A Hunger Artist by Franz Kafka

 It’s sunny out! I took advantage of working from home today and went for a little walk to the coffeeshop here in Ludlow, The Radical Roaster. It’s adorable and serves peanut butter + nutella lattes. It was the perfect inspiration to get reading and writing today, to start off the weekend right!

As a continued celebration of Short Story Month 2011, I revisited Franz Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist.” I was reminded of this story in Joyce Carol Oates’s A Widow’s Story, which I’m currently reading. The story is amply available on the internet.

David Foster Wallace talked about Kafka’s humor in his speech, aptly titled, “Laughing with Kafka.” He talked about how many of his literature students missed the point, that Kafka was painfully funny, but not in the way many people these days are funny:

The psychology of jokes helps account for part of the problem in reading Kafka. We all know that there is no quicker way to empty a joke of its peculiar magic than to try to explain it — to point out, for example, that Lou Costello is mistaking the proper name “Who” for the interrogative pronoun “who,” etc. We all know the weird antipathy such explanations arouse in us, a feeling not so much of boredom as offense, like something has been blasphemed. This is a lot like the teacher’s feeling at running a Kafka story through the gears of your standard undergrad-course literary analysis — plot to chart, symbols to decode, etc. Kafka, of course, would be in a unique position to appreciate the irony of submitting his short stories to this kind of high-efficiency critical machine, the literary equivalent of tearing the petals off and grinding them up and running the goo through a spectrometer to explain why a rose smells so pretty. [1] Franz Kafka, after all, is the writer whose story “Poseidon” imagines a sea-god so overwhelmed with administrative paperwork that he never gets to sail or swim, and whose “In the Penal Colony” conceives description as punishment and torture as edification and the ultimate critic as a needled harrow whose coup de grâce is a spike through the forehead.

Another handicap, even for gifted students, is that — unlike, say, Joyce’s or Pound’s — the exformative associations Kafka’s work creates are not intertextual or even historical. Kafka’s evocations are, rather, unconscious and almost sub-archetypal, the little-kid stuff from which myths derive; this is why we tend to call even his weirdest stories nightmarish rather than surreal. Not to mention that the particular sort of funniness Kafka deploys is deeply alien to kids whose neural resonances are American. The fact is that Kafka’s humor has almost none of the particular forms and codes of contemporary U.S. amusement. There’s no recursive word-play or verbal stunt-pilotry, little in the way of wisecracks or mordant lampoon. There is no body-function humor in Kafka, nor sexual entendre, nor stylized attempts to rebel by offending convention. No Pynchonian slapstick with banana peels or rapacious adenoids. No Rothish satyriasis or Barthish metaparody or arch Woody-Allenish kvetching. There are none of the ba-bing ba-bang reversals of modern sit-coms; nor are there precocious children or profane grandparents or cynically insurgent co-workers. Perhaps most alien of all, Kafka’s authority figures are never just hollow buffoons to be ridiculed, but are always absurd and scary and sad all at once, like “In the Penal Colony”‘s Lieutenant.

And so, I am careful when talking about Kafka’s stories. I am also unabashed when thoughts such as This sounds like the Charlie Sheen debacle enter my head. Well, let’s start at the beginning. “A Hunger Artist” is about a man who sits in a cage amongst dirty straw, not-eating, a talent he repeatedly remarks is “easy.” His ability to fast for precisely forty days (as his manager won’t let him not-eat for any longer, more for the waning interest of the public rather than for the “artist’s” health) is hailed by the public, but also cause for skepticism among his biggest fans. In fact, it seems, his biggest fans are those who suspect him of cheating. Throngs of people sit and watch him not-eating; like an audience at a magic show, they stare, hoping to see his trickery, to see how he manages to eat while appearing to not-eat. The audience is drawn both by the spectacle of being different and its obsession with proving sameness.

Everything is fine and good until one day the public simply loses interest. Well, as the narrator points out, there was most likely a process of losing interest, but it becomes far too late to counteract. And so the hunger artist joins a circus, a pseudo-retiring gig, where he sits in a cage in the outer area of the circus, where throngs of people rush past him for the main event. His only stipulation to the overseer of the circus is that he be allowed to fast for as long as he likes. This, predictably, serves as his demise. When, finally, he is discovered near-death in the straw, he remarks the words that gave me pause: “‘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. ‘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.'”

In an age saturated with cameras and other devices that aid in observing, let alone the prevalence of the compulsive desire to observe, “A Hunger Artist” becomes the perfect allegory – for creative artists, celebrities, royal families. But alas, I will not ruin the joke by explaining it.

What short stories are you reading this beautiful weekend?

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