“The Hunger Artist” (a TSK fable).

At first glance, Franz Kafka’s haunting story “The Hunger Artist” gives a dismal account of time (he dies fasting), of space (he lives in a small cage at an amusement park), and of knowledge (he is practicing a lost art for fair goers who have no interest).
When I first read this story, I was caught up in its strange, haunting world; and decades later, I can feel it still reverberating in how I view the world. Kafka must have been alive to a more open spaciousness than our crowded world of things can reveal and to an unfurling span of time beneath the rushing train of moments to which we cling.
In “The Hunger Artist” Kafka accomplishes something astonishing. He makes the space inside the artist’s cage feel more spacious than the world outside, perhaps because it is apprehended by intention, purpose, and an observant mind. And while time outside the cage is chaotic–propelled by the comings and goings of park visitors and dimmed by the skepticism of the attendants who suspect that the artist sneaks food when no one is looking– a wider time unfurls inside the cage, stretched out to include life and death and present in the occasional interest of fairgoers who then turn away as soon as they see a man sitting on his bed of straw.
At first the passing of time is measured in the number of fast days and recorded on a sign that hangs outside the cage. But soon this sign is no longer updated and eventually, when attendants clean out the cage for its new occupant, they are surprised to discover the body of the Hunger Artist, almost indistinguishable from the straw bedding.
The story ends with a striking image. A young panther, whose vigor (which Kafka tells us is “centered somewhere around its jaws”) brings back the park visitors who are delighted to recoil in alarm at the panther’s deep roars.
The Hunger Artist’s life force is not centered in his jaws. Rather it is rooted in a heart that beats in a gentler, more considerate kind of time.
Kafka’s writing is widely held to have foreseen the collapse of Western civilization. In just a few decades, the holocaust made actual his darkest forebodings.
Kafka reveals the depths of human knowledge in his painful awareness that it was being replaced all around him by something less than human. In the “Hunger Artist”, he depicts one of the most marginalized characters in all of literature: a human being who is engaged with the deepest potential of his human life, as courageous as prisoners today, (separated from all they care about, who are on unheeded hunger fasts), and beyond Zen in his quiet self-restraint. It is a story that shines a light on the nature of human knowing.
The rushing, outward-directedness of the world passing outside the bars of his cage–seen through his own inner calm—allows the reader to view two realms that are dissociated from each another, to the detriment of both.
One doesn’t have to return to the distant past to witness this dynamic at work. Looking around us today, and perhaps looking within ourselves as well, we see a society that is fragmented: divergent political viewpoints that no longer try to communicate with one another; mindless jobs that do not enlist the skills of the people doing them; the listless agitations of most entertainments; and superficial but deeply engrained attitudes toward race, nationality, and the private propensities of individuals whom we have often never met.
The Hunger Artist tells the story of a deeper relationship with knowledge which we ignore at our peril—not just our own but that of anyone whose future we would like to protect.

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