Evidence Of Existentialism in The Hunger Artist Philosophy
Existentialism is a philosophical doctrine that attempts to explain the logic and concept of self and the awareness thereof. It asserts that life is not bound by societies’ standards or what appears to be acceptable in the eyes of others, but that identity or truth is more a matter of decision than discovery. In other words, individuals are not victims of their past, but are instead agents of their own destiny, free to choose who they want to be. Kafka’s Hunger Artist explores two of the basic elements of existentialism: existence precedes essence and freedom. In doing so, it provides a greater understanding of the concept of epimeleia heautou, or care of self.
Existentialism holds that becoming an individual is an eventual goal that is best achieved by focusing on the present. This is because who an individual becomes is a result of their personal decisions, rather than an outcome of the past. In both literature and reality, most people tend to blame prior events for their current situation, but existentialism argues that this is not the case. The Hunger Artist tells the story of a man who chooses to live his life as a hunger artist, essentially starving himself for the public’s entertainment. The story highlights the artist’s ultimate freedom to choose his own fate, as well as the existentialist idea that existence precedes essence. In other words, the artist is not defined by his past or by what others think of him, but by his own choices and actions. The story also demonstrates the importance of epimeleia heautou, or care of self. The hunger artist is only able to achieve his ultimate freedom when he stops caring about what others think of him and instead focuses on his own needs and wants. This is an important lesson for all individuals, as it highlights the importance of being true to oneself.
However, within the realm of pure existence, there is no room to incorporate ethics, the past, or the future. Marcel suggests that he is the prey of existence; that he himself is, and at the same time is also part of a whole (Marcel, 51). Each individual is part thought as well as part body. Physically the body will take care of itself as an involuntary system, not being dependent on thought. An individual, then, belongs to a body, while thought and pure existence have no ties to it. The goal is to understand the relationship of the two while not letting physical technicalities hinder thought. “The point to note is the metaphysical connotation given to a kind of repellent consistency which is alleged to be characteristic of thought” (Marcel, 53).
There is a common misconception between thought and wisdom. Wisdom is the use of prior experiences which is not a part of existence itself. What could be called worldly wisdom is like a curtain that conceals fundamental existence. It prohibits the mind from enlightenment and creates opacity. Although one ought to be selfless, they often will consider themselves to be the center of existence. In order to not be blinded, ‘lessons of life’ must be released and one must limit living and allow oneself to be forgotten. To be is a choice, but to truly be is to cease to be (Flynn, 25).
The protagonist in the short story The Hunger Artist accomplished the aspect of existence precedes essence. Although in the beginning he was admired for his gift, he was in the end chastised for his way of life. Crowds would gather around his cage and peer in as he sat in solemn silence in reverence of his own existence, but to them he was purely a form of entertainment. What he considered to be an accomplishment, such as fasting for forty days, all too soon became boring to the onlooker. In the end, his death almost came completely unnoticed because interest in this form of art was quickly dulled and eventually vacant because of the lack of understanding on the audiences’ part.
Having learned to let himself go, the artist led a life many would conclude is not worth living as well as being embarrassing. He was able to clear his mind and sit for countless hours contemplating his existence or being. Negative enlightenment of absurdity had come to him, a presence that would reveal to him more than the common man could possibly understand. He had succeeded in separating his body and mind. While denying his body food, his thought would thrive, which in his mind was a great success. What brought him satisfaction was not so much his art and his audience but his ability to discipline himself and enjoy existence of self rather than what society would consider living. Although he did not value understanding from the onlooker, the artist did long for appreciation of his work. His last words to the overseer did not represent regret, but instead his feelings of having wanted to be recognized and remembered.
Perhaps the most peculiar statement the artist makes is his reasoning of fasting; that any food he ever tried did not bring fulfillment or satisfaction. It was not that food literally failed to bring a pleasant taste or that he really disliked anything he had trie; instead he speaks symbolically. An ordinary person relies of food as a means of survival and at times simply for pleasure. Because he had been enlightened he needed more than tangible food to survive, he also needed food for his thought. With his priorities in place he denied his body of what it longed for in order to satisfy his existence. His existence was his being as opposed to his physical self.
Kafka uses symbolism again when he explains the artist’s activity of, “drawing deep into himself, paying no attention to anyone or anything, not even the all-important striking of the clock” (Kafka, 394). Time can be a tangible concept. People rely on it to function and live organized on a day to day basis. The artist does live on time. He has no day, month, year, hour, or minute. He spends his life in contemplation; he does not feel the pressure of a schedule and does not waste time on petty activity.
Another important aspect of existentialism is freedom. Its basic definition is an individual’s path to identity despite social stigmas and economic pressures. This is the difference between the norm of what is expected and the ‘reality’ of what is. Freedom calls for one to create his or her own values. This allows him or her to be their only guide to personal being, for no one can do it for them. Freedom is not to be limited to social conformities such as religion or politics. True freedom is strictly an inner concept leaving room for the individual to live and think as what is revealed to be true. Existence matters not to the world; it is a self revelation. However at the same time there are limitations when physically acting out upon what is revealed. This realistic sense causes most revelations to be a negative enlightenment.
Metaphorically speaking if life is an act then every man or woman is a performer. Because living out means interaction with the world each individual acts or performs for others along for himself. Marcel says, “He is therefore acting rather than being himself” (60). While it is impossible to only exist in thought, one must not allow ‘acting’ out a life to put up a wall to prevent further development of enlightened existence. Genuine freedom is to be stripped of all shields that act as outside forces which intrude in existence.
Although freedom of existentialism is vast, it even has its limits. Some philosophers argue that the universe takes its own hand in determining events which causes one to act out a certain way. Had this event not occurred they may not have acted otherwise. Freedom is then bound by the following antecedent of natural or cultural events (Flynn, 38).
The Hunger Artist is filled with examples of existentialistic freedom. Ironically the artist chooses to keep himself locked inside a cage. Freedom itself does not allow one to have everything. Most would interpret this to mean that he is confined and trapped; unwilling to be there. However he is in there be choice. Not physically free, he finds being stationary and in fasting routine to bring contemplative freedom. Even in the end when his performance was no longer popular, he continued to fast. This fasting freedom seemed as though it could run on forever. Constantly searching for more, he was never completely satisfied. While searching for more, he could only ask himself ‘why stop now’ “since he felt that there were no limits to his capacity for fasting” (Kafka 395).
At the end of the story following his death, the artist is soon replaced by a vivacious young panther. People longed to see something new and exciting. Being an animal he will act like one, but Kafka uses his actions to portray the common man’s qualities. The panther was happy with any food that was given to him and ate it without thought. This means that most men “eat up” what they are given without hesitation. They do not worry about “digesting” anything deeper such as their individualism and existence.
Kafka mentions that the animal also does not miss his freedom. Perhaps this is because he did not understand freedom in the first place and is not aware of what exactly he has lost. It is also possible that he never had freedom to begin with. Existentialistic freedom is something discovered and not given as a gift. People were most fascinated with the panther than they were the artist for entertainment purposes. The panther was also something they could understand since they have not yet been exposed to something beyond their being. It is something they will never understand until they realize that they are not really living.
Kafka successfully uses existentialism to portray how an individual comes to terms with being and nothingness in order to become more than what they were. He provokes one to ask “Why do we exist?” and “Why is there rather than there is not?” through existence proceeds essence and freedom.
Flynn, Thomas. Existentialism A Very Short Introduction. Oxford, NY: Oxford University Press Inc., 2006. (9-60). Print. Works Cited
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Kafka, Franz. ‘A Hunger Artist.’ Literature an Introduction to Reading and Writing 9th ed. NY Pearson Education Inc. 2009. 393-398.
de Beauvoir, Simone. Philosophical Writings. NY: Board of Trustees of the University of Illinios, 1908. (221-236). Print.
Wolin, Richard. The Terms of Cultural Criticism. NY: Columbia University Press, 1992. (83-95). Print.
Lohafer, Susan. Coming to Terms with the Short Story. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1983. (7-28). Print.