The ending of Kakfa’s short story “A Hunger Artist” is strange, even for Kafka — in fact, it initially makes the story seem like kind of a “shaggy dog” story. After detailing the rise and fall of a professional faster, Kafka stages his death scene:
Many days went by once more, and this, too, came to an end. Finally the cage caught the attention of a supervisor, and he asked the attendant why they had left this perfectly useful cage standing here unused with rotting straw inside. Nobody knew, until one man, with the help of the table with the number on it, remembered the hunger artist. They pushed the straw around with poles and found the hunger artist in there. “Are you still fasting?” the supervisor asked. “When are you finally going to stop?” “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. “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 which tasted good to me. If 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.” Those were his last words, but in his failing eyes there was still the firm, if no longer proud, conviction that he was continuing to fast.
We discussed this story for the last day of my fine arts class, and one of the students who was assigned to bring in a reflection paper to start discussion said that her first thought on finishing the story was, “Wait, what?” The story marked the end of a unit about the meaning of art in general and its relation to the person of the artist, and the hunger artist does represent an extreme point of identification between the artist’s person and the artwork itself — in fact, it seems to anticipate contemporary performance art.
As we puzzled over the deflationary ending, I thought back to the earlier points in the story when the hunger artist was subjected to a humiliating performance meant to convey the idea that he was profoundly suffering and was grateful to be able to eat, as well as his disgust with the lenient monitors who turned their back for extended periods to give him a chance to indulge in the hidden food they assumed he must have. The audience, it seems, could only be brought to understand his performance if they were allowed to think of it as a transgression of normal behavior, as a sacrifice of everyday pleasures. What the hunger artist’s last confession reveals, however, is that normal behavior simply wasn’t a compelling point of reference for him, that fasting wasn’t any kind of sacrifice at all. Far from revealing his art to be a fraud, his confession represents the furthest possible point of identification between the artist and his art, to such a hyperbolic point that there really is nothing else for him.