Hindsight Verboten? Kafka’s Reflections on Food

“The question throughout is much the same; lack of food, lack of clothing, and disease of every kind.” ~New York Times 1919
“The population has seen and felt so much of suffering that it has become calloused to hardship and to want, but the spectacle of hundreds of starving children, of women in the bitter cold clad only in the scantliest of filthy rags, and of men […] aimlessly walking the streets begging for bread, is deeply affecting.” [1]
It would later be coined the Verfremdungseffekt in 1935 by Bertolt Brecht, that which Franz Kafka used in 1922 to establish a disconnect and discomfort in the general population about their reactions to the starving people they saw before them. It must have disturbed Kafka greatly to see his fellow Jews suffering on the streets, while he led his privileged Jewish life. How was he so different than they were? He wrote a short story that presents the act of starvation as a “spectacle,” just as the newspaper describes it, something at which to be gawked. His prose intrigues the reader from the very first ambiguous line, not wasting any time on thick descriptions or fancy words. The first line of the widely read Metamorphasis reads, “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect,”[2] likewise the beginning of Kafka’s A Country Doctor begins, “I was in great difficulty. An urgent journey was facing me. A seriously ill man was waiting for me in a village ten miles distant.”[3] The obscure introductions could have been headlines taken out of a book, or a newspaper, and unraveled through his fictionalized story telling, complimented with fictionalized characters to reflect his time. Kafka’s Hungerkünstler (A Hunger Artist) even more strongly reflects the era mentioned in that newspaper article, a writing that quite possibly touched very near to home for his hometown of Prague.
          The Hunger Artist creates a satirical text by flipping the situation of the starving population around and turning starvation into an act, a spectacle like those in the circus. At the very end of the text the Artist replies, in response to being questioned about his fasting, the Hungerkünstler mentions it was; “Because I couldn’t find the food I liked. If I had found it, believe me, I should have made no fuss and stuffed myself like you or anyone else.” It seems here, to be in reference to Kafka’s Jewish-ness in the time period. Kafka grew up in a privileged Jewish home and didn’t experience much of the prejudices of the lower class Jews. But from his childhood, Kafka also struggled with his Jewish identity, feeling in no way connected to the Jews and Yiddish speaking population of the East but still tied to them through his beliefs and identification. He felt no ties to them and was continuously torn between being the modern Jewish German speaker he was, and still suffering in being different from the non-Jewish and the Jewish Czech speaking community of Prague.[4] He was different, but didn’t even really identify with that different-ness, that segregation which was set upon him because of his identity. That alienation in the inability to find a feeling of enjoyment or to feel included in the world around him is what is portrayed in Hungerkünstler.
The Hungerkünstler resides on a pedestal, in a cage displayed as very separate from the Onlookers who stare at him daily. The story’s first line reads, “During these last decades the interest in professional fasting has markedly diminished. It used to pay very well to stage such great performances under one’s own management, but today that is quite impossible. Yet he isn’t any different aside from the fact that he cannot ever be a part of the Onlooker society. Even if he stuffed himself as they do, and looked as content and plump as they did, they would still not see him as an equal.  In fact though, Kafka was not only a very picky vegetarian, he was also a “great masticator,” intricately and slowly chewing each bite of food he took.[5] He was not gluttonous in the privileges that he was afforded. As a privileged Jew, his Hungerkünstler story prevails, a veiled, muted example of the alienation that he felt within his sympathy for those Jews suffering around him, portrayed within the bony structure of his Hungerkünstler. He embodies for Kafka the suffering of these other people with whom he should be able to relate, his fellow Jews, his Polish and Czech neighbors. Furthermore Kafka knew of these sufferings and likely didn’t know how to help them. Kafka was a helpless onlooker, upset with the situation and the troubles around him and unable to do anything to appease the problem. He was a Prague Jew in a world of what wasn’t actually simply anti-Semitism in Prague, but German speaking Jewish anti-Semitism. He was apart of these people, but wasn’t really in that group or lifestyle, he is marginalized, and yet he isn’t. The above quoted article is from the New York Timesabout a visit to Warsaw in which the reporter found numerous starving people. He visited soup kitchens prisons, and Jewish gathering places and churches where “large crowds of refugees herded in together. In one such place where 20 people live cases of typhus and other sickness were being kept without any effort at isolation.” Furthermore, a huge wave of anti-Semitism had arisen,
“There was plundering and looting of Jewish shops and homes […]  The conditions in Prague, Bohemia and Moravia generally are the most precarious, as distinguished from Slovakia. The anti-Semitism, whatever its cause, is quite beyond belief. It happens frequently that Jews are stopped on the streets and beaten by the crowds […] [and] Jews in Prague, who control about 75 per cent. Of the business, close their shops all afternoon for fear of the mob.”
It may have seemed trivial to Kafka, that he was often upset about his struggles with trying to be a mere artist, a great writer in a world where he was supposed to take over the family business, while many other Jews would be content just having a home and food on the table. The reflection of Kafka’s discontent with the situation and own struggle with his privileged life is evident within the text’s tension and struggle with food, with the thought of indulging in a mere necessity for life. Therefore, the story is a perfect example of the struggles and tensions felt between different classes in Prague in the 1920’s, when the story first appeared in Die Neue Rundschau. It illustrates the alienation and concern that a privileged class of Jews might have felt in lieu of the extreme suffering of many Jews in the pogroms and anti-Semitism happening of the time.
 ©2013 Kaysha Riggs

[1] “FAMINE AND POGROMS IN NEAR EAST: Pitiable Conditions in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Syria Described by Investigators for American Jewish War Relief.” The New York Times (1857-1922) 4 May 1919 : 56. Print.
[2] Translation thanks The Kafka Project http://www.kafka.org/index.php?aid=164
[4] James Hawes. Why You Should Read Kafka Before You Waste Your Life (St. Martin’s Press, 2008), 204.
[5] James Hawes. Why You Should Read Kafka Before You Waste Your Life (St. Martin’s Press, 2008), 24.

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