Efraim Sicher: "The Semiotics of Hunger"


Franz Kafka's short story "Ein Hungerkünstler" (A Hunger Artist), the title story of the collection in which "First Sorrow" also appeared, has defeated most attempts to interpret its meaning. Knowing that there really were such "hunger artists" and that much was written about them at the end of the nineteenth century does not advance our understanding of the meaning of Kafka's story except to remind us that the textual code is embedded in a web of signs, specifically artistic and scientific constructions of the human body (Mitchell; Gandelman, Reading Pictures 60-1). But we might be nearer understanding the figure in the cage as something more than just a Nietzschean ascetic priest if we look at the story as a parable not of the artist or the artist's situation, but as a parable of the way in which the text's own body is performing a resistance to interpretation in order to express the paradoxical impossibility of writing and its existential necessity, indeed the impossibility of existence and its simultaneous necessity:

In den letzten Jahrzehnten ist das Interesse an Hungerkünstlern sehr zurückgegangen. Während es sich früher gut lohnte, große derartige Vorführungen in eigener Regie zu veranstalten, ist dies heute voellig unmoeglich. Es waren andere Zeiten. (Kafka, Ein Hungerkünstler: 33)

The situation is one in which the text cannot any longer be read because the keys to its hermeneutics are lost in a world that denies the artist the performance of his art. Previously, the performance of fasting gave the artist all he wanted—an audience which felt his body and admired his starving: he could lie in the straw; "um niemanden sich kümmerte, nicht einmal um den für ihn so wichtigen Schlag der Uhr, die das einzige Moebelstück des Käfigs war, sondern nur vor sich hinsah mit fast geschlossenen Augen und hie und da aus einem winzigen Gläschen Wasser nippte, um sich die Lippen zu feuchten" (Ein Hungerkünstler 32). Now self-denial does not attract an audience that would give his performance meaning. Without self-denial there is no self and no art.

Art has become literally an act of self-destruction, not just a sacrificial death of the author, not just the giving of one's all in the self-destructive act of creation—a destructiveness that William Blake sensed within the process of creation in his parable-like poem, "The Tyger":

What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

Instead of Scheherazade's postponement of death for one more night, in modern literature writing has become a post-Nietzschean murder of the author which Michel Foucault reads in Proust and Kafka, an art of dying which is also a dying art (Language, Counter-Memory, Practice 113—38). Kafka confessed to Max Brod that he would lie contentedly on his deathbed, but refrained from telling him that

the best things I have written have their basis in this capacity of mine to meet death with contentment. All these fine and very convincing passages always deal with the fact that someone is dying, that it is hard for him to do, that it seems unjust to him, or at least harsh, and the reader is moved by this or at least he should be. But for me, who believe that I shall be able to lie contentedly on my deathbed, such scenes are secretly a game; indeed, in the death enacted I rejoice in my own death, hence calculatingly exploit the attention that the reader concentrates on death, have a much clearer understanding of it than he, of whom I suppose that he will loudly lament on his deathbed, and for these reasons my lament is as perfect as can be, nor does it suddenly break off, as is likely to be the case with a real lament, but dies beautifully and purely away. It is the same thing as my perpetual lamenting to my mother over pains that were not nearly so great as my laments would lead one to believe. With my mother, of course, I did not need to make so great a display of art as with the reader. (Brod, 1914: 321).

"Dying/ is an art, like everything else" declared Sylvia Plath in "Lady Lazarus," "I do it exceptionally well."

In his discussion of Kafka's connection with Expressionist depictions of the body as a living cadaver, Claude Gandelman argues that Kafka's art of anorexia was a useful parable of the writer tortured by tuberculosis who could retort to his father, "See what you have done to me!" (Gandelman, 1991: 62). This sounds rather like Sylvia Plath's accusation against her father, yet in the Jewish tradition, as Gandelman goes on to explain, the letter of the alphabet is an agency of creation, so that writing anorexically is to create a world and at the same time to destroy the self in an act of self-denial. After all, the writing of the story is a writing-out of self, or to put it another way, the emission of speech in the narrative of starvation is a refusal to take in, to admit interpretation, while his art is slowly killing the artist in an act of what Girard calls "semantic abstinence" (quoted in Ellmann 66). Kafka the writer is reduced to a cabalistic anagram or expressionist figurine, the letter K, a sign that expresses the absence of the father and the absence of the name of God. Or rather we are left standing in despair "Before the Law" (Gandelman, 1974: 275-6; 1991: 63-7). Yet by leaving us with that gaping hole of hermeneutics, transcendence itself is called into existence by the void of meaning.

The Panther and the Vegetarian

Kafka's story works beautifully in its cruel paradoxical logic, yet it leaves us without a solution, not necessarily because there isn't one, but because in the world in which the hunger artist's performance is no longer visible, the performance can only work if we understand why it is impossible.

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AS/SA Nº 8, Article 5 : Page 4 / 7

© 1999, Applied Semiotics / Sémiotique appliquée

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