Lately I’ve begun to wonder whether A Hunger Artist is an awful name for this blog. I also realise I’ve never said anything much about why I chose it.

My three hunger artists

‘A Hunger Artist’ (or in the German original, ‘Ein Hungerkünstler’) is a short story by the Czech writer Franz Kafka (who, incidentally or not, had various foody quirks, was very thin even before he died a slow death from tuberculosis, and has been posthumously diagnosed with anorexia [Fichter, 1988]). Kafka wrote in German, but lived most of his life in Prague, where I happen to be this week for a conference about him, so it feels fitting to be writing this post now. First published in 1922, ‘A Hunger Artist’ is the story of a man who fasts for other people’s entertainment, and manages ever longer feats of foodless endurance. But the vogue for hunger artists is waning, and as time passes, more and more people rush past him to watch the exciting circus animals instead. In case you’d like to read the story – and I recommend you do, though it’s not an easy read – I won’t say more about what happens. (A decent translation by Ian Johnston is here, or the original German here.) But it’s a story that for obvious reasons has long resonated with me – ever since I was seventeen or eighteen and my English teacher introduced me to it.

Franz Kafka
Source: Franz Kafka

This hunger artist gave birth to others. As an undergraduate, I chose Kafka as one of two authors to study in more depth for my German course, and when I’d finished my degree and had gone back home to my mother’s house to recuperate after my final exams, I wrote a very long and more or less unreadable (and therefore unpublished) book about my anorexia. I called it A Hunger Artist.

After a year at home (pretending to myself that I might now start to recover, but not doing more than convalesce from critical to stable), I went back to university for a Masters, and stayed for a doctorate which ended up being all about Kafka. ‘A Hunger Artist’ stayed on the fringes: it didn’t feature at all in my doctoral thesis (Troscianko, 2010), and barely in the book I published from the thesis (Troscianko, 2014a). But near the end of my PhD, my mother, who has a blog with Psychology Today too (though it’s more or less dormant now), asked me whether I’d ever considered writing anything publicly about my anorexia. Her (now my) PT editor was keen, and the name that came to mind was, perhaps inevitably, A Hunger Artist.

In the early days, the blog was much more the story of my illness and recovery than it is now. I suppose that in those still fragile days of later recovery, I felt that until very recently I’d been something of a hunger artist in Kafka’s mould: weak, starving, alone, in equal parts misunderstood and confused. The name of the story also seemed to resonate with some hazy idea of creating words (if not art) out of the experience of hunger, and it created a personal echo, too, of the summer I’d spent caught up in the writing of that previous Hunger Artist.

The dangers of hunger artistry

It’s hard to believe now that when choosing this title I’d have failed to consider the possibility that it might be taken to mean something dangerous: that I think there’s an artistic way to starve oneself, or even that starving is an inherently aesthetic act. But I don’t remember worrying about that misreading. Maybe that was just one more lingering symptom of my starved mind: not quite being able to see the woods for the trees.

For the record: not-eating is not an act of artistry. Neither it nor the changes not-eating may cause to the body or the mind have any aesthetic qualities. The beauty present in human forms has nothing to do with thinness, nor can any aesthetic qualities perceptible in a human life ever be enhanced by inadequate energy intake.

In a way, I should have been highly attuned to the unwanted connotations of hunger artistry, because my unease about all kinds of online content made me steer well clear of the internet while I was ill – not that it was hard to back then. And – not incidentally – I lived on a boat, alone, without wifi, so that made it even easier. Everything about my illness was secretive, drawn in on itself, rejecting of the world. On the one hand, that meant being self-protectively fearful of the influences I sensed could drag me down further into it, but it also involved rejecting anyone else’s wisdom about the illness that felt so intrinsic and all-encompassing of me. My mother read a few self-help books and research papers and passed them on to me, but otherwise my understanding of anorexia came exclusively from my own experience and from the input of the three therapists I saw.

I can’t imagine being ill in a world where the internet is as all-pervading as the past decade has made it, but if I were, and if I even got as far as googling eating-disorder blogs, I think I’d see one called ‘A Hunger Artist’ and assume it was a pro-anorexic glorification of starvation. Maybe the Psychology Today association would have given me pause, but I do wonder how many people have been put off visiting these pages by the title alone.

Some of my worries about this come back to Kafka's story again. As I said, it’s a story about a man whose life is nothing but extending his fasts ever longer, and whose end is pitiful. Yet the typical response from literary scholars has been to assume that because Kafka calls him an artist, he is. One says that he ‘has to starve in order to perfect the work of art’ (Ellmann, 1993, p. 59) even though there’s no indication that there is any work of art, let alone one that starvation could perfect. Others notice that there doesn’t seem to be any art being created, but seem so keen to attribute some kind of specialness to him that they stray even further from what the text justifies, and make the hunger artist into some sort of moral paragon:

'The ascetic man is the man with higher tastes; here is his strength and the cause of his unpopularity with the low-tasters.’

‘He does not exhibit for these corrupt souls [the adults who get bored with him], but for the pure children, who may one day restore fasting to its former glory.’

‘[The hunger artist] is a man who is all spirit and no flesh – and surely we can all admire such a man as a seven days’ wonder.’ (Steinhauer, 1962, pp. 41-43)

I’ve written in an academic article (Troscianko, 2014b) about the breathtaking inappropriateness of this (mis)interpretation of the story, but quoting these statements here now makes me more uncomfortable and more disgusted than ever. Firstly, because there’s no justification at all for it in the words of the text itself: Kafka’s hunger artist rattles the bars of his cage like an animal, has a hollowed-out body, exists for the most part in a faint-like half-sleep, is nauseous and cheerless and altogether a man whose mind and body are being ruined for lack of food. He inspires no one, and seems inspired by nothing. And secondly, it disturbs me because I know where the unreflective idealising of asceticism and purity and fleshless spirituality leads – and I know you do too.

The temptation to extract neatly mind-over-body messages from great works of literature is clearly strong, and its strength seems a close sister of the strength with which, in anorexia, illusory self-purification through not-eating takes hold. Those who experience anorexia learn the hard way that if we give these values even an inch of credence, they’ll take a mile. An article about Kafka written in the 1980s shows how this can happen even from the apparently irrelevant starting point of literary criticism: a student in the author’s class had had anorexia in the past, and had shied away from writing about food in Camus’ novel L’Etranger (The Outsider) because of a ‘desire to address a safe or “clean” topic, to avoid getting her hands dirty with a topic which, although the student was no longer anorexic, implicated her subjective history (her own “body”) in the writing process (Anderson, 1988, p. 28). In the end, she chose the ‘safe’, ‘clean’ topic of light symbolism.

The author wrote also of how the rest of the class, all of whom either had personal experience of an eating disorder or knew someone who did, were uncomfortable with the food theme too – and not just with food, but with anything that might risk bringing their real, personal, complicated lives and views and values into the rarefied business of writing about literature: ‘Personal, unproved assertions about the text would have exposed her to potential criticism, whereas a mere description of Camus’s words would keep her out of danger, invisible’ (p. 28). And thus, mental illness and the strength of its feared embodiment keep us silent, and so do others’ attitudes to illness and the body – whether they’re spoken or unspoken, from someone as close as a parent or something as apparently impersonal as the practices of an academic discipline.

Mind-body dualism, or the systematic devaluing of body against mind, is deeply embedded in many of our ways of thinking about ourselves, from prizing ‘clear, rational thought’ supposedly free of the distortions of base emotion, to associating virtue with self-deprivation or self-control. There are all kinds of possible reasons for this, many of them perhaps reducing to the ageless human desire to think of ourselves as different from and superior to other animals. But if there’s any illness that epitomises the devaluation of the body, it’s anorexia. Indeed, you could see it as the only logical way of living (and dying) if you accept the kind of values being expressed by the critics I’ve quoted here.

This is something I try to work against in literary studies, and I’ll probably write more about that in another post soon, but meanwhile, I need to come back to Kafka’s story, and the name of my blog, and how I’d like to think you might interpret it.

The possibilities of hunger artistry

My feeling is that the label ‘hunger artist’ is Kafka’s invitation to reflect on the disparity between the epithet and the reality, and to question whether the hunger entails the artistry, and if so why. (Another interesting question concerns the absence of any description of actual hunger – but that’s for another time. It ties in with a general tendency in Kafka not to make all kinds of things as clear or explicit as one expects, so the lack of hunger is in one sense a key to understanding his style as dependent on sparseness of description.) As I’ve said, lots of people fall into the trap of taking the hunger-artist label at face value. Once they’ve done so, they have to come up with tortuous ways of ignoring the glaring fact that there is no hint of artistry given in the text itself – for example, by interpreting the public’s waning interest in him as evidence that everyone must be stupid for not recognising his brilliance. Of course, many great artists are unrecognised in their lifetime, but it’s trivial and yet crucial to remember that being unrecognised isn’t what makes an artist great.

So, those values are dangerous, and need resisting. Arguably the easiest and most effective way of forestalling their appearance here would be to change the title. But I don’t want to do that: it feels too much a part of the process that began for me long ago and continues in the book I’m now writing based on this blog. (Want to guess the title? It does have a subtitle too, though!)

Instead, I’d like to achieve the same thing with my title as Kafka did with his, for those who take time and care in their reading. I’d like it to prompt you to read between its lines, to be critical of the possible links between hunger and artistry, to beware of the ease of assuming that in not-eating there is something to admire. To remember that the seduction of extending hunger ever longer must inevitably turn sour, and in the end leave you husk-like.

More constructively, I’d also like A Hunger Artist to remind you that there is nothing wrong with hunger when it’s acknowledged and responded to and allowed to come and go and be sated and return later. Hunger is a crucial part of all the complex mechanisms which help keep us alive and thriving.

A large part of recovery is about learning how to listen to hunger again and act on it, and how to cope with the ways it waxes and wanes and attacks and supports and deserts you, often brutally at first. And because this learning process is a profoundly personal as well as a universal one, I’d like the title to hint at the ways in which recovery is an art as much as it is a science.

Scientific and clinical research can tell us an awful lot about what to expect as we embark on the physiological and psychological process of regaining weight and freeing the mind from the shackles of self-starvation. But there are many things, too, which have to be worked out, messily but beautifully, in your own way, at your own pace, for your own life. Some of this might involve turning to conventional kinds of art – to the solace or the inspiration of music or painting or literature or sculpture. Much of it may simply be about letting back in your capacity for appreciation of natural beauty – in the physical world around you, in other people, in yourself and all the richly shifting sensations of your body. And if this isn’t a deeply aesthetic process, I don’t know what is.

I’d be fascinated to know how you interpreted this blog’s title when you first encountered it, and whether that changed over time. But in any case, thanks for reading, even if in spite of the title!

References

Anderson, Mark. (1988). Anorexia and modernism, or how I learned to diet in all directions. Discourse, 11, 28-41.

Ellmann, Maud. (1993). The hunger artists: Starving, writing and imprisonment. London: Virago.

Fichter, Manfred M. (1988). Franz Kafkas Magersucht [Franz Kafka's anorexia]. Fortschritte der Neurologie-Psychiatrie, 56, 231-238.

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