Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Tuesday, October 11, 2011

KAFKA: A Hunger Artist 2011

This story reminds me of the movie Elephant Man, only backward. In the movie we have a deformed man who very much wants to be like everyone else and become a part of the human family. He desperately wants to be normal. But he can’t because his deformity is so severe that he’s not even considered human by people who see him. In Kafka’s story we get the exact opposite: a seemingly normal man who very much wants to be different and apart from the rest of the human race. Kafka’s Hunger Artist voluntarily chooses to set himself apart from humanity. In that way they’re very different from one another. But in this way they’re both very much alike: they both end up working in freak shows in traveling carnivals. And they’re also both aware of their intense aloneness in the world. There’s no one else like either one of them. The Elephant Man had no choice because he was born that way; the Hunger Artist chose his own isolation. Or did he? This story leaves many lingering questions. Do people become artists mainly because they’re different from other people? Or do they become artists because they’re so deeply human that most of us simply can’t understand the creative depths they’re drawing from? Another question: are artists generally misunderstood? That seems to be the explanation in modern theory. For instance, take the song about Vincent Van Gogh (Starry, Starry Night). The lyrics tell us that “they” (that would be us) could not love you, but still your love was true. And when no hope was left in sight on that starry, starry night, you took your life, as lovers often do. But I could have told you, Vincent, This world was never meant for one as beautiful as you. In other words, Vincent was too good for this world. How many times have we heard this line of thought whenever artists, writers or musicians die from drug overdose or alcoholism? They were too good for this world. Or, they weren’t meant long for this world. The line goes that artists are generally misunderstood by the masses. The story about the Hunger Artist is proof that the masses don’t appreciate the finer things in life, like Vincent Van Gogh’s art. The fact is Van Gogh is more popular now than he was in his own day. Does that mean that “the masses” have finally come around to appreciating the beauty behind Vincent’s art? Does it mean that he was just ahead of his time? Or does it just mean that times have changed and so have artistic tastes? The story of the Hunger Artist says: We live in a different world now. When the Hunger Artist was a young man the crowds were wowed by feats of professional fasting. But as he grew older times changed and the crowd’s interests were diverted in new directions; kind of like Vincent Van Gogh in reverse. The Hunger Artist started off with a bang but then his popularity gradually went downhill. That’s how he finally wound up in a small cage in a freak show in a traveling carnival. People were no longer interested in watching people slowly becoming skinnier and skinnier. They wanted to see new and more exciting things. It would be interesting to see how many people would still like Vincent Van Gogh if his paintings weren’t in school textbooks and television and magazine advertisements. How much are our artistic tastes are shaped not by what we really like but by what other people say they like? In this story we see how it takes some background knowledge before someone can truly appreciate the art of fasting…the children, still rather uncomprehending, since neither inside nor outside school had they been sufficiently prepared for this lesson--what did they care about fasting?--yet showed by the brightness of their intent eyes that new and better times might be coming. The same thing goes for much of modern art. To the untrained eye much of it looks just plain ugly. But that’s apparently because the untrained eye is unsophisticated. As the Hunger Artist says: Just try to explain to anyone the art of fasting! Anyone who has no feeling for it cannot be made to understand it. The only way to understand fasting is to go hungry for awhile and see how it feels. In the Middle Ages people used to fast regularly for their religion. But as Kafka puts it: We live in a different world now.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Which translation did you read? I am in the process of selecting one.
Oxford University Press is publishing a new translation by Joyce Kirk next April, in case you're interested.

10/18/2011 6:35 PM  

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