The Semiotics of Hunger from "Le cygne" to "Ein Hungerkünstler"

Efraim Sicher1

Ben-Gurion University of the Negev

Le signe/le cygne

Quel est celui de nous qui n'a pas, dans ses jours d'ambition, rêvé le miracle d'une prose poétique, musicale sans rythme et sans rime, assez souple et assez heurtée pour s'adapter aux mouvements lyriques de l'âme, aux ondulations de la rêverie, aux soubresauts de la conscience?
C'est surtout de la fréquentation des villes énormes, c'est du croisement de leurs innombrables rapports que naît cet idéal obsédant. Vous-même, mon cher ami, n'avez-vous pas tenté de traduire en une chanson le cri strident du Vitrier, et d'exprimer dans une prose lyrique toutes les désolantes suggestions que ce cri envoie jusqu'aux mansardes à travers les plus hautes brumes de la rue?

(Baudelaire, 1966, 7-8)

In the dedication to Arsene Houssaye of Spleen de Paris, Baudelaire asks how a poetic prose could capture the spirit of the modern city, that is of modernity itself. The obsessive desire for such an ideal is born out of the "crossing of innumerable relations" in the city. The streets are the narrative intersections which comprise the semiotic map of the city and it is the flâneur whom we associate with the figure of the stroller whose walking is a writing of the city. The city is made legible as well as visible; yet, as Walter Benjamin tells us in his classic analysis of Les Fleurs du Mal, we do not see the city: it is not described, but perceived through figures whom the poet meets on the streets of Paris in a problematic relationship between the Self and the object of his gaze. "Le cygne," in a famous critical trope, is a sign ("signe") for the multiple meanings of that "crossing of innumerable relations," but it is a sign which is at once visible and legible (visible and lisible), and one which resists its readingþ"es lässt sich nicht lesen," to quote Poe's "Man of the Crowd."

The trace of pastoral innocence is marked by its absence in the corrupt, satanic city, a Babylon of monstrous whores and a negated space in bipolar opposition to Eden, a city-prison opposed to the freedom of Nature; the city is a space of ennui opposed to a total desire which is inaccessible (see Sicher, 1986). The absence is a lack, a hunger which must never be sated, for without the experience of exile the writing of the city would be impossible. If you like, the dying swan is a double sign of imprisonment because it has escaped from its cage into the unnatural dust of the city street, where it must die of thirst. This is an image of the poet's own experience of exile in the city but also a sign of writing as exile of self, a negative signature of the seeming impossibility of writing. The city's river is a "pauvre et triste miroir" of Andromache's former majesty which refuses any mimesis of the ever-changing capital, while the poet's yearning and his feelings of irreparable loss are reflected not in the dried-up stream but in the native lake symbolizing exile in the heart of the swan, which has escaped from a menagerie that is itself, in a further exile of the self, no longer there. It is a performance of hunger which thrives on lack, on exile, for these figures exist only in as much as they appear fleetingly in the poet's field of vision in his perception of the city as a monumental façade of civilization hiding the more vivid consciousness of unrequited desire and nostalgia for exotic shores. As performers of their hunger, the Negress and the Swan cannot act other than as hirelings of the poet's imagination, serving his insatiable desire, which must never be fed for it would then die. They must always be there, starving on the streets, at least as mental images, for the poet to create his urban poetics, and to be an artist.

Hunger artists were not only figures of the imagination but performers on the city streets. Strolling through Paris on Mardi Gras in 1832, Heinrich Heine noticed the figure of a hunger artist:

Near the Porte Saint-Martin there lay on the damp pavement a death pale, hoarsely coughing man, of whom the crowd said that he was dying of hunger. But my companion assured me that this man died of hunger every day in another street and got his living by it, being paid for it by the Carlists, in order that the mob by such a sight might be goaded against the government. It would appear however, that this cannot be a very remunerative calling, because such numbers of those who follow it actually do starve to death. There is this that is remarkable as regards dying for want of food, which is that we should see daily many thousands of people in such a state if they could endure it longer. But generally after three days without food the poor sufferers perish. One after the other are silently interred and hardly noticed. (1893: 130)

The staging of hunger here is designed to unmask the carnival masks which, Heine suspects, conceal not a few gendarmes and government agents paid to keep up the people's spirits. To be a successful hunger artist, however, it is essential to know how to starve without actually dying.


1. Professor Efraim Sicher, Abrahams-Curiel Department of Foreign Literatures and Linguistics, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, POB 653, Beer-Sheva 84 105; Israel, E-mail: [RETURN]

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AS/SA Nº 8, Article 5 : Page 1 / 7

© 1999, Applied Semiotics / Sémiotique appliquée

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