Kafka's Life as Seen in A Hunger Artist
‘‘Kafka’s Hunger, Kafka’s Art’’
Kafka was a master of the enigmatic. In his book, Everyone’s Darling: Kafka and the Critics of His Short Fiction, Franz R. Kempf states that, ‘‘Kafka critics only agree on one thing, and that is that they are not in agreement.’’ Kempf points out that Kafka valued this resistance in his work to specific interpretations, as he ‘‘understood writing to be a consciously created ambiguity.’’ Walter Benjamin has even asserted that Kafka ‘‘took all conceivable precautions against the interpretation of his writings.’’ Even Kafka himself, Kempf explains, ‘‘found his work to be incomprehensible.’’
Yet, while Kafka’s work resists definitive interpretation, there has been no end to the critical material written about Kafka and his work. In his book Introducing Kafka, David Zane Mairowitz claims that, ‘‘no writer of our time, and probably none since Shakespeare, has been so widely overinterpreted and pigeonholed.’’ Kafka’s work, interpreted and over-interpreted by countless critics over the decades is described by Kemp as ‘‘the kaleidoscopic carnival of Kafka criticism.’’ A brief discussion of some of the possible interpretations of ‘‘A Hunger Artist’’ in light of Key themes in Kafka’s life will provide a glimpse of several of the many patterns of meaning created by this ‘‘kaleidoscope.’’
As ‘‘ambiguity’’ is ‘‘the very core of Kafka’s art,’’ his stories invite us to speculate about possible meanings or interpretations, without providing a sense of certainty that any one reading is the reading. Kafka’s work, therefore, is best interpreted while keeping in mind this built-in ambiguity. Entertaining several possible interpretations, without having to choose one as the definitive ‘‘meaning’’ of a Kafka story, produces the richest and most meaningful way of discussing his work.
As an allegory, ‘‘A Hunger Artist’’ employs many symbolic motifs which, although interrelated, may be examined separately. The motif of ‘‘hunger,’’ for example, takes on a highly symbolic, yet ambiguous, significance in the story. Surprisingly, however, this story is also based on the real historical phenomenon of ‘‘professional fasting.’’ While most critics have failed to note this, Breon Mitchell, in his article, ‘‘Kafka and the Hunger Artists,’’ has brought to light the history of a world famous ‘‘hunger artist’’ whose coverage in local newspapers may have inspired Kafka’s story. Mitchell points out that ‘‘almost every detail’’ of Kafka’s story corresponds to ‘‘the actual profession of fasting for pay.’’
The phenomenon of ‘‘professional fasting’’ lasted from 1880 to 1922, roughly the years of Kafka’s life span (1883-1924). The first professional fast was accomplished by Dr. Henry Tanner, an American who was said to have gone for forty days under medical supervision without food. The most famous of his European imitators was Giovanni Succi, on whom Kafka’s story was most likely based. Giovanni ‘‘performed’’ fasts at least 30 different times, for periods of up to 30 days, in various European cities. Although not in cages, these hunger artists were generally displayed in some form of confinement. Mitchell states that, ‘‘The correspondence with reality is, in fact, so close that Kafka could not possibly have written the tale without some direct or indirect knowledge of the best-known hunger artists of his time.’’
But the fact that ‘‘hunger artists’’ were a real historical phenomenon does not lessen the legitimacy of the story’s allegorical meanings. Rather, it adds depth to our understanding of the richness of Kafka’s story. As Mitchell suggests, ‘‘A Hunger Artist’’ is both ‘‘the powerful literary testament to an inner world,’’ and a means of ‘‘linking his own sense of spiritual solitude and artistic mission to figures from the margins of history.’’
Kafka himself had significant experiences of hunger during the course of his life, due to both illness and poverty. ‘‘A Hunger Artist’’ was written in the last two years of Kafka’s life, during which time he was in and out of sanitariums and suffered a variety of treatments for tuberculosis of the larynx. To add to this, Kafka experienced hunger, during the six months he spent in Berlin, due to astronomical inflation resulting in ‘‘the total uncertainty of his material existence.’’ He and his female companion Dora Diamant were nearly desperate for food, which only further compromised Kafka’s failing health.
Because of the location of the illness in his throat, Kafka was barely able to eat, drink or even speak toward the end of his life. Although he had originally written ‘‘A Hunger Artist’’ before this stage of his illness had set in, it can easily be seen as partly inspired by Kafka’s various health and diet regimes over the course of 17 years of tuberculosis. Like the hunger artist, it became increasingly difficult for him to ‘‘find the food that I liked.’’ As he himself was, in effect, starving to death, Kafka was still correcting the galley proofs for ‘‘A Hunger Artist’’ at the time of his death in 1924, two months before the story was published.
The symbolic significance of ‘‘hunger’’ in ‘‘A Hunger Artist,’’ however, goes well beyond any literal referent. Hunger in this...
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