Who Controls the Interpretation of Reality? - "A Hunger Artist" Short Story by Franz Kafka
A Hunger Artist
PDF is available below.
Kafka's story introduces the idea of the "hunger artist." This is someone who fasts from food professionally. At one time such an attraction was very popular and people would pay top dollar to watch the man through to the end of the fast. People would camp out around his cage, watching him day and night. Children would come feel his emaciated bones. There were watchers stationed at his cage to make sure he never took any food, only a few sips from his cup of water. He even talked to the crowd and told them stories, demonstrating that he was even able to keep his strength during the fast. And as a final act, the morning of the last day, he and his manager would order breakfast for everyone present causing them to ravenously devour it only after a night's vigil without food.
Yet the hunger artist remained unsatisfied with his fasts because his manager limited them to forty days long. He was told that after that many days that people would lose interest in the whole thing. Yet the hunger artist maintained that he was just getting into his best fasting form, that it was easy for him, and that he wanted to keep going longer.
"Why stop fasting at this particular moment, after forty days of it? He had held out for a long time, an illimitably long time; why stop now, when he was in his best fasting form, or rather, not yet quite in his best fasting form? Why should he be cheated of the fame he would get for fasting longer, for being not only the record hunger artist of all time, which presumably he was already, but for beating his own record by a performance beyond human imagination, since he felt that there were no limits to his capacity for fasting? His public pretended to admire him so much, why should it have so little patience with him; if he could endure fasting longer, why shouldn’t the public endure it? Besides, he was tired, he was comfortable sitting in the straw, and now he was supposed to lift himself to his full height and go down to a meal the very thought of which gave him a nausea that only the presence of the ladies kept him from betraying, and even that with an effort." 1
Amidst the great fan fare of the crowd the hunger artists remained unsatisfied. His manager would punish such attempts at breaking the mold, telling the people that he was delusional from his fasted state, or showing them pictures of his emaciated body as proof he could go no longer than his forty days. But this wasn't true, it was ending the fast at the shortened time that actually made him sick. But it didn't matter what the hunger artist thought, his manager always won out the public's opinion. "This perversion of the truth, familiar to the artist though it was, always unnerved him afresh and proved too much for him. What was a consequence of the premature ending of his fast was here presented as the cause of it! To fight against this lack of understanding, against a whole world of non-understanding, was impossible. Time and again in good faith he stood by the bars listening to the impresario, but as soon as the photographs appeared he always let go and sank with a groan back on to his straw, and the reassured public could once more come close and gaze at him." 2
Eventually interest in professional fasting died out all over Europe and the hunger artist did not know what to do. He decided to sell himself to a circus. So there he set himself up, making the claim that he was going to break every record and not stop his fasts as before. His cage was set up near the animal pens so that many people would be passing by on their way there and see him. His cage was decorated and a sign placed in front counting the days of his fast. It wasn't long though before the hunger artist noticed that while there were many people passing by, only very few were truly interested. Most were just passing by towards other attractions and stopped for a moment. Soon less and less people cared and an understanding of fasting was almost totally lost on people. The area around his cage grew dirty, people stopped updating the number of days, and in fact even the hunger artist had lost count of the days he had been fasting. "And when once in a time some leisurely passer-by stopped, made merry over the old figure on the board and spoke of swindling, 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." 3
Finally, enough time had passed where even the workers thought the hunger artist's cage was simply an empty cage, and wondered why it was there. A group of them went over and realized that the man was still there fasting in the cage. They asked the hunger artist how long he was going to continue, though the hunger artist insists that they should not admire him anymore. He had to continue fasting because it was in his blood and bones, he couldn't help it. Why couldn't he? "'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.'" 4 And the hunger artist died.
Without any remorse, the cage was emptied and the hunger artist was buried. A panther was put in his place, a new popular attraction. It moved around the cage, roared, and was stuffed with food ... to everyone's approval.
"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 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 on-lookers 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." 5
Interpreting the Story
While I am sure that the story can be interpreted in many different ways, I couldn't help taking from it a comparison between reality and its perception. The hunger artist truly cares about the art of fasting and believes that he is the best at that skill. He wants to push the boundaries and continue to go as far as possible. In fact, he says that he cannot do otherwise. It's a desire that is part of him. Nothing else satisfies him than to do what he is doing, as he admits at the end.
Yet this is not what his manager wants, not what the crowd wants, not what the circus wants. His manager turns his art into an event, a means by which money is made, a formula. He even purposely alters the perception of the hunger artist to keep up his front, even turning the hunger artists own outcries into pieces of the narrative he was selling. "He's just complaining because he's hungry. You see here are pictures of him at the end of the 40 days." The circus, too, did something similar to him. As the days went on, they stopped pursuing the same goal as the hunger artist, stripping him of his desire to fast as long as humanly possible. Then when he dies they just throw his body into the ground and replace him.
Here's where I think there is an interesting clue in the story. The panther that they put in his place as the new attraction is clearly not going to be happy locked in a small cage being forced fed food. The panther's nature is to hunt, to be free, to roam, etc. Yet, they present the panther as if it was truly happy and free here in its attraction. Instead of interpreting the panther's groans and moans as those of pain and sadness, they interpret them as moans of joy. People can't believe how happy he is!!
While of course there is a critique here between the nature of art and the nature of entrepreneurship and making money, I think it's deeper than that. Whoever controls the narrative or "story" of society and what is happening, controls the frame of interpretation. In the story, the manager and circus workers are in charge. They tell the crowd how to interpret the artist and his claims and actions. Every smaller action always finds it true significance when it is placed within the larger framework of narrative of its people. Thus the temptation to take control of people's perceptions of reality by controlling the narrative is ever present. What's more interesting is how this power is growing today because of technology. It has gotten to the point where those who are too connected to the online world can have their whole belief system shaped and informed by media. They are told how to interpret every event and how they need to act.
"The panther isn't crying out in pain ... it's actually a cry of joy from being so free in his cage!"
1 - Kafka, Franz. The Metamorphosis (The Schocken Kafka Library) (pp. 247-248). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
2 - 250
3 - 254
4 - 255
5 - 256