The human condition in kafka’s a hunger artist Essay
The human condition in kafka’s a hunger artist
In A Hunger Artist, Kafka presents a view on the deformity of the human condition by twisting generally accepted notions. Using simple, clear, and linear narrative, Kafka relates the story of the hunger artist and yet for all its simplicity it is laced with the absurd and at the same time with profound reality. The behavior of the hunger artist and the public corresponds with the aspirations of any man who dreams of making a breakthrough in his chosen field of passion and the whimsical public’s inability to appreciate such endeavors.
Lastly, in an ironic twist, Kafka also shows that the artist himself is not true to his passion, showing another facet of how deformed the human condition could be. All throughout the story Kafka twists popular notions to reflect another side of the human psyche to make readers rethink what they have always accepted as general truths. For example, Kafka wrote that no public fasting went for more than forty days.
One would think that he alluding to the Biblical fact that Jesus fasted for forty days, and henceforth it has been customary especially for Christians to fast for the same amount of days, generally believing that it is the most number of days that one can go on without food. However, in his story, Kafka explains that the public fast went no longer than forty days because after the fortieth day the public loses its interest and paid less attention to the hunger spectacle.
Thus, whereas fasting is generally regarded as an act of self-cleansing and sacrifice, in the story Kafka uses it merely as entertainment, with no religious value at all. More than that, fasting lost its traditional essence of cleansing and sacrifice, because the hunger artist was doing it not to deprive himself but because he desired personal glory in completing the forty day period without food. The hunger artist treated his fasting as his passion, and if he had his way would even go on to see just how long he could fast.
By proclaiming himself an artist, he has regarded his fasting as a craft. Honing a craft meant working hard at it, and striving to exceed one’s limitations to create something new. The hunger artist behaved this way – he felt that he could endure more days of fasting and that he wanted to break his own record and the show the world just how long he can last. It seems like he is a genuine artist, for even after the public has grown tired of him he pursued his dream of going beyond the forty days, even if it was taboo.
However, at the end of the story the hunger artist makes a confession that it was truly easy for him to fast because he never really found anything that he wanted to eat, and if only he did, he would not even fast, he would stuff himself with it. This breaks the character of the artist – it shows that fasting was never really his passion, that he only did it to satisfy his own desire for attention and glory, of being watched by the people and setting a mark. If it was truly his passion then no reason but that he enjoyed fasting would suffice.
With his confession the seemingly passionate hunger artist was reduced to a poser. Moreover, what separates man from other creatures is his mental faculty, his ability to desire and create and imagine. Man’s goal is progress, to develop himself. And yet in this story, readers see a man who willingly puts himself in a cage to starve, likening himself to caged animals used mainly for attraction. Not surprisingly, Kafka follows this thread. Later on in the story we find the hunger artist in a cage lined with other animals, a small spectacle to be seen on the way to the menagerie.
He continues to fast there, forgotten and unseen, his being human nothing compared to the animals around him, him who is supposed to be the highest form of beast. And at the end, he dies with no dignity. His record of days fasting was unrecorded, his efforts gone to waste as he himself no longer know how many days have gone by. After his confession and death, a young panther full of life is put into the cage, and unlike his predecessor, the panther draws the crowd in awe. This highlights the reversal between man and beast – the panther gained even more admiration than the man. There are two ways to interpret this.
First, that for all his valiant efforts, the public cannot appreciate an artist who gives his all to his craft, and second, that the man has succeeded in dehumanizing himself that a panther caught in the wild and put in a cage had more dignity than him who willingly imprisoned himself. The viewing public too, showed the absurdity by which humans behave. Much like the ancient Romans who viewed throwing men to lions as entertainment, the public in the story heralded the hunger artist with appreciation and awe. In this sense it is not only the hunger artist who dehumanized himself, but the viewing public too.
They did not understand why he fasted, they were not even truly convinced that the hunger artist never really ate anything. They relished his weakness and thinness, like enjoying somebody wither away in front of them. The ironic thing is, people see this image everyday. In the corners of alleys and streets, there are people starving and dying of hunger. People pass them by without another thought. In the story, Kafka takes this further by putting the starving man on the stage and making the people take enjoyment out of it. Then, like a passing fad, they lost interest in the hunger artist as it lost its novelty and became a predictable sight.
With all these images and inverted notions of what are supposedly generally accepted codes in society, of pitying the poor, of fasting as a religious act, of passion as an end in itself and pushing these to the point of absurdity, of transforming social codes into nothing but mere superficiality, the poor as entertainment, fasting as a personal quest for pride and passion turned into nothing but a heartless task with no difficulty and effort required, Kafka has shown how deformed the human condition is. Instead of living with dignity, we debase ourselves, and surprisingly, in doing so, Kafka has approximated reality.
University/College: University of Chicago
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 19 April 2017
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