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A Look at Depression as Illustrated in Franz Kafka’s Book, A Hunger Artist

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Franz Kafka’s pieces are wrought with allegorical nonsense upon the first glance. However, when one analyzes the extensive symbolism within the short stories, it is clear that they are oftentimes a response to his own life, as well as the current events of the early 20th century. I propose that A Hunger Artist was an indirect response to the early explanation of depression, presented by German psychiatrist Kurt Schneider in 1920. Kafka recognized the flawed thinking in Schneider’s theory and instead created a literary allegory, intentionally writing in the manner to attempt to enact a psychological state of being, in an effort to propose his own theory on the subject. Furthermore, this story was the catalyst for the cognitive psychological views concerning clinical depression that began in the 1950s. These views, which ultimately originated from Kafka’s work, were the starting point in defining depression in contemporary psychology.

In 1920, Schneider coined the terms “endogenous depression” and “reactive depression”. These terms considered mood independent of outside stimuli. Therefore, he believed that depression is caused by a sensitivity of mood, not a person’s reactions to external events. Two years later, Kafka’s A Hunger Artist was published. I hypothesize that in this two year time period, Kafka heard of Schneider’s work, which was published in Kafka’s native tongue, and decided to express his oppositional opinion on the subject of clinical depression.

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In the 1950s, cognitive psychologists began to present their theories concerning the cause of depression. Albert Ellis argued that depression originates with irrational thought processes. This system of irrational thought then leads to “inappropriate self-blame, self-pity, or other-pity in times of adversity” (Ellis, 1962). This irrational thought processes are clearly exemplified in Kafka’s story, which may provide evidence for the theory that Ellis’ ideas stemmed from A Hunger Artist. The following symbolism presented in this story illustrate and explain various aspects of the cognitive psychological view of depression.

The cage represents the mind. A sufferer of depression battles on a daily basis with negative, harmful thoughts. These thoughts, which often seem to oppress or imprison the individual, are nearly impossible to escape. As hard as one tries to look on the bright side or experience positivity, those thoughts are there to lock one into the cage once again. However, one must note that in the story, the hunger artist willingly locked himself in the cage. He could have easily ended his career, never to be detained again, but he chose not to. This symbolizes the lack of control an individual with depression experiences. Those who have not actually experienced depression firsthand sometimes ignorantly state, “Why don’t you just choose to be happy?” It is difficult for these people to understand that when you have depression, it seems as if the cage is your only choice. You are a prisoner to your thoughts—they control you, and there is no escape. This clearly exemplifies the cognitive psychological form of self-pity a person with depression experiences.

The clock, which counts the number of days the artist has gone without food, symbolizes a further lack of control over one’s life. Many people who experience depression yearn to achieve happiness—just as knowing the number of days would have made the hunger artist happy. But to his dismay, the employees eventually lost interest in him and began to neglect updating the clock on a daily basis (276). Although the hunger artist wants to achieve his goal of breaking the record, he is unable to do so because of his lack of control over how often the numbers are updated. This can also represent the apathetic state in which individuals with depression find themselves. The employees eventually lost interest in the hunger artist, and thereby lost the desire to change the numbers on the clock. This is a common occurrence in individuals with depression; as they inevitably lose interest in a particular subject, they descend further and further into an apathetic, vegetative state. This also supports the cognitive psychological theory by portraying the transition from self-pity to apathy in a person with depression.

The panther symbolizes the more exciting successors that will inevitably replace an individual suffering from depression. When plagued with negative, harmful thoughts, a person with depression convinces themselves of their worthlessness. No one appreciates their existence; in fact, many would rather they did not exist at all. In the story, the hunger artist’s death is summarized into one short clause in a sentence (277). In the sentence immediately following, the panther is introduced and hordes of people gather to see this exceptional creature. An individual with depression imagines, when stuck in this cycle of negative thinking, that upon their departure, their presence will be immediately replaced by someone everyone else will fawn over and love more. This exemplifies the self-blame a person with depression experiences—it is their own fault that other’s do not love them or find them interesting. This correlates directly with the cognitive psychological view of depression.

Finally, the food represents the happiness that has yet to be found. The ultimate message of A Hunger Artist is that the protagonist did not starve in order to further his career—he did not eat because he simply could not find a food he enjoys. “If I had found it,” the hunger artist says, referring to food, “believe me, I should have made no fuss and stuffed myself like you or anyone else” (277). An individual with depression, when all is said and done, would likely say that if they could choose between being depressed or happy, they would choose happiness. However, they are unable to accomplish this desire because they simply have not found the aspect of life that makes them happy. Again, this is a direct representation of the self-blame a person with depression experiences, according to the cognitive psychological theory. The hunger artist, on his deathbed, blames himself for his lifetime of starvation and unhappiness.

This yearning to find the aspect of life that provides happiness and meaning is illustrated in Kafka’s personal life as well. Kafka, who very likely suffered from clinical depression himself, grew up in a critical environment, as he constantly lived in the shadow of his oppressing father. This oppression is further demonstrated by the fact that he was a minority within a minority: a Czech speaking Jew. When attending university, he studied law, but still desired to experience what made him happy: literature. He eventually joined Lese-und Redehalle der Deutschen Studenten, a university club that organized literary events such as readings or other activities. Through literature, Kafka felt able to express his emotions—emotions that, as a sufferer of depression, were unique to only him. Because no one would understand the adversity he experienced, writing acted as his sole outlet. Kafka truly understood how depression manifested itself within the individual, and he understood that Schneider’s “endogenous depression” or “reactive depression” theories were flawed. This was the catalyst for A Hunger Artist’s coming into existence.

A Hunger Artist further exemplifies cognitive psychological values when assessing the relationship between the spectacle and the spectator. When a person performs, they often do something that awed the crown because they themselves are not capable of matching their abilities. Likewise, Kafka believes that others are not capable of understanding his thoughts or experiences. As a result, others see him as foreign, an alien, or even animalistic. This irrational thought process is the hallmark of cognitive psychological theories.

Some critics of my theory may argue that A Hunger Artist is simply a religious allegory, as the hunger artist himself exemplifies the Christ archetype. He is traveling and performing miracles, he fasted for 40 days, and he experiences a public display of death. These events can all be likened to Christ’s behavior of ministering to various groups of people, healing the sick, and performing miracles. He also fasted for 40 days and 40 nights, and experienced a public display of death when He was crucified on the cross. This is the clearest allegorical explanation and therefore, they argue, the most correct. Although Kafka’s story can also fit into this allegorical mold, I believe it is more likely that his writings were first and foremost dealing with the educational advancements, and therefore the emerging psychological theories, and current societal events at the time.

If this is true and Kafka indeed wrote concerning current events, then others may argue that A Hunger Artist was instead an allegory of the laborer. During this time, capitalistic values were blossoming. Wealth and power were viewed as superior to leisure. For example, the impresario most clearly represents the avid capitalist—his sole motivation is to profit monetarily from the miracles performed by the hunger artist. In harmony with the commodity fetish, the impresario reduces the hunger artist to a commodity—he is simply something that can provide profit and gain. To this, I argue that as Kafka dealt with an intensifying case of clinical depression at the time, it is more likely that he would direct his attention inward. That is, in the framework of discussing current societal events, he would be more likely to discuss those that concerned his clinical depression as opposed to common economic events.

The reading of A Hunger Artist as an allegory of depression in contemporary times helps readers to understand and empathize with Kafka’s illustration of depression. Especially as advocates are fighting to break down the negative stigma toward depression, literary works concerning this specific mental illness will move into the spotlight. Without exception, everyone experiences a period of unhappiness in their lives. Although they may not be clinically depressed, they can find comfort in reading the works of Kafka, as they no longer feel alone during times of adversity—they feel as though someone else finally understands what they are experiencing. It is this mutual understanding that can propel these individuals toward a state of healing and acceptance.

The reading of A Hunger Artist as an allegory of depression at the time of publication proved extremely important in the wake of upcoming events. With the Great Depression—which commenced only seven years later in 1929—looming, Kafka’s story was not only psychologically relevant, but timely in terms of current economic events. As the Great Depression progressed, these external factors prompted a stark rise in clinical depression. Thus, the need to explain this illness became increasingly important, which is why thinkers referred to A Hunger Artist when developing the backbone of cognitive psychological theories of depression. Kafka was not only a revolutionary literary figure of the 20th century, I argue that he was one of the founding fathers of cognitive clinical depressive theory as well.

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