On my second day in Prague this year, I found Marina Warner’s collection of short stories, The Mermaids in the Basement, among some English-language books in an antikvariat. When this book was published in 1993, Warner was working on From the Beast to the Blonde, her feminist study of fairy tales, which I read in Prague exactly 20 years ago. The short story collection had a strong connection to my reading past, so I bought it.
Each of Warner’s stories features well-defined characters. Some of these characters are based on figures from myths and fairy tales, in which case the stories themselves often have imaginative and fantastic elements. Other characters are inspired by accounts in newspapers and by historical studies, and the stories in which they appear tend to be more realistic, though by no means conventional. “The Food of Angels” is one such story. Warner says in her acknowledgements that the story was inspired by one of the young women portrayed in Joan Jacobs Brumberg’s study, Fasting Girls. Set in East Anglia in the 1830s, this story is told from a number of points of view, but it focuses on Lucy Persis, a young woman who, because she refuses to eat, is regarded by some of the people around her as a kind of saint – ascetic and deeply spiritual.
At the beginning of “The Food of Angels” Lucy is fascinated by Meg, an unattractive and mentally challenged young woman who has just given birth to a baby boy, though no one knows who the father is. Lucy doesn’t believe her mother when she says “she was simple, that’s why she got a baby,” but instead she thinks the pregnancy occurred because Meg ate potatoes which “make you heavy and fat.” She also watches as Meg is tricked into eating a caterpillar, and soon afterward Lucy begins to refuse her meals and/or, as her sister notes, brings up her food “like kitty when she has hairballs.” Lucy’s father, who reads about a holy woman named Dame Julian who didn’t need “the worthless rubbish of this world to keep alive she just burned with the love of God,” becomes convinced that his daughter Lucy has been chosen and that her refusal to eat “is a sign of God’s special providence.”
At her father’s encouragement Lucy prays to be protected from sin and fornication, after which her father says “I think sometimes that she might be an angel come amongst us to save us from the corruption that enmires us…” Lucy’s mother, when she tries to coax her daughter to eat barley broth and bread, is told by her husband to let the girl be. The local doctor says it’s a miracle that Lucy can live on air, and encouraged by the rector, Lucy’s father allows people to come to visit her as though she were a saint (though these visitors are seen by Lucy’s mother, who must provide them with refreshments, as “gawkers and gawpers”).
We also see Lucy’s story from the points of view of a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons, Mr. Longworth, and a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, Dr. Medlincott. These men are interested in the question of what gives life to the body, whether it might be the soul or some other animating principle, and they make Lucy into the subject of an experiment. Dr. Medlincott, who has seen other Fasting Girls, tries to determine once and for all how a human being can seemingly live on air. He puts a 24-hour watch on Lucy and allows “no one else beside the nurses accredited and approved by men of science” to enter. This, he says, will see the girl’s appetite return and allow him to “refute foolish notions about the vitality of the soul independent of the body.” In turn, Lucy’s father and the rector are horrified that medical men question the primacy of the soul. Lucy’s body becomes the battleground on which these men fight over their respective belief systems. And though Lucy’s mother is more in touch with her daughter’s bodily needs and has greater understanding, the self-serving motives of all these adults lead to devastating consequences for Lucy.
Warner tells the story from many perspectives, but “The Food of Angels” is ultimately about Lucy, a girl whose anxieties about her fertility, combined with her desire to be good and respected, lead her to try to free herself from the heaviness she fears that food will bring her and to seek the light/ness of starvation. Warner brings her feminist perspective to bear on the cruelties science and religion can inflict when not humanely practiced and the ways that women are penalized for their reproductive and sexual natures.
After I finished “The Food of Angels” I decided to reread Kafka’s “The Hunger Artist” so I could compare and contrast the two stories. I couldn’t find a used English-language volume of Kafka stories in any antikvariat, so I bought Metamorphosis and Other Stories, which was brought out by Penguin Books in 2007. This is a collection of the writings that were published by Kafka during his short lifetime, and they have all been re-translated by Michael Hoffman. During the first trip Greg and I made to Prague in 1993, we had a tattered copy of the Schocken edition of Kafka’s collected stories with us. As I looked my new Kafka book, I remembered lying in my narrow bed in a small pension in Holešovice, disoriented by jet lag, and reading “The Hunger Artist” for the first time, impressed by Kafka’s intensity.
At the start of the story we are told that, though interest in the art of self-starvation has declined, it was once profitable to be a hunger artist. In those days there were season-ticket holders, the whole town used to get involved with the hunger artist’s performance, and “everyone wanted to see the hunger-artist at least once a day.” The artist also had warders selected by his public – referred to as invigilators – who watched him day and night “to check that he wasn’t secretly taking any sustenance.” This was purely a formality, however, because devotees knew that “no hunger-artist would have eaten the least thing under any circumstances, not even under duress, the honor-code of his art forbade it.”
Of course there were always doubters, and suspicion was “inseparable from the act of starving.” No one could actually know for sure what the hunger artist ate and “only he therefore could be the spectator completely satisfied by his own hunger.” Though the artist stubbornly clung to his feats of starvation, and he never left his cage of his own free will, his fasts were limited by his manager to forty days (a span of time with Biblical resonance). When he didn’t want to leave his cage at the end of a performance, the manager would raise his arms over the artist “as if calling on the heavens to see what it had accomplished on this straw, this pitiable martyr, which the hunger-artist truly was, only in a quite different sense…” and then would carry him out and hand him over to his audience. And after he had eaten his post-starvation meal, the only one who remained dissatisfied was the artist himself.
But then, as noted at the beginning of the story, there was a shift in tastes and “as if by tacit arrangement a positive aversion against hungering had formed.” The artist is out of fashion, he grows old, he parts ways with his manager and is taken on by a circus. His life grows bleaker as interest in his art continues to decline. And when he is asked by a circus overseer why he has spent his life like this, the artist says, “I have to starve, I can’t do anything else,” and goes on to say that this was because “I couldn’t find any food I liked. If I had found any, believe me, I wouldn’t have made any fuss, and I would have eaten to my heart’s content, just like you or anyone else.” By this point, impressed by the obsessive nature of his performance and his unwillingness to give up his art regardless of its waning popularity, we are not inclined to believe him.
Because “The Hunger Artist” is not a realistic story – nor is it based on a historical incident – and because it is a story by Franz Kafka, the depiction of the artist and his artistry point meaningfully in many directions without ever actually arriving at one. The hunger-artist reminds us of the starving artist and the artist’s life, which is fraught with difficulty and always under the gaze of his fickle public and his irascible critics; the nature of his art, which is self-starvation, reminds of the duality between mind and body, the spiritual and the physical; his art also reminds us of the way humans constantly try to think of themselves as something other than the animals they are; the artist is a martyr to a cause, the cause of art or of himself; the story is about satiety and the lack thereof, how hard it is to satisfy fully our bodily appetites; and of course there is a biographical element because Kafka himself was thought by some to be anorexic and certainly was what we would call a picky eater, though this explanation like all purely biographical explanations isn’t really satisfying.
Lucy’s plight in “The Food of Angels” is of course is a more straightforward one and is based on fact, but both stories address the nature of what holds body and soul together and allows us to live. One story asks if sustenance is necessary if God chooses to shine through you; the other asks if sustenance is necessary if you are a great artist. But neither denies that we all have mortal animal bodies which require food like the bodies of all animals do in order to survive. If you believe that you are not your body, you may think you can treat your body as though it were subordinate to spirit/soul and all will be well. But for both Lucy and the artist, the spirit and the body turn out to be one, just as surely as they do for Meg whose mind doesn’t shine so brightly and for the hunger artist’s replacement, the panther, “…whose love of life came so powerfully out of its throat.”
When I had finished reading “A Hunger Artist” and because I was already thinking about Prague reading experiences of twenty years ago, I went back and re-read an essay I wrote in 1997 called “Letter to a Rabbit Now Underground,” in which I talked about Kafka’s story “The Burrow” and how it related to issues of the body. That essay is still online at The Café Irreal.