A Hunger Artist: The Death of the Religious Sublime? (Part One)

Asceticism is a photograph by Monte Arnold. Sourced from Fine Art America.

Several interpretations of “A Hunger Artist” have been offered over the years. The short story is by no means easy to understand; there’s a reason Franz Kafka has a genre of his own called the Kafkaesque – a word not in any way restricted to just literary circles. One look at large government bureaucracy and you’ll know what it means.

If you haven’t read “A Hunger Artist” yet, I highly advise you to go do so. We’re going off the deep end here, and there be spoilers yonder. Stop, drop everything you’re doing now, and read it. Or skim through. Sniff the pages, at least.

And then you’d have to read a quarter of Nietzsche’s works, I guess – but hey, literature is full of these sequential rabbit holes. You got yourself into this one.

Kidding. I haven’t read a quarter of Nietzsche’s works myself. The man’s a genius, but I’d be surprised if even he understood what he wrote reading through his own work.

Seriously, though, read “A Hunger Artist”, because there’s a lot of good stuff there that Kafka crammed into a short story effectively.

I’m not a fan of interpretations that claim that the work represents some aspect of the author’s life and experiences. Does a bear poop in the woods? An author always adds elements of their own experiences to their work – you can argue that this is an outcome of any creative process. T.S. Eliot says that an artist must avoid infusing himself with his work, but not all of us are born T.S. Eliots, and some of the best literary works penned have been inspired by personal experiences.

Here’s the key point, though – the personal bits have to be changed, almost – for lack of a better word – transubstantiated from the highly subjective personal to the more objectively understood symbolical. For instance, our man Tolkien used his personal experiences in the first world war to write Lord of the Rings, but you can’t claim that Lord of the Rings is about the Great War. It’s entirely likely that Herman Melville’s Moby Dick drew appropriated the story of the ship Essex and its captain, George Pollard, but we can’t claim that those grisly true events were what Moby Dick is about.

That’s the difference between novel and memoir.

Another common explanation proffered to you like a dead rat dumped on your doorstep by your cohabiting feline is that the short story is an allegory of today’s very popular archetype of the starving artist. This dead rat is quite popular and I daresay, does have a lot of credence. It ties in with the ‘author’s personal experiences’ interpretation, or the biographical critical approach.

Kafka’s works did not catapult him to fame when he was alive. After all, Europe’s political scene was a mess. War tends to do that. The irony of art is that, in this business, fame is directly proportional to the amount of time passed since you’ve been dead.

Another well-known fact is that Kafka had tuberculosis toward the end of his life, and he couldn’t eat anything in his last days, resulting in death by tuberculosis, and hastened considerably by starvation. And what piece of writing do you think he was editing on his deathbed? No prizes for this one.

It’s entirely possible that A Hunger Artist came out of Kafka’s painful last days. However, the claim I don’t give much credence to is that the short story was a final expression of anguish from Kafka that his art had never been publicly recognized. Why? There is simply no evidence to suggest that Kafka had a burning desire for validation in the form of fame; he felt his own work never successfully communicated what he truly wanted to say.

Perhaps A Hunger Artist draws inspiration from a very different source, one that modern criticism is dismissive and desperately terrified of: Religion.

Published by questingpotato

An incurable culture addict, I live inside my head most of the time and occasionally visit the internet for supplies, only to hunker down once again and think. The products of this cloistered calling include weekly reviews (on just about any media), half-decent articles when I wax philosophical, and many very spontaneous opinions, unsolicited and freely given, thank you. Occasionally I will rant.

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