In 1922 Franz Kafka published a short story called “The Hunger Artist”. He was relatively happy with the story — he exempted it from his posthumous instructions to Max Brod to destroy his writings — and it was included in a collection of stories published in Berlin in 1924. Kafka died before the collection was printed.
The story concerns a hunger artist who continues to perform after the fashion for hunger artistry has died out. He occupies a cage in a circus sideshow and few people bother to even glance at him as they walk by. One day the circus manger says, “What’s that pile of dirty straw in that cage?” And when they sweep out the straw, Lo! there’s the hunger artist, diminished and dying. The manager tries to lift his spirits, “We admire you.” But the artist says that they shouldn’t. “If only I could find the food I liked, I would have stuffed myself like the rest of you.” Then he dies. Next day, he is replaced by a panther who always is well fed with food that he likes. (You can read or listen here, but if you want to listen try the version read by Lotte Lenya here.)
It is supposed that Kafka’s story was inspired by the real-life Hunger Artist, Giovanni Succi, whose act was big news in 1890 and for a little while after. Succi believed himself possessed by a spirit that enabled him to live without food. Between shows he was quietly admitted to insane asylums. He performed his act about thirty times in his life. (from Hunger: An Unnatural History by Sharman Apt Russell).
There were many hunger artists before Succi; they are recorded in medieval times. There is something about the unnatural act of denying oneself food that is particularly interesting to folks who have little to eat in the first place. And there is the ascetic religious connection, attaining more spirit by becoming less flesh. Modern analysts have compared hunger artistry with anorexia without coming to any useful conclusions. The most recent bit of hunger performance was by the magician David Blaine in 2003.
After the publication of Kafka’s story, hunger artists became very common in Berlin and by 1926 there were at least six all fasting at the same time. These performers would sit in cages in the middle of the tables at fancy restaurants while those around them chowed down. I suspect that this uptick in hunger artistry was due to artists and students and other of the always hungry young who read or heard of the story and decided to appropriate it for their own purposes.
There’s a lot of critical speculation about what Kafka’s story means. Is it an allegory about the artist consumed by his own art or what? (Most critics are agreed that it’s an allegory.) Personally, I read Kafka like poetry, letting the words wash over my faculties and enjoying the sensation without any attempt to “shovel the glimpse into the ditch of what each word means”. You know, “a poem should not mean but be” and all that. A good poem sets up reverberation all through your consciousness and vibrates a variety of meanings. But what do I know anyway?