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"A Hunger Artist" Franz Kafka

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The following presents criticism on Kafka's short story "Ein Hungerkünstler" ("The Hunger Artist"; 1922). See also, The Metamorphosis Criticism and Franz Kafka Criticism.

"A Hunger Artist" is often considered one of Kafka's best works and one of the most powerful and perfectly crafted short stories ever written. It was first published in the periodical Die Neue Rundschau in 1922 and subsequently included as the title piece in the short story collection that was the last book published by Kafka during his lifetime. "A Hunger Artist" explores the familiar Kafka themes of death, art, isolation, asceticism, spiritual poverty, futility, personal failure, and the corruption of human relationships. Some critics have argued that it is one of Kafka's most autobiographical works, viewing the story as a depiction of the isolation and alienation of the modern artist, a condition keenly felt by Kafka himself.

Plot and Major Characters

"A Hunger Artist" is told retrospectively, looking several decades back from "today," to a time when interest in the spectacle of a professional hunger artist—a person with the ability to fast for many days—was intense. It then depicts the waning of interest in such displays. The story begins with a general description of "the hunger artist" as a type of performer, and then almost imperceptibly narrows in on a single practitioner of the "art"—the protagonist. The hunger artist performed in a cage around which curious spectators crowded. He was attended by teams of watchers—usually three butchers—who ensured that he was not eating in secret. Despite such precautions, many—including some of the watchers themselves—were convinced that the hunger artist cheated. Such suspicions annoyed the hunger artist, as did the forty-day limit imposed on his fasting by his promoter, or "impresario." The impresario insisted that after forty days public sympathy for the hunger artist inevitably declined. The hunger artist, however, found the time limit irksome and arbitrary, as it prevented him from bettering his own record, from fasting indefinitely. At the end of a fast the hunger artist, amid highly theatrical fanfare, would be carried from his cage and made to eat, both of which acts he always resented.

These performances, followed by intervals of recuperation, were repeated for many years. Despite his fame, the hunger artist felt dissatisfied and misunderstood. If a spectator, observing his apparent melancholy, tried to console him, he would erupt in fury, shaking the bars of his cage. The impresario would punish such outbursts by apologizing to the audience, pointing out that irritability was a consequence of fasting. He would then mention the hunger artist's boast that he could fast much longer than he was doing, but would show photographs of the hunger artist near death at the end of a previous fast. In this way he suggested that the hunger artist's sadness was caused by fasting, when, in the hunger artist's view, he was depressed because he was not allowed to fast more. The impresario's "perversion of the truth" further exasperated the hunger artist.

Seemingly overnight, popular tastes changed and public fasting went out of fashion. The hunger artist broke his ties with the impresario and hired himself to a circus, where he hoped to perform truly prodigious feats of fasting. No longer a main attraction, he was given a cage on the outskirts of the circus, near the animal cages. Although the site was readily accessible, and crowds thronged past on their way to see the animals, any spectators who stopped to see him created an obstruction in the flow of people on their way to the animals. At first the hunger artist looked forward to the passing of the crowds, but in time he grew irritated by the noise and disruption caused by the people, and the stench, the roaring, and the feeding of the animals depressed him. Eventually, the hunger artist was completely ignored. No one, not even the artist himself, counted the days of his fast. One day an overseer noticed the hunger artist's cage with its dirty straw. He wondered why the cage was unused; when he and the attendants inspected it, however, they found the hunger artist near death. Before he died he asked forgiveness and confessed that he should not be admired, since the reason he fasted was simply that he could not find food to his liking. The hunger artist was buried with the straw of his cage and replaced by a leopard. Spectators crowded about the leopard's cage.

Major Themes

There is a sharp division among critical interpretations of "A Hunger Artist." Most commentators concur that the story is an allegory, but they disagree as to what is represented. Some critics, pointing to the hunger artist's asceticism, regard him as a saintly or even Christ-like figure. In support of this view they emphasize the unworldliness of the protagonist, the priest-like quality of the watchers, and the traditional religious significance of the forty-day period. Other critics insist that "A Hunger Artist" is an allegory of the misunderstood artist, whose vision of transcendence and artistic excellence is rejected or ignored by the public. This interpretation is sometimes joined with a reading of the story as autobiographical. According to this view, this story, written near the end of Kafka's life, links the hunger artist with the author as an alienated artist who is dying. Whether the protagonist's striving is seen as spiritual or artistic, the leopard is regarded as the hunger artist's antithesis: satisfied and contented, the animal's corporeality stands in marked contrast to the hunger artist's ethereality. A final interpretive division surrounds the issue of whether "A Hunger Artist" is meant to be read ironically. Some critics consider the story a sympathetic depiction of a misunderstood artist who seeks to rise above the merely animal parts of human nature (represented by the leopard) and who is confronted with uncomprehending audiences. Others regard it as Kafka's ironic comment on artistic pretensions. Here the leopard signifies a positive life-affirming force opposing the hunger artist's impulse towards death.

Critical Reception

Both within and apart from the debates surrounding the thematic and allegorical significance of "A Hunger Artist," critics have explored a number of other issues. Heinz Pollitzer has observed that in order to achieve fulfillment in his art the hunger artist must die, and he links this to an overall "paradox of existence." Similarly, Claude-Edmonde Magny has seen in the hunger artist's isolation a "fundamental solitude" that is part of the human condition. Forrest L. Ingram has explored the theme of anxiety in "A Hunger Artist," finding several levels of tension in the story, and Patrick Mahony has interpreted the work from a psychoanalytic perspective. Paulo Medeiros has pointed out that the hunger artist displays many of the symptoms of anorexia. A number of critics have examined "A Hunger Artist" in the context of Kafka's other works, and some have detected affinities to literature by other authors, including Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Charles Baudelaire, and others. Commentators have been nearly unanimous in their praise of the organization and structure of "A Hunger Artist" and have extolled Kafka's brilliant fusion of fantastic and realistic elements in this work.

Claude-Edmonde Magny (essay date 1945

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)

SOURCE: "The Objective Depiction of Absurdity," in Quarterly Review of Literature, Vol. 2, No. 3, 1945, pp. 211-27.

[In the following excerpt, Magny discusses the theme of "fundamental solitude" in "A Hunger Artist."]

One must not look on Kafka merely as a spirit of denial, who ridicules all human ambitions because he cannot comprehend their nobility: he feels on the contrary very strongly the nobility of any aspiration or effort, whatever its object. The end of the ape's Report [in "A Report to an Academy"] is full of legitimate pride, the pride of the life that has attained exactly the goal it set and which does not admit the suggestion that "perhaps it was not worth the trouble." Kafka simply refuses to consider the ontological value of the end toward which man aspires and gives us only the most humble, and usually grotesque and vulgar, expressions of it. In Kafka our loftiest aspirations become the ambition of the ape to escape from the zoo and reach the music hall, or, better still, the ambition of K. to obtain an interview with a petty official of the Castle. His work resolves itself into a kind of mysticism without God, in which the hero seeks, almost always in vain, and by most strange and sorrowful means—at times against his will—an ecstasy which circumstance withholds from him. The most typical story in this respect is "The Hunger-Artist," the story of a professional "hunger-artist" who shows himself in a cage from circus to circus, for whom fasting the longest time possible is his life purpose, an end in itself, yet with no idea of accomplishing anything else through the fast. The spectators see merely a circus stunt, a means of earning a living in which it is natural to try to cheat. The most humane among those set to watch him turn their backs, so to speak, in the night and play cards in the corner, leaving him the chance to eat on the sly. The fatality of his existence is that they never permit him to fast as long as he would like, never more than forty days, and that only in the large cities; not for medical or humane reasons, but because the interest of the public would fall off over a longer period. When they do bring him out of his cage, with great pomp, the professional faster is ready to faint, not from hunger, as the public believes, but from rage and humiliation that they will not let him fast longer. He ends by passing out of fashion and dying forgotten, without the public or anyone bothering to count the days of his fast. Here we find the theme of fundamental solitude symbolized materially by the cage (as in the story of the ape) and, morally, by the lack of understanding on the part of the public. A rejuvenation, if you wish, of the theme of the "loneliness of the artist," of the "ivory tower" or of the "Albatross," with the difference that this aloneness holds nothing poetic (it is, on the contrary, terribly vulgar, at once horrible and grotesque); it is the aloneness of the Mount of Olives with the spitting, the insults and the sponge soaked in gall; nor is it due to the public's hostility . . . merely to its indifference, and the inability of the crowd to understand anything; in the last analysis, it is nowhere said that this aloneness constitutes superiority: before dying, the mystic faster gives the key to the enigma: if he fasts, it is because he can do nothing else; it is a fate, not a vocation; he has never found the food he could savor; if he had, he would have gorged himself with it as all of us do. So the insatiable hunger, the divine nostalgia that possesses the mystic or artist perhaps is at bottom only some lack, something unsatisfiable, a fundamental maladjustment, the sign of an imperfect soul.

Robert W. Stallman (essay date 1948)

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SOURCE: "Kafka's Cage," in Accent, Vol. 8, No. 2, Winter, 1948, pp. 117-25.

[In the essay below, Stallman investigates "A Hunger Artist" as both a metaphysical allegory portraying "the dilemma of modern man: his spiritual disunity" and a sociological allegory depicting "the dilemma of the modern artist: his dissociation from the world in which he lives."]

"The Hunger-Artist" is one of Kafka's perfections and belongs with the greatest short stories of our time. Its theme of the corruption of inter-human relationships, as Winkler defines it, recurs throughout Kafka's work and has its perfect achievement here in this intrinsic whole.

The world of a Kafka story is one of mystery, the mysterious being obtained by a realism that is pushed to the extremes. All his details are simple and commonplace, a critic of The Castle points out; but Kafka subjects them "to a transmutation which makes them seem to compete with each other in enveloping us with some weighty secret." The weighty secret remains a mystification for most readers—even for Einstein. "I couldn't read it for its perversity," he is reported to have remarked upon returning a Kafka novel to Thomas Mann. "The human mind isn't complicated enough." One critic of The Burrow describes that story as "in itself a 'burrow' of the most complicated construction," with an ingenious system of intertwining tunnels of which he interprets the "inner fortress" alone, "whence the whole structure can be overlooked." The present essay attempts to open up the as yet unlocked cage of "The Hunger-Artist."

Realism of detail within a framework of symbolism, as Max Lerner says, is Kafka's unique quality and his special gift to modern fiction. His meanings emerge at several planes at once, and the planes are interconnected. Just try to keep to Kafka's facts as facts! It is impossible to suppress or to minimize their allegorical overtones. For as facts—and they are not "facts" but purely imaginary phenomena—they resist a literal interpretation. Here at the literal plane, as starting-point for our analysis, are the facts of "The Hunger-Artist":

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 of 'fasting.' His cage's sole decoration is a clock. His spectators see him as a trickster and common circus-freak and therefore they expect him to cheat, to break fast on the sly. But fasting is his sole reason for existing, his life purpose; not even under compulsion would he partake of food. For him, to fast is the easiest thing he can do; and so he says, but no one believes in him. Because the public distrusts him, he is guarded—usually by three butchers—and prevented from fasting beyond a forty-day period, not for humane reasons, but only because patronage stops after that time. His guards tempt him with food and sometimes torture him; yet they breakfast on food supplied at his expense! A great public festival celebrates his achievement, and thus he is "honored by the world." But when he is removed from his cage he collapses in a rage, not from hunger, but from having been cheated of the honor of fasting on and on and of becoming thus "the greatest hunger-artist of all time." Though emaciated almost to the point of death, he quickly recovers and after brief recuperation intervals performs again and again.

Nowadays however he has been abandoned for other spectacles. People visit his cage in the circus-tent, but only because it is next to the stables. His spectators are fascinated by the animals. All's changed: There is no clock, and the once beautiful signs to announce the purpose of his act have been torn down. Now no tally is kept of the number of fasting days achieved. There are no guards. "And so the hunger-artist fasted on without hindrance, as he had once dreamed of doing . . . just as he had once predicted, but no one counted the days; no one, not even the hunger-artist himself, knew how great his achievement was and his heart grew heavy." Thus the world robs him of his reward. Indifference replaces admiration, and on this account he expires. He is buried with the straw of his cage and replaced by a panther, who devours fiercely the food he naturally craves. The people crowd about his cage.

Here then is the matter-of-fact account of the story stripped of interpretation. But every fact seems invested with symbolic significance. For instance, no literal meaning can be ascribed to the bizarre clock in the artist's cage. (A calendar is the logical means for reckoning the artist's fasting days.) This clock does not tick. The unclocked life of the artist outlasts centuries, and periodically he survives starvation sieges that are beyond human endurance. And so it is with all of Kafka's facts: they are symbols and they are fantasies of a dream world. The laws of physics and of biology are defied, the facts of human existence distorted. Kafka's facts ask questions which have their answer at their allegorical meaning level. The literal meaning is not complete or sufficient in its own terms, as James Burnham observes. However resolutely we try to remain at the literal in Kafka, "we always find ourselves being driven and teased and thrust beyond it. The most commonplace phrase, appearing as it will in an irreconcilable context, compels the mind to spin away. We are always walking at the edge of a cliff."

"The Hunger-Artist" at its allegorical level provides three possible interpretations: metaphysical, religious, and sociological. All three circles of meaning intersect, almost coinciding one with the other. No circle is closed, each opens onto the adjoining one and projects us into it. Hence no single self-contained system of meaning defines Kafka's intention; no single complete interpretation is possible.

To begin with a metaphysical interpretation, there is the double contrast between (1) the two occupants of the cage, the human and the animal, and (2) between the artist and his observers, the human beings outside who are but closed in animals uncaged. The noble body of the panther fascinates them, and this physical attraction is that which one animal has for another. For them too, their joy in living issues from their throat—and from their belly. They crave the same food and are nourished, literally, by the same sensations and appetites. What a contrast between the hunger-artist, who is no-flesh, and his spectators, who are all-flesh: the panther who consumes flesh, the butcher-guards who destroy flesh, the doctors who cure flesh! But the knife of a butcher is no release for an animal, nor is the knife of a doctor who by saving flesh saves only matter. As for the contrast between the hunger-artist and the panther, these two beings are at once wholly unlike each other and yet identical. The panther complements the hunger-artist and is parodied by him. In the portrait which opens the story the artist is portrayed as:

deathly pale, dressed in black tights, his ribs protruding powerfully, sometimes nodding politely and answering questions with a forced smile, even thrusting his arm through the bars to let them feel his emaciation, and paying attention to no one, ignoring even the striking of the clock which was the cage's sole decoration, looking straight before him with eyes almost closed, and sipping occasionally from a tiny glass of water to wet his lips.

The hunger-artist is an imitation panther. As artist he imitates life: panther-like he appears black, yet a deathly paleness reveals his true self. Time means no more to him than to the panther. And he has no use for a chair, he prefers straw. He nods his head as though beckoning to onlookers, or half-closing his eyes he stares beyond them as though intent upon some inward vision. But what a poor imitation of reality the artist presents! Protruding "powerfully" from him are ribs, only ribs, and the arm he proudly thrusts through the bars discloses not strength but emaciation. (Notice Kafka's wit here: into his parody he injects bathos.)

While the hunger-artist is a part of the sensuous world of matter, he is yet apart from it. Unlike the animal and the human, his being is spiritual and thus "free" from the claims of matter. Their "freedom," by contrast, resides somewhere in the region of their teeth, that is, in their appetite, which is to say that man as animal is never free—never free from that gnawing dissatisfaction which his purely physical appetencies create in him again and again. The hunger-artist—man as spiritual being—has that true freedom which inheres in the soul; still not even he who hungers for the claims of the divine is free from the claims of the body. He too is caged by a human being's "joy in living." One recalls the quotation from St. John of the Cross which T. S. Eliot takes as caption for his Sweeney Agonistes: "Hence the soul cannot be possessed of the divine union, until it has divested itself of the love of created things." In the world of "The Hunger-Artist" there exists a radical division between the realm of faith—the religious, the qualitative, the spiritual or the supernatural (symbolized by the mystic-faster)—and the realm of practical reason, the quantitative, the sensuous realm of physical matter (symbolized by the panther and the people). Elsewhere in his writings Kafka declares that "what we call the physical world is the evil in the spiritual one." But we do not need external evidence; the internal evidence is positive enough: In the world of "The Hunger-Artist" there is this dichotomy between divine and human, and this dichotomy approaches the absolute.

There is a passage in James Burnham's "Observations on Kafka" (Partisan Review: March, 1947) which defines Kafka's metaphysics: "His world is split by the absolute Manichaean division into Good and Evil, which is identified with the division between Light and Darkness, Spirit and Matter. . . . As with all Manichaeans, the ambivalence remains: he [Kafka] longs for Matter, for the evil natural social world, at the same time that he denies it; he is appalled by Spirit even while he must seek it absolutely." (Italics mine.) Kafka's hunger-artist represents Kafka's doctrine that "There is only a spiritual world; what we call the physical world is the evil in the spiritual one, and what we call evil is only a necessary moment in our endless development." "The Hunger-Artist" is a kind of critique of this doctrine, for here Matter triumphs over Spirit. Though the tone of the story is one of lament for the passing of the hunger-artist, for his decline and death, none the less all the logic is weighted against his efforts at autarchy. As for our neglect of hunger-artists, our present-day practice of honoring a real panther has more to be said for it than our former-day practice of honoring a fake one. The hunger-artist seeks Spirit absolutely; he denies the "evil natural social world" at the same time that he longs for it. And this is his dilemma, even as it is ours. It is not possible for man to achieve a condition of pure spirituality, nor again is it possible for him to achieve a synthesis of spirit and matter. As the agent of divine purity the hunger-artist is a failure. His failure is signified, for instance, on the occasion when he answers the person who has explained his emaciation as being caused by a lack of food: he answers "by flying into a rage and terrifying all those around him by shaking the bars of his cage like a wild animal." This reversion to the animal divests him momentarily of the divine, and it also betrays the split-soul conflict within him. His location next to the stables serves as reminder that the claims of the animal body are necessary claims upon the soul and cannot be denied. And this is true even though matter is wholly evil (i.e., "the evil odors from the stalls," etc.); complete separation from reality can never be obtained. (Compare the idea of "complete detachment from the earth" as it figures in The Burrow.) Pure Spirit is as vacuous as Pure Matter.

Nowadays (to bring this history down to current times) that dualism between Spirit and Matter, which had its two-part representation in the hunger-artist and the insatiable hunger-multitude, is non-existent since one part of the dualism no longer has representation—the mystic-faster is dead. "Fasting" no longer means anything to us; nor did it in former times—except that then it was at least celebrated (albeit not without hypocrisy), honored by rituals conscientiously enacted from fast day to fast day. Everyone attended His service daily, and regular subscribers sat (as in church-pews) "before the small latticed cage for days on end." Everyone pretended to marvel at his holy feat, but not one worshiper had Faith. Yet for centuries he submitted again and again to crucifixion by these pretenders, a martyr for his cause. Because "it was the stylish thing to do," the multitude attended his "small latticed cage" as they would a confessional box. But the hunger-artist as priest hears no confession. Indeed since the multitude does not understand what faith is, it has no sin to confess. Apart from a few acolytes to His Cult, all mankind disbelieves this Christ who many times died for man's sake. And when He dies, see how the disbelievers exploit the drama of His death:

But now there happened the thing which always happened at this point. The impressario would come, and silently—for the music rendered speech impossible—he would raise his arms over the hunger-artist as if inviting heaven to look down upon its work here upon the straw, this pitiful martyr—and martyr the hunger-artist was, to be sure, though in an entirely different sense. Then he would grasp the hunger-artist about his frail waist, trying as he did to make it obvious by his exaggerated caution with what a fragile object he was dealing, and after surreptitiously shaking him a little and causing his legs to wobble and his body to sway uncontrollably, would turn him over to the ladies, who had meanwhile turned as pale as death.

The ladies who so cruelly sentimentalize over his martyrdom represent sympathy without understanding, a sympathy which is self-sentiment. One of them weeps, but not for him. She breaks into tears only in shame for having touched him. It is a mock lamentation these two Marys perform.

And the entire weight of his body, light though it was, rested upon one of the ladies, who, breathless and looking about imploringly for help (she had not pictured this post of honor thus), first tried to avoid contact with the hunger-artist by stretching her neck as far as possible, and then . . . she broke into tears to the accompaniment of delighted laughter from the audience. . . .

What a difference between the theme of the Virgin mourning the loss of her Son as treated in Kafka's parody and as depicted in the famous Avignon Pièta or in Giotto's Lamentation.

It is thus that the religious and the metaphysical meanings of "The Hunger-Artist" coincide: (1) Christ is truly dead. Our post-Renaissance world has discarded the act of faith from its reality. (2) For the superannuated mystic there is no resurrection because today not Spirit but Matter alone is recognized. And it is recognized, this triumph of matter over spirit, even by the dying mystic, who ends a skeptic and a defeatist (not unlike Kafka himself). I had to fast, he admits, because I could find no food to my liking. Fasting is my destiny. But "'If I had found it, believe me, I should have caused no stir, I should have eaten my fill just as you do, and all the others.' Those were his last words, but in his glazed eyes there remained the firm, though no longer proud, conviction that he was still fasting." Here is the key to his enigma. So the fanatic quest of the hunger-artist, to quote Miss Magny, who has a short note on "The Hunger-Artist" in her critical essay "The Objective Depiction of Absurdity" (in The Kafka Problem), "So the insatiable hunger, the divine nostalgia that possesses the mystic or artist perhaps is at bottom only some lack, something unsatisfiable, a fundamental maladjustment, the sign of an imperfect soul."

As metaphysical allegory "The Hunger-Artist" portrays the dilemma of modern man: his spiritual disunity. The story is about man's search for his own meaning: what is man, Matter or Spirit? As sociological allegory "The Hunger-Artist" presents the dilemma of the modern artist: his dissociation from the world in which he lives. Translated into sociological terms, the division is between the artist and his society; in metaphysical terms, between the divine and the human, the soul and the body. The consequence of the corruption of the individual integrity is a corruption of inter-human relationships. There is spiritual disunity within the individual artist and a spiritual disunity between the artist and his materialistic public. (His isolation is symbolized by the cage.) The artist cannot believe in himself, nor can his public believe in him. The loneliness of the artist (in his "ivory tower"), as Miss Magny phrases it, "is the aloneness of the Mount of Olives with the spitting, the insults and the sponge soaked in gall . . ."

For his aesthetic vision the artist has to die daily and be reborn, but his artistic devotion cannot be an end in itself. The artist as poet, no less than the artist as mystic, cannot survive in isolation from society. "Against this lack of understanding, this universal lack of understanding, it was impossible to fight." The division between artist and society can be bridged only by a reciprocal act of faith. But "Just try to explain the art of fasting to some one! He who has no feeling for it simply cannot comprehend it." As the initiated alone understood, "the hunger-artist would never under any circumstances, not even under compulsion, partake of any nourishment during the period of fasting. His honor as an artist forbade such a thing." The integrity of the artist is absolute, but his values are relative. His Ivory Tower is truly a cage. To point Kafka's satire, the artists of the 'Nineties, those pure aesthetes, retreated from life with a gospel of Art for Art's Sake and the disdain of Villiers de I'Isle Adam—"As for living, our servants will do that for us." But life is not irrelevant to art; the material conditions, however delimiting their influence, nourish the creative imagination. Life is at once the subject of art and its wellspring. Art and Life, Spirit and Matter—each fulfills the ever-unfulfilled appetencies of the other. Of course the artist can "fast" as no one else can do. We concede, "in view of the peculiar nature of this art which showed no flagging with increased age," the artist's claim of limitless capacity for fasting. But pure creativeness is nothing; the creative imagination must feed upon reality. Art is but a vision of reality.

True, the artist in the Renaissance and Middle Ages "lived in apparent glory, honored by the world." He had his patron, the impressario who profited from the exhibition and shared the adulatory applause; his critics, the butchers who watched over his creative activity (and always misjudged it); and his historians, the attendants who bibliographed his creative acts or achievements in works produced. An imitation panther in a cage, he was admired for his craftsmanship in imitating life, but not being distinguished from any other circus performer by "the pleasure-seeking multitude" he was taken as "no more than a source of amusement." Society exploited all his deaths and resurrections; it crucified him again and again, not by hostility but by distrust and utter indifference. Hence his despair, the issue of this universal distrust which made his act of creation so difficult for him, and which "filled [him] with a gloomy melancholy which was deepened by the fact that no one understood it." It is our glorification of the practical vision at the expense of the religious and aesthetic vision and the resultant loss of spiritual belief that is Kafka's "Hunger-Artist" theme. Society and the artist, each disbelieves in the other. But the artist disbelieves even in himself. It was a gnawing doubt that truly emaciated him. His unhappiness results from the dualism within himself between the aesthetic and the practical insights, the dichotomy dissociating his spiritual self from his practical being. The aesthetic soul subsists in the physical body, in the realm of matter or not at all. His denial of the realm of matter, the denial which his emaciation signifies, is only one source of his "constant state of depression." The artist is equally at fault even as the society which repudiates him, for he repudiates life itself. By his perverse denial of reality the artist's truths are mummy truths, whereat the living mock. His art is not a vision of reality. Hence the rejection of the emaciated body of art for the healthy body of life (the panther). Perhaps it wasn't his fasting to attain aesthetic perfection that made the artist so emaciated; "perhaps his emaciation came solely from his dissatisfaction with himself"—solely from dissatisfaction with the pure aesthetic vision he too fervently hungered to attain. Thus, "though longing impatiently for these visits [of the living on their way "to the eagerly-awaited barns"], which he naturally saw as his reason for existence, [he] couldn't help feeling at the same time a certain apprehension." He apprehends the necessity of an existence outside the cage and realizes that an absolutism of pure aestheticism is artistic and spiritual death. The people were on their way to the stables, he became convinced, "and his experience in this matter overcame even the most stubborn, almost conscious self-deception." His disillusionment is his apprehension of the fact that art has no sovereignty over life. As for his solipsistic belief that only "he who was the faster could be at the same time a completely satisfied spectator of his fasting," suppose that he had attained his illusionary ideal of artistic purity—as absolute spectator of his triumph over nature he could never comprehend his spiritual achievement without measuring it from the relative world of its physical embodiment. His death-mask conviction of final triumph is a mockery, for the triumph is an empty one.

It is the clock in the cage that triumphs over the artist. Time triumphs over the artist who denies the flux of time, which is his present reality. The clock in the cage is a mockery of the artist's faith in his artifice of eternity. The tragedy of Kafka's hunger-artist is not that he dies but that he fails to die into life. As he dies he seeks recognition from the world he has all his lifetime repudiated: "'I always wanted you to admire my fasting.' said the hunger-artist." It is his confession that the sovereignty of the soul (or of the aesthetic experience) is but an illusion, that spirit is nothing if isolated from matter. It is his confession that the artist must come to terms with his life, with the civilization in which he lives, with reality. "Forgive me, all of you," he whispers to the circus-manager, as though in confessional before a priest; and they forgive him—for his blasphemy against nature.

Meno Spann (essay date 1959)

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SOURCE: "Franz Kafka's Leopard," in The Germanic Review, Vol. XXXIV, No. 2, April, 1959, pp. 85-104.

[In the following excerpt. Spann argues that the images in 'À Hunger Artist" symbolize Kafka's own personal experiences rather than abstract allegories.]

In contrast to most of Kafka's other short narratives, "Ein Hungerkünstler" has a detailed, closely-knit plot which can be clearly outlined.

A hunger artist, easily the best in his field, enjoys great popularity, but nevertheless he is frustrated because neither his impresario nor the spectators properly appreciate his achievements. The impresario does not permit him to break his fasting record for business reasons; the spectators suspect the showman of trickery; and even those who know that he is an honest performer do not believe his assertion that fasting is easy for him and that he would like to fast on and on. After many gala performances, ending dramatically with music, speeches, and "lady volunteers" from the audience leading the exhausted performer to his first meal after the heroic fast, his popularity suddenly declines. The public loses interest in public fasting, and the hunger artist has to accept a position with the side show of a circus. Hardly noticed by the people who rush past his cage to see the wild animals, he now can fast as long as he wishes. But his new employers are not interested in the unbelievably high number of fasting days—they even stop recording them.

As in the majority of Kafka's works, the death of the hero is the end and climax, but in no other story excepting Der Prozeß has he given that climactic end such weight and importance. The entire narrative exists only for this denouement. Since much of the disagreement about this story concerns its closing paragraphs, these will have to be quoted.

One day an overseer noticed the cage and asked the attendants why this perfectly good cage with the rotten straw inside was unoccupied. Nobody seemed to know until one of them, aided by the tablet which had listed the fasting days, remembered the hunger artist. They dug in the straw with poles and found him. 'You are still fasting?' asked the overseer. 'Aren't you ever going to stop?' 'Forgive me, all of you,' whispered the hunger artist; only the overseer, who put his ear against the bars, understood him. 'Of course,' said the overseer, and tapped his forehead to indicate the state of the hunger artist to his men. 'We forgive you.' 'I always wanted you to admire my fasting,' said the hunger artist. 'We really do admire it,' the overseer said to humor him. 'But you must not admire it,' said the hunger artist. 'All right, then we won't admire it,' said the overseer; 'but why should we not admire it?' 'Because I must fast, I can't help it,' said the hunger artist. 'Fancy that,' said the overseer, 'and why can't you help it?' 'Because,' said the hunger artist, raising his wasted face a little and speaking with his lips pursed, as though for a kiss, directly into the ear of the overseer, so that nothing should be lost, 'because I could not find the food I liked. Had I found it, believe me, I would have eaten my fill without much ado, like you and all the others.' These were his last words, but in his glazed eyes there was still the firm, though no longer proud, conviction that he was continuing his fast.

'Come on now, get things in order,' said the overseer, and they buried the hunger artist along with his straw. Into the empty cage they put a leopard. It was a relief even for the least sensitive to see this wild animal bound about the cage that had so long been desolate. He lacked nothing. It was not difficult for the keepers to decide upon and bring him the food he liked. He did not seem even to miss his freedom. This noble body, filled to bursting with all it needed, seemed to carry freedom within. It seemed to be hidden somewhere between his fangs; and the joy of life came so hot and strong from his throat that it was difficult for spectators to hold their ground in front of his cage. But they crowded around in spite of this and did not want to move away.

The first interpretation of "Ein Hungerkünstler" appeared in H. Steinhauer's introduction to his textbook edition of 1936, the last so far in 1957. It is a four page commentary in a book by Felix Weltsch, who belonged to the inner circle of Kafka's friends and is one of his earliest interpreters. In those twenty-one years the little narrative about the professional inediant has been freely allegorized by all the commentators the author has examined. The resulting allegorical equations have been varied and sometimes mutually exclusive. The story has been interpreted as a praise—but also a criticism—of asceticism. Other commentators see in it an allegory of the suffering of the great artist, or of the sham artist, or of the relation between the artist and his public. One interpreter is "reminded" of the food shortages during the First World War and the postwar marathon craze. Some details of the story are also decoded. The lady helpers represent the ruling class which flirts with religion, or they "remind" the critic of Kafka's fiancée. The watchers with the flashlights are the conscientious critics, etc. Finally the leopard is the businessman, the philistine, sensualism, even the somber shadow of advancing German fascism. One of these commentaries, the chapter on "Ein Hungerkünstler" in von Wiese's book on the German Novelle, differs from those of his predecessors in length and thoroughness. Like other Kafka scholars who have written about Kafka in recent years, he criticizes commentators of the older school for their fanciful speculations. However, he believes with many of them that Kafka's style prevents to a large degree the application of traditional categories of literary criticism. In particular, the distinction between symbol and allegory seems of little use to von Wiese.

The present article, because of a basically different approach, arrives at an interpretation of Kafka's work quite different from that of von Wiese. The distinction between allegory and symbol, for example, was of great help to the author. Definitions of the two terms will follow later, but a single illustration may serve, for the present, to clarify the main difference between them. Von Wiese defines Kafka's style as follows: "Es gehört zum Wesen dieses Stiles, daß sich das Abstrakte, Geistige und Problematische nur in der gleichnishaften Bildlichkeit aussagen läßt." The geistige Aussage, the intellectual, the abstract conveyed by images—that is the definition of allegory. Though von Wiese does not use the term, he treats Kafka's work as an allegory. It must be stressed, however, that in his disciplined interpretation there is no room for the free associational play of the imagination that we find so often in other commentaries

The author shares von Wiese's conviction that what Kafka had to say could only be said through images. But these images are in the author's opinion symbols expressing nothing intellectual. It must be said in anticipation that Kafka's "Ein Hungerkünstler" will be interpreted as an intimate revelation of Kafka's Lebensgefühl Most of Kafka's works seem to us to express how it felt to be Franz Kafka. He himself said that much when he defined the purpose of his writing: "die Darstellung meines traumhaften inneren Lebens." Rilke's magic with symbols makes the taste of an apple and an orange an experience mediated through words, but the respective sonnets are not allegories in that they do not communicate anything abstract. The Erlebnis of a fruit and the Lebensgefühl of Kafka required symbolic, not allegorical, expression. There seems to exist in modern criticism a sometimes unconscious rationalism which prefers a thought to a feeling or experience, even if this thought—we are thinking of some of the older allegorizers of Kafka—is only trivial.

The Aussage which von Wiese considers to be the meaning of our story is certainly not trivial but it is a highly abstract part of an allegorical equation: "Die Vernichtung des Naturhaften—bis zum Eigensinnigen gesteigert—zeigt auf eine indirekte und zwar grotesk entstellende Weise die auf einem anderen Wege nicht mehr darstellbare, auf Askese gegründete freie geistige Existenz." According to von Wiese, this geistige Existenz, the life of an artist for example, suffers in the world which is absurd and animalistic, though to this world such an intellectual ascetic seems absurd. The ascetic displays himself, and he sins by priding himself on his exceptionality. But he wins the final victory, he is the superior being even when the fascination of life appears in the form of a young leopard. Does this or a similar philosophy underlie Kafka's story? Does he unequivocally take the side of the suffering spirit against the Naturhafte? Is the little narrative an allegory? A reexamination of the story, of Kafka's life and autobiographical statements, and an examination of "Ein Hungerkünstler" in relation to his other stories and to Western literature may suggest another answer.

Any experienced reader encountering Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea for the first time knows that this is "more" than just a deep-sea fishing story—such as are found in Field and Stream; and reading Kafka's "Ein Hungerkünstler," he knows that this is "more" than just a circus story in the vein of J. Tully's Circus Parade. In the case of writers like Hemingway and Kafka, this something "more" is taken for granted, since the reader knows the author's rank and, with that, something about the critics' opinions of his work. But, though there is seldom the tabula rasa required for unbiased criticism, a sensitive reader will soon discover for himself whether he is dealing with a work of art or a mere adventure yarn.

Let us assume such a reader encountering Kafka's story in Die Neue Rundschau without knowing anything about its author. He will notice certain accents which remove that little tale, almost at the beginning, from the category of mere circus stories. The children, e.g., as figures of contrast, are more than just part of the crowd. Then there is the importance of the hunger artist, which is raised above the level of the fame and admiration he might acquire in a naturalistic story. Correspondingly, the final degradation and neglect suffered by the showman go beyond anything possible within an actual circus. There is ultimately, throughout the story, an intensity of feeling which has nothing to do with the mere banal admiration or pity a circus character's life might provoke. This intensity of feeling calls for weighty words and expressions, as for example, "die Welt betrog ihn um seinen Lohn," "neue kommende gnädigere Zeiten," etc., which would not fit into a tale about the freak show.

The reader's interest, however, stays within the narrative and with its symbolic hero, the hunger artist, who keeps his identity and remains the center of widening, but concentric circles of meaning—to use the familiar metaphor for a symbol's effect. All through the story, his Lebensgefühl becomes an ever more definite experience, while the character grows in tragic significance. His fall from the height of popularity to the level of a superfluous sideshow attraction is the tragic peripeteia. The ensuing catastrophe is carefully set off and lifted above the rest of the story by a number of stylistic devices.

Up to the climax of the story, Kafka presents the hero's professional and inner life in a summary style, applying adverbs and phrases like "gewöhnlich," "oft," "kein allzu häufiger Glücksfall," all of which skip time intervals. Abruptly, the passage of epic time slows down with the phrase, "Doch vergingen wieder viele Tage," which introduces the climax. With the first appearance of direct discourse, the action slows down further to give the illusion of "real" time, in this case the last minutes before the hero's death. Through this change of tempo and through the transition from a summarizing report to the dramatic presentation of one particular, atypical scene, everything that is said and done in this scene stands out. The transition from indirect to direct discourse is all the more impressive because it is the first time that we hear the hunger artist speak. Only once before in the story has he expressed his thoughts; this was neither in direct nor indirect discourse, but in that subtle variation of the interior monologue, sometimes called erlebte Rede or style indirect libre. In this passage, his thoughts were concerned with the great grief of his life, or better, with what he then considered as such: his impresario's insistence that he end his fasting periods after forty days. And this when he, the champion performer, knew that he could fast ad infinitum. Now, in direct discourse, he speaks of his final and greatest grief: the realization, arrived at in articulo mortis, that his hunger act was a farce. With his dying words: "Verzeiht mir alle . . . immerfort wollte ich, daß ihr mein Hungern bewundert, etc." begins the climax of the story. By the word "ihr" the dying man certainly does not mean the circus roustabouts and the stupidly amused overseer. The delirious showman has a vision of the enthusiastic audiences that used to fill the halls where he was on exhibition at the height of his fame.

Any unbiased reader will listen intently to the last words of the hero, for it is a device often encountered in literature and the dramatic arts to make an important point—often to present the climax—through the words of a dying man. A reader familiar with Kafka's work will recognize the "Too late!" as he knows it from "Vor dem Gesetz," Der Prozeß, and Das Schloß. Josef K. in Der Prozeß, too, recognizes the futility of his life a few moments before he dies "like a dog!" The hunger artist is buried like a dog with the dirty straw on which he died. His last words indicate that he has arrived at the insight that his life was built on illusion and error, and was indeed a vie manquée. The outstanding achievements in his profession, which had been the pride and the meaning of his existence, were of no value; they were the result of an innate deficiency. He could not eat the food others liked, and therefore was not a complete human being. This weakness, this essential lack, was, however, the foundation of his fame. The crowds came to admire the hero with the iron will who could do what no other mortal could do so well: conquer man's grimmest enemy, hunger. However, what they really saw was a sick freak.

A modern name for the life of the hunger artist would be Heidegger's "unauthentic existence." Rilke, in whose Duino Elegies Heidegger observes poetic parallels to some of his own ideas, sees in the women, the child, the so-called primitive man, the animal, "Begnadete des Seins," because they above all have authentic existence. "Women" do not appear in the story, only two "young ladies," themselves feeble, unauthentic creatures. The authentic characters appear as figures of contrast: the children with their searching, sparkling eyes approach the hunger artist with sincere admiration, while the crowds of spectators merely want to be thrilled. The primitive men are the butchers. They too approach the hunger artist with genuine feelings, sympathy in this case; and their healthy appetite contrasts favorably with the showman's fasting.

The outstanding contrast figure, however, is the leopard, Kafka's beautiful leopard, so often besmirched by his anagogizing interpreters. It seems that Steinhauer in his commentary and by referring to Kafka's leopard as a panther introduced the "denigration" of the big cat. He rendered the German word Panther, which is the poetic synonym for leopard, by its English cognate which is commonly understood to designate the melanistic variety of the leopard, called in German Schwarzpanther or Sunda-panther. The translation "panther" is misleading, since it symbolizes to many an American and English critic all that is black and evil. They may thus even feel encouraged to think of Dante's allegorical leopard, representing wantonness and envy. Such associations make the critic impervious to the beauty of Kafka's prose poem, a beauty equal to that of Rilke's famous quatrains on the leopard and as much a votive offering to Orpheus as that poet's sonnet on the Russian stallion.

As the reader of the Rundschau enjoys the last tumultuous scene in which the young leopard is the hero, his understanding expands within three concentric circles. True to his symbolic, not allegorical, character, the leopard is and remains the center of these circles. The understanding of his different aspects does therefore not proceed realiter, spiritualiter, and mystice; it is an unfolding understanding, not one that moves on different disconnected planes.

The leopard is first of all a beautiful animal. Anders denies the existence of "das Schöne im Alltagssinne" in Kafka's work. He seems to mean by this questionable phrase the beautiful as it is generally understood. The leopard passage proves him wrong, as do several other passages in the writer's work to be discussed later. Kafka has created by means of his simple prose a leopard, seen of course, as Hofmannsthal said, "mit den Augen der Poesie . . . die jedes Ding jedesmal zum ersten Mal sieht, die jedes Ding mit allen Wundern seines Daseins umgibt." By its mere presence, Kafka's leopard throws everything which was humanly questionable in the story into relief: the insincerity of the impresario and the two "young ladies," the vulgarity of the overseer and the crowd, and, most important of all, the human imperfection of the professional inediant, who lacked everything. His lack of appetite had led him into a meaningless existence, deprived of dignity, joy, and freedom; but about the leopard the author says, "Ihm fehlte nichts." "He lacked nothing." He had an abundance of everything the hunger artist missed. The reader joins the people on the circus lot who crowd around the cage, fascinated by something higher than the sensational or merely aesthetic appeal of the predator. The hunger artist appears now in all his frailty and ugliness as something inimical to life, and therefore condemned by it.

The fascinated reader, like the crowd, does not want to move away from the cage. He is still under the influence of the leopard as he puts the Rundschau away. But doubts now appear. The leopard has conquered; but was his conquest not a little too easy? Nature, das Naive in Schiller's sense, "das Dasein nach eigenen Gesetzen, die innere Notwendigkeit, die ewige Einheit mit sich selbst," wins easy victories over man, whom Thomas Mann once defined as das Sorgenkind des Lebens." Another passage from Schiller's essay Über naive und sentimentalische Dichtung may come to the reader's mind: "Solange wir Naturkinder waren, waren wir glücklich und vollkommen; wir sind frei geworden und haben beides verloren. Daraus entspringt eine doppelte und sehr ungleiche Sehnsucht nach der Natur, eine Sehnsucht nach ihrer Glückseligkeit, eine Sehnsucht nach ihrer Vollkommenheit. Den Verlust der ersten beklagt nur der sinnliche Mensch; um den Verlust der anderen kann nur der moralische Mensch trauern." This mourning over a lost perfection accompanies the remembrance of the hunger artist; it is the last feeling the leopard evokes in the reader as a moralischer Mensch. He thinks of the complexity of the unfortunate man, which made the selection of food problematic for him. The modern Kafka critic might well think of Kafka himself, for whom the choice of food was a lifelong practical difficulty, and whose vegetarianism was not the result of the fad of his day, so popular among writers and thinkers. Vegetarianism was an almost religious concern for Kafka. He even compared the vegetarians to the first Christians. Once Kafka is remembered as a suffering vegetarian, the hunger artist as a symbol loses much of his mystery. Seen in this light, the disillusioned showman is still defeated by the leopard but he is not shamed by him. He is buried like a dog, dirty straw and all, but even that last indignity degrades him no more than the relegation to the trash pile did Gregor Samsa, the cockroach man, in Die Verwandlung.

Von Wiese, who sees in the story an allegorical tale of the conflict between Geist and Natur, comes to a different conclusion: "Wer aber dennoch unbelehrbar bleibt und dem Panther vor dem Hungerkunstler den Vorzug gibt, sich also gegen den hungernden Geist und seine Absurdität und für die Faszination des Lebens entscheidet, der hat sich damit auch in jene verfremdete, tierhafte Welt zurückbegeben, die Kafka . . . aus den Angeln zu heben versuchte." Like unimpressed by the leopard's beauty and heile Existenz is Felix Weltsch. In full agreement with von Wiese he interprets the last and deepest Sinnlinie: "Im tiefsten Grunde hungert er also aus Ekel vor dem Essen, das den Menschen geboten wird, das die Natur des Menschen verlangt und deren gesunder Repräsentant der Panther ist, dem die Fleischfetzen, . . . so herrlich munden. Und man kann—und muß wohl—den Ekel des Hungerkünstlers vor dem Essen des Menschen weiter führen bis zum Ekel vor der ganzen sinnlichen Natur des Menschen." The main part of this paper will be an argument against these misobiotic interpretations but it should be pointed out right away that Weltsch shifts the accents of the showman's last speech and thus alters the meaning of the story. The dying man does not realize that he always felt disgust for food; he realizes that he could not find the right food and that consequently his performance was meaningless. He would have preferred the ability to eat like all the rest to his questionable achievement.

One might call the end of this story a Fortinbras-end, since the relation of Fortinbras and Hamlet is one of similar ambivalence. Kafka liked this kind of finish, as its repeated occurrence in his work proves. At the conclusion of Die Verwandlung the parents look with pride and delight at their beautiful marriageable daughter, who will compensate for the monstrosity rotting in a pile of garbage, the noble sufferer Gregor. Das Urteil ends with Georg's fatal fall from the bridge, which is followed by the almost brutal statement: "In diesem Augenblick ging über die Brücke ein geradezu unendlicher Verkehr." In Josefine, die Sängerin, the little problematic cantatrice is quickly forgotten in gesteigerter Erlösung, whereas das Volk continues in its unbroken strength.

We left the Rundschau-reader contemplating the ambivalent end of the story. Will he now try to extract its "theological" or "philosophical" content? He has not yet read Brod and Muir's commentaries, nor, as a German refugee in America, the faulty translations of two key passages in Brod's biography which make a saint of Kafka. Therefore, we do not believe that he will convince himself that the story must be an allegory about the role of religion in modern society, as the first commentator called it with great assurance. As a German reader, moreover, he would not be tempted by the compound -Künstler in the title to think of an artist. His verbal associations would be Zauberkünstler, Kartenkünstler, Trapezkünstler, even Entkleidungskünstlerin; they would stay in the realm of the circus and variety show. We imagine the reader would put away Die Neue Rundschau pondering the experience of a strange Lebensgefühl which the symbolic language of this story had conveyed to him. The modern reader of Kafka's fiction, diaries, and letters might feel that this Lebensgefühl is the author's own. He ordinarily does not feel it because he also knows that he must look for allegorical equations, preferably of a religious nature, in Kafka's works.

Shortly before the composition of "Ein Hungerkünstler," Kafka had spoken of a Plan der selbstbiographischen Untersuchungen. Our story is the most intimate of these investigations. Kafka was, even before his illness, very conscious of his body. Throughout the tale of the hunger artist we recognize, though it is presented in grotesque exaggeration, his own Körpergefühl. The skeletal thinness of the showman was a physical condition the suffering author knew from personal experience. At the time he wrote "Ein Hungerkünstler," Kafka weighed only 55 kg though he measured 1,81 m, hence more than six feet, a fact known from one of his frequent laments about his thinness in a letter to Milena. In those years he still detested meat, as the following scene of forced feeding in an imaginary sanatorium shows: "Was soll ich dort? Vom Chefarzt zwischen die Knie genommen werden und an den Fleischklumpen würgen, die er mir mit den Karbolfingern in den Mund stopft und dann entlang der Gurgel hinunterdrückt." Similar feelings are present in the reaction of the hunger artist led to the Krankenmahlzeit, which the impresario will force down his throat. Later on, in the circus, he is deeply depressed at the sight of raw pieces of meat transported past his cage.

The Körpergefühl of the showman is only a part, though an important one, of his Lebensgefühl. The dominant feeling in the earlier years of his life was frustration. The world he wanted to impress with his feat did not permit him to do his utmost. During the last weeks of his life this same world fails to realize that he is still there, though dying in the straw. The grim insight ripens in the forgotten man that his life was built on error. Behind the muted sadness and the quixotic courtesy of this pitiable bag of bones is hidden despair over a vie manquée. We recognize the somewhat distorted image of Kafka as he appears in the last years of his life in his letters to Milena and in the descriptions of his friends.

The literary excellence of the story lies in the organic connection of Körpergefühl and Lebensgefühl in the interplay between food in the literal sense and food in the metaphorical sense, i.e., as the condition of heile Existenz as the leopard represents it. But these two aspects are inseparable, and here lies the deepest reason that any allegorical separation of the "lower" and the "higher" world destroys the very structure of the little tale. The feelings emanating from this almost real showman and this very real leopard grow in the reader into something surpassing their individual cases, but they are feelings, not ideas. The showman and the leopard remain as the core of the aesthetic experience. We do not discard them like empty husks as we do with Dante's leopard, once we have understood him spiritualiter as envy and wantonness, or as we discard Pharaoh's fat and lean cows, once Joseph has translated this dream allegory. Goethe defined allegory and symbol as follows: "Es ist ein großer Unterschied, ob der Dichter zum Allgemeinen das Besondere sucht oder im Besonderen das Allgemeine schaut. Aus jener Art entsteht Allegorie, wo das Besondere nur als Beispiel, als Exempel des Allgemeinen gilt; die letztere ist aber eigentlich die Natur der Poesie: sie spricht ein Besonderes aus, ohne ans Allgemeine zu denken oder darauf hinzuweisen. Wer nun dieses Besondere lebendig faßt, erhält zugleich das Allgemeine mit, ohne es gewahr zu werden, oder erst spät."

Thus the symbolic character of the story makes it impossible to "translate" the meaning of each of its individual scenes. It is the totality of details which communicates the aesthetic experience. The allegorizer must find for each of these details a corresponding interpretation unless he assumes that Kafka allowed himself some chevilles. None of these interpreters have been that thorough, and the allegorical equations they present for the details they selected to explain are unconvincing, sometimes fantastic.

Kafka's other works contain passages which, in their metaphors or topicality, show a relationship to "Ein Hungerkünstler. " They all center around the idea of a vie manquée, of authentic and unauthentic existence, to use these anachronistic but useful terms. Georg Bendemann (Das Urteil) grasps—"wie ein Hungriger die Nahrung"—the bridge railing from which he is going to fall to an atoning death. Gregor Samsa (Die Verwandlung) tries to crawl to his violin-playing sister: "Ihm war, als zeige sich ihm der Weg zu der ersehnten unbekannten Nahrung." The vulgar scrubwoman, who announces his death and disposes unceremoniously of his remains, has the same function as the overseer in "Ein Hungerkünstler." Grete Samsa's epitaph in its literal and symbolic sense fits the hunger artist: "Seht nur, wie mager es war. Er hat ja auch schon so lange Zeit nichts gegessen." In Der Bau, the problem of food shortage is one of the animal's main problems, but here, too, the metaphorical usage of food appears: "Denn alles, was ich dort [im Bau] tue, ist gut und sättigt mich gewissermaßen." Eating and food also play an important symbolic part in Amerika. The horror and misery of Brunelda's world is accentuated by the disgusting way in which Robinson eats sardines and licks candy. In contrast the banquet in the nature theater in Oklahoma reflects paradisiacal conditions. And this is paradise as Kafka described it to Brod in a conversation about the novel's conclusion: "Mit rätselhaften Worten deutete Kafka lächelnd an, daß sein junger Held in diesem fast grenzenlosen Theater Beruf, Freiheit, Rückhalt, ja sogar die Heimat und die Eltern wie durch paradiesischen Zauber wiederfinden werde." Kafka defined Rückhalt in the same sense with a far cry from Kierkegaard: "Eine Frau haben, das hieße Halt auf allen Seiten haben, Gott haben." There is an abundance of such outcries in his diaries and Kafka's life story shows how he sought so intensely and, tragically enough, found too late, Erlösung durch das Weib. How could this man have glorified in his hunger artist that ascetic contempt and opposition to nature and world which the majority of the interpreters postulate?

Closely related to the quoted passages from his work are diary entries and statements in his letters that attest the autobiographical character of "Ein Hungerkünstler." These are to be found in all the phases of his life and culminate, so to speak, in that symbolic tale. Early in his university career he wrote: "Man beiße lieber ins Leben als in seine Zunge." Full participation in life, "engagement," would remain Kafka's ideal, but isolation was his fate. At a later time (1912), he describes himself as life's hunger artist: "Als es in meinem Organismus klar geworden war, dass das Schreiben die ergiebigste Richtung meines Wesens sei, drängte sich alles hin und ließ alle Fähigkeiten leer stehen, die sich auf die Freuden des Geschlechtes, des Essens, des Trinkens, des philosophischen Nachdenkens, der Musik zuallerest richteten. Ich magerte nach allen diesen Richtungen ab." (Italics mine) This intermingling of the physical (Organismus) with the inner life, reaching a climax in the metaphor abmagern, is typical of the structure of "Ein Hungerkünstler," where lack of appetite in the literal sense was fused with the Lebensgefühl of an unauthentic existence. Significantly enough, Kafka returns in the same diary entry to food in the literal sense. After he has once more decried his ignorance of love and music, he laments at the same pitch his frugal New Year's meal, consisting of Schwarzwurzeln mit Spinat. The simple food metaphor makes an occasional appearance, e.g. "Strindberg gelesen, der mich nährt." In the months preceding and following the composition of "Ein Hungerkünstler" (October, 1921 to March, 1922), however, it occurs frequently. "Da ich doch Mensch bin und die Wurzeln Nahrung wollen . . . weil meine Hauptnahrung von anderen Wurzeln in anderer Luft kommt, auch diese Wurzeln kläglich, doch lebensfähiger; . . . Nur vorwärts, hungriges Tier, führt der Weg zur eßbaren Nahrung, atembaren Luft, freiem Leben, sei es auch hinter dem Leben . . . Es ist die Nahrung, von der ich gedeihe, auserlesene Speisen, auserlesen gekocht. . . . Das Glück der jungen und alten Ehemänner, das einzige, an dem mich zu sättigen ich Anlage habe." The sudden increase in food metaphors is accompanied by frequent laments over his unfulfilled existence. Kafka was conscious of approaching his fortieth year, which to him as to Goethe meant a caesura in man's existence. Goethe said: "Ich will lernen und mich ausbilden, ehe ich vierzig Jahre alt werde." One of Kafka's self admonitions begins with an allusion to this Goethe passage: "Lerne (lerne Vierzigjähriger). . . ." He now condemns himself because of his wasted life as he had condemned Josef K. ten years before nel mezzo del cammin to the Inferno of The Trial. The most remarkable of these laments about his vie manquée was written shortly before the composition of "Ein Hungerkünstler" :

Die Eltern spielten Karten; ich saß allein dabei, gänzlich fremd; der Vater sagte, ich solle mitspielen oder wenigstens zuschauen; ich redete mich irgendwie aus. Was bedeutet diese seit der Kinderzeit vielmals wiederholte Ablehnung? Das gemeinschaftliche, gewissermaßen das öffentliche Leben wurde mir durch die Einladung zugänglich gemacht . . . trotzdem lehnte ich ab. Ich habe, wenn man es danach beurteilt, unrecht, wenn ich mich beklage, daß mich der Lebensstrom niemals ergriffen hat, daß ich von Prag nie loskam, niemals auf Sport oder ein Handwerk gestoßen wurde und dergleichen.—Ich hätte das Angebot wahrscheinlich immer abgelehnt, ebenso wie die Einladung zum Spiele. Ich lehnte es aber immer ab, wohl aus allgemeiner und besonders aus Willensschwäche, ich habe das verhältnismäßig sehr spät erst begriffen. Ich hielt diese Ablehnung früher meist für ein gutes Zeichen (verführt durch die allgemeinen großen Hoffnungen, die ich auf mich setze).

The food metaphor is not used in this passage, but we find here important parallels to the inner life of the hunger artist: the unwillingness to participate in life, to partake of life's food, the reason for this unwillingness—a weakness; the illusion that this weakness is a sign of greatness; and the late recognition of this tragic illusion.

An extraordinary man like Kafka is always on display; he must make a "show" of himself, no matter how retiring he may be. Kafka's "spectators" reacted like the hunger artist's audiences—with admiration, with concern for his literal and metaphorical Abmagern, with doubts of his sincerity, sometimes with open mockery.

In another diary entry from his last period Kafka describes in glowing colors a likewise glowing picture of Sunday boating on the Thames. His description, it seems to the author, fits Edward J. Gregory's painting "Boating on the Thames" showing a fleet of rowboats, canoes, punts, and launches near Boulter's Lock above London. They are headed for the tea gardens and picnic grounds beyond Cliveden Reach. If Kafka cannot join this sensuous festival of life, if he, the poor Hungerleider, has to stand aside at the shore, the reasons are his "Abstammung, Erziehung, körperliche Ausbildung" and not a Neo-Platonic or Christian disgust with sensuous pleasures. Yet the majority of interpreters of "Ein Hungerkünstler" envisage a confession of asceticism in this and many other tales of Kafka the oarsman, the swimmer, the frustrated athlete, who wanted to find delivery in a spouse's arm and before a cradle.

The ambiguity of the leopard scene has been discussed. There can be, however, no doubt that the loving description of the leopard was dictated by Kafka's sincere admiration for the animal's authentic existence even in captivity. The closest parallel in his diaries to the leopard scene is a passage written about six months before the story appeared. "Buschleben. Eifersucht auf die glückliche, unerschöpfliche und doch sichtbar aus Not (nicht anders als ich) arbeitende, aber immer alle Forderungen des Gegners erfüllende Natur. Und so leicht, so musikalisch." Symbols representing this heile Existenz are rare in his work, since he described the hunger he knew so well but seldom the desired food. Besides the leopard, there is the chimpanzee before he was humanized. The only human representatives are Samsa's sister (Die Verwandlung), the American (Die Abweisung), and, on a heroic level, Alexander the Great (Der neue Advokat).

On his deathbed Kafka read the proofs of the book "Ein Hungerkünstler" and events in his life which were related to the title story went through his mind. The moribund patient wrote his thoughts on slips of paper, since he had to rest his infected larynx. He describes a childhood scene, in which he, the little Knochenbündel, after a bath at the public swimming pool, was treated to sausage and beer by his gigantic father. He develops once more the leopard motive with allusions to the leopard scene in his story. "Mein Cousin, dieser herrliche Mensch. Wenn dieser Rob-ert. . . auf die Sophienschwimmschule kam, die Kleider mit ein paar Griffen abwarf, ins Wasser sprang und sich dort herumwälzte mit der Kraft eines schönen wilden Tieres (italics mine), glänzend vom Wasser, mit strahlenden Augen und gleich weit fort war gegen das Wehr zu—das war herrlich." It was the tragic irony of Kafka's last year that he, life's hunger artist, was beginning to discover the food he liked in the real and in the metaphorical sense. A child from a beloved woman, a Heimat without the melancholy quotes he was forced in his last years to put around that word when referring to Prague, these seemed to be within his reach when death intervened.

Kafka's influence on other writers is often pointed out, but the fact that he, too, was influenced is generally neglected, though his work is part of the tradition of Western literature. Seen against this larger background, it gains in depth and clarity of meaning. "Ein Hungerkünstler" is no exception; and the basic assumption of the author that it is the story of a vie manquée gains additional support from this viewpoint.

There is a close resemblance in both structure and content between Kafka's tale and Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilyitch, one of Kafka's favorites among Tolstoy's writings. Kafka had reread Tolstoy's story as late as December 23, 1921, and "Ein Hungerkünstler" is mentioned for the first time early in 1922. There seems to be sufficient cause to assume that he wrote his story shortly after reading the Russian tale of a vie manquée which, as stylistic and thematic similarities indicate, had obviously inspired him. Tolstoy uses the same devices to skip time intervals already encountered in Kafka's story: "Nach siebenjähriger Amtstätigkeit in derselben Stadt" . . . "In dieser Weise gingen noch sieben Jahre hin" . . . "So war Iwan Iljitschs Leben während der siebzehn Jahre seiner Heirat gewesen." With the beginning of Ivan's fatal disease, the passage of epic time slows down from months to weeks, finally from days to the moments preceding death. Not until a few days before the final agony does the pensive sufferer arrive at the tragic insight: "Mein ganzes Leben, das bewußte Leben, ist wohl in der Tat nicht das rechte gewesen." Like the hunger artist, Ivan cannot reveal to anyone the truth his dimming eyes have seen. His insensitive wife watches him die with compassion but with as little understanding as the overseer had for the dying hunger artist. The role of the contrast figure, corresponding to Kafka's leopard, falls in Tolstoy's story to Gerassim, the young peasant lad and servant of Ivan. He is the only one living an authentic existence in that household of sham beings: "Die Kraft und Lebensfreudigkeit Gerassims kränkten ihn nicht, ja, sie wirkten beruhigend auf Iwan Iljitsch."

Closely related to the motif of la vie manquée is that of der Fahrende as one of its representatives. The saltimbanque and the circus performer had become familiar symbols in the twentieth century of that century's growing feeling of forlornness and metaphysical wretchedness. The Saltimbanque pictures of Picasso and Rilke's fifth Duino elegy are the outstanding examples. The hunger artist has colleagues in Kafka's melancholy circus. The first of these to appear was the equestrienne in "Auf der Galerie." The unpitying circus director and the unfeeling spectators force the ailing equestrienne to perform on and on in the surreal circus ring. The tragedy and the sham existence of this performer are revealed to an outsider. He would like to but cannot break through this sham beauty and false front behind which a gruesome reality hides, a reality revealed in the hyena grin of Seurat's and Lautrec's circus directors. In "Erstes Leid" the grim revelation occurs early in the career of the showman, the trapeze artist, who realizes his Haltlosigkeit: "Nur diese eine Stange in den Händen, . . . wie kann ich denn leben!" To all of Kafka's showmen apply the opening lines of Rilke's Saltimbanque Elegy which appeared one year after Kafka's story:

Wer aber sind sie, sag mir, die Fahrenden, diese ein wenig
Flüchtigern noch als wir selbst, die dringend von früh an
wringt ein wem—wem zuliebe
niemals zufriedener Wille?

The germs of Kafka's circus stories, together with the basic motifs of other, yet unwritten works, appear in one of his earliest diary entries, written twelve years before "Ein Hungerkünstler," further proof that these circus symbols were expressions of his own inner life. The unmarried author decries his lack of attachment to life: "Der Mann [the Kafkaesque bachelor—this and the following parenthetical insertions are mine] steht nun einmal außerhalb unseres Volkes [K. in Das Schloß], ausserhalb unserer Menschheit ["Ein Hungerkünstler"], immerfort ist er ausgenhungert ["Ein Hungerkünstler"], ihm gehört nur der Augenblick, der immer fortgesetzte Augenblick der Plage ["Auf der Galerie"], er hat . . . nur so viel Halt, als seine zwei Hände bedecken, also um so viel weniger als der Trapezkünstler im Variété ["Erstes Leid"]."

A few remarks should be made about the Verfremdung in our story. Some allegorizing interpreters consider it more fantastic than it is because certain naturalistic aspects of Kafka's showman and his life seem to them to be the author's grotesque inventions. Kafka took his subject matter for "Ein Hungerkünstler" from life; he was sympathetically and empathetically familiar with the world of der Fahrende. To illustrate the "objective correlative" for Kafka's hunger artist and to facilitate the recognition of naturalist aspects in his story, the English handbill advertising a German Hungerkünstler may be quoted. The showman's sobriquet is, significantly enough, Heros: "Come and see the Starvation Artist Heros; World's Champion in 1950 at the Frankfurt Zoo with 56 days of starvation; he will establish a new World Championship, 75 days without taking any food in a sealed glass box; medical care, controlled by the Red Cross Frankfurt-Main; during his time of starvation Heros will have only cigarettes and Hassia Mineral Water. . . ." The methods and accoutrements of this starvation artist are much the same as those of the fictitious one. Carbonation has been added to the plain water of Kafka's showman, he smokes cigarettes and sits in a glass box, instead of a cage, but those are simply negligible modern touches.

Other aspects of the story are also explainable in view of the particular "objective correlative". The opening sentence: "In den letzten Jahrzehnten ist das Interesse an Hungerkünstlern sehr zurückgegangen" sounds at first reading like the "Once upon a time" of an allegorical fairytale, but it is correct. The "golden age" of hunger artists was in the eighties of the nineteenth century. The American physician Dr. Henry Tanner established in 1880 a world record with forty fasting days which was broken when the Italian Merlatti endured fifty days of supervised fasting in the great hall of the Grand Hotel in Paris. That Kafka's showman feels he could go far beyond the forty day mark is believable. Heros' latest (1956) record is 93 days.

Fortunately the allegorizers, particularly the religious school, overlooked the opportunities the number forty offers to cabalistic interpretations. They missed the forty days of Christ's fast and the forty years of the Israelites in the desert. They might have considered Goethe's explanation that the figure forty is dedicated to Beschauen, Erwarten, above all to Absonderung. It is, however, unlikely, considering the realistic details of the story, that Kafka even thought of the cabalistic character of the number forty. Not the Bible but the records of Dr. Tanner, Succi, and Merlatti, well known to Kafka's generation, furnished the forty fasting days. These forty days are just as real as the protruding thorax, the black tights, the attacks of raging mania, and the final delirium inanitionis of his professional inediant. The only distortion, Verfremdung, in Kafka's story is the indifference of the circus to the fate of its unsuccessful employee. The freak of the sideshow would in reality be on the payroll and, hence, on the conscience of the circus management.

Much older than the motif of der Fahrende is the topos "man and the big cat," which plays such a decisive part at the end of the story. Using the concept of topos, we imply also the idea of tradicionalidad literaria, confident that such an approach does not make Kafka's work less original but more intelligible. The topos of man and the big cat is older than the Mycenean gate and the Homeric similies. When man was confronted with the lion, it was done to praise him or make a statement about his status. Up to the time of Goethe, man's superiority was always assumed wherever the topos was used, but that changed during the nineteenth century. At first particular human types, finally, in the twentieth century, man in general was humbled before the predators which are usually lion, leopard, and eagle. Nietzsche, the most articulate and passionate accuser of nascent modern man, turned his metaphorical leopards loose on the drab Northern European Herdenmenschen: "Das du in Urwäldern / Unter buntgefleckten Raubtieren / Sündlich gesund und bunt und schön liefest." One cannot escape the melancholy observation that the praise of the "sinfully healthy" leopard in Nietzsche's and kafka's case stems from mortally sick authors.

After Nietzsche's time, the conviction spread among those concerned with literary symbols and the evaluation of man that a great metaphysical loss has been suffered, that man has been "unkinged," in Emerson's sense. The topos with its reversed evaluation of man and beast is now incorporated in the works of authors ranging from Hermann Hesse to Ernest Hemingway. The two following examples again are chosen because of their chronological proximity to Kafka's work. In the fourth of his Duino Elegies Rilke accuses man of losing his cosmic rhythm and being poisoned by an incomplete understanding of death. He concludes:

"Und irgendwo gehn Löwen noch und wissen
solang sie herrlich sind von keiner Ohnmacht."

Two years after Kafka's story Der Zauberberg appeared. In it, Thomas Mann also speaks about man, life's problem child, about his Stand und Staat and he, too, uses the topos in its "modern revision." A few days before his long-contemplated suicide the regal Mynheer Peeperkorn leads his "followers" on an excursion into the mountain wilderness. Here Settembrini and Naphta do their dialectical best to impress the company with a display of their counterpositions. Peeperkorn interrupts their gladiatorial oratory and points to an eagle soaring high above the group of quarreling sick men: "Der Adler, meine Herrschaften, Jupiters Vogel, der König seines Geschlechtes, der Leu der Lüfte! . . . Stoß nieder, schlag ihm mit dem Eisenschnabel auf den Kopf und in die Augen, reiß ihm den Bauch auf, dem Wesen, das dir Gott. . . Perfekt! Erledigt! After the company has settled down for one of Peeperkorn's impromptu banquets, the topos is taken up again in a way which strongly suggests "Ein Hungerkünstler" as a model: "Es gab Einkehr, es gab ein Essen und Trinken, ganz ausser der Zeit, jedoch mit einem Appetit, der durch das stille Gedenken an den Adler befeuert ward." If Mann's eagle was inspired by Kafka's leopard, then these passages in Der Zauberberg may be considered the first though indirect commentary on "Ein Hungerkünstler" and, in the author's opinion, a better one than many of those which followed.

The appetite that Kafka's leopard may inspire is weakened by the stille Gedenken the dead hunger artist deserves. When used by literary masters, the common topoi appear in subtle variations—and Kafka was a literary master. His work, we would like to emphasize in conclusion, is part of the Western tradition of literature, from which he borrowed and to which he added, for example, a beautiful leopard whom the allegorizers want to poison. For that life, among other things, we are pleading in this article.

H. M. Waidson (essay date 1960)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3774

SOURCE: "The Starvation Artist and the Leopard," in The Germanic Review, Vol. XXXV, No. 4, December, 1960, pp. 262-69.

[In the following essay, Waidson disagrees with Meno Spann's interpretation of the roles of the occupants of the cage in "A Hunger Artist" and seeks to "restore the starvation-artist to his former central position and relegate the leopard to a less exalted status. "]

In his imaginative writing Kafka gives an impression of being at an immense distance from the people and creatures he describes, and the effects of humor and controlled melancholy are intensified by this appearance of objectivity. The short story "Ein Hungerkünstler" in particular has attracted analysis, since the simple sequence of its events, the almost complete absence of the obviously absurd, the fact that the tale has been brought to a conclusion, that the author has restrained himself from inserting passages of elaborate argument, arouse in the reader the conviction that here Kafka is distilling his "dream-like inner life" in as concentrated and artistic a way as is likely to be found anywhere. Mr. Meno Spann's article ["Franz Kafka's Leopard," The Germanic Review XXXIV, No. 2, 1959] on this fascinating and elusive story is instructive in many respects, but his interpretation of the roles of the two occupants of the cage appears to me to be far from convincing. His concluding sentence commends Kafka for having added to "the Western tradition of literature" "a beautiful leopard whom the allegorizers want to poison." This is putting the cart before the horse, in other words, the leopard before the starvation-artist. At the risk of being thrown into Mr. Spann's limbo of "maimed psychoanalysts, sociologists, philosophers and theologians," I should like briefly to run through this story again as I see it, in an endeavor to restore the starvation-artist to his former central position and to relegate the leopard to a less exalted status.

"In the last decades the interest in starvation-artists has declined very much. Whereas it was formerly well worth while organizing great performances of this sort as a show of their own, today this is quite impossible. Times were different then." These opening words place the narrator a long way from his subject-matter. He is recounting events that could only have taken place decades ago, for historical reasons, and are unimaginable "today." Kafka does not explain the historical position of the starvation-artist in the world of entertainment (that has since been done by Mr. Spann); the reader will perhaps think that this career is the fabrication of a fantastic imagination, even if the bounds of everyday realism are apparently not overstepped. Mr. Spann has provided evidence of the realism of the background; the golden age of starvation-artists was the 1880's, when a world record of forty days was soon to be beaten by one of fifty, though a revival of the art has led to a new record of ninety-three days being set in Frankfurt in 1956. (Perhaps, incidentally, we live in the "new, coming, more gracious times" which Kafka's narrator sees in the "light" of the children's "observant eyes.") But why should this evidence exclude the interpretation of the forty days in terms of the Israelites' wanderings in the desert and of Jesus Christ's fasting in the wilderness? Kafka may well have been deliberately ambivalent here.

In a number of his works Kafka happily relates events in the first person singular (e.g., "Ein Landarzt," "Ein Bericht für eine Akademie," "Forschungen eines Hundes") or from the point of one man, though in the third person (Der Prozeß, Das Schloß). But the starvation-artist is seen both from outside and from within his own consciousness. In the first section, the account of the starvation-artist's career in prosperity, the reader is shown the starvationartist, his relations with the public, with the butcher guardians, the manager and the chosen ladies, from the standpoint of an omniscient narrator. The period of success is followed, a few years later, by "that previously mentioned turning-point"; the second section of the story is a description of the starvation-artist's latter years, after fashion has changed and there is no room for a man of his calling except on the way to the animals. Here again we follow the starvation-artist's thought much of the time, but the narrator also records the ironical smile of the "professional colleagues" at the starvation-artist's hopes of surprising the world with his achievements even now, and describes him as being "apparently respected by the world, but with all that mostly in melancholy mood." Or the narrator himself castigates the casual charge of cheating which is made by one of the starvation-artist's later onlookers as "the most stupid lie that indifference and innate malice could invent, for it was not the starvation-artist who was deceiving, he worked honestly, but the world deceived him of his reward." These words, coming at the end of the second section of the story, are interesting as a revelation that the unknown narrator, recounting the events years after they are all over, still feels his sympathies personally involved on the starvation-artist's behalf. Kafka's narrator is reconstructing episodes from a past that most people have forgotten, but he feels so deeply for the starvation-artist that he puts in his own indignant comments on his hero's account: "Try to explain the art of fasting to somebody! To him who does not feel it, it cannot be made comprehensible."

While the starvation-artist's career in prosperity and then neglect is being described, the past tense has an imperfect meaning and dialogue is not used. As his fasting is a solitary, dedicated operation, he is essentially passive in his way of life; his work excludes him from society, though it exposes him to its gaze. After the episodes illustrating the main course of his life follow the two final paragraphs of the story. The dialogue between the circus-attendant and the starvation-artist, who is lying in the dirty straw, is full of tension; the past tense is used historically, up to the climax of the dying man's last-minute revelation. The narrator achieves a certain rhetorical pathos here, as if knowing that the death-bed confession has been worth his listeners' waiting for: "Those were the last words, but there was still in his glazed eyes the firm, even if no longer proud conviction that he would go on fasting." If the story had ended at this point, there would be no reason for doubting its completeness; the starvation-artist has died, living just long enough to be able to reveal to the circusattendants his last reflections of repentance, explanation, and resolution.

Apart from the last paragraph, the story is a gradual unfolding of the starvation-artist's situation and personality through characteristic episodes and through comments from the narrator. Even during the period of his international success, the starvation-artist has to reckon with being regarded as "often only a joke" by adults and with receiving unqualified admiration only from children. Elaborate precautions are taken to ensure that he does not cheat, and this depresses him, for he has nothing to fear on this account: "only the starvation-artist himself could know that, only he therefore could at the same time be the observer completely satisfied with his own fasting." One simple reason for the starvation-artist's honesty is that he finds fasting easy: "it was the easiest thing in the world." The forty-day limit to the fasting period is imposed by his manager, and is resented by the performer, who, however, endures the charade against his better judgment. The ladies who are to carry him out of his cage are his enemies because they put an ending to his fasting and lead him to food, the thought of which makes him feel nauseated. "And he looked up into the eyes of the apparently so friendly, in reality so cruel ladies . . ." Their sympathy is superficial, and based on a misconception. What appears to the mass of spectators as friendliness is from his point of view cruelty. Reality for the starvation-artist is not what it is for other people; his feet scrape on the ground as he is being carried, as if this were not the real ground, "as if they were just beginning to look for it." When feminine emotion is brought into contact with the alien world of professional fasting, it expresses itself in helpless tears "amid the delighted laughter of the spectators." K. in Das Schloß has to wrestle with the world of emotions represented by the various women and by their relationships with Klamm and himself; if K. wishes to fulfill his quest, he must overcome the world of Klamm and penetrate beyond. For the starvation-artist this particular barrier presents no difficulties.

In the midst of his successes the starvation-artist is melancholy but not afraid. An occasional fury of rage follows any well-meant suggestion that his melancholy may be due to his fasting, for he sees this too as an oblique reflection on the merit of his calling: ". . . to the terror of all (he) began to shake on the iron bars like an animal." These moods do not recur in the second period, when he is neglected by the world and able to realize his ambition to carry on fasting as long as he likes: "but nobody counted the days, not even the starvation-artist himself knew how great the achievement already was, and his heart became heavy." The starvation-artist has overcome all attachment to the world, to material pleasures, human society and bourgeois normality. His quest for a second reality is, however, unfulfilled. Like so many of Kafka's characters he is between two worlds; the old, familiar life of common sense has become distasteful or unaccountably alienated, while the new world has not yet been revealed. Gregor Samsa in Die Verwandlung and Josef K. in Der Prozeß are rudely thrown out of lives of unthinking normality and plunged lost into a world where their previous values have no meaning. Gregor has an inkling of a new, higher order of experience, and the mood of his insect-state is similar to that of the starvation-artist in his later periods. The short final paragraph of "Ein Hungerkünstler" forms a coda introducing the leopard as new material into the story as a device for rounding it off to a satisfying conclusion. In Die Verwandlung, Gregor's death is followed by a comparable concluding section where the Samsa family is relieved and reinvigorated by being rid of him. They become arrogant and unjust, as in their treatment of the charwoman who has disposed of Gregor's remains, and Grete blossoms out ("at the end of their journey she stood up first and stretched her young body") into feline marriage-ability. Kafka had a lot of trouble with the concluding sections of his narratives (the three novels are the best known instances). If Die Verwandlung and "Ein Hungerkünstler" are in this respect artistically satisfying, while having their elements of ambiguity, Kafka was not always so successful. Emrich's analysis of In der Strafkolonie brings forward concrete evidence of Kafka's own dissatisfaction with his coda section to this tale. Josef K. in Der Prozeß in particular resists and resents being wrenched out of normality. On the other hand, K. in Das Schloß has chosen to come to the strange village as a surveyor, and is actively struggling to penetrate through the obstructive bureaucracy of the castle in order to realize fulfillment beyond. Josef K. is a hunted man, but K., like the starvation-artist, has taken the initiative and is unafraid. Artistic achievement may be subject to distortion through routine, showmanship, and vanity, but not through fear; for creative work is an attack on the public, even when it takes the passive form of the starvation-artist's abstract art where words, color, or music have no part, and where time is the one defining factor. The achievement of the starvation-artist has all the qualities of that of the seven dancing dogs in "Forschungen eines Hundes"; they do not talk or sing, they are deliberately silent, their performance is artistic and unique, they are courageous and strong, they defy nature, but yet they seem to be in need of help and arouse the watching puppy to intense wonder. "It could not be anxiety on account of success or failure that moved them so; whoever dared such things and carried them out, could no longer be afraid.—Afraid of what, then? For who was compelling them to do what they were doing here?"

The starvation-artist is unafraid; in the end he acknowledges guilt and asks for forgiveness. In these respects he has put behind him attachment to the material world in a way that Josef K. never does. The starvation-artist dies convinced of the Tightness of his striving, even if aware of his own shortcomings, and does not despair of the world order and of the values of his place in it. He dies a martyr's death, not the bewildered, nearly hopeless death of Josef K. The latter persists in plans of resistance almost to the end, even when he recognizes their futility. "There was nothing heroic, if he resisted, if he now made difficulties for the gentlemen, if now in his last defence he still tried to enjoy the last glimmer of life." The "last mistake," he thinks, is on the part of the authorities, and is not his responsibility. Then the stranger leans out of the distant window and stretches out his hands; there is a possibility of sympathy and help, but Josef K. has to die "like a dog." The starvation-artist's death is by contrast one of full acceptance of his situation, based on the final insight that if the world-order is right, his life must have been wrong, or at least must have contained a serious flaw. "Forgive me, all of you," he whispers. He has attempted his mission alone, but for success he needed the co-operation of all. In "Forschungen eines Hundes" all dogs must use their teeth to help if the marrow from the iron bones is to become available ("But it is only an image. The marrow under discussion here is not a food, it is the opposite, is poison.") Josef K. wonders whether the man looking out of the window was "an individual" or "everybody." The starvation-artist, then, acknowledges the need for forgiveness by "all," separated from whom he has vainly carried on his life. The circus-attendant gives him a form of absolution with patronizing amusement, but the starvationartist insists on explaining why he requires it: "I continually wanted you to admire my fasting." The motive for his action has been self-regarding, not only during the period of his success but much later too. But his fasting was no merit; he could "do no other," and his last words explain why: "Because I could not find the food that I like. If I had found it, believe me, I would have made no fuss and would have eaten my fill like you and everybody else." The starvation-artist must locate the fault within himself, in order to find conviction that his life's aim and the order of the universe are right. The last word he utters again speaks of the whole community: "everybody else," or "all." Once more "Forschungen eines Hundes," which was written shortly after "Ein Hungerkünstler" and is close to it in its theme of food and metaphysical striving, throws light on this tale. "More and more, lately, I reflect on my life," the dog says, "I look for the decisive mistake which I have perhaps made, that has made everything go wrong, and I can't find it. And yet I must have made it, for if I had not made it, and in spite of that had not attained what I wanted through the honest labor of a long life, it would be proved that what I wanted was impossible, and complete despair would result from it." Josef K. in Der Prozeß refuses to admit that he has done anything wrong, refuses to acknowledge that there is any reason why he should not be allowed to go on living the care-free life of a comfortably off, unmarried bank employee. The starvation-artist has broken away from bourgeois normality and made his life into an ascetic quest. If he has failed to find the right food, he has at least realized the inadequacy of earthly food. The question of the right food is raised in many of Kafka's works, usually in the same sense as in "Ein Hungerkünstler," though nowhere so insistently, nor with such serenity, as in "Forschungen eines Hundes." Here death is averted for the time being; the dog, having fasted until a haemorrhage brings him to the point of exhaustion, is saved by the hunting dog's music which inspires him to leap ecstatically from the "pool of blood and dirt" where he has been lying.

Mr. Spann has noted that Kafka read Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilych on December 23, 1921. If the starvation-artist's death is to be compared with that of Ivan Ilych, the point of essential comparison seems to lie in passages such as these: "At that very moment Ivan Ilych fell through and caught sight of the light, and it was revealed to him that though his life had not been what it should have been, this could still be rectified . . . He tried to add, "forgive me," but said "forego" and waved his hand, knowing that He whose understanding mattered would understand . . . In place of death there was light."

The leopard of the final paragraph is a device to round off a story in which it has had no previous part, unless its advent was anticipated in the starvation-artist's rattling on the bars of his cage "like an animal." It is doubtful whether English usage normally ascribes any pejorative meaning to "panther" which is absent from "leopard." The Encyclopaedia Britannica (13th ed., 1926) says "panther" is "another name for the leopard," and describes the leopard's habits in terms which are not calculated to arouse admiration:

In habits the leopard resembles the other large cat-like animals, yielding to none in the ferocity of its disposition. It is exceedingly quick in its movements, but seizes its prey by waiting in ambush or stealthily approaching to within springing distance, when it suddenly rushes upon it and tears it to the ground with its powerful claws and teeth. It preys upon almost any animal it can overcome, such as antelopes, deer, sheep, goats, monkeys, peafowl, and has a special liking for dogs. It not unfrequently attacks human beings in India, chiefly children and old women, but instances have been known of a leopard becoming a regular "maneater." When favorable opportunities occur, it often kills many more victims than it can devour at once, either to gratify its propensity for killing or for the sake of their fresh blood.

The creature's presence certainly gives an ironic twist to the tale, making the reader aware of the dichotomy between mind and life, but not to the extent of asking him to abandon the sympathy aroused by the starvation-artist's life and death and suddenly to accept the leopard's as the right attitude. The circus-attendant, it is true, thinks the dying starvation-artist mad and slightly comic, but Kafka's narrator, we have already seen, certainly does not share this attitude. It is appropriate, too, that the circus visitors, previously indifferent to the starvation-artist's feats, should crowd round the leopard in appreciation, and that "the joy of life," man's animal nature, should have the last word; for the things of the mind are precarious and elusive, Kafka often implies. Benno von Wiese and Felix Weltsch may well be unimpressed by the leopard's beauty. "Ihm fehlte nichts": "It had all it wanted," "It lacked for nothing," "It was all right." Looked at as a positive statement, the implication is that the leopard is adjusted to life and society, and is without defect or frustration; that to be a healthy animal is a desirable condition. The same words, expressed in a slightly different tone of voice, imply a nausea of repulsion on the narrator's part at the crudity of natural, animal life. Any feelings of admiration that the creature may arouse are seriously qualified by the insertion three times of "seemed" in the subsequent sentence: "it did not even seem to miss freedom; this noble . . . body seemed to carry freedom too around with it; it seemed to be situated somewhere in its jaws . . ."

It is a consequence of the irony and ambivalence nearly always present in Kafka's work that the reader should be compelled to ask himself whether the hero of the story is in fact the starvation-artist or the leopard. The starvation-artist's name itself implies duality of purpose: fasting and artistry; the search for true food, that is, the metaphysical quest, and aesthetic achievement, that is, the artistry of fasting for its own sake. Then the word "Künstler" has the double meaning of "artist" and "artiste" which cannot be translated by one word in English: the artist is a showman, and the showman an artist; art for art's sake, without metaphysical purpose, is perhaps showmanship and not art. The starvation-artist unites in himself man's aspirations both in realms of art and of religion; the leopard represents the predatory urge of a life-force that is hostile to these spheres: "Leopards break into the temple and drink the sacrificial chalices dry; this occurs repeatedly again and again; finally it can be reckoned upon before-hand and becomes part of the ceremony" [Kafka, Reflections on Sin].

If the crowd and the leopard are indifferent to the starvation-artist's fate, this is no proof that Kafka wishes his readers to share this indifference. In the "Kleine Fabel" Kafka lets the cat have the last word and eat up the mouse; but surely we are not expected to admire the cat on this account. The starvation-artist dies with firm conviction still in his eyes; he has lost his pride, but not his sense of purpose. Josef K. in Der Prozeß, we have seen, has not found in life the same purpose which the starvation-artist has, and so feels shame at dying "like a dog." But there may be hope for him; someone leans out of a window, and his clothes are neatly folded before his death. And from "Forschungen eines Hundes" it is clear that Kafka saw, or came to see, a quiet and moving dignity about a dog's life. Dog and starvation-artist indeed often appear, and are intended to appear, ridiculous and absurd in their struggles and misapprehensions, but it is these aspirations that can arouse Kafka's sympathies, and those of his readers, not simply ferocity of the leopard's world.

Harry Steinhauer (essay date 1962)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6988

SOURCE: "Hunger Artist or Artist in Hungering: Kafka's 'A Hunger Artist'," in Criticism, Vol. IV, No. 1, Winter, 1962, pp. 28-43.

[In the following excerpt, Steinhauer interprets "A Hunger Artist" as a religious allegory depicting "the tragedy . . . of ascetic idealism." This interpretation, he claims, "fits the text in every detail, naturally, without stretching the correspondence between symbol and thing symbolized, and it is the only one that does so. "]

Since the first wave of Kafka criticism washed over us in the thirties there has been a rising tide of interpretations of Kafka's work: theological, sociological, existentialist, ethnic, psychoanalytic, even medical. A reaction against this proliferation of readings was bound to set in; so it has become fashionable of late to decry all these abstract-learned interpretations and to argue that, since Kafka was not a philosopher but a creative artist, any attempt to derive a "philosophy" from his work is to render it too rational and therefore to falsify it. Not only is it wrong to force a general philosophy of life out of Kafka's work, but we are warned against subjecting his individual writings to a puzzle-solving treatment, against seeing in them allegories and symbols beyond the words which Kafka uses as counters of expression. The images and statements, it is contended, are in themselves the "meaning" of his work; the meaning does not lie behind the words, but in them, in their body.

That Kafka's intention is not exhausted by a one-to-one interpretation of his symbols is, of course, obvious. Goethe protested to Eckermann against the tendency of readers to look for neat ideas in works of literature and insisted that there is an "irrational" element in every writer. He meant by this, I suppose, that when we have squeezed all the rational meaning out of a poem or tale, there remains a residue of some kind that cannot be formulated in words or concepts. That residue includes the hypnotic effects produced by imagery, rhythm and verbal music, and that vague state of mystery and well-being that a good writer stirs in his reader. Even so rationalistic a writer as Thomas Mann indulges himself in effects produced by rhythmical juxtapositions, word-music, and a playful recourse to such irrational sciences as numerology.

With a writer like Kafka there is another factor that defeats a rationalist-abstract approach to his work. Like Joyce, Kafka was deeply rooted in literary naturalism. Now naturalism may be conceived as a compulsion to tell everything. It is a characteristic of non-classical literature to allow the poetic imagination to make side excursions and little exploratory tours that are their own reward and which contribute but little directly to the main economy of the work of art. In realistic writing these side excursions take the form of detailed description of milieu. Often this device is employed ostensibly for sociological reasons: to "explain" the behavior of the characters; but only too often it becomes an end in itself, satisfying the passion for fact which is the mark of sophisticated modern man.

In Kafka this love of detail is ubiquitous. A good deal of it stems from the naturalist compulsion to give the total picture, to be the camera's eye. But that is not all; there is also in him a Talmudic compulsion to modify and qualify and retract, which may be terribly distracting or deeply fascinating, depending on the temperament and literary habits of the reader.

All these concessions made, it still remains a stubborn fact that Kafka is an artist who does create allegories and parables. He does not say that Gregor Samsa awoke one morning and felt as if he were an insect. He says that Gregor Samsa awoke to find that he had turned into an insect, and then proceeds to describe his appearance and behavior as an insect in minute detail. Still, everyone knows that Kafka is depicting a state of mind and not a physiological metamorphosis.

Neider, Magny, Emrich and other students of Kafka, who denounce the allegorical interpretation of his work, having settled their account with this false approach, go on innocently to explain what the symbols "stand for." And how could it be otherwise? When Kafka writes about a mouse who is a coloratura soprano and who sings or pipes before an audience of mice, can we take him in any but an allegorical way? Or when he describes the crazy journey undertaken by the country doctor with his two fantastic horses, he must surely be talking ideas, unless he is describing wholly irrational fantasies. Since it is usually possible to derive a large measure of sense from Kafka's allegories, symbols, and parables, it seems perverse to deny anyone this path to his mental world.

The allegory or symbolism in Kafka's work appears with varying degrees of clarity from work to work. It is especially hermetic in "A Country Doctor," for instance, or in the early "Descriptions of a Battle" or in "The Hunter Gracchus." On the other hand it seems fairly transparent in The Metamorphosis or in Josephine the Chanteuse. The same difference holds for the novels: The Castle is a difficult book, The Trial easy by comparison.

One of Kafka's clearest and most transparent pieces is the tale, "A Hunger Artist." It is so rational, so mathematically constructed in relation to some reality situation that an interpretation of it seems easy. Yet a closer reading of this beautiful story reveals many baffling problems of detail. A review of the literature that has grown up around it shows anything but agreement on these detailed matters. But more fundamental still is the question: what does the hero "stand for"? The obvious answer is that he stands for the artist and that, in his fate, Kafka has depicted the fate of the artist in the modern world. On this Kafka criticism has been unanimous and, it seems to me, unanimously wrong.

For while the variety of situations, problems, and crises that Kafka treats in his writings is great, it is astonishing that, among all his concerns, he seems to be almost wholly indifferent to the position of the artist in modern society, which is one of the central problems in twentieth century literature. Nor does he speculate much about the nature and mission of art. There are occasional references to music in his writings; and in the late story "Investigations of a Dog" music may even be regarded as a central theme. But it is quite clear from the context in which these allusions occur that Kafka, like other German writers, uses music as a loose symbol for the insubstantial, unearthly, irrational-instinctive, the ideal—as Schiller, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Thomas Mann have used it. When the narrator in "Investigations of a Dog" refers to the "air dogs" as artists and musicians, he at once nullifies this description by remarking that their artistic or musical status is an accidental one; basically they are spiritual beings and might just as well be theologians or social reformers without affecting the tale fundamentally. That Kafka had little concern for the problems of the modern artist or for the conception of the artist as a problematical being is shown by the testimony of his friends, his diaries and letters. It is true that, during one of the periods in his life when he was engaged to be married, he noted in his diary the harmful effect that marriage would have on his career as a writer. But this is clearly a specious rationalization dragged in to justify his desire to withdraw from the engagement.

The fact is that Kafka was simply not an artiste-bohémien; he seems to have possessed none of the prima donna qualities that we have come to associate with so many modern artists. This is not to say that he was a normal Babbitt; he had his own share of neurosis, of course, only it was not an occupational one. In another sense too he was no artiste. One thinks of him as one does of those Biblical writers who set out to write down the word of God in parables and myths and turned out literary masterpieces unintentionally. For Kafka has no style and no literary diction. There is little description of nature in his work, no attempt to hold the reader's attention through sex. The fascination of his fiction lies precisely in that puzzle-solving which recent critics deplore even as they practice it.

Kafka, then, has little sympathy for the new mystique of the artist that has developed since the romantic era. He says so explicitly, as explicitly as he ever speaks, through one of his finest allegories, Josephine the Chanteuse, or The Mouse Folk. Here, for once, he seems to be concerning himself with the nature of the artist (though even this allegory has been interpreted in altogether different terms). His thesis seems to be that the virtuoso singing of Josephine is not different in essence from the piping or whistling practiced by the mouse folk who come to listen to her. While she is right in believing that she is especially valuable to them in times of crisis and depression through her singing, they are also right in their conviction that they lend her support which is vital to her. When Josephine asks to be relieved from the ordinary work needed for the maintenance of the community, so that she may devote herself solely to her art, the people rightly reject this as presumptuous arrogance. The story ends with a prophecy by the narrator (who is one of the mouse people and speaks from their point of view) that the day will come when the art of singing will vanish altogether because men will no longer need it. Here it seems clear that music does stand for art, not just for spirituality or the mental life, and that the allegory in general is a condemnation of artistic snobbery.

Josephine is Kafka's last story, written shortly before his death in 1924. Taken in conjunction with the negative and personal evidence presented above, it shows that we can expect no glorification of the artist from Kafka, no lament for his alienation in the world, no plea for special status among the philistines.

How then are we to account for the parable of the hunger artist, which was written at about the same time as Josephine? If we disregard some of the crackpot interpretations that have been suggested—that the tale is a reflection of the food shortage which prevailed in the world during and after the first world war, or of the marathon craze that swept the world in the twenties, or of the emergence of the hunger-strike as a political weapon—we may say that Kafka criticism is of one voice that "A Hunger Artist" depicts the crisis of the artist in modern society, the artist who has lost faith in his mission, who is torn within himself, feels himself misunderstood and unappreciated by the philistine public and cannot survive in his isolation. Recognizing that Kafka would have little sympathy with such a Bohemian conception of the artist, these commentators are forced to see the hunger artist as an unsympathetic figure. Thus R. W. Stallman, who has written the most elaborate analysis of the tale in English, finds that the hunger artist has become detached from reality and lives in his own spiritual world, symbolized by the cage, and this complete detachment from physical reality is spiritual death. Throughout the tale Stallman sees "all the logic weighted against the hunger artist's efforts at autarchy." In his final words we are given his confession that the artist must come to terms with life, with the civilization in which he lives, with the world of total reality; he begs forgiveness for his blasphemy against nature. A German interpreter, Benno von Wiese, agrees that Kafka passes adverse judgment on his artist, and for good reason: the hunger artist has a tragic flaw that justifies his ruin. He is vain, working for fame rather than for the sake of creating beauty.

When we turn to the detailed interpretation of the allegory we find the interpreters equating the guards with critics, who live on the artist like parasites, yet are sceptical of his integrity and belittle his achievement. The impresario is the patron who, in former times, supported the artist. This seems quite untenable, for in Kafka's story the impresario is a business man who promotes the hunger artist's work for his own materialistic ends. Now this is a situation which might apply to the modern artist, but it has no meaning for the artist who depended on an aristocratic patron. Moreover, in Kafka's story, the impresario has been dismissed since the public lost interest in the performances; in reality it is the modern artist who is tied up with impresarios, critics, and art dealers. The symbolic function of the children, who are mentioned at two strategic points in the story, is not explained by these interpreters. Does it make sense to say that children are more appreciative of art and artists than adults?

But, most important of all, is it true, as Stallman argues, that all the logic is weighted against the hunger artist's efforts at autarchy? This seems to me a gross misinterpretation of the basic tone of the story. The descriptions of the guards, the impresario, the society ladies, the circus manager, and circus attendants are highly unflattering, while there is not a word of adverse criticism leveled at the hunger artist. And where is the so-called confession that Stallman speaks of? The hunger artist's last words are: "I fast because I can't do anything else, because I couldn't find the food that I like. If I had found it, I wouldn't have made a fuss but eaten my fill like you and all of you." Far from being a retraction, this is an affirmation of the justness of his position. And the narrator adds: 'These were his last words, but his dimmed eyes still showed the firm, though no longer proud, conviction that he would continue to fast."

How is it possible to misread the last paragraph as a judgment of poetic justice for a life misspent? Is it not obviously a bitter comment on the obtuseness of the public, which has refused to patronize the spectacle provided by the hunger artist, but flocks to the cage in which the brutal panther prances about? This unreconciled ending is typical of Kafka, who leaves the world as he finds it—out of joint, and makes no effort to sweeten the bitter taste he has left in our mouths. And it is the outside world, not the individual at the center of the stage, that is at fault for the fate that overtakes him. In our story Kafka makes this abundantly clear. Commenting on the general indifference of the public to the exhibition of fasting and to the repeated accusations of cheating, the narrator remarks: "This was the most stupid lie that indifference and native malice could invent; for it was not the hunger artist who was deceiving, he was working honestly, but the world was cheating him of his reward."

If it is true that the hunger artist is presented sympathetically, then either Kafka is here reversing himself and supporting the modern Bohemian artist in his anti-social pose, or he is not talking about an artist at all.

I choose the latter alternative. Kafka is not writing about an artist but about an ascetic saint. In his earlier work he had repeatedly dealt with the situation of the man who is torn between the rigorous demands of the ideal and his earthly desires. He had described how such men suffer shipwreck on this Scylla and Charybdis, not through any fault of their own but either because of environmental influences or because of the very fabric of the universe.

Perhaps the most powerful expression of man's half-way position is the unfinished tale "Investigations of a Dog," which was mentioned earlier in this paper. The dog is man—average, commonplace man, "the man from the country" (as Kafka calls him in the short parable "Before the Law"), the man who is ignorant but seeks enlightenment. An early experience, while he was groping about in the darkness, brought the dog-hero under the spell of seven musical dogs. These musical dogs are not artists, because the music that enthralls the narrator-dog emanates from their limbs and is inaudible. Music is therefore some sort of spiritual power that these seven dogs possess and that our dog-hero knows nothing about. The musical dogs vanish and the dog-hero begins to search for the meaning of life. "Where does our nourishment come from?" he asks. Science replies: from the earth. True, but the earth must first be watered and the moisture comes from above. Maybe the food itself could be obtained up there and the earth disregarded altogether. Or perhaps our nourishment comes from a union between heaven and earth. In his experiments the dog-hero tries to do without food altogether; he fasts in the hope that food may come down to him from above and "knock at his teeth for admittance." In his starvation state he hears noises (that is, music) everywhere, not only in the outside world, but within his own body too. As he listens at his own stomach, he is astonished at what he hears and smells—choice foods he had not eaten since childhood. (In Kafka, as in other writers, childhood is a symbol of innocence, purity and joy.) He becomes convinced that, if ever he eats again, he will kill the noises and bring silence into the world. And yet he is lured into a desire for food by his memories of childhood. In this dilemma he yearns for death. But he does not die; he merely swoons and, on regaining consciousness, finds himself in the presence of a dog who sings without knowing it, who liberates our hero from his condition of despair and sets him on the road to study the science of music and its relation to food.

Here the fragment ends with a casual indication that the dog has become a common dog again and looks back to that former state of ecstasy when he judged music to be a nervous condition of hyper-excitability.

Now what would have happened if the dog had remained in his state of ecstasy, refusing food permanently, so that he might hear music? The answer to this question is supplied by the tale "A Hunger Artist."

We learn that in recent years there has been a sharp decline of interest in hunger artists. Formerly they were able to function as private entrepreneurs; for everyone was interested, and interest grew as the fasting exhibition advanced from day to day. There were even season ticket holders and night visitors. Children especially were often taken to see the hunger artist, and for them his exhibition had a special significance; they watched in naïve amazement, while for their parents the spectacle was often no more than a bit of fun in which they participated because it was fashionable to do so. The hunger artist, though not entirely oblivious of the world outside his cage, sat absorbed in his own thoughts, not even conscious of the clock which was the only piece of furniture in his cage. There were guards, usually butchers by trade, stationed outside the cage; they were selected by the people to guarantee that the hunger artist did not cheat and snatch a bite on the sly. Of course this watching was a mere formality; the initiated knew that he never ate: his professional integrity forbade his doing so. Still, the masses had to be reassured; so the guards were posted. However, even the guards did not believe in the hunger artist's integrity. Some of them were cynics, who just knew that he cheated; and to make it easier for him to cheat, they often looked the other way. Others were sincere sceptics, who watched intently all night, training their searchlights on the cage. In fact, suspicion seemed to be an integral part of hungering; no matter what precautions were taken to assure honest performance, the suspicion was there.

The result was a general dissatisfaction. The people outside the cage were dissatisfied because it was impossible to prove that the hunger artist did not cheat. The man inside the cage was unhappy because he knew that he was not cheating. For his secret was that for him hungering was not a feat, but the easiest thing in the world and something the wanted to do. But the more he insisted that it was easy, the more sceptical and cynical the people became.

Then there was the impresario, who was interested solely in the spectacle as a spectacle and as a business (he sold postcards to the spectators). A real Madison Avenue type he, who used the latest psychology in his manipulations; hence there was to be no fasting beyond forty days, for after that period of time public interest could not be maintained. Kafka does not say so, but we may be sure that these calculations were made for him by the Institute for Motivational Research or by the Department of Psychology at the State University. And then the celebration at the end of each fasting period: this was, of course, the crown jewel of his public relations gimmicks, and the speeches emphasized all the wrong points and the seats of honor were occupied by the wrong people.

Such was life for the hunger artist in the good old days. After the sudden change that marks the turning point in the story, when the crowds suddenly stop coming, his former existence, by comparison, does indeed deserve the epithet of "pampered" which Kafka gives it. For at least people had been interested in his exhibitions, they had at least come to them, even if for the wrong reason and in the wrong spirit. But, as usual, no sooner has Kafka made a strong statement than he begins to qualify it. Actually, he says, the change in the hunger artist's fortunes did not come as suddenly as one might suppose. Symptoms of it had long been evident to those who had eyes to see; and the reasons for the change lay deep beneath the surface. That is why no one bothered to dig for them. The fact, however, was inescapable: suddenly there is no audience to fast for. All the efforts of the impresario to revive interest in the art of fasting are futile.

The hunger artist faces up to reality, gives up his private management, and joins a great circus as one among many attractions. Such a circus can use all sorts of acts, even such an outmoded one as exhibition fasting, because of the prestige attached to the performer's name, assuming of course that he has no paranoid delusions about his own importance. And the hunger artist has no such delusions. He quietly accepts a modest place on the way to the stables. The location is not unstrategic: the crowds which swarm to see the animals must pass his cage and stop to look at him. But the advantage is more apparent than real; the beautiful dream turns into a nightmare. He finds that the dense crowds are impatient to push on to the animal stalls, those who do stop to look at him create a bottleneck, and the result is much noise and many insults. Again he discovers that those who stop before his cage do so, not from a desire to understand, but out of mere whimsicality and defiance of the pushing throngs behind them. The stragglers, who could stop and watch him at their leisure, hurry by without as much as a glance at him, so that they may miss nothing of the animal show. Only an occasional father lingers to tell his children about the old-fashioned hunger exhibitions as he remembers them from the good old days. It is in the wondering eyes of these children that the hunger artist sees some future hope of improvement in his lot.

In the meantime he lives in utter neglect; no one even bothers to change the little tablet which indicates the number of days he has already fasted. Now his great dream of being allowed to fast beyond the allotted forty days has become a reality. He can fast on and on. But how empty is his triumph. This is one of Kafka's most masterly examples of the sport which Destiny has with man's highest aspirations. When the hunger artist had an audience, he was prevented by an external force from fulfilling himself; now that he can do so, he has no audience.

Finally the tragic dénouement comes. After many days of complete neglect, the hunger artist is noticed by the supervisor of the circus. A heartrending interrogation ensues, which shows the gross, crude misunderstanding of the hunger artist's mission by this brutish lout. The hunger artist dies in his cage of despair, but firm in his conviction about the value of his fasting. The cage is cleaned out and assigned to a panther. No fasting for him; he is for hearty meals, which are supplied to him by those attendants who ridiculed the freakish hunger artist. The panther is awe-somely alive; his freedom, his élan vital, lies somewhere between his jaws. The crowds are terrified by him but swarm about his cage and gape.

The title of the story is significant. Kafka does not call his hero a hungering or starving artist (the German for that would be ein hungernder Künstler) but an artist in hungering. He probably had in mind Wilhelm Raabe's well-known novel Der Hungerpastor, which deals with a clergyman whose life is devoted to the pursuit of the ideal, who is a pastor of hungering. Raabe's opening paragraph reads:

In this beautiful book I will deal with hunger, what it means, what it wants and what it can achieve. . . . To hunger, to the sacred power of genuine, true hunger I dedicate these pages.

In Raabe's novel starving is clearly a symbol of self-denial, of following the hard way rather than that of material success. Kafka repeatedly refers to the hunger artist's profession as "exhibition fasting" or just "fasting," indicating that this is his hero's main concern. We have seen that elsewhere too Kafka uses food and fasting as symbols for materialism and ascetic idealism or the supernatural. Wilhelm Emrich calls attention to the frequency of this symbol in Kafka's writings. What Kafka now tells us in "A Hunger Artist" is that even he who has found the way and lives by hungering has a rough time of it in our world. If Kafka were thinking essentially of the idealistic artist, his central symbol would be inept. For surely the artist is not primarly concerned with suffering and self-abnegation, but with creating works of art. In our story, however, hungering is the hero's profession.

Again, if the hunger artist is an artist, what is the role played by the impresario? In former times the impresario could only have been the patron, secular or ecclesiastical. Is it anything but peevish spleen to imply that the patron in former times was exploiting the artist for commercial purposes, or that he was generally a philistine as Kafka's impresario is? And if it is true, as Kafka assumes in his story, that the general public was at one time interested in great art, has he a right to charge that this interest was spurious? Then there is the symbol of the children. They represent unsophisticated innocence. Is Kafka seriously supporting the thesis that great art is more open to the untutored mind than to the sophisticated?

The hunger artist has always lived in a cage. Does Kafka mean to imply that the artist has always been an outsider, aloof from society, misunderstood and held in contempt? The hunger artist is today completely disregarded, says Kafka; all interest has shifted to the panther, who stands for gross entertainment. Is this even remotely true of the situation in the arts in general? One may argue that the modern artist has traded in his position of vassal to an aristocratic patron for that of business entrepreneur who must please the public taste at the cost of his lofty vision. But that is not the tragedy of Kafka's hero; it is rather that he has become a minor figure in a large organisation, that no one is interested in him except the few children who pass his cage. In actual fact the modern artist has, on the contrary, become a celebrity to a degree unknown to his forebears.

For these reasons it seems to me that the conventional interpretation of "A Hunger Artist" as an allegory of the artist's role in modern society is untenable. As I suggested above, it seems more sensible to take Kafka at his word and assume that he is describing the tragedy of hungering, that is, of ascetic idealism. In fact he seems to be giving us a phenomenology of religion as we know it from history and our own observation. This interpretation, it seems to me, fits the text in every detail, naturally, without stretching the correspondence between symbol and thing symbolized, and it is the only one that does so.

What Kafka is saying, then, is this: There were, in the past, religious ages when holiness, asceticism, spirituality, the refusal to live the worldly life were widely accepted as the true path to salvation. They were never really admired, perhaps, but at least the general public respected the external aspects of religion, the Church service, the emotional catharsis, the satisfaction of certain social needs. To the sophisticated, religion even then was a social game, an institution that must be supported for the sake of the masses, who obviously believed and could be kept in order and submission by their belief. Religion, whose essence was spirituality and unworldliness, had become organized and legalized with an army of guards to see to it that there was no cheating. But whom were the guards watching? Who would cheat? The hunger artist of course; and here Kafka has made use of a phenomenon in the psychology of religious experience that is baffling but true. Throughout the holy Middle Ages, for instance, we find among the more sophisticated, side by side with a naïve belief in the magical powers possessed by the priests as representatives of God, a cynical scepticism about the inner lives of these holy magicians. It is a dualism of outlook, a form of "doublethink" which both stands in awe before the impressive achievement of the saint and is sceptical of its human possibility—he must be eating on the sly. "These suspicions," says Kafka, "were simply inseparable from the idea of fasting."

Kafka suggests that the guards or priests, those who were in constant touch with the hunger artist and most accessible to the spiritual aura that emanated from him, were most deeply affected by the canker of cynicism. For these guards, he tells us, were usually butchers or materialists, interested in meat and breakfasts and card playing. Some of them were constitutional sceptics who refused to believe that anyone could be holy because they were not holy themselves; hence there was no holiness: everyone lived like themselves, by the pleasure principle. Others among the guards were just cynics and took pleasure in the sly game they felt the hunger artist was playing behind their backs. And it was these corrupt souls who caused the hunger artist the most poignant grief.

And the impresario? He is the great diplomat churchman, the promoter of the whole enterprise and its administrator. Even he, who is closer to the hunger artist than anyone else, including the guards, does not believe in the intrinsic value of the performance which the hunger artist provides. But he is interested in assuring its external success, even at the price of destroying the idea. He has affinities with Dostoevski's Grand Inquisitor, though the analogy is not perfect. Certainly he glorifies the hunger artist, but in such a way that his achievement frightens off the potential disciples, whereas the hunger artist wants to make people believe that his art is easy, so that they may be inspired to emulate him. This is the key to the motif of admiration that runs through the allegory. The hunger artist wants to be admired, he seeks fame; this has been construed as his hamartia which justly brings about his downfall. But surely he seeks fame and admiration in the same spirit as God is represented in religious literature as seeking glory, honor, and praise—not because it does Him any good to be glorified, but because it is good for man to glorify something higher than himself. By glorifying God man is likely to emulate Him. The hunger artist wants glory for his art, not for his person. This is the key to the enigmatic passage at the end of the story, when the hunger artist seems to contradict himself flatly: "I always wanted you to admire my fasting," he says to the supervisor of the circus. "We do admire it," the supervisor replies. "But you should not admire it," says the hunger artist and explains that his fasting is no personal achievement, but the result of his inability to find satisfying nourishment on this earth. Clearly the emphasis is away from his person to the thing he represents. He wants admiration for the ideal of fasting, not for his personal triumph.

The cage is vital to the hunger artist as saint; his starvation is a self-imposed confinement and must always be so. For he does not want the freedom of the active man, of the materialist. Hence Kafka never reproaches him for doing without freedom, while the panther who replaces him in his cage is condemned for not missing his freedom. The panther man should want freedom; the saint's freedom lies in his conquest of time. That is the significance of the only object in the cage, the clock, whose ticking is so meaningful to him, not because it heralds the end of his fast, but because it reminds him that he must and can and will fast on beyond the allotted span of forty days. Surely the symbolism of the cage, the clock, and the forty-day limit lose their meaning if we think of the hunger artist as an artist.

The tragic development which Kafka reports is the deterioration of the hunger artist's position in the world. This consists in a general decline of interest in his profession, so that he is compelled to hire himself out to a circus and take his place as one among many spectacles, and a rather minor one at that. What a clear allegory this is of the fate that has overtaken religion since about the Renaissance, when the Church ceased to be a private enterprise and a main attraction, a rival power to the state, and became a series of State Churches, or one institution among others of a secular nature. The end of our allegory is a piece of eschatology à la Dostoevski. If there is no God, says Ivan Karamazov, all is permitted. The only ethic is then the ethic of the jungle; man becomes a panther who needs no freedom, no transcendence, only meat to tear between his teeth. This reasoning, so painful to the humanist, is heard more and more in our day, and Kafka may well have subscribed to it, either to recall men to a need for God or to register his total despair. Whichever of these alternatives is the right one, the story ends without reconciliation. A good man (that is, a noble ideal) is destroyed; nothing worthwhile takes his place. For surely the satisfaction which the masses will derive from watching the antics of the panther is not a consummation that Kafka could ardently wish.

It is now necessary to consider some questions which Kafka's allegory raises. We have already discussed the problem of where Kafka's sympathy lies, with the hunger artist or with the world that is hostile to him. But it has been suggested that there is an undercurrent of grotesque humor in the tale, directed by Kafka against his hero to show the absurdity of his ideal. Such a grotesque humor there certainly is: the holy man in the cage, bent on promoting holiness to people who can only see his activity as a stunt; the fiasco of the celebration concentrated in the horror shown by the two society ladies when they have to handle the saint's body; the alert guards; the aura of amusement in the faces of all officialdom; the patronizing air of the impresario and later on of the circus manager—all this is humor. But at whose expense? Not at that of the hunger artist, necessarily; almost certainly not in Kafka, whose hero is so often the misunderstood, maltreated victim of society or the universe. Let us not forget that Kafka is one of the early discoverers of the "absurd" universe.

A second problem: is the hunger artist a genuine saint or is he too living by the pleasure principle, except that his pleasure happens to lie in fasting? This is the traditional charge made against the ascetic by the hedonist, and Kafka seems to support it by making the hunger artist stress that it is easy to fast and by having him burst out with the words: "If I had found [the food I liked] I would have . . . eaten my fill." But is this not a characteristic touch of modesty that goes well with his role of a simple human being? How often when we praise someone for an extraordinarily difficult achievement that cost him immense labor do we hear the reply, "Oh well, I had fun doing it," when the man knows that it was anything but fun. Or again: "You admire my fasting as a triumph of renunciation. It's nothing of the sort. I fast because there is no food in this world that I can digest. If there were, believe me I would have gorged myself." Surely the emphasis is on the first part of the statement, that there is no food here to my taste. An interesting parallel is offered by a passage in Paradise Regained (II, 317 ff.). Jesus rejects the temptation by food which Satan offers him, but only because it is offered him by Satan:

"How hast thou hunger then?" Satan replied,
"Tell me if food were now before thee set,
Wouldst thou not eat?" "Thereafter as I like
The giver," answered Jesus.

Milton's Jesus will eat if he approves the source of the gift; Kafka's hunger artist would eat if he could find the right food. The ascetic is the man with higher tastes; here is his strength and the cause of his unpopularity with the low-tasters. It was Schiller who pointed out in his essay On Charm and Dignity that superhuman achievements, performed easily without effort by the genius, evoke the resentment of the many.

Is the hunger artist a vain man, as Benno von Wiese claims? Why must he exhibit himself? Why does he not fast in hiding? Why must he have an impresario? There is no evidence in the story that he seeks to convert people to his way of life. On the contrary, he even encourages the guards to eat by offering them his breakfasts. What then is his game: to show off and get applause? It is possible that we have here one of those pockets of realism that are so frequent in Kafka. Kafka may have realized that there is an element of vanity in sainthood and recorded this observation; but this need not undermine his basic admiration for sainthood. Or it may be, as suggested above, that the admiration the hunger artist craves and the exhibitions he gives are not for his selfish glorification but for the cause he stands for. In any case, exhibitions are an essential part of the faster's performance; how else can he demonstrate the beauty of his way of life? So Dostoevski's Father Zossima lives apart from the world, yet enough in the world to have an effect on those outside his cage. It is important to note that the hunger artist is realist enough to recognize the futility of seeking to convert adults, least of all the sophisticated guards. To them he gives his breakfasts—a gesture which says: since eating is all you understand, eat. He does not exhibit for these corrupt souls, but for the pure children, who may one day restore fasting to its former glory.

There remains the question of questions: is Kafka so "medieval" that he can seriously preach asceticism as a superior way of life? Well, it is a fact that Kafka has recourse to such symbols as fasting to indicate spirituality and self-denial; he represents sex as something dirty; and so he does seem to uphold medieval or early Christian asceticism as an ideal whose passing we should mourn. According to his friend Max Brod, Kafka was more than a writer; he transcended the state of art and was on the way to becoming a saint. Among the German expressionists, Kafka's contemporaries, the Dostoevskian ideal of holiness, primitive simplicity, ascetic purity was a popular literary attitude, in some cases based on genuine conviction. However, it is not necessary to press the theological commitment. Perhaps all that Kafka is saying is: even if we can conceive of a man who is all spirit and no flesh—and surely we can all admire such a man as a seven days' wonder—we shall find that his career is one of frustration; for no one ever really cared about him, and today we care even less.

Heinz Politzer (essay date 1962)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2277

SOURCE: "Heightened Redemption: Testaments and Last Stories," in Franz Kafka: Parable and Paradox, Cornell, 1962, pp. 282-333.

[In the following excerpt, Politzer praises "A Hunger Artist" as "a perfection, a fatal fulfillment that expresses Kafka's desire for permanence.]

[With "A Hunger Artist"] Kafka returns to the motif of the unknown nourishment which he had introduced in The Metamorphosis. In the earlier story this image pointed quite generally to the never-to-be disclosed mystery governing man's life. Here it has been integrated in the theme of art, the Hunger Artist's art.

The tale deals with the art of fasting as well as with fasting as an art. The Hunger Artist is willing to dedicate his existence to the perfection of his craft; hence he feels justified in making all-inclusive claims in return. "Just try to explain to anyone the art of fasting!" he exclaims at the height of his career. "Anyone who has no feeling for it cannot be made to understand it." In the original this creed of the Hunger Artist is patterned rhythmically after the words with which Goethe's Faust pronounces the superiority of his all-embracing view of the world over the petty rationalism of his entourage. Even if our artist is not a superman like Goethe's hero, he is certainly a virtuoso, a star of starvation, and his appeal, like the fascination of any romantic hero, is consciously emotional.

His desire for starvation is insatiable. He is convinced that his capacity for fasting has no limits whatever. He is inspired by the ambition to be "not only the record hunger artist of all time, which presumably he was already," but to surpass himself "by a performance beyond human imagination." This grasp for what can no longer be grasped identifies him as a Kafka hero. So does the paradox that he will have to die from starvation as soon as he succeeds in living up to his noble aim.

His impresario has imposed a forty-day limit on his fasting, a period which is measured, absurdly enough, by a clock instead of a calendar. Yet his reason for limiting the Hunger Artist's enthusiasm for perfection has nothing to do with the performer. He does not act from a realization that the Artist, too, is subject to the necessities of life. Instead, his reason—which Kafka with a touch of malice calls a "good" one—is concerned with the audience. The manager has observed that "for about forty days the interest of the public could be stimulated, . . . but after this the town began to lose interest." It is not the Artist, but the public that matters. The performer should be convinced by this argument. But his attitude toward the spectators is as paradoxical as his attitude toward himself and his art.

Not only is this Artist a man driven by the desire to achieve perfection. He is also a showman who needs spectators as he achieves his unheard-of deed. To suffer starvation by himself and for himself would not satisfy him. He depends on the acclaim, the excitement of the crowds, the military bands, the young ladies, and all the other ritual paraphernalia of a popular success. And yet this popular success forces him to interrupt his achievement long before he has come anywhere near the stage of accomplishment he feels able to reach. "His public pretended to admire him so much, why should it have so little patience with him; if he could endure fasting longer, why should not the public endure it?"

It is the public which answers this question, although in an unexpected way. For reasons unknown to Artist, impresario, and reader alike the crowds begin to disperse and his fame starts to decline. "Everywhere, as if by secret agreement, a positive revulsion from professional fasting was in evidence." Thereupon the Artist dismisses the impresario and hires himself to a circus, a big enterprise which accommodates him somewhere near the animal cages. The former star has now been moved from the center of attention to the periphery; the one-man show has degenerated to something less than a side show; the virtuoso is treated like an animal or even worse; "strictly speaking, he was only an impediment on the way to the menagerie."

Now he is able to reach perfection by starving himself to death. He is at liberty to indulge in his life's dream undisturbed. No more limits are set for him. But the audience he had hoped would watch him perform his supreme act is gone. He is left to solitude and oblivion. Time itself is suspended; the little board which used to tell his fasting days has long been showing the same number, and no more mention is made of his clock. He is breaking all records, but his achievement remains unrecorded since the public is absent.

And when once in a time some leisurely passer-by stopped, made merry over the old figure on the board and spoke of cheating, that was in its way the stupidest lie ever invented by indifference and inborn malice, since it was not the Hunger Artist who was cheating, he was working honestly, but the world was cheating him of his reward.

The reward he has in mind is the public acknowledgment that he is reaching perfection now. Without this acknowledgment perfection will forever be imperfect.

One of Kafka's "Reflections" reads as follows: "One must not cheat anyone, not even the world of its victory." But in the case of the Hunger Artist the world has seen to it that the victory remains in its possession. Moreover, it forces the dying man to realize the contradictions inherent in his life's occupation. "Forgive me, everybody," he whispers with his last strength. If he has really been cheated by the world, why should he now ask the cheater, the world, to forgive? "I always wanted you to admire my fasting," he continues. The admiration he claimed was based on the assumption that the efforts he devoted to his task were extraordinary. He alone was able to do what he did, and more than common exertions were needed to overcome difficulties that no one but he could master. This is the very nature of records and record breaking. Yet in the same breath he says about his fasting: "But you should not admire it." Kafka has prepared us well to grasp the meaning of this blatant self-contradiction. Early in the story he informs us that this Artist's uniqueness consisted solely in the fact that "he alone knew, what no other initiate knew, how easy it was to fast." The very thought of a meal, we learn, has given him nausea. But only now, with his last words, does he betray his secret: "I have to fast, I cannot help it, . . . because I could not find the food I liked. If I had found it, believe me, I should have made no fuss and stuffed myself like you or anyone else."

The art of this Artist is a negative performance. His fasting represents a passive act, which is a paradox. Running counter to human nature, it may, at least in the minds of a curious crowd, have proved attractive, so long as it was performed as a show of self-denial and a feast of sacrifice. Our Artist, however, was cheating even when he thought that he was working honestly; he could not help starving himself; he was forced into his fanatically pursued profession by the absence of the unknown nourishment appropriate to him and his tastes. His art is produced by a deficiency, and the question whether he is at fault for not finding the right food or whether the world is to be blamed for not providing him with it, this question aims ultimately at the meaning of the role that the artist performs in any kind of human context.

We are not surprised to discover that Kafka refrains from spelling out an answer to this question. He does, however, allow the Artist to die with the conviction that his performance is going to outlast his life. "In his dimming eyes remained the firm though no longer proud conviction that he was still continuing the fast." Disregarding the world and its neglect, humbled by the cognition of the deceit that was his art, he carries the paradox of his existence beyond the threshold of his life. Only there, in the beyond, is the nature of the nourishment that would have satisfied him revealed. Knowing it, he appears to be sated for the first time. He need not strive any longer; he possesses it at last. Therefore his face shows conviction without pride, firmness without the triumph of victory. It is, alas, the face of a dead man.

Previously Kafka had used many images related to food and eating to express the paradox of existence. One of the most persuasive is the following: "He gobbles up the leavings and crumbs that fall from his own table; in this way he is, of course, for a little while more thoroughly sated than all the rest, but he forgets how to eat from the table itself. In this way, however, there cease to be any crumbs and leavings." Unable to lead a fulfilled life, he depleted its very substance by doggishly feeding on its waste. Thus he never came to know the nourishment, the nurturing elements, of his own existence. The Hunger Artist, on the other hand, refuses to accept the waste—and in an act of daring revaluation he declares all ordinary food to be waste. Refusal becomes custom; custom turns into sickness, a sickness unto death. Yet from this sickness he derives fulfillment, the deadly fulfillment of his art. Literally he pays with his life for having partaken of the sublime nourishment, perfection. Kafka seems to revert here to the aesthetic philosophy pronounced in Thomas Mann's "Tonio Krö ger." But what was an intellectual disquisition for Tonio Krö ger and his author became a fatal reality for this Hunger Artist as well as for his creator.

The story ends with the Hunger Artist's demise and transfiguration. Although the artist's self-fulfillment is alluded to in most discreet tones, Kafka was not satisfied with this comparatively conciliatory ending. He added a more drastic finale. A great cat takes the place of the dead man. The animal, a leopard rather than a panther, is supposed to balance the art of the Artist by the uninhibited vitality of a young animal that has remained completely natural in spite of its imprisonment. "It lacked nothing," while the Artist was consumed by universal want. "The food he liked was brought him without hesitation by the attendants," whereas the impresario had to use dubious tricks to persuade the Artist to accept even a bite. The animal's "noble body, furnished almost to the bursting point with all that it needed, seemed to carry freedom around with it, too." The Artist's freedom, on the other hand, was identical with his deadly idea of perfection. Needless to say, the leopard attracts the crowds that the Artist missed when he tried to find fulfillment.

The image of this leopard is masterfully realized in a few sentences that convey a feeling of the strength which animates the animal. It is nevertheless an oversimplification. If Kafka had wanted to allegorize in his Artist the impotence of the spirit as opposed to the unbroken power of life, the leopard's joie de vivre would, by contrast, have revealed the intention of the story. But such a simple antithesis cannot have been Kafka's purpose. His story was meant to show that the Hunger Artist's life problem was a paradox and remained unsolved. Thus the magnificently unequivocal image of the cat was superfluous and, perhaps, even out of place.

On the other hand, Kafka uses the simplicity of the leopard to reveal the complexity with which the figure of the Artist is endowed. He has been interpreted as "a mystic, a holy man, or a priest," as an allegory of "man as a spiritual being" or as a parabolical example of the possibility of achieving a "free spiritual existence" by ascetic practices. In supplying interpretations for this figure, the critics seem to have overlooked the fact that here more than in any previous story the paradox of Kafka's own literary genius has been stated in purely artistic terms. The Hunger Artist shares with his author an insatiable desire for a spiritual security. Yet now his quest is reduced to the sphere of art, and most of the mystery of the story is vested in the artist-hero. There are, in other words, no more intermediaries confusing his dealings with the outside world. Even the impresario is "his partner in an unparalleled career. Nor is there any supreme authority who would summon him or whom he could challenge. The heaven and hell of perfection is bred in his own heart. His conflict, still metaphysical, still insoluble, has been confined to the realm of his art.

This art is fatal since it can only be perfected by the Artist's death. In view of the place it assumes in Kafka's work and the mastery of its execution, this story is a perfection, a fatal fulfillment, or at least comes very close to it. Who, after having read it, would deny the Artist a degree of permanence? One cannot help wondering whether Kafka, by stating in his will that it was to be exempted from unconditional destruction, had not suggested that he himself was willing to perish like his hero and yet harbored the hope that he would, however conditionally, survive in the story itself. The Hunger Artist is dead; may the "Hunger Artist" live!

Forrest L. Ingram (essay date 1971)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1553

SOURCE: "Franz Kafka: Ein Hungerkünstler," in Representative Short Story Cycles of the Twentieth Century: Studies in a Literary Genre, Mouton, 1971, pp. 46-105.

[In the following excerpt, Ingram examines the theme of anxiety in "A Hunger Artist. "]

Situations which excite and heighten anxiety abound in "A Hunger Artist": the fasting showman is forcibly isolated (in a cage) from the community of man. He is questing toward a goal which he is not allowed to reach. Each step toward that goal leads him closer and closer to death. The shift of interest in fasting threatens the economic security of the Impresario and the stability of the Lebensweise of the showman. His audience does not understand the hunger artist. Many of them suspect him of cheating. They lock him in a cage, exhibit him, and limit his freedom.

Felix Weltsch wrote that "A Hunger Artist" actually includes four stories in one. "Im Grunde," he says,

besteht diese Geschichte aus vier Geschichten, vier Entwicklungslinien mit verschiedenem Sinn, die ineinander verflochten sind; die äußere Geschehen ist ihnen natürlich gemeinsam, aber der Sinn dieses Geschehens ist vielfaltig. Man braucht nur zu fragen: was ist der Sinn dieses Unternehmens, in Schaustellungen vor dem Publikum zu hungern?

Four simultaneous accurate answers can be given to that question, he says, forming four Sinnlinien to the story: (1) Hungern als Sensation—public fasting provides an outlet for the curiosity of the people; (2) Hungern als Geschäft — it provides security for the hunger artist and his manager; (3) Hungern als eine Angelegenheit der Ehre—it provides a challenge which the fasting showman is proud to prove he can meet; and (4) Hungern aus Ekel vor dem Essen—it is unavoidable. Each of these Sinnlinien supplies a convenient basis for analysis of anxiety-factors in the story.

The first, Hungern als Sensation, provokes anxiety superficially for the public, the hunger artist, and the Impresario, but serves at the same time to distract them from more fundamental problems. The Impresario has the constant worry of staging a good show, of keeping the audience interested and the hunger artist alive. The hunger artist's contact with the suspicious and disbelieving public; his awareness that the nature of his performance and abilities is being falsified by the manager; and his constant frustration that he can never exercise his talents fully, since he is forced to come out of his cage and take food on the fortieth day—all these cast him into melancholy. At the same time, concern for his reputation distracts him from the more fundamental issue—that if he were actually allowed to fast on and on, he would die. His discontent with the particulars of the show keep him from a too acute awareness of the freakish nature of his death-bearing life.

In the same way, the public's intense concern over the trappings of the show distract them from the normally terrifying condition of its chief actor. The show on the fortieth day of the fast is structured in such a way as to allow the public to gather in calm community before the show-stall of a man whose life is a living reminder of the approach of death. The ritual has been carefully arranged. Everything contributes toward calming the crowds: loud triumphant strains blare from the military band; pronouncements of doctors announce facts not about the health of the hunger artist, but about his physical measurements; two chosen women help the artist from his flower-bedecked cage; attendants stand ready to step in when the women's tears of discomfort cause them to relinquish their burden; the Impresario forces food through the teeth of the starving skeleton while keeping up a cheerful patter to distract the public's attention from his condition; finally, a toast is drunk not to the faster but to the public. All this, as well as the official act of watching, was arranged "zur Beruhigung der Massen."

Hungern als Geschäft evokes anxiety superficially in the public but profoundly in the hunger artist and his manager. The public is aware of the financial dimensions of the fasting showman's act; the fact that what he is doing is his business and his mode of support increases the suspicions of those members of the public who are not Eingeweihten. The public appoints official watchers to assure individuals (who cannot watch day and night themselves) that the hunger artist has not, indeed, taken any food for forty days. Even then, only a few ever seem really to believe that his show is real and not just a trick. They crowd around his cage day and night to satisfy themselves that they are not being cheated.

The hungering of the fasting showman provides economic security for the showman's manager, who when the shift of interest is setting in, races frantically over Europe trying to reignite the dying spark—but all in vain. He can, however, turn to another job—perhaps managing another kind of show that is in fashion. But the hunger artist is too old to change his profession. Besides he was "allzu fanatisch ergeben" to hungering to change. He still hopes to astound the world by hitherto unknown exhibitions. Never having done anything in his life, since he was so busy letting other people do things to him—he knows only one course of action: fasting on and on. Since das Publikum has lost interest in him, however, he has only his motive of honor to comfort him; only his knowledge that he is striving after an unreachable goal, toward unimaginable achievements in the profession of fasting. That brings us to the third Sinnlinie, Hungern als eine Angelegenheit der Ehre.

While the public busies itself with torchlights and the appointment of official watchers, the initiates realize that "die Ehre seiner Kunst" forbids the hunger artist from taking any food during his fasting period, and that he could not even be forced to eat during this time. The vast majority of the population, however, could not be expected to understand this. When the hunger artist sits melancholy in his cage during the final stages of the fast, well-meaning people try to comfort him with the animadversion that anyone who had fasted so long must surely be out of spirits. This throws the hunger artist into a rage. For he has constantly boasted that he can fast much longer than forty days—indeed almost indefinitely. But the public and the Impresario would not permit this. The Impresario even tried to disprove his boast by photographs. They had robbed him of honor again and again by cutting short his fast. This, he would always contend, was the root of his melancholy. And after he had become only a "Hindernis auf dem Weg zu den Ställen" he strove, without opposition, to reach those goals he had set himself, to fast to the limits of his abilities, which he felt had "keine Grenzen." Despite the occasional remark by a passing skeptic that he was a swindle and a cheat, the hunger artist "arbeitete ehrlich, aber die Welt betrog ihm um seinen Lohn."

The hunger artist openly told his audience that fasting for him was the easiest thing in the world. Only in the final scene, however, did he dare mention to anyone (hardly even to himself) that he was helpless to do otherwise. Sitting alone in his cage, perhaps the realization of his freakish incapacity joined with his other thoughts to cause his sadness and dissatisfaction with himself—which his public attributed to his fasting too long and which he attributed to his not fasting long enough.

In the last portion of the story, the Sinnlinie, Hungern aus Ekel vor dem Essen, assumes centrality. The hungerer confesses at the end that he had to fast because he could not find the food he liked. During his period of isolation and silence, he has ceased to be proud of his fundamental human defect—the inability to eat. All his other passivities, arguments, boasts, and concerns had helped him to distract himself sufficiently from the important death-threatening and anxiety-provoking fact that he was unfit to live. Left alone far from the crowds, he could no longer turn his face away from the reality of his approaching death. The general public, on the other hand, could always find something else to fill the void left by the hunger artist's death. Soon enthusiastic onlookers surround his cage in which now a fresh life-loving leopard tears raw meat in his teeth.

The anxiety theme, then, is conveyed in "A Hunger Artist" primarily through the changes of circumstances which the passing of time brings with it. Structurally pivotal terminology of anxiety follows a different pattern than that of ["First Sorrow" and "A Little Woman"], because it is more prominently the terminology of the passing of time, of misunderstanding, and of unachieved goals. Some of the terms used earlier, however, recur here, though not necessarily at key positions in the story: Beruhigung der Massen, das beruhigte Publikum, ruhige, Ruhepausen, quälender, störte, unzufrieden, Unzufriedenheit, befriedigt, Trost, Verdächtigungen, Urteil, and so forth. The emphasis, however, centers on anxiety caused by being a creature of time, a creature whose life is packaged out in boxes of forty days each, a creature who dreams of fasting without limitation, but whose physical nature sets a limit on all his activities.

Richard W. Sheppard (essay date 1973)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5836

SOURCE: "Kafka's Ein Hungerkünstler: A Reconsideration," in The German Quarterly, Vol. XLVI, No. 2, March, 1973, pp. 219-33.

[In the following essay, Sheppard examines the role of the narrator and its relationship to the central character of "A Hunger Artist. "]

In the general attempt to say what the figure of Kafka's Hunger Artist signifies, scarcely any attention has been paid to another person in the story who is at least as important as the Hunger Artist: the narrator. On the whole, it has been assumed that the narrator is Kafka himself, if perhaps speaking in an odd voice. But this is not the case. In fact, the narrator has a distinct personality and functions as an independent character in the story.

The narrator's personality is above all evident from his style: Außer den wechselnden Zuschauern waren auch ständige, vom Publikum gewählte Wächter da, merkwürdigerweise gewöhnlich Fleischhauer, welche, immer drei gleichzeitig, die Aufgabe hatten, Tag und Nacht den Hungerkünstler zu beobachten, damit er nicht etwa auf irgendeine heimliche Weise doch Nahrung zu sich nehme. Es war das aber lediglich eine Formalität, eingeführt zur Beruhigung der Massen, denn die Eingeweihten wußten wohl, daß der Hungerkünstler während der Hungerzeit niemals, unter keinen Umständen, selbst unter Zwang nicht, auch das geringste nur gegessen hätte; die Ehre seiner Kunst verbot dies. Freilich, nicht jeder Wächter konnte das begreifen, es fanden sich manchmal nächtliche Wachgruppen, welche die Bewachung sehr lax durchführten, absichtlich in eine ferne Ecke sich zusammensetzten und dort sich ins Kartenspiel vertieften, in der offenbaren Absicht, dem Hungerkünstler eine kleine Erfrischung zu gönnen, die er ihrer Meinung nach aus irgendwelchen geheimen Vorräten hervorholen konnte.

Important features of this passage suggest that the speaker is a professional administrator or lawyer: the relative frequency of words which include the suffix -ig (ständige, merkwürdigerweise, gleichzeitig, lediglich)] the insertion of pedantic qualifications (etwa, aber, doch, wohl, freilich); the unnecessary repetition of virtually redundant phrases (niemals, unter keinen Umständen, selbst unter Zwang nicht); the vocabulary and turn of phrase reminiscent of the "amtlicher Erlaß" (irgendeine, lediglich, eine Formalität, zur Beruhigung der Massen, unter keinen Umständen, ihrer Meinung nach); a liking for the slightly pompous impersonal construction (es war das . . . , es fanden sich . . . ); a preference for the formal or circumlocutory expression rather than the more colloquial expression (damit instead of so dass; Nahrung zu sich nehmen instead of essen; the present subjunctive nehme instead of the more normal nehmen konnte; in der offenbaren Absicht, dem Hungerkünstler eine kleine Erfrischung zu gönnen instead of so daß der Hungerkünstler etwas essen konnte); a predilection for long sentences and prepositive adjectival phrases (ständige, vom Publikum gewählte Wächter): all this suggests that the narrator of "Ein Hungerkünstler" would be most at home in one of the chancelleries of Das Schloß!

It might be objected that this is not at all surprising, since Kafka was by profession a lawyer and would therefore be completely at home in a bureaucratic, legalistic style. This is true, but it does not follow that the narrator of "Ein Hungerkünstler" and Franz Kafka are the same person. In fact, Kafka detested his professional life and it would therefore be very surprising if, in his writing, an area which he always thought of as completely distinct from his office life, he should have chosen the legal style, which he once likened to the bars of a cage, as an authoritative vehicle for his own attitudes. Furthermore, we shall argue that one of the points of this story is to reveal the deficiencies in the narrative point of view, and if the force of these arguments is admitted, then it becomes impossible to maintain that Kafka's point of view is identical with that of his narrator.

Further information about the personality of the narrator is provided by a close look at the scale of values according to which he passes explicit judgment on the events of the story. Like the good administrator that he is, he hardly ever ventures an independent opinion on the fictional reality which he administers. ("Man ist zum Erzählen angestellt, also erzählt man.") He weights up the pros and cons of a situation with great conscientiousness (especially if the matter being discussed is not all that important), and he offers both sides of an argument (as he does, for instance, in the great debate about the provision of breakfasts for the guards), but he rarely passes direct judgment on the events of the story. Indeed, in the entire story, there are only five examples of direct comment by the narrator:

. . . es fanden sich manchmal nächtliche Wachgruppen, welche die Bewachung sehr lax durchführten, . . .

Als Höchstzeit für das Hungern hatte der Impresario vierzig Tage festgesetzt, darüber hinaus ließ er niemals hungern, auch in den Weltstädten nicht, und zwar aus gutem Grund . . . jedenfalls sah sich eines Tages der verwöhnte Hungerkünstler von der vergnügungssüchtigen Menge verlassen . . .

and, most emphatically:

Und wenn einmal in der Zeit ein Müssiggänger stehenblieb, sich über die alte Ziffer lustig machte und von Schwindel sprach, so war das in diesem Sinn die dümmste Lüge, welche Gleichgültigkeit und eingeborene Bösartigkeit erfinden konnte, denn nicht der Hungerkünstler betrog, er arbeitete ehrlich, aber die Welt betrog ihn um seinen Lohn.

Because of the relative rarity of direct comment by the narrator, these five passages have a special status and require careful scrutiny. In the first, we see that although the narrator knows that the Hunger Artist would never eat anything anyway, he feels the need to censure the guards' slackness because it is in his nature to be concerned about questions of efficiency, mechanical conscientiousness, and dutifulness. In the second extract, the narrator finds it entirely reasonable that the impresario should wish to maximize profits by preventing the Hunger Artist from fasting for more than forty days. He is interested neither in the rights and wrongs of the Hunger Artist's behavior, nor in the rights and wrongs of the impresario's treatment of the Hunger Artist, he simply condones the principles of profitability and efficiency. The third example is less easy to explain. Why should the Hunger Artist, who, the narrator has told us, suffers from a profound sense of frustration, suddenly be described as "spoilt"? There is something inappropriate about this adjective and it suggests that for all the narrator's exact reporting of the Hunger Artist's plight, his sympathy for him does not run all that deep. Just when the Hunger Artist's persistent discomfort is compounded by the desertion of the general public, the narrator reveals that his own attitude toward the Hunger Artist is not free from a certain detached superiority. The fourth example involves precisely the kind of conventional assessment that might be expected from an official. The defection of the "mob" is attributed to their "addiction to pleasure" (as though this in itself were necessarily bad) and no consideration is given to the possibility that the Hunger Artist might be partly to blame for this defection. "Vergnügungssüchtig" smacks of the snap, stereotyped judgment and completely contradicts the assessment of the situation which, as will be shown, the narrator makes elsewhere.

Thus, even before we arrive at the all-important fifth passage, considerable doubt has been raised in our minds concerning the reliability of the bureaucratic narrator and his ability to deal adequately with the complex problems which face him. His judgments are unnecessary, facile, or inappropriate, and where judgment is called for, none is made. The fifth passage quoted above completes the picture. Despite the emphasis and confidence with which judgment is passed there, the Hunger Artist reveals on the very next page that the narrator's assessment is wrong. The Hunger Artist's words towards the end of the story have a special status because they are given directly, uncensored by the mind of the narrator, and because they amount to a deathbed confession. They must therefore surely be taken seriously. But if they are, then it is clear that the Hunger Artist has not been entirely honest—and this contradicts the narrator's statement: "denn nicht der Hungerkünstler betrog, er arbeitete ehrlich. . . . It is supremely ironic that at the point when the narrator most emphatically exercises his traditional right to pass judgment, he is immediately proved wrong.

The narrator also reveals his values and attitudes in less direct ways:

Diese dem Hungerkünstler zwar wohlbekannte, immer aber von neuem ihn entnervende Verdrehung der Wahrheit war ihm zu viel. Was die Folge der vorzeitigen Beendigung des Hungerns war, stellte man hier als Ursache dar!

Ein großer Zirkus mit seiner Unzahl von einander immer wieder ausgleichenden und ergänzenden Menschen und Tieren und Apparaten kann jeden und zu jeder Zeit gebrauchen, auch einen Hungerkünstler, bei entsprechend bescheidenen Ansprüchen natürlich, . . .

The exclamation mark in the first of these two passages indicates that the narrator is taking up an attitude towards the events and facts that he is reporting, and close inspection reveals that this reaction has been provoked not by a distortion of the truth but by a confusion of cause and effect. The narrator seems to be slightly more bothered by logical than by ethical impropriety, with the result that our faith in the validity of his judgments is further shaken. In the second extract, the rather prissy bit of officialese "bei entsprechend bescheidenen Ansprüchen" evokes the character of the petty official who has learnt to keep his head down so as not to draw attention to himself.

Other insights into the narrator's personality can be obtained by looking at the kind of thing that engages his interest, the kind of thing that he skates over rapidly, and the emotional level at which he reacts to the various events and details of the narrative. The narrator's eye is caught, for example, by the fact that it is usually butchers who are appointed to guard the Hunger Artist—'ìmmer drei gleichzeitig." Objectively considered, this provision has something brutally monstrous and excessive about it, but the narrator's response is one of mild curiosity only: "merkwürdigerweise." This would seem to indicate that he is not able to respond appropriately to what he sees. Again, on the next page, the narrator shows an undue interest in the elaborate precautions which the authorities take in order to make sure that the Hunger Artist cannot cheat. Here again, he seems interested in these precautions primarily as an efficient administrator who appreciates efficiency in others and who is concerned to report meticulously the extent of the precautions that are taken. And, as was the case in the last example, the narrator completely fails to react emotionally to the inhumanity which characterizes these precautions. Or when the narrator deals with the ceremony which has evolved to greet the Hunger Artist's emergence from his cage on the fortieth day, we hear that there are small differences between the townspeople and the countrypeople in their ability to wait patiently for the end of the Hunger Artist's fast. We hear that the results of the medical inspection (carried out by two doctors) are communicated to the audience through a megaphone. We hear that the meal for the Hunger Artist is served "auf einem kleinen Tischchen." We hear that the music makes speech impossible, and so on. Wherever the reader cares to look in this passage, he will see that the narrator is concerned to record irrelevant details, and that in the process of doing so he fails to react to the sordid and exploitative aspects of the scene. Likewise, the narrator never bothers to distinguish between insignificant and significant details: early in the story, he records that the only piece of furniture in the cage is a clock, but he never asks himself what this detail might signify. He simply notes it in the same tone and with the same emphasis as he notes the fact of the two doctors or the little table.

Also, the narrator at one point makes the revealing remark that the Hunger Artist listens to his guards' stories: "alles nur, um sie wachzuhalten, um ihnen immer wieder zeigen zu können, daß er nichts Eßbares im Käfig hatte und daß er hungerte, wie keiner von ihnen es könnte." This is an important hint as to the nature of the Hunger Artist's guilt, his self-centeredness, but the narrator gives it in the same tone in which he had recorded the precautionary details. And he is then able, without more ado, to move on and spend an inordinate number of lines reporting with evident interest the great breakfast controversy.

Throughout the story, the narrator's vision is distorted by false priorities, misplaced emphases, and a quirkish perspective. He spends excessive time over incidental details and insufficient time over vitally important information. His emotional responses are, as often as not, inappropriate to the event in question, and when he does manage to get below the surface of the world which he beholds, he seems to do so by accident rather than by design. The efficient bureaucrat who is concerned to record as many facts as possible and to see both sides of even the most irrelevant question is unable to come to grips with the real problem of his world: the meaning of the Hunger Artist. Not surprisingly then, when he comes to make a final judgment, he gets things completely wrong. Much has been written about the distorted world of Franz Kafka, but it is always worth asking whether the distortions exist in the world itself, in the mind of Franz Kafka, or in the mind of the person who happens to be doing the narrating.

Ingeborg Henel, in a helpful essay on "Ein Hungerkünstler," overlooks the distorted vision of the narrator and writes:

Da die Welt mit den Augen des suchenden und irrenden Helden gesehen wird, herrscht in ihr auch nicht das sonst bei Kafka übliche Dunkel, die dicke Luft oder das Schneegestöber, die zu große Nähe oder die weite Ferne, die die Dinge nur verschwommen erkennen lassen.

But, as has been indicated above, nothing could be further from the truth. The style of "Ein Hungerkünstler" is far from "objektiv" precisely because we are able to attach a definite personality to the narrator, locate him within space and time, and show how his vision is unreliable because of this location. For all its apparent clarity, the vision of the narrator of "Ein Hungerkünstler" is as dark as if it were clouded by snowstorms, because it is the product of an identifiable set of contingent circumstances. Thus, in one short story, Kafka has called into question the essential basis of nineteenth-century prose fiction, the reliability of the narrator, by the brilliant device of providing us with an ostensibly reliable narrator, who seems himself to believe in his own reliability, but is, in fact, highly unreliable. Whereas nineteenth-century prose fiction assumes that the narrator stands on an Archimedean point outside space and time, Kafka shows the impossibility of continuing to make this assumption. Whereas nineteenth-century fiction assumes that the values of the narrator, rooted in a particular and living social class, are adequate and authentic, Kafka shows us the inadequacy of a narrator who takes his identity from a hypertrophied profession. Whereas nineteenth-century fiction assumes that the narrator understood what he was looking at, Kafka shows us a narrator who fails to respond adequately to what he sees, looks without seeing and sees without understanding. Whereas nineteenth-century fiction assumes the omniscience of the narrator, Kafka shows us his narrator faced with two situations which he cannot explain. First, the narrator tells us about the change of public taste which has come about and then asks who is competent to explain this sudden swing. From the point of view of the traditional conventions of prose fiction, it is the responsibility of the narrator to do this, and it is therefore highly ironic that this particular narrator should implicitly admit that he is not up to the task which he has taken on with so much confidence. Then again, the narrator says later on in the story: "Versuche, jemandem die Hungerkunst zu erklären! Wer es nicht fühlt, dem kann man es nicht begreiflich machen." Just when the narrator ought to be helping us to understand the all-important nature of the "Hungerkunst," he abdicates his responsibility and opens the way for limitless speculation.

Thus, while Dr. Henel is justified in pointing out that the narrative technique of "Ein Hungerkünstler" is an unusual one for Kafka, it is more than a little misleading to suggest that this story represents a radically new departure. In this short story, Kafka says exactly the same thing about narrative unreliability as he does in his two major novels—though he says it in a different way. The unreliability of the narrator which is made clear implicitly throughout Der Prozeß and Das Schloß by having the narrator withdraw from these works to the greatest possible extent, is shown explicitly in "Ein Hungerkünstler" through the provision of a narrator who seems to be reliable but in fact is not. "Ein Hungerkünstler" can be read as the story of the struggles of a lesser K., seen through the eyes of one of the Castle officials who believes himself to be god-like, but who, like the official in K.'s dream before Bürgel, is really nothing more than a Greek god who squeals like a girl when he is pinched. Where the narrator of Das Schloß refuses to pass explicit judgment on K. and the world of the village because of his sense of the relativity of his own position, the narrator of "Ein Hungerkünstler" simply does not have enough imagination to pass relevant comments. If the narrator of Das Schloß holds back from his fictional world out of a sense of strength and tact, the narrator of "Ein Hungerkünstler" holds back from his fictional world because of his limitations. The narrator of Das Schloß refuses a god-like rôle, but the narrator of "Ein Hungerkünstler" assumes one and then rapidly reveals that he is all too human.

The effect produced in the mind of the reader when the authority of Kafka's narrator is seen to be spurious is a kind of shock. Suddenly, the reader discovers that he has been fooled by the narrator, and the shock of this realization is compounded when the reader understands that he has identified with the unreliable point of view of the narrator because it is so like his own, so like the careless way in which he himself normally deals with the world. The reader must now learn an entirely new way of reading if he is to deal with this little story. He must now keep one eye on the person of the narrator, who stands in the foreground, and one eye on the events of the narrative in the background. He discovers that he must pay as much or more attention to the details which the narrator skates over, as to those he dwells on, since this is the only way of getting past the person of the narrator and gaining a clear picture of the Hunger Artist himself.

On the whole, critics have assumed that the Hunger Artist is an allegorical figure. R. W. Stallman sees the Hunger Artist as a threefold allegory ["A Hunger Artist," Franz Kafka Today, 1962], Ingeborg Henel, in the essay referred to above, sees him as an allegory of the artist in general; and Harry Steinhauer sees him as an allegory of the position of religion in contemporary society ["Hunger Artist or Artist in Hungering: Kafka's A Hunger Artist," Criticism 4, Winter 1962]. Although certain aspects of the story lend themselves to such allegorical interpretations, Kafka made (in connection with George Grosz) some penetrating remarks about allegory which we need to take into account:

Es ist richtig, und es ist falsch. Richtig ist es nur nach einer Richtung hin. Falsch ist es, insofern es diese Teilansicht zur Gesamtansicht proklamiert. Der dicke Mann im Zylinderhut sitzt den Armen im Nacken. Das ist richtig. Der dicke Mann ist aber der Kapitalismus, und das ist nicht mehr ganz richtig. Der dicke Mann beherrscht den armen Mann im Rahmen eines bestimmten Systems. Er ist aber nicht das System selbst. Er ist nicht einmal sein Beherrscher. Im Gegenteil: der dicke Mann trägt auch Fesseln, die in dem Bild nicht dargestellt sind. Das Bild ist nicht vollständig. Darum ist es nicht gut. Der Kapitalismus ist ein System von Abhängigkeiten, die von innen nach außen, von außen nach innen, von oben nach unten und von unten nach oben gehen. Alles ist abhängig, alles ist gefesselt. Kapitalismus ist ein Zustand der Welt und der Seele.

Clearly, the same argument can be applied to allegorical interpretations of "Ein Hungerkünstler." They are right and they are wrong. They are right in that one can think of many artists and divines who are "hunger artists," but they are wrong in that one can think of many artists and divines who are not "hunger artists." Even if one particularizes the allegory to the extent of saying that the Hunger Artist stands for the position of the artist or the situation of religion in contemporary society, the same objection applies. If the Hunger Artist is regarded as an allegory, the critic either finds himself forced into proclaiming a "Teilansicht" as the "Gesamtansicht" (in which case he probably ends up by making abstract and pretentious generalizations about the relationship of "art" and "life"), or he has to qualify his statements to make it sufficiently clear that he is talking about a particular kind of artist or divine (in which case he automatically diminishes the scope, importance, and power of Kafka's story).

In order to avoid these pitfalls, it is probably better to regard the Hunger Artist not as an allegory of anything, but as the symbol of a psychological (or, perhaps more exactly, a meta-psychological) state which is not peculiar to artists or divines but which has undoubtedly characterized not a few artists and divines of all eras. This approach is corroborated by a passage from Kafka's Fragmente which suggests that Kafka himself thought of the Hunger Artist as a psychological type:

Die Unersättlichen sind manche Asketen, sie machen Hunger-streike auf allen Gebieten des Lebens und wollen dadurch gleichzeitig folgendes erreichen:

  1. Eine Stimme soll sagen: Genug, du hast genug gefastet, jetzt darfst du essen wie die andern und es wird nicht als Essen angerechnet werden.
  2. Die gleiche Stimme soll gleichzeitig sagen: Jetzt hast du so lange unter Zwang gefastet, von jetzt an wirst du mit Freude fasten, es wird süßer als Speise sein (gleichzeitig aber wirst du auch wirklich essen).
  3. Die gleiche Stimme soll gleichzeitig sagen: Du hast die Welt besiegt, ich enthebe dich ihrer, des Essens und des Fastens (gleichzeitig aber wirst du sowohl fasten als essen).

Zudem kommt noch eine seit jeher zu ihnen redende unablässige Stimme: Du fastest zwar nicht vollständig, aber du hast den guten Willen und der genügt.

The Hunger Artist is one of the "Unersättlichen" who can be found "auf allen Gebieten des Lebens" because he cannot find the right food. But, unlike the three types of ascetics to whom Kafka refers in the above passage, it is doubtful whether the Hunger Artist has any purpose at all, whether, despite his confession, he has ever looked for the right food. The narrator, in that tone of flat reportage which characterizes his treatment of anything important, seems to suggest this when he writes:

Warum wollte man ihn des Ruhmes berauben, weiter zu hungern, nicht nur der größte Hungerkünstler aller Zeiten zu werden, der er ja wahrscheinlich schon war, aber auch noch sich selbst zu übertreffen bis ins Unbegreifliche, denn für seine Fähigkeit zu hungern fühlte er keine Grenzen.

Because the narrator is concerned at this point simply to report the thoughts of the Hunger Artist like the good "Protokollführer" that he is, he fails to remark that the idea of "sich selbst zu übertreffen bis ins Unbegreifliche," being impossible of realization, implies doubt in the existence of "the right food," a refusal to look for it, and a love of never-ending struggle for its own sake.

Thus, even when the day of the big fasting-spectaculars is past, the Hunger Artist is too addicted to his "art," or, more exactly, to struggle, to be able to give it up, and as far as we can see from the narrator's account, this addiction to struggle is bound up with a negative impulse, an inability on the part of the Hunger Artist to accept himself for what he is. This in turn results in perpetual flight from himself:

. . . sondern er war nur so abgemagert aus Unzufriedenheit mit sich selbst. Er allein nämlich wußte, auch kein Eingeweihter sonst wusste das, wie leicht das Hungern war. Es war die leichteste Sache von der Welt.

Because the Hunger Artist is unwilling to accept the limitations of his human existence, symbolized by his refusal to eat, he resolves to flee those limitations and the self which they define, in order willfully to pursue the ideal of absolute fasting which is vacuous because it is tantamount to death. Again, without realizing the force of what he is saying, the narrator manages to suggest that such a daemonic willfulness lies at the root of the Hunger Artist's predicament when he reports:

. . . ja er behauptete sogar, er werde, wenn man ihm seinen Willen lasse, und dies versprach man ihm ohne weiteres, eigentlich erst jetzt die Welt in berechtigtes Erstaunen setzen. . . .

Most of all, the Hunger Artist desires to be left alone with his will and the fiction of greatness which he hopes to create for himself by its exercise. Thus, the Hunger Artist is in exactly the same position as Kierkegaard's "man who wills despairingly to be himself:

By the aid of this infinite form the self despairingly wills to dispose of itself or to create itself, to make itself the self it wills to be, distinguishing in the concrete self what it will and what it will not accept. The man's concrete self, or his concretion, has in fact necessity and limitations, it is this perfectly definite thing, with these faculties, dispositions, etc. But by the aid of the infinite form, the negative self, he wills first to undertake to refashion the whole thing, in order to get out of it in this way a self such as he wants to have, produced by the aid of the infinite form of the negative self—and it is thus he wills to be himself. . . . He is not willing to attire himself in himself, nor to see his task in the self given him; by the aid of being the infinite form he wills to construct it himself. . . . So the despairing self is constantly building nothing but castles in the air. . . . Just at the instant when it seems to be nearest to having the fabric finished it can arbitrarily resolve the whole thing into nothing.

Like this man, the Hunger Artist "is not willing to attire himself in himself, nor to see his task in the self given him." He "undertakes to refashion the whole thing" and constantly builds castles in the air which would be shattered by the first contact with the reality of which he is so afraid. Consequently, in his despair, the Hunger Artist is forced to exert himself ever more strenuously to escape that self which he cannot accept, and only succeeds in driving himself ever more deeply into a state of despair.

Furthermore, like "the man who wills despairingly to be himself," the Hunger Artist is, even if he himself does not realize it, infinitely close to salvation, for at the root of his striving is an unconscious desire for transcendence. This desire is legitimate enough, but the way in which the Hunger Artist tries to realize it is profoundly misguided. Camus' Sisyphus could have become a Hunger Artist, could have sought transcendence in despairingly and willfully trying to escape from the task and the condition to which he had been condemned. But because he does not try to escape and learns to accept both himself and his limitations, he transcends these and achieves a form of happiness. By contrast, Kafka's Hunger Artist is incapable of suspending the activity of his will in order to make Sisyphus' leap of faith; he confuses transcendence with self-over-coming and flees from the limitations of his humanity in order to chase the will-o'-the-wisp of absolute fasting. Whereas Sisyphus accepts his situation as a prison and transcends this prison at the moment when he accepts it, the Hunger Artist's willful attempt to break out of the prison of his fleshliness only imprisons him more inescapably. Thus, the narrator, without realizing the hidden force of his remarks, records that the Hunger Artist never left his cage "freiwillig," by the action of his free will, and that the only piece of furniture in his cage was a clock, the symbol of the Hunger Artist's despairing imprisonment within time. In short, the Hunger Artist's legitimate desire for transcendence becomes illegitimate because he is prepared to accept transcendence only on the terms which he himself decrees, and runs away from that self which needs to be accepted if ever it is to be overcome. The outbreaks of pathological rage to which the Hunger Artist is prone are thus the emotional symptoms of a deeply unstable personality in which will and self are disjunct. Once more, Kierkegaard's analysis of the despairing personality provides us with a direct insight into the Hunger Artist's state of soul:

. . . he is afraid of eternity—for this reason, namely, that it might rid him of his (demoniacally understood) infinite advantage over other men, his (demoniacally understood) justification for being what he is. . . . He ranges most of all at the thought that eternity might get it into its head to take his misery from him!

Just as the Hunger Artist cannot accept himself and strives despairingly to become something that he is not, so too, it is suggested, he is unable to accept other people and strives, indirectly, to dominate them as well. Thus, he listens to the guards' stories only to prove "daß er hungerte, wie keiner von ihnen es könnte" and he yearns for the admiration of the crowds during the circus performances even though he secretly despises them. Only on his deathbed, when he begs forgiveness for having willed that people should admire him, does he realize that he had been more concerned to mystify, impress, and dominate than he had been to communicate through his art. To put it paradoxically, the man who refuses the food which the world holds out to him, who "gives thanks that he is not as other men," is completely incapable of providing the world with any food in return. Thus, early on in the story, it is said that the Hunger Artist answers questions "angestrengt lächelnd," the implication of which is that his smile, the specifically human gesture of acceptance and communication, is artificial. Consequently, one can almost hear the high of relief when, a few lines later, the Hunger Artist is permitted to sink back into himself and "bother himself with no-one." This is not an isolated action. The Hunger Artist prefers to live in the solipsistic illusion of his own excellence, rather than in the world of men, prefers to try to dominate rather than communicate. Later in the story, when the narrator records that the Hunger Artist himself was the only completely "satisfied" spectator of his fasting, he uses the German word "befriedigt," which has sexual overtones and thus suggests that the Hunger Artist's self-absorbed attempt to flee from himself and impose the fiction of his greatness upon others is tantamount to spiritual masturbation.

In view of what the narrator implies about the Hunger Artist's attitude to his world, it is surprising that he should explicitly claim that the latter had worked "honestly" and that the world had cheated him of his reward. When all is said and done, it is not really strange that the world should remain uncomprehending towards the Hunger Artist since the Hunger Artist has provided it with nothing but the spurious glamor of spectacle. The Hunger Artist has no right to complain of being misunderstood, for the simple reason that he never seriously tried to communicate anything intelligible. It is thus hard to blame the world for its scepticism and brutality towards the Hunger Artist: by his deceptions, he has deserved the former and asked for the latter. Kafka once described sin as "das Zurückweichen vor der eigenen Sendung," and this remark applies exactly to the Hunger Artist's basic failing. His task is to be a man among men, but he refuses this and turns his back upon men out of a deep-seated sense of pride. When, however, he comes to understand what he had done and confesses when he is on the point of death, something in him breaks, the pride goes out of him and the narrator, again oblivious of the full force of his own remark, records:

Das waren die letzten Worte, aber noch in seinen gebrochenen Augen war die feste, wenn auch nicht mehr stolze Überzeugung, dass er weiterhungere.

I do not mean to suggest that the problem of the narrator and the problem of the meaning of the figure of the Hunger Artist are two distinct problems conjoined for convenience in one story. Despite the real differences in temperament between the pragmatically official narrator and the introvertedly obsessed Hunger Artist, both men have one thing in common—a deep-seated self-centeredness. Both men have interposed a barrier of subjective prejudice, a fraudulent fiction, between themselves and the real world. The narrator tries to assimilate the complexities of the world to his legalist preconceptions, and the Hunger Artist tries to mold the world according to private fantasies of his own greatness. Both are imprisoned behind bars which they have created for themselves, and neither is able to see any of the light that may shine from behind the mundane and apparently distorted surface of the world which stands over and against them. Each in his own way condescends to the world: the narrator, like Josef K., regards the world and its inhabitants as insignificant and trivial, and the Hunger Artist, like K., assumes that the world revolves around him. Ultimately, the narrator and the central figure of "Ein Hungerkünstler" are not distinct, but complementary figures, a lesser K. seen through the eyes of a lesser Josef K. who is his hybristic Doppelgänger.

Patrick Mahony (essay date 1978)

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SOURCE: "A Hunger Artist: Content and Form," in American Imago, Vol. 35, No. 4, Winter, 1978, pp. 357-74.

[In the excerpt below, Mahony analyzes Kafka's literary technique in "A Hunger Artist" and provides a psychoanalytic interpretation of the story.]

In a recent book on applied psychoanalysis, two critics have rightly said that "Kafka's 'A Hunger Artist' is perhaps one of the most powerful, perfectly told tales ever written" [Morton Kaplan and Robert Kloss, "Fantasy of the Devouring Killer: Kafka's A Hunger Artist," in The Unspoken Motive: A Guide to Psychoanalytic Criticism, 1973]. Most of the power of Kafka's story, I would add, comes from the author's technique of broadening levels of meanings, establishing a continuum among those levels, and subjecting them to many reversals in the literary and psychoanalytic sense of the term. A clarification of Kafka's technique of inclusivity and expansiveness brings to light other dimensions affected by his utilization of reversals.

Kafka's majestic short story has attracted a great deal of stimulating criticism which according to its orientation has advanced a multitude of biographical, historical, and aesthetic perspectives. The very nature of Kafka's fiction, beset internally as it is by countless thematic balances and modifications, promotes an ever-eddying textual criticism. This notwithstanding, I still feel that much of essential importance remains to be said about the meaning and technique of "A Hunger Artist."

One of Kafka's principal techniques of inclusivity or broadening levels of reference lies in his structuring of vertical reference. Specifically, the hunger artist is polyvalent, occupying a mediating and Janus-faced position within the triadic hierarchy of meaning that maps out the story:

I. the religious ascetic the creative artist the immaterial, ethereal and sublimated level
II. the hunger artist a) the immaterializing level (hunger of itself)
  b) the worldly level (the artist's sensationalism)
III. the leopard the physical level

The originality of this frame of reference is that it introduces an upward and downward thrust between levels, thereby departing from the uni-directional upward reference so widespread in conventional allegory. Furthermore, the levels in the above schema do not exist in absolute isolation from one another. Accordingly, Kafka has achieved a quasi-anthropomorphological description of the leopard's awareness, thus pushing the animal up towards level II, whereas the groanings and animalistic rage of the caged artist turn him down towards level III. Levels I and II are spanned by the ambiguity of "Künstler" in its double meaning of artiste and artist. The movement between levels may also be appreciated through I. A. Richards' analytical categorization of metaphor into tenor or idea and vehicle or image. When in the end, the hunger artist unimpededly extends his fasting, he literally wastes away into a diminished insignificance that must be searched out with sticks poked into a pile of straw. In other words, as the vehicle or the physical level diminishes, the tenor monopolizes the meaning and there is an upward thrust in the story; with the dwindling of the very percept, the reader himself is induced into a commentary of a radically conceptual nature. This dramatic evolution of partial allegory into near pure allegory is a rare literary achievement and stands apart from the frequent non-dramatic presentation of allegory as a donné.

Kafka's great genius manifests itself in the choice of artist on level II. A less talented writer might conceivably have selected as protagonist an artisan of pottery who would put more "soul" into his artifacts as he improved, with the banal result that the substantiality of the artifact would be maintained till the very end. By contrast, Kafka shows his genial narrative gift in creating a type of artist who, by the literal emaciation of his body into death, becomes an inevitable and relentlessly overwhelming conceptual indicator. In this light, hunger is radically economic within the immaterial-physical hierarchy: a refined tenor succeeds a wasting body. But the very summit of narrative brilliance and suggestive reversibility is instanced by the jarring juxtaposition of the most etherealized part of the story (the death of the artist) alongside the most physical level (the rampant leopard).

The three-leveled hierarchical scheme in "A Hunger Artist" raises the age-old question of allegory, a theoretical question ideally receiving sustained study in its own right. Be that as it may, the nature of allegory will never be fully defined without our first settling the domain of literary allusion, its techniques and properties, a domain that is even more unexplored. It would seem, at any event, that as allusion becomes less sporadic and at the same time refers to a higher "Platonic" plane of meaning, it tends to become allegorical. "Embraces" here is an indispensable qualifier of "refers to," for a mock epic, on the other hand, contains a sustained allusion to a higher level which is simultaneously rejected. Kafka's technique of poly-reference at times is rather close to that of the mock epic (as in The Castle and, par excellence, Metamorphosis). But, even if Kafka is to be associated with allegory proper, we must grant that Kafka's penchant for thematic modification, remodification, and ironical inversions breaks him off from the main allegorical tradition. Kafka's originality lies in the fact that his allegory specifically operates as a dystopia, an upside-down world where the ideal is debased or demystified and where iconoclasm is wanton, as opposed to traditional allegory in which there is a realm, immediate or distant, where the ideal remains intact.

It has been said that "A Hunger Artist" is strictly a literal story, but to this one may object that since a story may be coherently comprehended on the literal level, the possibility of other levels is not at all obviated. And in fact, there is allegory in Kafka's story but it is continual, not continuous. What demands even more interpretative tact is that the two more abstract domains—religious and aesthetic—are not necessarily concurrent, for at certain times they may succeed each other or just overlap. And even where there is a double reference there may not be a weight equally distributed among its individual terms, much like the distributional variability of the overdetermined dream image. In the text at hand, the artist's eventual confession that he would have eaten if he found the right food certainly applies in a critical sense more to the absolutist claims of all religions than to the Romantic artist's self-asserted mythic vocation. On the other hand, a firmer reference to aesthetic creativity is found in the statement that children inside or outside school have not been prepared for the lesson of fasting.

In the realm of religious and ascetic references, the most remarkable are those which play freely with biblical narrative and relate to Christ. First, the two lady assistants to the faltering martyr replace Simeon who helped carry the Cross, and secondly recall the two Marys present at the crucifixion, an event alluded to again in Kafka's story. The termination of the forty-day fast is announced by the impresario who is a parody of Christ's harbinger, John the Baptist. Although a herald, the impresario is untrue to his subject and does not understand him:

The impresario came forward, without a word—for the band made speech impossible—lifted his arms in the air above the artist, as if inviting Heaven to look down upon its creature here in the straw, this sufferng martyr . . .

The passage combines the scenes of Christ as Infant laid in straw and His baptism by John. The third chapter of Matthew's gospel depicts the latter scene, rendered so familiar by religious iconography:

And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out the water: and lo, the heavens were opened unto him.

An ironical reversal is added. In Matthew and Luke, the baptism is immediately followed by Christ's fasting for forty days, whereas in "A Hunger Artist," the baptismal parody concludes the forty-day fast. Kafka's subsequent portrayal of the artist fuses iconographic representations of Christ both falling beneath the Cross and also crucified:

. . . his head lolled on his breast as if it had landed there by chance; his body was hollowed out; his legs in a spasm of self-preservation clung close to each other at the knees, yet scraped on the ground as if it were not really solid ground, as if they were only trying to find solid ground; and the whole weight of his body, a featherweight after all, relapsed onto one of the ladies . . .

In a more general sense, the grand public did not believe in the hunger artist, living or dead. Kafka's dying protagonist who begs forgiveness is the ironic contrast of the dying Christ forgiving the spectators.

Contributing an added dimension to the ironies in the vertical technique of hierarchical inclusivity is the technique of horizontal expansion, which deftly manipulates the particular as a universal. This technique of expansion operates in two ways: the hunger artist can be both an individual and class figure; secondly, certain events centering around him, though occasional in occurrence, are softly focused so as to appear typical. More precisely, the term "hunger artist" acquires a generic dimension in occurring four times without the definite article, contrasting with over fifty occurrences with the definite article. The overall result, a stylistic coup de grâce, is the illusory union variously created between the definite and indefinite, the general and particular. After the singular and indefinite "a" in its title, the story opens with a generic statement explicitly referring to hunger artists as a class and ascribing a certain experience suffered by them all:

During the recent decades the interest in hunger artists has lessened.

Subsequently in the first paragraph of the German version, Kafka thrice precedes "hunger artist" by the definite article, yet in each case the epithet is generic in nature:

At one time the whole town took a lively interest in the hunger artist . . . everyone wanted to see the hunger artist at least once a day . . . and then it was the childrens' special treat to see the hunger artist . . .

Then, in the course of the second paragraph, there is a delicate shift to the particular hunger artist or protagonist of the story. An amateurish trait would have been to write "a hunger artist" or "the hunger artists" to designate the class. But Kafka does nothing of the kind; he deftly moves with grammatical legerdemain from the general to the particular. And yet the hunger artist is surely individualized, for not every one of his peers would sing, like to tell jokes, and so forth.

The other two occurrences of "a," in paragraphs six and eight, are limited in tonal influence. If Kafka desired indefiniteness as the predominant tone, he would have certainly employed "a" in place of "the" in the penultimate paragraph where the artist is submerged in a pile of straw. Instead, Kafka retains the major though not exclusive stress on particularity with the definite article. In this way, although the particular hunger artist is the cynosure of the story, as an allusive and inclusive force, he expands both in horizontal and vertical directions, representing other hunger artists and also those of a "higher" productivity.

Attendant with the skilful gliding between the particular artist and the artist class there is the element of the double nature, unique or occasional, and typical, of some episodes. Periodicity is surely the keynote of the hunger artist's life—his fasts are broken with small regular intervals of recuperation. Similarly, the band music and fanfare announcing the termination of his fasts is a recurrent ritualistic event ("But then there happened yet again what always happened"). In the course of this ritual, however, an episode took place which, upon second look, was by no means invariable. When the artist collapses, the two lady assistants react in their own personal ways. However, the particularization of their reactions within a cyclical chain of events fades into an impression of generalization. The detail of the nearby attendant in readiness along with the generalizing pressures of the muted style tones down the transition from the typical to the non-typical and in that manner unites the two poles. Likewise, one may see aspects of the same technique in the elaborated incident of the artist's outrage, where the typical and predictable (he raged especially when fasting a long time) dominates the particular.

In terms of point of view as well, "A Hunger Artist" reveals an inclusive soft focus and ultimately involves both the narrator and reader in the fabric of its reversals. In the first place, the narrator adopts a shifting partiality, favouring the hunger artist while he is alive:

Of course there were people who argued that this breakfast was an unfair attempt to bribe the watchers, but that was going rather too far.

. . . and never yet, after any term of fasting—this must be granted to his credit—had he left his cage of his own free will.

And when once in a time some leisurely passer-by . . . spoke of swindling, that was in its way the stupidest lie even invented by indifference and inborn malice, since it was not the hunger artist who was cheating, he was working honestly, but the world was cheating him of his reward.

But subsequent to the artist's death, the narrator presents the bias of the circus spectators in a somewhat favorable light:

Even the most insensitive felt it refreshing to see this wild creature leaping around that cage that had so long been dreary.

Narrative soft focus is also found in the ambiguity or doubtfulness of the narrator's omniscience. It is impossible to tell whether he is totally omniscient and therefore merely revealing the partial knowledge of the protagonists or whether he is partially omniscient and thereby participating in the partial knowledge of the protagonists. There are three outstanding instances of such ambiguity:

Yet for other reasons he was never satisfied; it was not perhaps mere fasting that had brought him to such a skeleton thinness that many people had regretfully to keep away from his exhibitions, because the sight of him was too much for them, perhaps it was dissatisfaction with himself, that had worn him down.

For meanwhile the aforementioned change in public interest had set in; it seemed to happen almost overnight; there may have been profound causes for it, but who was going to bother about that.

. . . perhaps they might even have stayed longer had not those pressing behind them in the narrow gangway . . . made it impossible . . .

A note of indefiniteness also occurs with respect to the reader-audience. Its presence is somewhat implied or felt by the narrator's use of "of course." Once, however, the audience is directly addressed—in the second person-singular and it is not clear whether the address issues from the reflecting artist, the narrator, or both:

He might fast as much as he could, and he did so; but nothing could save him now, people passed him by. Just try to explain to anyone the art of fasting!

Briefly, the twentieth-century fascination for Kafka's works is to some degree due to their unmooring, their peculiar indefiniteness and inclusive shifting perspective which on the one hand releases from traditional stable perspectives and, on the other hand, as a result of their fragmented formal nature, command further speculation on the part of the reader.

Given Kafka's technique of inclusivity and expansiveness, we are now in a better position to pursue the material which he has subjected to reversal, both in its psychoanalytical sense of defense and in the literary sense as a principle of narrative structure. As I suggested before, much of Kafka's fiction is a mixture of allegory and dystopia or upside-down utopia. If the traditional thrust of allegory is upward, in reference to abstractions, morality, religion, and the like, the Kafkaesque allegory has a downward movement, de-idealizing abstract forces, exposing their corruption and attendantly showing their unattainability. The Trial spectacularly testifies to such a reversed conception, and somewhat in the same category is "A Hunger Artist" with its various reversals, ironies; it presents no resting place or solution except death, for any other solution is inverted and begins another series of problems.

The standard analytical commentary on reversal is in Freud's metapsychological paper "Instincts and Their Vicissitudes." There, Freud lends special attention to two defenses: reversal into the opposite and turning around upon the subject's self. They are among the ego's very oldest defenses and may here be conveniently assimilated into the one rubric, reversal. In treating reversal, Freud has recourse to two pairs of component instincts (sadism and masochism, voyeurism and exhibitionism) and what he calls the total ego activity of love. Reversal may involve:

  1. a change of instinctual aim, as from activity to passivity. e. g., instead of my torturing another, the other tortures me;
  2. a change of object, while the instinctual aim remains the same—this is reflected by the Greek middle voice, e. g., instead of torturing another, I torture myself.
  3. a reversal of content, in the one instance of love giving way to hate. In effect, writes Freud, this topic is quite complicated and he posits three opposites for love: loving-hating, love-being loved, and love and hate taken together as antithetical to unconcern or indifference.

Now, the artist is not only a simple exhibitionist (he stares into vacancy while others are looking at him) but can simultaneously be an exhibitionist-voyeur (he looks at others while they are looking at him) or then again, there's a reversal into sheer voyeurism: he triumphantly looks at the tired watchers eating after a sleepless night. The masochistic element in this voyeurism is clear, for on the other hand, the artist is depressed at seeing the meat destined for the caged animals, to which he feels inferior; similarly, he is pained by the self-asserting starers. In parallel fashion, the fasting artist is not only masochistic, but is also sadistic: he goes to great lengths to keep the watchers sleepless throughout the night, and he wants the public to maintain at considerable inconvenience their interest in his fasting past the forty-day limit.

Indeed, the story puts forth various combinations and reversals of the four component instincts: the lady assistants who, in striving for the exhibitionistic post of honor, coldly exploit the artist's exhibitionism; the spectators who sadistically delight at the distress of a lady assistant; the circus visitors that fear the leopard's roar yet in rapt voyeurism crowd around his cage to look at him; the artist's delusional madness that he can fast indefinitely, with the final result that he neglects to keep up-to-date the notice board and dwindles from sight underneath the straw, to the complete undoing of exhibitionism. And then again, concern may give way to indifference, as when the public forgets the artist; or concern may give way to a combination of both hatred and indifference as in the case of the accusation of the malicious passer-by.

The mechanism of reversal not only applies to the story's thematic elaboration of the component instincts but also the irony which Kafka uses to structure the narrative. The public would rather suppress or repress than be fully aware of its caprices, a fact brought out by the story's very last sentence which ironically reverts to the story's first sentence which sequentially complements it:

But they braced themselves, crowded round the cage, and did not want ever to move away.

During these last decades the interest in professional fasting has markedly diminished.

What is more, exhibitionistic demonstrability of the artist's fasting is ultimately self-defeating and self-punitive, for the public's voyeuristic capability is unequal to the artist's exhibitionistic powers. Only he himself can be adequate witness to his performance, but no one will believe him. Verifiability of his fasting exceeds the spectators' masochistic tolerance of inconvenience. All this adds up to the consideration that breaking a public record feeds on public acknowledgment and acclaim, and without that response, record-breaking occasions further isolation.

Hence, the artist is prisoner of his enterprise. It is possible that his very thinness is counterproductive and keeps people away; his melancholy is misunderstood as caused by fasting whereas the logical reverse was true: although he truthfully says that fasting is easy, he is accused of being modest or deceiving, and when he sings to prove he's not eating for the neglectful watchers playing cards at some distance away, they admire his hypocrisy and cleverness that much more. Even the paradoxical possibility of being intriguing because of his temporary unpopularity boomerangs against the artist:

People grew familiar with the strange idea that they could be expected, in times like these, to take an interest in a hunger artist, and with this familiarity the verdict went out against him.

The most poignant reversal, in a dramatic sense, occurs at the end of the story when the artist undergoes a change of character. He rejects the surface heroism of his past fasting as essentially an involuntary act. Though maintaining his dying decision to fast, he is no longer proud about it. This final humility from an otherwise deranged borderline character is taken as craziness itself by the overseer who continually reverses his logical position:

"Forgive me, everybody," whispered the hunger artist . . .

"Of course," said the overseer, and tapped his forehead with a finger to let the attendants know what state the man was in, "we forgive you."

"I always wanted you to admire my fasting," said the hunger artist.

"We do admire it," said the overseer, affably.

"But you shouldn't admire it," said the hunger artist.

"Well then we don't admire it," said the overseer, "but why shouldn't we admire it?"

"Because I have to fast, I can't help it," said the hunger artist.

"To me you look strange," said the overseer, "and why can't you help it?"

"Because," said the hunger artist, lifting his head a little and speaking, with his lips pursed, as if for a kiss, right into the overseer's ear, so that no syllable might be lost, "because I couldn't find the food I liked. If I had found it, believe me, I wouldn't have made any scene and would have stuffed myself like you or anyone else."

It is an ironic reversal that the artist's physical diminution is concomitant with the diminution of his fame. Ultimately visuality in all its forms fails as a compensation for orality. The narcissistic relation between eye and mouth finally collapses, to be succeeded by aurality and a quasi-osculation. The sadistic impresario gives way to the overseer who, befitting his partial role as superego, with his head turned sidewards, listens to the artist's final confession.

In Kafka's story, reversal is the creative matrix out of which the content and form are elaborated; it keynotes the gliding of levels of meaning into each other, the story's use of Biblical allusion, the dramatization of the four component instincts, and the technique of including the general in the particular and vice versa. As well, reversibility defines the story's narrative structure, whose beginning is also to be understood as following its ending. Summarily: In "A Hunger Artist" the aphoristic reduction of the content and imaginative structure reveals a common factor which extends in nature from an unconscious defence to some kind of counterpart in the autonomous conflict-free ego, with the latter functioning centrally in the creation of aesthetic form. The final result is a Symbolic Gestalt.

Allen Thiher (essay date 1990)

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SOURCE: "A Hunger Artist," in Franz Kafka: A Study of the Short Fiction, Twayne Publishers, 1990, pp. 80-96.

[In the following excerpt, Thiher examines "A Hunger Artist" in the context of Kafka's ironic commentary on the role of the artist throughout several of his works.]

The notion of the "artist" in postromantic Germany could still conjure up the image of a creative demiurge, though Kafka's artists hardly fit this description. They are more likely to call forth a snicker. Kafka is hardly the first writer to present the artist as a laughter-provoking beast hardly worthy of serious consideration; I ask the reader to consider the following lamentation about the poet's plight by a romantic writer whom Kafka read with the greatest interest, E.T.A. Hoffmann: "Once glowed in the breast of the chosen ones the inner, holy striving to express in glorious words that which they had most deeply felt; and even those who had not been chosen had belief and devotion; they honored poets as prophets who could prophesy of a glorious unknown world full of shining riches; and they did not suppose that those who weren't elected might be able to enter that holy realm about which poetry gave them a distant annunciation. Now everything has changed." The romantic Hoffmann thus offers at once a description of both the artist's task and the remote period when the artist could accomplish that task, all of which is couched in a complaint about the present day's fall from that glorious past. This is a familiar historical configuration. Once things were different; the poet-prophet could enter the superior realm of the sacred and the ideal. But that moment has been lost. It might appear that, as modern philosophers such as Heidegger or Derrida would have it, poets always find themselves as those who once had access to a sacred sphere, that once there was no fallenness. But in the present moment artists have "always already" undergone a fall from some moment of privileged annunciation. Or as Kafka put it in his views on our fall into history, poets are always repeating the past's decline. They live it as an eternal repetition in the present.

Hoffmann goes one step further in dramatizing this lamentation, and this is the step that interested Kafka. Hoffmann's speaker, complaining about the difference between then and now, is a dog. He is, to be sure, a rather famous dog, the Berganza that Cervantes first described in a story about his conversations with Scipion (in his Novelas ejemplares or Exemplary Tales) and whose adventures Hoffmann continued in his tale called "Nachricht von den neuesten Schicksalen des Hundes Berganza" ("Report on the latest Fate of the Dog Berganza"). The dog Berganza, like Kafka's horse Bucephalus, is well placed to report on the fall, for this canine has lived several centuries, and in his latest avatar, I think, he has become Kafka's beast artist and thinker of the twentieth century.

Reports on the fall—the fall from true humanity—are appropriately made by dogs and apes and other utterly fallen artists. We have already seen some of these fallen or degraded artists in Kafka's earlier work in which beasts are looking for knowledge and redemption, such as "Investigations of a Dog" (written in 1922, at the same time as the tales in A Hunger Artist), or, even more obliquely, in The Metamorphosis. One of Kafka's most remarkable portrayals of the artist as beast is found in a piece he published in 'A Country Doctor," "A Report to the Academy." On reading this tale narrated by an ape, one immediately wants to draw analogies with James Joyce's portrait of the artist as a young man and the later portrait of the artist as a young monkey by Michel Butor, for Kafka's portrait is situated clearly in a development that leads from a view of the artist as a heroic forger of myth to one of the artist as a dealer in aping junk. But the best starting point for looking at intertextual affinities is again a romantic text, again by Hoffmann, namely his fantasy piece called "Nachricht von einem gebildeten jungen Mann" ("Report from a Cultured Young Man") which contains a letter from Milos, a well-educated ape, to his friend Pipi in North America. Hoffmann's primate has learned to ape all the mannerisms of Europeans of good education and has become a consummate artistic charlatan merely by using the instinct for imitation that causes us to laugh at apes—and which we say is the basis of our art. From the time of Aristotle to the present day Western art has constantly returned to mimesis—imitation and representation—as the basis for its existence; therefore, if the artist is an imitator, he is, as Hoffmann and, even more pointedly, Kafka show, quite literally an ape.

Kafka's ape narrator in "A Report to the Academy" is also a product of a long history, to wit, the history of the ascent of man that Darwin told in his version of the origin of the species. Kafka's ironies about art and science leave one uncertain as to whether he is presenting man as an elevated ape, or his ape as a fallen man. In any case, in Kafka's tale the well-educated ape finds that his instinct for imitation is a part of a historical process for which he must give an account; Kafka's ape is in fact reporting on his origins—the origins of a, if not the, species of ape artists—and in this respect Kafka offers the artist as a strange culmination of one of nature's more bizarre evolutionary branchings.

Beyond Darwin, Kafka's parody aims at the myth of origins itself, at that myth that would assign some end to the retrospective expansion we can create as the tale of our history. Origins are always already given by the desire to construct a limit for the distances we see behind us; or, as Kafka's ape narrator says, in pointing out the arbitrary nature of these creations: "It is now nearly five years since I was an ape, a short space of time, perhaps, according to the calendar, but an infinitely long time to gallop through at full speed, as I have done. . . ." Yet we all believe that in some sense we are still tied as apes to that long trip that took us from our origins, over evolutionary distances, to the present moment: "To put it plainly . . . your life as apes, gentlemen, insofar as something of that kind lies behind you, cannot be farther removed from you than mine is from me. Yet everyone on earth feels a tickling at the heels; the small chimpanzee and the great Achilles alike." Our animal origins remain with us, and perhaps man—or the Kafkan artist—can only exist as a beast. Kafka's ape, like all of us apparently, has become or tried to become a man by imitating what a man is. He has aped man, has followed his animal instinct for imitation, so that paradoxically he becomes a man by using his skills as an ape.

There is one noteworthy if subtle difference between Kafka the artist and his aping creation, for Kafka's correspondence and diaries reveal that his greatest agony was that he could not find the freedom to be, in the simplest terms, himself, that is, the artist he longed to be. The ape who imitates man, on the other hand, claims that he did not begin imitating in order to gain his freedom once he was captured; rather, he merely wanted an Ausweg, a way out: "I deliberately do not use the word 'freedom' . . . may I say that all too often men are betrayed by the word freedom. And as freedom is counted among the most sublime feelings, so the corresponding disillusionment can be also sublime." For the ape has observed freedom in art and has become disillusioned:

In variety theaters I have often watched, before my turn came on, a couple of acrobats performing on trapezes high in the roof. They swung themselves, they rocked to and fro, they sprang into the air, they floated into each other's arms, one hung by the hair from the teeth of the other. "And that too is human freedom," I thought, "self-controlled movement." What a mockery of holy Mother Nature! Were the apes to see such a spectacle, no theater walls could stand the shock of their laughter.

The ape sees our artists as practitioners in freedom, but in their human freedom they are a distortion of nature, a comic deviation that, in some sense, marks art for Kafka as a kind of derisive activity, sacred and risible at the same time.

The trapeze artist, the circus equestrienne, and the writer all use or practice freedom, but they are all deviants with regard to pure nature: freedom is a superfluous notion for a natural being. Our ape narrator, half human artist, half mimicking animal, retains a memory of a nature that asks for none of the redundant gestures of freedom, or the dubious doublings of mimesis. The natural being, like the sister at the end of The Metamorphosis or the panther that replaces the artist in starvation at the end of "A Hunger Artist," has a body that bursts with sufficiency, that has no need of the freedom that the artists need. The caged panther, for instance, "seemed not even to miss his freedom; his noble body, furnished almost to the bursting point with all that it needed, seemed to carry freedom around with it too; somewhere in his jaws it seemed to lurk." The self-sufficiency of the natural world, like a paradise from which we are forever driven, remains in the back of our ape's mind; and once this ape has been put in his cage in Africa, the most he can desire is a way out: he decides to become an artist.

As Kafka portrays the ape in "A Report to the Academy," he becomes an artist who practices Aristotle's Poetics by imitating what he sees about him:

What a triumph it was . . . when one evening before a large circle of spectators—perhaps there was a celebration of some kind, a gramophone was playing, an officer was circulating among the crew—when on this evening, just as no one was looking, I took hold of a schnapps bottle that had been carelessly left standing before my cage, uncorked it in the best style, while the company began to watch me with mounting attention, set it to my lips without hesitation, with no grimace, like a professional drinker, with rolling eyes and full throat, actually and truly drank it empty; then threw the bottle away, not this time in despair but as an artistic performer.

With this acting performance he breaks into speech and into the human community. The way out leads then from Zoological Garden to the variety stage and, on the way, leaving his apedom behind, he can reach the cultural level of the average European. Having attained this level, the ape-artist, now a comically redundant expression, can take up a proto-Kafkan position and sit by the window in his rocking chair and gaze out on that exterior world to which he is a stranger.

Kafka's ape is metamorphosed into an ironic representative of a poetic tradition that once vouchsafed the greatest philosophical seriousness to aping, and his sitting by the window figures the kind of alienation the modern artist feels in looking back on that tradition that believed imitation brought one into the realm of nature. Moreover, the tale is one of several in which Kafka seems to take pleasure in revealing that the artist is, if not a deviant, then a superfluous being whose work can just as well be done by mere imaginings, with no need for concrete realization. This minimalist strategy underlies, for example, the anticipation of conceptual art that Kafka offers in "The City Coat of Arms," a later parable written two years before "Investigations of a Dog." This exemplary text begins by saying that all was going well in the construction of the Tower of Babel, perhaps too well, since people thought more about "guides, interpreters, accommodations for the workmen, and roads of communication" than about actually building the tower up to the heavens: "People argued in this way: The essential thing in the whole business is the idea of building a tower that will reach to heaven. In comparison with that idea everything else is secondary. The idea, once seized in its magnitude, can never vanish again. . . ."

Baukunst—or architecture, as the emblem of all arts—is reduced to a mere conceptual matter. It matters little if the edifice is ever built, since that would entail the haphazard material manifestation of the idea (every century will have its own building techniques, and usually better ones as time goes by, so why be in a hurry?). Kafka pushes the idea of mimesis to a kind of absurdly logical conclusion: if art imitates the idea or ideal, the artist need not bother with the derivative act of imitation, since the idea continues to exist independently. The idea needs no material embodiment, since, as with the concept of the Tower of Babel, it can circulate freely and traverse great historical expanses of time that, in fact, the realized work could never cross. The idea of the Tower of Babel can, for example, pop up in a parable by a German language writer living in Prague at the beginning of the twentieth century. The concept of the tower is clearly contained therein, even if the parable exists to explain the nonexistence of the material realization of the concept, which can then take on other, variant forms of nonexistence, such as the pit of Babylon that Kafka saw as a project that one might have burrowed into existence.

If the artist's creation is at best apery, and in any case a derivative act better left undone, then the artist is thrown back upon himself to find some reason for his existence. Denied recourse to some problematic exterior realm of the ideal, he is obliged to look within himself and find the sources of art in his innards. In a sense all that is left to him is to discourse on his own condition and literally to turn himself into art—as Kafka shows in "First Sorrow," and especially in his initiation into body art, "A Hunger Artist." Art here is the process of art, which is to say, art feeds on the mere process of the artist being an artist. Or one might say that Kafka's idea of art is minimalism with a vengeance: the artistic process is the act that can lead to the disappearance of the artist.

The first story in A Hunger Artist is "First Sorrow," the tale of the initiation into suffering of the fanatical trapeze artist who is the story's protagonist. Swinging on a trapeze is of course a nonmimetic art and offers an ambivalent image of art as a trivial if intense process. Kafka's choice of circus artist is ambivalent in that it seems to stand for the kind of fallen status of the artist at the same time that it suggests that the artist can be found anywhere, perhaps everywhere—always already about to fall into our midsts. Living on the margins of culture, his trapeze artist is not just an acrobat who turns his body into art: he is an artist who does nothing else. Kafka is again pursuing his absurd logic to a reasonable conclusion. For if the artist is an artist only insofar as he practices his art—a proposition that Kafka entertained in several contexts—then the only way to exist as an artist is always to be an artist, that is, never to stop. So the trapeze artist never comes down from his exalted position "high in the vaulted domes of the great variety theaters." Day and night he stays on his trapeze. . . .

The hunger artist, like the trapeze artist, never stops practicing his art. He would fast for days on end, even forever, if he could. He literally uses his body for his art. And in this process of ascesis he has the capacity to symbolize every artist hero from the Christian Creator, who allowed his body to be hung up on public display, to the body artists of the sixties and seventies who, subjecting their flesh to public demonstrations of sado-masochism, proclaimed they were the art of the immediate moment. Or, from another perspective, the hunger artist looks back to these performers of degraded spectacle that were once found in the circus and the music hall, the freaks and the misfits (and historically real hunger artists) who are another double of the fallen artist who can only use his own body for his art. Kafka probably never created a character capable of generating a richer allegory, at once both specific in its description of the artist, and capable of derisively portraying the structure of most of our beliefs in artistic revelation.

Fasting, like all art, has had a historical development—and that development can only take the form of a fall. Once popular, fasting has known the fate of all art forms or movements; it has lost audience favor, and as the story progresses, the reader sees the hunger artist relegated to the periphery of our culture, finally disappearing as his art form becomes incomprehensible. Of course, the reader never sees that moment of great popularity that fasting once knew. This moment can only be remembered, recalled by a narrator who begins the story by saying that "During these last decades the interest in professional fasting has markedly diminished"; and then goes on to say that the art pays little today in this world that is so different from the one in which people flocked to see hunger artists. Like Hoffmann's dog recalling those days when poet prophets were honored, the narrator of "A Hunger Artist" remembers a time when people were not revulsed by the hunger artist, when they "understood" him and his achievement. But, the reader will ask, was there a time when art was not already a victim of misunderstanding? For this is always (and already) the meaning of the present in Kafka's work.

The narrator, like the guardian of the machine of In the Penal Colony, can claim to remember when the hunger artist would spend his forty days before appreciative crowds during the day, and then would be watched at night. At night, to allay suspicion that he might be eating, he would push his art even further, for "sometimes he mastered his feebleness sufficiently to sing during their watch for as long as he could keep going, to show them how unjust their suspicions were." It would seem that the hunger artist was not entirely appreciated in those past days either, for the guards would react to his song by wondering how he could sing while putting food in his mouth. In one sense Kafka is giving a literal representation of the cliché about the "misunderstood artist," but with an ironic twist: this artist is truly misunderstood in that no one realizes that he cannot find the sustenance he needs, the sustenance that would free him from his miserable art. The hunger artist would, he says later, cease fasting if he were able to find a food he liked; so he must bear the watch of those who can, like healthy animals, fling themselves in the morning with keen appetite on the breakfast that the hunger artist buys for them.

Kafka is dramatizing the most minimal art here, the art of turning a lack of substance (or sustenance) into an art form. But for the artist who cannot find the sustenance he wants this is not a difficult task, though his audience may not wish to believe it: "For he alone knew, what no other initiate knew, how easy it was to fast. It was the easiest thing in the world. He made no secret of this, yet people did not believe him, at the best they set him down as modest, most of them, however, thought he was out for publicity or else was some kind of cheat who found it easy to fast because he had discovered a way of making it easy, and then had the impudence to admit the fact, more or less." I quote the above lines because it seems to me there is something devastating about the way Kafka, with an ironic smile, admits that starving is the easiest thing in the world. Starving is easy, and within the right framework—in a cage or a book—we can then look upon it as art. And while I do not wish to run the risk of inflating the importance of my subject—though this hardly seems possible when dealing with Kafka—Kafka appears here to be anticipating the total disarray of our current literary and artistic scene; with incomparably more irony and self-awareness than most of today's artists, he outlines the position of the artist as the fraudulent, the necessarily if haplessly fraudulent minimalist.

The changing historical understanding of art, the changing artistic fashions as it were, gives the hunger artist the opportunity to show the ease with which he fasts, though nobody is likely to be concerned with his record-setting performance. Since the hunger artist can no longer attract "today" the crowds he once did, he can no longer work alone. But a large circus agrees to take him on and places his cage near the animal cages, on a concourse that the public uses in going to and from the main attraction. He thus finds himself unwittingly in competition with the animals as a spectacle. When the way is blocked in front of his cage, people stop; fathers even remember for their children the great feats of hunger artists, but this is of little interest to the children. To increase his alienation, the hunger artist must suffer the nauseating stench of the raw meat that the keepers bring to feed the beasts of prey.

Ignored by the public, finally forgotten by the circus management, the artist fasts on and on until one day an overseer wonders why there is an empty cage standing about unused. The hunger artist has fasted himself into near invisibility. And it is at that moment that we learn that he is another of Kafka's protagonists who, for lack of sustenance, is withering away in spite of himself. As he dies he tells the overseer that he should not be admired:

"Because I have to fast, I can't help it," said the hunger artist. "What a fellow you are," said the overseer, "and why can't you help it?" "Because," said the hunger artist, lifting his head a little and speaking, with his lips pursed, as if for a kiss, right into the overseer's ear, so that no syllable might be lost, "because I couldn't find the food I liked. If I had found it, believe me, I should have made no fuss and stuffed myself like you or anyone else." These were his last words, but in his dimming eyes remained the firm though no longer proud persuasion that he was still continuing to fast.

Like Gregor, the vermin of The Metamorphosis, the hunger artist falls from language into silence and then death because he cannot find the sustenance he needs. The difference between vermin and artist may appear minimal in this awful perspective, but an even more extraordinary parallel is found in their last erotic gestures—Gregor reaches up to his sister with vermin tenderness, the hunger artist purses his emaciated lips "as if for a kiss." Moreover, Kafka ends each story with an image that presents the antithesis of a withered speechless beetle or an emaciated hunger artist; he presents the image of animal self-sufficiency that the sensual sister or the sleek panther proposes. I stress this parallel because it seems to me that these two stories complement each other not only in the way they show that hunger, speechlessness, and art are parts of the same configuration, but also in the way that their final image shows that the contrary of spiritual fulfillment in Kafka is mere animal plenitude. And this is another speechless state, a natural state devoid of the sin of self-consciousness. And, finally, art stands out clearly as belonging to those who practice it as a surrogate for something they cannot name, except perhaps negatively through art.

Frederick R. Karl (essay date 1991)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1716

SOURCE: "Modernism and Death, Kafka and Death," in Franz Kafka: Representative Man, Ticknor & Fields, 1991, pp. 678-81.

[In this excerpt, Karl analyzes "A Hunger Artist" in the context of Kafka's life and times.]

Kafka in "A Hunger Artist" was not merely creating emblems of the self. He was playing roles, as he had in his letters and in many other of his fictional works. The role he played out was that of a man who feared invalidation of self more than he feared death: he had to carry through in his imagination the most extreme form of art to justify himself as an artist, although his justification led to the artist's death. It was better to play such an extreme role, leading to certain death, than to chance the fact that he might live without having made that final sacrifice. Roleplaying here has the typical shape of a Kafkan paradox: one seeks sure death in order to validate a life that is worth little unless it can confront final matters through some meaningful gesture.

Biographically, "A Hunger Artist" is a gold mine of meaning. It permitted Kafka to flout his family, by rejecting all its ideas of food, nourishment, and health, a death blow to any family and especially an upwardly mobile Jewish family in Middle Europe. Next, he could finalize a role he had played all his life, as finicky, panicked eater, vegetarian, fletcherizer. Further, the role gave him celebrity; he could use his own internal dilemmas and problems as a means of exhibiting himself and gaining fame. As an exhibition, he could gain a public by becoming a pariah, a strange object, a bizarre artifact, all the elements he had harbored in himself. Still further, as someone already sensing his death, he could play with the edges of dying and death, approaching the end in ever finer gradations, until, with one misstep, he would be over the edge. And finally, and most importantly, all his obsessions with food, sex, and his body could be channeled into a symmetrical shape, into something he could present to the world as representing him and yet, because of its art, transcending him. It was a final act of rebellion. He located himself so far outside bourgeois society he became transformed, transcendent, even transfigured. All the earlier yearning to validate his "difference" now had a solid shape.

The hunger artist gloats over his difference; he vaunts his deprivation. His superiority lies in every moment of his indifference to what others consider life-sustaining and part of their indulgence. By not eating for more than forty days, he can demonstrate not only a record for a hunger artist, but the perfection of his art, an absolute moment that only the highest artists can achieve. In this achievement, he finds the artistic equivalent of orgasm: a perfection that transcends usual bodily enjoyment, that moment when all comes together, Kandinsky's "spiritual" moment.

The hunger artist is not past his prime. What happens as his public deserts him is that it itself, now interested only in sensational experiences, has changed. In this, Kafka has caught the shift in his part of Europe, in the early 1920s, when the countries adjoining Czechoslovakia were teetering on the edge of lawlessness, disorder, their own forms of wildness. There is a profound political message in "A Hunger Artist." It is not good news either for artists or for Jews. In this respect, the artist figure is a perfect symbol of the Jew and his position. Like the artist, the Jew has not fitted, has not been part of the establishment, was considered a kind of freak of nature or clown, and, as part of his fascination for the public, was exhibited. But as "tastes" changed, the Jew was not afforded that precarious position. As the public passes the hunger artist by for wilder experiences, for the jungle animals, for example, we sense their perceptions shifting; and although there is still no "leader" in view, it is clear the spectators want blood, not refinements.

In a related sense, the artist is rejected for presenting a decadent art. The Jew as artist is an equation that many nationalists and populists made to justify squashing first one and then the other. With his art judged decadent and, therefore, as corruptive of the society, the artist observes the public moving away to more wholesome exhibitions, those fitting a folk art, a folk people, a people attuned to the blood and the senses, not to the intellect. The explosion of folk art that came with the Weimar Republic and with the Bauhaus fit well into that backlash against anarchic, uncontrollable Modernism in the social and political spheres. The relationship of the hunger artist, in 1922, to these shifts in public opinion and to the way the public was manipulated cannot be neglected. Kafka may use obsession with food as his pivot, but his meanings extend well into social, political, racial, and ethnic considerations.

In this respect, Modernism itself is on trial. The artist tries to prolong the refinement of taste on which his art depends, on the qualities of intellect, will, and definition it offers to the discriminating spectator. Modernism was, after all, a fine art, and it required dedicated artists, those who, like Kafka, would commit themselves completely to their craft. When because of shifts in public tastes that was rejected (although Modernism never had a large or particularly receptive audience), then the end not only of art but as well of a kind of civilization was imminent.

Kafka was insistent on this, as we see here and in nearly everything else he wrote in the last years of his life, including those extraordinary diary entries. . . . He was describing the end of things, the final moments of a civilization, the morbid directions of a new sensibility, all by way of manifesting these elements in himself. He was careful to demonstrate that the hunger artist is not being abandoned because he is losing his powers. His performance does not depend on age factors. When he is rejected, he is in fact refining his performance. As it turns out, the audience judges him as negating life because he is rejecting food itself; his artistry does not lie solely in negation, however, but in his assumption of a role that opens up the audience (and himself) to great mysteries, analogous to those rituals associated with the myths of life and death. The hunger artist is becoming a shaman, a clairvoyant, a seer, and if he is intense and successful enough, he will transmit his "vision" to those observing him. He has questioned the very foundation of the existence of the ordinary. He opens up questions of existential experience, of the individual edging toward the abyss, of a creature attempting to move ever closer, in asymptotic steps, toward that forbidden borderline between life and death where the ultimate mysteries lie.

What is outrageous about the artist is his lack of interest in that well-being that characterizes ordinary people and is part of ordinary life. He is tuned in to one era, they to another; and when they desert him they have relegated him to the past, to memory, elements that have no place in their new social and political sensibilities. They have put history behind them, as the German-speaking world tried to put the humiliations of the Versailles treaty behind it.

The audience seeks coarseness in its new experience, something to gratify more sensual sensibilities. The new public enjoys the smell of the menagerie and watches as raw lumps of meat are fed to the wild animals, an experience the very opposite, of course, of that offered by the refined hunger artist. It is a public associated with the bread and circuses of the late Roman Empire, to the gladiatorial fights, to orgies that left little to the imagination or intellect. With such interests, the public can gain its excitement only from sensational moments. The slow development of sensibility required by the hunger artist is a source of boredom and distaste. Also a source of distaste is the weak, frail, exhausted hunger artist—the Jew as pitiful, the artist as enervated and played out, especially when compared with the wild animal, the intense and powerful figure of the present moment.

The hunger artist becomes indistinguishable from the straw he lies in. Organic matter passes slowly into inorganic, until he is swept up as part of the garbage pile. The artist asserts he cannot find the food he likes, that if he had found it, he would have made "no fuss and stuffed myself like you or anyone else." These are his last words. But such expressions make him sound like an imposter, as though he were, as the audience has suspected, a mountebank of sorts. In the final moments, he wavers, for his denial and rejection have not depended on "taste" but on choice. The panther who has replaced him in his cage makes no such decisions. After the artist is cleared out, with the trash, the young panther eats and does not seem to mourn its loss of freedom; its noble body is sleek, bursting with energy: "His noble body, furnished almost to the bursting point with all that it needed, seemed to carry freedom around with it too; somewhere in his jaws it seemed to lurk; and the joy of life streamed with such ardent passion from his throat that for the onlookers it was not easy to stand the shock of it. But they braced themselves, crowded round the cage, and did not want ever to move away."

This Kafka panther is still young, still bursting with energy. Rilke's panther [in Duino Elegies] knows better. In time, it too will become enervated, as the strength implicit in its "mighty will" is slowly extinguished; and when that animal slows, the audience will desert it for some new sensation, leaving that panther to a deserted cage. The final lines of Rilke's poem would seem a fitting epitaph not only for panthers in captivity but for Kafka:

From time to time the curtain of the pupils
silently parts
Then an image enters,
goes through the taut stillness of the limbs,
and is extinguished in the heart.

Nearly all of Kafka's works after this are comparable expressions of farewell.

Paulo Medeiros (essay date 1992)

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SOURCE: "Cannibalism and Starvation: The Parameters of Eating Disorders in Literature," in Disorderly Eaters: Texts in Self-Empowerment, edited by Lilian R. Furst and Peter W. Graham, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992, pp. 11-27.

[In the following excerpt, Medeiros asserts that Kafka's hunger artist exhibits the same characteristics as actual anorexics.]

[Kafka's Hunger Artist,] in his voluntary denial of any form of consumption . . . approximates the actual behavior of anorexics. Kafka's story, like most of his writing, hinges on a paradox and the resulting aporia—in this case, the confession made by the Hunger Artist, just before he expires, that he never ate "because [he] could not find the food that [he] liked." This crucial statement both questions the entire foundation for the nameless artist's existence—his capacity and wish to withstand hunger indefinitely—and negates his claim to artistic talent, because he appears to relegate all his actions to a fundamental experience of lack, the impossibility of finding food to his taste. Yet such a last denial of himself and of his art must be seen as an extension, perhaps in absolute form, of his previous practice of total denial of consumption (which brings about his death) and therefore as a final affirmation, in negative terms, of the Hunger Artist's project all along: a refusal to partake of food, parallel to the desire to set himself apart from society and even from humanity. The Hunger Artist tells his night watchers ("usually, strangely enough, butchers"), he "starved (hungerte) like none of them could."

To this determination to prove his superiority through his control of appetite one could add at least two other characteristics, and all are common to anorexic behavior: (1) the exhibitionism inherent in the Hunger Artist's concept of art (Schauhunger, "exhibition fasting"), which makes his body an object for popular marvel either as an independent curiosity show or in conjunction with a circus; and (2) the determined attempt to resist any efforts to stop the fast and the ultimate surrender to outside force, leading to his almost involuntary feeding:

. . . finally came two young ladies . . . [who] wanted to lead the Hunger Artist down a couple of steps out of the cage, to where a carefully chosen diet meal (Krankenmahlzeit) had been served on a small table. And at this moment the Hunger Artist always resisted. . . . Then came the food, from which the Impresario fed a little to the Hunger Artist during a faint-like half-sleep. . . .

His refusal to stop fasting is typical of the anorexic's obsessive insistence. The Hunger Artist is deeply disappointed at the forced break of his fast at the end of forty days: "Why did one want to rob him of the fame, to go on fasting, not only to become the greatest Hunger Artist of all times, which he probably already was, but also to surpass himself up to incomprehensibility, since he felt no limits to his capacity to fast."

The Hunger Artist's marginality is evident both in his being the object of a freak show and in his placement within a cage. The latter, with its suggestion of a subhuman existence, becomes even more pressing as the Hunger Artist's value as an attraction diminishes and he is forced to join a circus, his cage located at the entrance to the stables, where he is finally replaced by a panther. Yet the diminished attention of the public, which never understood him or his intent, is also what allows the Hunger Artist to pursue his goal of unlimited fasting. The Hunger Artist's absolute desire to refuse consumption is characterized best, in Gerhard Neumann's terms, as an "autarchic play of self-consumption": society ceases to matter as a force to resist or from which to draw attention and admiration. Ultimately, the Hunger Artist can be seen not as subhuman and monstrous, and also not as superhuman in his resistance to hunger, but rather simply as extrahuman. His attempt to place himself outside the boundaries of society is also an attempt to surpass even his own boundary—literally, because by starving he reduces his own body so that he actually seems to have disappeared into the straw lining the bottom of his cage. Consequently, and taking into consideration how the Hunger Artist in his uninterrupted fast becomes the sole audience for his art, Neumann concludes that the meaning brought about by such an "absolute sign," independent of any outside referent, is that of the "paradox of identity itself."

Frank Vulpi (essay date 1993)

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SOURCE: "Kafka's A Hunger Artist: A Cautionary Tale for Fausti an Man Caught Between Creativity and Communion," in Germanic Notes and Reviews, Vol. 24, No. 1, Spring, 1993, pp. 9-12.

[In the following essay, Vulpi views Kafka's hunger artist as a representation of the Faustian man, one who "pursues an idea or creates something primarily to please himself, gain power, or satisy his ego."]

Whether or not Kafka's "A Hunger Artist" ("Ein Hungerkünstler") is about the fate of the artist in twentieth-century society has been a much-discussed question. Critic Meno Spann [in Franz Kafka, 1976] comments as follows:

The word Hungerkünstler is misunderstood. The word Künstler by itself means artist, but in compounds it designates performers in the circus or in a variety show like Trapezkünstler ("trapeze artist") or Entkleidungskünstler ("stripper"), both of whom display skills but are not artists. Besides, Kafka never concerned himself with the artist and his relation to society.

Allen Thiher [in Franz Kafka: A Study of the Short Fiction, 1990], on the other hand, states: "The question of the artist and the function of art underlies nearly all of Kafka's work. . . ." Thiher also says that in "A Hunger Artist" Kafka is giving a literal representation of the cliche about the "misunderstood artist."

W. C. Rubenstein [in "A Hunger Artist," in Monatshefte XLIV, No. 1, January 1952] insists that "the hunger artist is the painter, musician, poet or what you will, who devotes himself ascetically to his art." But H. Steinhauer [in "Hungering Artist or Artist in Hungering: Kafka's A Hunger Artist" in Criticism IV, No. 1, 1962] believes that "Kafka is not writing about an artist but about an ascetic saint."

It seems abundantly clear, to the present writer at least, that the hunger artist (artist in the conventional sense or not) is a representation of the Faustian man. He is a relentless striver after something out of the ordinary. As Spengler has noted in his The Decline of the West, our entire culture is Faustian. He claims that the "body" of the Faustian soul "is the Western Culture that blossomed forth with the birth of the Romanesque style in the 10th century in the Northern plain between the Elbe and the Tagus."

We in the West hold it good to ceaselessly strive and to be dissatisfied with any particular past achievement. As he strikes his bargain with Mephistopheles, Goethe has his Faust say: "If ever I lay me on a bed of sloth in peace, / That instant let for me existence cease!" Artist, religious ascetic, business entrepreneur, craftsman, politician—any profession can inspire a monomaniacal devotion. The devotee may be willing to forgo many of the usual familial and social responsibilities or pleasures in order to pursue his goal.

Nietzsche's "will to power" aptly describes the Faustian striver. Michael E. Zimmerman, speaking of Nietzsche [in Heidegger's Confrontation with Modernity, Technology, Politics, and Art, 1990] claims that

For him, Will was the unconditioned subjectivity of life which strives to become ever stronger: the Will to Power was essentially the Will to Will, the aimless striving for ever more striving. This ever-expanding circle never opens up beyond the self-contained limits of blind striving. Humanity, stamped by this Will, is reduced to a clever animal striving for more power.

If an individual pursues an idea or creates something primarily to please himself, gain power, or satisfy his ego, then the originator of that idea or creation can properly be termed a Faustian man.

Does Kafka call into question the wisdom of the Faustian man? I think he does. Kafka's hunger artist is a powerful example of a Faustian man who, in his preoccupation with his ego and personal objectives has become irrevocably estranged from his community and the life around him.

The alternative to working primarily for oneself and towards goals which are established by the individual (and consequently often valuable or relevant only to that individual) is to work in community with others towards a common goal.

In his book, Between Man and Man, Martin Buber outlines this dichotomy between working towards creativity and working towards community. Calling the creative instinct the originative instinct, he says:

There are two forms, indispensible for the building of true human life, to which the originative instinct, left to itself, does not lead and cannot lead: to sharing in an undertaking and to entering into mutuality.

Sharing in an undertaking and entering into mutuality are clearly aspects of community. Buber comments upon the isolating effect of individual achievement as follows:

Action leading to an individual achievement is a "one-sided" event. There is a force within the person, which goes out, impresses itself on the material, and the achievement arises objectively . . . so long as he is engaged in his work spirit goes out from him and does not enter him, he replies to the world but he does not meet it any more.

Buber finally concludes: "Yes; as an originator man is solitary."

In order to build "true human life" (or, in Buber's parlance, to enter into an I-Thou relationship with others), the instinct for communion must override the originative instinct: "What teaches us the saying of Thou is not the originative instinct but the instinct for communion."

For Buber "to be conditioned in a common job, with the unconcious humility of being a part, of participation and partaking, is the true food of earthly immortality." And only if the originator has another person grasp his hand "not as a 'creator' but as someone lost in the world . . . does he have an awareness and a share of mutuality."

Even Goethe's Faust ultimately recognized the validity of working towards the common good. G.M. Priest has written the following [in "An Outline and Interpretation of Goethe's 'Faust'," in Faust: Parts One and Two, 1941]:

As long as Faust was striving toward the goal of an ambitious egoist, he found no satisfying moment. To no moment could he say: "Ah, linger on, thou art so fair!" Now, as one of many free and active men, he knows that there can be such a moment . . . Faust has affirmed life; he has done what he never thought he would do. He sees that life can be worth living . . .

According to Buber, even if the Faustian man does seek communion and "strives" to attain it, he will not succeed. For communion means "being opened up and drawn in." The individual, no matter how driven and intent upon it, cannot "produce" communion with others by willing it. The "other" has to readily cooperate, and both must put aside their personal agendas, preconceived ideas, and any previous decisions made about what the nature of the relationship will be and how it will satisfy their own needs.

Communion occurs only when mutual respect is felt and the awareness of the other's autonomy is acknowledged. Communion happens "between" two people—two people who are opened up to it and are willing to be drawn in to it. Communion stands over and against the compulsive yet "aimless" striving described by Zimmerman as Nietzsche's Will to Power. Buber says that

At the opposite pole from compulsion there stands not freedom but communion . . . At the opposite pole of being compelled by destiny or nature or men there does not stand being free of destiny or nature or men but to commune and to covenant with them.

The hunger artist is a most extreme illustration of the Faustian man: as he reaches perfection in his work (that is, as he starves himself longer and longer) he naturally approaches death and thus, not only figuratively, but literally dies to the possibility of communion.

Kafka strongly delineates the discrepancy between the objectives of the Faustian man (with his originator instinct) and the Buberian man (who longs to enter into communion with others) by bestowing upon his title character an activity which (despite all the dedication and gravity the hunger artist lavishes on it) cannot possibly be of any use to his community. Of course this polarizes the two opposing instincts—creation and communion—and eliminates the confusion of ideals, motives, and fears out of which most of us act in the real world.

Many real-world Faustian strivers do produce work from which others benefit. They are undoubtedly motivated by concern for others as well as by ego gratification, and their activities and the vigor with which they pursue them are not inevitably detrimental to their physical or emotional well-being, or incompatible with the instinct towards communion. Nontheless, an unhealthy obsession with their work usually results not in a literal death but in a spiritual stagnation, an atrophed emotional growth, or in the cessation of some process vital to their psychic health.

The hunger artist helps no one through his activity: his work is useless, self-destructive, and arbitrarily determined upon. He acts alone and he alone understands his motives. He is a simplified, schematized version of the Faustian man, untroubled by any vestigial notions of tribal solidarity, self-preservation, or love. In the hunger artist, the striving towards his goal as an end in itself leads to death. He is an extreme example of the originator instinct, unadulterated by even the meagerest appetite for communion. Consequently, he has what would be for most of us the severest penalty imposed upon him.

It is a measure of the maleficent nature of his self-centered striving that the man living solely by this principle must die. And it is a measure of the hunger artist's aberrant temperament that he chooses an activity necessarily inimical to life itself and therefore incompatible with the notion of communion. The very nature of his activity (fasting) prevents him from partaking of life, and from participating with others. To fast as long as possible is to consume life in order to reach a goal. Thus life is merely the means of attaining a desired end, and this particular end is attained only when life is completely consumed. To apply this attitude to any activity necessarily glorifies the end and holds the means valuable only in its function as a method of obtaining that end. Thus the originator instinct places priority upon the product of its endeavors, which is, inescapably, a non-human entity. The instinct towards communion, however, finds value in the process that generates the product. Since this process is inevitably a part of the life of the people involved in the undertaking, holding this process to be valuable is fundamentally a life-affirming attitude.

At the story's end, the hunger artist insists that he should not be admired for fasting. When asked why, he exclaims: "Because I have to fast, I can't help it . . . I couldn't find the food I liked." This indicates, as Ronald Gray has noted [in Franz Kafka, 1973], that the hunger artist "makes somes spiritual progress, in that, at his dying moment, he is no longer proud of his achievement." For the hunger artist, success was fatal. The pride and the egotistical satisfaction that he felt from his accomplishment prevented the hunger artist from seeking communion with others. At the end of the story, he has so habituated himself to his isolation that had he desired to reenter the community of men, one must doubt that he could have "found the food he liked."

Accustomed to finding his self validation in his egocentered activities (self-destructive as they were) his desires and needs (growing increasingly perverse with time) would possibly not have been gratified by entering into communion with others. But at least the hunger artist ultimately realizes that his efforts were fruitless and meaningless, and that his energy has been misplaced. For other Faustian strivers, too, pride in the success of their individual achievements reinforces their destructive behavior and moves them further from the idea of working in community with others. They, like the hunger artist, can only progress spiritually if they recognize the futility of finding lasting fulfillment in the originator instinct.

The hunger artist's activity is built on an alienation of a most radical nature. By refusing to partake of food (an activity which when conducted with others symbolizes community perhaps more effectively than any other activity) he implicitly tries to deny his need for community and his humanity itself. Striving towards his goal, that of fasting ever longer, the hunger artist courts death. Attaining his goal inevitably means embracing death. Goethe's Faust, upon attaining his final goal (a goal which results from harnessing his originator instinct to the service of the community and which, consequently, gives him enough satisfaction to be momentarily content) also finds death.

Perhaps "A Hunger Artist" is Kafka's commentary on the Faust legend, a fragmentary twentieth-century annotation, an ironic extraction of its conceptual kernel. The originator man discovers the extremity of his isolation in the moment of supreme achievement: his triumph has been a personal one, a victory wrested from the intransigent world through willpower, persistence, and sometimes heroic effort. He imposes his achievement upon the world, whether it will or no, and expects recognition or compensation. The Faustian striver has no one to share his triumph with, no one who truly shared in it and with whom he can now go on to other joint ventures. He must arbitrarily assign himself another task and stave off desolation by immersing himself in it. Otherwise he risks experiencing a kind of spiritual or psychological death, unless he can redirect his energy towards communion.

At the end of his story, Kafka contrasts a life-affirming leopard, which replaces the hunger artist in his cage, to the death-desiring hunger artist. The leopard, however, submerged in his animal nature, is no viable alternative to the hunger artist. We can, upon reading this cautionary tale, perhaps prevent ourselves from going the way of the hunger artist, but we cannot, in our attempt to administer Kafka's prescription, turn ourselves into leopards. We can turn away from the originator instinct, not from creation itself, but from the impulse that leads us to create primarily in order to glorify the ego. That impulse leads us to find ultimate satisfaction in the contemplation of the creation itself, which is no more than a mirror brilliantly reflecting the ego which engendered it. We can, in other words, seek communion with others first and foremost. We can create, together, a community that would profit from all of our talents, one in which our individual efforts would prove more meaningful than we could anticipate.

Perhaps Kafka, in "A Hunger Artist," means to have us look closely at what he considers to be the inevitable evolution of the Faustian striver: a man imbued exclusively with the originator instinct, and one who therefore awards highest priority to his own desires and needs; one who finds the utmost significance in the pleasure he derives from his own ideas, creations, and the completion of self-imposed tasks. Obviously, this man is already with us, and has been since time immemorial: the armaments manufacturer who takes ultimate satisfaction in the sophistication of his weaponry, eschewing thoughts of the havoc it will wreak on humanity; the great industrialist or business entrepreneur content in the size of his financial empire, oblivious to the fate of his employees; the lawyer preoccupied with the quality of his legal work and in obtaining a favorable verdict for his client, inured to the amoral climate in which he works, habitually exercising immoral options because they produce the desired results and fall within the law.

Even the self-centered work of the artist, hungry or not, is usually embarked upon not in a spirit of community but in one of self-aggrandizement and unspoken competition with others. The competitive spirit and the need to satisfy our desires are basic to our survival, but by acting solely on these principles we court extinction. We must always remain open to the possibility of communion and take that possibility with us into every encounter with our fellow creatures. It must be the fundamental motivation in all of our undertakings and must infuse all of our hopes for ourselves and for the world.

Buber says this on the possibility of communion:

. . . it cannot be dispensed with and it cannot be made use of in itself; without it nothing succeeds, but neither does anything succeed by means of it: it is the run before the jump, the tuning of the violin, the confirmation of that primal and mighty potentiality which it cannot even begin to actualize.

Further Reading

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 821

Arbuckle, Donald E. and James B. Misenheimer, Jr. "Personal Failure in 'The Egg' and 'A Hunger Artist'." The Winesburg Eagle: The Official Publication of the Sherwood Anderson Society 8, No. 2 (April 1983): 1-3.

Compares the fates of the protagonists in Sherwood Anderson's "The Egg" and Kafka's "A Hunger Artist." In both cases, the critics note, "the protagonists try to make their bleak existences important to others and fail miserably."

Foulkes, A. P. "The Cage Image in Ein Bericht für Eine Akademie and Ein Hungerkünstler" In The Reluctant Pessimist: A Study of Franz Kafka, pp. 90-7. The Hague: Mouton, 1967.

Examines the cage image in "A Hunger Artist" and "A Report to an Academy," and contrasts the outlooks on life offered by these stories.

Garrison, Joseph, Jr. "Getting into the Cage: A Note on Kafka's 'A Hunger Artist'." The International Fiction Review 8, No. 1 (Winter 1981): 61-3.

Views the narrator rather than the hunger artist as the central figure of Kafka's short story.

Honig, Edwin. "The Expanding Analogy." In Dark Conceit: The Making of Allegory, pp. 115-28. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1959.

Views Kafka as an allegorist who identifies his hunger artist with Christ.

Kaplan, Morton and Robert Kloss. "Fantasy of the Devouring Killer: Kafka's A Hunger Artist." In The Unspoken Motive: A Guide to Psychoanalytic Criticism, p. 80. New York: Free Press, 1973.

Asserts that "A Hunger Artist" "is perhaps one of the most powerful, perfectly told tales ever written."

McFarland, Ronald E. "Community and Interpretive Communities in Stories by Hawthorne, Kafka and García Márquez." Studies in Short Fiction 29, No. 4 (Fall 1992): 551-59.

Holds that at least three communities are involved in Kafka's "A Hunger Artist," Gabriel García Márquez's "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings," and Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Minister's Black Veil": that represented by the spectators, the "interpretive community" of readers, and the "real-life communities" in which the readers participate.

Michaelson, L. W. "Kafka's Hunger Artist and Baudelaire's Old Clown." Studies in Short Fiction 5 (1968): 293.

Asserts that the old clown in Baudelaire's Le Vieux Saltimbanque "has many points in sympathy with the hunger artist."

Mitchell, Breon. "Kafka and the Hunger Artists." In Kafka and the Contemporary Critical Performance: Centenary Readings, edited by Alan Udoff, pp. 236-52. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.

Examines the possible historical sources for "A Hunger Artist," including actual hunger artists of the nineteenth century.

Moyer, Patricia. "Time and the Artist in Kafka and Hawthorne." Modern Fiction Studies 4, No. 4 (Winter 1958-59): 295-306.

Asserts that "in 'The Artist of the Beautiful' and 'The Hunger Artist' Hawthorne and Kafka make their most definitive poetic statements about the position of the artist in the modern world."

Neumarkt, Paul. "Kafka's A Hunger Artist: The Ego in Isolation." American Imago 27, No. 2 (Summer 1970): 109-21.

Analyzes the stories collected in A Hunger Artist from a psychoanalytic perspective.

Norris, Margot. "Sadism and Masochism in Two Kafka Stories: 'In der Strafkolonie' and 'Ein Hungerkünstler'." Modern Language Notes 93, No. 3 (April 1978): 430-47.

Points out the "striking structural symmetry" of In the Penal Colony and "A Hunger Artist," noting that "in each, a fanatical believer in meaningful suffering reenacts a spectacle that in an earlier age drew huge, festival crowds, but now results only in sordid death and burial."

Pasley, J. M. S. "Asceticism and Cannibalism: Notes on an Unpublished Kafka Text." Oxford German Studies 1 (1966): 102-13.

Views the fanatical characters of Kafka's works, including the hunger artist, as representing an aspect of Kafka himself.

Satz, Martha and Zsuzsanna Ozsvath. 'A Hunger Artist and In the Penal Colony in the Light of Schopenhauerian Metaphysics." German Studies Review 1, No. 2 (May 1978): 200-10.

Considers Kafka's short stories "A Hunger Artist" and "In the Penal Colony" in the context of the views of German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. The critics observe: "The heroic Artist and Saint figures of Schopenhauer, men who have attained insight by annihilating their will to live, have become the distorted and dubious figures of the Hunger Artist and the Officer in the 'Penal Colony'."

Spann, Meno. "Don't Hurt the Jackdaw." The Germanic Review XXXVII, No. 1 (January 1962): 68-78.

Insists that "A Hunger Artist" is autobiographical rather than allegorical and denies that the central figure represents "the suffering artist or saint in modern society." The story, Meno declares, "is Kafka's swan-song and that evasive ironist's affirmation of nature and life."

——. "The Last Metamorphoses." In Franz Kafka, pp. 164-73. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1976.

Surveys the prevailing critical interpretations of "A Hunger Artist."

Wood, Cecil. "On the Tendency of Nature to Imitate Art." The Minnesota Review VI, No. 2 (1966): 133-48.

Examines "A Hunger Artist" and Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea and their treatment of the idealist in a materialistic society.

Additional coverage of Kafka's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 105, 126; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 81; Discovering Authors; Discovering Authors: British; Discovering Authors: Canadian; Discovering Authors: ModulesMost-Studied Authors Module and Novelists Module; Major Twentieth-Century Writers; Short Story Criticism, Vol. 5; Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vols. 2, 6, 13, 29, 47, 53; World Literature Criticism.

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Critical Overview