Academic journal article Style

First-Person and Second-Generation Perspectives on Starvation in Kafka's "Ein Hungerkunstler"

Academic journal article Style

First-Person and Second-Generation Perspectives on Starvation in Kafka's "Ein Hungerkunstler"

Article excerpt

Hunger and Anorexia

Funnily enough, Kafka's story "Ein Hungerkunstler" has no hunger in it. Once I noticed it, I found this really quite weird, although it's very easy to read the whole text multiple times and not notice it at all. As far as I'm aware, no one else who's written about this text has noticed this absence (or considered it noteworthy), and maybe I noticed it only because I suffered from anorexia for ten years, and for ten years was hungry, so that it feels deeply strange to me to read a story about a man starving himself to death and apparently never feeling hungry at all. The kind of sensitivity created by my personal history might sometimes be a biasing liability when analyzing literary texts, but I think it may also sometimes be an asset, and more generally may point towards a new way of doing cognitive criticism. Specifically in this case, the observation about there being a gap where one might reasonably expect hunger can unlock a new understanding of the story.

Most interpretations of "Ein Hungerkunstler" see the act of not eating as standing in for something else: an artistic attitude, for example, or a moral stance. In what follows, I'll draw on Peter Lamarque's tripartite distinction between explication (clarifying localized textual meaning), elucidation (exploring the narrative world of the text), and interpretation (appraising the thematic meaning of the work) to argue that ethically and textually sensitive critical practice should do justice to the first two of these three stages before proceeding to the third. In this respect, second-generation cognitive criticism conforms to the more general principles set out by Lamarque; what he--and I--see as the tenets of any responsible critical engagement with a text also happen to be furthered by this particular cognitive approach. Specifically, I hope to show that the act of "Hungern" (fasting) which is this text's primary subject matter contains abundant meanings and effects within it, on the level of elucidation, and that these can be illuminated by a cognitive understanding of the central paradox of the text: the ongoing act of "Hungern" without, apparently, any feeling of "Hunger." Although the current discussion will primarily be arguing for and against ways of reading texts like Kafka's rather than offering a detailed close reading, the notion of cognitive realism could certainly also dovetail with and enrich the analysis of textual features like narrative perspective and reader-response features like mental imagery.

The framework for this argument will consist of a second-generation strand--a critical perspective informed by a basic understanding of how the cognitive realities of fasting are shaped by the physiology of fasting--and a first-person strand, drawing on my experience of anorexia nervosa. The connective point between the two will be the concept of "cognitive realism," the correspondence between textual evocations of a specific aspect of cognition and how this aspect of cognition is understood in current cognitive science (Troscianko, "Cognitive Realism and Memory"). I'll show how cognitive realism and its relation to folk-psychological intuitions, which latter are often if not usually at odds with the cognitive realities, can be a source of hypotheses about how readers (including professional readers) may respond to a given text.

A scientifically grounded understanding of cognition allows us to make informed claims not just about how cognitive realities connect with textual features, but also about how folk psychology (people's intuitive understanding of how their minds work) diverges systematically from those realities, and may yield its own set of readerly expectations and hence responses. This approach differs from the field known as "reader-response studies" in that readers are conceived of as flesh-and-blood beings with actual minds susceptible to scientific exploration, rather than primarily as textual incarnations (Troscianko, Kafka's Cognitive Realism 10-11). …

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