Efraim Sicher: "The Semiotics of Hunger"


The first half of the nineteenth century saw the display of the body as an entertainment, something on which to feed one's curiosity by admiring feats of inhuman endurance. These museum exhibitions and later circus sideshows constructed the healthy "normality" of European civilization and masculinity. Such freaks as deformed "monsters" and midgets, the Elephant Man or the Snake Woman were very popular in the travelling shows and circuses that attracted adults in nineteenth-century Europe. In America well into the years of Depression such spectacles could feed hungry masses, if only momentarily. In Book VII of The Prelude, William Wordsworth saw in the freak show at London's St. Bartholomew's Fair the city's unnatural body. It was a spectacle whose performance suggested to the poet that the creative powers were asleep:

What a shock
For eyes and ears! What anarchy and din
Barbarian and infernal—a phantasma
Monstrous in color, motion, shape, sight, sound!

(The Prelude vii, 685-8)

Wordsworth, unlike Baudelaire, cannot read the signs — "dumb proclamations" — of the city's show, just as the Blind Beggar's story is illegible, a blank text, because he cannot access the experience without summoning the Muse of Nature who will put these fragmentary and disparate impressions into the order of a coherent whole of humanity. The bodies on display are not themselves natural but

All freaks of Nature, all Promethean thoughts
Of man; his dullness, madness and their feats.
All jumbled up together, to compose
A Parliament of Monsters, Tents and Booths...

(The Prelude, vii, 714-18)

The "blank confusion" which was the "true epitome" of the city represents the illegibility of the monstrous body, which is not to say that it is unrepresentable but, on the contrary, requires a new kind of art to represent it, to make the visible readable (lisible).

The illegibility of the city in Edgar Allan Poe's "The Man of the Crowd" provides another example of the estranged visitor attempting to read the conditions of modernity. The fascinating pull of the figure on the street destroys the coveted loneliness of Poe's coffee lounger and drags him from his private view of the stage of life into the public sphere where he has to face his own kinship with the rest of humanity and the horror of recognition of the depths of the psyche—the true meaning of the prohibited "es lässt sich nicht lesen." If the glass window had served as a "miroir sur la chausée," now the observer has passed through the mimetic glass and finds himself pursuing a figure of a mysterious old man, whose story he will never read. The recognition is of the uncanny, Freud's "unheimlich," and it is in a return of the repressed that the observer must repeatedly and compulsively return to his origins, the Hotel D—, signalled alliteratively by the old man's diamond and dagger, which bring him face to face with the Self, so that it is no longer possible to distinguish the figure from the observer, the figure from its meaning.

Visible / Lisible, Figure / Parable

Let us try to all this a little more legible by imagining an art exhibition. A critic, perhaps it is Charles Baudelaire, or perhaps it is a provincial journalist writing in a Vienna newspaper, is reporting on a new exhibition which displays a strange, unfamiliar art form. It might be an Expressionist picture, like the drawings by George Grosz which Kafka described as deriving their force from "the impossibility of love" (Janouch 144-5). Indeed, Kafka said of his own "doodles" that they were as much intimate expressions of his loneliness as his stories, but he needed to see, "to hold fast to what was seen," in an effort at controlling the conditions of human freedom (Janouch 33-6).

We are reading the narrator's reading of the picture. In the picture is a figure of a performer, a hunger artist in a cage.1 We cannot help asking why the hunger artist has to be in the cage, why this is "art" and what is the point of the story (though these questions may be part of a trap that has been set for us). In all events the narrative is itself a performance of the hunger artist's art.

An early Picasso etching from his Blue Period, "The Acrobats" (1913) will illustrate the point. Only five of this series actually show acrobats, and these display the artist's evident sympathy for the hungry members of a dangerous profession, survivors who make art out of survival. The averted look, the distorted body contours, the sunken cheeks and breasts—all speak for a hopeless despair in contrast to the expected image of the healthy, athletic body. The few drawings for the series that do deal with circus performers do not foreground hunger or emaciation, yet they nevertheless display the body as a performance by nude or semi-naked figures. In "A Frugal Meal," the performance is the artistic creation of hunger in the still-life of an empty bowl and the bottle and glasses. These have not satiated starving, emaciated bodies that are barely draped in thin rags which make more visible the art of hunger.

Figure 1: Picasso, "A Frugal Meal" — © Succession Picasso 1999 with the kind permission of the Israel Museum Jerusalem.


1. An artist (Künstler) is here a performer, rather than a painter or sculptor. In English we might speak of acrobats and strippers as "artistes." See Spann (164-7) on this and other critical blunders in the story's interpretation. [RETURN]

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AS/SA Nº 8, Article 5 : Page 2 / 7

© 1999, Applied Semiotics / Sémiotique appliquée

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