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Food, Fasting, and Fanatics: What Kafka’s “Hunger Artist” Teaches Us About Terrorists

“Food is a medium for life, a dynamic of life, and an expression of the whims, joys, terrors, and histories in life. Food, more than anything else, is life.”
–Anonymous, cited by Valerie Terrell.

Let’s begin with the premise that Franz Kafka knew a thing or two about terror. We have evidence of this not only in Kafka’s writing–his most famous story, “The Metamorphosis”, begins with the transformation of Gregor Samsa into “a gigantic insect”–but in his life as well. Philip Rahv comments on Kafka’s “nerve-destroying fears and sense of unworthiness.” Kafka himself, noting that Balzac carried a cane on which was carved the legend, “I smash every obstacle,” observes: “My legend reads: every obstacle smashes me.” (1)

Almost as well-known as “The Metamorphosis” is Kafka’s much shorter story, “A Hunger Artist”. This work was intended as part of a sequence of four stories, and its title is sometimes translated as either “A Fasting Showman” or “A Fasting Artist.” Kafka wrote this narrative in early 1922, when he was already very ill with tuberculosis. Ironically, by 1924, Kafka was “…hardly able to eat anything because of his throat tuberculosis, finally “starving like the fasting artist of the story.” (2). The story begins with an almost comic observation: “During these last decades, the interest in professional fasting has markedly diminished. It used to pay very well to stage such great performances under one’s own management, but today that is quite impossible.” The story goes on to describe a nameless “hunger artist”–a professional faster–who has his very own impresario! But before I offer up the–well, bare bones of Kafka’s story, I want to prefigure the argument I am about to make.

Since the attacks of 9/11, a great deal has been written about fanaticism, terrorism, and religious extremism of all stripes. In an earlier essay in JMB (3), I described the terrorist mind-set in terms of three features: paradoxical narcissism, ressentiment, and schadenfreude. I argued that terrorists such as Osama bin Ladin demonstrate what Eric Hoffer called, “the vanity of the selfless” (4). I further suggested that much of the animus of terrorists stems from a corrosive sense of hatred, envy, and impotent rage: what Nietzsche called ressentiment. Finally, I argued that the atypical behavior of the 9/11 terrorists just prior to the attacks–their eating out at pizza parlors and enjoying sexual favors from an “escort service”–represented a kind of “malicious joy” (schadenfreude). I now want to link these aspects of the terrorist mind to Kafka’s “hunger artist”; and, much more broadly, to suggest that attitudes about food and fasting can teach us a great deal about fanaticism. And what could be more mundane–more “ordinary” and “of this world”–than the way we feel about food?

I am aware that referring to “fanatics” in the context of the 9/11 attacks may signal a kind of ethnocentrism, or even an anti-Islamic prejudice. However, I believe it will become clear that “fanatic”, as I use the term, describes a psychological type, not an embodiment of a specific ethno-religious view. While a detailed clinical discussion of fanaticism is not my intent in this piece, perhaps a suggestive image will convey the psychological type I have in mind. “Fanaticism” might be understood as the marriage of obdurate rigidity and passionate intensity. There are fanatics within virtually every culture and religious affiliation, and certainly within the so-called Christian West. In short, “fanatic” is an equal-opportunity pejorative.

A Cage of His Own Creation

But now, let’s return to our protagonist–the hunger artist. Moving from city to city, the hunger artist locks himself in a cage “…paying no attention to anyone or anything….but merely staring into vacancy with half-shut eyes, now and then taking a sip from a tiny glass of water to moisten his lips.” The longest period of fasting, however, is fixed by the impresario at forty days, since beyond that time, “…the town began to lose interest…” This seemingly arbitrary limit–perhaps Kafka is alluding to Jesus’s forty days in the wilderness [Mark 1:13]?–irks the hunger artist: “Why should he be cheated of the fame he would get for fasting longer?…” The hunger artist wishes to live “…in visible glory, honored by the world…” but finds, instead, that he is “…troubled in spirit, and all the more troubled because no one would take his trouble seriously.” He is particularly vexed by those skeptical observers who suspect that this virtuoso of self-denial is secretly cheating–drawing bits of food from “some private hoard.” Nothing “annoyed the artist more than such watchers; they made him miserable…” And yet, this “suffering martyr” never chooses to leave his cage. When some bystander would suggest that the hunger artist’s melancholy might be caused by his own fasting, “…he reacted with an outburst of fury, and to the general alarm began to shake the bars of his cage like a wild animal.” The impresario “would apologize publicly for the artist’s [wild] behavior, which was only to be excused…because of the irritability caused by fasting; a condition hardly to be understood by well-fed people…” The hunger artist rages against “…a whole world of non-understanding.” He “…was working honestly, but the world was cheating him of his reward.” And yet, on some level, this emaciated wretch is aware that “…perhaps it was dissatisfaction with himself that had worn him down.”

Toward the end of the story, the hunger artist confesses to an overseer that “I always wanted you to admire my fasting…but you shouldn’t admire it.” When the overseer inquires why not, the hunger artist replies, “Because I have to fast, I can’t help it…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.” (italics added).

The Terrorist as Hunger Artist

It doesn’t take a psychiatrist to see, in this “hunger artist”, a pathological brew of sadomasochism and narcissism. Even as he starves himself to skin and bone, the hunger artist bursts with overweening pride. His complaint is not that he must fast, but that his fast is broken before he can achieve the fame he so richly deserves. At the same time, he is filled with resentment: he does not wish to be cheated out of his reward by a “non-understanding” world. Yet when someone points out that the hunger artist’s behavior may itself be the cause of his discontent, he flies into a rage. A nerve has been struck: eventually, the hunger artist admits that his “act” is the result of his own failure in life: “I couldn’t find the food I liked.”

Shortly after the war in Afghanistan began, a member of the Taliban was quoted as saying, “The Americans lead lavish lives and they are afraid of death. We are not afraid of death. The Americans love Pepsi Cola. We love death.” (5). This quote was similar to words attributed to Osama bin Ladin himself, as told to a Pakistani interviewer: “We love death. The U.S. loves life. That is the big difference between us.” (6)

Taking these fanatics at their word, what can this “love of death” mean? And why is this perverse love expressed as the antithesis of loving a sweetened, carbonated beverage? Ostensibly, all this is a reflection of an extreme and distorted view of Islamic theology, in which sacrificing one’s life in the service of fighting the “infidel” is seen as noble and praiseworthy. On this view, the allusion to “Pepsi Cola” is nothing more than a sardonic slap at a big, powerful American corporation that symbolizes Western corruption.

But I believe that Kafka’s character of the hunger artist sheds a different and harsher light on bin Ladin and his ilk: these individuals have become “terror artists” because they have found no other way to satisfy their emotional appetites. They are wedded to death because they have not learned to embrace life. Terrorists and like-minded fanatics are fundamentally people who could not find the food they liked. Consequently, they are driven by ressentiment–what Max Scheler once described it as “a self-poisoning of the mind” (7). From their perspective, the world’s woes are always someone else’s fault: the world does not understand; the Infidels have poisoned the True Faith; the Great Satan compels the “faithful” to carry out extreme acts, etc. Such fanatics wrap themselves in the contrasting rags of self-abasement and grandiosity. They become “suffering martyrs”, yet see themselves as worthy of the world’s–indeed, God’s!–honor. This ideology is the cage such fanatics construct for themselves. But unlike Kafka’s hunger artist, whose “outburst of fury” is confined to shaking the bars of his cage, the terrorist directs his rage directly at others, with deadly effect.

The Perversion of the Appetites

Rabbi Arthur Waskow has written extensively on the importance of food and ritual in the Judaic tradition (8). He notes that “…in Biblical society, offerings of food were intimately connected with healing the psyche.” (Chocolate lovers will have little difficulty understanding this). Conversely, in discussing eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, Waskow observes that, “The desire to eat does not vanish [in these disorders]; it is, rather, forcibly suppressed or brutally distorted.” Indeed, mental health professionals know that the anorectic patient is often obsessively preoccupied with food–its dangers, powers, and meanings–even in the midst of self-induced starvation.

For many of the major religious faiths, periodic fasting or food restriction is an accepted ritual. In general, such periods are carefully circumscribed; for example, limited mainly to Yom Kippur, or the month of Ramadan. In 17th century New England, on the other hand, Puritan society showed a more extreme, almost bipolar, attitude toward food and fasting. As Prof. Martha L. Finch notes in a recent presentation (9), “Throughout the seventeenth century in New England, [there were] days of fasting and thanksgiving, alternating between abstinence from food and other bodily desires, and indulgence in celebratory meals…” These alternating rituals “…were spontaneously called in response to signs of divine displeasure of mercy” and served the purpose of “promoting communal purity and social solidarity.”

I would suggest that the Puritan attitude toward food and fasting represents a kind of middle ground between more conventional religious attitudes and the extreme position of the “hunger artist”. Indeed, the farther along this continuum we proceed, the more distorted attitudes toward food and fasting become. Unlike the regulated fasts of most orthodox religions, the self-starvation of the anorectic* and the hunger artist seem to know no bounds. The anorectic patient may literally starve herself to death; the hunger artist wants to be “…the record hunger artist of all time…[who perceives]…no limits to his capacity for fasting.”

But what has all this to do with terrorists and terrorism? Surely, not all “hunger artists” are terrorists, and few terrorists (so far as I know) starve themselves nearly to death. I want to suggest, however, that within Kafka’s “hunger artist,” there is an element of the terrorist; and that within the terrorist, there is an element of the hunger artist. The common element, I believe, is the need to shore up the shrunken sense of self through the manipulation of others. The hunger artist manipulates the emotions of the crowd via extremes of fasting. The terrorist manipulates the fears of civilized society via extremes of violence. Both the hunger artist and the terrorist must make themselves impervious to conventional norms–“paying no attention to anyone or anything” that might stand in their way. As Hasselberg notes (2), “Eating is a basic form of social behavior through which the order of the civilized world is learnt and preserved.” Hence, those who ostentatiously starve themselves are a clear affront to that civilized order. Similarly, as psychoanalyst Norman Doidge (10) observes, “…the fanatic is a narcissist who resents and dehumanizes anything that pulls him outside of himself”–this, despite the fanatic’s lip-service to “the community of the sacred” or some higher spiritual purpose.

But the pleasures of food and sex have precisely this power to pull us “outside” ourselves–and are therefore threats to the fanatic. When we speak of sexual or gastronomic ecstasy (Gk ekstasis), we are evoking the image of someone “beside himself” or “driven out of his wits.” It is no coincidence that the sexual aspects of food are exploited in our every-day culture. For example, the British “TV chef”, Nigella Lawson, has described her own show as “gastro-porn”, in which food must “arouse appetite” (11). Unlike the mystic, the dyed-in-the wool fanatic is largely immune to states of genuine ecstasy. The fanatic is too self-absorbed, too preoccupied with control to permit anything quite so risky as ecstasy. And the committed terrorist–the sort of fanatic who could pull off the 9/11 attacks–is the consummate “control freak”. We saw this in the meticulous planning of Mohammed Atta and the other hijackers–until, of course, that final night of “letting go.”

Finding the Food We Like

On a cultural level, the paradoxical narcissism of some Arab (and undoubtedly non-Arab) extremists may be understood as part of the “clash of civilizations” described by historian Bernard Lewis. In his 1990 essay in the Atlantic (12), Lewis explained–presciently, it now seems–how extremists in the Arab world are motivated by two sentiments: on the one hand, a “feeling of humiliation”, borne of the pervasive failures of many modern Arab nations; and on the other, the feeling “…of having been overtaken, overborne, and overwhelmed by those whom they regarded as their inferiors” (italics mine). Hence, the paradox of the terrorist: “I am merely a humble servant of God–who happens to be immeasurably superior to the decadent infidels I am obliged to kill!”

And what does all this have to do with food and fasting?

Prof. Fouad Ajami (13) describes the “…generalized hatred that nourishes terrorists, grants them indulgence, [and] sees them as just avengers.” Is it merely coincidental that Ajami uses the word “nourishes”? On the contrary, like the hunger artist, most terrorists have never found the “food” they like. Their own societies–mainly corrupt, authoritarian monarchies–have fed their peoples a hateful and violent form of religion that has been metabolized into terrorism.

And so, finally, we are brought back to the night before the horrific attacks of 9/11. The very terrorists who “…justified their attacks by accusing the West of being a hotbed of sexual licentiousness” (9) hire lap dancers at a strip club in Florida. And some hijackers, according to press reports, brazenly dine out in American pizza parlors!

On one level, this “last supper” may have represented the terrorists’ cunning infiltration of local American culture. But on a psychological level, I believe this behavior had a perverse, ceremonial function for the hijackers. In some primitive cultures, eating the heart of one’s enemy is said to confer upon the victor the courage of the vanquished. But this act may also be understood as the final humiliation of one’s foe. By indulging in the enemy’s food–pizza as the “heart” of American culinary culture!–the terrorists symbolically accomplished two things: they “incorporated”(embodied) the power of American culture; and simultaneously humiliated their mortal enemy. Thus, we can see the flicker of schadenfreude–malicious glee–in the terrorists’ peculiar flirtation with American cuisine.

So–what might poor Franz Kafka have made of all this? I suspect he would have smiled sadly and said, “Finally, the terror artists found the food they liked!”


* Anorexia nervosa and related eating disorders are complex conditions, driven by biological, psychosocial, and cultural factors. I do not want to imply that those who suffer with eating disorders should be compared in any way with terrorists! I merely use anorexia nervosa as a metaphor for an extreme kind of self-involvement and self-denial. That said, there is no doubt that for many family members and therapists, the severe, refractory anorectic may be a “terrifying” (if not terrorizing) figure. For more information on eating disorders, the reader may consult many papers by Katherine A. Halmi, MD.

Works Cited

1. Kafka F. “A Hunger Artist.” In Selected Short Stories of Franz Kafka, translation by Willa and Edwin Muir. Introduction by Philip Rahv. New York, The Modern Library, 1952

2. Hasselberg V. “Kafka’s ‘A Fasting Artist’: An international narrative drama production for the 2nd European drama festival transeuropa ’97 in Hildesheim.”

3. Pies R. “A Simple Way to End Terrorism.” Journal of Mundane Behavior. Vol 2, No. 3, October 2001.

4. Hoffer E. The True Believer. New York, HarperCollins, 1989.

5. Quoted by Polly Toynbee in the Dec. 19. 2001 Guardian


7. Scheler M. Ressentiment. New York, Schocken Books, 1972.

8. Waskow A. Down-to-Earth Judaism. New York, William Morrow, 1995.

9. Finch ML: “Pinched with Hunger, Partaking of Plenty: Fasting and Thanksgiving in Early Puritan New England.” American Academy of Religion, 2000 Annual Meeting.

10. Doidge N. “The Terrorists and their last-night temptresses.” Jewish World Review, Nov. 8, 2001.

11. Nigella Bites., Dec. 18, 2002

12. Lewis B: The Roots of Muslim Rage. Atlantic Monthly, vol. 266, no. 3, pp. 47-60, Sept. 1990.

13. Ajami F: The furies of foreign lands. U.S. News and World Report. Special Report Sept. 14, 2001.

Author: Ronald Pies MD is Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Tufts and Lecturer on Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. He is the author of a collection of short stories (Zimmerman’s Tefillin, PublishAmerica), a book of poetry (Creeping Thyme, Brandylane), and a book on comparative religious ethics (The Ethics of the Sages, Jason Aronson) as well as several psychiatric textbooks.

Published inIssue 5.1Issues
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