solitude and artistic mission to figures from the margins of history.’’

Kafka himself had significant experiences of hunger during the course of his life, due to both illness and poverty. ‘‘A Hunger Artist’’ was written in the last two years of Kafka’s life, during which time he was in and out of sanitariums and suffered a variety of treatments for tuberculosis of the larynx. To add to this, Kafka experienced hunger, during the six months he spent in Berlin, due to astronomical inflation resulting in ‘‘the total uncertainty of his material existence.’’ He and his female companion Dora Diamant were nearly desperate for food, which only further compromised Kafka’s failing health.

Because of the location of the illness in his throat, Kafka was barely able to eat, drink or even speak toward the end of his life. Although he had originally written ‘‘A Hunger Artist’’ before this stage of his illness had set in, it can easily be seen as partly inspired by Kafka’s various health and diet regimes over the course of 17 years of tuberculosis. Like the hunger artist, it became increasingly difficult for him to ‘‘find the food that I liked.’’ As he himself was, in effect, starving to death, Kafka was still correcting the galley proofs for ‘‘A Hunger Artist’’ at the time of his death in 1924, two months before the story was published.

The symbolic significance of ‘‘hunger’’ in ‘‘A Hunger Artist,’’ however, goes well beyond any literal referent. Hunger in this...

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Kafka's A Hunger Artist: The Ego in Isolation

Kafka’s collection of short stories which has come down to us under the heading of Ein Hungerkuenstler represents the author’s last creative production. In each of these stories the ego finds itself largely isolated; yet, there are varying degrees of relatedness by means of which the ego gauges its isolation. In ‘‘A Hunger Artist,’’ Kafka has carried this predicament to its most plausible conclusion. The aim of this paper is to explore a psyche exposed to the vicissitudes of a border-line existence. By dwelling on the potential of this unique phenomenon in terms of individuation, I will try to elucidate its concomitant triumph, and pitfalls within the wider framework of the collective setting as it affected Kafka’s personality.

The Hunger Artist’s ‘‘Liebestod’’
‘‘A Hunger Artist’’ may be divided into two parts. The first is dominated by the ‘‘contract’’ between the hero and his impresario while the second deals with the period between the dismissal of the impresario and the death of the Hunger Artist. This division is not arbitrary but closely follows the course of the particular neurosis in this story in which the pathological background remains paramount.

Students of the psyche are aware of the fact that neuroses are seldom cured in a sense that they are completely removed. What usually happens is that the neurosis is outgrown and loses some of its acute gravity, as the patient moves on to different situational settings. In this process of reorientation, the neurosis is displaced, or better, deprived of its natural habitat and thus relegated to a dormant state for an indefinite period of time. The possibility of reactivation, however, remains an ever present challenge to the ego sphere. If the advance of the neurosis is not expertly checked, the condition may worsen to an extent that makes it impossible for the person to extricate himself. The psychic dilemma of the Hunger Artist lies in his inability to transcend his pathological setting towards new goals, or as we would say in colloquial terms, to come to grips with his neurosis by putting it in its proper place. This pathological streak in his psyche pervades the entire story like a basso ostinato that reverberates mightily throughout the composition.

We are dealing here with the Leitmotif of a ‘‘Liebestod,’’ that is, flirtation with the finality of death. If ‘‘the instinct to eat ... is one of the most elementary of man’s psychic instincts,’’ we must ipso facto assume that the hero’s abstinence from food is his own, mainly unconscious choice in his preparation for death, even as he has consciously chosen the profession of Hunger Artist. His protracted exercises in going hungry constitute, in fact, a process of self-dissolution which bears the distinctive mark of nostalgic regression. The longing to consummate ‘‘marriage’’ with death is, however, constantly thwarted by the letter of the ‘‘contract’’ which forbids the fast to go beyond its forty-day limit. This is an indication that defensive, that is, positive forces within the psyche are still active and strong enough to frustrate any sudden surprise move by the ever present destructive elements. The Tristan and Isolde syndrome we are dealing with in this context has a Wagnerian tone. The chromatic, tension- evoking technique of the musical scale appears in Kafka as a literary device. Each time the fast is interrupted by the impresario, it is as if the Hunger Artist has been cheated out of his natural propensity to complete the cadence on a note of final rest. The ‘‘contract’’ is the lease of life, the modus operandi, that remains in effect as long as the association between the artist and impresario is not questioned. Thus the show will go on, for the ‘‘impresario ... is present in every man, the essence of the forces that inevitably and without question cling on to life.’’ The setting is existential. Being means being with others, and as such is a sort of contractual assurance that the performance will continue. The possibility of upheaval, that is, of a severe disturbance of the delicate psychic balance with a sudden swing to the dialectical alternative is, as I have pointed out elsewhere, an ever present challenge. Kafka is only too aware of this psychological insight, for no sooner has the Hunger Artist taken leave of the impresario—termination of contract is implicit within each such formal agreement—than the show is fatefully interrupted, and the final marriage with death is about to be consummated. Herbert Tauber alludes to the negative forces as the ‘‘falsity of the forces deriving from the negative.’’ However, the term ‘falsity’ in its contextual association with the negative, is a psychological misnomer. The negative contents of the psyche are just as formidable as reality itself and can never be discounted, as anyone dealing with matters of the unconscious must be aware of.

The trauma of the Hunger Artist furthermore harbors a synchronistic element which is not causally related to his very being: the refusal of the collective to let him continue the fast to his heart’s desire. His yearning is ‘‘to set the world agape,’’ to fulfil himself in this world which, however, is utterly disinterested in his private desires. ‘‘Kafka realized,’’ states Harry Slochower, ‘‘that the laceration of individuality could be circumvented only by communal attachment.’’ The trauma of this realization, however, lies in the very essence of ‘‘this hopeless Kafkaesque world of blind necessity ... this absurd world.’’ The human stage and its background which is the sine qua non of the genuine artist, is suddenly transmogrified into a circus setting with the cage of the Hunger Artist being hardly discernible among the animal stables that hold the attraction of the audience during the intermission. While he is actually begging for a pittance of attention, he has the bitter experience that his cage is ‘‘strictly speaking only an obstacle in the path of the stables’’ around which the people throng. In this synchronistic juxtaposition of artist and world, the latter is completely unrelated to his efforts. The dilemma of the Kafkaesque personality is that ‘‘he finds no reliable witness’’ for his despair. This is reminiscent of the world of Camus’ The Stranger from which the dialectical struggle has vanished. ‘‘Each event of this absurd world is simultaneously real and unreal, possible and impossible.’’ The meaningful causal relationship between the artist and his world has irrevocably been supplanted by a non-causal, hence, indifferently synchronistic coexistence between actor and stage, or as Slochower states: ‘‘Kafka reaffirms the paradox of co-existing opposites.’’

The phenomenon of a ‘‘Liebestod’’ or a nostalgic regression in its encounter with the ‘‘contractual,’’ that is, life-affirming postulates leads us further to the assumption that there may be a latent homosexual tendency within Kafka’s personality. The contract with the impresario, the father-figure, who makes decisions for the Hunger Artist, is terminated as soon as the absurdity of his circus-existence has dawned upon him. Hand in hand with the collapse of the meaningful outside world goes the unconscious rejection of the father image and its substitution by contents indigenous to the maternal, pleromatic sphere. It is at this particular juncture that the latent homosexual tendency within Kafka can be discerned.

Latent Homosexuality
It is not that highly ambivalent relationship of the artist with his father which is psychologically most relevant here, but his intricate, psychic reaction vis-a-vis his mother. While outwardly there is a classical oedipal potential in this particular setting, it would be misleading to analyze it merely as such because the actual resultant is not the author’s marriage with the mother, or a mother-like figure, but his rejection of marriage as a suitable solution for himself. The reason for this may be gleaned from Kafka’s entry into the diary dated 1911: ‘‘I was ... able to spend a good deal of time before falling asleep in imagining that some day, a rich man in a coach and four, I would drive into the Jewish quarter, with a magic word set free a beautiful maiden who was being beaten unjustly, and carry her off in my coach.’’ If we take into consideration the fact that his mother ‘‘was untiringly busy helping his father in his business, and most probably irreplaceable,’’ the aforementioned daydream about the rescue of the beaten girl becomes psychologically pertinent. Freud states that in ‘‘all male homosexual cases the subjects had had a very erotic attachment to a female person, as a rule to their mother, during the first period of childhood, which is afterwards forgotten.’’ While the presence of a strong father would generally be beneficial for the adolescent to favor a proper decision in the selection of his object from the opposite sex, in this particular case, Kafka’s father assumes archaic, monstrous dimensions and is thus instrumental in bringing about the opposite result. In his early years, Kafka was apparently driven into identification with his mother who, at this early stage of the novelist’s life, appeared to his imagination as a young beautiful girl whom he desires to rescue from her exploiter husband. The mother for whose care and loving kindness he yearned, but whose love he was deprived of by his brutal father who virtually held her captive in his ghetto, i.e. business establishment, is no longer the object of his pity on a conscious level. Not the mother, but he himself, by way of identity substitution, is the one to bear the brunt of his father’s ruthlessness. Freud suggests that ‘‘the boy represses the love for the mother by putting himself in her place, by identifying himself with her, and by taking his own person as a model through the similarity of which he is guided in the selection of his love object. He thus becomes homosexual.’’ While I do not infer that Franz Kafka was actively homosexual, there remains the suggestion of such latent propensity in his psychic disposition. This is manifested by his frequent need to rationalize the merits and demerits of marriage as a solution for himself. Thus in a letter of November 1912 to Miss F., a young woman whom he, for a while, seriously considered as an eligible marriage partner, he conjectures that marriage was entirely impractical as far as he was concerned: ‘‘I must be alone a great deal. All that I have accomplished is the result of being alone.... Fear of being tied to anyone, of overflowing into another personality. Then I shall never be alone anymore.... Single I might perhaps one day really give up my job. Married, it would never be possible.’’ One year later, in a letter, dated September 1913, Kafka writes: ‘‘The very...

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A Hunger Artist

‘‘A Hunger-Artist’’ epitomizes Kafka’s theme of the corruption of interhuman relationships, as one of his critics defines it. It is one of his perfections, if not his best story, and it belongs surely with the greatest short stories of our time.

The present essay attempts to open up the cage of Kafka’s meaning in ‘‘A Hunger-Artist,’’ But first, as a starting point for our analysis, here is the story at its literal plane, a matter-of-fact account stripped of interpretation:

The story is about a once-popular spectacle staged for the entertainment of a pleasure-seeking public: the exhibition of a professional ‘‘hunger-artist’’ performing in a cage of straw his stunt...

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