On the ending of Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist”

The ending of Kakfa’s short story “A Hunger Artist” is strange, even for Kafka — in fact, it initially makes the story seem like kind of a “shaggy dog” story. After detailing the rise and fall of a professional faster, Kafka stages his death scene:

Many days went by once more, and this, too, came to an end. Finally the cage caught the attention of a supervisor, and he asked the attendant why they had left this perfectly useful cage standing here unused with rotting straw inside. Nobody knew, until one man, with the help of the table with the number on it, remembered the hunger artist. They pushed the straw around with poles and found the hunger artist in there. “Are you still fasting?” the supervisor asked. “When are you finally going to stop?” “Forgive me everything,” whispered the hunger artist. Only the supervisor, who was pressing his ear up against the cage, understood him. “Certainly,” said the supervisor, tapping his forehead with his finger in order to indicate to the staff the state the hunger artist was in, “we forgive you.” “I always wanted you to admire my fasting,” said the hunger artist. “But we do admire it,” said the supervisor obligingly. “But you shouldn’t admire it,” said the hunger artist. “Well then, we don’t admire it,” said the supervisor, “but why shouldn’t we admire it?” “Because I had to fast. I can’t do anything else,” said the hunger artist. “Just look at you,” said the supervisor, “why can’t you do anything else?” “Because,” said the hunger artist, lifting his head a little and, with his lips pursed as if for a kiss, speaking right into the supervisor’s ear so that he wouldn’t miss anything, “because I couldn’t find a food which tasted good to me. If had found that, believe me, I would not have made a spectacle of myself and would have eaten to my heart’s content, like you and everyone else.” Those were his last words, but in his failing eyes there was still the firm, if no longer proud, conviction that he was continuing to fast.

We discussed this story for the last day of my fine arts class, and one of the students who was assigned to bring in a reflection paper to start discussion said that her first thought on finishing the story was, “Wait, what?” The story marked the end of a unit about the meaning of art in general and its relation to the person of the artist, and the hunger artist does represent an extreme point of identification between the artist’s person and the artwork itself — in fact, it seems to anticipate contemporary performance art.

As we puzzled over the deflationary ending, I thought back to the earlier points in the story when the hunger artist was subjected to a humiliating performance meant to convey the idea that he was profoundly suffering and was grateful to be able to eat, as well as his disgust with the lenient monitors who turned their back for extended periods to give him a chance to indulge in the hidden food they assumed he must have. The audience, it seems, could only be brought to understand his performance if they were allowed to think of it as a transgression of normal behavior, as a sacrifice of everyday pleasures. What the hunger artist’s last confession reveals, however, is that normal behavior simply wasn’t a compelling point of reference for him, that fasting wasn’t any kind of sacrifice at all. Far from revealing his art to be a fraud, his confession represents the furthest possible point of identification between the artist and his art, to such a hyperbolic point that there really is nothing else for him.

6 thoughts on “On the ending of Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist”

  1. Somewhere around page 86 of Darian Leader’s “The New Black,” he talks about art’s contemporary function as a sort of aid to the mourning process; a sort of unique, individualized supplement that the artist creates in order to fully (or as nearly as possible) part from lost libidinal connections. Traditional mourning ritual fails, for the artist, in its palliative function. In the Hunger Artist, it seems to me, the foods that “everyone else” eats (the traditional, ritually prepared and consumed dishes) to sustain themselves do not work for the artist. And fasting is the unavoidable symptom for this neurotic who has been alienated – for whatever reason – from the benefit of this particular social custom.

  2. At a certain point — sometimes enviable, other times unfortunate, and most times something in-between — that which we consume in our various identifications, especially if they are the intense sort like artist, tends finally to consume us. The darkness we eat, eats us, as it were. We believe our own hype. Etc. Which is to say, artists are probably the truest available guides to morality, in the most general sense; but horrible examples in the particular.

  3. The reading suggested in your final paragraph strikes me as odd. The ending is deflating because it suggests that not eating wasn’t, in itself, a matter of importance; far from there being nothing else for him than fasting, there’s just nothing compelling about eating. (Actually, he might be attracted to the idea of eating—if he had found something he liked, he would have eaten!—he just never did.) Maybe you could say that at the furthest possible point of identification the artist and the art are so identified not that there isn’t anything else for the artist, but that there isn’t the art for the artist; it’s just the way things are. (Maybe that’s actually what you meant and I’m misinterpreting the “for”.) TBH, that also strikes me as somewhat unsatisfying, because it makes the identification on the part of the general populace in the story of this guy who’s never found anything to his liking as an artist unproblematically correct, so that there’s no problem about the status of art in the story, just about understanding the motivations of this particular artist.

  4. I think we should use Schopenhauer to critique Kafka’s Hunger Artist. Why? Because of the hunger artist’s and Arthur’s appreciation of music. Let’s assume that both lived an Aesthetic Lifestyle; seeking Beauty in the world in its ideal form. Arthur thought music came closest to this ideal form because it was detached from the physical world; The hunger artist found that music was the only thing that reconciled him to the world. “Music made talking [critique] impossible.” “Unjust suspicions” “Standing by their suspicions”… we can start here.

    The hunger artist died for “the honor of his art”. Let us return to Arthur: Intelligence does what it can; genius does what it must. What must the genius artist (Kafka) do? He must become detached from the “taste” of the world, from the tastes of the public, from what is “fashionable”. Food is symbolic of this taste in the story. The hunger artist is the “starving artist” who does his best work when unpopular and rejected by the public.

    The clock: Time is the artist greatest friend and greatest enemy. The artist “overlooks the mood of the time.”
    Fasting for 40 days: allusion to Christ; art (Beauty) is man’s salvation; Truth is beauty; beauty is truth — Romantic ideal. At the end of the 40 days: Producing such Beauty only produces death (exhaustion) for the artist. After 40 days, Christ returns to Jerusalem and dies.

    The young panther: sensationalism; popular culture, vulgarity, slap-stick, witlessness, wildness is refreshing, enjoys taste, panther is free, un-obliged to the predecessors of art or the aesthetic lifestyle; the panther now occupies the sanctity of the cage.

    Artists are “honored by the world” but you will always have “impresarios” to make excuses for the artist and defile the aesthetic lifestyle (“nomadic”) to the public. Living an aesthetic lifestyle is a “cage”. Hence, the “impresario,” the critic, only “does what he can” unlike the artist who “must do what he must.” “If someone doesn’t feel it, how can someone understand it?” Who but the artist himself understand his work? “I always wanted you to admire my fasting” but he enjoys the public attention best at a distance. “Because no one understood how to take him seriously.” Only the faster is completely satisfied with his fasting; only the artist is completely satisfied with his art.

    The aesthetic lifestyle is an “obstacle” in the modern world. For Kafka, he was looking at a post WWI world. We might apply this to our postmodern world where because of powerlessness can only “resist” (Zizek).

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