The Menagerie & the Literary Artist

First published in 1922, Franz Kafka’s brilliant story “A Hunger Artist” focuses on a psychologically complex and imperfect man whose profession is to publicly fast in a cage for 40 days at a stretch. But public interest in these events begins to diminish over the years. Toward the end, the hunger artist finds himself reduced to circus work, and his cage is set up along a gangway where he is little more than an impediment to the crowd that daily troops past him on its way to the animal menagerie:

He might fast as much as he could, and he did so; but nothing could save him now, people passed him by. Just try to explain to anyone the art of fasting!  Anyone who has no feeling for it cannot be made to understand it. The fine placards grew dirty and illegible, they were torn down; the little notice board telling the number of fast days achieved, which at first was changed carefully every day, had long stayed at the same figure, for after the first few weeks even this small task seemed pointless to the staff; and so the artist simply fasted on and on, as he had once dreamed of doing, and it was no trouble for him, just as he had always foretold, but no one counted the days, no one, not even the artist himself, knew what records he was already breaking, and his heart grew heavy. And when once in a while 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.

One of the notable things about Kafka’s work is the way his clear and precise language invites multiple interpretations. Coming to this story all these years after it was written, I found myself automatically substituting the literary artist in place of Kafka’s performer. Suffice it to say, things do not end well for the hunger artist. In this era of widespread visual, interruptive and multimedia diversions, one hopes that the literary artist – and the practice of engaged literacy – can somehow avoid a similar fate.

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My previous post was on wordless books, and the following juxtaposition perhaps serves as a fitting coda to that piece and to the dire musings above.

In reading Kafka’s The Complete Stories, I didn’t get around to John Updike’s introduction until I was done. In his description of “The Metamorphosis,” in which traveling salesman Gregor Samsa wakes up as an insect, Updike points out Kafka’s concern that no depiction of the insect should appear on the cover of the book, not even at a distance – that it would shut off the reader’s sympathy for this conflicted creature. Updike goes on to describe the dark humor and pathos of Gregor’s plight as he and his family try to adjust to his situation:

Later, relegated by the family to the shadows of a room turned storage closet, he responds to violin music and creeps forward, covered with dust and trailing remnants of food, to claim his sister’s love. Such scenes could not be done except with words. In this age that lives and dies by the visual, “The Metamorphosis” stands as a narrative absolutely literary, able to exist only where language and the mind’s hazy wealth of imagery intersect.

Maybe it’s not too late for the literary artist after all.

Scott