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1.This week’s forum allows us to examine Kafka’s short story “A Hunger Artist,” an excerpt from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, and three short texts by M. F. K. Fisher in detail. Each of the pieces illustrates a different philosophy about food and eating. In your initial post, identify the work to which you relate to most easily and the work that you find most challenging. Provide a brief explanation for each of the texts. 2.In your follow-up posts, delve more deeply into an analysis of the observations in the initial posts. Try to respond to posts whose authors examine different aspects of the works or different works than the ones you explored in your initial post. To take the analysis further explore the connections can you make between these short stories and our previous readings. In which texts have we encountered similar philosophies? What seem to be some significant similarities as well as differences when we examine these works side by side?There are two parts here – an NPR (National Public Radio) commentary on Fisher’s piece “Consider the Oyster” and then the piece itself:…Walden by Henry David Thoreau…


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A Hunger Artist
Franz Kafka
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.
We live in a different world now. At one time the whole town took a lively interest in the hunger artist;
from day to day of his fast the excitement mounted; everybody wanted to see him at least once a day; there
were people who bought season tickets for the last few days and sat from morning till night in front of his
small barred cage; even in the nighttime there were visiting hours, when the whole effect was heightened
by torch flares; on fine days the cage was set out in the open air, and then it was the children’s special
treat to see the hunger artist; for their elders he was often just a joke that happened to be in fashion, but
the children stood openmouthed, holding each other’s hands for greater security, marveling at him as he
sat there pallid in black tights, with his ribs sticking out so prominently, not even on a seat but down
among straw on the ground, sometimes giving a courteous nod, answering questions with a constrained
smile, or perhaps stretching an arm through the bars so that one might feel how thin it was, and then again
withdrawing deep into himself, paying no attention to anyone or anything, not even to the all-important
striking of the clock that was the only piece of furniture in his cage, but merely staring into vacancy with
half-shut eyes, now and then taking a sip from a tiny glass of water to moisten his lips.
Besides casual onlookers there were also relays of permanent watchers selected by the public, usually
butchers, strangely enough, and it was their task to watch the hunger artist day and night, three of them
at a time, in case he should have some secret recourse to nourishment. This was nothing but a formality,
instigated to reassure the masses, for the initiates knew well enough that during his fast the artist would
never in any circumstances, not even under forcible compulsion, swallow the smallest morsel of food;
the honor of his profession forbade it. Not every watcher, of course, was capable of understanding this,
there were often groups of night watchers who were very lax in carrying out their duties and deliberately
huddled together in a retired corner to play cards with great absorption, obviously intending to give the
hunger artist the chance of a little refreshment, which they supposed he would draw from some private
hoard. Nothing annoyed the artist more than these watchers; they made him miserable; they made his fast
seem unendurable; sometimes he mastered his feebleness sufficiently to sing during their watch for as long
as he could keep going, to show them how unjust their suspicions were. But that was of little use; they
only wondered at his cleverness in being able to fill his mouth even while singing. Much more to his taste
were the watchers who sat close up to the bars, who were not content with the dim night lighting of the
hall but focused him in the full glare of the electric pocket torch given them by the impresario. The harsh
light did not trouble him at all, in any case he could never sleep properly, and he could always drowse a
little, whatever the light, at any hour, even when the hall was thronged with noisy onlookers. He was quite
happy at the prospect of spending a sleepless night with such watchers; he was ready to exchange jokes
with them, to tell them stories out of his nomadic life, anything at all to keep them awake and demonstrate
to them again that he had no eatables in his cage and that he was fasting as not one of them could fast. But
his happiest moment was when the morning came and an enormous breakfast was brought for them, at
his expense, on which they flung themselves with the keen appetite of healthy men after a weary night of
wakefulness. Of course there were people who argued that this breakfast was an unfair attempt to bribe the
watchers, but that was going rather too far, and when they were invited to take on a night’s vigil without a
breakfast, merely for the sake of the cause, they made themselves scarce, although they stuck stubbornly
to their suspicions.
Such suspicions, anyhow, were a necessary accompaniment to the profession of fasting. No one could
possibly watch the hunger artist continuously, day and night, and so no one could produce first-hand
Franz Kafka
A Hunger Artist
evidence that the fast had really been rigorous and continuous; only the artist himself could know that, he
was therefore bound to be the sole completely satisfied spectator of his own fast. Yet for other reasons he
was never satisfied; it was not perhaps mere fasting that had brought him to such skeleton thinness that
many people had regretfully to keep away from his exhibitions, because the sight of him was too much for
them, perhaps it was dissatisfaction with himself that had worn him down. For he alone knew, what no
other initiate knew, how easy it was to fast. It was the easiest thing in the world. He made no secret of this,
yet people did not believe him, at best they set him down as modest, most of them, however, thought he
was out for publicity or else was some kind of cheat who found it easy to fast because he had discovered
a way of making it easy, and then had the impudence to admit the fact, more or less. He had to put up
with all that, and in the course of time had got used to it, but his inner dissatisfaction always rankled, and
never yet, after any term of fasting—this must be granted to his credit—had he left the cage of his own
free will. The longest period of fasting was fixed by his impresario at forty days, beyond that term he was
not allowed to go, not even in great cities, and there was good reason for it, too. Experience had proven
that for about forty days the interest of the public could be stimulated by a steadily increasing pressure of
advertisement, but after that the town began to lose interest, sympathetic support began notably to fall off;
there were of course local variations as between one town and another or one country and another, but as
a general rule forty days marked the limit. So on the fortieth day the flower-bedecked cage was opened,
enthusiastic spectators filled the hall, a military band played, two doctors entered the cage to measure the
results of the fast, which were announced through a megaphone, and finally two young ladies appeared,
blissful at having been selected for the honor, to help the hunger artist down the few steps leading to a
small table on which was spread a carefully chosen invalid repast. And at this very moment the artist
always turned stubborn. True, he would entrust his bony arms to the outstretched helping hands of the
ladies bending over him, but stand up he would not. Why stop fasting at this particular moment, after forty
days of it? He had held out for a long time, an illimitably long time, why stop now, when he was in his
best fasting form, or rather, not yet quite in is bet fasting form? Why should he be cheated of the fame
he would get for fasting longer, for being not only the record hunger artist of all time, which presumably
he was already, but for beating his own record by a performance beyond human imagination, since he
felt that there were no limits to his capacity for fasting? His public pretended to admire him so much,
why should it have so little patience with him; if he could endure fasting longer, why shouldn’t the public
endure it? Besides, he was tired, he was comfortable sitting in the straw, and now he was supposed to lift
himself to his full height and go down to a meal the very thought of which gave him a nausea that only the
presence of the ladies kept him from betraying, and even that with an effort. And he looked up into the
eyes of the ladies who were apparently so friendly and in reality so cruel, and shook his head, which felt
too heavy on its strengthless neck. But then there happened again what always happened. The impresario
came forward, without a word—for the band made speech impossible—lifted his arms in the air above the
artist, as if inviting Heaven to look down upon this creature here in the straw, this suffering martyr, which
indeed he was, although in quite another sense; grasped him around the emaciated waist, with exaggerated
caution, so that the frail condition he was in might be appreciated; and committed him to the care of the
blenching ladies, not without secretly giving him a shaking so that his legs and body tottered and swayed.
The artist now submitted completely; his head lolled on his breast as if it had landed there by chance; his
body was hollowed out; his legs in a spasm of self-preservation clung close to each other at the knees, yet
scraped on the ground as if it were not really solid ground, as if they were only trying to find solid ground;
and the whole weight of his body, a featherweight after all, relapsed onto one of the ladies, who, looking
around for help and panting a little—this post of honor was not at all what she had expected it to be—first
stretched her neck as far as she could to keep her face at least free from contact with the artist, then finding
this impossible, and her more fortunate companion not coming to her aid but merely holding extended in
her own trembling hand the little bunch of knucklebones that was the artist’s, to the great delight of the
Franz Kafka
A Hunger Artist
spectators burst into tears and had to be replaced by an attendant who had long been stationed in readiness.
Then came the food, a little of which the impresario managed to get between the artist’s lips, while he sat
in a kind of half-fainting trance, to the accompaniment of cheerful patter designed to distract to public’s
attention for the artist’s condition; after that, a toast was drunk to the public, supposedly prompted by a
whisper from the artist in the impresario’s ear; the band confirmed it with a mighty flourish, the spectators
melted away, and no one had any cause to be dissatisfied with the proceedings, no one except the hunger
artist himself, he only, as always.
So he lived for many years, with small regular intervals of recuperation, in visible glory, honored by the
world, yet in spite of that, troubled in spirit, and all the more troubled because no-one would take his
trouble seriously. What comfort could he possibly need? What more could he possibly wish for? And if
some good-natured person, feeling sorry for him, tried to console him by pointing out that his melancholy
was probably caused by fasting, it could happen, especially when he had been fasting for some time, that
he reacted with an outburst of fury and to the general alarm began to shake the bars of his cage like a
wild animal. Yet the impresario had a way of punishing these outbreaks which he rather enjoyed putting
into operation. He would apologize publicly for the artist’s behaviour, which was only to be excused, he
admitted, because of the irritability caused by fasting; a condition hardly to be understood by well-fed
people; then by natural transition he went on to mention the artist’s equally incomprehensible boast that
he could fast for much longer than he was doing; he praised the high ambition, the good will, the great
self-denial undoubtedly implicit in such a statement; and then quite simply countered it by bringing out
photographs, which were also on sale to the public, showing the artist on the fortieth day of a fast lying in
bed almost dead from exhaustion. This perversion of the truth, familiar to the artist though it was, always
unnerved him afresh and proved too much for him. What was a consequence of the premature ending of
his fast was here presented as the cause of it! To fight against this lack of understanding, against a whole
world of non-understanding, was impossible. Time and again in good faith he stood by the bars listening
to the impresario, but as soon as the photographs appeared he always let go and sank with a groan back
onto his straw, and the reassured public could once more come close and gaze at him.
A few years later when the witnesses of such scenes called them to mind, they often failed to understand
themselves at all. For meanwhile the aforementioned change in public interest had set in; it seemed
to happen almost overnight; there may have been profound causes for it, but who was going to bother
about that; at any rate the pampered hunger artist suddenly found himself deserted on fine day by the
amusement-seekers, who went streaming past him to other more-favored attractions. For the last time the
impresario hurried him over half Europe to discover whether the old interest might still survive here and
there; all in vain; everywhere, as if by secret agreement, a positive revulsion from professional fasting was
in evidence. Of course it could not really have sprung up so suddenly as all that, and many premonitory
symptoms which had not been sufficiently remarked or suppressed during the rush and glitter of success
now came retrospectively to mind, but it was now too late to take any countermeasures. Fasting would
surely come into fashion again at some future date, yet that was no comfort for those living in the present.
What, then, was the hunger artist to do? He had been applauded by thousands in his time and could hardly
come down to showing himself in a street booth at village fairs, and as for adopting another profession, he
was not only too old for that but too fanatically devoted to fasting. So he took leave of the impresario, his
partner in an unparalleled career, and hired himself to a large circus; in order to spare his own feelings he
avoided reading the conditions of his contract.
A large circus with its enormous traffic in replacing and recruiting men, animals, and apparatus can always
find a use for people at any time, even for a hunger artist, provided of course that he does not ask too much,
and in this particular case anyhow it was not only the artist who was taken on but his famous and longknown name as well, indeed considering the peculiar nature of his performance, which was not impaired
Franz Kafka
A Hunger Artist
by advancing age, it could not be objected that here was an artist past his prime, no longer at the height
of his professional skill, seeking a refuge in some quiet corner of a circus; on the contrary, the hunger
artist averred that he could fast as well as ever, which was entirely credible, he even alleged that if he were
allowed to fast as he liked, and this was at once promised him without more ado, he could astound the
world by establishing a record never yet achieved, a statement that certainly provoked a smile among the
other professionals, since it left out of account the change in public opinion, which the hunger artist in his
zeal conveniently forgot.
He had not, however, actually lost his sense of the real situation and took it as a matter of course that he
and his cage should be stationed, not in the middle of the ring as a main attraction, but outside, near the
animal cages, on a site that was after all easily accessible. Large and gaily painted placards made a frame
for the cage and announced what was to be seen inside it. When the public came thronging out in the
intervals to see the animals, they could hardly avoid passing the hunger artist’s cage and stopping there
for a moment, perhaps they might even have stayed longer, had not those pressing behind them behind
them in the narrow gangway, who did not understand why they should be held up on their way towards the
excitements of the menagerie, made it impossible for anyone to stand gazing for any length of time. And
that was the reason why the hunger artist, who had of course been looking forward to these visiting hours
as the main achievement of his life, began instead to shrink from them. At first he could hardly wait for
the intervals; it was exhilarating to watch the crowds come streaming his way, until only too soon—not
even the most obstinate self-deception, clung to almost consciously, could hold out against the fact—the
conviction was borne in upon him that these people, most of them, to judge from their actions, again
and again, without exception, were all on their way to the menagerie. And the first sight of them from
a distance remained the best. For when they reached his cage he was at once deafened by the storm of
shouting and abuse that arose from the two contending factions, which renewed themselves continuously,
of those who wanted to stop and stare at him—he soon began to dislike them more than the others—not
out of real interest but only out of obstinate self-assertiveness, and those who wanted to go straight on
to the animals. When the first great rush was past, the stragglers came along, and these, whom nothing
could have prevented from stopping to look at him as long as they had breath, raced past with long strides,
hardly even glancing at him, in their haste to get to the menagerie in time. And all too rarely did it happen
that he had a stroke of luck, when some father of a family fetched up before him with his children, pointed
a finger at the hunger artist, and explained at length what the phenomenon meant, telling stories of earlier
years when he himself had watched similar but much more thrilling performances, and the children, still
rather uncomprehending, since neither inside or outside school had they been sufficiently prepared for this
lesson—what did they care about fasting?—yet showed by the brightness of their intent eyes that new
and better times might be coming. Perhaps, said the hunger artist to himself, many a time, things would
be a little better if his cage were set not quite so near the menagerie. That made it too easy for people
to make their choice, to say nothing of what he suffered from the stench of the menagerie, the animals’
restlessness by night, the carrying past of raw lumps of flesh for the beasts of prey, the roaring at feeding
times, depressed him continually. But he did not dare to lodge a complaint with the management; after all,
he had the animals to thank for the troops of people who passed his cage, among whom there might always
be one here and there to take an interest in him, and who could tell where they might seclude him if he
called attention to his existence and thereby to the fact that, strictly speaking, he was only an impediment
on the way to the menagerie.
A small impediment, to be sure, one that grew steadily less. People grew familiar with the strange idea that
they could be expected, in times like these, to take an interest in a hunger artist, and with this familiarity
the verdict went out against him. He might fast as much as he could, and he did so; but nothing could
save him now, people passed him by. Just try to explain to anyone the art of fasting! Anyone who has
Franz Kafka
A Hunger Artist
no feeling for it cannot be made to understand it. The fine placards grew dirty and illegible, they were
torn down; the little notice board showing the number of fast days achieved, which at first was changed
carefully every day, had long stayed at the same figure, for after the first few weeks even this small task
seemed pointless to the staff; and so the artist simply fasted on and on, as he had once dreamed of doing,
and it was no trouble to him, just as he had always foretold, but no one counted the days, no one, not even
the artist himself, knew what records he was already breaking, and his heart became heavy. And when
once in a while some leisurely passer-by stopped, made merry over the old figure on the board and spoke
of swindling, that was in its way the stupidest lie ever invented by indifference and inborn malice, since it
was not the hunger artist who was cheating, he was working honestly, but the world was cheating him of
his reward.
Many more days …
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