Metamorphosis and other.., p.23
Metamorphosis and Other Stories,
Recently, and for the first time, as I admitted to myself, I passed a couple of hints of the matter to a good friend, just in passing, a word or two, I kept the significance of the whole thing, which is small enough to me in appearance, a size or two smaller than it is in reality. Curiously, my friend still did not fail to catch it, but even supplied a little of the missing significance himself, would not be diverted and stayed on the subject. Still more curiously, indeed, he underestimated the thing in one decisive aspect, because he earnestly advised me to go away for a while. No advice could have been more mistaken; things are simple, everyone can see the situation if he takes the trouble to step up to it close enough, but then again not so simple that the whole thing, or even the most important part of it, could be settled by my going. Quite the contrary, I have to be terribly careful not to go away; if I am to follow any plan at all, then surely it should be to keep the thing within its existing narrow bounds that still do not admit the outside world, and thus remain calmly where I am, and not permit any eye-catching major changes to be brought about by this business (part of which of course includes not talking about it with anyone), and all this not because it’s a dangerous secret, but because it is a small, purely personal and hence easily borne matter, and ought to be allowed to remain so. In all this, the remarks of my friend were not without some use, that is, while I didn’t learn anything new from them, they at least strengthened me in my basic orientation.
It appears indeed that on closer reflection the changes to the situation of late have not been changes at all, but merely my developing appreciation of it. In parts, this appreciation is getting calmer and more masculine, it approaches the heart of the matter more nearly, but then again under the impression (difficult to assimilate) of continual shocks, it also acquires, however faintly, a tinge of nervousness.
I get some purchase on the matter when I remind myself that a decision, however imminent it sometimes seems to be, is probably not imminent at all; one may easily be inclined, especially in one’s young years, to overestimate the pace at which decisions come due; once, when my little female judge, grown weak by the sight of me, sank sideways into her chair, gripped hold of the back of it with one hand, and with the other fiddled with her dress fastenings, while tears of rage and despair rolled down her cheeks, I would think the decision was at hand, and I was about to be summoned to account for myself. But then not a word of decision, not a word of responsibility, women are indeed subject to nausea from time to time, the world can’t possibly go into every single case. And what actually happened in all those years? Nothing beyond the fact that such moments recurred, now in more aggravated, now in milder form, and so their sum is now somewhat greater than once before. And that people milling around in the vicinity felt moved to take a hand, if they found an opportunity to do so; but they find no opportunity, they rely tenaciously on their instincts, and instinct on its own is enough to keep its possessor busy, but it’s not good for anything beyond that. That’s really how it always was, there were always those useless standers in corners and noisy exhalers of air who explained their presence by some sophistical recourse, preferably by being related. They always watched and they always had their nostrils full of instinct, but the net result is that they’re still standing there. The only difference is that I have gradually learned to identify them, that I can tell their faces apart; earlier I used to think they were gradually coming together from here and there and everywhere, that the dimensions of the affair were growing, and would in and of themselves compel a decision; today I believe I can say that it was really ever thus, and has very little or nothing to do with any approaching decision. And the decision itself, why do I use such a big word for it? If it should ever come to it — not tomorrow or the day after, and probably never — but if it should ever come to it that a wider public should take an interest in this matter which, as I will always insist is none of its business, then, while I will not come out of the affair undamaged, it will at least be borne in mind that I am not unknown to the public — having lived in its full glare for some considerable time, trusting it and in turn deserving of its trust — and that for that reason the vengeful coming forward of this suffering little woman, whom by the way someone other than myself would probably long since have identified as a burr, and crushed under his heel and no one would ever have got to hear of it, that this woman is at worst capable of adding an ugly little scribble to the diploma on which society has long ago declared me a respectable member of itself. That is the state of things today, and it seems to me hardly such as to cause me any disquiet.
The fact that I have grown a little anxious over the years has nothing really to do with the importance of the thing itself; it’s more that one cannot stand to annoy someone else all the time, even if one sees the unreasonableness of the annoyance; one becomes anxious, one starts to live in a state of waiting for decisions, if only physically, even if one is too sensible to believe in their coming. In part I believe it is a manifestation of age; youth looks good in anything; unpleasant details lose themselves against the unabating vigour of youth; if someone has a tendency to stare as a boy, it’s not held against him, it’s barely even noticed, not even by himself; but what is left behind in age is wreckage, each bit makes its weathered contribution, not one is renewed, each is obvious, and there are no two ways about it, the stare of an old man is a straightforward stare. Even when, strictly speaking, nothing has got any worse.
Finally, whatever my perspective, it seems to me, and this is my last word, that if I keep my hand, be it ever so lightly, over this little thing, then I shall be able to go on living as before in peace and quiet, undisturbed by the world, for a very long time, despite all the woman’s raging.
Over the last few decades, the interest in hunger-artists has suffered a marked decline. While it may once have been profitable to put on great public spectacles under one’s own production, this is completely impossible today. Times really have changed. Then, the whole town got involved with the hungerartist; from day to day of his starving, people’s participation grew; everyone wanted to see the hunger-artist at least once a day; on the later days, there were season-ticket holders who sat for days on end in front of his little cage; even at night there were viewings, by torchlight for added effect; on fine days the cage would be taken out into the open air, when in particular the children were given a chance to see the hunger-artist; while to the grown-ups he was often just a bit of fun, someone they took in for the sake of fashion, the children would watch open-mouthed, holding each other by the hand for safety, as, scorning the use of a chair he sat on the scattered straw, pale, in a black vest, with startlingly protruding ribs, now nodding politely, answering questions with a strained smile, or poking his arm through the bars so that its thinness might be felt, but repeatedly collapsing into himself, not caring about anything or anyone, not even for the — for him — so important striking of the clock that was the only item of furniture in the cage, but just looking straight in front of him through almost closed eyes, every so often sipping water from a tiny glass, to moisten his lips.
In addition to the spectators who came and went, there were also regular warders, selected by the public, who remained in attendance throughout — curiously enough they were usually butchers — three of them at a time, whose job it was to watch the hunger-artist day and night to check that he wasn’t secretly taking any sustenance. This was purely a formality, introduced to ease the minds of the public, because the cognoscenti were well aware that during a period of starvation, no hunger-artist would have eaten the least thing under any circumstances, not even under duress; the honour-code of his art forbade it. Admittedly, not every warder was capable of grasping this; it was inevitable that some groups of nocturnal invigilators carried out their task in sloppy fashion, purposely withdrew to some far-off corner and engrossed themselves in card-games with the plain intention of permitting the hunger-artist to have a little snack that they supposed he coul
This, though, was part and parcel of the suspicion that was inseparable from the act of starving. No one was capable of spending every day and every night with the hunger-artist as an invigilator without a break, and therefore no one could know from the direct evidence of his own senses whether the hunger-artist had starved himself without a break, without a lapse; only the hunger-artist himself was in a position to know that, only he therefore could be the spectator completely satisfied by his own hunger. But there were other reasons that kept him from ever attaining such complete satisfaction; perhaps it was not his feats of hunger that reduced him so much as to compel some spectators reluctantly to stay away from his performances, because they were unable to stomach the sight of him, as some dissatisfaction with himself. He alone knew — and none of the cognoscenti knew this — how easy it was to starve. It was the easiest thing in the world. He made no bones about saying so either, but people didn’t believe him, at best they supposed him modest, generally they thought he was publicity-crazed or a cheat, to whom starving himself was indeed an easy matter, because he had found a way of making it easy for himself, and had the cheek to go on and half admit it. All this he had to accept, and had over the years accustomed himself to it, but inside him this dissatisfaction continued to gnaw away at him, and he had never yet, not after any of his feats of starvation — that people had to concede — left his cage of his own free will. The maximum period of starvation had been set by the manager at forty days, he permitted no longer stints than that, not even in major cities, and for a very good reason. He had learned from experience that by gradually intensified publicity the interest of a city could be kept alive for forty days, but at that point the public failed, there was a perceptible drop in the level of interest; of course there might be small differences among the various towns and countries, but as a rule of thumb forty days was the maximum. So then on the fortieth day the door of the flower-garlanded cage was thrown open, an excited audience filled the amphitheatre, a brass band played, two doctors entered the cage to perform the necessary tests on the hunger-artist, the results were relayed to the hall by means of a megaphone, and finally two young ladies, thrilled to have been chosen for the task, came to lead the hunger-artist down a couple of steps to where a small table had been laid with a carefully assembled invalid meal. And at this moment the hunger-artist always resisted. He entrusted his bony arms into the hands of the ladies bending down over him, but he did not want to get up. Why stop at the end of forty days? He could have gone on for longer, much longer; why stop now, when he was in prime starving form, if indeed he had even got there yet? Why did they want to cheat him of the fame of starving for longer, not only of becoming the greatest hunger-artist of all time, which he probably was already, but of outdoing himself to a quite stupefying degree — because he felt no limits had been set to his gift for hunger. Why did this crowd of people, who professed to admire him so much, why did they have so little patience with him; if he could stand to go on starving, why could they not stand for him to do it? Also he was tired, he felt comfortable sitting in the straw and now he was supposed to draw himself upright, and go to eat some food, the very thought of which made him feel nauseous, an expression of which nausea he suppressed with difficulty out of forbearance for the ladies. And he looked up into the eyes of the seemingly so friendly, but in reality so cruel ladies, and shook his head which felt too heavy on its feeble neck. And then the same thing happened that always happened. The manager strode on, silently raised his arms – the music in any case made speech impossible – over the hunger-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; clasped the hunger-artist around his thin waist, his exaggerated caution making it appear with what a fragile thing he was having to deal; and handed him over – not without giving him a secret shaking, causing the hunger-artist to tremble violently, legs and torso – into the care of the now deathly-pale ladies. Now the hunger-artist allowed everything to be done to him; his head lay on his chest as if it had rolled there and come to a somewhat surprising stop; his body was hollowed out; his legs for dear life pressed against one another at the knee, but continued to scrape against the ground as if it were not the real thing, as if the real thing were still being sought; and the whole, admittedly rather small, weight of him lay against one of the ladies, who, breathing hard and seeking help – this was not how she had envisaged her prestigious task at all – first stretched her neck so as to keep her face at least from touching the hunger-artist, and then, when that effort failed, and her more fortunate companion didn’t come to her aid, but contented herself by tremblingly carrying ahead of herself that little bundle of bones, the hand of the hunger-artist, she burst into tears to the delighted laughter of the hall, and had to be relieved by an attendant who had been kept standing by for that very purpose. Then came the meal, of which the manager fed a few morsels to the hunger-artist during a coma-like half-sleep, all the while making merry conversation, to divert attention from the condition of the hunger-artist; then a toast had to be proposed to the spectators, which had seemingly been whispered to the manager by the hunger-artist; the band supplied a few emphatic chords and drum-roll, people went their ways, and no one had any right to be dissatisfied, no one, only the hunger-artist, and only always him.
So he lived for many years with regular little pauses, in apparent splendour, honoured by the world, but generally in a gloomy frame of mind, made still gloomier by virtue of that fact that no one took it seriously. What comfort could they offer him? What did he have left to wish for? And if a kind-hearted individual came along who felt sorry for him and tried to tell him that his sadness was probably a consequence of his starving, it could happen that, especially after a prolonged period of starvation, the hunger-artist responded with an outburst of rage, and to the general consternation started shaking the bars of his cage like a wild beast. But the manager had a punishment ready for such tantrums that he liked to put to use. He apologized on behalf of the hunger-artist to the assembled spectators, admitted that the behaviour of the hunger-artist could only be explained by reason of his irritability, which was the result of protracted starving far beyond anything experienced by ordinary wel
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