Masterpiece Monday: Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist” (Tribute to Catch-22)


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Rating: 5 out of 5

Today’s the 50th anniversary of the publication of Joseph Heller’s novel Catch-22, but because I haven’t read it yet, I unfortunately can’t blog about it for Masterpiece Monday. However, I thought I would pay tribute to that classic by discussing another story representing a “catch-22.”

The definition of the term (thanks Google!) is “A dilemma from which there is no escape because of mutually conflicting or dependent conditions.” In the original novel, it described the fighter pilot protagonist’s inability to escape combat by requesting a pysch evaluation to determine if he is unfit to fly–the very request would prove he’s sane enough to fly.

I chose to discuss Franz Kafka’s short story “A Hunger Artist,” because Kafka is also king of writing about lose-lose situations. Published in 1922, it narrates the life of a nameless hunger artist, a person whose circus act is starving himself for his fans. He was extremely popular at first, with many viewers surrounding his cage to get a good look at him. But over time, fasting lost its appeal, and the hunger artist struggles to continue his craft despite his irrelevance.

The catch-22 in this story is that the longer he starves, the higher his personal record (a feat essential to him, given that his boss originally placed a 40-day limit to his fasting). However, the longer he starves, the closer he gets to dying and thus officially loses the audience he so desperately wants to impress. Food is both his problem and his solution.

I love Kafka’s work, because he manages to make morbid, serious subjects like starving or turning into an insect and make them humorous. You pity the hunger artist for his situation, but you also are proud of his determination to succeed no matter what. Kafka’s calm, detached writing style combined with powerful imagery is why his stories deserve to be called masterpieces.

If you’ve read Catch-22, please share your thoughts on its anniversary today. I’d love to know if you’d recommend it! In exchange, if you haven’t read any Kafka, you should! I’m sure both authors will influence generations of readers for years and years to come!

Favorite Quote: “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 had to fast. I can’t do anything else,” said the hunger artist.

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