The Myth of Sisyphus (Vintage International)

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The Hunger Artist: Thoreau and the Irony of Performance Art

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After spending almost a year translating English professor Laura Dassow Walls’s most recent biography, Henry David Thoreau: A Life, I was finally done. I thought I deserved some celebration, something fun, fiction perhaps. So, I took The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction from my bookshelf and flipped to a random page: “A Hunger Artist” by Franz Kafka. At first, I was disappointed at the serendipity. As a teenager, I had read the story twice in Chinese —it revolves around a weird man who starves to death for a performance—but I decided to go with the flow. This time, the story made me tremble. You may think I say this because my mind was still full of Thoreau, but it is true: “A Hunger Artist” is a portrait of Thoreau’s life.

Thoreau is now widely regarded as a nature writer and political activist, but a close look at both his life and works suggests an inherent performative quality. Take Walden and “Civil Disobedience,” two of his most famous pieces. He displayed his rejection of industrialization and materialism by living by the lake for two years, two months and two days; after being confined for one night in a Concord jail, he wrote “Civil Disobedience,” which embodied his resistance to slavery and the Mexican-American War. As Laura Dassow Walls beautifully puts it, Thoreau, known for his endeavors in “the experiment of life,” aspired “to turn life itself, even the simplest acts of life, into a form of art.” However, this performance artist side also makes him controversial.

For example, during his Walden years, the practitioner of avowed self-sufficiency went back home every weekend for dinner, and his mother probably did his laundry. Hypocrite? Yes, that’s what Kathryn Schulz calls him in her famous 2015 New Yorker piece, “Pond Scum.” But I wonder if hypocrisy is avoidable in any public staging: any dramatized gesture might strike others as fake. The problem of performance is also far more complicated than that. With any expressive art form, something is always lost along the way; this results in a disparity between what the performers think of their acts and what the audience takes away from them.

Shortly before his suicide, David Foster Wallace wrote a short critique of Kafka’s humor in “Laughing with Kafka”: “Kafka’s comedy is always also tragedy, and this tragedy always also an immense and reverent joy.” It is Wallace’s style to drop bombs of recondite wisdom without further explanation. But he offers an interesting lens through which to view both the hunger artist and Thoreau: while they offer their lives as tragic, the audience always receives them as comic.

Both Kafka’s hunger artist and Thoreau, in their own ways, have very serious religious motivations. The fictional character is a fasting performer, and the climax of his show “was fixed by his impresario at forty days,” a loud echo of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ’s journey into the desert. In American Nonviolence: A History of an Idea, theology professor Ira Chernus argues, “Thoreau’s religious life, which was for him the sum total of his life, was a quest for direct experience of this spiritual process of ultimate reality.” To Thoreau, God’s “Higher Laws” manifest most strongly in nature, where he first saw the interconnectedness of all reality. For example, in his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, Thoreau was shaken by the image of innocent fishes thrown into the hydraulic machinery of the Billerica Dam. Soon, he saw similar power and injustice rampant in human society: slaves controlled by their owners; Native Americans expelled by Anglo Immigrants; Mexicans threatened by the war of conquest. Thoreau’s various roles—spiritual seeker, writer, abolitionist, naturalist, and environmentalist—aligned with one another in his religious pursuit; he tried to live up to his moral ideals.

However, in a modern world, serious religious practices happen and stay in the church. In the public sphere, a secular audience tends to receive everything—religious performance included—as entertainment. Therefore, the more seriously the performers act, the more entertaining they become. As Kafka writes: “He made no secret of this, yet people did not believe him, at best they set him down as modest, most of them, however, thought he was out for publicity or else was some kind of cheat who found it easy to fast because he had discovered a way of making it easy, and then had the impudence to admit the fact, more or less.” Because nobody fasts anymore, only Kafka’s hunger artist knows that fasting is the easiest thing in the world. But even a simple message like this gets warped by the public’s skepticism.

The last thought in the quote—“some kind of cheat”—is the same accusation Schultz levels against Thoreau’s grand Walden show: he “kept going home for cookies and company.” (Note the secular word choice here.) Yet Thoreau is a bit different than Kafka’s performer. The reason Thoreau had to head back to Concord so often is perhaps more daunting, not more cheerful. As Walls explains in her biography, “Thoreau kept on taking jobs as the town handyman, just as he’d done for years—jobs on which he depended for his modest but still necessary income.” He did carpentry, painted houses, and built fences for a dollar a day. He didn’t live comfortably in his cabin, romanticizing his ascetic life as Schultz implies. Thoreau’s Walden years were as difficult as the rest of his early life. Evidence suggests that he didn’t even have a “loo” in his “lake house.” But in Thoreau’s time, even the poverty he wore as a badge seemed ridiculous to others. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau’s mentor and close friend, tried to reason with Thoreau’s actions from a secular perspective, but he too ended up with contempt: “I cannot help counting it a fault in him that he had no ambition.”

Any human flaws and distress can often strike a humorous note in a secular context. Our laughter has a cruel nature; we take pleasure feeling superior to others. Take physical appearance, for example. Centuries ago, Aristotle had already identified the link between ugliness and comedy in Poetics: “Comedy, as we have said, is a representation of inferior people, not indeed in the full sense of the word bad, but the laughable is a species of the base or ugly. It consists of some blunder or ugliness that does not cause pain or disaster…” Charlie Chaplin was devastatingly handsome, but he knew that he needed a toothbrush mustache, a derby hat, and a duck-like gait to appear comical. In “A Hunger Artist,” Kafka adopted an “anti-hero” to add to the character’s absurdity. He looks “pallid in black tights, with his ribs sticking out so prominently.” He is so odd that the only suitable place for him is in a cage among the straws. Nobel Prize Laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s  “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” is a similar story. The protagonist—the supposed “angel”—is bald, toothless, and has “huge buzzard wings, dirty and half-plucked.” To match his appearance, he is shut in a chicken coop. Similarly, and unfortunately, Thoreau was born ugly. When the soon-to-be famous author Nathaniel Hawthorne came to live in Concord in 1842, he thought the 25-year-old Thoreau “a singular character…ugly as sin, long-nosed, queer-mouthed, and with uncouth and somewhat macabre behavior Although Hawthorne would later claim that Thoreau’s ugliness suited his honest and agreeable character, I find his use of the expression “ugly as sin” very interesting. Today, the phrase has lost much of its religious connotation; at the time, however, Thoreau’s sorry appearance seemed to suggest some hidden, inner flaw. Not only because he lacked the charisma that naturally accompanies beauty, but because his failure to live up to God’s image seemed to contradict his self-portrait of a god-like, moral man.

Through performance, ugliness—among other human flaws—is received by the audience as otherness. (Consider, for example, our reaction to Chaplin’s characters: it is not that they look ugly—well, they do—but that they look odd, and thus hilarious.) Still, we must remember, as Aristotle says, that the strangeness must not “cause pain or disaster,” or else people won’t laugh. Wallace uses the phrase “entertainment as reassurance” to distinguish American humor (think about Tom and Jerry) from Kafka’s humor. Wallace suggests that Kafka’s jokes are unsettling and thus inaccessible to American college students. But I think the balance between eccentricity and comedy is present in Kafka’s stories; it is the audience, not Kafka, searching for “reassurance.”

From the very beginning, eccentricity offends people because it violates social norms. In “What Is to Be Done about the Problem of Creepy Men?,” her discussion about people’s judgment of “creepiness,” law scholar Heidi Matthews reminds us that our “gut” has more to do with “regulating the boundaries of social mores than keeping us safe.” She has a point there, but I would argue that social norms are our primary source of security. So, to cope with the uncanniness of eccentricity in others, we try to explain their behaviors in a way that will solidify the validity of our social rules.

Consider the media coverage of any appalling crime. The first thing journalists do is to seek out explanations for the macabre behavior, which is usually when the family shit comes in. We are satisfied with the fact that the perpetrator was, for example, abused by his father in his childhood. We feel safe because, as long as we prescribe family values to our children, they won’t grow into psychopaths. Wallace, in the same essay on Kafka’s humor, mentions some of the tropes Kafka plays on in “A Hunger Artist.” The word “anorexia” shares the same etymological root with the Greek word for “longing.” Therefore, we can read the protagonist’s strange behavior as “starved for attention or love-starved.” We don’t know whether or not he fasts in order to build connections with people; yet when we believe that he does, we are not troubled by his strange conduct.

Then, to further strengthen our wounded sense of security, we emphasize the otherness of the “other” even more. When someone commits a horrifying crime, the newspapers are eager to interview his classmates, teachers, neighbors, and even those who only had chance encounters with him; they are searching for any possible hints to the nature of his otherness. Therefore, as readers, we feel relieved that we can always detect those signs in a potential criminal and thus avoid danger. Also, because the odd—as the word and its synonyms suggest—are rare, once we lock them up, we will be fine. Once we feel secure, we can devour their eccentricity with pleasure in the same way we relish celebrity gossip.

It is no coincidence that the stories mentioned above—“A Hunger Artist” and “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings”—both apply metaphors of confinement: the cage and chicken coop. We keep distinct boundaries between us and the other; as long as these boundaries are in place, freak shows are amusing. Yet, the most disturbing moment comes when the eccentric claim they are no different than us, that they abide by social norms, and that we should see ourselves in them. Towards the end of Kafka’s story, the hunger artist confesses he is a normal person:
“Are you still fasting?” asked the overseer, “when on earth do you mean to stop?” “Forgive me, everybody,” whispered the hunger artist; only the overseer, who had his ear to the bars, understood him. “Of course,” said the overseer, and tapped his forehead with a finger to let the attendants know what state the man was in, “we forgive you.” “I always wanted you to admire my fasting,” said the hunger artist. “We do admire it,” said the overseer, affably. “But you shouldn’t admire it,” said the hunger artist. “Well then we don’t admire it,” said the overseer, “but why shouldn’t we admire it?” “Because I have to fast, I can’t help it,” said the hunger artist. “What a fellow you are,” said the overseer, “and why can’t you help it?” “Because,” said the hunger artist, lifting his head a little and speaking, with his lips pursed, as if for a kiss, right into the overseer’s ear, so that no syllable might be lost, “because I couldn’t find the food I liked. If I had found it, believe me, I should have made no fuss and stuffed myself like you or anyone else.” These were his last words, but in his dimming eyes remained the firm though no longer proud persuasion that he was still continuing to fast.
This is the moment when we lose our laughter. The artist hints at a possibility that any of us could become him as simple as that. But Kafka is still able to maintain the comedy by showing people’s desperation in clinging to their safety nets. In the story, the way people forget the strange artist is by buttressing his otherness. After his death, a panther is put into the cage to replace him. Unlike the pathetic fasting performer, the animal is full of life and shows no nostalgia about his freedom. The ending achieves two things. First, it erases people’s sad memories by offering something completely different. Second, it reassures people of otherness. For example, if someone should mention the hunger artist again, people can point at the animal cage, suggesting the late performer was not even human.

There is a similar tension between Thoreau’s lifelong performance and his spectators. Many readers, though they admire him, find his self-righteous and didactic tone unbearable. (Consider this quote in the opening chapter of Walden: “Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.”) I tend to view these “teachings” as his confessions; I can even imagine him speaking in the same voice of the hunger artist: I have to live a principled life, I can’t help it…I couldn’t find an existing ethical lifestyle.

Thoreau, like Kafka’s hunger artist, was addicted to confessing. He admitted his hypocrisy. He fussed about human nature. Take his attitude toward eating meat: when he was with friends, he ate whatever was served. But alone in the woods, he interrogated himself about the ethics of eating animals. “I have no doubt that it is a part of the destiny of the human race, in its gradual improvement, to leave off eating animals, as surely as the savage tribes have left off eating each other when they came in contact with the more civilized.” He also groaned about the immoral modern world of which he was a part. After he took to natural science, he questioned its ethics: “The inhumanity of science concerns me as when I am tempted to kill a rare snake that I may ascertain its species—I feel that this is not the means of acquiring true knowledge.” When land surveying finally brought him steady income at the age of 32, he found himself becoming an accomplice in destroying his beloved nature. The forest he had surveyed just a year ago was clear-cut and subdivided into fifty-two house lots by its owner. “Trade curses everything it handles,” Thoreau remarked. His reaction resonated with his antipathy towards commerce back in his Harvard years: materialism, he said in a debate, “enslaves us, turns us into brutes. To be human is to cast off these material desires and walk forth, freely, into paradise.” Ironically, even his most honest gesture to fight against immorality seems suspicious and hence quixotic. “You all know,” he warned his neighbors in his first public speech in Concord, “the lecturer who speaks against money is being paid for his words—and that’s the lesson you remember.”

Thoreau’s words are disturbing to us because they reveal our hypocrisy. We don’t want to be plagued by moral quandaries every minute of our lives. In truth—like the aforementioned fictional characters—Thoreau “lived in a cage” throughout his performance career, as he spent much of his time in isolation. On the one hand, he never joined any political organization. His faith in individualism was consistent with his faith in moral freedom promised by God. Thoreau was cautious to avoid any coercion and believed “shared religious or moral values will enhance community only if they are adopted voluntarily.” On the other hand, the public was eager to paint his heroic singularity into eccentricity. After that work was done, his audience could proudly conclude that Thoreau’s solitude led to his isolation; it was his personal fault, and the spectators were let off the hook. “Poor Thoreau,” Schulz derides him in her New Yorker article. “He, too, was the victim of a kind of shipwreck—for reasons of his own psychology, a castaway from the rest of humanity.” Schulz’s criticism was typical during Thoreau’s lifetime. After Thoreau’s imprisonment, Emerson defended his own adherence to the social norm—paying tax—by scolding his young friend: “Your true quarrel is with the state of Man.” When people laughed at Thoreau’s quirkiness, they successfully simplified and silenced his message. That is why, in her same-titled essay “Civil Disobedience,” Hanna Arendt doubts Thoreau’s politics by quoting scholar Nicholas W. Puner: “Civil disobedience practiced by a single individual is unlikely to have much effect. He will be regarded as an eccentric more interesting to observe than to oppress.”

For Wallace, the central comedy of Kafka’s work is the horrific struggle that Kafka’s characters undergo to establish and confirm their human selves. Wallace’s view reminds me of Albert Camus’s final analysis on Sisyphus in The Myth of Sisyphus: “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” Whereas one can only speculate about the heart of Kafka’s characters or Sisyphus, Thoreau exuded joy and hope. Since the Fugitive Slave Act passed by Congress in 1850, he had been grilling himself with this dreadful query: “I walk toward one of our ponds, but what signifies the beauty of nature when men are base?” But Thoreau never let himself wallow in despair. In a journal entry that would later appear in the ending of “Slavery in Massachusetts,” Thoreau captured a silver lining in nature: “But it chanced the other day that I scented a white water-lily, and a season I had waited for had arrived. It is the emblem of purity.” As Walls argues, rooted in “the slime and muck of earth,” those pure, fragrant flowers symbolize Thoreau’s belief in the “purity and courage” that will be born of “the sloth and vice of man, the decay of humanity.”

Though Thoreau and Kafka’s characters may experience a similarly absurd reality during their lifetimes, their afterlives are as different as night and day. The characters in Kafka’s fiction are often trapped in time. The hunger artist has to repeat the 40-day performance over and over again. Gregor, in The Metamorphosis, is first urged by human time and then tormented by bug-time. In the eponymous short story, Kafka’s Poseidon is burdened with endless paperwork and never gets to see the oceans. (Yes, another tragedy turned comedy!) The only thing that saves them from the labyrinth of time is death—which, then again, leads to nothingness, meaninglessness, and the irredeemable. In contrast, as Walls shows in her biography, Thoreau was able to believe in “the constant slow work of creation” by enlarging the scale of time:
It was easy to see destruction, which is sudden and spectacular: everyone hears the crash of a falling tree. But who hears the growth of a tree, the constant slow work of creation? “Nature is slow but sure.” She wins the race by perseverance; she knows that seeds have many uses, not just to reproduce their kind. “If every acorn of this year’s crop is destroyed, never fear! She has more years to come.” Here was his [Thoreau’s] solution to the baffling waste of the white oak crop: what made no sense on a human scale could be understood by lengthening the measure of time to the scale of the planet. The man who was running out of time now thought as if he had all the time, literally, in the world.
Consequently, Thoreau’s death transcends him into a living soul in his books—pure and bodiless—the state he longed for when he was alive. Over time and space, he himself facilitates creation in the way he favored: he inspires his readers to grow voluntarily, freely, and deliberately. Among them, probably two of the most famous Thoreauvian readers are Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi. Roughly a century after Thoreau’s death, both Gandhi and Dr. King put Thoreau’s philosophy into practice. In India and the United States, officers resigned their posts, jails were filled with conscious objectors, and the “machinery” of the unjust system was “clogged.” Through his seemingly ineffective political struggle, Thoreau was able to elevate those that came after him to a different point in that struggle.

While people today still find themselves stuck in absurd, Kafkaesque situations, we mustn’t deny the slow but sure progress of human civilization: the abolition of slavery, the creation of the national park service, women’s suffrage, the end of segregation—just to name some of the most visible examples in the United States. Indeed, as Thoreau once wrote in a letter to Harry Blake, a Harvard Divinity School graduate, “It is not in vain that man speaks to man. This is the value of literature.” Despite all the voyeurism, blasphemy, and suppression, Thoreau’s life of performance art is truly an immense and reverent joy.

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