In the last decades interest in hunger artists has declined considerably. Whereas in earlier days there was good money to be earned putting on major productions of this sort, …nowadays that is totally impossible. Those were different times. Back then the hunger artist captured the attention of the entire city. From day to day while the fasting lasted, participation increased. Everyone wanted to see the hunger artist at least once a day. During the later days there were people with subscription tickets who sat all day in front of the small barred cage. And there were even viewing hours at night, their impact heightened by torchlight… he sat there on scattered straw… looking pale, with his ribs sticking out prominently, sometimes nodding politely, answering questions with a forced smile, even sticking his arm out through the bars to let people feel how emaciated he was, but then completely sinking back into himself, so that he paid no attention to anything, not even to what was so important to him, the striking of the clock, which was the single furnishing in the cage, but merely looking out in front of him with his eyes almost shut.
– Franz Kafka, Ein Hungerkünstler, 1922
In 1922 the German literary magazine Die neue Rundschau published a short story by the author Franz Kafka entitled The Hunger Artist, which recalls the life of a man who starves himself for prolonged periods for the amusement of crowds of paying spectators. Over time, the hunger artist gradually becomes disillusioned with his act and frustrated by a public which seemingly fails to grasp, and sufficiently admire, the sense of discipline and self-control required to deliberately bring oneself to the brink of death. Most people reading this story would probably assume that was little more than fiction, another product of Kafka’s dark imagination; but hunger artists were in fact a genuine phenomena in circuses, fairs and travelling shows across Europe and North America between the mid-seventeenth and late-nineteenth centuries. One of the most famous hunger artists to appear in Britain during the early nineteenth-century, and the only one to feature in satirical prints of the period, was the Frenchman Claude Ambroise Seurat.
Seurat made his debut appearance in London on 9th August and the writer and publisher William Hone was among the first paying customers to witness his ‘performance’. Hone also brought his friends George and Robert Cruikshank along with him so that the scene could be recorded for posterity. George Cruikshank’s drawings were subsequently worked-up into woodblock engraved illustrations to accompany an article for the Every-day Book, in which Hone eerily prefigures the fictional account written by Kafka almost a century later:
[The] exhibition takes place in a small room in Pall-Mall called the “Chinese Saloon”; its sides are decorated with Chinese paper; Chinese paper; Chinese lanterns are hung from lines crossing from wall to wall. In front of the large recess, on one side, is a circular gauze canopy over a platform covered with crimson cloth, raised about eighteen inches from the floor and enclosed by a light brass railing… A slight motion from within intimates that the object of attraction is about to appear; the curtain opens a little on one side and Seurat comes forth… with no other covering than a small piece of fringed purple silk… with a slit like pocket holes, to allow the hip-bones to pass through each side. On turning around, I was instantly riveted by his amazing emaciation; he seemed another “Lazarus, come forth”… He remains about ten minutes standing and walking before the company, and then withdraws between the curtains to seat himself, from observation in a blanketed arm chair, till another company arrives.
– William Hone, The Every-day Book and Table Book…, Vol. I, London 1830
While we may struggle to understand the appeal of Seurat’s act, Hone and Cruikshank viewed such spectacles from the context of society in which premature death and physical afflictions were commonplace. Public executions and the administration of lesser forms of corporal punishment could be seen regularly in any large town or city, and the number of prints produced to celebrate those who participated in sports, ranging from cock fighting to bare-knuckle boxing, demonstrates that death and physical pain were seemingly integral to many forms of entertainment. The long eighteenth-century was also a period in which the aesthetic of suffering and sadness was celebrated in various branches of the arts. In The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) Robert Burton had argued that the sadness created by some experiences could have a pleasing quality, particularly in instances where it encouraged one to reflect on the positive aspects of one’s own life, or upon deeper spiritual issues, and the concept of ‘pleasing melancholy’ influenced a substantial strain of contemporary art and literature. At the more conventional end of the cultural spectrum this resulted in the endless republication of mawkish romantic literature, such as Edward Young’s Night Thoughts (1742 – 44) and Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in Country Churchyard (1751), dwelling on themes of sadness and death. It also resulted in the bizarre craze for employing ‘ornamental hermits’ who were housed in mock caves constructed in the grounds of some of England’s grandest country estates and paid to leap of the shrubbery to challenge dinner guests with a philosophical bon mot, or a strikingly contemplative pose.
Hone’s account of his visit to see Seurat suggests he conceptualised the experience in a manner that was entirely consistent with contemporary definitions of ‘pleasing melancholy’ and he concluded his account by boldly stating that:
“[Seurat’s] condition, and the privations whereby he holds his tenure of existence, are eloquent to the mind reflecting upon the few real wants of mankind and the advantages derivable from abstinent and temperate habits. Had he been born a little higher in society, his mental improvement might have advanced with his corporeal incapacity, and instead of being shown as a phenomenon, he might have flourished as a sage. No man has been great who has not subdued his passions; real greatness has insisted on this as essential to happiness and artificial greatness has shrunk from it. When Paul “reasoned of righteousness, temperance and judgement to come, Felix trembled.” Seurat’s appearance seems an admonition from the grave to “think on these things.”
Sentiments with which Kafka would no doubt have been in complete agreement.