Metamorphosis and other.., p.24
Metamorphosis and Other Stories, p.24Franz Kafka
When witnesses to such scenes reflected on them a few years later, they often failed to understand themselves. Because by then the shift in taste referred to above had taken place; it was almost sudden; perhaps there were profounder reasons for it, but who cared to find them out; be it as it may, one day the pampered hunger-artist saw himself abandoned by the pleasure-seeking public which now flocked to different displays. Once more the manager flogged himself half across Europe with the hunger-artist, to see whether the old interest might not be smouldering here or there; all in vain; as if by tacit arrangement a positive aversion against hungering had formed. Of course it couldn’t really have happened like that – and people eventually remembered certain indications, insufficiently remarked upon, but also insufficiently suppressed in the glory days – but by now it was too late to do anything about it. It was certain that the vogue for hunger would come round again, but that was no consolation for the living. What was the hunger-artist to do? He, who had been cheered by thousands, could not now show himself in booths in little travelling fairs, and as far as taking another profession was concerned, the hunger-artist was not only too old, but, still more, he was too fanatically devoted to starvation. So he parted ways with his manager, the associate of his incomparable career, and had himself taken on by a large circus; so as not to offend his tender feelings, he did not so much as look at the contract.
A large circus with its balanced roster of complementary acts and animals and equipment can use anyone at any time, even a hunger-artist, if his requirements are pitched low enough, and besides in this particular case it wasn’t just the hunger-artist who was taken on but also his old-established name; yes, in the case of this odd art that didn’t decline with the years, one couldn’t even say that a veteran artist past his prime wanted to take refuge in a quiet job in a circus; on the contrary, the hunger-artist gave perfectly credible assurances that he was just as good at starving as he had ever been; he even claimed that, if he was given his head, and this was promptly assured him, he was only now finally ready to throw the world into justifiable astonishment – a claim that, in view of the temper of the times, which the hunger-artist was apt in his enthusiasm to forget, raised a smile with the experts.
But in reality the hunger-artist did not lose a sense of actual conditions, and took it as read that he and his cage were not set up in the middle of the ring as the show-stopping number, but left outside in a readily accessible spot next to the animal stalls. Large, brightly coloured signs surrounding the cage informed the public what was to be seen. When, during intervals in the performance, the public pressed out to the stalls to view the animals, it was almost inevitable that they passed the hunger-artist and stopped a little; perhaps they would have stayed longer in front of him, if others pressing down the narrow corridor after them, not understanding the hold-up on the way to the stalls where they wanted to go, had not made a more protracted contemplation impossible. This was the reason too why the hunger-artist trembled at these visiting hours, though in another way they were what he lived for. At first he had hardly been able to wait for the intervals in the performance; ravished he had looked out in the direction of the crowd as they rolled up before, all too soon – his most obdurate, almost conscious self-deception was unable to stave off the experience – he persuaded himself that, by intention at least, his visitors were, without exception, visitors to the stalls. And that first sight of them from the distance remained the best. Because once they had got as far as him, the shouting and scolding of the forever forming and re-forming parties rang in his ears, those – they soon became the more embarrassing to the hunger-artist – who wanted to watch him at leisure, not out of understanding, but out of mood and stubbornness, and then those others who wanted nothing but to get past him to the stalls. Once the big surge was past, the stragglers came along, and these, who were no longer unable to stop as long as they felt like it, hurried past with long strides, almost without a sideways glance, to get to the animals in time. And it was an all too rare stroke of good fortune that a family man came by with his children, pointed to the hunger-artist with his finger, and went into a detailed explanation of what was at issue here, talked about bygone times, where he had been at similar but incomparably more magnificent productions, and then the children, inadequately prepared by school and their lives, stood there uncomprehendingly – what was starving to them? – but still betraying something of better times to come in the shining of their inquisitive eyes. Perhaps, the hunger-artist sometimes said to himself, things would be a little better if his cage weren’t so close to the stalls. That made it too easy for people to choose, not to mention the smells of the stalls, the restlessness of the animals at night, the carrying past him of hunks of raw meat for the beasts of prey, and the roars and cries at feeding time that were a continual source of offence and upset to him. But he didn’t dare go to the circus management with any grievances; without the animals there wouldn’t be the numbers of visitors, among whom the odd one did come to him, and who could say where they would stick him if he reminded them of his existence and so too of the fact that he was basically nothing but a hindrance on the way to the animal stalls.
Only a small hindrance, admittedly, and getting smaller. People got used to the oddity in these times of a play for their attention being made for a hunger-artist, and that habituation was a sentence on him. Even if he starved to the very best of his ability, and so he did, nothing could rescue him any more, people walked past him. Try and explain the art of starving! It needs to be felt, it’s not something that can be explained. The pretty notices grew grubby and illegible, they were torn down, and no one thought of replacing them; the tear-sheet with the number of days he had been starving, which at first had been brought up to date every day, had been left untouched for a long time, because after the first few weeks the staff wanted to spare themselves even that minimal trouble; the hunger-artist starved himself as he had once dreamed of doing, and he succeeded quite effortlessly as he had once predicted, but no one counted the days, no one knew how great his achievement was, not even the hunger-artist himself, and his heart grew heavy. And if once in a while a passer-by stopped, and mocked the old calendar and said it was a swindle, that was the most insulting lie that indifference and native malice could have come up with, because it wasn’t the hunger-artist who was perpetrating a swindle – he did honest labour – but the world that cheated him of his reward.
Once more many days went by, and they too came to an end. One day an overseer noticed the cage, and he asked the staff why this perfectly usable cage full of rotten straw was left empty; no one knew, till with the help of the tear-sheet, someone remembered the hunger-artist. They prodded the straw with poles, and found the hunger-artist there. ‘Are you still starving?’ asked the overseer. ‘When are you finally going to stop?’ ‘Please forgive me, all of you,’ whispered the hunger-artist; only the overseer, pressing his ear to the bars, could hear him. ‘Of course,’ said the overseer, and tapped his finger against his brow to indicate the condition of the hunger-artist to the staff, ‘we forgive you.’ ‘I always wanted you to admire my starving,’ said the hunger-artist. ‘We do admire it,’ said the overseer placatingly. ‘But you’re not to admire it,’ said the hunger-artist. ‘All right, then we don’t admire it,’ said the overseer, ‘why should we not admire it?’ ‘Because I have to starve, I can’t do anything else,’ said the hunger-artist. ‘Well, take a look at that,’ said the overseer, ‘and why can’t you do anything else?’ ‘Because,’ said the hunger-artist, and he raised his little head fractionally, and with his lips puckered as if in a kiss, he spoke directly into the overseer’s ear, so that none of his words was lost, ‘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.’ Those were his last words, but even in his broken eyes, there was the firm, if no longer proud conviction that he would go on starving.
Josefine, the Singer, or The Mouse People
Our singer’s name is Josefine. No one who has not heard her knows the power of song. There is no one who is not enraptured by her song, which is all the more remarkable as our people are not overly music-loving. The dearest music to our ears is peace and quiet; our life is hard, and once we have tried to shake off the worries of the day, we are not capable of raising our spirits to something as remote from the rest of our lives as music. But we do not miss it very much; we are not even that far along; a certain canny practicality, which we need in order to survive, is, in our view, our greatest asset, and with a canny smile we tend to console ourselves over everything, even if we should some time experience – though this doesn’t happen – a yearning for the felicity that perhaps is provided by music. In all this the only exception is Josefine; she loves music, and is capable of transmitting it too; she is the only one; when she is gone, music will disappear – perhaps for ever – from our lives.
I have often pondered this matter of music. We are completely amusical; how is it, then, that we understand Josefine’s song, or – as Josefine denies that we understand it – at least think we do? The simplest reply to such a question would be that the beauty of her song is such that even the dullest sense is incapable of denying it, but that is not a satisfying answer. If that were really the case, one would have to have the prompt and immediate reaction that here was something out of the ordinary, the sense that here was something produced from this larynx that one had never heard before, and that we are not really even equipped to hear, something that Josefine and only she equips us to hear. But that, in my opinion cannot be the case, I don’t feel it and have never had the feeling with others either. Among ourselves, we openly admit that Josefine’s song qua song is nothing out of the ordinary.
Can it even be described as song at all? For all our lack of musical sense, we have a tradition of song; in former times our people used to have song; our legends tell of it, and some of our old songs have been preserved, even though none of us is able to sing them. But we at least have an intimation of what song is, and Josefine’s art does not really accord with it. Can it be described as song at all? Might it not just be a form of whistling? And whistling is something with which we are all familiar, whistling is the true aptitude of our people, or perhaps not an aptitude so much as the characteristic expression of our lives. We all whistle, but it wouldn’t occur to any of us to claim it as an art, rather we whistle thoughtlessly, without even noticing it, and there are many of us who don’t even know that whistling is among our characteristics. If it were true, then, that Josefine doesn’t sing, but merely whistles, and perhaps as it appears to me at any rate, barely exceeding the normal limits of whistling – yes, perhaps her strength is not sufficient for normal whistling, while a normal digger produces it quite effortlessly all day at the same time as working – if all that were true, then on the one hand Josefine’s alleged artistry would be disproved, but we would still be left with the much greater riddle of her great effect.
It isn’t just whistling that she makes. If you stand a long way away from her and listen, or better, if you submit yourself to a kind of test, listening to Josefine singing among a welter of other voices, and you set yourself the task of identifying her voice, then you will inevitably hear nothing besides a perfectly ordinary whistling, distinguished at the most by its delicacy or feebleness. But if you stand in front of her, it seems to be more than whistling; it is part of understanding her art, not merely to hear her but to see her as well. Even if it is nothing more than our common or garden whistling, there is the signal peculiarity of someone standing there formally, to do nothing but the ordinary. Cracking a nut is really not an art form, and so no one will dare to call an audience together and entertain it by cracking nuts. If he does it nevertheless, and does so successfully, then it must be a matter of something more than merely cracking nuts. Or it is cracking nuts, but we must have ignored some aspect of this art form because we mastered it too well and it took this new nutcracker to reveal its true nature to us, and it can even help his demonstration if he is a little less proficient at nutcracking than the rest of us.
Perhaps things are similar in the matter of Josefine’s song; we admire in her what we are far from admiring in ourselves; in which last matter, by the way, she is in full agreement with us. I was present once when someone, as must happen all the time, referred her to the general popular art of whistling, only very discreetly, but even that was already too much for Josefine. I have yet to see a smile on anyone as pert and as conceited as the one she put on then; she, who to look at is the embodiment of delicacy, really strikingly delicate even in our people, which boasts of many such women, looked positively shrewish; she may even have sensed as much herself in her great sensitivity, because she quickly mastered herself. At any rate, she denies any connection between her art and whistling. For those who are minded to think otherwise she has only contempt and probably concealed hatred. This is not mere vanity, because these neutrals, among whom I partly include myself, certainly admire her quite as much as the common people do, but Josefine wants not only to be admired, but to be admired in a way stipulated by her, mere admiration is nothing to her. And if you sit in front of her, you understand her; opposition is something you can only do at a distance; when you sit in front of her, you know: this whistling of hers is no whistling.
As whistling is one of our unthinking habits, one might have supposed that such whistling carries on in Josefine’s auditorium too; her art cheers us up, and when we are cheerful, we whistle; but her listeners do not whistle, rather they are as quiet as mice; we are as silent as if we had secured the yearned-for peace and quiet, which our own whistling keeps from us. Is it her song that enraptures us, or is it not rather perhaps the festive silence surrounding that feeble little voice? There was one occasion when some naughty little thing started innocently whistling during Josefine’s singing. Well, it was no different from what we were hearing from Josefine herself; there on stage the still bashful whistling, for all her routine, and here in the stalls the mindless childish whistling; it would surely not be possible to mark a difference between them; and yet we quelled the disturbance with angry hisses and whistles, even though there was no need for it, because she would have crept away in fear and shame anyway, as Josefine emitted her triumphal whistle and was quite beside herself with her outspread arms and neck stretched till it would stretch no further.
This, incidentally, is the way she always is – any trifle, any chance occurrence, any nuisance, a creak in the floorboards, a grinding of teeth, a disturbance in the lighting in her view contributes to the effect of her song; it is after all her opinion that she is singing to a lot of deaf ears; there is no want of applause and enthusiasm, but real insight, she claims, she has long since learned to do without. Then all these little disturbances are very convenient to her; everything that comes up against the purity of her song from outside, and is easily defeated, defeated even without a struggle, just by coming up against her, can help to wake the crowd, and teach them, if not insight, then at least an awed respect.
If small things are useful to her, then big things are so much the more so. Our lives are restless, every new day brings surprises with it, shocks, hopes and terrors, which th
And in order to assemble our people about her, in almost constant motion, often scurrying this way and that for no very discernible reasons, Josefine needs to do nothing more than take up that position – her little head thrown back, mouth half open, eyes fixed upwards – that position that indicates that she means to sing. She can do this anywhere at all, it doesn’t have to be a spot with good sight-lines, some hidden nook, selected upon the spur of the moment is just as useful. The news that she is about to sing spreads instantaneously, and before long there are veritable processions heading for the place. Well, sometimes there are obstacles; Josefine likes best to sing in times of commotion; numerous anxieties and hardships force us to follow a diverse array of paths; try as we may, we cannot assemble as rapidly as Josefine would like, and she may find herself standing in her imposing posture for some time without an adequate listenership – then she will be angry, stamp her feet, swear in a most unmaidenlike way, yes, even bite. But even such behaviour does little to harm her reputation; instead of seeking to moderate her excessive expectations, we do all we can to live up to them; messengers are dispatched to collect an audience; this is kept hidden from her; then on the way you will see sentries posted waving to the approaching listeners to hurry; and all that until such time as a respectable number of us is foregathered.
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