The Art of Fasting

Among our greatest tools of spiritual growth are prayer (of diverse variety), fasting, and almsgiving. Indeed, all three are especially encouraged during Lent. Yet in the Gospels, Jesus warns us about the proper use of these ‘holy weapons’ in the arsenal of the pious soul in training. I am thinking, primarily, of the sequence of warnings Jesus issues in the Sermon on the Mount, as documented in chapter 6 of Matthew’s Gospel.

To wit: “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.” (Mt. 6:1) And again: “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.” (Mt. 6:5) And finally: “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.” (Mt. 6:16)

The talk here is of action and reward: the hypocrites perform these three ideally pious acts merely “so that they may be seen by others,” that is, for recognition, even fame. But such actions, Jesus admonishes us, lose their worth—their reward—when they are directed to such self-seeking ends. Everything hangs on the little word “so,” the link between deliberate action and intended result, as I was learned once in a Bible study of this passage. This “so,” Jesus explains in the case of each potentially penitent act, must be aimed always at “your Father who is in secret.” Only in seeking to contact the Lord do prayer, fasting, and almsgiving have their merit… and their reward.

This tension (acting for a higher cause or merely for recognition) is played out with soul-wrenching drama in a short story by the German-Czech daytime office worker and moonlight fiction writer Franz Kafka (1883-1924). This short story, indeed, has surprising topical relevance to thinking about Good Friday (a day of fasting) and Easter Sunday (a day of feasting), as apparent from its title “A Hunger Artist” (Ein Hungerkünstler in the original German). Although the story hardly allows for a purely Christian allegorical reading, the psychological toil of its titular “hunger artist” bears striking similarity to the Gospel’s teaching on fasting. I would go so far as to contend that Kafka deliberately arranged for crossover between his hunger artist’s starvation spectacle and the practice of Christian asceticism. In any case, this bizarre short story illustrates the art of fasting in a way that complements Jesus’s teaching, and it is this illustration which I would like to investigate in turn.

The Hunger for Attention

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A Hunger Artist” is a brief story, so brief that it serves as its own summary. But, to be brief, Kafka’s story recounts the once appreciated art of fasting (“Those were different times,” he writes) through the downfall of one particular hunger artist, whose showmanship in “a small barred cage” at first draws crowds of enthusiastic spectators only to wane in popularity until he is eventually replaced. At a low point in his career, the children for whom this hunger artist was once “especially put on display” have to rely on their “family father” (Familienvater) to thoroughly explain to them what a hunger artist even is. Thus, the story tracks a trajectory from fame to irrelevance, confounded at every turn by misunderstanding.

From this summary, one could easily read Kafka’s story as a conflict between a tortured artist and a fickle audience that goes from applauding his efforts to ignoring his continued artistic dedication simply because their interest shifts, and they “preferred to stream to other attractions on display.” “Fame is bee.” – so begins Emily Dickenson in a famously short poem, which concludes, “It has a song— / It has a sting— / Ah, too, it has a wing.” This is a story, allegedly, of art against society, the creation of art for appreciation vs. art for art’s sake.

Yet, such a reading of the story overlooks long, winding passages in which the hunger artist wrestles not with the caprices of his spectators but with his own self-worth. In these passages, we see how the real misunderstanding does not arise between the fans outside the cage and the performer inside the cage, but occurs primarily within the cage itself. The hunger artist is misunderstood because he misunderstands himself: he thinks his unyielding devotion to self-denial through fasting will win him acclaim among the world, whereas the real reward for his vain performances is the cage of a false self, a self which seeks to overcome its own bodily needs only to double-back and become trapped in self-obsession. When the hunger artists fasts only for himself, he ends up a huddled mess in a hay-filled cage. Ironically, this is precisely the situation where he begins, for his motive was same the whole time, only then, in those “different times,” the crowds nourished him with the short-lived recognition he desired.

I don’t want to paint Kafka’s story as a simplistic moralizing narrative against vanity, though. As with many of Kafka’s characters, the hunger artist pivots around various psychological extremes, occasionally deserving our pity, sometimes earning our scorn, but often vacillating in the space between. This ambiguity is important to note not because the story ultimately pardons self-obsession but because it tracks the route to self-obsession as a decidedly circuitous one. In the course of this progression, several twists along the path overlap with the points raised in the Gospel’s provisions on fasting.

The Reward of Fasting for the Self

To better understand the psychological struggle of Kafka’s hunger artist, I should highlight a few more details. First and foremost, in the early days of the hunger artist’s fame, he worries that those watching him, the guards (Wächter, literally “watchers” in German) above all, think that he wants to cheat by breaking his fast while they are not looking. As if to heighten the tension, the guards are “usually butchers, strangely enough” who are selected by the public (one gets the sense that “hunger artists” are a sort of public good at the beginning of the story, like playgrounds of fire hydrants, whom everyone wanted to see “at least once daily”). Hence, his ‘watchers’ have an intimate connection to food, to flesh, the very thing he wishes to reject. (Kafka doesn’t use the normal term for butcher but rather Fleischhauer, “flesh hacker.”) Moreover, though, they suspect that he really would break his fast if given the opportunity, so they sit at a distance to goad him into cheating. Understandably, the hunger artists takes this as an insult, as an abuse:

Nothing was more tortuous to the hunger artist than such guards; they made his soul gloomy; they made his fasting terribly hard; sometimes he overcame his weaknesses and sang during their watch, as long as he could hold out, in order to show the people how unjust their suspicions of him were.”

We might sympathize with this sad soul at such moments, yet notice that he acts, as the hypocrites in the Gospels do, “in order to show the people” some merit about himself. He can fast. He would never cheat. That his spectators have a certain view of him is what cuts him to the bone. On the other hand, he far prefers when the guards pay attention to him and listen to “stories from his life of wandering” as he listens to their “tales in turn.” This sounds nice and cordial, but we immediately learn that he does all of this in order to be able to show them always that he had nothing edible in the cage and that he was fasting, like none among them could.” (emphasis mine)

Just as in the Gospel’s warning, the hunger artist fasts for himself, so that others will esteem his accomplishments. This self-obsession is further emphasized in the next section of the story, as we hear that “fasting could absolutely not be separated from suspicions,” for “no one could know from their own observation whether the fast was really unbroken and without error; only the hunger artist himself could know that, only he, therefore, could be the observer totally satisfied by his fasting.” In this gesture, Kafka dramatically declares that the hunger artist alone could be the one to recognize fully his successful fasting, the only one who could really pat himself on the back for a job well done. Hence, any ultimate recognition to be gained from such his fasting must be given by himself; it would be self-recognition, and that would undermine the point… or perhaps prove the point that the quest for recognition, rather than moving outward, is a quest that isolates the self in its own desires.

Outward, however, is the direction in which fasting and other penitent acts must take us. Sadly for the hunger artist, his fasting leads him to question whether he is emaciated not from his fasting but only “out of dissatisfaction with himself.” Fasting, taken by itself, is easy for him. “It was the easiest thing in the world.” Despite the ease of his great act of penitence, though, “this dissatisfaction always inwardly gnawed on him, and never once, after no period of fasting—one must afford him this witness—had he left the cage on his own volition.” Notice that dissatisfaction, not hunger, is what “gnaws” at him, and that he would stay in the cage as long as he could to try to ward it off. The hunger artist has trapped himself.

The extent of the this famished performer’s vanity comes to the fore in what is quite possibly the most direct reference to the Gospels in the story. The Impresario who promotes his performance sets an upward limit of forty days for the his fast, that is, the famous forty-day-long stretch of Jesus’s fast in the desert (based on the Israelites’ forty years of wandering), after which Lent is patterned. But our less than humble ascetic aesthete (if you will allow me an indulgent play-on-words) would fast longer if he could, he could last “unlimitedly longer.” Why stop at forty days? “Why did they want to rob him of fame,” the narrator asks, “to fast further, to become not only the greatest hunger artist of all time, which he probably was already, but also to cross over into the incomprehensible, for he felt no barriers for his ability to fast.” He could do it. He could best Jesus. But the others simply do not understand.

As soon as the public misunderstanding of the hunger artist’s fasts morphs into a disinterest, though, the hunger artists real limits are brought to light. Somewhat tragically, the entire reason the Impresario limits the hunger artist’s performance to forty days is because after that time people simply lose interest. Once the artist finds himself without a steady audience, he joins a circus and fasts as long as he wants, but no one affords him the attention he thinks he deserves. Even the small sign posted next to him, announcing who he is and how long he has hungered, fall into disrepair, such that “no one counted the days, no one, not even the hunger artist himself, knew how great his accomplishment was, and his heart became heavy.” Still, he continues his work “honestly,” fasting, indeed, with excellence, “but the world cheated him of his reward.”

The Reward of Fasting for God

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In Luke’s account of the crucifixion, we learn the most about the two robbers executed on either side of Jesus. One of these men, the so-called “good robber,” responds to the other’s mockery of Jesus by saying “we have indeed been condemned justly, for we are getting our reward for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” (Lk. 23:41). The hunger artist thinks he’s being robbed of his reward, his recognition, for his fasting. But truly, his search for self-affirmation earns him his just reward, which is self-entrapment. Nonetheless, a final moment in “A Hunger Artist” provides some hope of redemption, as the “good robber” is provided redemption for acknowledging his own wrongdoings.

It comes by way of reaching out, moving beyond a misunderstanding of the self’s desires.

On a rare occasion of acknowledgment, a single spectator approaches the cage. When the spectator asks at what point the hunger artist will finally end his fast, he responds, seemingly incongruently, with the words: “Forgive me for everything.” Although only this single spectator-turned-listener “understood,” finally, what the hunger artist has said, he responds in the plural: “we forgive you.” In turn, the hunger artist confides in his lone companion that “you all” (again in the plural ihr) should not be astounded by his fasting, for in truth, he would have eaten his share like all of the others, only he could not food that tasted good to him. Thus, the grandiose displays of the hunger artist collapse into the petty fuss of a picky eater. But at the same time, his struggle escapes the singular, opening outward to other selves.

The Gospel tells us, for its own part, that our attempts at self-acclaim are likewise petty. What really matters is that we direct our acts of penitence outward toward God. The hunger artist finally makes the first steps toward God, away from the entrapped self, in one of the story’s final passages as he confesses the insubstantial grounds of his alleged greatness to an caring observer. But the burden of selfishness is not carried, perhaps, by the hunger artist alone. After his final exchange with the spectator, the artist expires and is buried along with the hay from his cage. In its place, a young panther is put on display with “nourishment that tastes [good] to him,” thereby recalling the source of the hunger artist’s error. The panther “lacks nothing” and becomes a grand attraction of the circus’s public. But the price the animal pays for this exultation is its freedom. It is encaged by spectacle.

If we allow our own efforts of penitence to be directed either at earning the recognition of others or promoting our own achievements, they too will rob us of our freedom, for our actions will be aligned not to our own choice but to the choices we feel we have to make to prove something of ourselves to others. A paradox seems to follow out of the other end of this tension, though. If we align ourselves NOT to a misunderstanding of our own desires, including the desire to be seen by others, which stands at the forefront of Kafka’s short story, BUT to the proper ordering of our desires in God, we come to realize true freedom. By giving in to God’s will for us, we discover that the path to our true happiness is not the path that implodes back into the self, but which elevates the self to God.

In brief, God wants the best for us. But when we blindly seek to advance ourselves in life by making our actions only about ourselves, we get no further than the bars of our self-built cages. This all requires more explanation. But suffice it to say: Kafka’s hunger artist shows us the way with no exit.

The way to start is to make our fasting, and other actions beyond that, not about winning fame, but about pursuing the Good and the Beautiful. Only then will fasting become an actual art and not merely a side-show for selfishness.

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