‘The Hunger Artist’ by Franz Kafka

Kafka, Franz 1922

The Hunger Artist by Franz Kafka, 1922

The magic trick:

The distillation of the hunger artist’s philosophy as a performer offered near the story’s end

Kafka is so damn oblique that you have to cling to those passing moments of clarity with every ounce of strength you have – presumably more strength than our hunger artist here.

Of course the fun in reading Kafka is the analysis, the crazy directions he pushes your interpretations. It’s pretty amazing. “The Hunger Artist” is wildly open for debate, but it does offer a very helpful conversation near the end.

The message isn’t perfectly clear, but the hunger artist’s words do point us in a certain direction. I don’t want to get too far down the interpretation road. That really isn’t the aim of this blog. But I will at least say that I take the story as a monument to the creative spirit – a passion that I have always found is born of rejection and escape more than it is acceptance and participation.

Whatever you think it’s about, the story is brilliant, and the hunger artist’s distillation of his philosophy as a performer is a key part of that brilliance. And that’s quite a trick on Kafka’s part.

The selection:

“Forgive me everything,” whispered the hunger artist. Only the supervisor, who was pressing his ear up against the cage, understood him. “Certainly,” said the supervisor, tapping his forehead with his finger in order to indicate to the spectators the state the hunger artist was in, “we forgive you.” “I always wanted you to admire my fasting,” said the hunger artist. “But we do admire it,” said the supervisor obligingly. “But you shouldn’t admire it,” said the hunger artist. “Well then, we don’t admire it,” said the supervisor, “but why shouldn’t we admire it?” “Because I had to fast. I can’t do anything else,” said the hunger artist. “Just look at you,” said the supervisor, “why can’t you do anything else?” “Because,” said the hunger artist, lifting his head a little and, with his lips pursed as if for a kiss, speaking right into the supervisor’s ear so that he wouldn’t miss anything, “because I couldn’t find a food which I enjoyed. If had found that, believe me, I would not have made a spectacle of myself and would have eaten to my heart’s content, like you and everyone else.”

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One Comment on “‘The Hunger Artist’ by Franz Kafka”

  1. JC says:

    Thanks for tackling these difficult Kafka stories. It’s an old debate whether, through all these tortured characters (in this story where the main character turns suffering into an art, or in THE TRIAL where the Kafka-like character is railroaded into court, or METAMORPHESIS where the poor guy’s transformed into a hideous bug, or AMERIKA wherein he’s exiled for seeking comfort with a housemaid, etc. etc.) Kafka was symbolically protesting his own self-hatred as an “ugly and despised son” or trying to get at the broader topic of the silence of God in the face of The Human Predicament. Of course, he was doing both. But remember there were at least two Kafkas: the masochist indulging his nightmares and the wise sympathetic sage. For this latter Kafka, try to get a copy of “Conversations with Kafka” by Gustav Janouch. He’s a Czech poet who, when he was a teenager, used to stop by Kafka’s office seeking advice and perspective which the modest Franz (wise beyond his fears) was always willing to give.


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