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First-person and second-generation perspectives on starvation in Kafka’s ‘Ein Hungerkünstler’

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Abstract

An important claim made for second-generation accounts of cognition is that they help solve the problem of dualism, which arguably remains unchallenged in much literary criticism. Kafka’s short story “Ein Hungerkünstler” (A Hunger Artist) is about a profoundly embodied experience of (unsuccessfully) denying embodiment: fasting to death. With this text’s cognitive realism as my focal point, I use insights from second-generation cognitive science (which acknowledges the embodied, embedded, enactive, and extended nature of human cognition), including studies of eating disorders and starvation, to provide purchase on two traditional literary-critical concerns: thematic interpretation and paradox. I also suggest that a first-person perspective which acknowledges the complexities of individual real-world embodiment may sometimes enrich cognitive literary studies. This combined first-person and second-generation methodology can help us recognise that for the real people who read our scholarship and learn from us, the dangers of dualism are ethically as well as interpretively profound.
E.T. Troscianko, First-person and second-generation perspectives on starvation
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First-Person and Second-Generation Perspectives on Starvation in Kafka’s “Ein
Hungerkünstler”
Emily T. Troscianko
Published in 2014 in Style, 48, 331-348.
Abstract
An important claim made for second-generation accounts of cognition is that they help solve the
problem of dualism, which arguably remains unchallenged in much literary criticism. Kafka’s short
story “Ein Hungerkünstler” (A Hunger Artist) is about a profoundly embodied experience of
(unsuccessfully) denying embodiment: fasting to death. With this text’s cognitive realism as my focal
point, I use insights from second-generation cognitive science (which acknowledges the embodied,
embedded, enactive, and extended nature of human cognition), including studies of eating disorders and
starvation, to provide purchase on two traditional literary-critical concerns: thematic interpretation and
paradox. I also suggest that a first-person perspective which acknowledges the complexities of
individual real-world embodiment may sometimes enrich cognitive literary studies. This combined
first-person and second-generation methodology can help us recognise that for the real people who read
our scholarship and learn from us, the dangers of dualism are ethically as well as interpretively
profound.
1. Hunger and anorexia
Funnily enough, Kafka’s story “Ein Hungerkünstler” 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 analysing 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 Hungerkünstler” 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 localised 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, an analysis 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
E.T. Troscianko, First-person and second-generation perspectives on starvation
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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 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). Naturally, in one sense folk-psychological intuitions
always form part of the psychological state to which they refer, and by distinguishing between the two
I don’t suggest that folk psychology should or can be evacuated from the analysis of lived experience.
Nonetheless, it is possible to identify systematic deviations of folk psychology from the cognitive
capacities and characteristics that underlie it (Chabris and Simons), such that distinguishing between
the two enhances our analytic purchase on cognitive questions; after all, how our minds work is not
exclusively how we think they work. Here the matter of history arises too: on the whole people’s
understanding of their own minds and bodies is fairly unchanging, and certainly resistant to scientific
advances (Churchland 74-76), but in the realm of body image a significant shift has occurred in the last
century or so towards a widespread, historically atypical valuation of thinness. However, this shift had
certainly been initiated by the early 1920s, when “Ein Hungerkünstler” was first published, so in both
respects I assume that the folk psychology of Kafka’s era can be considered broadly equivalent to that
of today’s readers (Bordo 185). On the scientific side of the historical question, although second-
generation cognitive science is a recent development, I will be working on the assumption that 1) the
insights into the embodied nature of human cognition on which I draw in this argument are relatively
close to the empirical realities certainly more so than the dualist positions which precede them; and
2) these insights into non-dualism are not a historical novelty, but have much in common with ways of
thinking about minds and bodies that predated a Cartesian understanding of mind-body dualism. The
embodied perspective which I espouse is therefore not an inherently “presentist” notion; nor, therefore,
are pre-21st-century texts less suited to analysis in terms of cognitive realism thus configured than texts
that happen to be written in the “second-generation” era.
So let’s go back to the gap where I expected hunger to be. Maybe many readers don’t actually expect
it. Because the hunger artist “voluntarily” starves himself as anorexics do, he has often been diagnosed
with anorexia (e.g. by Ellmann, Fichter, Medeiros, and West), and a commonly held belief about
anorexia is that to be anorexic is to feel no hunger. This notion is supported by the etymology (the Latin
“anorexia” derives from the Greek privative prefix “an” and “oregein”, to reach after, desire), as well
as by the clinical history: one of the first formal applications of the term in a clinical context invoked
absence of appetite as anorexia’s defining feature, stating that “[t]he want of appetite is, I believe, due
to a morbid mental state” (Gull 25). The current OED definition also takes this absence as given:
anorexia is a condition marked by emaciation, etc., in which loss of appetite results from severe
emotional disturbance”.
1
In the vast majority of cases, anorexia is in fact characterised not by a uniform
lack of appetite but by the more or less constant denial of appetite (e.g. Failler), but this denial is so
universal that the folk-psychological understanding is very likely to involve an assumption of drastically
reduced or non-existent appetite. In Wasted, perhaps the most famous eating-disorder memoir ever
published, Marya Hornbacher describes how the beginning of her illness was learning to deny hunger:
“Not hungry, I’d say. […] I’m on a diet, I say. […] Well, I wasn’t hungry anyway. […] I push my plate
away, say loudly, I’m full” (10-12). Anorexia is about denying one’s appetite both to other people (“no
thanks, I’m not hungry”) and to oneself (“I do not need to eat now”), and, in most cases, about revelling
in the illusion of self-control achieved by experiencing hunger and not acting on it. In the clinical
literature, “denying”, “ignoring”, and “suppressing” hunger are offered as one possible explanation for
anorexics’ apparent lack of hunger (Vandereycken). To judge from a large sample of anecdotal evidence
1
“anorexia, n.”. OED Online. September 2013. Oxford University Press.
<http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/8080?redirectedFrom=anorexia&>.
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in the form of comments posted to my Psychology Today blog (also called A Hunger Artist), denied,
ignored, and suppressed hunger seems overwhelmingly the norm, with an inability to feel it very much
the exception, other than in prolonged periods of total starvation (see below). As Christopher Fairburn
states, “Generally there is no true ‘anorexia’ (loss of appetite) as such” (13).
So does this mean that Kafka’s hunger artist can’t be anorexic, since there’s no indication in the text
that he has any hunger to suppress? In respects other than hunger, the hunger artist’s state of body and
mind certainly fits the anorexic profile (Fairburn) very well: the hunger artist, like the anorexic, is
physically weak (susceptible to fainting) and has disturbed sleep; is depressed and denies his depression,
overlaying it with a superficial cheerfulness; is obsessed with fasting and tired and deflated at the end
of fasting; feels nausea at the thought of food and anger at the suggestion that fasting might be having
negative effects on him; and shifts the goalposts in his fasting, so that the lifelong goal of the forty-day
fast, as soon as it’s achieved, becomes meaningless and immediately has to be outdone. All this, then,
seems very much like anorexia but what about the absent hunger?
2. Hunger, anorexia, and starvation
At this point we need to go back to bodily basics. A key second-generation insight here is that anorexia
can be much more closely aligned with starvation than we might think: whether the undereating is
voluntary or involuntary, and whether the result is culturally labelled a “mental illness” or a physical
affliction, the psychology, like the physiology, are similar to the point of being in many respects
indistinguishable. Eating too little to maintain a healthy bodyweight is indeed one of the diagnostic
criteria for anorexia (DSM-V), the others being an “Intense fear of gaining weight or becoming fat” or,
as in the hunger artist’s case, persistent behavior that interferes with weight gain, even though at a
significantly low weight”, as well as “Disturbance in the way in which one’s body weight or shape is
experienced, undue influence of body weight or shape on self-evaluation, or persistent lack of
recognition of the seriousness of the current low body weight”. The hunger artist’s mental state is
certainly characterised by disturbance in his experience of his own body and lack of recognition of the
damage being done to him by not eating, and all these features can, as I’ll explain, derive simply from
the fact of being underweight. This isnt to say that anorexia is identical to fasting, or more broadly that
the mental reduces completely to the physical and certainly not that mental states don’t exist; here
I’m simply building one of the basic claims of second-generation cognitive science, which is that the
feedback loops between the two are continuous and powerful, and therefore that knowing about the
physiology can yield insights into the psychology, as well as vice versa. One specific insight that would
otherwise be inaccessible relates to the question of hunger. The hunger artist’s fasting is total he eats
nothing at all during his fasts and, as I hinted in the previous section, there’s a crucial difference
between total starvation and semi-starvation, precisely when it comes to hunger: the metabolic shift to
ketosis which occurs when one stops eating completely (or stops eating carbohydrates) also stops
hunger, while the reintroduction of “even a small amount of carbohydrate can block ketone production
and rekindle hunger” (Sullivan). This distinction gives us insight into why the hunger artist’s state fits
the diagnosis of anorexia in every way except the experience of hunger: semi- and total starvation are
psychologically and physically very similar except in that respect. And although anorexia often involves
extended periods of total starvation, during which the associated euphoria and absence of hunger may
help to reinforce the addiction to anorexia, if the illness continues for years, it’s necessarily based on
semi-starvation.
So, if we now ask whether the story can be considered specifically a cognitively realistic evocation of
total starvation, what can we conclude? The absence of hunger is now explained, but other absences
arise to take its place, at the two ends of the experiential spectrum between pleasure and pain. There’s
none of the euphoria and sense of power and specialness caused by the stimulation of the serotonin
receptors in an analgesic response to (extreme or terminal) starvation. The hunger artist’s strongest
positive feelings are the pleasure of watching his guards eat the breakfast he’s bought for them and of
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sitting in the straw, the enthusiasm he feels at the thought of amazing the world with his feats of fasting,
and his delighted anticipation of his audience, but none of these comes close to the visceral elation that
(at least some of the time) accompanies not-eating. There is also no evocation of any physical
complications of death by starvation, like infection or pressure ulcers, heart arrhythmia and its
symptoms, or ultimately the trauma of circulatory collapse. What we have here, then, is a curiously
flattened evocation of this embodied experience of dying, and this may have important consequences
for how the text is read, specifically as regards readers automatic filling of textual gaps without even
noticing they’re there.
In particular, the absence of any evocation of the messy physical realities of death by starvation may
encourage critical readings which insist on the “purity” of the hunger artist’s fasting, such as that the
hunger artist’s “refusal to compromise the sovereignty of his present desire for pure self-control
ultimately denies the welfare, indeed the existence, of his future self” (West 38-39). This observation
is broadly accurate insofar as the refusal to stop fasting kills the hunger artist in the end. It’s problematic,
however, in that the association of starvation with purity and self-control bears no relation to the
physical realities of starving to death. It also belies the psychological reality that someone starving
him/herself “voluntarily” to death is not exercising self-control but is, rather, under the control of a
potentially fatal set of interlinked psychophysiological factors, which I’ll outline in the following
section: starving oneself to death is the epitome of an act that looks like self-control but is in fact
complete loss of control. In this sense, Robin West’s reading could be seen as falling victim to precisely
the set of value judgements that the anorexic him/herself subscribes to: “The hunger addiction of
anorexics may well have hormonal elements (as in the endorphin-fuelled hunger high’), and these
contribute to buttressing its central position in the value system that is built up around it (hunger = self-
denial, strength, power, purity, specialness, etc.), and thence to strengthening the behavioural web of
habits that preserve it” (Troscianko, “Anorexia and The Diet Delusion”). Sociocultural factors no doubt
tend to further encourage critics’ equations of not-eating, self-control, purity, and so on, but I suggest
that the fact that the text offers no substantial counter-prompts in the form of a gruesome description of
an unpleasant death increases the likelihood of their being made. On the other hand, the absence of
euphoria means that there’s no very substantial positive prompt to, and certainly no actual validation
of, the association of fasting with something transcendent. The absence of any substantial textual basis
for a transcendent” reading, though, may simply be outweighed by the other factors tending to
encourage it, not least the title and repeated epithet “Hungerkünstler” itself, which have too often been
assumed to override all the other textual evidence against admirable artistry partly, I think, because
they open up attractive possibilities for identifying paradoxes and automatically filling unnoticed gaps.
3. Hunger, artistry, and gaps
Arguably all cognitive engagement with all literary texts (Ingarden) and indeed all language (Sperber
and Wilson) involves filling gaps, although there may be some textual characteristics that make gap-
filling unnecessary (Troscianko, Kafka’s Cognitive Realism) or impossible (Phelan). Kafka always
leaves a great deal unsaid, and it’s very tempting to try to fill the gaps in “Ein Hungerkünstler”, with
varying degrees of readerly self-awareness. A recurring pattern in the critical reception of the text, as
of Kafka’s fictions in general, has been to expect things in the text and consequently to see them there,
and in “Ein Hungerkünstler” hunger is one of the central gaps filled before it’s even noticed. Thus Paul
Medeiros states that the hunger artist, “in his voluntary denial of any form of consumption […,]
approximates the actual behavior of anorexics”, and that he manifests a “determination to prove his
superiority through his control of appetite” (20). But there’s no indication in the story that the hunger
artist has any appetite to control. Nor, incidentally, is there any indication that the hunger artist starves
in order to prove his superiority but I’ll come back later to the imposition of this kind of value
judgement on the act of fasting.
The other half of the gap opened up by the “hunger artist” epithet, namely the blank space where we
might expect some tangible artistic production, is filled just as eagerly. Maud Ellmann, for instance,
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formulates a simplistic response to the text prompted primarily by the term “hunger artist”, saying that
he “has to starve in order to perfect the work of art” (59). But nowhere else in the text is there any
suggestion that what he’s doing can be considered authentically artistic: he creates nothing, certainly
nothing of value, there’s no indication that the spectacle of fasting is authentically artistic in any way,
and there’s no progression from less to more “perfect”; the comment is therefore, in my view,
unfounded and unilluminating. Harry Steinhauer also points out that this kind of reading is flawed in
that there simply is no work of art in the text (37-8), but how he chooses instead to fill the gaps in the
text’s “meaning” is far more deeply flawed, imposing even less justified interpretive conclusions on a
text which seems barely to invite, let alone to validate, them. His statements about the text include the
following (41-3):
A good man (that is, a noble ideal) is destroyed; nothing worthwhile takes his place
The ascetic man is the man with higher tastes; here is his strength and the cause of
his unpopularity with the low-tasters
[E]xhibitions are an essential part of the faster’s performance; how else can he
demonstrate the beauty of his way of life?
He does not exhibit for these corrupt souls, but for the pure children, who may one
day restore fasting to its former glory
[The hunger artist is] a man who is all spirit and no flesh and surely we can all
admire such a man as a seven days’ wonder
The inappropriateness of imposing this set of value-laden interpretations on Kafka’s text is breathtaking.
Nobility and idealism, strength and high-low imagery, corruption and purity, beauty, glory, and a seven
days’ wonder as prompt to admiration – nowhere are any of these themes present in the text. (What
there is amounts to a possible intertextual connection with Wilhelm Raabe’s Der Hungerpastor, and a
few biblical references like the forty-day fast.) . The linguistic and narrative levels are precisely what
encourage thematic interpretations, but a critical response to a text’s prompts to interpret should, I think,
analyse how they work rather than respond unreflectively to one or other of them that is, assess the
text’s multiple invitations to substantive interpretation rather than eagerly accepting one of them as if it
were the only one, or indeed pretty much inventing an invitation that appeals for other reasons. Given
that all reading involves active meaning-making, there’s naturally a continuum between these readerly
strategies (see Caracciolo, this issue), and the point at which we decide that an elucidation has become
an interpretation or an interpretation has strayed too far from what the text justifies can be hard to pin
down, but at some point we may get the uneasy sense that the text has become overly incidental to its
interpretation. This is certainly the case with Steinhauer’s reading, as with so many critical responses
to this story. Readers’ individual histories, attitudes, predispositions, and interests inevitably shape how
they engage with a textually evoked experience, and exploring those variations in engagement must be
part of a first-person and second-generation criticism. However, that target experience does exist as
linguistically evoked in the text: it isn’t infinitely malleable. That this fact seems to be ignored is what
makes readings like Steinhauer’s, despite their aesthetic and psychological interest, deeply problematic.
Inventing invitations to interpret or responding to them uncritically is, furthermore, in most cases an
essentially dualist way of reading literature, saying, in effect, that what’s given in the text on the
experiential level is more or less irrelevant to the text’s real import, that the embodied experiences of
the fictional characters can be discounted because of a message that matters more than they do. In
this kind of interpretation, mind not only matters more than matter, but is an excuse for ignoring or
distorting it. In clearer-cut cases of allegory, parable, and fable, where a one-to-one correspondence
between the fictional events/characters and a meta-level is more obviously being aimed at, this approach
is more justified, but with more complex texts it over-simplifies and distorts. Note that I’m not at all
trying to argue that interpretation should be avoided; this would be dualist too, implying that the
narrative world can’t yield thematic meaning. In literary studies in general, though, and Kafka studies
in particular, the prevailing tendency is for interpretive leaps to be inadequately grounded in textual
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(linguistic and narrative) specifics, so my aim is to redress the balance a little. While in cognitive science
dualism has long been something of a dirty word, it’s alive and well in literary studies. Yet by evoking
the animal-like nature of the faster (“[er begann] wie ein Tier an dem Gitter zu rütteln”, [he began] to
rattle the bars like an animal, 341), his emaciation (“der Leib war ausgehöhlt”, his body was hollowed
out, 340), his physical weakness (he sat in an ohnmachtähnliche[r] Halbschlaf”, a half-sleep, like
fainting, 340), his nausea (339, see p. 7 below) and depression (constantly in trüber Laune”, in a
cheerless mood, 341), and all the other manifestations of the continual and omnipresent interrelations
of mind and body, even while omitting the goriest details of the terminal stages, the text contradicts the
dualist elevation of mind over body, and specifically the association of not eating with purity, strength,
goodness, and all the rest.
The text clearly conveys the fact that the body can’t be starved without the brain being starved too, and
that the mind is nothing but the interaction of brain, body, and environment, so that transcendence by
this route, even if it were being sought, could never be forthcoming. However, this doesn’t stop
Ellmann, too, from extracting a neatly dualist message from the story: “The moral seems to be that it is
not by food that we survive but by the gaze of others; and it is impossible to live by hunger unless we
can be seen or represent doing so […]. Even though the anorectic body seems to represent a radical
negation of the other, it still depends on the other as spectator in order to be read as representative of
anything at all” (17). Ellmann’s emphasis on representing and reading makes the main point of the text
(linguistic) representation, which will always appeal to the literary critic. There’s an interesting point
lurking in here about the importance of intersubjectivity one which would build on the textual details
rather than belying them but as it stands, this can’t be seen as an adequate summing-up of the text,
which makes it perfectly clear that food is what we live by, and which of course doesn’t mention hunger
at all. Interpretations like this are unfaithful to both the embodied experience evoked in the text and the
embodied experiences that happen in the real world outside the text. Although we might demand more
from a critical reading than fidelity to the narrative/experiential level of the text, we should demand it
as a basic minimum, remembering that most non-professional readers probably read books for
experiences, not for meanings, and that even if an elucidation of a text like ‘it is by food that we survive’
seems trivial, this triviality is in fact the basis of readers’ responses to a cognitively realistic set of
contingencies in the fictional world. We can derive non-trivial interpretations about human nature
according to Kafka from this statement if we want to, but we must derive them from it and not from
more appealingly abstracted alternatives. We must also try to resist the appeal of interpretations which,
like Ellmann’s posited relationship with “the other”, can be left uninterrogated because they have the
hermetically elegant ring of paradox about them.
4. Hunger, artistry, and paradox
One of the most persistent features of professional and non-professional readers’ reception of Kafka is
the perception of his texts as paradoxical, whether in form, content, or effect. Indeed, an early edition
of a selection of Kafka’s writings was introduced with a remark on paradox as the essence of Kafka:
“This collection of brief parables and arresting paradoxes extracted from novel and story, notebook
and letter is almost an epitome of Kafka” (jacket blurb). Ordinary readers describe the experience of
reading Kafka as full of contradictory dualities and define the term “Kafkaesque” in terms of paradox
(Troscianko, Kafka’s Cognitive Realism 33-36), and in the critical literature Heinz Politzer’s Parable
and Paradox, for instance, suggests that Kafka’s writing is defined by the interaction between these two
elements, the “paradox” of human existence being the “message” of his parables”, while Gerhard
Neumann describes Kafka’s works in terms of “gleitendes Paradox” (sliding paradox) and Jörgen Kobs
characterises their structure as aparadoxer Zirkel” (paradoxical circle, 14). The difference between
the two groups is that while the ordinary readers usually talk about paradoxical effects as part of
experiences of reading Kafka’s texts, prompted by the textually evoked experiences (“within all that
fear and tension, you have to chuckle a little bit, actually”, Kafka’s Cognitive Realism 161), the literary
critics often take the paradoxes way beyond what Kafka’s texts justify, and even beyond the reach of
the experiential: Anthony Thorlby, for instance, remarks that Kafka “gained an absolutely clear
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understanding of the fact that [the nature of language] is ultimately unintelligible. This paradox, like
the paradoxes and parables of which Kafka himself was so fond, only makes sense in metaphysical
terms” (133). Critics seems to want paradoxes of meaning, whether or not they’re adequately grounded
in the texts, while other readers are often happy with paradoxical experiences that may or may not lead
to fuller interpretations. Here I want to show how a first-person and second-generation approach allows
us to reconceptualise the dualist paradoxes as existing within the textual evocation of embodied
experience, and how this doesn’t deny or collapse the paradoxes, but renaturalises them.
The hunger artist’s state is defined by many of anorexia’s paradoxes (Lask and Frampton): he feels
nausea at the thought of eating though he’s starving to death, he combines apparent invincibility with
obvious weakness and exhaustion, he finds the sights and sounds of other people (and other animals)
eating at once fascinating and nauseating, and other people are the whole point of his spectacle of fasting
(he fasts for other people and finds it easier when people are watching him) but also not the point at all
(he cares far more about his fasting records than anyone else does, and although his self-denial is
initially praised, others soon lose interest in his “achievements”). These paradoxes don’t require
anything mysterious to explain them: like all the other symptoms of anorexia, they derive directly and
comprehensibly from the physiology of starvation. But explaining them in this way doesn’t lessen their
paradoxical force; if anything, it heightens it, but relocates it within the natural realm. Paradox is too
often in literary studies used as a way of avoiding explaining things properly, but if we reconceive of
paradox as that which is counterintuitive but fully explicable, we can do more justice to literary texts
and the real-world experiences they evoke and induce.
Many of the insights yielded by second-generation cognitive science (broadly conceived) are
paradoxical in the sense of being counterintuitive to folk psychology, and this is true not least in the
realm of eating disorders. In folk psychology, anorexia is a mysterious result of psychological or
physiological trauma or oddity, but profound changes in character and mental health can occur through
the mediation of feedback loops which rapidly establish themselves between the physiological and the
psychological. These are well understood in the cognitive-behavioural literature, which I see as
fundamentally “second-generation” in its exploration of the inherent interconnectedness of the
physiological and the psychological.
(Fairburn 21, with permission)
The cycle can start at any point with the over-evaluation, the dietary restriction, or the low weight
and once it’s begun it becomes self-sustaining as depicted here. The hunger artist is preoccupied with
hypothetical eating and yet feels nausea at the very idea: “[er] sollte sich nun hoch und lang aufrichten
und zu dem Essen gehn, das ihm schon allein in der Vorstellung Übelkeiten verursachte” (now [he] was
supposed to stand up straight and tall and go and eat which made him feel nauseous just to think of it,
E.T. Troscianko, First-person and second-generation perspectives on starvation
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339). These preoccupations and sensations are just what someone severely underweight for any reason
may often feel at the thought of eating me aged sixteen, for example: “Tom [my father] just came up
and said (it’s only quarter to six) that we’re about to have dinner – more of that beetroot soup. The very
idea makes me go hot and shaky and sick. But I have to try to eat it… I can’t work. I’m just sitting here
shaking. My stomach feels like quivering jelly. Just don’t think about eating, then maybe you’ll be able
to do it all right” (27.11.1998). Physiologically, nausea at the thought of eating, and nausea or
heightened feelings of fullness during the act of eating is easily explained in severe malnutrition the
slowed metabolism, contracted stomach, and hormonal imbalance caused by malnutrition make eating
difficult even as the body’s need for food make thoughts about it more constant and more obsessively
repetitive but this doesn’t diminish the paradox in an experiential sense. Identifying these cognitive
realities as the location of the paradox allows us to see more clearly the source of some of the text’s
unsettlingly counterintuitive force. Readers of the text are likely to feel the unsettled response even if
they don’t identify the cognitive realism from which it derives though they may do so, or may at least
realise that there’s a discrepancy between what the text gives and what they expect.
The evocation of such paradoxical cognitive (psychophysiological) states is thus, from a second-
generation cognitive perspective, perfectly comprehensible, and this holds true for a paradox that has
often been seen as unifying or even explaining the whole text. Medeiros concludes that the story “hinges
on a paradox and the resulting aporia”, namely “the confession made by the Hunger Artist, just before
he expires, that he never ate ‘because [he] could not find the food that [he] liked’” (20). Medeiros sees
this as paradoxical because it contradicts any claim to artistic talent and questions the whole foundation
for the hunger artist’s existence, but he then resolves the paradox by saying that in fact it’s all part of
the same total denial of consumption” and therefore a final affirmation, in negative terms, of the
Hunger Artist’s project all along” (ibid.). Because Medeiros associates this “project” with the proof of
superiority through control of appetite, this supposed resolution of the paradox depends on invoking
things that aren’t actually in the text. The “confession” can be read more accurately as a counterintuitive
paradox of embodied cognition: an illustration of the fact that when voluntarily starving oneself (as
when starved against one’s will), eating is actually what matters most. The hunger artist declares that
he could do nothing but fast, “weil ich nicht die Speise finden konnte, die mir schmeckt. Hätte ich sie
gefunden, glaube mir, ich hätte kein Aufsehen gemacht und mich vollgegessen wie du und alle” (I
couldn’t find a food which tasted good to me. If had found that, believe me, I would not have made a
spectacle of myself and would have eaten to my heart’s content, like you and everyone else, 349). This
has usually been taken at face value as the hunger artist’s existential insight into his own condition as
fundamentally distinct from the rest of humanity, and thus as the key to the text’s thematic meaning
(hunger artist as superior artist figure, etc.), but what I said earlier about the reality of anorexia as
involving less absence of hunger than denial of hunger may prompt us to read this statement as, in
effect, a paraphrase of the constant anorexic mantra “I’m not hungry”. In particular, anorexia is typically
characterised by the refusal to “waste” eating on food or a context for eating that’s less than perfect: the
sufferer structures his or her whole life around the creation of a “guiltless ecstasy of perfectly
orchestrated food”, and can be “reduced rapidly to cursing rage or tears if anything at all should interrupt
this sequence of events, this ascending arc to brief happiness” (Troscianko, “Dying by Inches”; see also
Keys et al. 832-33). In the context of a state in which it’s far better not to eat than to eat imperfectly,
the hunger artist’s statement could be interpreted as a completely typical anorexic statement like “why
would I eat if it doesn’t taste amazing?” We can then reconfigure the paradox: eating is the whole point
of starving oneself. From a second-generation perspective, this is explicable in that starvation reduces
cognitive flexibility, as preoccupation with food and related (and unrelated) repetitive or obsessive
behaviours take over (Keys et al. 833-37; see also Russell et al.), such that sources of pleasure other
than food and ways of eating which depart from a narrow and rigid set of criteria become difficult to
conceive of. The cognitive realism of Kafka’s text in this regard is likely to be compelling, because it
taps into how things actually work in embodied human minds, but also counterintuitive, because folk
psychology is so often so fundamentally dualist, and that may be part of what makes these lines so
lastingly tantalising. The paradox isn’t devalued, but is made cognitively meaningful in the context of
both the experience evoked in the text and the experiences of the reader in response to the text and in
the real world.
E.T. Troscianko, First-person and second-generation perspectives on starvation
9
5. Why all this matters
It matters that we read and interpret literary texts as precisely and as revealingly as we can, and an
interpretation which starts with explication and elucidation and builds on them carefully will be more
precise and more revealing than one which forgets the first steps because it’s intent on a fixed meaning
hidden behind the text. It matters even more, however, that as academics we think, write, and teach in
an ethically responsible way. If anyone whether student, career academic, or other interested party
ever reads what we write or listens to what we say, then what we say and write has consequences, and
these should be taken seriously. Students and scholars of literature, just like everyone else, are
susceptible to the social pressures which especially in industrialised societies make it easier for eating
disorders to take hold and more difficult to escape from. Anderson begins his article on “Anorexia and
Modernism” with an anecdote about a formerly anorexic student who shied away from writing about
food in Camus’ L’Etranger because of a “desire to address a safe or ‘clean’ topic, to avoid getting her
hands dirty with a topic which, although the student was no longer anorexic, implicated her own
subjective history (her own ‘body’) in the writing process” (28). He reports that the rest of the class, all
of whom either had personal experience of an eating disorder or knew someone who suffered from one,
were also uncomfortable with the theme of food, and while this kind of discomfort can’t be eliminated,
it could be greatly reduced by making literary criticism into a discipline that, as a general rule, does
engage with these things, because they matter as much as does the symbolism of light, the “clean”
fallback topic of Anderson’s student.
The first-person issue comes in here in combination with the second-generation one. Anderson’s student
avoided drawing personally inflected conclusions from her textual observations: “Personal, unproved
assertions about the text would have exposed her to potential criticism, whereas a mere description of
Camus’s words would keep her out of danger, invisible” (28). These anxieties contain an interesting
pair of interlinked assumptions: firstly, that implicating one’s own history equals making unproved
assertions, and secondly that keeping oneself invisible keeps one out of danger. I’ve tried in this article
to argue that unproved and indeed unprovable assertions about texts are less likely when we take an
approach informed by second-generation cognitive-scientific insights about mind and body, including
insights that incorporate an experiential, and a personally experiential, element. These observations are
of a more reliable subjectivity than singular interpretations which are inherently subjective but don’t
acknowledge or work with that subjectivity. And secondly, of course, being invisible in illness is the
opposite of being out of danger, and in anorexia particularly, the desire for invisibility is often fatal. It’s
our responsibility, when we write about texts that deal with eating disorders, or depression, or
alcoholism, or all sorts of less conspicuous forms of mental and physical disorder or idiosyncrasy, to
teach and write carefully, questioning our mind-over-matter fallback positions and ensuring we don’t
keep making invisibility seem the best option for those suffering from or susceptible to any of the many
disorders of embodied cognition which is all of us.
So when we talk about texts, and especially texts that include as distinctively “pathological” a
dimension as “Ein Hungerkünstler” does, second-generation and first-person perspectives can, I think,
have ethical as well as interpretive benefits. If we base our interpretations on sensitive engagement with
the experiences of, in this case, the embodied starvation which the text evokes with a revealing cognitive
realism, we are more likely both to think and talk more responsibly about eating disorders and to
interpret this and other texts that deal with eating disorders more perceptively. The cognitive realism
which may impart to readers, professional and otherwise, a deepened, counterintuitive understanding
of the phenomenology of starvation can also yield a heightened ethical awareness of non-dualist
starvation in the real world.
In general terms, then, the approach to literary study which I’m advocating here has three main
constituents. Firstly, it involves the decision to acknowledge and explore, in a textually sensitive
manner, the connections between the minds of readers and fictional characters, with an alertness to how
the fictional minds might affect readers’ responses. Secondly, it requires a “second-generation”
E.T. Troscianko, First-person and second-generation perspectives on starvation
10
understanding of those minds, real and fictional, as embodied (and embedded and enactive), with its
significant consequences for how we understand experiential and interpretive responses in and outside
the text. And thirdly, it demands a willingness to engage, where appropriate, with first-person testimony
that offers an individual angle on generalisations about cognition, and brings the outside world
forcefully into literary analysis. All three may go some way towards breaking dualism’s stranglehold
and, more importantly, towards making literary studies acknowledge and act on the fact that even textual
criticism can have real effects on real readers.
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Bio
Emily T. Troscianko is a Junior Research Fellow in Modern Languages (French and German) at St
John’s College, Oxford, and is interested in what makes literary texts seem realistic. Her doctorate and
first monograph (Kafka’s Cognitive Realism, Routledge 2014) explore Kafka’s works in terms of their
“cognitive realism” in the realms of enactive perception and emotion. Her research applies cognitive-
scientific findings and theories directly to the analysis of textual features and readers’ potential
interactions with them, and has recently also explored the roles of memory in Flaubert and Proust. The
current article represents the start of a new medical-humanities project combining literary analysis with
scientific insights and first-person testimony, and insisting on the importance of an embodied and non-
dualist understanding of mental illness (specifically eating disorders) in literature and the real world.
Emily is also gradually working out good ways of doing experiments on and with literature and real
readers.
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