A Hunger Artist

by Franz Kafka

Start Free Trial

Kafka's Life as Seen in A Hunger Artist

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kafka himself had significant experiences of hunger...

(This entire section contains 2266 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

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 story suggests symbolic references to spiritual yearning. References to spiritual yearning and religious symbolism in ‘‘A Hunger Artist’’ are subtle but pervasive. Critic Meno Spann has analyzed the food imagery in Kafka’s writing and concluded that ‘‘for Kafka, physical deprivation or hunger represents spiritual hunger and is associated with the 'unknown nourishment' so many of Kafka’s characters seek.’’

Understanding Kafka’s religious orientation helps us to make sense of this symbolism. Although he did not practice it as a religion. Kafka developed a great interest in studying his Jewish culture. As with most religions, many Jewish rituals and traditions revolve around food. Fasting is an equally important ritual during the holiday of Yom Kippur. Evelyn Torton Beck has suggested that the hunger artist’s fasting suggests ‘‘a grotesque distortion of the fasting associated with Yom Kippur, which, ironically, is intended to have the opposite effect of bringing Jews together before God.’’ The hunger artist fasts for periods of 40 days, a time period evocative of biblical events. After Noah built his ark, it rained for 40 days and 40 nights. After escaping slavery in Egypt, the Jews wandered in the desert for 40 years.

The hunger artist’s fasting and lifelong sense of dissatisfaction is in part symbolic of a hunger for spiritual fulfillment. The hunger artist is also described as a religious ‘‘martyr,’’ although his martyrdom is based on his own professional frustrations, rather than any spiritual enlightenment. At the public spectacle which ended each fast, the impresario ‘‘lifted his arms in the air above the artist, as if inviting Heaven to look down upon its creature here in the straw, this suffering martyr, which indeed he was, although in quite another sense.’’ The hunger artist’s professional success does not make up for his spiritual emptiness, as he spends much of his life ‘‘in visible glory, honored by the world, yet in spite of that troubled in spirit, and all the more troubled because no one would take his trouble seriously.’’ Ironically, while fasting is associated with devotion to God, the hunger artist’s fasts seem only to exacerbate what Max Brod has maintained to be a central concern of Kafka’s writing: ‘‘the anguish and perplexity of modern man in search of God.’’

The meaning of the hunger symbolism in this story is best illustrated by contrasting the hunger artist to the panther who replaces him in the circus cage. In contrast to the hunger artist, whose mouth and throat rarely admit sustenance, the panther eats heartily, and carries ‘‘freedom’’ in his ‘‘noble body,’’ and ‘‘the joy of life streamed with ardent passion from his throat.’’ Whereas the panther’s hearty appetite is associated with ‘‘freedom’’ and the ‘‘joy of life,’’ the hunger artist’s fasting and inability to find ‘‘the food that I liked’’ is manifest in an emaciated body, ‘‘troubled in spirit,’’ and bereft of any sense of the ‘‘joy of life.’’

Kafka’s Art
Many critics have interpreted Kafka’s ‘‘A Hunger Artist’’ as an allegory in which the hunger artist serves as a symbol of ‘‘the suffering artist in society.’’ His dying words, ‘‘I always wanted you to admire my fasting,’’ express the hunger artist’s inner torment and lifelong feelings of alienation. This stems primarily from the distance between his own appreciation for the purity of his art and a modern world concerned only with newer forms of mass entertainment. The hunger artist’s internal vision of himself as a virtuoso ‘‘artist’’ is perpetually at odds with his public image. While his impresario limits his fasts to a maximum number of 40 days, he longs for the opportunity to ‘‘beat his own record by a performance beyond human imagination.’’ Yet, even at the height of his career, his enthusiastic audiences all over the world fail to appreciate ‘‘the honor of his profession’’; they are always in doubt as to whether or not he may be a fraud, sneaking morsels of food to sustain himself through the fasts. Only the artist himself knows for certain that his fast has been ‘‘rigorous and continuous.’’ And so, he suffered to be ‘‘the sole completely satisfied spectator of his own fast.’’

A closer look at Kafka’s own personal experience as a writer will illuminate the significance of such an interpretation, for Kafka has come to be known as the quintessential ‘‘suffering artist’’ of the twentieth century. Kafka’s suffering came in many forms, not least of which were his parents’ neutral reaction to his minor successes and his own inner torment stemming from self-doubt about the quality of his writing. Kafka suffered from his parents’ complete lack of appreciation for his talents. When he proudly handed his father a bound copy of his first published collection of short stories, he was met with indifference and told to set it on his father’s nightstand. Any attempts to impress upon them the importance of his writing must have been futile, as the hunger artist knows: ‘‘Just try to explain to anyone the art of fasting! Anyone who has no feeling for it cannot be made to understand it.’’

Furthermore, their dismissive attitude towards their son’s needs as a writer contributed in part to the terrible conditions under which Kafka wrote— in a small, cramped household with no privacy and dominated by the almost continual sounds of his father’s habitual yelling. His bedroom was between that of his parents and the central room of their apartment, so that he was subjected to almost constant noise as he struggled to write during his free time after work. In addition to writing at night, Kafka developed an ability to tune out the chaos around him, which David Zane Mairowitz has referred to as ‘‘a kind of self-hypnosis,’’ much as the frustrated hunger artist escapes from the unappreciative crowds by sitting in a meditative state, ‘‘withdrawing deep into himself, paying no attention to anyone or anything.’’

Although Kafka is now indisputably one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century, he met with only marginal success during his lifetime and died in relative obscurity. While his talent was appreciated by the small coterie of writers and intellectuals with whom he was associated, his publications were few and his circle of admirers small. Kafka wrote ‘‘A Hunger Artist’’ at the end of a five-year period during which he refrained from all writing intended for publication. As Joachim Unseld has discussed in Kafka: A Writer’s Life, attempts to publish his work had become ‘‘futile,’’ and he spent much of this time receiving medical treatment for the Spanish Flu. But in January of 1922, Kafka began moving into a ‘‘new creative phase.’’ By that Spring, he had completed ‘‘A Hunger Artist,’’ which was accepted for publication in the fall. This minor success ‘‘signified a landmark in the history of his publications’’; his ‘‘selfesteem as a writer’’ was boosted and he began to see himself as a professional. Even so, he described the finished story as ‘‘’bearable’ presumably the most positive description the author could elicit in evaluating his own work.’’

Kafka’s internal self-doubt about the quality of his work was most famously expressed through his written requests to both his female companion Dora Diamont and his friend and editor Max Brod that they burn all of his unpublished manuscripts upon his death. However, the suspicion that Kafka may have secretly counted on his friends reluctance to carry out such a wish has been suggested by the writer Jorge Luis Borges in the comment that, ‘‘If he really wanted a bonfire, why didn’t he just strike the match himself?’’

The dual interpretations of ‘‘A Hunger Artist’’ as a parable of both the ‘‘suffering artist in modern society,’’ and, as Brod maintained, ‘‘an elaborate quest for an unreachable God,’’ can be brought together by an understanding of how Kafka himself viewed the relationship between his writing and spiritual fulfillment. As quoted by Unseld, Kafka’s companion Dora Diamont expressed the strong connection between writing and spirituality for Kafka: ‘‘For him literature was something holy, absolute, uncompromising, something great and pure.’’ And the Encyclopaedia Britannica states that Kafka understood ‘‘his writing and the creative act’’ to be ‘‘a means of redemption,’’ a ‘‘form of prayer.’’ Unlike the hunger artist, who’s ‘‘art’’ was out of vogue by the time of his death, Kafka’s art did not come into vogue until nearly 40 years after his death. The hunger artist dies behind the times while Kafka died ahead of his time.

Source: Liz Brent, for Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2000.

Kafka's A Hunger Artist: The Ego in Isolation

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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

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

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

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

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

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

Latent Homosexuality
It is not that highly ambivalent relationship of the artist with his father which is psychologically most relevant here, but his intricate, psychic reaction vis-a-vis his mother. While outwardly there is a classical oedipal potential in this particular setting, it would be misleading to analyze it merely as such because the actual resultant is not the author’s marriage with the mother, or a mother-like figure, but his rejection of marriage as a suitable solution for himself. The reason for this may be gleaned from Kafka’s entry into the diary dated 1911: ‘‘I was ... able to spend a good deal of time before falling asleep in imagining that some day, a rich man in a coach and four, I would drive into the Jewish quarter, with a magic word set free a beautiful maiden who was being beaten unjustly, and carry her off in my coach.’’ If we take into consideration the fact that his mother ‘‘was untiringly busy helping his father in his business, and most probably irreplaceable,’’ the aforementioned daydream about the rescue of the beaten girl becomes psychologically pertinent. Freud states that in ‘‘all male homosexual cases the subjects had had a very erotic attachment to a female person, as a rule to their mother, during the first period of childhood, which is afterwards forgotten.’’ While the presence of a strong father would generally be beneficial for the adolescent to favor a proper decision in the selection of his object from the opposite sex, in this particular case, Kafka’s father assumes archaic, monstrous dimensions and is thus instrumental in bringing about the opposite result. In his early years, Kafka was apparently driven into identification with his mother who, at this early stage of the novelist’s life, appeared to his imagination as a young beautiful girl whom he desires to rescue from her exploiter husband. The mother for whose care and loving kindness he yearned, but whose love he was deprived of by his brutal father who virtually held her captive in his ghetto, i.e. business establishment, is no longer the object of his pity on a conscious level. Not the mother, but he himself, by way of identity substitution, is the one to bear the brunt of his father’s ruthlessness. Freud suggests that ‘‘the boy represses the love for the mother by putting himself in her place, by identifying himself with her, and by taking his own person as a model through the similarity of which he is guided in the selection of his love object. He thus becomes homosexual.’’ While I do not infer that Franz Kafka was actively homosexual, there remains the suggestion of such latent propensity in his psychic disposition. This is manifested by his frequent need to rationalize the merits and demerits of marriage as a solution for himself. Thus in a letter of November 1912 to Miss F., a young woman whom he, for a while, seriously considered as an eligible marriage partner, he conjectures that marriage was entirely impractical as far as he was concerned: ‘‘I must be alone a great deal. All that I have accomplished is the result of being alone.... Fear of being tied to anyone, of overflowing into another personality. Then I shall never be alone anymore.... Single I might perhaps one day really give up my job. Married, it would never be possible.’’ One year later, in a letter, dated September 1913, Kafka writes: ‘‘The very idea of a honeymoon fills me with horror.’’ In all this rationalization he is, however, not unaware that there is some imbalance in his psychic makeup that thwarts all his attempts to consummate marriage. Thus, with reference to the daydream in which he, now a man of twenty-eight, saw himself as a rescuer of the beautiful maiden, there is the dawning realization that his daydreams, ‘‘this silly make-believe ... probably fed only on an already unhealthy sexuality.’’ If Kafka’s dilemma is seen within the context of the ‘‘Liebestod’’ syndrome, activated by nostalgic regression and characteristic of the uroboric incest motive, the assumption of latent homosexuality is adequately substantiated. Kafka’s border-line psyche is the tightrope walk of an ego in isolation. However, the tightrope walker must never permit himself—on a conscious level—to trip into the path of no return, because he is ever bound to cross the dangerous path anew in his never ending game of brinkmanship. Kafka was well aware of his predicament. In a letter to Max Brod, in 1913, he reports a short-lived episode with a Swiss girl. Again his yearning is blunted by his psychosexual dilemma which Kafka, in terms of border-line experience, expresses so aptly in the words: ‘‘always the longing to die and yet keeping oneself alive, that alone is love.’’ Kafka’s awareness of his ‘‘unhealthy sexuality’’ may be considered a safety valve which prevented him from crossing the border-line into the sphere of psychosis. Within the depth of the psyche, there are no clear cut borders and the analyst is forever in a quandary because he can never be ‘‘quite certain that a neurosis never steps beyond the danger-line.’’ Kafka’s awareness at times reached dimensions that might leave even the trained observer awestruck, as in the quasi casual conversation between the Inspector and the Hunger Artist:

I. ‘‘You are still fasting? . . . Will you ever stop? H.A. ‘‘I have always wanted you to admire my going hungry.’’ I. ‘‘Well we admire it.’’ H.A. ‘‘But you shouldn’t admire it.’’ I. ‘‘All right, then we don’t admire it ... but why shouldn’t we admire it?’’ H. A. ‘‘Because I have to go hungry, I can’t help it.’’ I. ‘‘And why can’t you help it?’’ H.A. ‘‘Because I . . . have never found the right food to suit my taste. If I had ... I would have made no fuss and gorged myself as you and the rest of your kind.’’

The absurdity of this situation lies in the utterly uncoordinated synchronicity of artist and world. Since it cannot be visualized within a dialectical frame of reference, it forces the creative personality into a state of uncontested awareness of desolate, moribund isolation. It lies furthermore in what Max Bense defines as simultaneity of the ‘‘real and unreal, possible and impossible,’’ in the dilemma of craving for admiration, yet simultaneously rejecting it as soon as it is expressed. Even on this level of border-line existence, however, the psyche puts up as much of a defensive counter-force as it can muster under the circumstances. If the process of harnessing the archaic, negative forces is to serve the life affirming mechanism of defence, it must relate meaningfully to the individual in question.

Fasting: Isolation and Relatedness
If fasting is reflective of the ego in a state of unqualified isolation, then it is, in its widest possible application, simultaneously an expression of the author’s relatedness to the world around him, a relatedness which evidently bears no longer the mark of collective standards but of a baroque, silhouetted reflection of the ego, cut loose from the common roots of life. In other words: the concept ‘‘meaning’’ has ejected its inherently collective content and, in terms of moral standards, is reduced to a thoroughly subjective, questionable abstract. Kafka is well aware of this psychic condition. In his story ‘‘Investigations of a Dog’’ the author states: ‘‘For today I still hold fasting to be the final, and most potent weapon of research. The way goes through fasting; the highest if it is attainable, is attainable only by the highest effort, and the effort among us is voluntary fasting.... My whole life as an adult lies between me and that fast, and I have not recovered yet.’’ Kafka’s confession may appear as if he were postulating fasting as a ‘‘most potent weapon of research.’’ This is, no doubt, a neat bit of rationalization by means of which the conscious ego would justify its existence. The quoted exchange between the Inspector and the Hunger Artist stresses that the isolation depicted in this story is a finality, lacking an alternative. Van Gogh expresses himself in a similar vein in a letter to his brother Theo: ‘‘either fast or work less, and add to this the torture of loneliness.’’ Thus fasting becomes a means of breaking away from the path of loneliness. In fact, it is within the process of creativity that the artist may go hungry without being aware of it. In this state of transcendence of the material stratum, in this state of weakened physical existence the artist, quite paradoxically, may reach the maximum in terms of productivity. Loneliness as used by Van Gogh and in an implied manner by Kafka, is the exact antonym of isolation, because the latter, within the context of fasting, is the conscious expression of the individual in terms of conative experience, while the former fundamentally reflects a state of deficiency within the individual’s collective psyche. Isolation in this reference is the very existential setting of the artist. It is, as I have tried to demonstrate, a synchronistic datum that leaves the personality in a state of uncontested awareness of irreconcilable alienation.

Our ‘‘Overburdened Memory’’
Kafka appraises this development appropriately when he states: ‘‘I can only see decline everywhere ... I do not mean that earlier generations were essentially better than ours, but only younger; that was their great advantage, their memory was not so overburdened as ours today.’’ We may not relegate this apercu to the realm of a bon mot or chance remark. The artist quite aptly points his finger at a contemporary malaise, namely our ‘‘overburdened memory.’’ The pathological symptoms concomitant with exaggerated stress on man’s intellectual faculty could not but be seen as a danger signal by Kafka’s sensitive psyche. It is for this reason that he warned: ‘‘they [our fathers] did not know what we can guess at contemplating the course of history: that change begins in the soul before it appears in ordinary existence.’’ Psychologically speaking, Kafka hints here at the phenomenon of dissociation with reference to the conscious psyche, a process which, in terms of distortion and violence, will undoubtedly exact a more exorbitant price in the future than we are already paying now, if the necessary steps to check this ‘‘progress’’ are not taken in time. At the present stage there is little use for the unconscious, since we pursue the cult of consciousness to the exclusion of all else. Our true religion is a monotheism of consciousness, a possession by it, coupled with a fanatical denial that there are parts of the psyche which are autonomous. Actually, we are still possessed by autonomous, subliminal contents. What once used to be associated with the name God is today known as phobia, compulsion etc. The gods have become diseases.

From the vantage ground of such psychological introspection, Kafka had reason to acknowledge the changes that had started to register in his psyche long before they had reached down to and had become part of the level of experience of the social world. What affected him immediately and intimately would manifest itself in mass-hysteria, psychosis, and other expressions of insanity engulfing mankind as a whole. The psychogenesis of schizophrenia is alluded to by Kafka. If the pathogenesis of schizophrenia were to be stripped of its professional jargon and shifted to a more literary form of expression, I cannot think of a better example than Kafka’s description of the overflowing river that ‘‘loses outline and shape, slows down the speed of its current, tries to ignore its destiny by forming little seas in the interior of the land, damages the field, and yet cannot maintain itself for long in its new expanse, but must turn back between it banks again, must dry up wretchedly in the hot season that presently follows.’’

There are two definite, mutually exclusive elements in this somewhat rustic scene. There is the unbridled, destructive force of the water following its gradient down the path of annihilation. This unconscious drive, represented here by the rushing stream was referred to above as ‘‘flirtation with death,’’ and may be identified as an integral part of the regression syndrome. There are, however, on the other hand, the defensive forces that almost simultaneously counter the brute, insensitive element until it has been subdued and summoned back to its natural boundaries. This rather conscious reaction that calls the entire array of positive reserve into action against the threat from the sinister depth of the unconscious has been associated with the lifeaffirming potential of the ‘‘contract.’’ The breaking asunder of the huge body of water into small inlandseas constitutes, aside from its symbolical representation, the dissociation and disintegration of the ego complex.

Here, Kafka’s reference to the ‘‘overburdened memory’’ gives us a clue. If, as I have stressed, the ego sphere is inflated into a monotheism of consciousness, we have ipso facto denied the existence of the ‘‘tremendum,’’ the autonomous, subliminal contents prevalent in the human psyche. What happens is this: The individual having declared the ‘‘tremendum’’ to be dead ‘‘should find out at once where this considerable energy ... has disappeared to. It might reappear under another name, it might call itself ‘Wotan’ or ‘State’ or something ending with -ism, even atheism, of which people believe, hope and expect just as much as they formerly did of God. If it does not appear under the disguise of a new name, then it will most certainly return in the mentality of the one from whom the death declaration has issued. Since it is a matter of tremendous energy, the result will be an equally important psychological disturbance in the form of a dissociation of personality. It is as if one single person could not carry the total amount of energy, so that parts of the personality which were hitherto functional units instantly break asunder and assume the dignity and importance of autonomous personalities.’’

We are dealing here with what Janet has called ‘‘abaissement du niveau mental’’ (reduction of attention). When this etiological requisite is posited, the individual has reached the critical stage where the ego cannot successfully counter the onslaught of the powerful subliminal forces. That Kafka envisaged the possibility of a fateful crossing of the border-line without the alternative of return is suggested in the last part of ‘‘A Hunger Artist.’’ Theoretically, at least, that is, within the framework of the story, the author made the possibility of no return a viable alternative. The dismissal of the impresario is the first danger signal in so far as it spells the end of the period associated with the ‘‘contract,’’ the symbolical guaranty that the ego defences are fit to ward off any intrusion from the subliminal strata. With the removal of this last safety measure, the existential setting of the Hunger Artist is no longer dominated by the ego complex since it has been divested of its supremacy. In terms of expenditure, the hero of the story has paid in full for his unbridled desire to continue the fast. His death constitutes the final atonement of the artist in relation to the community whose tenets he has violated. This is the literary device by means of which the dramatis persona can bow out of his performance. The real hero, however, the author behind the uncompromising figure of the Hunger Artist, the man of flesh and blood, is not quite so negative as his literary figure. He is aware of the possibility of returning to his previous modus operandi. This is indicated by the receding water that ‘‘must turn back between its banks again.’’

A thorough perusal of Kafka’s work will furthermore confirm my suspicion that Kafka was fully aware of the danger inherent in his border-line existence.

Kafka’s ‘‘A Little Woman’’ and ‘‘First Sorrow’’
In his story ‘‘A Little Woman,’’ in which the process of alienation touches on the very psychic balance of the author himself, the synchronicity no longer reflects the artist as an island of psychic manifestations. But unlike the Hunger Artist who crosses over into the sphere of oblivion, the hero in ‘‘A Little Woman’’ establishes a modus operandi this side of the danger-line. He is, of course, aware of his predicament he must live with day in and day out, but has come to understand that one cannot stray off the beaten track or flaunt the capricious whims of society with the hope of going unnoticed for any length of time. Thus the author states with plausible confidence: ‘‘From whatever standpoint I may look at it my opinion remains unshaken. If I keep this matter [the questionable relationship with his feminine counterpart] under cover, I will be able to continue living in this world.’’ A similar, strong desire not to carry the dissociation of his psychic makeup to an extreme is depicted in ‘‘First Sorrow,’’ a short story in which the trapeze artist maintains his existence by physical isolation. He makes his abode high up in the dome structure of the circus and refuses to come down or to have any truck with his fellow workers. The flight of the trapeze artist into his self-chosen ‘‘splendid isolation’’ is, however, not to be looked at as a psychic finality, because the world below—his co-workers and audience—are at all times visible and within earshot, hence at the lowest perimeter of his conscious awareness. This ambivalent situation is part of the Kafkaesque absurdity as well. He can’t live with the community, and can’t perform without it. The flood-lit vaulted roof above, representative of the sphere of ego consciousness, does not provide for repressive tendencies as such. Thus his ‘‘overburdened memory,’’ or in psychological terms, his dissociated existential setting has forced him to live in constant awareness of his absurd state of affairs. The border-line is ever dangerously near, but so are cast and audience to whom he is obligated under ‘‘contract.’’ As a result, his delicate psychic condition is kept in a precarious balance.

In sum: The study of the literary masterpiece ‘‘A Hunger Artist’’ has revealed a number of danger zones to which the ego in isolation is prone. There is the particularly grave threat implicit in the ‘‘Liebestod’’ syndrome which initiates the process of nostalgic regression. There is furthermore the Kafkaesque absurdity, a setting which is thoroughly a causal, hence to be grasped in terms of synchronicity only. The implication of latent homosexuality which is intimately tied up with the regressive propensity of Kafka’s psyche, and his constant need to rationalize his dilemma are additional phases in this never ending game of brinkmanship. Added to this is the threat to the psyche from utter dissociation due to modern man’s ‘‘overburdened memory,’’ a gentle reminder to our present day world that the breaking asunder of the ego sphere may engulf humanity in the psychotic darkness of chaos. This legacy of doom transmitted by the artist, due to his exposed station in life, is countered by the life-affirming, psychic contents, represented symbolically by the ‘‘contract,’’ the concrete expression of public approval that checks excessive, individual appetites. Thus, the individual can never completely escape the scrutiny of the society that sets his limits. In fact, the process of individuation is only possible because of the a priori existence of the undifferentiated state of the sphere of collective consciousness. With this realization, Kafka creates a modus vivendi for himself that enables him to skirt the dangerous border-line, the vicissitudes of which the ego in isolation is constantly exposed to.

Source: Paul Neumarkt, ‘‘Kafka’s ‘A Hunger Artist’: The Ego in Isolation,’’ in American Imago, Vol. 27, No. 2, Summer, 1970, pp. 109–21.

A Hunger Artist

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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

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

The story is about a once-popular spectacle staged for the entertainment of a pleasure-seeking public: the exhibition of a professional ‘‘hunger-artist’’ performing in a cage of straw his stunt 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 mistreat 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 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 intervals of recuperation 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 menagerie. His spectators are fascinated by the animals. All’s changed: there is, apparently, 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 note 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.

We notice that the facts in this ‘‘matter-offact’’ account are not in themselves complete or sufficient, and that our attempt to take them at their matter-of-fact or literal level is quite impossible. They seem to compete with each other and to thrust us beyond their literal properties into the plane of their allegorical significance. That clock seems to be simply a clock; it does not apparently represent anything else. And yet no literal meaning can be ascribed to that bizarre clock. It strikes the hour just like a real clock, but (so to speak) it does not appear to tick. The life of this hunger-artist is unclocked. He exists outside time, and periodically he survives starvation sieges no ordinary man could endure. (Actually, a calendar would be the logical means for reckoning the artist’s fasting days.) As for the other facts, these objects likewise suggest symbolic significance. It is impossible to reduce Kafka’s facts to a single self-consistent system of meaning. The trouble is that his meanings emerge at several planes at once, and the planes are interconnected. No complete paraphrase is possible.

We cannot confine Kafka’s meaning to a single circle of thought. The plight of the hunger-artist in his cage represents the plight of the artist in the modern world: his dissociation from the society in which he lives. By this reading of the story, ‘‘A Hunger-Artist’’ is a sociological allegory. But we can also interpret the hunger-artist to represent a mystic, a holy man, or a priest. By this reading the story allegorizes in historical perspective the plight of religion. A third possible interpretation projects us into a metaphysical allegory: the hunger-artist represents spirit, man as a spiritual being; the panther, in contrast, represents matter, the animal nature of man. If the story is translated into metaphysical terms, the division is between the spiritual and the physical; into religious terms, between the divine and the human, the soul and the body; into sociological terms, between the artist and his society. Kafka’s blueprint—the groundplan of ideas upon which he has built this structure of parables—is toolmarked with these three different systems of thought.

Consider first the story as an allegory of the dilemma of the artist. He is set in contrast to the multitude. The people who attend his exhibitions of fasting cannot comprehend his art. ‘‘Just try to explain the art of fasting to someone! He who has no feeling for it simply cannot comprehend it.’’ The artist starves himself for the sake of his vision. He has faith in his vision, faith in himself, and integrity of aesthetic conscience. 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.’’ It is his vision, solely this, which nourishes him. Of course the artist can ‘‘fast’’ as no one else can do. It’s not everyone who is an artist. We concede, ‘‘in view of the peculiar nature of this art which showed no flagging with increasing age,’’ the claim he makes of limitless capacity for creating works of art. But if his public is devoid of any sympathetic understanding of the artist and of his art, if his public has no faith in him, how then can he cling to this faith in himself? It is because his public is an unbeliever that the artist is in a cage (the cage symbolizes his isolation). Society and the artist—each disbelieves in the other. And so the artist comes to disbelieve, finally, in himself; he cannot survive in isolation.

The hunger-artist is emaciated because of the disunity within himself, which is the result of his dissociation of soul from body, and because of the disjunction between himself and his society. It is his denial of the world of materiality that is the source of his gnawing doubt and ‘‘constant state of depression.’’ He repudiates half of life, and the multitude repudiate him. The public reject the emaciated body of the artist for the healthy body of the panther— they reject art for life itself. These two occupants of the cage, the purely spiritual and the purely bestial, represent, then, the dual nature of man. The people outside the cage, with whom he is also contrasted, crave the same food as the panther. For them, as for the beast, their joy in living issues from their throat— and from their belly. These human and bestial beings represent the sensuous physical realm of matter. They are all-flesh, whereas the hunger-artist is no-flesh. In the one we have pure matter; in the other, pure spirit. But the hunger-artist, as pure soul, is a failure. Though he is apparently free from those gnawing dissatisfactions which our purely physical appetites create in us again and again, nevertheless he is not entirely free from the claims of the body, from the claims of matter, from the claims of the world in which he lives. At the same time that he denies the evil natural social world he longs for some recognition of his fasting from the public; he wants the people to crowd around his cage. Finally, ‘‘though longing impatiently for these visits [of the people on their way to the eagerly awaited stalls], which he naturally saw as his reason for existence, [he] couldn’t help feeling at the same time a certain apprehension.’’ He apprehends the truth that he who is the faster cannot be ‘‘at the same time a completely satisfied spectator of his fasting.’’ He sees that an existence of pure spirituality is impossible to man. He sees that this insatiable hunger with which he, as artist or as mystic, is possessed is at bottom only the sign of his maladjusted, and therefore imperfect, soul.

Complete detachment from physical reality is spiritual death. This statement sums up the meaning of ‘‘A Hunger-Artist’’ insofar as the story is an allegory about the nature of man. What is man, matter or spirit? The story might be described as a kind of critique of this philosophical problem. Spirit and matter—each is needed to fulfill the other. At the moment of his death the hunger-artist recognizes his failure as an artist or creator. For this superannuated artist there is no possibility of resurrection because in our present-day world not spirit but matter is recognized. That matter has today triumphed over spirit is recognized by the dying hunger-artist as he confesses his secret. I had to fast, he admits, because I could find no food to my liking. Fasting, you see, was my destiny. But ‘‘‘if I had found it [i.e., food to my liking], 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, then, is the key to his enigma. Cut off from the multitude, the artist performing his creative act (his fasting) has to die daily and be daily reborn. This is a martyrdom, but for what purpose? The creative artist cannot also be his own public; he dies when no one cares that he and his art should live. Devotion to an aesthetic or spiritual vision cannot be an end in itself. Pure creativeness is impossible, even as absolute spirituality is impossible. The creative imagination must feed upon all reality. For art is but a vision of reality. The artist, no less than the mystic-faster, must live in the world of mundane life. Art requires the material conditions of life, and these conditions nourish it. Life is at once the subject of art and its wellspring.

It is the clock in the hunger-artist’s cage that triumphs over the artist. It is time that triumphs over the very one who denies the flux of time, which is our present reality. The clock in his cage is a mockery of the artist’s faith in the immortality of his creative act or vision, a mockery of his faith in his art as an 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 those whom he has all his life repudiated: ‘‘ ‘I always wanted you to admire my fasting,’ said the hunger-artist.’’ It is his confession that spirit has no absolute sovereignty over matter, soul has no absolute sovereignty over body, and art has no absolute sovereignty over life.... Kafka’s hunger-artist represents Kafka’s doctrine: ‘‘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.’’ ‘‘A Hunger-Artist’’ is a kind of critique of this doctrine. Matter here triumphs over Spirit.

Throughout the story the author laments the passing of our hunger-artists, their decline and extinction in our present-day civilization. But nonetheless throughout the story all the logic is weighted against this hunger-artist’s efforts at autarchy. In his last words we are given his confession that the artist must come to terms with life, with the civilization in which he lives, the world of total reality. ‘‘Forgive me, all of you,’’ he whispers to the circus manager, as though in a confessional before some priest. And they forgive him. They forgive him for his blasphemy against nature. 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 hungerartist 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 menagerie 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.

In the same way that Kafka’s sets of facts can be translated into allegorical terms at the philosophical and aesthetic levels of meaning, so too in terms of the religious allegory the multiple meanings of his facts overlap. Our post-Renaissance world has discarded the philosopher, the artist, and the mystic. The hunger-artist as mystic-faster is dead. Call him priest or artist, he has been rejected by the ‘‘pleasure-seeking multitude’’ and replaced by other amusements; for instance, by the exhibition of a live panther. It was different in times past. For example, in the Middle Ages and in the Renaissance he ‘‘lived in apparent glory, honored by the world.’’ Then he had his patron. (The patron of the artist was the impresario.) He had his critics, the butchers who guarded him out of the public distrust of his creative act. And he had his historians, the attendants who recorded his creative act or kept count of his remarkable performances. In those times he was at least admired for his achievements as an imitator of life.... But what a poor imitation of real life he presented! In those times he was at least celebrated (albeit, not without hypocrisy), honored by rituals conscientiously enacted upon appointed fast days. Consider this hunger-artist as mystic-faster or priest. At one time, everyone attended his services daily. Regular subscribers sat, as in church pews, ‘‘before the small latticed cage for days on end.’’ Everyone pretended to marvel at his holy fast. Actually, however, not one worshiper had faith. Nevertheless, despite this sham of faith in him, he submitted again and again to crucifixion by these pretenders to faith. He was a martyr for his divine cause. The multitude, because ‘‘it was the stylish thing to do,’’ attended his ‘‘small latticed cage’’—they attended it as they might a confessional box. But the multitude, since it does not understand what Faith is, has no sin to confess. The hunger-priest hears no confession. (Ironically it is he who, in dying, confesses.) In short, all mankind— apart from a few acolytes to his cult, disbelieves this Christ who many times died for man’s sake. And when he dies, see how these disbelievers exploit the drama of his death. Here is Kafka’s parody on the drama of the Virgin mourning the loss of her Son.

But now there happened the thing which always happened at this point. The impresario 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 devoid of understanding is mere self-sentiment. One of the ladies weeps—but not for him. She breaks into tears only in shame for having touched him. ‘‘And the entire weight of his body, light though it was, rested upon one of the ladies, who, breathless and looking 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.... ’’ It is a mock lamentation that these two Marys perform. 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 Pieta or in Giotto’s Lamentation.

It is thus that the religious and the metaphysical and the aesthetic meanings of ‘‘A Hunger-Artist’’ coincide: (1) Christ is truly dead. Our post-Renaissance world has discarded the act of faith from its reality. (2) For the mystic, as for the artist, there is no resurrection because today not spirit but matter alone is recognized. And as we have seen, 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, 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.’’

Source: R. W. Stallman, ‘‘‘A Hunger Artist,’’’ in Franz Kafka Today, edited by Angel Flores and Homer Swander, The University of Wisconsin Press, 1958, pp. 61–70.


Critical Overview