No 3 - 1981
The Art of Hunger
What is important, it seems to me,
is not so much to defend a culture
whose existence has never kept a man
from going hungry, as to extract,
from what is called culture, ideas
whose compelling force is identical
with that of hunger.
A young man comes to the city. He has no name, no home, no work: he has come to the city to write. He writes. Or, more exactly, he does not write. He starves to the point of death.
The city is Christiania (Oslo); the year is 1890. The young man wanders through the streets: the city is a labyrinth of hunger, and all his days are the same. He writes unsolicited articles for a local paper. He worries about his rent, his disintegrating clothes, the difficulty of finding his next meal. He suffers. He nearly goes mad. He is never more than one step from collapse.
Still, he writes. Now and then he manages to sell an article, to find a temporary reprieve from his misery. But he is too weak to write steadily and can rarely finish the pieces he has begun. Among his abortive works are an essay entitled Crimes of the Future, a philosophical tract on the freedom of the will, an allegory about a bookstore fire (the books are brains), and a play set in the Middle Ages, The Sign of the Cross. The process is inescapable: he must eat in order to write. But if he does not write, he will not eat. And if he cannot eat, he cannot write. He cannot write.
He writes. He does not write. He wanders through the streets of the city. He talks to himself in public. He frightens people away from him. When, by chance, he comes into some money, he gives it away. He is evicted from his room. He eats, and then throws everything up. At one point he begins to eat the page he has just written. He has a brief flirtation with a girl, but nothing comes of it except humiliation. He hungers. He curses the world. He does not die. In the end, for no apparent reason, he signs on board a ship and leaves the city.
These are the bare bones of Knut Hamsun's first novel, Hunger. It is a work devoid of plot, action, and - but for the narrator - character. By nineteenth century standards, it is a work in which nothing happens. The radical subjectivity of the narrator effectively eliminates the basic concerns of the traditional novel. Similar to the hero’s plan to make an “invisible detour” when he came to the problem of space and time in one of his essays, Hamsun manages to dispense with historical time, the basic organising principle of nineteenth century fiction. He gives us an account only of the hero’s worst struggles with hunger. Other, less difficult times, in which his hunger has been appeased - even though they might last as long as a week - are passed off in one or two sentences. Historical time is obliterated in favor of inner duration. With only an arbitrary beginning and an arbitrary ending the novel faithfully records the vagaries of the narrator’s mind, following each thought from its mysterious inception through all its meanderings, until it dissipates and the next thought begins. What happens is allowed to happen.
This novel cannot even claim to have a redeeming social value. Although Hunger puts us in the jaws of misery, it offers no analysis of that misery, contains no call to political action. Hamsun, who turned fascist in his old age during World War II, never concerned himself with the problems of class injustice, and his narrator-hero, like Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov, is not so much an underdog as a monster of intellectual arrogance. Pity plays no part in Hunger. The hero suffers, but only because he has chosen to suffer. Hamsun’ s art is such that he rigorously prevents us from feeling any compassion for his character. From the very beginning, it is made clear that the hero need not starve. Solutions exist, if not in the city, then at least in departure. But buoyed by an obsessive, suicidal pride, the young man’s actions continually betray a scorn for his own best interests.
I began running so as to punish myself, left street after street behind me, pushed myself on with inward jeers, and screeched silently and furiously at myself whenever I felt like stopping. With the help of these exertions I ended up along Pile Street. When I finally did stop, almost weeping with anger that I couldn’t run any farther, my whole body trembled, and I threw myself down on a house stoop. “Not so fast !” I said. And to torture myself right, I stood up again and forced myself to stand there, laughing at myself and gloating over my own fatigue. Finally, after a few minutes, I nodded and so gave myself permission to sit down; however, I chose the most uncomfortable spot on the stoop. (1)
He seeks out what is most difficult in himself, courting pain and adversity in the same way other men seek out pleasure. He goes hungry, not because he has to, but from some inner compulsion, as if to wage a hunger strike against himself. Before the book begins, before the reader has been made the privileged witness of his fate, the hero’s course of action has been fixed. A process is already in motion, and although the hero cannot control it, that does not mean he is unaware of what he is doing.
I was conscious all the time that I was following mad whims without being able to do anything about it . . . Despite my alienation from myself at that moment, and even though I was nothing but a battleground for invisible forces, I was aware of every detail of what was going on around me.
Having withdrawn into a nearly perfect solitude, he has become both the subject and object of his own experiment. Hunger is the means by which this split takes place, the catalyst, so to speak, of altered consciousness.
I had noticed very clearly that every time I went hungry a little too long it was as though my brains simply ran quietly out of my head and left me empty. My head became light and floating, I could no longer feel its weight upon my shoulders . . .
If it is an experiment, however, it has nothing to do with the scientific method. There are no controls, no stable points of reference - only variables. Nor can this separation of mind and body be reduced to a philosophical abstraction. We are not in the realm of ideas here. It is a physical state, brought into being under conditions of extreme duress. Mind and body have been weakened; the hero has lost control over both his thoughts and actions. And yet, he persists in trying to control his destiny. This is the paradox, the game of circular logic that is played out through the pages of the book. It is an impossible situation for the hero. For he has wilfully brought himself to the brink of danger. To give up starving would not mean victory, it would simply mean that the game was over. He wants to survive, but only on his own terms: survival that will bring him face to face with death.
He fasts. But not in the way a Christian would fast. He is not denying earthly life in anticipation of heavenly life; he is simply refusing to live the life he has been given. And the longer he goes on with his fast, the more death intrudes itself upon his life. He approaches death, creeps towards the edge of the abyss, and once there, clings to it, unable to move either forward or backward. Hunger, which opens the void, does not have the power to seal it up. A brief moment of Pascalian terror has been transformed into a permanent condition.
His fast, then, is a contradiction. To persist in it would mean death, and with death the fast would end. He must therefore stay alive, but only to the extent that it keeps him on the point of death. The idea of ending is resisted in the interests of maintaining the constant possibility of the end. Because his fasting neither posits a goal nor offers a promise of redemption, its contradiction must remain unresolved. As such, it is an image of despair, generated by the same self-consuming passion as the sickness unto death. The soul, in its despair, seeks to devour itself, and because it cannot - precisely because it dsepairs - sinks further into despair.
Unlike a religious art, in which self-abasement can play an ultimately cleansing role (the meditative poetry of the seventeenth century for example), hunger only simulates the dialectic of salvation. In Fulke Greville’s poem Down in the depth of mine iniquity, the poet is able to look into a “fatal mirror of transgrssion” which “ shows man as a fruit of his degeneration”, but he knows that this is only the first step in a two-fold process, for it is in this mirror that Christ is revealed “for the same sins dying / And from that hell I feared, to free me, come . . .” In Hamsun’s novel, however, once the depths have been sounded, the mirror of meditation remains empty.
He remains at the bottom, and no God will come to rescue the young man. He cannot even depend on the props of social convention to keep him standing. He is rootless, without friends, denuded of objects. Order has disappeared for him; everything has become random. His actions are inspired by nothing but whim and ungovernable urge, the weary frustration of anarchic discontent. He pawns his waistcoat in order to give alms to a beggar, hires a carriage in search of a fictitious acquaintance, knocks on strangers’ doors, and repeatedly asks the time of passing policemen, for the single reason that he fancies to do so. He does not revel in these actions, however. They remain profoundly disquieting for him. Furiously trying to stabilise his life, to put an end to his wanderings, find a room, and settle down to his writing, he is thwarted by the fast he has set in motion. Once it starts, hunger does not release its progenitor-victim until its lesson has been made unforgettable. The hero is seized against his will by a force of his own making and is compelled to respond to its demands.
He loses everything, even himself. Reach the bottom of a Godless hell, and identity disappears. It is no accident that Hamsun’s hero has no name: as time goes on, he is truly shorn of his self. What names he chooses to give himself are all inventions, summoned forth on the spur of the moment. He cannot say who he is because he does not know. His name is a lie, and with this lie the reality of his world vanishes.
He peers into a darkness hunger has created for him, and what he finds is a void of language. Reality has become a confusion of thing-less names and nameless things for him. The connection between self and world has been broken.
I remained for a while looking into the dark - this dense substance of darknees that had no bottom, which I couldn’t understand. My thoughts could not grasp such a thing. It seemed to be a dark beyond all measurement, and I felt its presence weight me down. I closed my eyes and took to singing half aloud and rocking myself back and forth on the cot to amuse myself, but it did no good. The dark had captured my brain and gave me not an instant of peace. What if I myself became dissolved into the dark, turned into it ?
At the precise moment that he is in the greatest fear of losing possession of himself, he suddenly imagines that he has invented a new word: Kubooa - a word in no language, a word with no meaning.
I had arrived at the joyful insanity hunger was: I was empty and free of pain, and my thoughts no longer had any check.
He tries to think of a meaning for his word but can only come up with what it doesn’t mean, which is neither “God”, nor the “Tivoli Gardens”, nor “cattle show”, nor “padlock”, nor “sunrise”, nor “emigration”, nor “tobacco factory”, nor “yarn”.
No, the word was actually intended to mean something spiritual, a feeling, a state of mind - if only I could understand it? And I thought and thought and thought to find something spiritual.
But he does not succeed. Voices, not his own, begin to intrude, to confuse him, and he sinks deeper into chaos. After a violent fit, in which he imagines himself to be dying, all goes still, with no sounds but those of his own voice, rolling back from the wall.
This episode is perhaps the most painful in the book. But it is only one of many examples of the hero’s language disease. Throughout the narrative, his pranks most often take the form of lies. Retrieving his lost pencil from a pawnshop (he had accidentally left it in the pocket of a vest he had sold), he tells the proprietor that it was with this very pencil that he had written his three-volume treatise on Philosophical Consciousness. An insignificant pencil, he admits, but he has a sentimental attachment to it. To an old man on a park bench he recites the fantastic story of a Mr Happolati, the inventor of the electric prayer-book. Asking a store clerk to wrap his last possession, a tattered green blanket he is too ashamed to carry round exposed to view, he explains that it is not really the blanket he wants wrapped, but the pair of priceless vases he has folded inside the blanket. Not even the girl he courts is immune from this sort of fiction. He invents a name for her, a name that pleases him for its beauty, and he refuses to call her by anything else.
These lies have a meaning beyond the jests of the moment. In the realm of language the lie has the same relationship to truth that evil has to good in the realm of morals. That is the convention, and it works if we believe in it. But Hamsun’s hero no longer believes in anything. Lies and truth are as one to him. Hunger has led him into the darkness, and there is no turning back.
This equation of language and morals becomes the gist of the final episode in Hunger.
My brain grew clearer, I understood that I was close to total collapse. I put my hands against the wall and shoved to push myself away from it. The street was still dancing around. I began to hiccup from fury, and struggled with every bit of energy against my collapse, fought a really stout battle not to fall down. I didn’t want to fall, I wanted to die standing. A wholesale grocer’s cart came by and I saw it was filled with potatoes, but out of fury, from sheer obstinacy, I decided they were not potatoes at all, they were cabbages. I heard my own words very well, and I took the oath again and again on this lie, and swore deliberately just to have the delightful satisfaction of committing such clear perjury. I became drunk over this superb sin, I lifted three fingers in the air and swore with trembling lips in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost that they were cabbages.
And that is the end of it. There are only two choices left for the hero now: live or die; and he chooses to live. He has said no to society, no to God, no to his own words. Later that same day he leaves the city. There is no longer any need to continue the fast. Its work has been done.
Hunger : or a portrait of the artist as a young man. But it is an apprenticeship that has little in common with the early struggles of other writers. Hamsun’s hero is no Stephen Dedalus, and there is hardly a word in Hunger about aesthetic theory. The world of art has been translated in the world of the body -and the original text has been abandoned. Hunger is not a metaphor; it is the very crux of the problem itself. If others, such as Rimbaud, with his program for the voluntary derangement of the senses, have turned the body into an aesthetic principle in its own right, Hamsun’s hero steadfastly rejects the opportunity to use his deficiencies to his own advantage. He is weak. he has lost control over his thoughts, and yet he continues to strive for lucidity in his writing. But hunger affects his prose in the same way it affects his life. Although he is willing to sacrifice everything for his art, even submit to the worst forms of debasement and misery, all he has really done is make it impossible for himself to write. You cannot write on an empty stomach, no matter how hard you try. But it would be wrong to dismiss the hero of Hunger as a fool or madman. In spite of the evidence, he knows what he is doing. He does not want to succeed. He wants to fail.
Something new is happening here, some new thought about the nature of art is being proposed in Hunger. It is first of all an art that is indistinguishable from the life of the artist who makes it. That is not to say an art of autobiographical excess, but rather, an art that is the direct expression of the effort to express itself. In other words, an art of hunger: an art of need, of necessity, of desire. Certainty yields to doubt, form gives way to process. There can be no arbitrary imposition of order, and yet, more than ever, there is the obligation to achieve clarity. It is an art that begins with the knowledge that there are no right answers. For that reason it becomes essential to ask the right questions. One finds them by living them. To quote Samuel Beckett:
What I am saying is does not mean that there will henceforth be no form in art. It only means that there will be a new form, and that this form will be of such a type that it admits the chaos and does not try to say that the chaos is really something else....To find a form that accomodates the mess, that is the task of the artist now. (2)
Hamsun gives the portrait of this artist in the first stages of his development. But it is in Kafka’s story, A Hunger Artist, that the aesthetics of hunger receives its most meticulous elaboration. Here the contradictions of the fast conducted by Hamsun’s hero - and the artistic impasse it leads to - are joined in a parable that deals with an artist whose art consists of fasting. The hunger artist is at once an artist and not an artist. Though he wants his performances to be admired, he insists that they shouldn’t be admired, because they have nothing to do with art. He has chosen to fast only because he could never find any food that he liked. His performances are therefore not spectacles for the amusement of others, but the unravelling of a private despair that he has permitted others to watch.
Like Hamsun’s hero, the hunger artist has lost control over himself. Beyond the theatrical device of sitting in his cage, his art in no way differs from his life, even what his life would have been had he not become a performer. He is not trying to please anyone. In fact his performances cannot even be understood or appreciated.
No one could possibly watch the hunger artist continuously, day and night, and so no one could produce first hand evidence that the fast had really been rigorous and continuous; only the artist himself could know that; he was therefore bound to be the sole completely satisfied spectator of his own fast.
This is not the classic story of the misunderstood artist, however. For the very nature of the fast resists comprehension. Knowing itself from the outset to be an impossibility, and condemning itself to certain failure, it is a process that moves asymptotically towards death, destined to reach neither fruition nor destruction. In Kafka’s story the hunger artist dies, but only because he forsakes his art, abandoning the restrictions that had been imposed upon him by his manager. The hunger artist goes too far. But that is the risk, the danger inherent in any act of art: you must be willing to give your life.
In the end, the art of hunger can be described as an existential art. It is a way of looking death in the face, and by death I mean death as we live it today: without God, without hope of salvation. Death as the abrupt and absurd end of life.
I do not believe that we have come any farther than this. It is even possible that we have been here much longer than we are willing to admit. In all this time, however, only a few artists have been able to recognise it. It takes courage, and not many of us would be willing to risk everything for nothing. But that is what happens in Hunger, a novel written in 1890. Hamsun’ s character systematically unburdens himself of every belief in every system, and in the end, by means of the hunger he has inflicted upon himself, he arrives at nothing. There is nothing to keep him going - and yet he keeps on going. He walks straight into the twentieth century.
(1) All quotations are from the Robert Bly translation. Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. 1967
(2) From an interview with Tom Driver. Beckett at the Madelaine in The Columbia University Forum, Summer 1961.
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