Thursday, March 24, 2016

Starving

Set in a nameless country at an undisclosed time in history, “The Hunger Artist” concerns a man who starves himself not for his art—as the old adage goes—but as a form of art. His abstinence becomes fodder for public consumption. In the opening pages, we’re told that the hunger artist travels to little hamlets and villages across the country, where he puts on performances in town squares. For forty days at a time, he sits inside a barred metal cage whose floor has been padded with straw, and sips from a thimble of water, not as a form of nourishment but rather to “moisten his lips.” Hordes of eager spectators peer into his kennel and gawk at his deprivation—the protuberant ribcage, the twiggy limbs, the gaunt and phlegmatic expression. But as the days wear on and tastes change, the crowds thin. Enthusiasm wanes. Soon, out of financial desperation and artistic despair, the hunger artist parts ways with his loyal publicist and joins a circus, the last venue where he can procure a stage for himself, however shabby and undignified it may be. “In order to spare his own sensitive feelings, he didn’t even look at the terms of his contract.”

Upon his arrival at the circus, he’s stationed at the far end of the grounds, amidst a menagerie of loud, squawking animals that prove to be more compelling to the guests than the sight of a rail-thin man sitting immobile in worsted vestments. From his vantage inside the cage, he can observe a collection of garishly painted signs advertising other exhibits, which contrast starkly with the drab interior of his own dwelling—the iron bars, the coarse straw, the pale skin. Eventually, people forget about him, even neglecting to change the number on the tablet outside his cage that denotes the duration of his fast.

One day a supervisor totters past the exhibit, seeing only a mound of hay, and asks a nearby attendant why a perfectly good cage is going to waste. Eventually, one member of the grounds crew recalls the presence of the professional faster, prompting everyone to start jabbing at the straw with poles until they locate the skimpy frame of the hunger artist, who rouses slowly. The conversation that ensues is the coda of the story:
“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 have 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 that tasted good to me. If I 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.”
These are his last words. Upon his death, the cage is promptly evacuated, and he is replaced by a young panther, a lithe creature who prowls the confines of his tenement and has no trouble enjoying the food the guards bring him.

In the century since its publication, the story has spawned countless interpretations. Numerous critics have pointed out its obvious Christian allusions. Because the hunger artist’s fasts transpire over a period of forty days, they situate him beside other biblical figures, whose own crucibles of faith spanned the same length of time—Moses at Sinai waiting for the commandments; Jesus in the desert, brushing off the devil. And yet, ideologically, Kafka was anything but an apostle. Clearly he didn’t intend for the hunger artist to stand as a simple Christlike symbol. Nowhere is this more apparent than when the impresario calls the hunger artist an “unfortunate martyr,” which Kafka qualifies with a telling parenthetical: “something the hunger artist certainly was, only in a completely different sense.”

There are, of course, two senses in which one can be a martyr: when one is killed for one’s religious beliefs or when one embellishes their suffering in order to garner the condolence or commendation of others. Throughout the story, the hunger artist professes no article of faith, no strident political position. Instead, he’s monomaniacally preoccupied with being respected and adored, which gives us good reason to believe that Kafka wants us to regard him in the second, more pejorative sense of the term. The hunger artist’s claim at the end of the story that he “couldn’t find a food that tasted good” to him is hard to take literally. Instead, it seems to signal that his only nourishment—the only sustenance he hungered for—was approval and veneration. The fickleness of the public proved to be a meager diet, though, and since he had nothing else to live on, he wasted away to a husk of skin and bones. He was, quite literally, starved for attention.

It can be counted on that at some point during the discussion of Kafka, one of my students will mention the Kardashian family. The first time the conversation veered in this direction, I was somewhat baffled. But it turns out that for a particular segment of young people, the most immediate contemporary analogue to the hunger artist are celebrities who have made a career not from any particular talent or ability, but rather on their identity alone—the kind of celebrities who have transcended the realm of personalities—and perhaps personhood itself. (...)

I never lasted long on social media—there were a few weeks back in 2004 when I used Facebook, a dark period during which I also wore an eyebrow ring and still had hair—so its operations invariably feel exotic to me. Whenever my friends log on, I always jump at the chance to look over their shoulders and read their newsfeeds, trying to get a sense of its interpersonal flavor. But even though its codes and mores strike me as queer and foreign, I don’t bring to these investigations the bigoted attitude of a xenophobe nor the unalterable nostalgia of a Luddite. I’m genuinely curious about the potential benefits of expressing myself and curating my own life online. Surely, there are social advantages. And for a writer there are professional ones, too.

By now, the fact that Facebook conventions mirror the undertakings of celebrities—the meticulously curated profiles, the group-tested posts written in press-release diction, the endless photos of our friends’ meals, their leisure activities, their dogs (it’s true, “the stars are just like us”—in fact, they are us)—is usually acknowledged with sheepish embarrassment. We cop to our self-promotion and blush upon admitting that, yes, okay, it’s true: we do in fact take down Facebook posts or Instagram pics that don’t garner enough likes or favorites. We do sometimes, when polling our “friends,” address them this way: “Dear Facebook” or “Dear Hivemind.” But we defend against these minor humiliations of personhood by suggesting that they’re required by our neoliberal landscape. Perhaps the wisdom of Citizens United can be applied in reverse: yes, corporations are individuals, but individuals are corporations, too.

But when we regard our “selves” this way—as a product to be marketed, a message to be promulgated, a brand to be “liked”—something strange happens. We begin to feel the gathering pangs of a clenched inauthenticity, which accrues ever more quickly under the pressure to keep up appearances, to apply yet another coat of varnish to the surface of our brand. We may feel lonely or “unknown” in ways we could never admit. Of course, all social roles are inescapably performative, and it would be na├»ve to think that we can totally avoid the dramaturgy of self-presentation simply by staying offline. But in the age of wearable technology, push notifications and selfie sticks, it has become difficult to adequately distinguish between our virtual and visceral selves, to know when exactly the curtain closes and the backstage begins. Kafka notes that toward the end of his life, malnourished by a thankless audience, the hunger artist never leaves the circus. It is perhaps no accident that the site of his exhibit, the very proscenium of his performance, is also a cage.

by Barrett Swanson, The Point | Read more:
Image: Kim Kardashian