A Hunger Artist by Franz Kafka
The Hunger Artist by Franz Kafka, if viewed in isolation can be understood merely as a masochistic tragedy but the greatness of this story is its rich relation to what is actually at stake.
I want to stick to my framework of looking at texts which is what I call “Relational Ontology”. This means that the narrative is understood in terms of the relations between elements within the text and the reader can play with the text by forming new relations within the text and in this way, the text opens up to its own richness.
In this story, the Hunger Artist is placed in relation to his manager and the crowd. He is disposable from the very onset to the manager he is a source of income and to the crowd, he is a spectacle. There is paradoxically a strong sense of agency that is developing in the Hunger Artist. In being the spectacle, he has the ability to entertain and thereby become invite the onlookers to experience “hunger”, a condition common to all human beings. Hunger is a condition of deprivation that steals the vitality of life, the Hunger Artist draws/entertains through his lack of being. This haunting lack causes people to question his authenticity but the Hunger Artist knows the reality of his own hunger. This inherent condition of the Hunger Artist is close to Nietzsche’s critique of slave morality inherent in Judaism:
the Jews achieved that miracle of inversion of values thanks to which life on earth has for a couple millennia acquired a new and dangerous fascination — their prophets fused ‘rich’, ‘godless’, ‘evil’, ‘violent’, ‘sensual’ into one and were the first to coin the word ‘world’ as a term of infamy. It is this inversion of values (with which is involved the employment of the word for ‘poor’ as a synonym for ‘holy’ and ‘friend’) that the significance of the Jewish people resides: with them there begins the slave revolt in morals.”
This sort of spectacle cannot draw the attention of the world since it fuses the theological with a diminished state and the nostalgia of paganism haunts the modern subject who so desperately craves for some unifying life that bursts forth into abundance nearly “resurrecting the dead.” All form of totalitarian control promises this return of the “Sacred as pure energy” that gives itself to the chosen people. The state of Hunger is merely a condition to be overcome but before it is overcome, it should be violently displaced from the body-the political body and the social body in order for us to gaze at it with disgust (much like how the women in the crowd both loved and hated the Hunger artist) before annihilating that condition.
The theme of metamorphosis is not alien to this text as well. We notice that in his famous book “the metamorphosis”, it is not Gregor turning into a bug which is the metamorphosis but the very transformation of life that is the result of Gregor’s death.
The Hunger Artist is now no more a spectacle. God is dead! The Hunger Artist is rejected and he has lost his value in the eyes of his manager. He then joins a circus. The only law that operated before he joined the circus was that his fast had to last for only 40 days although the Hunger Artist wanted to push his limits to the very end. In the circus, he is placed with wild carnivores. He is merely a temporary distraction or a nostalgic reminder of past that gazed upon its own lack.
The world soon forgets the Hunger Artist who breaks the threshold of 40 days and somehow displays strength in Humanity which it never wants to know or understand. From their framework, hunger is not something they want to grapple with or celebrate human strength in living beyond hunger because. The world will never know the greatness of the Hunger Artist. When the reaches his limits, he ensures that everybody knows his last words:
“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.”
Why did he not find the food that he liked?
If food is viewed as a metaphor for sustenance, he did not like how people around sustained themselves through what Kierkegaard calls a life lived for “the sake of personal pleasure and passing amusement.” The Hunger Artist would have gauged himself on anything else but the food people around him “ate”. He displayed his hunger as an act of rebellion against the world. The world was tragically more empowering and now chose to witness what they always wanted to witness- a spectacle that affirms their own sense of life.
“Into the cage they put a young panther. Even the most insensitive felt it refreshing to see this wild creature leaping around the cage that had so long been dreary. The panther was all right. The food he liked was brought to him without hesitation by the attendants; he 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; 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 around the cage, and did not ever want to move away.”
Another metamorphosis but will there be a revolution in subjectivity in Kafka’s universe?