Every semester I make the mistake of teaching Franz Kafka’s “The Hunger Artist” in my Intro to Literature class. It’s an error not owing to the story’s inscrutable meaning, nor because its tropes are alien to millennials. It is rather that, during those few weeks we devote to Kafka’s corpus, the story comes to reside within me with such potency and force that I can hardly think of anything else. When I should be grading papers or prepping for another lecture, I’m deep in the thickets of JSTOR, wading through yet another exegesis of the tale. My wife calls it the month of my metamorphosis.
I should mention that the students who take this introductory seminar are rarely English majors. None of them brandish their knowledge of Jameson or make snappy allusions to late-career Foucault. Instead, most of them are business majors or nurses in training—the two most prominent courses of study on campus—and select literature as an elective because it satisfies so many “General Education” requirements (that grim, unserviceable term). But it seems the motifs of Kafka’s masterpiece appeal, however indirectly, to the ambitions of these students. Perhaps the freshman in the starched polo and cotton Dockers recognizes in his pursuit of profit and suburban comfort a kindred craving to that of the hunger artist. And those nursing majors, who arrive in my classroom garbed in white unbesmirched scrubs, like a fleet of new cherubs, know well the gross degradations of the body, its slow and graceless struggle. They know, too, how some corner of the mind still glows despite these attenuations. Some profess to have observed in the eyes of terminal patients a scintillating presence, the mark of a ghost.
These associations are not made without struggle. On the first day of lecture, when I ask for their initial impressions of the story, they groan—a bit neanderthalically, I’m afraid. This makes me smile. Their slumped postures and drooped expressions, conveying both boredom and disrespect, fill me with a strange delight. This is what a litigator must feel before opening statements to the jury, the odd delicious joy of knowing the case before it’s made.
Set in a nameless country at an undisclosed time in history, “The Hunger Artist” concerns a man who starves himself not for his art—as the old adage goes—but as a form of art. His abstinence becomes fodder for public consumption. In the opening pages, we’re told that the hunger artist travels to little hamlets and villages across the country, where he puts on performances in town squares. For forty days at a time, he sits inside a barred metal cage whose floor has been padded with straw, and sips from a thimble of water, not as a form of nourishment but rather to “moisten his lips.” Hordes of eager spectators peer into his kennel and gawk at his deprivation—the protuberant ribcage, the twiggy limbs, the gaunt and phlegmatic expression. But as the days wear on and tastes change, the crowds thin. Enthusiasm wanes. Soon, out of financial desperation and artistic despair, the hunger artist parts ways with his loyal publicist and joins a circus, the last venue where he can procure a stage for himself, however shabby and undignified it may be. “In order to spare his own sensitive feelings, he didn’t even look at the terms of his contract.”
Upon his arrival at the circus, he’s stationed at the far end of the grounds, amidst a menagerie of loud, squawking animals that prove to be more compelling to the guests than the sight of a rail-thin man sitting immobile in worsted vestments. From his vantage inside the cage, he can observe a collection of garishly painted signs advertising other exhibits, which contrast starkly with the drab interior of his own dwelling—the iron bars, the coarse straw, the pale skin. Eventually, people forget about him, even neglecting to change the number on the tablet outside his cage that denotes the duration of his fast.
One day a supervisor totters past the exhibit, seeing only a mound of hay, and asks a nearby attendant why a perfectly good cage is going to waste. Eventually, one member of the grounds crew recalls the presence of the professional faster, prompting everyone to start jabbing at the straw with poles until they locate the skimpy frame of the hunger artist, who rouses slowly. The conversation that ensues is the coda of the story:
“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 staff 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 have 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 that tasted good to me. If I 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.”
These are his last words. Upon his death, the cage is promptly evacuated, and he is replaced by a young panther, a lithe creature who prowls the confines of his tenement and has no trouble enjoying the food the guards bring him.
In the century since its publication, the story has spawned countless interpretations. Numerous critics have pointed out its obvious Christian allusions. Because the hunger artist’s fasts transpire over a period of forty days, they situate him beside other biblical figures, whose own crucibles of faith spanned the same length of time—Moses at Sinai waiting for the commandments; Jesus in the desert, brushing off the devil. And yet, ideologically, Kafka was anything but an apostle. Clearly he didn’t intend for the hunger artist to stand as a simple Christlike symbol. Nowhere is this more apparent than when the impresario calls the hunger artist an “unfortunate martyr,” which Kafka qualifies with a telling parenthetical: “something the hunger artist certainly was, only in a completely different sense.”
There are, of course, two senses in which one can be a martyr: when one is killed for one’s religious beliefs or when one embellishes their suffering in order to garner the condolence or commendation of others. Throughout the story, the hunger artist professes no article of faith, no strident political position. Instead, he’s monomaniacally preoccupied with being respected and adored, which gives us good reason to believe that Kafka wants us to regard him in the second, more pejorative sense of the term. The hunger artist’s claim at the end of the story that he “couldn’t find a food that tasted good” to him is hard to take literally. Instead, it seems to signal that his only nourishment—the only sustenance he hungered for—was approval and veneration. The fickleness of the public proved to be a meager diet, though, and since he had nothing else to live on, he wasted away to a husk of skin and bones. He was, quite literally, starved for attention.
It can be counted on that at some point during the discussion of Kafka, one of my students will mention the Kardashian family. The first time the conversation veered in this direction, I was somewhat baffled. But it turns out that for a particular segment of young people, the most immediate contemporary analogue to the hunger artist are celebrities who have made a career not from any particular talent or ability, but rather on their identity alone—the kind of celebrities who have transcended the realm of personalities—and perhaps personhood itself.
Last year, Kim Kardashian—whose nude callipygous figure was said to have “broken the Internet”—published a collection of photography under the title Selfish. In research for this article, I purchased the volume at my local bookstore, hiding it under copies of Bookforum and the Paris Review as I wandered the aisles, then arranging my face into an expression that I hoped would tell the cashier No big deal, nothing to see here!
Despite her evident self-obsession, Kardashian supposedly harbors other-directed intentions for the book. The jacket copy includes this note from the author:
The pictures in this book bring back so many memories. Spanning almost a decade, [the pictures] are only a small fraction of the thousands of selfies we considered for publication. From digital camera, to Polaroids, to Blackberries, and smartphones, these photos document the evolution of my selfies. And as I printed them out and laid them on the floor to make a final edit, I reflected on my very public journey as a daughter, sister, friend, wife and mother. This book is a candid tribute to all my fans, who were with me the entire time.
Across the book’s 445 pages, all of which are selfies, Kardashian is depicted in various states of undress. In some photos, she’s playfully razzing the camera, sticking out her tongue or screwing up her face into a loony glower. In others, her face is molded into a smoky, Zoolander-esque expression, a pouty mien with her eyes either gazing at the viewer or drifting off into some luxurious middle-distance (“luxurious” because most of the selfies are taken at resorts, in her mansion, or on the set of a photo-shoot). Dozens of selfies are taken in the bathroom of her house, a capacious powder room with gilded faucets and marble sinks. In terms of motif, there is little variance. At a certain point, while flipping through this endless parade of glamour and pulchritude, the mind enters a blank, trancelike state, and one’s hand proceeds to turn the pages robotically, much as one might peruse the SkyMall on an airplane.
When looking at these photos, I try to imagine why a celebrity—after a long day of eluding paparazzi, shooting her reality show, and doing interviews with Variety and E!—would feel compelled to spend these precious few moments of privacy making herself yet another object for the camera’s gaze. But perhaps for someone so accustomed to living in the public eye, to be alone without a beholder is to suffer a kind of death. Without the record of a selfie, such a person may begin to question the existence of her self at all.
I never lasted long on social media—there were a few weeks back in 2004 when I used Facebook, a dark period during which I also wore an eyebrow ring and still had hair—so its operations invariably feel exotic to me. Whenever my friends log on, I always jump at the chance to look over their shoulders and read their newsfeeds, trying to get a sense of its interpersonal flavor. But even though its codes and mores strike me as queer and foreign, I don’t bring to these investigations the bigoted attitude of a xenophobe nor the unalterable nostalgia of a Luddite. I’m genuinely curious about the potential benefits of expressing myself and curating my own life online. Surely, there are social advantages. And for a writer there are professional ones, too.
By now, the fact that Facebook conventions mirror the undertakings of celebrities—the meticulously curated profiles, the group-tested posts written in press-release diction, the endless photos of our friends’ meals, their leisure activities, their dogs (it’s true, “the stars are just like us”—in fact, they are us)—is usually acknowledged with sheepish embarrassment. We cop to our self-promotion and blush upon admitting that, yes, okay, it’s true: we do in fact take down Facebook posts or Instagram pics that don’t garner enough likes or favorites. We do sometimes, when polling our “friends,” address them this way: “Dear Facebook” or “Dear Hivemind.” But we defend against these minor humiliations of personhood by suggesting that they’re required by our neoliberal landscape. Perhaps the wisdom of Citizens United can be applied in reverse: yes, corporations are individuals, but individuals are corporations, too.
But when we regard our “selves” this way—as a product to be marketed, a message to be promulgated, a brand to be “liked”—something strange happens. We begin to feel the gathering pangs of a clenched inauthenticity, which accrues ever more quickly under the pressure to keep up appearances, to apply yet another coat of varnish to the surface of our brand. We may feel lonely or “unknown” in ways we could never admit. Of course, all social roles are inescapably performative, and it would be naïve to think that we can totally avoid the dramaturgy of self-presentation simply by staying offline. But in the age of wearable technology, push notifications and selfie sticks, it has become difficult to adequately distinguish between our virtual and visceral selves, to know when exactly the curtain closes and the backstage begins. Kafka notes that toward the end of his life, malnourished by a thankless audience, the hunger artist never leaves the circus. It is perhaps no accident that the site of his exhibit, the very proscenium of his performance, is also a cage.
It’s usually this line of thinking that gets my students to sit up in their chairs. With widened eyes and hands shooting up from their desks, they offer a torrent of confessions. One student tells me about the two-and-a-half hours she spent photoshopping her profile picture. Another confesses that whenever she posts something to Facebook or Instagram, she will sit there at her desk, in the feeble blue wash of her glowing screen, until a friend or follower “likes” it. I watch as her peers nod in fervid agreement. At a certain point, the lecture comes undone and assumes the parameters of a counselor’s office. One meek boy with a quiet, soulful voice—a photography major—recounts his trial with anorexia during high school, something he claims to have documented on Instagram. Hoping to contain this wellspring of emotion and keep the conversation at least passably academic, I cite a note from David Foster Wallace’s essay on Kafka and tell them that the etymological root of anorexia happens to be the Greek word for longing.
In a spirit of connection, I confess to them a certain constitutional inclination, as a writer, a teacher and a citizen, to please others and win their approval: in this way I feel the stains of my generation, those consummate millennials raised to harvest gold stars. No matter the social context, I yearn to be liked. This is why, during a recent trip to Florida for my brother-in-law’s wedding, I spent the majority of the rehearsal dinner ingratiating myself with the bride’s family, a conversation that featured her uncles and me trading ripostes and nimble one-liners until our end of the table was erupting with laughter. At the end of the weekend, the father of the bride presented me with a hulking, gourmet cigar, and for reasons not entirely clear to me, pumped my hand with great vigor and said, I really hope to see you again, my friend.
My wife calls these episodes my “Golden Boy” moments. She presumably means to compliment my social graces, but I can’t help sensing a darker edge to her remark. The very fact that these episodes warrant their own designation signals the extent to which my longing to be accepted is transparent—that while I’m merely trying to get along with others, my behavior actually comes off as canned, scripted, as if someone had just pulled my drawstring. “The tricks that work on others,” Joan Didion writes, “count for nothing in that very well-lit back alley where one keeps assignations with oneself.” This back alley is a necessary refuge, a corridor of silence where the task of self-inventory is unavoidable.
Getting along with others is, of course, a natural impulse. All of us calibrate our personalities to our social setting—it is the kernel of good manners. But it is also a high-wire act. The risk is that you might not be able to distinguish your sense of self from your longing to be admired. One of the reasons I have avoided Facebook is that I can sense the software has been coded to nurture precisely these sorts of anxieties. For someone with my appetites, it would offer an all-you-can-eat buffet of potential social approval, each one, though momentarily satisfying, inexorably giving rise to some other, more desperate hunger.
“You have to be somebody,” Jaron Lanier writes in You Are Not a Gadget, “before you can share yourself.” A fine sentiment, but I prefer Marilynne Robinson’s formulation in which she speaks of a not-so-ancient era when we prized the gorgeous difficulty of becoming a person. “Truly and ideally,” she writes, “a biography was the passage of a soul through the vale of its making, or its destruction, and that the business of the world was a parable or test or temptation or distraction and therefore engrossing, and full of the highest order of meaning…” In our era, our souls do not pass through a vale but ascend to a different Valhalla, one built in binary code, where those albums of selfies will surely outlast us. I shudder to think of myself eternally marooned in that afterlife, squished between ads for diet pills and a poorly lit pic of a meal recently consumed by a “friend.” If anything, such documents will speak to those old enduring hungers. But like so many other fixations, just because we crave it doesn’t mean it will nourish us.