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Tangible Intangibles of Kafka's Work: The Metamorphosis and A Hunger Artist


In The Metamorphosis and A Hunger Artist, Kafka implements the presence of “unknown nourishment” as a means of addressing characteristics of both the human and animal worlds. The unknown nourishment in The Metamorphosis, Grete’s violin playing, defines Gregor’s most apparent ‘human’ quality amidst animal-like transformation. The hunger artist utilizes unknown nourishment or, rather, the lack of nourishment to position himself between human/animal worlds. Specifically, the unknown nourishment in both stories encompasses both the transgression between human/animal worlds and the intangible motif of existence seen throughout Kafka’s works.

The main characters of both Kafka’s stories share repulsion towards conventional nourishment: human food. For Gregor, “fresh food… had no charms for him, he could not even stand the smell of it”. In the same regard, the hunger artist views food as abject: “[He] was now supposed to rise to his full height and go to the food, the mere thought of which caused him nausea…”. Similar perspectives towards human sustenance as completely revolting allow both characters to depart from conventional humanity and embody, appropriately, the animal-like qualities of their existences. Moreover, both characters fail to find satisfaction with human sustenance. The dissatisfaction with tangible nourishment allows for the departure from the human world and the pursuance of the intangible.

…eventually influences him to seek the unknown nourishment of Grete’s playing as a definition of his humanity

Though both Gregor and the hunger artist share an affinity for unknown/intangible nourishment apart from human sustenance, the motives differ for both characters. Gregor’s transformation and subsequent loathing of human food comes unprovoked. The transformation befalls Gregor involuntarily and eventually influences him to seek the unknown nourishment of Grete’s playing as a definition of his humanity. In contrast, the hunger artist subjects himself to a lack of nourishment voluntarily. In part, the hunger, or unknown/void, is implemented to “legitimately earn the world’s astonishment”. The lack of nourishment, the void, provides for social nourishment through acclaim and recognition. The lack of nourishment eventually transforms the hunger artist into an animal-like spectacle: “the hunger artist became infuriated and, to everyone’s horror, began to shake the bars like an animal”. Whereas Gregor’s transformation into an animal causes the pursuit of unknown nourishment, it is the unknown nourishment of the hunger artist’s performance that produces an animal-like transformation.

The death of the hunger artist within the performance cage brings about the appearance of the panther. The panther’s presence is a juxtaposition of the human/animal worlds. While the hunger artist becomes an animal-like spectacle for the “capricious and defiant”, the panther is much more humanly tolerable: “The panther had everything. Without hesitation the keepers brought it food it liked; it did not even seem to miss its freedom; this noble body, furnished almost to the point of bursting with everything it needed… and happiness with life came from its throat with such force”.

…Gregor’s admiration for Grete’s art form makes him more human than his previous existence

Though an actual animal, the humans in the hunger artist’s world appreciate the caged freedom of the panther rather than the artist’s pursuit of the intangible. As Kafka states in Conversations with Kafka: “One is afraid of freedom and responsibility, and prefers instead to suffocate behind the bars they have themselves forged”. The panther is an inverse of Grete’s violin playing. Gregor’s admiration for Grete’s art form makes him more human than his previous existence. The admiration for the panther amidst the artist’s death defines humanity as more animal than human.

The presence of unknown nourishment in both of Kafka’s stories brings about notions of the tangible and intangible in Kafka’s actual life. Kafka’s pursuit of writing is, in effect, the pursuit of the intangible: the expression of thought through art. As Dr. Kittler pointed out, Kafka’s pursuit of writing provoked a desire for exclusion from the outside world and a confinement concentrated on the sole purpose of writing. For Kafka, the pursuit of writing was seemingly more human than that of conventional marriage. Marriage and fornication would impede Kafka’s pursuit of the intangible by placing concentration on marital relations. Moreover, marriage constituted a form of animalism: fornication as a means of marital appeasement. Appropriately, Kafka broke off his engagement in order to fulfill the “unknown nourishment” of his human existence: writing.

The recurrent presence of human-like animals and animal-like humans in Kafka’s works means to address the writer’s own problematic relation with tangible responsibilities of the human world and that of writing as the intangible. For Kafka, reconciling both the tangible and intangible meant a transgression and blurring of the human and the animal.

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