21 February 2013

Walking around naked

A writer is always telling the truth, whether people are reading or not. A writer writes because a writer has to write, because the truth is trapped inside and like a caged, agitated lioness trying to get to her cub, it rages to escape. There is no such thing as fiction: just different ways of telling the truth.

An exhibitionist walks around their house naked, without drawing the curtains. By and large, it's not a problem, because the exhibitionist lives in a quiet town and if people complain about his exhibitionism, the exhibitionist can encourage them to look away, take another street home. After all, the exhibitionist enjoys being naked and some people enjoy looking.

And then, suddenly, some time in the future, there is a housing development put in across the road and huge supermarket. Before the development was put in, only a couple of people walked past the exhibitionist's house every day. Now, there are hundreds of people, groups of them stopping to take a look, some lingering for a while. A local drawing teacher tells her students to check out the exhibitionist; he would be a good model. Making coffee, he is suddenly aware of people sketching him: before it had been rare to get two or more people to even glance.

When the exhibitionist goes to the supermarket, people greet him: Hey, aren't you the exhibitionist across the street who walks around naked all the time? I've seen you before! The exhibitionist feels awkward. Of course, he had always told everyone he didn't care who looked at him, that he was naked on purpose, to make a point about the human body and authenticity: We're all naked under our clothes, he remembers piously telling a friend who challenged him. But suddenly this same exhibitionist has second thoughts, standing in the supermarket, wondering if everyone is imagining him naked. The crowd grows larger outside the house and he is faced with a choice. Does the exhibitionist now draw the curtains?

I teach The Hunger Artist in my class on Stylistics, particularly lexical chains and cohesion using a paragraph from the first part of the story. Really though, I teach it because I love the protagonist and identify with his self-inflicted suffering. In college, I once went to see Tim O'Brien read at the Chicago Public Library. He was signing books after the event, his newest novel at the time July, July. I had hoped to have him sign my tattered, well-read copy of The Things They Carried, but you had to buy the new novel at the event and that was the only thing he was signing. In the long queue, waiting for him to sign our newly purchased books, a lady gave us yellow post-it notes to write our names on, so when we gave the book to O'Brien, he would be able to sign it quickly and spell the name correctly. I suddenly had the urge to write 'The Hunger Artist' and jotted it down without thinking. Yes, this is how I wanted O'Brien to address me.

I stood nervously the whole time, having second thoughts and waiting for my two seconds with him: what would he say? And then it was my turn, my moment with the master: he didn't look up, the book pushed in front of him: The hunger artist? Uh, yeah, I said. He signed it and I was replaced by the next person.

In Kafka's world, the hunger artist both fasts publicly as spectacle and fasts as an art only for himself, something he would do regardless of whether or not other people watched. People do watch and the hunger artist performs, and the part I teach, the part I like best in the story, is when the hunger artist is misunderstood and rages like an animal at the crowd, but then falls back into himself after the Impresario shames him. I read this paragraph out loud to my students on Tuesday, first telling them about my mother and then favourite professor and mentor in college reading out loud to me. I said that I hope they remembered fondly, in ten years time, me reading to them.  

Kafka exploits the comparison of the hunger artist to an animal--the semantic field of the zoo--but the more subtle analogy, of fasting as spectacle to artist performing, is a deep truth about being watched while doing your art. Except, unlike the zoo, you choose to enter the cage and encourage others to watch, regardless of what you say otherwise. The chance to be understood, or misunderstood, or ignored--the hunger artist is driven mad by it. It's a metaphor if ever there was a metaphor. The lights of the circus fading away, the Impresario gone for the night and the hunger artist, alone in the cage: fasting.

Melodramatic, sure, but the melodrama keeps drawing me back in. I said that it's hard to stop when you're telling yourself a good story. The story keeps getting better and more interesting. It would be silly to draw the curtains, no?