A Hunger Artist
Professional Fasting in Kafka’s Time
Kafka gleaned details for “A Hunger Artist” from the obscure real-life phenomenon of professional fasting, which was a popular form of entertainment in his time. The first well-known instance of fasting was by an American, Dr. Henry Tanner, who allegedly fasted under medical supervision for approximately forty days, much like the hunger artist in Kafka’s tale. Imitators soon followed, the most famous of which was Giovanni Succi, an Italian who staged fasts as public performances across Europe. Whereas Tanner seems to have fasted as an experiment, Succi turned fasting into a profession, performing for the public upward of thirty times. Succi’s performances were so similar to Kafka’s fictional account of the hunger artist’s performances, especially the fast’s elaborate conclusion and the practice of selling photographic memorabilia, that some critics believe Kafka may have witnessed Succi or another professional faster firsthand. The professional faster’s rise and fall in popularity, during a period of approximately forty years (from 1880 to 1922), coincided neatly with Kafka’s life, which also ran approximately forty years (from 1883 to 1924).