I had trouble sleeping last night and I tried a technique I learned years ago—designed to build a bridge between waking and sleeping consciousness. I counted my out breaths from one to ten and back down to one, while reaching out to the mysterious realms of the sleeping mind.
Presently I found myself back in Montreal, in the early 1970’s, arriving at a friend’s party. There—and this is one of the differences between dreams and waking “reality”—the other guests encouraged me to hold forth on “The Hunger Artist”, a story by Franz Kafka.
Since Kafka no longer tops today’s best seller lists, let me give a bit of background: Kafka is renowned for his prophetic anticipation, in the 1920’s, of the totalitarian regime that erupted in Germany in the 1930’s. His writing paints a world in which individuals are helpless–threatened by forces that cannot be located or reasoned with.
The hunger artist seems beyond rational self-interest, with a vibrational frequency more like a butterfly’s wing stroke than a locomotive pulling freight cars down the track. His kind of humanity does not easily survive in our world—not in the years leading up to the holocaust, nor today.
The narrative claims that he is a practitioner of an ancient art–although it is unlikely that our world would ever have supported it–of fasting in a public venue, such as a city zoo or amusement park. He sits upon a bed of straw while the days of his fast are counted on a sign hung outside his cage.
We, the readers, see the world passing outside through the gathering weakness of the hunger artist.
It is soon clear that this exhibit does not attract a lot of interest from the fair goers. At first some peer through the bars with bemused curiosity—but soon it is only those who have taken a wrong turn who hurry past.
In the evenings he sometimes hears the workers talking about him, some of whom accuse him of being a fraud with secret access to food. After a while the counter outside his cage is no longer updated.
One can imagine that the hunger artist is pained by his isolation from the world, although this is not explicitly stated.
Then one day, while cleaning out a cage that has been forgotten, the hunger artist’s remains–now scarcely distinguishable from the straw bedding–are discovered.
A young panther arrives and visitors return–thrilled to leap back as he roars and charges the bars of his cage.
Kafka observes that the vitality of this young animal seems to be centered somewhere around its jaws.
What a strange story this is. It is the most obvious thing in the world that people would prefer a young jungle cat over a man who is devoting his life to a form of artistry unrelated to the world’s prevailing interests.
But, back in Montreal, at a time when I personally didn’t feel well connected to my own world, Kafka’s story helped me to understand that I did belong in the human realm, albeit at some kind of edge.
Today, with the 21st century well underway, I wonder how marginal this story actually is. It feels increasingly prescient of a condition that has infiltrated our modern world—where the individual and his understandings don’t seem to matter much, and a careless form of energy ascends in a rising tide.
We may well wonder whether the voices we listen to in our e-mails, on the TV networks, and in our own minds are more like the panther leaping in blind instinct against his cage, or express the vision of an artist who looks on with a mysterious hunger and who misses nothing.
If you’re interested, last year I posted a blog about this story, viewed through a different lens: