Efraim Sicher: "The Semiotics of Hunger"


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Kafka's text would then become in such a reading itself a fast to prove its own necessity as an insatiable desire in resistance to the gorging of the bourgeois public on more corporeal passions. The panther instantly satisfies the public's hunger for instant gratification of the body. The healthy panther1 has replaced the diseased figure in the cage, who is soon forgotten, like Gregor Samsa's corpse, which is eclipsed at the end of Metamorphosis by the yearning of his sister's young body for sexual fulfilment. The swan pining for water and Nature has been forgotten too, and Kafka's Hunger Artist has taken the place of both Baudelaire's consumptive Negress and the caged animal in Rilke's "Der Panther" (1903), whose "great will stands stunned and numb"; when a shape does enter its vision, it "slips through the tightened silence of the shoulders, reaches the heart and dies."

Dann geht ein Bild hinein
geht durch der Glieder angespannte Stille—
und hoert im Herzen auf zu sein. (Rilke 138-9)

When the Hunger Artist tells the impresario that he should not admire his fasting, after seeking such admiration, we have a bitter indictment of an inhumane and philistine society which has "commodified" the body and profaned any idea of the sacred or spiritual. It is a society in which art can be produced only in such imprisoning conditions and when society has denied the meaning of art. The paradox is that the Hunger Artist wanted his fasting to be admired, but it was not something that should be admired. The artist fasts because he has to, he can do nothing else, "Weil ich hungern muß, ich kann nicht anders" (Kafka, Ein Hungerkünstler 50). He has to because he didn't find the "food" he liked ("weil ich nicht die Speise finden konnte, die mir schmeckt" [50]). This he whispers in the impresario's ear with his lips pursed as in a kiss, as if to underscore exactly what kind of sustenance he is lacking. The Hunger Artist is reduced to the state of Gregor Samsa, set apart by his monstrosity and unable to stuff himself as he would like with everyone else.

The irony, that in his dying breath, the artist admits he would have eaten had he been given the food he liked may be a humorous allusion to Kafka's vegetarianism, which was part of his obsessive concern with bodily health but also, according to Sander Gilman, linked to Kafka's feelings of inferiority next to his father's healthy bulk and possibly a reaction to common beliefs that Jewish ritual slaughter (as practiced by Kafka's own grandfather) was unhealthy or that it was part of ritual murder (a medieval libel revived at the turn of the century, the victim being a woman and the blood used to cure alleged menstruation in Jewish males)—images that undermine the Jew's sense of his body as masculine and healthy. The slaughter of K in The Trial is also an animal ritual (his executioners use the knife of pork butchers), and the bestial indignity of K's death is likened to the death of a dog; the Hunger Artist's fast is watched over by butchers who thus represent a carnivorous, materialistic and bestial society. None of this, of course, relieves the Hunger Artist's insistence on being an enigma, on his artistic credo of resisting interpretation to the end.

The consumptive body in "The Hunger Artist" reminds us of Baudelaire's Negress, another consumptive alien, but one whose exile evokes the poet's affinities. Gilman relates these images of the body to feminization of the Jew (167), so that the Hunger Artist's death would reflect fear of becoming something monstrous, arising from anxiety about sexuality and internalization of racial stereotypes which are encoded in the body and are therefore beyond his control (237). However, a reading of the Hunger Artist's situation as that of the dying Kafka is concerned with the cultural constructs of Kafka's self-image, rather than with the interpretive difficulties of the text which pose an unsolvable riddle to the reader hungry for a satisfactory explanation. In "In the Penal Colony" the inscription of the text is similarly illegible to the condemned man, a cipher worked by cogs, as in the Enigma machine the Germans had developed for intelligence operations. In both stories, there is a similar circularity: the Hunger Artist is consumed by his own art without being able to read the text of his story and without our being able to decode the text. In both stories any absolute knowledge is denied, even the post-Nietzschean knowledge that meaning is relative, but rather meaning circulates in a series of logical circles that generate multiple (though not endless) possibilities of interpretation.

Abstinence once practiced by mystics or Christian saints has become a sign of the self-destruction caused by the conspicuous display of what one can afford not to eat (Ellmann 7), as distinct from the control over the body which gave ascendancy to the spirit. Kafka's Hunger Artist speaks of the "initiate" ("Eingeweihter") to a public ritual, and his fasting for forty days suggests (while also denying) the role of a Moses or Jesus, but without the fulfilment of a prophetic mission; indeed, the term "initiate" suggests, besides a professional novice, the sort of mystical communion and interpretive community which does not exist in Kafka's story. Moreover, it is not fasting that is difficult—it's the easiest thing in the world!—but the quest for satisfaction—both satisfaction for the artist and for the reader seeking meaning in his performance. The more he performs his art, the further the hunger artist gets from any satisfaction or ascendancy to a higher spiritual level. This is the absurd but inescapable situation of the total severance of artist from marketplace which characterizes the feeling of impotence and alienation in modernism (Bürger; Gandelman, "Kafka as an Expressionist Draftsman"). It is also Kafka's own situation on Berlin streets and his situation as an artist dying in a sanitarium, but the referential meaning of the text is not limited to that historical and biographical reality. In the end, the hunger artist has failed, abandoned to his delusion that he is now free to fast as long as he wants, but the text has succeeded in performing that failure.



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1. Actually "leopard" is a more accurate translation of the German, though disappointing to those seeking, in a big black cat, any form of evil (Spann 167). [RETURN]









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AS/SA Nº 8, Article 5 : Page 5 / 7


© 1999, Applied Semiotics / Sémiotique appliquée

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1999.12.04